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How to Read PolitiFact’s Broken ‘Truth-O-Meter’

9:45 AM, Oct 5, 2012 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
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After staring in some amazement at PolitiFact’s ostensibly unbiased rulings on the truthfulness of various statements made during Wednesday night’s presidential debate, I finally realized what the problem is: PolitiFact’s self-described Truth-O-Meter is clearly broken. Thankfully, however, it’s broken in a way that’s both predictable and fixable.  You see, if you simply turn the Truth-O-Meter two notches to the right for any claim made by a Republican, and two notches to the left for any claim made by a Democrat, its reading actually becomes surprisingly accurate.  


Photo Credit: PolitiFact

Here are some examples from Wednesday night’s debate: 

President Obama said that Mitt Romney’s proposed Medicare reforms were estimated to “cost the average senior about $6,000 a year.”  As PolitiFact notes, “[T]he figure is rooted in a study of an outdated Medicare plan” proposed by Paul Ryan.  PolitiFact writes, “The problem with Obama using this estimate is simple:  The CBO analysis [which offered a highly questionable conclusion to begin with] was of the original Ryan plan, not the more recent one that Romney supports,” which is substantially different. 

This would seem to be the end of the inquiry — Obama quoted an estimate for a plan that isn’t Romney’s.  PolitiFact, however, was seemingly persuaded by a report from (what it describes as) “a liberal think tank” and a memo from a 2008 Obama campaign advisor, each of which claims that the estimate holds for Romney’s plan as well.  Thus, PolitiFact rates Obama’s claim as “Half True.”  But once we push the needle over two spots to the left, the rating becomes what it should be:  “False.”

(Mark Hemingway offers a fuller analysis here.)

In another example, Romney said that the United States is “now spending 42 percent of our economy on government.”  As PolitiFact notes, “The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development — a group that includes most of the world’s advanced industrialized countries — found that government expenditures accounted for 42 percent of the U.S. economy in 2009….”  As PolitiFact also notes, this is the most recent OECD tally. 

PolitiFact, however, observes that the Obama White House’s Office of Management and Budget has released different — lower — tallies.  It then concludes, “Romney’s numbers…don’t tell the whole story.  A large share of the spending has come from not from [sic] the cost of government employees, buildings and equipment but from transfer payments that individual Americans ultimately control (and, in many cases, under programs which they had paid into to begin with).”  In other words, PolitiFact doesn’t think that Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid fully count as “government spending.”  So it rates Romney’s statement — and apparently also the OECD’s own tally — as “Mostly True.”  But once we push the needle over to the right (it can only go over one notch in this case), the rating becomes what it should be:  “True.”

In yet another example, Romney stated, “Right now, the [Congressional Budget Office] says up to 20 million people will lose their insurance as Obamacare goes into effect next year.”  The CBO writes that “assessing the effects of broad changes in the nation’s health insurance system requires assumptions and projections about a wide array of technical, behavioral, and economic factors,” and — as a result — “any projections of those effects are clearly quite uncertain.”  “To illustrate that uncertainty,” the CBO explains, it ran “certain alternative assumptions,” which resulted in different scenarios.  Under one of those scenarios, the CBO estimates “that the ACA [Obamacare] would reduce employment-based insurance coverage in 2019 by 20 million people.” 

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