Pay attention to those facts behind the stats

Patrick Gibbons

The big-spending crowd in Nevada continues to base its arguments on the assumption that the way to measure government efficiency is to focus on inputs—how many dollars we channel into government.

But how much we fund government isn't a performance measure. After all, government is simply the price we pay for being largely uncivilized. If we were civilized, peaceful and could get along without a mediator or referee, we'd need no government. So if we see less government intrusion into our lives (and our wallets), that would reflect well on us. It could mean we are at least civilized enough not to need more government control.

But take a look at the Las Vegas Sun's recent article lamenting government spending rankings.

The Sun keeps going back to the meaningless statistic that Nevada ranks 49th for residential taxpayer burden as a percentage of income. But that statistic is simply based on a particular interpretation of the fact that tourists pay a lot of taxes in this state, coupled with the fact that Nevada's per-capita income (collective income averaged over all residents) is high. It says nothing about whether government revenues or expenditures are appropriate.

In fact, Nevada ranks 25th in terms of state and local revenue collection per capita. Alaska, which ranks first in the nation for government spending per capita—spending $17,000 more per person than the second-place state—ranks 50th in terms of residential tax burden as a percentage of personal income.

So which of Nevada's rankings in the Sun article should we applaud, and which should we ignore?


  • 14th-highest median household income, according to the American Community Survey (U.S. Census Bureau. The Tax Foundation ranks us seventh for personal income per capita).
  • 14th-lowest poverty rate (10.7 percent, compared to the national average of 13 percent).
  • 20th-lowest childhood poverty rate in the country (15.3 percent, compared to a national average of 18 percent).
  • 14th-lowest infant mortality rate (5.71 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared with 6.81 for the national average).

Here is one to really think about:

  • 41st-highest for the number of professional and doctoral degrees awarded, and 44th for the percentage of people who complete a bachelor's degree.

This is great: Nevada can have low poverty rates and relatively high incomes without its residents having to get a college degree or an advanced degree. This suggests that people in Nevada have a better chance of getting ahead in life regardless of their ability to afford a college degree or not.

What we should ignore:

  • Anything about our spending and revenue rankings. Nevada ranks anywhere from 17th to 49th, depending on what statistic you focus on.
  • 46th in teacher-to-pupil ratio. There is little to no evidence that suggests small classroom sizes significantly increase student achievement. Nevada should focus on recruiting and retaining effective teachers instead.
  • Rankings regarding personal choices like smoking and drinking. The government shouldn't be involved in regulating people's personal lives. Rankings regarding health in this state are negatively influenced by these personal choices, but this does not suggest our health care is poor, just that free people sometimes make personal choices that others would deem poor.

What we should worry about:

  • Crime. Nevada does have a high crime rate. Will increasing government spending suddenly decrease crime? Not if the tax increases result in people losing their jobs or earning less income. Crime is driven by desperation, and too much government interference is only likely to intensify that desperation.
  • The high school dropout rate. Forty-three percent of Nevada's fourth graders cannot read at grade level. The longer these students go without learning how to read, the more likely they are to end up as high school dropouts. We can improve this by implementing serious reform—more government spending on education will have little to no effect on student achievement.

So, big spenders: If Nevadans are wealthier on average and poverty rates are lower than average, why on earth do we need bigger government? Sounds like we're doing just fine without it.