Debating points aren't facts

Alan Reynolds
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Posted: Oct 07, 2004 12:00 AM

The vice presidential debate was quickly followed by the usual fascination with style ("Nice Guy vs. The Ice Guy," said USA Today) and the equally customary lack of interest in facts.

 A glaring example was Sen. Edwards' startling comment that "Half of African-Americans are dropping out of high school. Half of Hispanic-Americans are dropping out of high school." That may have been an effective debating point, but doesn't anyone care if it's true? If untrue, it seems to me a nasty slur on black and Hispanic parents who supposedly let their kids drop out.

 Searching Goggle, LexisNexis and Factiva the following day, I could not find a single news source questioning this dropout claim. One AP story quoted Alice Theis of Leavenworth, Kansas, who "was impressed with the facts or the figures that Edwards ... threw out with the school dropouts." Another AP story quoted Frisco Rose, a student at North Carolina State. But the figures Edwards threw out needed to be thrown out.

 Childrensdatabank.org reports that, "In 2002, 7 percent of non-Hispanic whites were not enrolled in school and had not completed high school, whereas 12 percent of blacks and 26 percent of Hispanics had dropped out." The latter figure does not mean 26 percent of Hispanics are "dropping out" of U.S. schools. "The high rate for Hispanics is in part the result of the high proportion of immigrants in this age group who never attended schools in the U.S."

 Even as recently as 1980, the numbers of young people who had not completed high school was above 11 percent for whites, 19 percent for blacks and 35 percent for Hispanics. As in the case of jobs and incomes, things that are getting better are being described as getting worse.
 
I have no idea where Edwards got the idea that half the black and Hispanic kids "are dropping out of high school," but such wanton carelessness says something about his credulity and credibility. It also says something about the U.S. media that few reporters, if any, questioned even such an extreme remark.

 Some newspapers did catch a few other factual bloopers. Vice President Cheney came in for justified criticism about his enthusiasm and excuses for the Iraq war. But such exercises in hindsight leave little to choose between the two major parties when it comes to getting out of Iraq gracefully, unless voters imagine France and Germany are lying when they say they won't get involved no matter who wins.

  When it came to domestic topics, the "complete deception" came from Edwards. The Iraq war has not yet "cost $200 billion and counting," but $120 billion. We haven't lost 1.6 million jobs but 900,000. A few reporters even questioned Edwards' incredible charge that the president and vice president are "for outsourcing jobs. I want to make sure people hear that. It's a fundamental difference with us. The administration says over and over that the outsourcing of millions of American jobs is good." Oh sure, Bush and Cheney keep saying that all the time.

 Edwards and Kerry rarely resist any temptation to outbid the Republican big spenders. Edwards thus spoke of adding another 40,000 troops and "doubling" the billions spent on AIDS in Africa. Kerry-Edwards health subsidies alone would cost $200 billion a year, three times what they hope to raise by raising the top tax brackets. They also want another $200 billion over a decade for education, etc., etc. When asked how he's going to pay for all this, Edwards simply said, "We also want to get rid of some of the bureaucratic spending in Washington. ... We also want to close some corporate loopholes." Didn't some reporter wonder if this emperor has clothes?

 My interminable irritation with the press for blithely accepting politically garbled economic statistics often makes me irritable, if not irritating. And I am apt to quote so many journalists in one brief article that they all appear tarred with the same brush. David Cay Johnston of The New York Times revealed that failing in an Oct. 5 letter to The Washington Times. He found my last column "reprehensible" because he thought I accused him "of tilting, in favor of John Kerry (his) July 29 article on government data showing declining incomes." I did not mean to do that, but I see how one sentence might leave that impression. I had a different target.

 The focus of my "Middle Class Mania," absorbing a dozen paragraphs, was a newer Washington Post story, which, I argued, "attempted to prove" Sen. Kerry's July 29 remark about the "shrinking" middle class. Johnston's story appeared the morning before Kerry made that comment, so it could not possibly have attempted to prove the senator was right. I never meant to suggest it had.
 
In fact, I cited Johnston's article to show The Washington Post story was "tilted" partly because it failed to consider -- as Johnston had  -- the devastating impact of "vanishing capital gains" on incomes far above the middle. If anyone other than Johnston thought I was also accusing him of attempting to prove the middle class is shrinking, then I apologize to him and others for not making that distinction more clear.

 I can also be rudely intolerant of the widespread practice of rehashing data from the recession years (including jobs lost in 2001) as if that is still "news" today. But it may have been just a coincidence that The New York Times happened to run Johnston's gloomy story about an "unprecedented" fall of incomes in 2001-2002 on the same day John Kerry addressed the Democratic convention.

 Johnston also takes exception to my comment about his "brave efforts to convert" IRS data about a huge loss of income among previously affluent business managers and investors into some sort of middle class issue. His July 29 story did say that the income drop was particularly severe "at the upper end of the spectrum." Yet the "brave effort" or conversion, in my view, was that he went on to suggest that the income drop had a comparably large impact on "many more ordinary employees" and "many people well below that (rich) level" and "many people with more modest incomes."

 Johnston's letter tries to buttress such comments by saying incomes fell by about half the norm "in real terms" even among those earning between $25,000 and $100,000. None of the tables in his July 29 article were adjusted for inflation, yet he thinks I should have assumed that adjustment. That seems too clever and too late, and it would not alter my point. He also claims his July 29 report said "the recession was on its way in late 2000." It said no such thing.

 The great merit of Johnston's story is that it proved, albeit reluctantly, that the rich rather than middle class suffered by far the biggest losses of income and wealth as a result of the tech stock crash, recession, Sept. 11 and the corporate scandals unveiled in 2002. His ancillary comments implied comparable income losses among "ordinary employees" with "modest incomes," but such impressions (however politically correct these sympathies may be) were not confirmed by the accompanying facts.

 That is a minor complaint, however, and Johnston was right to reprimand me for making too much of it. The country would benefit greatly if we had even a few reporters of his commitment and skill assigned to the task of fact-checking all the nonsensical economic statistics that continue to be abused during this election year.