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8/04/2004

Factcheck Factcheck.org

I get Factcheck.org emails whenever they randomly decide to send them out. They have never been impressive, but they've gotten to be down-right abominable. They have two consistent problems: an inability to fully throw off the Bush/RNC media scripts, and a lack of understanding of "facts" and how they operate in politics.

A group called "Factcheck," operated by the respected Annennberg Public Policy Center, deserves better.

The most recent (August 3) e-mail is entitled "Kerry's Dubious Economics: He says new jobs are paying $9,000 less than the old ones. That's not a fact." It is actually not a fact that it is not a fact. The strongest claim Factcheck has to make is that it's "disputed." But the bulk of the evidence actually supports Kerry's claim.

I just deleted most of my post, and will revert to the blog standby of a line-by-line breakdown. I get frustrated by this sort of ridiculous argumentation.

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention July 29 Kerry repeated a claim that the economy is creating jobs that pay $9,000 a year less than those they replace. He bases that on disputed analysis from a liberal think tank.
Factcheck apparently has a problem with the Economic Policy Institute, the "liberal think tank" alluded to. EPI analyzed Bureau of Labor Statistics data back in January, concluding that "nationwide, industries that are gaining jobs relative to industries that are losing jobs pay 21% less annually."

The analysis is certainly disputed, but if you laid all economists end to end you would never reach a conclusion. If you put a question to two economists, you get three different conclusions. &c.

Factcheck conveniently leaves out that it is part of the reason the claim is disputed. In early July, they analyzed BLS data and claimed that it proved the opposite of Kerry's statement. EPI responded, noting that the Factcheck analysis had significant flaws - it looked at growth industries, without considering what share of the economy those industries make up. That is a pretty serious flaw, one that would considerably distort Fectcheck's findings. Factcheck did not contest EPI's response in their latest e-mail, merely noting that it didn't change their opinion.
In fact, economists disagree about whether jobs are getting worse or better. As we said before, there's evidence both ways. Even some Democratic economists say the economic numbers are simply too rough and contradictory to allow any conclusion about the direction of change, let alone about how much less or more the new jobs pay.
Yes, there is dispute here. That's certainly no surprise, especially given that the data is so raw. Bloomberg has a good back and forth with Wall Street economists supporting Kerry's claim and a former Carter guy disagreeing. The article highlights some of the difficulties putting together data robust enough to generate some consensus among economists.

Does this mean Kerry sholdn't make the claim? No, I don't think it does. The EPI analysis is still the best piece of evidence out there, and Factcheck's attempt at rebuttal fell flat. Moreover, refusing to make a claim because economists disagree is a recipe for silence.
Kerry also said "wages are falling" when in fact they are increasing. It's true wages haven't kept up with inflation for the past several months. But even after adjusting for inflation they're still higher than when Bush took office.
So real wages have fallen for the last "several months?" Yet Kerry's claim that "wages are falling" is false and "in fact they are increasing?" Factcheck's next claim is a non-sequitur - Kerry didn't claim that wages are lower than in January 2001.

Moreover, Factcheck's earlier analysis, linked above, is also wrong on wage growth, according to EPI (see FN).
And when Kerry said the "middle class is shrinking," he was referring to what happened in the recession of 2001 and the initially slow recovery of 2002. But the economy has picked up considerably in the 19 months since, so what was true then may be untrue when phrased in present tense.
The "middle class," a hopelessly amorphous concept, is still shrinking. Factchecking this claim is akin to factchecking the claim that "Bush has weakened America." The middle class is experiencing tremendous difficulties, but it's not possible to verify this empirically.
Kerry continued to talk down the economy using dubious statistics. When he formally announced his candidacy in September 2003 he claimed the nation was suffering the "greatest job loss since the Great Depression," which we pointed out was not true. Now he's saying that the jobs the economy is adding are paying $9,000 less than the jobs they replace. That's not a fact, either.
The first sentence is unrepentant Bush/RNC spin. There is no evidence that Kerry has "talked down the economy." The "greatest job loss since the Depression" claim also has merit, according to EPI.
Kerry bases his claim on an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by the Economic Policy Institute. But the EPI figures don't support what Kerry said, because they don't actually compare new jobs and old jobs -- only broad averages for entire industries. And as we reported July 9, other BLS numbers that compare occupation groups within industries tell a completely different story -- showing higher-paying groups growing faster than lower-paying groups.

The EPI, a liberal think tank with several AFL-CIO union chiefs on its board of directors, has called our analysis "wrong" in a lengthy rebuttal. Their opinion is posted here. It doesn't cause us to change what we reported.
Here's the rub. Factcheck doesn't like labor funded think tanks, union money isn't capable of producing good economic analysis.

Factcheck apparently doesn't get the concept of "fact." Economics is admittedly a fuzzy area, but Factcheck based much of it's earlier dispute with Kerry's claim on its analysis. EPI critiqued their analysis, pointing out that it was fatally flawed. Yet Factcheck dismissed their rebuttal entirely. It instead goes on to report that some Democratic economists disagree with Kerry's claim. This represents the creeping inflitration of "he said-she said" objectivity into an area where it is only marginally relevant.

Factcheck then thinks it is somehow appropriate to cite some Republicans on the Joint Economic Committee that have a different take than EPI. It then throws up its hands, reasserting that "statistics solid enough to settle the question definitively just don't exist." So what would Factcheck have politicians do? How should they talk about economic policy, or areas where there are economic disputes. When a Republican says raising the minimum wage will cost jobs, will Factcheck factcheck them? When Bush says his tax cuts have contributed to economic growth, will Factcheck factcheck him? When Bush says deficits are due to war, or whatever, will Factcheck factcheck him?

There's just too much contemptible tripe in the Factcheck email to look at more in depth. The real question is the value of Factcheck's efforts in these areas, and the conclusions they draw about Kerry's "dubious" claims. The best study on the topic supports Kerry. Factcheck's own rebuttal of that study was wrong, though they apparently got emotionally invested in the issue. There is obvious disagreement, but is this something that really needs to be "factchecked?" Is it even something that can be fact checked?

 

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