By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org
PolitiFact is a public affliction. Its journalism is pedantic, gullible, and shady, which is no easy combination.
PolitiFact is also dishonest, presenting plain old punditry as some new form of journalism that’s scrubbed clean of any trace of bias. But the advertised factishness is just a gambit – a way to gain the reader’s trust with a Joe Friday pose. The actual rulings are anything but impartial; they favor Democrats by as much as nine to one in one tally.
From time to time, PolitiFact itself becomes the story when its incessant slandering of one Republican or another gets noticed by other media. PolitiFact’s attacks on Republican Senate candidate Josh Mandel became a big story in Ohio last fall. Now it’s happening here in Texas, with a battle between Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and PolitiFact Texas playing out in the Houston Chronicle, Austin American-Statesman, and a few political blogs.
The story is always the same: so-and-so is the biggest liar somewhere because he’s gotten the most “false” or “pants on fire” ratings from PolitiFact.
PolitiFact’s own founder, Bill Adair, says claims of that sort are “meaningless” because PolitiFact doesn’t use random sampling or any other scientific techniques in story selection. But that doesn’t stop the partisans or the media hacks.
So we’re taking a closer look at the 11 cases in which PolitiFact has ruled that Cruz said something “half-true,” “false,” or “pants on fire” ridiculous. We’ll do one a day for the next two weeks or so.
Today: Is the national debt bigger than our gross domestic product?
The answer is yes – simply, unequivocally yes.
At the Republican National Convention, Cruz told delegates that the national debt had reached $16 trillion, which was “larger than our gross domestic product.” In a hasty response, PolitiFact Texas ruled his statement “half true.”
As of that date, the national debt was $15.98 trillion.
The best estimate for the size of the GDP that would have been available to PolitiFact at that date was a figure of $15.6 trillion from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, later revised upward to $15.8 trillion.
The national debt was bigger than either figure, and it continues to grow faster than the economy.
That should have been the end of the story. Instead, PolitiFact’s W. Gardner Selby played word games and invented confusion where none existed. From newspapers to magazines to debt clocks and political speeches, the term “national debt” is used to mean the total debt issued by the federal government to the public and to other governmental agencies (Google it and see what you find). The national debt is currently about $16.8 trillion.
Yet Selby treats the figure as though it were ambiguous. It might refer to something he calls the “gross national debt,” which is the figure we just mentioned given a faux-technical name used by almost nobody. Or it might refer just to publicly held debt.
This pretend confusion is entirely the work of Mr. Selby. Nobody anywhere that we’ve seen struggles with the definition of national debt. PolitiFact itself didn’t when it took up the same question. In 2011, it gave Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio a “mostly true” for making a similar claim, on the reasonable basis that the debt hadn’t quite yet surpassed the GDP – it was at 97 percent at the time.
Selby’s main source for the piece is the Concord Coalition, and if you go to that group’s website, there’s a big debt clock right at the top of the page, with the $16.8 trillion figure labeled “U.S. Total National Debt.” So even Selby’s sources are crystal clear about what the term means.
Selby’s unspoken view is that intra-governmental debt (the famous IOUs held by Social Security and other agencies) doesn’t really matter, although he’s pretty vague about why he thinks that. He writes that it “will have to be repaid, it’s presumed, but the demand is less pressing right now and it doesn’t affect credit markets. In contrast, public debt reflects money borrowed from outside sources — giving it more of a connection to the economy.”
So, umm yeah, like this money, it has more of a connection to the economy and stuff, but the other money is like, just fiscal or something, I think.
Selby’s flailing notwithstanding, the thing about debt is at has to be repaid. Repaying a huge debt is inherently sucky, and it also sucks because it’s a drag on the economy — that’s both direct and indirect suckiness. That’s why anyone cares about it. But Selby quotes an expert saying that intra-governmental debt doesn’t affect interest rates, which is beside the point. The question was the size of the debt, not its effect on interest rates, the tides, or Longhorn football.
It’s clear that Selby thinks the Social Security Trust Fund is just an accounting gimmick, nothing more than worthless IOUs, and he’d be joined in that opinion by plenty of people in both parties. This opinion is not shared by the Social Security trustees, whose position is, “Far from being ‘worthless IOUs,’ the investments held by the trust funds are backed by the full faith and credit of the U. S. Government. The government has always repaid Social Security, with interest. The special-issue securities are, therefore, just as safe as U.S. Savings Bonds or other financial instruments of the Federal government.”
Here’s the part that makes me sad. Selby is just sophisticated enough to know there’s something funny with Social Security accounting, but he doesn’t know what that means. He thinks it’s reason to wave the whole thing away. But those debts are real, as any Greek pensioner could tell you. The problem is that the pensioners are owed much more than the face value of the IOUs in the trust fund.
Just to de-Ponzify Social Security so that one generation isn’t living off the next, some $21.6 trillion would be needed. That’s the fund’s unfunded liability for all past and current participants (see Table IV.B7).
Just to make it sustainable for 75 years (in a way that screws the current generation of kids that would be retiring then), you’d have to come up with $8.6 trillion (plus the $2.7 trillion currently missing from the trust fund, of course). And that’s not even getting into the monstrous unfunded liabilities for Medicare.
There’s no question that these intra-governmental debts are coming due, to be followed by an even heavier load as the Baby Boomers retire. There’s no sensible reason to pretend that intragovernmental debt doesn’t exist, much less a factual reason justifying the attack on Cruz’s honesty.
If PolitiFact just stuck to the facts it’s supposed to be checking – $15.98 trillion is more than $15.6 trillion – it wouldn’t make these dumb mistakes.
Contact Jon Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jpcassidy000.