Al­ter­na­tive Fact of the Week

Con­flat­ing ac­count­ing er­rors with ex­cess cash is a $21 T rookie mis­take

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD -

Our view:

here’s no dis­put­ing that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is the mas­ter of the al­ter­na­tive facts — that is, an abil­ity not merely to get vi­tal in­for­ma­tion dead wrong but to do so with a cer­tain gusto and force­ful­ness, with made-up cor­rob­o­ra­tion and pre­var­i­ca­tions, the sum to­tal of which, if repli­cated by the av­er­age Amer­i­can bur­dened with a con­science, would al­most cer­tainly cause him to choke. But once in a while, we must note that the char­la­tan from Queens is not alone in his craft. There are chal­lengers in­clud­ing, ap­pro­pri­ately enough, one from the next bor­ough over.

Last month, a first-ever com­pre­hen­sive au­dit of the Pentagon con­cluded the U.S. Depart­ment of De­fense’s books are a mess that could take years to re­solve. This is no small mat­ter given that de­fense spend­ing is the largest sin­gle line item in the fed­eral bud­get, and it did not es­cape the at­ten­tion of Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, the 29-year-old Demo­cratic so­cial­ist from the Bronx who, al­though elected to Congress just weeks ago, has al­ready be­come a ris­ing star in her party — and a light­ning rod for con­ser­va­tives. Nat­u­rally, in the age of Twit­ter (start­ing venue of so many pres­i­den­tial al­ter­na­tive facts), she felt com­pelled to tweet about it.

“$21 TRIL­LION of Pentagon fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tions ‘could not be traced, doc­u­mented, or ex­plained.’ $21T in Pentagon ac­count­ing er­rors. Medi­care for All costs ~$32T. That means 66% of Medi­care for All could have been funded al­ready by the Pentagon. And that’s be­fore our pre­mi­ums,” Rep.-elect Oca­sioCortez wrote last Sun­day.

Here’s a rough trans­la­tion of the tweet: Hey, the Pentagon must have $21 tril­lion ly­ing around that could be fun­neled in­stead to pay­ing down the cost of pro­vid­ing Medi­care not just for se­nior ci­ti­zens but for all Amer­i­cans. And here’s the most hon­est re­sponse pos­si­ble: No, it doesn’t, and no, it can’t.

The math here is fairly sim­ple, and that’s one rea­son why Ms. Oca­sio-Cortez de­serves Al­ter­na­tive Fact of the Week hon­ors. The au­dit of the Pentagon al­leges “ac­count­ing er­rors,” and that spe­cific $21 tril­lion fig­ure ap­pears to come from a cal­cu­la­tion re­cently made in the Na­tion mag­a­zine look­ing at 17 years of ac­count­ing that al­legedly lacked proper cor­rob­o­ra­tion.

But that doesn’t mean the money wasn’t spent. It doesn’t even mean that the money wasn’t spent on some­thing worth­while, whether it’s a fighter jet or back pay to sol­diers. It means that the Pentagon did a lousy job of ex­plain­ing where the money went ex­actly. That’s a prob­lem and a se­ri­ous one at that. But at the end of the day it doesn’t mean there’s waste nec­es­sar­ily, it means the ac­coun­tants screwed up. Maybe there was waste, maybe there wasn’t. Not know­ing ex­actly which is the prob­lem.

How does that cir­cum­stance pay for an enor­mous Medi­care ex­pan­sion? It doesn’t. Thus, for the in­com­ing con­gress­woman to

Tped­dle her tale of how the Pentagon can two-thirds fi­nance a 10-year, $32 tril­lion health care in­sur­ance bill is beyond mis­lead­ing. That’s a point she seems to now rec­og­nize. Maybe. A fol­low-up tweet noted that Pentagon spend­ing de­serves the scru­tiny given the level of health and ed­u­ca­tion spend­ing, which is cer­tainly true but doesn’t en­tirely cor­rect the record, par­tic­u­larly given that $21 tril­lion is a stag­ger­ing sum of money that is nearly beyond imag­in­ing. The next decade of de­fense spend­ing is cur­rently pro­jected to to­tal about $7 tril­lion, or one-third of that.

This wasn’t the first time that Ms. Oca­sio-Cortez has said or writ­ten some­thing that raised eye­brows. Last sum­mer, she com­pletely mis­rep­re­sented how un­em­ploy­ment rates are cal­cu­lated when she sug­gested that the na­tion’s low un­em­ploy­ment fig­ures are the re­sult of peo­ple work­ing two or more jobs (which can’t be true be­cause the rate isn’t based on the num­ber of jobs filled or un­filled, it’s the ra­tio of peo­ple who have no job but are look­ing for one). Surely, there have been worse mis­takes made (Pres­i­dent Trump re­li­ably over­states his eco­nomic suc­cesses with great fre­quency), and hers can per­haps be chalked up to youth­ful in­ex­pe­ri­ence rather than a de­sire to truly mis­in­form.

Still, it’s fair to ask: Are al­ter­na­tive facts the ba­sic tools of pop­ulism whether prac­ticed by the po­lit­i­cal left or right? Sounds like a good po­lit­i­cal science pa­per for some col­lege se­nior. The rest of us will just have to be wary of claims by “out­siders” that sound too good to be true. Mr. Trump doesn’t have a lock on that mar­ket.

SU­SAN WALSH/AP

Rep.-elect Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez gets Al­ter­na­tive Fact of the Week hon­ors for her tweet about Pentagon ac­count­ing and Medi­care for All.

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