Menus Subscribe Search

Social Sciences Fact Check: Romney’s Debate Dig at Spain

• October 04, 2012 • 8:43 AM

Lavish Spanish spending. Feeds six.

Here’s a quick fact-check on Mitt Romney’s mid-debate comment last night, that the US doesn’t want to go down the same economic road as faltering Spain:

Specifically, he was talking about government expenditures equalling 42% of GNP, which the Republican candidate claimed to be similar in the European case and in the US under Obama. True?

Yes. Not in the way Romney implied, however: that US economic policy was a copy of a failed policy in Spain.

This chart by USgovernmentspending.com, which tracks a broad range of such statistics, shows current US government spending roughly consistent with a rise of public investment over the past century, regardless of which party held power. Public spending has risen from just over 6% of GNP in 1903 to just over 40% now. Two spikes occurred during the two World Wars; in 1943 the rate reached 53%, a high.

Looking at the past 20 years, spending has followed the century’s trend. Public spending as a percentage of GNP fell from 37% to 32.5% from 1992 – 2000 (Clinton) then rose from 32.5% to 37% from 2000 – 2008 (Bush II). It leapt to nearly 43% in 2009 (Obama) — reflecting the financial crisis bailout. In the subsequent three years of the current term it has fallen to just over 40%.

The trend line has been an increase of about 5% every twenty years, a line to which the current level of expense appears to coincide.

Still, what about Romney’s fear — that this trend is the road to Spanish-style ruin? Yes and no. Spain’s expenditure as a percent of GNP is tough to compare to the US’s because Spain is not a federal system. Social security mechanisms similar to American programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are funded and administered on the local level with a drastically different mix of local and national budgets. Even national defense, one of the largest US expenses, represents barely 1% of GNP in Spain.

Two autonomous regions, the Basque country and Navarra, do not pay significant taxes to the central government at all, through deals negotiated in the late 1970s, part of Constitutional debates that followed the end of the Franco dictatorship. This would be like Minnesota and Ohio just deciding not to participate in American federalism any more. It’s a tough comparison. By the numbers, Romney’s assertion that the two matching numbers suggests two matching stories looks like the sort of associative leap only a presidential candidate could love.

The other missing part of Romney’s comparison is that the road to ruin in Spain didn’t pass through the treasury. Most analysis of Spain’s financial crisis has found that it was not the result of inflated public spending, but a mix of local and notably foreign-driven real estate speculation, provoking a lack of diversity in the Spanish labor market, which went all-in on the construction sector. Were the US to be on the road Spain took, it would not go via a larger public sector, but a larger private one. It would look, say, like California’s irrational housing market of the early 2000s, more than it would like a bloated government budget.

Even amid the current downturn, Spaniards continue to enjoy a country that scores high on many standard measures of a society’s success. Spanish life expectancy surpassed America’s in 1964 and continues to increase at a greater rate than American life spans. The chart is here. Its infant mortality rate is among the lowest in the world, better than the OECD average, and — unpleasant as it is to say — better than America’s.

 

Marc Herman

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Israeli researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.



September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.



September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.


September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.



September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.


September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.


September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.


September 15 • 12:00 PM

2014: A Pretty Average Election

Don’t get too worked up over this year’s congressional mid-terms.


September 15 • 10:00 AM

Online Harassment of Women Isn’t Just a Gamer Problem

By blaming specific subcultures, we ignore a much larger and more troubling social pathology.


September 15 • 8:00 AM

Atheists Seen as a Threat to Moral Values

New research attempts to pinpoint why non-believers are widely disliked and distrusted.


September 15 • 6:12 AM

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.


September 15 • 6:00 AM

Interview With a Drug Dealer

What happens when the illicit product you’ve made your living off of finally becomes legal?


September 15 • 4:00 AM

A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses

The ability to delay gratification has been held up as the one character trait to rule them all—the key to academic success, financial security, and social well-being. But willpower isn’t the answer. The new, emotional science of self-regulation.


Follow us


Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.