Fact-Checking Matthews Again

Wonkbook’s Dylan Matthews is still fact-checking Paul Ryan, but not faring much better than he did with Janesville. In his latest post, he takes on Ryan’s comparison of the economy under President Obama with that under President Carter. Matthews correctly notes Ryan flubbed some numbers on bankruptcies (a point Ryan’s spokesperson acknowledged to ABC), and notes that some economic indicators appear to be trending in a positive direction and have a better trajectory than in the fall of 1980. Not content with that, Matthews includes a whopper: 

But what about Ryan’s broader claim, that, in his words, Obama “can’t tell you that you’re better off”? It’s difficult to substantiate. By just about every metric, the economy is doing better than it was in January 2009 (that is, of course, a low bar to clear, as the economy was falling off a cliff in January 2009). And while Obama’s tenure has seen consistent, albeit insufficient, economic progress, things actually got much worse over Carter’s tenure.

The economy is doing better “by just about every metric” than in January 2009? Well, perhaps if one doesn’t consider unemployment. The unemployment rate was 7.8 percent in January 2009, but hasn’t dropped below 8 percent since. This isn’t just a simple oversight, for Matthews cites unemployment data to compare current levels with those at the same point during President Carter’s term. So how could he not notice that unemployment is higher now than in January 2009? And how could someone making the claim that “by just about every metric” the economy is better than in January 2009 without also accounting for the decline in workforce participation?  

It gets worse, for Matthews’s post goes on to compare Obama’s economic record with Carter’s, and in the process reveals that there are other metrics by which the economy is doing worse than in January 2009. As one of his charts shows, the infamous misery index (were it still in use) would be higher today than in January 2009, though Matthews fails to call this to the reader’s attention. And then there are the things that Matthews totally omits, like gasoline prices. In other words, there are plenty of metrics by which the economy is doing worse than in January 2009.

Matthews could well argue that these facts don’t support Ryan’s claim that the economy is worse now than under President Carter — that’s a debatable point — but that’s not all Matthews claimed. Nor did he stick to arguing that economic trends are moving in the right direction, particularly when compared to the start of Obama’s term. Rather, Matthews made the laughable claim that “by just about every metric, the economy is doing better than it was in January 2009,” and was then quite selective in supporting the claim. In prior years, we’d note this was selective, and accept that such spin is par for the course in opinion writing. But this is the year of the fact-checkers, and under the standards set by Matthews’s editor, this sort of thing would be classified as dishonest and untrue.

Jonathan H. Adler — Jonathan H. Adler teaches courses in environmental, administrative, and constitutional law at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

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