Alternative Fact of the Week: Pentagon accounting for all

There’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 Ocasio-Cortez 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 peddle 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.

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