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Exaggerating China’s military spending, St. Louis Fed breaks all statistical rules with misleading graph

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis published a jaw-droppingly misleading graph that portrays China as spending more on its military than the US. In reality, the Pentagon’s budget is roughly three times larger.

St Louis Fed graph China military spending

In an attempt to grossly exaggerate China’s defense spending, and simultaneously downplay the US military budget, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis published a jaw-droppingly deceptive graph.

If a student presented this in a statistics 101 class, the teacher would likely give them an F. But because it involves Washington’s public enemy number one, Beijing, the US regional reserve bank was awarded a Golden Star for exemplary service in the New Cold War.

The St. Louis Fed listed the world’s top six countries by military expenditures, but used two separate axes: the spending of China, Russia, Britain, India, and Saudi Arabia was depicted on the left axis, which went from $0 to $300 billion; but a separate right axis was created just for the United States, which went from $400 billion to $1 trillion.

This extremely misleading graph made it look as though China spends more on its military than the United States.

But in reality, China’s defense budget in 2021 was $270 billion, whereas that of the US was $767.8 billion – nearly three times larger (in constant 2020 US dollars).

The Pentagon budget subsequently ballooned to $782 billion in 2022 (in 2022 dollars), and $858 billion in 2023 (in 2023 dollars).

If the graph were edited to put all of the countries on the same axis, one can see how massive US military expenditure is compared to other top spenders:

military expenditure country graph 2021

 

When the St. Louis Fed published the deceptive graph on Twitter, it went viral, garnering hundreds of negative responses.

Michael P. McDonald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida, quipped, “If they’re willing to put this out, just imagine the internal analyses the Fed conducts to manage the economy”.

In an accompanying report, the St. Louis Fed admitted that China’s 2021 defense spending was just 1.7% of GDP, “which was the lowest share among the six nations in the figure”.

Moreover, Beijing’s military expenditure as a percentage of GDP has stayed very consistent since the early 1990s, with no increases.

“China’s defense-to-GDP ratio has been almost a flat line since 1992 at around 2%, suggesting that its defense outlays have grown almost proportionally to its GDP”, the Fed conceded. “In turn, this means that the rapid rise of China’s defense spending seen in the first figure reflects the rapid rise in its GDP”.

But the US Department of Defense has dubbed China its top “threat”, and major media outlets like Foreign Policy have acknowledged that the Pentagon is preparing for war with Beijing.

This new cold war hysteria is reflected in shockingly unprofessional displays from supposed economic and political experts.

A much more accurate graphic created by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation shows how, as of 2022, the United States spent more on its military than the next nine largest spenders combined – including China, India, the UK, Russia, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and South Korea (and several of these countries are close US allies).

US military spending other countries 2022

Beijing’s military spending is even smaller when it is measured per capita.

China is the most populous country on Earth, with more than 1.4 billion people – four times larger than the US population of just over 330 million.

military spending per capita country table 2020

When measured per capita, US military spending is close to the world’s highest, just under Israel and the United Arab Emirates, at $2351 per person as of 2020 (in constant 2019 dollars).

China’s per capita military spending that same year was a mere $175, representing only 7% of per capita US military spending. (Russia’s was $423 – lower than that of Lithuania, Portugal, and Belgium.)

And all of these US spending figures could be conservative, as they are based on the official Pentagon budget. Actual US military expenditure is often estimated to be even higher, and the Defense Department has failed every audit it has attempted, with tens of trillions of dollars worth of spending that is unaccounted for.

military expenditure country map 2020

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. John R Moffett

    2023-01-23 at 11:17

    Crime families can’t be trusted to report their actions honestly, so the US is being true to form for a large criminal enterprise. They have no choice but to lie, since telling the truth would undermine everything they do and say.

    • Chris G

      2023-01-23 at 12:39

      John – Thanks for your comment and glad to see I’m not the only one who views the US government as a criminal enterprise. An extremely violent criminal enterprise at that.

  2. Pramit

    2023-01-24 at 00:13

    Atleast shows the steep increase in Chinese military spending since late 1990s contemporaneous with globalization. Technical analysts can extrapolate and estimate the year China will exceed the US in defense spending. I am sure at that point no one will blame the Fed!

  3. Chase Turner

    2023-01-24 at 08:51

    ChartJunk is not a good look for any administration. That said, what isn’t included in the ChartJunk criticism is China’s multi-national technology thievery, essentially allowing them to skip huge R&D costs entirely. Indeed with that avoid R&D cost, China’s military spending (and subsidy) of directly fielded weapon systems is likely exceeding the US.

  4. Haider

    2023-01-24 at 19:54

    Great wealth transfer in progress……………

    $2Q privateers’ wealth is sitting idle in the offshore vaults………….

    2.5% wealth tax will suffice to rule the world………………………

    1% lord over the 99% serfs. BRICS GDP $21T vs 5EYES $500T in offshore accounts as commodities/assets/equity. 5 Eyes private-public confederation is financially strong with commodities/equity/reserves of $2Q+, parked in offshore accounts. Petro-Dollarisition generated over $200T in the last 45 years, mainly booked offshore and subject to no jurisdiction/no regulation of standing. Privateers’ wealth gobbles up the commoners’ wealth. Mega head start. Head, they win; tail, they win. It is all a jolly good arrangement. Cheer up.

    Net worth of Gautam Adani =$138 billion in Indian rupees11,394,384,000,000,000 divided by Indian population 1,400,000,000= Indian Rupees 81.4 lakhs per Indian. Rupee 15 lakhs for each Indian distribution possible

  5. Bum Tucker

    2023-01-24 at 21:03

    Very good article but I wish you would not misuse the phrase “x times larger” when you mean x times as large as.

  6. Joseph Blough

    2023-01-25 at 10:54

    Why does the Federal Reserve even produce political content?
    Just manage the money supply please.

    • Rubicon

      2023-01-26 at 20:13

      See Rubicon’s comment.
      Of course, one of the major players involving The US Financial/Military Hegemon IS The Fed. And, surely, you know that The FED’s sole purpose is to ensure Big Corporations, Banks, Hedge Funds, and the Super Billionaires directly receives $TRILLONS from The FED. None of that $$ ever goes to millions of common citizens. We’re the wrong class of people, you see.

  7. B. Wilkes

    2023-01-25 at 14:39

    I’m not that interested in how much other nations spend in proportion to the U.S. I’m interested in what that buys. China can likely match the U.S. in defense acquisitions at a much lower outlay because of the lower cost of producing weapons domestically, and also because of technology transfer / espionage. It’s not like the U.S. can import its weapons from low-cost countries (in most cases.) While China has not attempted to project power in the way the U.S. does, it has signaled that it would like to, and as an American I can admit my bias is not to see another arms race.

  8. addicted

    2023-01-26 at 11:19

    This chart only looks bad out of context. It’s now been removed, but both the paragraph before and after cleary point out multiple times that the US’s defense spending is far higher than that of China’s.

    Further, your “corrected” graph completely hides the purpose of the graph which was to point out how the military spending for those other countries have changed since the end of the cold war.

    So the “corrected” graph presented here hides all the details that the actual article is discussing. One could argue that the US’s spending shouldn’t have been included at all, and I’m sympathetic to that argument, but I’m sure someone would then complain that in an article discussing the top 6 spenders the Fed removed the US’s line to prevent it from seeming like the US was a huge spender.

    Further, the cynical argument that this is presented this way to somehow exemplify the threat from China suffers another blow when the rest of the article spends time explaining that this isn’t some sort of deliberate ramp up by the Chinese, but in fact a reflection of their economic growth, since their defense spending to GDP has remained consistent.

    And it’s these arguments that lead to the point of the article, which is to forecast future defense spending, which this article has shown for China at least can likely be done so easily by forecasting their GDP growth since their defense to GDP spending has been consistent.

    Chartjunk is pulling out bad charts out of context which make it even harder to actually suss out the argument the article is making, and then after pulling it out of context doing an analysis that only exists in the heads of those pulling the chart out of context, and not the actual people doing the analysis.

    • Kl Tan

      2023-01-27 at 07:55

      A picture is worth a thousand words. A glance at a graph tells the whole story for the majority who are too lazy to read the whole article. Similar to reading headlines.

      Bringing up Chinese stealing is a strawman and an excuse . No proof of Chinese stealing.

      • john

        2023-01-28 at 01:51

        They would be fools not to steal if we let them. I have no doubt we are trying to steal their secrets all the time.

  9. Rubicon

    2023-01-26 at 20:08

    An important detail that went missing: since when is The FED in St.Louis providing misleading info about China?

    Oh, that’s right. We almost forgot: in the last 30 years of Neo-liberalism the US Financial/Military has turned the US “Government” into a little lap dog for Big Banks, Big Finance, Big Markets, and Big Military.

  10. Blue Prince

    2023-01-29 at 20:20

    The USA spends more on the military and wars than any other country in the world and funds Israel’s wars against the Palestinians and other Arabs and funds Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

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