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A Sunday article in the Washington Post offered straightforward data on changes in the size of government under Obama. Thanks in part to how the article was written, however, it quickly became a political flash point. Because bias reinforcement is easier than math.

We'll start with the summary: under Obama the government is shrinking, but not by a whole lot. The Post's report summarizing the change — fewer employees, a smaller budget, more regulations — has proven surprisingly useful to those who complain that government has grown. "What have 6 Congressional crisis over size of govt accomplished? Nothing. #depressingreads," said one Twitter user, elegantly representing the genre.

It's largely because of the framing of the piece. The title is "After six budget showdowns, big government is mostly unchanged," which is true — but is also like saying that someone on a forced diet is still mostly the same weight. That frame, making the piece an "anti-government diatribe" in the view of one commenter, is evident throughout the piece. Media Matters seized on the claim that the government has more employees than there are residents of 24 states. Or, looking at it another way: half of the population of the city of New York. ThinkProgress's Judd Legum points out that perhaps Bible-length isn't a good comparative metric for regulation density.

Let's look at the actual numbers. The summarized points from the Post:

  • Between 2010 and now, federal spending dropped from $3.457 trillion to $3.455 trillion.
  • The number of employees fell from 4.3 million to 4.1 million — excluding contractors, but including the military.
  • The number of pages in the Federal Code has grown from 165,494 to 174,557.
  • The number of buildings owned by the government has probably dropped slightly from 399,000 in 2010, but it isn't clear.

That's the data. And depending on your world view, you can read it as you want. A decline from $3.457 trillion to $3.455 is a tiny .05 percent drop — barely negligible. But it's also $2 billion — more once adjusted for inflation.

Inspired in part by New York's Jonathan Chait, we pulled data from the Federal Reserve to get a sense for the raw change over time, as well as the size of government as a function of the American population. After all, the number of Americans has grown even as the number of federal employees has dropped.

Change in government size by administration

Since the critique of size of government is heavily blended with critique of the chief executive, we created a graph looking at the change in the size of three figures and broke them out by the start of each presidential inauguration. The three data sets are: all government employees, including state and local (USGOVT in FRED; red bar), all federal government employees (CES9091000001; blue bar), and all full- and part-time members of the military (B4280C0A173NBEA; green bar). The graph shows the percentage change from four years prior.

The most noticeable changes are the reductions in the size of the military at the end of the Vietnam War and after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Government size overall increased every four years, until the 2009 to 2013 period. The reduction in the size of the military offset the slight increase in federal employees during that period, yielding the result the Post got.

Change in government size as a percent of population

This data is more interesting, in part because it better shows the trend over time. The first graph below shows the size of government as a function of population at each presidential inauguration since 1953.

The most notable component of the graph is that dip at the end of the red line, which, again, is the size of government overall. But both the federal and military employee counts have also dropped as a function of population.

You can see the federal change more clearly below. Following the spike in employees during the 2010 Census, the number of federal employees as a function of population has steadily decreased.

The raw data from the Federal Reserve doesn't look that much different, although it does look a lot flatter. After the Census spike, the number of federal employees (excluding military) dropped.

As with most things statistical, the data shows what you choose to pull out. The government is as big as it ever was, really, but so's the country. The raw numbers have dropped, but perhaps not as much as some would like. Whether or not you think the diet is effective — or a good idea — is a matter of perception.

Photo: The 113th Congress. (AP)

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