I have a closed question on history SE that is too unfocused. I have been trying to improve it but it has recently been auto-deleted. Per this question I am soliciting feedback on meta about what to do. In particular, I'm interested in any opinions the community might have on a few proposed edits.

Here is the question statement:

What proportion of US government revenue was from federal vs state vs local governments between 1790 and 1846?

In its current form, the question is too unfocused. In this comment the great Semaphore advised to add more detail in the question statement, and to organize my section on background research better in order to make clear how it is relevant to the question.

To that end, I have a few ideas. I would appreciate any criticism of these ideas and/or new ideas:

  1. Define my terms better, e.g. revenue and federal/state/local government, or explain the types of revenue estimates I would be looking for.
  2. Demonstrate that the question is well-founded, e.g. demonstrate that local governments were constituted in a recognizable way at the time or that accounting records were sometimes kept during the period.
  3. Specify better the form of answer that I'm looking for, e.g. do I want three numbers for the whole period, or time series, or do I just want sources, or qualitative evidence, etc.
  4. Discuss challenges and approaches to answering the question.
  5. Add some discussion to the beginning of my background research section describing what each research finding is intended to demonstrate and/or what the whole thing is intended to demonstrate, and what I perceive to be the limitations of my background research.
  6. Add a discussion of background research that I have not found to be useful, but which demonstrates prior effort.

One problem with a lot of these ideas is that they involve "adding more words," and I want to avoid cluttering my question.

I have tried to do this on my own, but I still don't think it's good enough, so I don't want to bother the moderators yet with a flag. At the same time I feel like I have reached the point of diminishing returns as far as what I can do on my own. There is also the possibility that this question is somehow too dumb to fix, and that people are too nice to tell me. I'd be interested to hear that too!

EDIT: On the advice of Semaphore I did a bit of #2, justifying the time period 1790-1846.

EDIT: On the advice of Mark C. Wallace I tried to do #1, #5, and #6. I feel like it was a useful exercise, but the way that I did it might have made the question too cluttered?

  • 1
    The question is (IMHO) not dumb at all. I wish I had the background to answer it. I think suggestions #1, 5, & 6 would be particularly helpful. I'm at a loss where I would start researching, but I believe that the core question is good.
    – MCW Mod
    Oct 13, 2020 at 22:05
  • Thanks @Mark C. Wallace!
    – capet
    Oct 13, 2020 at 22:09
  • 1
    I agree with Mark here, FWIW. I don't think your original question was too broad. Or rather: I think the potential problem is more temporal than the number of sources of revenue. That is, "How was the US Federal Government funded" is an entirely reasonable question by itself, if given a reasonable time constraint (I believe 1790-1846 was, though I do not have the knowledge to judge definitively).
    – Semaphore Mod
    Oct 15, 2020 at 7:11
  • 1
    A simple Google search on "us government revenue 1852" reveals the web site usgovernmentrevenue.com which specializes in these statistics for various years, including 1852. How is this not a trivial question? Oct 25, 2020 at 11:55
  • Thanks @PieterGeerkens! I did not notice this in my googling, and I'm suitably chastened by your comment--I will work harder on my background research in the future! The website you gave has a lot of other background sources, and I would probably mark it as the answer to my question if it appeared there.
    – capet
    Oct 25, 2020 at 18:24
  • @PieterGeerkens However, this website contradicts the main source that I did find in my background research, and which I discuss in my original question. In discussing my source I make the following comment,which I think is also applicable to your source: "I think this may constitute a nearly-complete answer to my question if I can establish that it is not misleading or 'cherry-picked,' and if I can better understand the types of revenue it is looking at." For example, Wallis (2000) has state revenue being about half of federal in 1850, whereas usgovernmentrevenue.com has it around 1/8.
    – capet
    Oct 25, 2020 at 18:41
  • @PieterGeerkens But thanks to you, now I have another source. In comparing the two sources I might be able to answer my own question. Thanks a lot!
    – capet
    Oct 25, 2020 at 18:42
  • @PieterGeerkens Some other points that I think illustrate both a) how good your source is and b) that potentially neither it nor my other background research constitutes an answer to my question, or necessarily constitutes proof of its triviality: 1. Wallis (2000) does not estimate local revenue before 1840, and has the same per-capita revenue estimate for 1840 as for 1850. 2. UsGovernmentRevenue.com goes back to 1820! That helps me out a lot. 3. UsGovernmentRevenue.com does not go back before 1820. For 1820-1859, it seems to be taking Mann's numbers and allocating 1/8 to the states.
    – capet
    Oct 25, 2020 at 18:49
  • @PieterGeerkens Of course it's unrealistic for me to expect all sources to reconcile, and that's not what I'm after. It's probably incumbent upon me to do my own work to understand how/why they differ, at least in broad strokes. I should also probably expand my searches beyond google scholar and google books.... Do you have any other tips for me on how to do background research, other than "step back, take a breath, and consider the obvious"? I will for sure add this source to my question and credit you.
    – capet
    Oct 25, 2020 at 18:52
  • @PieterGeerkens Also: Are you arguing that this question would be closed as trivial, even if it were unclosed for being unfocused?
    – capet
    Oct 25, 2020 at 18:57
  • @PieterGeerkens However, for 1840 Wallis and UsGovernmentRevenue.com seem to agree on federal as a percentage of total (around 40% for each). That makes me feel better, and also contradicts some of the reasons that I was going to offer to explain the discrepancy in state/local split between the two sources, which would have had to do a) with state revenue ignored by Holt, which is the source for Mann, which I think is the source for UsGovernmentRevenue.com, or b) with the fact that Holt seems to be about expenditures rather than revenue.
    – capet
    Oct 25, 2020 at 19:09
  • @PieterGeerkens I will have to track down that Holt book....
    – capet
    Oct 25, 2020 at 19:09
  • 1
    I'm proposing that the point should be kept in mind as the question is edited. It took me all of 10 seconds to type that search, and follow the first result. Oct 25, 2020 at 19:09
  • Thanks @PieterGeerkens! It's just that I learn best by "active listening" and trying to break down your lesson into its main points. As I understand it, those main points are: 1. Try harder when doing background research. 2. Step back and consider the obvious when doing background research. 3. Don't just use google scholar and google books. But I want to make sure there's not something else I'm missing. Is there?
    – capet
    Oct 25, 2020 at 19:15
  • @PieterGeerkens In thinking about what you said, I think I came up with lesson #4: If my question is about whether a seemingly complete answer reflects the historical consensus and why, I should probably provide at least 2 sources to motivate the question and demonstrate prior research effort. Right?
    – capet
    Oct 25, 2020 at 19:30


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