The fact checkers:
Stephen Koff: writer, researcher
Richard Exner: researcher
Robert Higgs: editor
The quotation of Sen. Brown came from a segment of the Rachel Maddow Show. Maddow segued from a caricature of Marco Rubio's plans for improving the economy to her conversation with Brown:
(MADDOW:) Right now our deficit is around $1 trillion, republicans are proposing to add $3.5 trillion more to it. Thank you very much.Brown makes a ton of dubious claims in the above set of talking points. PolitiFact Ohio accordingly applies selection bias:
Now let them all fall down. Well done. There we go. Don‘t let the door hit your fiscal responsibility when you‘re on your way out. All right. Joining us now is democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio. Senator Brown, thank you for joining us tonight.
SEN. SHERROD BROWN (D-OH): You‘re having too much fun, Rachel.
MADDOW: I am having too much fun. Whenever things fail visibly on television, I enjoy myself.
BROWN: You do. And we do!
MADDOW: Well, thank you. Let me ask, though, if there is something that I‘m missing aside from good double-stick tape. Are republicans essentially campaigning on adding all this tax cut stuff to the deficit?
BROWN: Yeah, in some sense, what you‘re missing is you‘re only telling half the story, in this way that not only what they‘re doing provably increases the deficit, and did increase the deficit in the first several years of this decade, this century, we know that. You proved that and we knew that.
What else it did is it doesn‘t create jobs. Just contrast the last two eight-year administrations. During the eight Bush years, 3 million jobs, net jobs created. During the eight Clinton years, 22 million net jobs created. So I care about deficits, absolutely. But what I care even more about is job creation that people have a chance to join the middle class.
We saw jobs created, 22 million in the Clinton years. Because they were responsible about cutting taxes selectively and increasing taxes selectively and they were responsible about what government programs they formed and they dismantled. 22 million jobs created and incomes went up in those eight years for the average American. And in the next eight years, the eight Bush years, only 3 million jobs created and that wasn‘t even enough to keep up with population growth.
So in that sense, there was a relative decline in job creation. And wages were flat or worse for the average American. So—and coupled with that, what the republicans did in eight years is they cut taxes for the richest Americans and they deregulated Wall Street and deregulated worker safety.
Politicians can slice and dice monthly job reports expertly, a useful skill for scoring economic talking points. Include a few months’ worth of job losses here, exclude some job gains there, or do it in reverse, and pretty soon it’s all some scoundrel’s fault. (Never mind whom that scoundrel is.)This, plain and simple, is a laugh. It is not a "broader historical look" to assess economic policy by looking at the beginning and end points of presidential terms. It's simply the aforementioned slicing and dicing intended to direct blame at a scoundrel. The start and finish of a presidential tenure count as relatively arbitrary points in terms of the implementation of economic policy within the ebb and flow of the business cycle. PolitiFact's failure to pick up on this raises an immediate red flag.
So U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown caught our attention when he took a broader historical look while appearing July 14 on Rachel Maddow’s program on MSNBC.
Hold on to your hat, because PolitFact will end up producing red flags like a Leningrad parade in the old Soviet Union:
The quantitative claims seemed worth checking out, and in doing so we found a surprise: Brown is wrong – but not in a way he’ll likely mind. No fan of President George W. Bush, Brown grossly understated the poor job growth that occurred on Bush’s watch.We might ignore the fact that Clinton inherited a recovering economy from President George H. W. Bush while President George W. Bush inherited an economy poised to enter recession, and the fact that banking crisis at the tail end of the latter Bush presidency had a substantial root in Clinton's policy. But should we ignore those factors while comparing fiscal and economic policy? Should we ignore those factors while fact checking?
The comparison should have been this: Job growth through Clinton two terms was 22.7 million. Through Bush’s two terms, it was 1.1 million.
A chart from Heritage Foundation (click chart for enlarged view) helps fill in some of the blanks:
The two worst periods of job creation during the Bush presidency, as the chart helps highlight, occurred during a recession worsened by the destruction of the World Trade Center towers and the banking crisis for which Democrats share considerable blame. As for Clinton's impressive record of job creation, that was accomplished with the assistance of a Republican-controlled Congress after Clinton inherited an economy on the rebound from recession.
Armed with something more akin to a "broader historical outlook," back to the PolitiFact story:
The quantitative claims seemed worth checking out, and in doing so we found a surprise: Brown is wrong – but not in a way he’ll likely mind. No fan of President George W. Bush, Brown grossly understated the poor job growth that occurred on Bush’s watch.The fact check on the raw numbers proves satisfactory--but isn't Brown doing far more than making a comparison between the net job creation numbers for Clinton and Bush? He has an underlying argument supposedly girded by those numbers, doesn't he? So what is it?
Skipping over the justification for the 1.1 million figure, PolitiFact continues:
OK, but what about Brown’s claim that incomes went up under Clinton?OK, so what's Brown's argument based on these numbers?
The numbers bear this out, too. BLS data, adjusted for inflation, show that average weekly wages grew by 21 percent from the start of Clinton’s first term to the end of his second term. They grew by only 2 percent under Bush’s two terms.
Is it fair to compare job growth under these presidents? Just in case we were missing some context – because these numbers seemed to turn conventional wisdom of its head -- we ran this by Dan Mitchell, an economist and fan of fiscal restraint who works as a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian-oriented think tank. Mitchell said he didn’t find the numbers surprising. Luck and the economic cycle played a role in both presidencies, but the officeholders’ policies played bigger roles, he said. Citing free-trade agreements, welfare reform and deregulation in the telecommunications and agriculture industries, Mitchell said that Clinton’s economic policies were actually geared more to free markets than Bush’s, and the results speak for themselves.Mitchell, unsurprisingly, makes some of the points to which I alluded above while giving appropriate credit to Clinton for favoring free markets in his economic approach.
But if Clinton's success occurred largely because of a free market approach, besting Bush in terms of conservatism, then might there be consequences for Brown's underlying argument? And speaking of Brown's underlying argument, does PolitiFact have any insight as to what it might be?
Sorry, folks! It's conclusion time already:
But that’s for others to argue. Bush, while insisting on tax cuts, faced a national security crisis unparalleled in the last half-century, and his response – including wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – had serious economic consequences. Political values, including those of Sen. Brown, shape the debate on whether the president took the right or wrong approach. As for us, we’re sticking to the factual claims."(H)is point was right on target." Apparently PolitiFact takes Brown to mean simply that Clinton's job creation numbers were much better than Bush's measured from the start to the end of their two terms. But the caveats discussed above make that an effectively meaningless comparison except perhaps, as Cato's Mitchell put it, as a measure of Clinton's free market savvy. But seriously, doesn't the context demand that Brown's underlying argument is something other than that?
Brown’s numbers on Bush were off, but his point was right on target. We rate his statement True.
The whole of the Maddow-Brown interchange amounts to an attack on the notion of cutting taxes to grow the economy. Brown tried to make the point that cutting taxes does not create jobs, using the Clinton/Bush comparison to prove his point. Review the transcript:
"What else it did is it doesn‘t create jobs. Just contrast the last two eight-year administrations. During the eight Bush years, 3 million jobs, net jobs created. During the eight Clinton years, 22 million net jobs created."Without specifically identifying Brown's point, PolitiFact declares his point "right on target." But given the information above, it should be obvious that Brown's intended point--that tax cuts do not create jobs--cannot find reasonable support in the Clinton/Bush comparison.
PolitiFact again ignored the clear underlying argument of a Democratic Party figure. The supposed fact check serves to frame, rather than interpret, Brown's statement in the most favorable manner possible. Any communication deserves charitable interpretation. Charitable framing, however, should not be the business of a fact checker. That is the job of public relations workers and partisan spinners.
Stephen Koff: F
Richard Exner: F
Robert Higgs: F
Exner may have done a fine job, but the research on this story is so thin that he gets an "F" by default. I like to hope that he made some sort of comment to the writer and editor to the effect that their story was fundamentally flawed.