Sunday, February 10, 2013

PolitiFact's defense spending shenanigans

Remember when PolitiFact believed that the best way to measure defense spending was as a percentage of GDP among OECD nations or world powers?

No worries. PolitiFact doesn't remember it either.

Today PolitiFact New Jersey ruled "True" a claim from Newark's Mayor Cory Booker that U.S. defense spending exceeds defense spending for "the next 10, 11, 12 countries combined."

Back in July of 2010, PolitiFact ruled "Mostly False" a claim from conservative Sarah Palin that in terms of defense spending as a percentage of GDP, the U.S. ranks No. 25 in the world.

The two rulings make up yet another classic comparison illustrating PolitiFact's liberal bias.

In Booker's case, the facts are simple.  If the U.S. spends more like Booker said, then his statement is true.  It doesn't even matter if nobody really knows what China and Russia spend on defense, and it doesn't matter that the various nations use no standard method of defining defense spending.  We might spend more on salaries and veterans' benefits than Canada spends on guns, tanks, ships and planes.  Can we defend ourselves effectively with veterans' benefits?  Probably not.  But none of that matters to PolitiFact New Jersey.  Booker is right, so just deal with it.

In Palin's case, facts are complex.  Palin is technically right about U.S. defense spending as a percentage of GDP.
We quickly tracked down the chart from which we suspect she pulled her factoid. (Her staff didn't return our e-mail query.) It's a credible source -- the CIA World Factbook -- and, as Palin said, the U.S. does rank 25th in the world, spending an estimated 4.06 percent of GDP on defense in 2005.

Case closed? Not really.
Palin was mostly wrong because it's not fair to compare the U.S. to tiny non-industrialized nations.  In Booker's case, of course, it's fair to compare our defense spending to that of nations that deliberately under-report their defense spending.

Stepping back from agenda journalism toward reality, both Booker and Palin have a legitimate point, with Palin probably better grounded in the facts since her claim uses a figure for the U.S. that is inflated relative to nations that do not fully reveal their defense spending.  In effect the failure of certain nations to fully report their defense spending understates Palin's point while overstating Booker's.

There's no objective justification for this disparity in ratings about defense spending.  PolitiFact New Jersey liked the point Booker was making and subjected it to less scrutiny than Palin received for her claim.  That's how mainstream media fact checking works.  It's not objective.  And PolitiFact is the worst of the lot when it comes to this type of thing.

I fisked the whole of the Palin ruling way back when at Sublime Bloviations.

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