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Glenn Kessler: I Will See Your Four Pinocchios and Raise You Four More

Glenn Kessler


I hate being in the position of defending Donald Trump or his policies, even from Glenn Kessler. I really, really do. But the problem, in this case, is that Kessler went after Trump on trade. Indirectly Kessler’s arguments also undercut Bernie Sanders and a host of other progressives on those same trade policies. And Kessler did it in a way that supported the orthodox Republican free trade arguments. Which would be fine if he labeled it his opinion. But that is not what he did. He made himself the arbiter of what is factually correct. Of objective truth. And that is where he earns his own four Pinocchios.

Let me say straight up that Kessler has had a distinguished career as a journalist, and he prides himself on being objective, fair, and balanced. He sees himself as going after the untruths of both parties equally. Indeed, Kessler won praise from the George Mason Center for Media and Public Affairs because he “evenly splits between the two parties.” I am sure he is very proud of that. At one time, every journalist should have been.

Unfortunately, nowadays, some attempts to maintain that even balance lead to engaging in a false equivalence that both parties are equally to blame for congressional dysfunction, or both parties are equally lying, or both parties are equally mistaken about policy. But that is not always true, as Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann have demonstrated in the pages of the Washington Post and in greater detail in the book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks”

To maintain that illusion of balanced, objective reporting, Kessler strains to make the facts fit the narrative more often then he lets the facts determine the narrative and take it where it will.

Indeed, to keep up the appearance of “evenly splitting between the two parties” Kessler, and other reporters have to engage in more than just false equivalence. They also must use faulty analogy, cherry picking factoids, overly literal interpretation of statements, and just plain fudging it.  All of which Kessler has been criticized for doing to keep “splitting it evenly.”

So, before examining his latest example of this, here are a couple of the more famous illustrations of this in his Fact Check column just to put the problem in context.

Probably the most well-known was when he went after the DNC for attacking Paul Ryan’s budget back in 2011. Ryan’s plan would have privatized Medicare and turned it into a voucher system. So, the DNC put out an online petition saying Ryan’s plan would have killed Medicare.

Kessler’s Fact Checker columns went after the DNC for that statement, with Kessler giving it four Pinocchios.

But here is what TPM’s Brian Beutler said about that:

This is the single biggest bone of contentions for fact checkers, and it’s based on a category error: Specifically, that if you replace one health insurance scheme with a different health insurance scheme, but call both of them “Medicare,” then you haven’t really “ended” anything. A widely cited Monday piece by Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler takes Democrats to the mattresses for three different claims they made about the plan in a recent web petition — the biggest being that Republicans want to scrap the current Medicare program. “[T]he DSCC essentially says: The House Republican budget plan would eliminate Medicare.”

And here:

In an email, Princeton professor Uwe Reinhardt — perhaps the foremost health care economist in the country — won’t go so far as to say the GOP plan kills Medicare but argues that there’s no doubt that it fundamentally changes the nature and purpose of Medicare. The Republican plan, Reinhardt tells TPM, “would change [Medicare] from a defined benefit to a defined contribution plan,” and that contribution would be “much lower than the rate of growth of per-capita health spending.

“In my view, the Ryan plan does not kill Medicare, but it would substantially alter the social decades-old contract between the government and the elderly for those now 55 or younger,” Reinhardt says, “…In short, Medicare will not disappear – i.e., get killed — but it will be a much more meager program for most of the elderly.

Here was Kessler’s defense of his four Pinocchios:

“There is a big difference between ‘kills Medicare’ and ‘radical new vision,'” he writes. “The DSCC might have done better if it had said ‘Kill Medicare as we know it” but it didn’t even have that caveat. … ‘Radical new vision’ suggests they want to change the program but still keep intact the notion of providing some form of health care support for the elderly. ‘Kill Medicare’ sounds like they want to end health care for elderly.”

The only way Kessler gets to keep his perfect scorecard for criticizing both Democrats and Republicans equally is by giving the most literal interpretation possible. But this defense is pure sophistry. It’s arguing over the definition of “is.” If you radically alter the program, you don’t have to kill it outright to create the same effect: a program that does not adequately fund health care for seniors, that puts the financial burden and risk on them, and that reduces the deficit on their backs. At that point, you might as well have killed it. It’s like not executing a convict but putting him in 24 hour isolation for decades, killing his soul slowly by degrees while leaving the shell of his body intact.

My second favorite example was when Kessler and fellow Post columnist Dana Millbank used the same facts to basically come to completely different conclusions:

On one side is Dana Milbank, longtime syndicated columnist and meticulous centrist, who titles his new piece, “Republicans Push for a Permanent Aristocracy.” He states in no uncertain terms what the impact of estate tax repeal would be: “Never in the history of plutocracy has so much been given away to so few who need it so little.” Milbank supports his argument with cold hard facts, which he cites to debunk the misleading and often absurd claims made by estate tax opponents. Estate tax repeal will not help low and moderate-income families, just the 5,500 wealthiest families who pay it each year. The $5.4 million exemption ($10.8 for married couples) prevents 99.8 percent of Americans from ever paying any estate tax. The estate tax is not about protecting farms or small business. Notes Milbank: “In the entire country, only 120 small businesses and farms (100 of them large farms) were hit by the estate tax in 2013.” Plenty of protections exist for those few small businesses and farms impacted and, it’s worth noting, no farm has ever been lost as a result of the estate tax

On the other side is Glenn Kessler, head of the popular Fact Checker blog at the Washington Post, who titled his piece, “Is The Estate Tax Killing Small Farms and Businesses?” The answer to Kessler’s question, clear to anyone who takes even a cursory look at the facts, is decidedly no. But despite citing the same facts as Milbank, Kessler is unable to draw that conclusion. He writes instead: “The raw facts may not entirely support the case against the estate tax, but increasingly this does not seem to matter.” Kessler declines to give a “Pinocchio rating” to the GOP’s claims because, in his words, “the issue of the estate tax has become so unmoored from the facts that it has moved into the realm of opinion.” How can a column that calls itself “Fact Checker” claim the facts apparently don’t matter? Anti-tax zealots in the GOP have spent decades distorting the facts. Now a fact checker gives them a pass because their deception has reached new heights? As the kids say, SMDH (Shake My Damn Head for non-texters). The lies from estate tax opponents, that Kessler himself quotes, are proven blatantly false in his article. But instead of giving them the ranking they deserve, “Pinocchio on Viagra,” as fact checkers at the Associated Press and Factcheck.org did (using slightly different language), Kessler gives them a pass. For that matter, he gives fact telling a pass.

Again, more sophistry.

With this context, here is the latest example of Kessler straining to maintain a false sense of equivalence while promoting an opinion under the guise of fact checking to determine objective truth.

In this March 18, 2016, Fact Check piece Kessler accuses Trump of being stuck in a time warp for his anti-trade views. But it is equally true that Kessler’s defense is stuck in an ideological bubble where he cherry picks to reach his preferred facts.

When speaking about the impact of trade deals, Trump (as in a USA Today opinion article) often cites research from groups, such as the Economic Policy Institute, about supposed job losses from trade agreements. Interestingly, Bernie Sanders (Vt.), a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, often cites the same data — such as a claim that 800,000 jobs were lost because of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

We urge all readers to view such claims with deep skepticism. (Here’s our take on one such study concerning the Korea Free Trade Agreement.) The job-loss figures often rely on simplistic formulas that are disputed by other economists. It is often difficult to separate out the impact of trade agreements on jobs, compared to other, broader economic trends. (Readers should also be wary of claims of job gains from trade deals, as we noted in this column on the Trans Pacific Partnership.)

Kessler breezily dismisses the Economic Policy Institute and their research with no substantive reason why he doesn’t accept their data. In fact, it is because EPI is a progressive, labor supported think tank. But its economists and fellows are every bit as credentialed, distinguished, and able to produce scholarly work of the highest quality as any other think tank.

What gives Kessler’s hand away, though, is whose research he prefers. To dispute the EPI’s statistics, he cites The Peterson Institute and The Cato Institute. The Peterson Institute is basically a right leaning think tank known for its support for free trade. They also have a strong reputation as deficit hawks. In fact, one of their former fellows is Carmen Reinhart, who along with colleague Kenneth Rogoff, wrote Growth in a Time of Debt, where they argued that once the deficit reaches 90% of the GDP, it stalls growth and leads to inflation (here is the original paper). They and the Peterson Institute were widely quoted by both Democrats and Republicans during the economic crisis in support of efforts to cut the deficit rather than stimulate the economy. Their findings were the basis for the Simpson-Bowles committee’s recommendations to cut entitlement programs and implement other austerity measures in the midst of the recession.

EPI economists, as well as Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman and other progressive economists, disputed the Reinhart-Rogoff theory and advocated for more stimulus. Ultimately, Reinhart and Rogoff were debunked by a graduate student who found statistical and mathematical errors in their work, which rendered their main thesis invalid. While Reinhart and Rogoff still defend their findings, current events have borne out that stimulating the economy in the U.S. did not lead to stagnant growth or inflation. While the stimulus was insufficient and provided only modest gains, it gave the U.S. a far more robust recovery than Europe, which underwent the same crisis and has had a far slower recovery.  They chose to fight the deficit first, as the Peterson Institute, Reinhart, and Rogoff recommended. Their growth is still anemic and barely registers on measures of GDP.

Despite that egregious example of misplaced economic policy, Peterson’s research fellows are considered respected, mainstream, credentialed economists. They just examine data and reach different conclusions from EPI’s.

That is not true of Cato. In dismissing EPI and citing them, Kessler truly embarrasses himself. Cato is a far right libertarian group that has produced biased studies. Cato was founded and funded by the Koch brothers, who still have an active hand in it. Charles Koch heads their board. Cato also counts itself among the global climate change skeptics.

Cato’s research papers have clear confirmation bias throughout. They often use poor research methods and seem not to understand statistical sampling or controlling for variables, which makes their comparison and conclusions invalid.  Here is one controversial example.

Cato has produced several studies of federal workers’ pay, arguing that it is far higher than the private sector. They get their data by examining the average pay for the entire federal work force compared to that of the entire private sector work force.  They make no adjustment for differences in the two samples.  They don’t weigh factors like the age of the average federal workers which is older than that of the average private sector worker (older workers usually make higher salaries due to years on a job and experience). Nor they adjust for differences in types of jobs or education levels. Most federal workers have advanced degrees, often in technology or science. And most have been on the job longer. In fact, blue collar jobs at federal facilities, positions like landscaping, cashier or cook, maintenance, and cleaning service, which would lower the average salary for the entire sample, are actually contracted out. So, many low wage workers at federal facilities are also part of the private sector. That would make the federal workforce salaries skew higher too.

Meanwhile, the entire private sector has a much higher percentage of low wage workers in construction, manufacturing, services, and clerical jobs, all of which brings down the their average wage. It is not a fair comparison and any conclusions drawn from it would be highly suspect. Here’s why.

For any study to be meaningful, it would have to compare doctors in private practice to doctors in the public health service, government lawyers to private practice lawyers, and nurses in private and nonprofit hospitals to the nurses on government salaries. In other words, it would have to compare apples to apples.

But Cato compares doctors to janitors and apples to humming birds to arrive at their conclusions that the federal workforce is highly overpaid. Accepting Peterson and dismissing EPI might be intellectually acceptable. But choosing the research of Cato over EPI is unforgivable and for a fact checker it’s probably malpractice.

So leaving Cato out of the picture, as Kessler should have done, how do you decide whether Peterson or EPI are correct? You can’t always. Economics is actually not a hard science. It’s as much art as science. Research and reports are largely based on observational studies. You take hard data, history, politics, psychology of economic behavior and you interpret it. You can show a link between the data and a particular outcome and argue that one factor caused that outcome. But as the famous maxim goes, correlation does not always prove causation. In other words, sincere people can look at the same set of data and possibly arrive at different conclusions about what might have caused that particular outcome. Or they can model the same data and arrive at different possible outcomes in the future.

Therefore, if Kessler had written this as an opinion piece, what he did would have been fine. I might have disagreed with him. I might even have overwritten a too long blog piece disputing his conclusion. But I would not be questioning his basic fairness or common sense. That’s because he is entitled to look at facts, evidence, and data and reach a different conclusion from mine. He has every right to cite different sources in his work from mine. But what nobody should do is masquerade as a fact checker while promoting a particular opinion, regardless of how well argued or well researched it is. And nobody should be giving out Pinocchios to those whose opinions differ. You can lie about facts. You cannot call somebody a liar for having an opinion different from yours. And for that, Glenn Kessler, yeah, you get four Pinocchios.