Data Gone Wrong: Chart on Debt Increases

In one of last week's Washington Post "Fact Checker" blogs, Glenn Kessler gives a rather scathing review of a chart (above) created by the office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in May. The chart, based on data but not calculations made by the US Treasury Department, has gained attention in social media. As pointed out by Politifact and subsequently corrected by Pelosi's office, the original chart included a major math error by calculating debt increases as if Obama had taken office a year later than he did, cutting his actual debt increase by more than a half and increasing George W. Bush's significantly. Despite Politifact drawing attention to the error and the correction, the original chart is still being proliferated according to Kessler, who saw it in his Facebook "newsfeed" recently.

In addition to this more obvious error, Kessler points out the misleading nature of percent changes in raw debt figures - because Obama was faced with a substantially higher debt when he came into office than his predecessors, it would have taken a much greater nominal increase in the debt to achieve the same percentage increases. Kessler also points out use of gross debt measures rather than public debt measures. Although not technically "misleading," it is worth noting that had the chart used public debt figures rather than gross debt figures, Obama and George W. Bush would have had nearly the same debt increases (60% and 70% respectively) despite Bush's longer term. On his Pinocchio standard, which rates claims made by political figures or groups in fact-checking, Kessler gave Pelosi's chart "Four Pinocchios," which is reserved only for true "whoppers."
Kessler suggests that the debt increase as a percentage of gross domestic product as a more economically informative measure and, using White House Budget Office Historical Tables, calculated the following figures for each President:Although these figures are less flattering for Obama, Kessler notes that he is "battling a recession."

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1 comment :

  1. When Obama entered office,he learned that bush had not included the expenses for two wars in the budget because they were "emergency expenditures" (unprecedented). He also did not include the cost of the Medicare prescription change (why, I don't know). Obama insisted on an accurate accounting and wound up with a large block of Bush's spending.