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Mark Hemingway on ‘Fact-Checking’

In the latest issue of the Weekly Standard, Mark Hemingway describes the emergence of “fact-checking” websites that evaluate claims made in the course of political discussions and debates. I’ve often noticed that the “fact-checkers” in question are often obtuse, misleading, or both, and Hemingway makes the case in systematic fashion, e.g.,

Here’s a not-atypical case study. On November 7, 2010, newly elected Senator Rand Paul appeared on ABC’s This Week with Christiane Amanpour. One of the topics of discussion was pay for federal workers. “The average federal employee makes $120,000 a year,” Paul said. “The average private employee makes $60,000 a year.”

Given that the news these days often boils down to debates over byzantine policy details, Paul’s statement is about as close to an empirically verifiable fact as you’re likely to hear a politician utter.

And the numbers are reasonably clear. According to the latest data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis​—​yes, that’s a government agency​—​federal workers earned average pay and benefits of $123,049 in 2009 while private workers made on average $61,051 in total compensation. What’s more, the pay gap between the federal and private sectors has been growing substantially. A decade ago, average pay and benefits for federal workers was $76,187​—​federal civil servants have seen a 62 percent increase in their compensation since then, more than double the 30.5 percent increase in the private sector.

So federal workers are paid twice as much and their income has been rising over twice as fast. If that’s not out- rageous enough, from December 2007 to June 2009, the federal workforce saw a 46 percent increase in the number of employees with salaries over $100,000, a 119 percent increase in the number of those making over $150,000, and a 93 percent increase in the number of federal civil servants making over $170,000. Note that these figures do not include benefits, overtime, or bonuses.

Not only that, during Obama’s first two years in office, while the unemployment rate hovered near or above double digits, the size of the federal workforce increased by 7 percent. The president called for a federal pay freeze at the end of 2010; however, under the president’s supposed pay freeze, 1.1 million civil servants​—​the majority of the federal workforce​—​are still slated to get $2.5 billion in pay increases. And with the country on the verge of recession (again), 5 of the 10 richest counties in America now surround Washington, D.C. Given who the largest employer in the area is, this is hardly surprising.

Not only is what Senator Paul said about federal pay verifiably true, his simple recitation of the most basic facts of the matter doesn’t even begin to illustrate the extent of the problem.

Yet PolitiFact rated Senator Paul’s statement “false.” According to PolitiFact’s editors, because Paul did not explicitly say the figures he was citing include pay and benefits, he was being misleading. The average reader would assume he was only talking about salary. “BEA found that federal civilian employees earned $81,258 in salary, compared to $50,464 for private-sector workers. That cuts the federal pay advantage almost exactly in half, to nearly $31,000,” writes PolitiFact.

So the average federal employee makes a mere $31,000 more a year in salary than the average private sector worker​—​but also gets a benefits package worth four times what the average private sector worker gets.

PolitiFact further muddies the waters by suggesting that the discrepancy between public and private sector averages isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. Again, Andrew Biggs, the former Social Security Administration deputy commissioner for policy, and Jason Richwine of the Center for Data Analysis, writing in these pages (“Yes, They’re Overpaid: The Truth About Federal Workers’ Compensation,” February 14, 2011), observed that the most favorable studies of federal worker compensation “controlling for age, education, experience, race, gender, marital status, immigration status, state of residence, and so on” still find federal workers are overpaid by as much as 22 percent.

What accounts for PolitiFact’s inexplicably obtuse explanation? If you suspect that it might be PolitiFact’s pants that are on fire, you’re not alone.

To the extent that the mission of PolitiFact is to offer richer context for the statements made by leading public officials, I’m all for it. That is part of what we try to do in this space. Yet there are at least two important distinctions: (a) our ideological perspective is clear; (b) we make an effort to make reference to and to provide links to contrary views, though perhaps not as much as we might if we presented ourselves as neutral observers on the political scene.

I was struck by the ambiguity of the phrase “makes X a year.” The senator’s political logic was presumably that benefits are valuable things that people would in many cases be willing to pay for, hence they should be considered part of compensation. 

David Cay Johnston, no friend of GOP tax policy as a general rule, wrote the following in a piece harshly condemning Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin:

The key problem is that journalists are assuming that statements by Gov. Scott Walker have basis in fact. Journalists should never accept the premise of a political statement, but often they do, which explains why so much of our public policy is at odds with well-established principles.

The question journalists should be asking is “who contributes” to the state of Wisconsin’ s pension and health care plans.

The fact is that all of the money going into these plans belongs to the workers because it is part of the compensation of the state workers. The fact is that the state workers negotiate their total compensation, which they then divvy up between cash wages, paid vacations, health insurance and, yes, pensions. Since the Wisconsin government workers collectively bargained for their compensation, all of the compensation they have bargained for is part of their pay and thus only the workers contribute to the pension plan. This is an indisputable fact. [Emphasis added]

Later on, Johnston offers his preferred formulation:

Among the reports that failed to scrutinize Gov. Walker’ s assertions about state workers’ contributions and thus got it wrong is one by A.G. Sulzberger, the presumed future publisher of The New York Times, who is now a national correspondent. He wrote that the Governor “would raise the amount government workers pay into their pension to 5.8 percent of their pay, from less than 1 percent now.”

Wrong. The workers currently pay 100 percent from their compensation package, but a portion of it is deducted from their paychecks and a portion of it goes directly to the pension plan.

One correct way to describe this is that the governor “wants to further reduce the cash wages that state workers currently take home in their paychecks.” Most state workers already divert 5 percent of their cash wages to the pension plan, an official state website shows.

There is an important complication here, which is that federal workers don’t have the same collective bargaining rights as workers in many state and local governments. But it’s not clear that this changes what Johnston identifies as a matter of “basic labor economics,” which is that benefits are best understood as part of the total compensation workers choose to accept. He later writes:

Once the state has settled on the compensation package for its workers then how the cash flows is merely accounting for how the costs are divvied up. If the workers got higher cash pay and diverted all of the pension contributions from their pay it would be the same amount compared to having the state pay directly into the pension funds.

Had Senator Paul said “The average federal employee makes $120,000 a year in cash wages, and the average private employee makes $60,000 a year in cash wages,” PolitiFact would have been absolutely right to characterize the senator’s statement as false. But he did not. 


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