The Magazine

Lies, Damned Lies, and ‘Fact Checking’

The liberal media’s latest attempt to control the discourse.

Dec 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 14 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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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.

PolitiFact and the Associated Press are hardly the only outfits playing this game. In recent years, the Washington Post and other media outlets have dutifully followed in PolitiFact’s footsteps and launched “fact checking” features, while established organizations such as the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s FactCheck.org have gained increased prominence.

It’s true that these items are popular. Who doesn’t want to use the “facts” as a cudgel against his political opponents? Groups across the political spectrum are increasingly prone to sending out press releases crowing about the latest media “fact check” finding that happens to vindicate their particular views.

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