A recent PolitiFact article reminded me of an old saying attributed to Mark Twain: “Figures never lie, but liars figure”. The article rates the truthfulness of a statement by Mitt Romney during the Republican presidential debate last week, where he said that under president JFK “government took up” 27% of the economy, while today it “consumes 37%”. Technically, Romney is correct.
Well, close actually. The first year JFK was president, 1961, government spending as a percent of GDP was 27.4%, but the next year it was 27.8%, so closer to 28% than 27%. And Romney’s definition of “today” seems to be 2009, when government spending was 36.5% of GDP. In 2010 it was 35.0%. So it is equally true that spending went from 28% under JFK to 35% today, but a rise of 7% doesn’t sound quite as dire as a double digit 10% rise. Also note that by saying “today”, he is implying “under Obama”, but the 2009 fiscal year budget was approved under Bush, not Obama.
But to me the real lie is Romney’s fear-mongering conclusion: “We’re inches away from no longer having a free economy.” Oh no! Government spending is running wild and is threatening your freedom!
The rise in government spending is almost entirely due to what are called “transfer payments” — programs like Social Security and Medicare. Indeed, Medicare didn’t even exist until 1965, so it accounts for a big share of the increase. And while Social Security is technically government spending, it is like an insurance program. You pay into Social Security all your life, and in return when you retire Social Security pays you something to live on. Note that your retirement payment is your money, and you can spend it on whatever you want. How is that not free?
If you leave out transfer payments, government spending actually decreased as a percentage of GDP, from 22.5% to 19.3%. Defense and international spending went down, from 9.8% in 1963 to 5.1% in 2010. Even interest payments, the scary boogeyman of the national debt, went down, from 1.5% in 1963 to 1.4% in 2010.
So what is Romney’s point? If the rise in Federal spending is threatening our freedom, then he should be proposing that we cut those programs that contributed directly to that rise, namely Medicare and Social Security. In order to reduce those programs to 1963 levels, he needs to eliminate 69% of their funding, and abolish Medicare completely. I wonder how popular that would be.
I think PolitiFact needs a new category — things that are technically true but are used to make conclusions that are completely misleading. They can call it “Liars Figure”.