Fact Checking the Fact Checkers

October 12, 2011

In last night’s debate, Rick Perry said that Texas has the second lowest state debt per capita, basing his claim on a recent map we published. Josh Hicks at the Washington Post fact checks this claim and says:

First of all, that information is old. Second, it’s not in line with data from another debt tracker, usgovernmentrevenue.com, which lists Texas at 36th in the nation for 2009. We won’t try to decide which tracker is more accurate, but suffice it to say that these sources come up with vastly different conclusions.

Actually, there’s a very simple reason the two numbers are different – our map looks at state government debt only, and the data from usgovernmentrevenue.com is for state and local government debt. Both are important numbers, but state government debt is something that the governor arguably has more control over than local government debt, so if Rick Perry wants to talk about his own record as governor it makes sense to consider state debt only.

In any event, both our data and usgovernmentrevenue.com’s data come from the U.S. Census Bureau. 2009 is the most recent year for state data, so it’s hard to understand why it should be considered “old.” The most recent combined state and local data is from 2008, and a small footnote at the bottom of the usgovernmentrevenue.com table notes that its numbers are estimates based on projections from previous years, not actual Census data (which isn’t out yet for 2009.) I can’t really judge how accurate the projections are, though I’ll note that 2009 wasn’t exactly a normal year for most state and local governments, and that a simple projection from previous years is not likely to be accurate.

Mr. Hicks also writes that:

Perry’s statement poses a third problem: looking at state debt per capita isn’t the best method to determine which state has a more favorable debt situation. The more accurate measure is to compare state debt per capita as a percentage of gross state product (GSP), because governments are supposed to spend according to their means – with GSP being the best reflection of a state’s means.

Debt per capita is by no means irrelevant – it shows how much each citizen is on the hook for, and, by this measure, Texas really does do quite well. It’s unwarranted to accuse Mr. Perry of being wrong simply because he cites a different statistic than the one you prefer.

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