Saturday, January 5, 2008

Fact-Checking the WP Debate Fact-Checkers

The Washington Post "Fact Checkers" did a typically poor job doing real-time fact-checking of the debates. Here are a few points where their work falls short, with a focus on issues raised by the WP related to economics and/or Obama:

1) Bush Tax Cuts

Hillary Clinton said that George Bush's tax cuts benefited the wealthiest Americans. This is correct, since Bush cut marginal tax rates. However, such a charge lacks context. The wealthiest Americans pay a lion's share of non-Social Security taxes. The 400 wealthiest taxpayers pay about as much in federal income taxes as more than 40 million individuals and families at the bottom of the income scale, according to Internal Revenue Service data. The top 1 percent of taxpayers pay more than 30 percent of the taxes, which is why 30 percent of Bush's tax cuts went to the top one percent.
This is entirely wrong and sounds like something from a White House talking point. The fact that the Bush tax cuts chiefly benefited the wealthiest Americans is definitely not a result of the inherent distribution of taxes. The Bush tax cuts went mostly to the wealthy because of the particular structure of the tax cuts. A different set of tax cuts, e.g. the cuts proposed by Democrats in 2001, or the tax credit proposed by Obama, would be directed far more towards the non-rich. (It's also not true that the Bush tax cuts were only about changes in marginal rates, as this post implies.)

2) Clinton Strategy
Part of the "fact check" just lists a bunch of points from a press release issued during the debate by a campaign spokesperson, with no analysis whatsoever. How does this in anyway constitute a "fact check?"

3) Health Care Spending

Obama said "Our medical care costs twice as much per capita as any other advanced nation." Indeed, this is not exactly correct, at least not according to the OECD data. My objection here is to the fact that the WP does not cite the most recent data. They cite a January 2007 Kaiser Family Foundation study, which relies on 2003 OECD data. But the 2005 OECD data is available many places, including in Table 5 here. Note that U.S. costs are far more than twice the OECD average and are roughly twice almost all OECD countries, but it's true that Luxembourg, Norway, and Switzerland (all countries not comparable to the U.S. due to their very small populations) have costs that are substantially more than half U.S. costs. Next time Obama should say "Our medical care costs nearly twice as much per capita as any other large advanced nation."

(Note that it is possible that Obama's statement is correct, according to other data I'm not familiar with.)

4) Non-Proliferation

Sen. Barack Obama has just suggested that the nuclear non-proliferation treaty "fell apart" under the Bush administration. There have certainly been a lot of reverses over the last seven years, particularly on North Korea, but things weren't great under Clinton. It was under Clinton, after all, that India and Pakistan both tested nuclear weapons, which put a huge hole in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
This characterization is substantially wrong. According to Wikipedia, under Clinton in 1995, the NNPT was extended indefinitely by its signatories, which was a major accomplishment. I'm not sure what "put a huge hole" in the treaty is supposed to mean. Neither Indian nor Pakistan have ever been signatories to the NNPT, and India has been a nuclear power since 1974. I think that Obama is probably referring chiefly to the fact that progress on nuclear disarmament--which is one of the NNPT's three pillars--has been completely abandoned under Bush.

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