Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Fact-checking FactCheck.org on the Inaugural Address


For the record, I am completely apolitical.


I was gathering my thoughts in order to write a response to Paul Krugman about the proposed "border adjustment" tax. I wanted to phrase something in a way that was reminiscent of the recent inaugural address, so I looked that up. The Google hit for FactCheck.org said

President Donald Trump was no different in that regard. But in his inaugural address, Trump portrayed the United States as a nation in decline, ...

That caught my eye, because yeah. Because analyzing the problem and fixing the economy is my life.

The Long-Term Decline of Real GDP Growth
So I clicked the FactCheck link. Here's what I got:
Presidents typically avoid facts and figures when delivering inaugural addresses, serving up a blend of broad platitudes and generalities to lay out a vision. President Donald Trump was no different in that regard.

But in his inaugural address, Trump portrayed the United States as a nation in decline, using rhetoric that did not always match reality:

  • Trump portrayed the U.S. as crime-ridden and promised to stop the “American carnage.” But the U.S. violent crime rate in 2015 was less than half what it was at its peak in 1991.
  • Trump promised to “bring back our jobs.” Manufacturing jobs have been on the decline for decades, but Trump inherits an overall economy that has gained jobs for a record 75 straight months and has an unemployment rate well below the historical norm.
  • He said he would “get our people off of welfare and back to work.” But the welfare rolls have declined under President Obama, and they have dropped precipitously since President Clinton signed legislation in 1996 instituting work requirements and time limits.
  • Trump promised to “bring back our borders,” blaming past politicians for “refusing to defend our” border. But the U.S. Border Patrol budget has tripled since 2001, and the number of border patrol agents has doubled. Southwest border apprehensions have dropped 75 percent from the peak in fiscal 2000.
The highlighting is mine. And I'm sorry about those stupid flowers where there should be bullet points. I still have not figured out how to change that.

Crime

Using the FactCheck.org link to the inaugural address, I find exactly one occurrence of the word "carnage" in Trump's speech. And one use of the word "crime". If we judge by the FactCheck response, Trump used the word carnage specifically to describe the effects of crime. The FactCheck response is incorrect.

In the paragraph immediately before the "carnage" sentence, Trump points to "poverty in our inner cities" and "factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape" and "an education system" that isn't working, and "the crime and the gangs and the drugs". In the paragraph immediately before that one, he says

Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands...

FactCheck takes this powerful imagery and these reasonable demands, and reduces it all to "crime". The FactCheck response is incorrect.

Jobs

FactCheck objects to Trump's "bring back our jobs" statement, noting that the economy "has gained jobs for a record 75 straight months". Well yeah, and that's good. But don't forget, we almost had a Great Depression there, that our previous President inherited. Getting over it occupied all of his eight years in office, and things are not yet back to normal. I was saying last summer that I expect vigor within the next few years because things are finally getting ready to get back to normal. And I was very clear, saying "the changes which will create the good years to come happened mostly during the Obama years." But this does not mean that our economy is in good shape today. FactCheck implies that our economy is in good shape, and that Trump's focus on jobs is off base. The FactCheck response is clearly incorrect.

They also point out that we have "an unemployment rate well below the historical norm". Oh. My. God. Yeah, okay, maybe so. But it is a claim made in ignorance. First of all, the unemployment rate went down because things got so bad. Unemployment got so high that people gave up looking for work. People who give up don't get counted in the pool of available labor. And that pushes the unemployment rate down. It's like when we can no longer afford prime rib so we eat beans instead, and then they stop counting prime rib and start counting beans when they figure inflation, and that brings the inflation rate down. Are prices really down? No.

Is most everybody working that wants to work? No. But like FactCheck says, the unemployment rate is down.

Actually, they say the rate is "well below the historical norm". Today the rate is 4.7%. They do not say what years they used to determine their historical norm. But if you go back before 1970 and look between the recessions you find the unemployment rate at four percent, below four percent, and at three percent. And if you look at recessions, in the years before 1970 the highest that unemployment every got was six or seven or eight percent. If you look at the years after 1970 you get highs of 6 and 8 and 9 and 10 and 11 percent. The lows are higher, too, after 1970. So the "norm" in the years after 1970 is higher than the "norm" in the years before 1970. That's the thing that troubles me: the long-term decline of the U.S. economy. So you've got that on the one hand. On the other you've got FactCheck saying unemployment is "below the norm".

The FactCheck response is insane. The norm is too high.

Welfare

When my son Aaron was six or seven years old, he and I were talking about the U.S Constitution. We got to the "promote the general Welfare" part and I asked him what he thought it meant. "We should give everybody welfare," he said.

No, I told him. It means they should do things to improve everybody's chances of doing well. Or, they should do things to improve the economic environment, as I prefer to say.

Well, FactCheck uses the word "welfare" like a six year old:

But the welfare rolls have declined under President Obama, and they have dropped precipitously since President Clinton signed legislation in 1996 instituting work requirements and time limits.

You're kidding me, right?

And what was it Trump said in his inaugural?

We will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation. We will get our people off of welfare and back to work, rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor. We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American.

President Trump's focus was clearly not "the Welfare State" that Newt Gingrich wrote about in To Renew America (1995). Trump's focus was jobs. Not on making it so that people who get welfare have to take jobs, like Gingrich and Clinton, but rather on making more and better jobs available.

Whether he can do it is immaterial. The FactCheck response is incorrect.

Borders

"The U.S. Border Patrol budget has tripled since 2001" FactCheck says, and "border apprehensions have dropped". I'm not going to defend The Wall. But I will point out that if there are fewer apprehensions, if the trend of border crossings has been fewer people coming into the U.S. and more people leaving, it is primarily because the U.S. economy was so bad that even Mexicans couldn't get work.

Sorry to have to say it that way.


I am all in favor of telling the truth. That's my number one rule of writing. But the rule doesn't only apply to other people. It also applies to critics of other people.

If FactCheck.org is going to criticize the President, they should do it carefully and well. They should be damn sure they are right, twice as sure as the guy they are criticizing. Otherwise, we'll need fact-checkers to check the fact-checkers -- and where will it end?

Fact-checkers have to be more than honest. They also have to be willing to interpret their victim's words generously. It's a rare word that has but one meaning. It is easy to read things incorrectly.

In particular, if a fact-checker's political preferences differ from those of his victim, the fact-checker must go out of his way to interpret generously. And I don't see that in the FactCheck.org review of the Trump inaugural.

FactCheck tells us that inaugurals usually serve up "broad platitudes and generalities". So we should expect the wording of the Trump inaugural to be broad and general. But FactCheck takes great schools, safe neighborhoods, and good jobs, filters them through the word "carnage", and gives us only "crime". FactCheck takes a focus on jobs and flushes it down the toilet by suggesting that we have all the jobs we need. And FactCheck takes a focus on improving our economy and reduces it to "welfare".

The FactCheck response is incorrect.


For the record, I am completely apolitical.

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