Teaching PolitiFact How Social Security Works

Social Security: The Phony CrisisIncreasingly, American political discourse is the very worst kind of relativism. This is especially true on the right. Conservatives seem to think that reality is whatever they want it to be. Say it enough times and it is true. Just like in Nineteen Eighty-Four, what two plus two equals depends, “Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once.” So everyone was pleased when various media sources came out with “fact checkers.”

But very quickly, it was obvious that they were useless. The television networks followed up the 2004 presidential debates by noting three inaccuracies made by Bush and three made by Kerry. It was always equal, even if Bush had said that there were WMDs in Iraq and Kerry had said there were 50 million uninsured Americans when there were actually only 49. And so the act of false equivalence became high art.

Michael HiltzikSuch ridiculousness has become passé. But now we have the official fact checkers who are with us every day. We have Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post and Fact Check but most of all, we have PolitiFact. To give you just a little taste of the stupidity that is PolitiFact, consider the statement from Eric Bolling who said that the US has “the highest corporate tax rate in the free world.” This is a common conservative talking point. It is intended to deceive and it does deceive. But it is technically true. PolitiFact gives it a “mostly true” rating, saying, “Officially, US rate is high, though firms usually pay less.” That’s right, but that doesn’t make the claim any less true. I hate when they do this, even when it is to someone as richly deserving as Bolling.

But flat out the best example of PolitiFact’s absolute incompetence came this last week, after Jeff Merkley said, “Social Security has never contributed one cent to the deficit. Not one cent.” Note that last sentence: people don’t usually add things like that if they are not 100% certain about what they are saying. And indeed, Merkley is completely right. Yet PolitiFact gave the statement a rating of “half true,” commenting, “Splitting the difference on Social Security.”

On Wednesday, Michael Hiltzik called foul on this one. It would seem that PolitiFact thinks that Social Security only gets revenue from payroll taxes. This is not true. It also gets revenue from income tax on Social Security benefits (from people who have enough extra money from other things to owe it) as well as from interest it gets on the Social Security trust fund. In fact, even though since 2010 Social Security has been paying out more than it has been collecting in payroll taxes, it is still bringing in more money in total than it is paying out. And it is projected to continue taking in more money than it is paying out until the year 2019, at which point it will have to start drawing down the trust fund.

After being so publicly called out, you would think that PolitiFact would note its error and at least change its rating to “mostly true.” But no. As Hiltzik pointed out today, A “Fact-Checking” Website Doubles Down on Its Social Security Errors. Instead of dealing with the criticisms, the writer of the original post, Dana Tims, sets up a straw man and whacks it down. Hiltzik explained:

Tims misrepresents what I wrote in my original critique, claiming: “Hiltzik does acknowledge that the interest he’s relying on to keep Social Security solvent can be viewed as adding to the deficit.” This is incorrect. What I “acknowledged” is that you can only hold that view if you’re wrong.

But there is a fundamental pardox with fact checkers. They have to be seen as unbiased. And in order to be seen as unbiased, they have to always come down somewhere in the middle. It is like the old power paradox of John Boehner where he only has power as long as he doesn’t use it. We live in a nation that has one rather typical political party with all that is good and bad about that. And then we have the Republican Party that has largely moved fulltime to Cuckoo Town where reality is whatever anyone says it is. In this kind of political system, it is only one who let’s facts guide him regardless of how that is viewed who can truly be a fact checker. I don’t know what PolitiFact is. But it doesn’t help anyone figure out what the truth is. And in this case, all it does is confuse people about how Social Security actually works.


If you want to know about Social Security, you really should read Social Security: The Phony Crisis by Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot. It is now 13 years old and just as valid today as ever. I wrote a discussion of the book a couple of years ago, if you are interested.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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