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On the Intellectual Bankruptcy of 'Fact Checkers'

5:00 PM, Dec 15, 2011 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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If you haven't already, please excuse the shameless self-promotion and read my story in THE WEEKLY STANDARD on the media establishment's obsession with "fact checking." Therein I note this pernicious trend highlights the media's general bias and incompetence in roughly equal measure. 

Since researching and writing the piece, I'd generally been avoiding fact checking websites because in doing so I was increasingly prone to slamming my head into the keyboard in frustration. Anyway, today a reader sent me a link to an article by Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post "fact checker," and well, PPflWHbJgltP3ZEZd.

Here's Kessler on "Ron Paul’s inaccurate definition of ‘bankruptcy’":

"The country is bankrupt, and nobody wanted to admit it. And when you’re bankrupt, you can’t keep spending.”

— Ron Paul, Aug. 11

[snip]

The statement above, for instance, is incorrect. “Bankrupt” is a distinct term, generally meaning that a person, company or state is unable to pay its debts.

Under no definition is the United States bankrupt. The nation has a large debt as a percentage of its economy, and that is a concern. According to the Treasury Department’s debt calculator, the debt held by the public is about $10.4 trillion, which is about 68 percent of the gross domestic product, the market value of the nation’s output of goods and services.

The United States also owes $4.6 trillion to itself. That consists mostly of securities held in the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. Eventually these securities will be redeemed and must be paid through government revenue or the issuance of new debt.

Some people (such as Paul) prefer to look at this “gross debt” total, in which case the ratio of debt to GDP is much higher: 99 percent.

But in any case, the United States is able to pay its debts, and its bonds are still regarded as the gold standard in the financial markets — a reason investors have flocked to buy U.S. Treasurys during the market turmoil caused by the European debt crisis.

Oh, that was helpful.

There's a variety of reasons why this is absurd. For one, bankruptcy in the legal sense is a very specific matter. Obviously, there's no extranational court that the U.S. can petition to file chapter 11. So I don't think that's what Paul was invoking. Since we're nitpicking, I consulted a dictionary. There's a more general definition that simply means you're unable to pay your debts. I hate to burst Kessler's bubble, but private citizens routinely file for bankruptcy when they have debt to income levels below 68, let alone 99 percent. And I don't think Kessler is taking into account the bigger U.S. debts looming on the horizon—an impending $30 trillion Medicare shortfall comes to mind.

And here's a simple question for Kessler: If the "the United States is able to pay its debts" as Kessler insists, why does the national debt keep rising? And why is it rising preciptiously? It's up over $4 trillion, an increase of 40 percent, since Obama took office.

But what really blows my mind is that while Kessler's explanation is ridiculous, Paul said this on August 11 and Kessler is just now getting around to writing it up. I would also note that PoltiFact "fact checked" Paul's statement and arrived at the same patently absurd conclusion on August 12. (They also "fact checked" Gary Johnson on a remarkably similar statement in September. PolitiFact really seems to have it out for libertarians.) Unlike his "fact checking" competition, Kessler's conclusion here doesn't even have the distinction of being timely or original to mitigate its obvious wrongness.

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