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What Does the U.S. Federal Government Truly Do?

I wrote a reply to an article that belittled state government agencies.  I wrote: 

"These numbers are highly volatile because they come from state unemployment offices that are notorious for backlogs in processing claims. This problem occurred during the holiday season and the claim numbers were consequently lower. The mainstream media then fell all over itself to report the tremendous improvement in the employment picture, instead of the real story of bureaucratic incompetence that was preventing accurate numbers from being produced."

I love the cavalier way non-government people dismiss essential government services and use expressions like "bureaucratic incompetence." These offices, and government in general, process enormous quantities of individual actions, regularly, effectively, and normally pretty rapidly. No organization in the world does more, or accomplish its aims as effectively (I didn't say efficiently) as the U.S. Federal Government. It's government that is processing claims and providing funds to keep millions of people with food and in some type of shelter, and thus preventing our society from falling into complete chaos.

Peter Bolden, a Federal Employee
As I'm a federal employee, and the state governments are too numerous and varied to speak succinctly about, I would like to expound on exactly what the U.S. Federal Government does with some factual information intermixed with some opinion.

It was a little unfair for me to say, "No organization in the world does more..."  While I definitely believe this to be true, and proving it will be the primary point of this post, no other organizations has the trillions of dollars to spend and the millions of people to do stuff that the federal government has.  As of 2009, there were 2.77 million federal employees with an annual payroll of nearly 15.5 billion dollars.

I was about to search the web presenting information and statistics, but my first search led to a page that does that already better than I could.  I encourage anyone reading this post to read the following page, which happens to be a federal government output from the Department of Labor:  However, for those lazy readers among you , I'll provide the most relevant excerpt here with bulleted and bracketed factoids for each department that I've researched from the web.

Of the three branches, the executive branch has the widest range of responsibilities. Consequently, it employed about 97 percent of all Federal civilian employees (excluding Postal Service workers) in 2008. The executive branch is comprised of the Executive Office of the President, 15 executive Cabinet departments, and about 70 independent agencies, each of which has clearly defined duties. The Executive Office of the President is composed of several offices and councils that aid the President in policy decisions. These include the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the administration of the Federal budget; the National Security Council, which advises the President on matters of national defense; and the Council of Economic Advisers, which makes economic policy recommendations.

Each of the 15 executive Cabinet departments administers programs that oversee an aspect of life in the United States. The highest departmental official of each Cabinet department, called the Secretary, is a member of the President's Cabinet. Each department, listed by employment size, is described below and in table 1.

Defense: Manages the military forces that protect our country and its interests, including the Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force and a number of smaller agencies. The civilian workforce employed by the Department of Defense performs various support activities, such as payroll and public relations.

Veterans Affairs: Administers programs to aid U.S. veterans and their families, runs the veterans' hospital system, and operates our national cemeteries.
  • [From
  • Projected U.S. Veterans Population: 23,067,000
  • Number of Total Enrollees in VA Health Care System (FY 09): 8.061 Million
    • Number of VA Employees in Pay Status: 299,524
    • Number of VA Hospitals: 153
    • Number of VA Community-Based Outpatient Clinics: 783
    • Number of VA Vet Centers: 232
    • Number of VBA Regional Offices:57
    • Number of VA National Cemeteries:131]

Homeland Security: Works to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States, reduce vulnerability to terrorism, and minimize the damage from potential attacks and natural disasters. It also administers the country's immigration policies and oversees the Coast Guard.

Treasury: Regulates banks and other financial institutions, administers the public debt, prints currency, and collects Federal income taxes.

Justice: Works with State and local governments and other agencies to prevent and control crime and ensure public safety against threats, both domestic and foreign. It also enforces Federal laws, prosecutes cases in Federal courts, and runs Federal prisons.

Agriculture: Promotes U.S. agriculture domestically and internationally, manages forests, researches new ways to grow crops and conserve natural resources, ensures safe meat and poultry products, and leads the Federal anti-hunger programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as the Food Stamp program) and the National School Lunch Program.

Health and Human Services: Performs health and social science research, assures the safety of drugs and foods other than meat and poultry, and administers Medicare, Medicaid, and numerous other social service programs.

Interior: Manages Federal lands, including the national parks, runs hydroelectric power systems, and promotes conservation of natural resources.

Transportation: Sets national transportation policy, plans and funds the construction of highways and mass transit systems, and regulates railroad, aviation, and maritime operations.

Commerce: Forecasts the weather, charts the oceans, regulates patents and trademarks, conducts the census, compiles economic statistics, and promotes U.S. economic growth by encouraging international trade.

Energy: Coordinates the national use and provision of energy, oversees the production and disposal of nuclear weapons, and plans for future energy needs.

Labor: Enforces laws guaranteeing fair pay, workplace safety, and equal job opportunity, administers unemployment insurance (UI) to State UI agencies, regulates pension funds; and collects and analyzes economic data.

State: Oversees the Nation's embassies and consulates, issues passports, monitors U.S. interests abroad, and represents the United States before international organizations.

Housing and Urban Development: Funds public housing projects, enforces equal housing laws, and insures and finances mortgages.

Education: Monitors and distributes financial aid to schools and students, collects and disseminates data on schools and other education matters, and prohibits discrimination in education.

Numerous independent agencies perform tasks that fall between the jurisdictions of the executive departments. Some smaller, but well- known, independent agencies include the Peace Corps, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Federal Communications Commission. Although the majority of these agencies are fairly small, employing fewer than 1,000 workers (many employ fewer than 100), some are quite large. The largest independent agencies are:

Social Security Administration: Operates old age, survivor, and disability insurance programs.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration: Oversees aviation research and conducts exploration and research beyond the Earth's atmosphere.

Environmental Protection Agency: Runs programs to control and reduce pollution of the Nation's water, air, and lands.

General Services Administration: Manages and protects Federal Government property and records.

Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation: Examines insuring deposits and promoting sound banking practices.

Office of Personnel Management: Oversees issues related to human resources, such as hiring practices, health insurance policies, and workforce performance evaluation.

As Seeking Alpha is primarily an economic website, let's start there.  I know many people doubt the validity of government economic statistics.  Perhaps it is due to deliberate misleading as some speculate.  However, it may be that attempting to summarize the buying and consuming of over 307 million U.S. residents (and all the international trade) it is a pretty enormous and nearly impossible undertaking--especially to do it for the previous months a few days after the month or year ends!  Likely it is a mixture, as it is undisputable that many portions of Federal Government is currently attempting to prevent economic collapse, and perhaps a positive bias in producing economic reports is one of its tool. 

Nonetheless, here are some of the major economic reports, all of which are produced by Federal Government agencies such as the Federal Reserve (indpendent Federal Gov't agency), Department of Labor, and the Department of Commerce with regularity:
# Report Federal Agency
 1 Beige Book
Federal Reserve Board; National summary authored by rotating Fed district
 2 Business Outlook Survey Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia
 3 Consumer Credit Report Federal Reserve Board
 4 Consumer Price Index (NYSEARCA:CPI) Dept. of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)
 5 Durable Goods Report Dept. of Commerce: U.S. Census Bureau
 6 Employee Cost Index (ECI) Dept. of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)
 7 Employee Situation Report Dept. of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)
 8 Factory Orders Report Dept. of Commerce: U.S. Census Bureau
 9 Gross Domestic Product (GDP) Dept. of Commerce: Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA)
 10 Housing Starts Dept. of Commerce: U.S. Census Bureau
 11 Industrial Production Federal Reserve Board: Board of Governors
 12 Jobless Claims Report Dept. of Labor: Employment and Training Administration
 13 Money Supply Federal Reserve Board
 14 Personal Income and Outlays Dept. of Commerce: Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA)
 15 Producer Price Index (PPI) Dept. of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)
 16 Productivity Report Dept. of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)
 17 Retail Sales Report
 18 Trade Balance Report Dept. of Commerce: Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA)
 19 Wholesale Trade Report Dept. of Commerce: U.S. Census Bureau

Critics expect absolute perfection and deride the government for its failures.  Underneath their derision is an implicit expectation of omnipotence, omniscience, and flawless execution.  I'm sorry, the Federal Government is not the physical manifestation of God (against which you may feel free to morally blaspheme against), and it is ridiculousness to expect it to be.  The government attempts to undertake gigantic missions that are in reality basically impossible to accomplish perfectly, yet its critics deride it as they could perform these tasks nearly singlehandedly.  For example, here are some missions that have been criticized ad infinitium
  • Running a foreign country with a partially hostile population speaking a foreign language undergoing an ethnic civil war as in Iraq is not an easy task.  
  • Solving every major crisis in a city that is half flooded within a week as in New Orleans after Katrina is, I'd say, pretty high expectations.  
  • Guarding a 1,933 mile border so well that nobody sneaks in with a country and continent underneath it that has a massively lower standard of living as in the U.S.-Mexican border ain't a piece of cake
  • Keeping track of the 7,588,778 people issued non-immigration visas to the U.S. in 2001 so well to know that 19 of them are plotting a rare type of terroristic plot would require a standing army of immigration officals
As I began this post with the statement, "It's government that is ... thus preventing our society from falling into complete chaos," I would like to expand on this key point.

If you look back at some major crises in the last century, you will see the government as the savior, the bastion against the true harshness of life, it truly is:
During the peak of the 1918 influenza pandemic, the US Navy operated hospitals in the Azores; Brest, France; Canacao, Philippine Islands; Cape May, New Jersey; Charleston, South Carolina; Chelsea, Massachusetts; Genoa, Italy; Gibraltar; Great Lakes, Illinois; Guam; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Key West, Florida; League Island, Pennsylvania; Leith, Scotland; London, England; New London, Connecticut; New Orleans, Louisiana; New York, New York; Norfolk, Virginia; Parris Island, South Carolina; Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii; Pensacola, Florida; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Puget Sound, Washington; Queenstown, Ireland; Strathpeffer, Scotland; St. Thomas, Virgin Islands; and Washington, DC. 
In 1918, Navy and Marine patients totaling 121,225 were admitted at Navy medical facilities with influenza. Of these patients, 4,158 died of the virus, and sick patients spent over one million sick days in these facilities worldwide.
Recently, the spread of the Avian Flu has become a major concern. It may mutate and possibly mimic the virulence and symptoms of the 1918 Spanish Influenza. If this happens, the US Navy will again be on the forefront of medical care.  [I encourage you to see the movie Contagion, and see the federal agencies that attempt to deal with resolving the problem].
  • The Great Depression and the New Deal []
  • Al Capone
    Before the advent of Social Security, many unemployed Americans were forced to seek food from shelters and soup kitchens. This Chicago soup kitchen was sponsored by the notorious gangster Al Capone.
    Out of work Americans needed jobs. To the unemployed, many of whom had no money left in the banks, a decent job that put food on the dinner table was a matter of survival.
Unlike Herbert Hoover, who refused to offer direct assistance to individuals, Franklin Roosevelt knew that the nation's unemployed could last only so long. ... Roosevelt believed the national government could jump start a dry economy by pouring in a little federal money.

The first major help to large numbers of jobless Americans was the FEDERAL EMERGENCY RELIEF ACT. This law gave $3 billion to state and local governments for direct relief payments. ... FERA assisted millions of Americans in need.
There were plenty of other opportunities for the unemployed in the New Deal. In the fall of 1933, Roosevelt authorized the CIVIL WORKS ADMINISTRATION. Also headed by Hopkins, this program employed 2.5 million in a month's time, and eventually grew to a multitudinous 4 million at its peak. ... There were plenty of jobs to be done, and while many scoffed at the make-work nature of the tasks assigned, it provided vital relief during trying times.


The largest relief program of all was the WORKS PROGRESS ADMINISTRATION. When the CWA expired, Roosevelt appointed Hopkins to head the WPA, which employed nearly 9 million Americans before its expiration. Americans of all skill levels were given jobs to match their talents. Most of the resources were spent on public works programs such as roads and bridges, but WPA projects spread to artistic projects too.



Critics called the WPA "We Piddle Around" or "We Poke Along," labeling it the worst waste of taxpayer money in American history. But most every county in America received some service by the newly employed, and although the average monthly salary was barely above subsistence level, millions of Americans earned desperately needed cash, skills, and self-respect.



A total of more than 16 million men and women served in the military during the war, approximately 11 million in the army and Army Air Force, 4 million in the navy, 670,000 in the Marines, and 330,00 in women's military units.
[, I really recommend this article.  There is too much to quote, but it is very focused on teh key role the federal government had in terms of WWII:]
The wide array of New Deal programs and agencies which existed in 1939 meant that the federal government was markedly larger and more actively engaged in social and economic activities than it had been in 1929. Moreover, the New Deal had accustomed Americans to a national government which played a prominent role in national affairs and which, at least under Roosevelt's leadership, often chose to lead, not follow, private enterprise and to use new capacities to plan and administer large-scale endeavors.

As war spread throughout Europe and Asia between 1939 and 1941, nowhere was the federal government's leadership more important than in the realm of "preparedness" — the national project to ready for war by enlarging the military, strengthening certain allies such as Great Britain, and above all converting America's industrial base to produce armaments and other war materiel rather than civilian goods. "Conversion" was the key issue in American economic life in 1940-1942. In many industries, company executives resisted converting to military production because they did not want to lose consumer market share to competitors who did not convert. Conversion thus became a goal pursued by public officials and labor leaders.
Merchant shipbuilding mobilized early and effectively. The industry was overseen by the U.S. Maritime Commission (OTC:USMC), a New Deal agency established in 1936 to revive the moribund shipbuilding industry, which had been in a depression since 1921, and to ensure that American shipyards would be capable of meeting wartime demands. With the USMC supporting and funding the establishment and expansion of shipyards around the country, including especially the Gulf and Pacific coasts, merchant shipbuilding took off. The entire industry had produced only 71 ships between 1930 and 1936, but from 1938 to 1940, commission-sponsored shipyards turned out 106 ships, and then almost that many in 1941 alone (Fischer, 41). The industry's position in the vanguard of American preparedness grew from its strategic import — ever more ships were needed to transport American goods to Great Britain and France, among other American allies — and from the Maritime Commission's ability to administer the industry through means as varied as construction contracts, shipyard inspectors, and raw goading of contractors by commission officials.

Many of the ships built in Maritime Commission shipyards carried American goods to the European allies as part of the "Lend-Lease" program, which was instituted in 1941 and provided another early indication that the United States could and would shoulder a heavy economic burden. By all accounts, Lend-Lease was crucial to enabling Great Britain and the Soviet Union to fight the Axis, not least before the United States formally entered the war in December 1941.

From the end of World War II until the early 1990s, the world faced a period of heightened international tension and competition called the Cold War. The United States and the non-communist world faced extraordinary circumstances, which they saw as a threat to world peace, democracy, and security:


  • Soviet development of atomic weapons,
  • Soviets flexing their newfound nuclear muscles,
  • Soviets extending their political ideology into Europe and elsewhere.


The Federal Civil Defense Administration

The federal government responded to heightened public anxiety by creating the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA), later called the Office of Civil Defense, to instruct the public about how to prepare for a nuclear assault.

Public response to the report was an upsurge in interest about fallout shelters. By the late 1950s, officials of the Eisenhower administration believed that they had a realistic idea of how difficult it would be to survive a nuclear bomb blast, and was actively promoting the construction of fallout shelters as part of the civil defense program. Plans were drawn up. From 1958 onward, the Office of Civil Defense not only promoted home shelters but also published a collection of manuals that showed Americans how to build home shelters.

During the Kennedy administration, America saw a rise in international tensions, and Kennedy's advocacy of shelters as part of the American response to two anxious standoffs with Moscow. The first was in 1961 when the Soviets built the Berlin Walland the second was the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later. President Kennedy, believing the lives of families not directly hit in a nuclear attack could still be saved if they could take shelter, endorsed the construction of fallout shelters.

In the summer of 1961, Kennedy asked Congress for more than $100 million for public fallout shelters and home-based imminent nuclear danger alarm systems. At the time of the Berlin Wall, a majority of Americans believed World War III would occur within five years. Anxiety in the United States rose after Soviet premiere Nikita Khrushchev announced that the Soviet Union would resume testing atomic weapons at once, ending a three-year moratorium. By 1962, most officials began to realize that evacuation plans were unrealistic, owing to the large number of people who would have to evacuate, and placed a greater importance on public shelters instead.

  • Strengthened our ability to protect the American people by directing the most extensive security reorganization of the Federal Government since 1947. President Bush and his Administration have enhanced our homeland security and counterterrorism infrastructure through the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (NYSEARCA:DHS), the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), the Terrorist Screening Center (NASDAQ:TSC), the Homeland Security Council (NYSE:HSC), and U.S. Northern Command, a Department of Defense combatant command focused on homeland defense and civil support.
  • DHS consolidated 22 Federal entities and 180,000 employees under one roof to foster a comprehensive, coordinated approach to protecting the U.S. homeland. DHS and FBI, in partnership with Federal, State, and local authorities, created a national network of 66 fusion centers in 48 states to facilitate information sharing on terrorist threats and operational planning.
  • The NCTC leads our Nation's effort to combat terrorism at home and abroad by analyzing the threat, sharing that information with our partners, and integrating all instruments of national power to ensure unity of effort.
  • The ODNI coordinates and integrates and leads the work of the Intelligence Community as a unified enterprise, led by the Director of National Intelligence (NYSE:DNI), to ensure information is shared among intelligence and law enforcement professionals.
  • The TSC maintains the Government's consolidated list of suspected terrorists and individuals with terrorist links and helps get this information into the hands of State and local law enforcement.
  • HSC ensures coordination of all homeland security-related activities among executive departments and agencies and promotes the effective development and implementation of homeland security policies.
  • Modernized the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to provide the tools needed to win the War on Terror and protect America from another attack. This vital legislation allows our law enforcement and intelligence professionals as well as future administrations with the ability to quickly and effectively monitor the plans of terrorists outside the United States, while respecting the privacy and liberties of the American people.
  • Strengthened our defenses to protect the American people by implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. Together with Congress, the President restructured and reformed the Federal government to focus resources on counterterrorism and took the necessary steps to improve the Nation's homeland security

The President Has Implemented Programs To Secure Our Homeland And Fight The War On Terror

The President and his Administration have increased border and transportation security. President Bush is implementing an effective system of layered defense by strengthening the screening of people and goods overseas and by tracking and disrupting the international travel of terrorists.The President:


  • Created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). TSA instituted a process to screen every commercial air passenger in the country, launched credentialing initiatives to strengthen our ability to identify passengers, and expanded the Federal Air Marshal program. We have hardened cockpit doors, armed pilots to defend the flight deck, and strengthened air cargo security.
  • Enhanced U.S. port security and increased scanning for radiological and nuclear threats. The President coordinated Federal, State, local, and industry port partners through the establishment of formalized Area Maritime Security Committees and Plans that clarify roles and responsibilities. Today, more than 98 percent of all containers entering the supply chain via U.S. seaports are scanned for potential radiological and nuclear threats - prior to 9/11, zero percent were scanned.
  • Increased containerized cargo screening overseas. We have worked with our international partners to employ the Container Security Initiative in 58 foreign seaports, screening 86 percent of all U.S.-destined containerized cargo being screened overseas before it enters the U.S. supply chain.
  • Increased border security and interior enforcement funding more than 110 percent and equipped the Border Patrol with better technology and new infrastructure. We have also added more than 8,000 border patrol agents.The Administration has constructed hundreds of miles of fencing and vehicle barriers along America's southern border and is moving toward the goal of 670 miles by the end of the year.
  • Federal Government Response to the Great Recession:  Well, they are just too numerous to even to try to quickly describe, but it's clear  to me that we would be in a depression were in not for the interventions done by the Federal Government.  This timeline prepared by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York presents the responses very well: 
And the truth is, whether you want to admit or not, when the next major domestic or global crisis comes, whether it is a massive natural disaster, an asteroid heading towards the Earth, a global war, a pandemic disease, or anything else you can imagine, the U.S. Federal Government's bureaucracy will be leading the efforts to combat the crisis on behalf of our fellow citizens of our country and our world.  And yes, that is rightly called, "Public Service".