Sunday, August 07, 2011

Grading PolitiFact : Jennifer Granholm and the effect of cutting government jobs

To assess the truth for a numbers claim, the biggest factor is the underlying message.
--PolitiFact editor Bill Adair

The issue:

(clipped from

I used a larger clip than usual for this item.  Observe the arrangement.  The quotation of Granholm includes three separate claims.  The first two are statistical (numbers) claims and the third represents a logical inference Granholm sells to the listener.  The last is Granholm's underlying point, which PolitiFact editor Bill Adair says is the most important part of a numbers claim.  The headline material bears that out, because the summary below the quotation ("Jennifer Granholm says massive government cuts in Michigan didn't spur growth") places its full emphasis on the underlying point.  The "Mostly True" graphic lurks nearby, encouraging readers to conclude that cutting government jobs does not spur economic growth.

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor


Context first, as presented by PolitiFact:
During the July 31, 2011, edition of NBC’s Meet the Press, Jennifer Granholm -- a Democrat who served as governor of Michigan from 2003 to 2011 -- was asked to bring her own experience to bear on the debate over the federal debt ceiling.

"Clearly the entitlement question has to be addressed," Granholm said, referring to the rising cost of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which is a major contributor to the growing federal debt.

However, Granholm told host David Gregory that she was skeptical about whether such cuts would be a boon for the economy at large.
Hmmm.  Entitlements.

More context, including the money quote:
"I can tell you, David, I cut more as a percentage out of government than any state in the country this past decade," Granholm said. "And where is Michigan in terms of its economic growth? Cutting did not result in economic growth. What results in growth is making sure you've got a good business climate for businesses to grow and prosper. And so we've got to cut where we can in order to invest where we must in order to grow the economy. And it's that investment side that I worry that those who are affiliated with the tea party or who are on the far right don't realize that other countries are co-investing with businesses in order to create jobs in their countries.

"If we do nothing more than just cut," she continued, "that will continue to accelerate the lack of growth in (gross domestic product). So we've got to realize that the strategy here must be very specific. Yes, you've got to reform entitlements, but you've got reform entitlements and invest in order to grow because the quickest way to take down your deficit is through growth."

Granholm's finish exhibits a fantastic misunderstanding of economics.  Her statement carries the presumption that government spending serves as a better stimulus for economic growth than private investment.  The PolitiFact story focuses on her former statement about the supposed effects of cutting government jobs in Michigan--already somewhat a tangent because she jumped from her topic (entitlement spending) to government jobs.

PolitiFact approaches her statement by dividing it up into three different claims which are each dealt with separately then combined for the final "Truth-O-Meter" rating.  Unless I'm interpreting something incorrectly, PolitiFact is doing what it claims it does not do (bold emphasis added):
PolitiFact writers and editors spend considerable time deliberating on our rulings. We always try to get the original statement in its full context rather than an edited form that appeared in news stories. We then divide the statement into individual claims that we check separately. For example, a Bill Richardson TV ad produced two claims. (We only make Truth-O-Meter rulings on those individual claims. We don't make them in our articles because they often summarize multiple Truth-O-Meter items that had different rulings.)
Is it possible that the separately checked rulings might occur in the same story?  I suppose so, but if we take take the claim that way it is difficult to see how PolitiFact doesn't end up doing in its stories what it tries to avoid in its "articles."  Add to that the fact that stories such as this one do not attempt to apply a "Truth-O-Meter" rating to the individual claims.

So, how about those three claims?

Did Michigan cut more from its government than any state in the country?
PolitiFact says yes.

How poor was Michigan’s economic growth during Granholm’s tenure?
PolitiFact says it was bad enough to count Granholm as accurate.

Did spending cuts to state government hamper Michigan’s economic growth?

The cuts to government almost certainly hampered Michigan’s economy. But experts say that they weren’t the primary cause of the state’s poor economic performance.
PolitiFact uses the statements of economics experts to support the latter claim.  PolitiFact provides nothing supporting the former claim.  Doubtless PolitiFact could have found expert commentary supporting that claim coming from the abundance of Keynesian economists.  PolitiFact already settled the long-running dispute among economists, after all.

Isn't it obvious that not having a top-heavy government burden makes a state more attractive for business?

Regardless of the slant in this section, PolitiFact finds Granholm's implied argument very dubious:
(A) more appropriate way of thinking about it is that a poor economy in Michigan caused a drop in state tax revenue, which in turn forced Granholm to cut government services -- not the other way around.
Thus the most important aspect of Granholm's claim, at least if we go by Bill Adair's guidelines, doesn't hold much water at all.

Bad news for Granholm?  Not really:
(I)n the Meet the Press interview, Granholm was trying to use her experience as a governor to make a larger point about how cutting government "did not result in economic growth." She's probably correct that government cuts hampered her state's recovery, at least in the short term, but Michigan’s experience over the last decade suggests that the reverse is an even bigger factor -- that is, poor economic growth hurts tax revenues and, in turn, forces government cuts.

This doesn’t mean that Granholm’s point is inaccurate, but in trying to apply a state lesson to a federal problem, she’s ignored a key factor in how state fiscal policy works. On balance, we rate her statement Mostly True.
That's some balancing act by PolitiFact.

This rating is akin to taking the claim "Our failure to locate 15 four-leaf clovers near the Michigan capitol building led to poor economic performance" and treating it the following way.

The fact checker finds it true that the needed number of four-leaf clovers was not gathered.  And the conclusion of the argument (that the failure to locate the clovers hurts the economy) gets placed in a headline next to a graphic that reads "Mostly True."  Check the clipped material from again.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Martha Hamilton:  F

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please remain on topic and keep coarse language to an absolute minimum. Comments in a language other than English will be assumed off topic.