Our government spends a third of our groos national product, but rarely do we examine carefully where these public moneys go. The amounts spent by government are so large, that it is to assess public expenditures.

The Costs of Public Policy

Often, the numbers used to describe government spending are so large that they are not easily related to common experience. Every so often, stories appear to tell us how long it would take us to spend a billion dollars or how many times a billion dollars in small bills would wrap around the world. One of the most useful ways of thinking about the costs of government and its policies is to compare governmental expenditures with what we spend in the private sector. The government’s food stamps program may not look so expensive when we compare it to our expenditures on furniture, liquor, or cars.

Here is a list of selected expenditures, some by government (the public sector) and some by the private sector. Look at them carefully and make your own comparisons between the costs of the government’s public policies (in italics) and our private spending patterns.

Beyond those “big ticket” items, compare futher. We match every dollar we spend for medicare with a dollar for apparel and accessories; private sector expenditures for household appliances only slightly exceed public sector expenditures for Aid to Families with Dependent Children; a nuclear Trident submarine will cost almost as much as all of our energy assistance and more than twice as much as the College Work Study Program. Remember that although these are merely rough-and-ready approximations of some of our private and government expenditures, they remind us that public policies can be measured in dollars and cents and that valuing what government spends depends upon the comparisons one makes.


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