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Why PolitiFact Is Wrong About Sanders’ Criticism of the Pentagon Budget

The clear implication of PolitiFact’s argument is that there’s no role for the general public in talking about what the Pentagon should spend money on.

Senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders speaking at a town meeting at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona, July 18, 2015. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

Part of the Series

During the last Democratic presidential debate, Bernie Sanders did something that you don’t see every day from politicians of either political party: he criticized the Pentagon budget.

SANDERS: But here’s an issue that we also should talk about. We have a $600 billion military budget. It is a budget larger than the next eight countries.

Unfortunately, much of that budget continues to fight the old Cold War with the Soviet Union. Very little of that budget – less than 10 percent – actually goes into fighting ISIS and international terrorism. We need to be thinking hard about making fundamental changes in the priorities of the Defense Department.

The purported “fact-checking” site PolitiFact asserted that Sanders’ claim that “less than 10 percent of defense budget is for fighting terrorism” was “mostly false.” The murky path by which PolitiFact claimed to achieve this conclusion is telling. It illustrates a major reason why we haven’t yet had much meaningful public discussion about the Pentagon budget: because establishment journalists like those at PolitiFact aren’t interested in a meaningful public discussion taking place.

PolitiFact concedes that the Sanders campaign has data to back up its claim:

Sanders’ campaign has used this talking point before, and shared the math with us. They cited more than $600 billion in defense spending, saying only $5.5 billion has gone to fighting ISIS and around $42 billion has gone to operations in Afghanistan, much of which is used to fight al-Qaida.

In all, they said the government has spent about 7.9 percent of the defense budget on fighting terrorism.

But, PolitiFact argues, “that’s a very narrow view of how the defense budget works.”

PolitiFact then offers a different calculation than the Sanders campaign, and comes up with “a bit more than 9 percent.” Quick students of arithmetic will already have noted that “a bit more than 9 percent” is still “less than 10 percent.”

Then PolitiFact argues: “Experts said it’s hard to draw a tidy line between how much of the defense budget is for current operations and how much is for general readiness. The military needs its base budget in order to conduct the fighting for which the OCO was created.”

OCO refers to the “Overseas and Contingency Operations account,” otherwise known as “the war budget,” as opposed to the “base” Pentagon budget of $600 billion that the Pentagon would get as a kind of permanent entitlement, even if we were fighting no wars at all and had no plans to fight any.

It’s certainly a fair point that the US military couldn’t fight the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria if the “base Pentagon budget” were cut to zero, so some part of the “base budget” is arguably attributable to the wars. How much? Apparently, PolitiFact has absolutely no idea, and no clue where to get one, because it makes no effort to inform us what the scale of this number might be. PolitiFact faults Sanders for not including something, but gives us no idea whether the thing excluded is big or small, and therefore whether the exclusion is very damaging to Sanders’ case, or not damaging at all. This establishment journalism “fact-checking” is apparently like being on a high school debate team where you’re allowed to make arguments to take up space without having to justify their importance.

Then PolitiFact argues:

Sanders’ math also doesn’t take into account counterterrorism efforts through other sources that don’t involve bombs or fighter jets, like the Justice or State departments.

It’s far from obvious why PolitiFact is bringing this up. Sanders didn’t make a claim about the “share of the federal budget devoted to national security,” he made a claim about the Pentagon budget. Moreover, while there is indeed “national security spending” elsewhere in the budget, a bunch of that “national security spending” also has nothing to do with confronting terrorism. For example, there is nuclear weapons spending in the Department of Energy budget. Presumably we’re not going to be using nuclear weapons against ISIS or al-Qaeda. So, even if PolitiFact wants to claim that Sanders is looking at the wrong metric according to some standard by focusing on the Pentagon budget – which is arguably outside the scope of “rating” his claim about the Pentagon budget as “mostly false” – PolitiFact is engaging in fuzzy math by introducing into the discussion national security spending on terrorism outside the Pentagon budget without acknowledging national security spending outside the Pentagon budget that has nothing to do with fighting terrorism. They’re arguing for increasing the numerator without acknowledging that would imply increasing the denominator.

Finally, PolitiFact summarizes its case:

Sanders said, “Very little of (the defense) budget – less than 10 percent – actually goes into fighting ISIS and international terrorism.”

He’s getting that number by using a very limited view of the overall defense budget, pointing only to specific allotments in the budget for addressing ISIS and other terrorist threats. Experts told us that no matter what amounts are designated for that purpose, those operations draw from resources paid for in the base budget. There’s no clear way to separate the two.

Sanders’ figure does refer to some specific funding but paints a misleading picture of overall defense spending. We rate it Mostly False.

What is the core of PolitiFact’s argument? Sanders’ claim is “mostly false”not because we have good reason to believe that some very different number is much more likely to be correct- like 20 percent, or 50 percent, or 90 percent – but because the share of the Pentagon budget which goes into fighting ISIS and international terrorism is afundamentally unknowable fact, like how God passed the time before creating the world. The question is intrinsically outside the scope of human knowledge.

The clear implication of PolitiFact’s argument is that there’s no role for the general public in talking about what the Pentagon should spend money on. It would be impossible to argue that the Pentagon is spending too much money on other things besides fighting terrorism, because there is no way to talk about how much that is. Therefore, any member of the general public who thinks that the Pentagon should spend more on fighting terrorism only has one alternative: support an increase in the base Pentagon budget, and let mysterious unnamed smart people somewhere else figure out how to allocate the money.

Cui bono? In whose interest is such a claim? Lockheed Martin couldn’t have said it better. How about some more money for the F-35? It might help us fight ISIS. There’s no way to say it wouldn’t.

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