Enshrining the lies of the US’ 1%

What chance does truth have, if Americans cannot cast off lies that directly steal money from their own pockets?

The US has yet to come to terms with its biggest pack of lies of the last decade, the pack of lies on which the Iraq War was based, which left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, and an entire nation shattered [GALLO/GETTY]

San Pedro, California – Last week, in an act of profound deception, the American “fact-checking” organisation, PolitiFact, chose a true statement as its “Lie of the Year”. The pseudo-lie?  “[House] Republicans voted to end Medicare”, as part of the GOP’s “Ryan Plan” last April. The reality? As the Wall Street Journal’s Naftali Bendavid wrote at the time, in a preview of the vote that Democrats would then cite to justify their claims:

The plan would essentially end Medicare, which now pays most of the healthcare bills for 48 million elderly and disabled Americans, as a programme that directly pays those bills. Mr Ryan and other conservatives say this is necessary because of the programme’s soaring costs.

There is a potential lie-of-the-year in that paragraph. It’s just not the one that PolitiFact thinks it found.

The real lie is the claim that Ryan’s plan “is necessary because of the programme’s soaring costs”. In fact, the problem isn’t Medicare per se, it’s the entire cost structure of American medicine as a whole, which is roughly twice the per capita cost of healthcare spending in other advanced countries – even those that have 50 per cent more people aged 65+ than the US has. 

The reason for that cost structure is non-competitive private oligopolies – insurance companies, drug companies, hospital chains, etc., – in sharp contrast to other countries with their government-run systems of various different kinds. There’s another name for these oligopolies -they are the cash cows of the one per cent. Paul Ryan is their man, and PolitiFact is part of their protection system.

Indeed, as Thomas Ferguson and Robert Johnson explained just over a year ago, in their paper “A World Upside Down? Deficit Fantasies in the Great Recession”, all of the US long-term federal debt is due to just three oligopoly sectors: the military-industrial complex (the backbone of empire, with bases all around the world and almost half the world’s military spending), the medical-industrial complex (with twice the per capita costs of other systems), and the financial sector (which has recently cost trillions of dollars in lost wealth and economic activity).

All three of these are enormous cash cows for the onr per cent, and equally enormous cost-centres for the 99 per cent. Without the costs imposed by lack of competition, regulation and accountability in these sectors, the US would have no long-term debt problem. We would be paying it down, rather than running it up.

‘Pants on fire’

This connects with yet another Paul Ryan “pants on fire” lie: that his budget plan is what it claims to be – a deficit reduction plan. It’s not. In the next decade – the maximum time-frame in which budget projections are normally done – the Ryan Plan produces just $55bn in deficit reduction over the next 10 years, according to an analysis from the Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities. This is because $4.2tn in tax cuts (heavily tilted toward the rich) almost entirely offsets $4.3tn in spending cuts (largely targeting low- and middle-income Americans). 

Reductions in healthcare spending from ending Medicare kick in just after that, and – as Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted on his blog last April, “spending on everything other than healthcare and Social Security… is projected to fall in half as a share of GDP in just 10 years, and eventually to fall to levels comparable to those during the Coolidge administration – even as the US presumably maintains a post-isolationism-level military force”.

In short, the Ryan Plan is really an extreme (and extremely unrealistic) government-slashing plan. That is its goal and purpose. Calling it a deficit-reduction plan is a pants-on-fire lie, which PolitiFact would surely recognise as such, if it were actually in the fact-checking business, as it misleadingly claims to be. In sharp contrast, it should be noted, the Congressional Progressive Caucus “People’s Budget” plan would balance the budget by 2022, with a $31bn surplus. But there’s a bipartisan one per cent consensus to utterly ignore it, as if it did not even exist as a possibility, much less a publicly offered plan.

Instead of Ferguson and Johnson’s realistic analysis of special interest waste, the bipartisan one per cent conventional wisdom in Washington is exactly the opposite: the problem is “wasteful government spending” on programmes that benefit the vast majority of the American people: Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, not to mention investments in infrastructure, education, developing green energy, etc. This basic obfuscation and inversion of the politics of public debt is best thought of not as a lie – a discrete, isolated speech act – but as a fraud – a continuous, ongoing practice to deceive, which is all about misleading people with half-truths, rather than outright lying to them. After all, outright lies can attract unwanted, sharply-focused negative attention. Far better to keep things far blurrier, with half-truths that take forever to analyse and argue.

PolitiFact’s “lie of the year” this year is just one more part of that fraud. Drastic cuts to Medicare are not needed. A drastic expansion, to include all Americans of all ages, would be far more cost-effective for bringing the US’ healthcare costs in line with the rest of the advanced industrial world. But that’s the last thing that the one per cent special interests in Washington want. They don’t even want you to consider that possibility. And PolitiFact is here to help them with that, presenting broadly-shared one per cent opinions as if they were facts, and not even realising what it is doing in the process.

A blizzard of criticism

PolitiFact’s choice drew a healthy blizzard of criticism, even if it was largely focused on professional or partisan issues, rather than the big picture of fraud and plutocracy outlined above. Still, it was broadly obvious that PolitiFact had screwed up badly. “If you have a degree from a J-school and a press badge and you haven’t written about this today, you’re doing it wrong,” wrote libertarian David Weigel of Slate. And Tommy Christopher, a columnist at Mediaite.com, wrote that “What Politifact doesn’t seem to realise is that this wasn’t just a wrong decision, it was an irresponsible one that undercuts their own, and journalism’s, duty to serve the public.”

Indeed, as Christopher also noted, the criticism wasn’t just limited to those who opposed the Ryan Plan. Most notably, Robert VerBruggen at the National Review Online, who supports the Ryan Plan, wrote:

The Ryan plan is a deep, serious reform – it ends some of the programme’s major features, and if traditional-Medicare supporters see those features as the core of the program, it’s fair for them to say it ends the programme…

It’s true enough that Democratic ads are a bad place to go for a clear, unbiased account of what the Ryan plan would do. But I don’t think any of these examples rise to the level of “lie”, much less “Lie of the Year”.

Like VerBruggen, many who opposed the Ryan plan – or expressed no opinion – made similar arguments: there are factual statements, they said, and then there is persuasive speech, involving opinion, interpretation and point-of-view, which cannot simply be judged as true or false. PolitiFact erred, they argued, by trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. One of the sharpest presentations of this argument came from veteran journalist, author and policy analyst Mark Paul, who spent 19 years in the editorial department of the Sacramento Bee, the number one newspaper for statewide politics in California.

“Until PolitiFact.com went all Orwellian on Medicare, I confess I’d never bothered to follow the site. The kind of political ‘fact-checking’ carried out by PolitiFact and FactCheck.org seemed like a harmless but Sisyphean endeavour,” Paul wrote in his second take on PolitiFact’s choice. “But now that I’ve had reason to look at PolitiFact’s work, I’m less impressed by its futility than its intellectual shoddiness.”

Paul richly illustrated his point by imagining PolitiFact trying to fact-check a passage from Patrick Henry’s famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech. By Paul’s reckoning, treating his figurative language as if it were literal, PolitiFact “would have come [to] the conclusion. Lie of the Year 1775: Patrick Henry, pants on fire.”

Paul also cited another “finalist” example in a similar vein, a statement from Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, who charged that Republicans pushing voting restrictions “want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws and literally – and very transparently – block access to the polls to voters who are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates than Republican candidates”.

About this statement, Paul wrote, “Anybody even remotely familiar with politics understands Wasseman Schultz’s words for what they are: not a neutral statement of fact but figurative speech designed to assign meaning to facts and motives to the actions of others”. Paul’s arguments are particularly important as an antidote to PolitiFact’s puerile literalism, and are well worth reading in full.

Yet, it’s also the case that what Wasserman Schultz said was quite literally true. According to a Brennan Centre report, more than 5 million voters will find it “significantly harder” to vote next year, with a disproportionate number of them being Black or Hispanic, potentially affecting the outcome in states with 171 the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.  Most significantly, in regard to the issue of literal fact, much of the potential voter suppression comes in the form of requiring voter ID, which would cost poor people money (as well as time and material resources) to obtain – just like the Jim Crow era poll tax, which was outlawed by the 24th Amendment in 1964. If reinstating a de facto poll-tax isn’t taking us back to the Jim Crow era, I don’t know what is.

This is hardly unusual. Although primarily figurative, persuasive speech commonly has some factual component or dimension to it. And thus, many others argued that PolitiFact was just flat-out wrong, that the Ryan Plan did entail ending Medicare, quite literally.

As Steve Benen, chief blogger for the Washington Monthly wrote:

It seems foolish to have to parse the meaning of the word “end”, but if there’s a programme, and it’s replaced with a different program, proponents brought an end to the original programme.”

And Jed Lewison, writing for DailyKos, wrote:

“According to (PolitiFact’s) logic, if the FBI were replaced with a voucher programme wherein citizens would receive subsidies for hiring private investigators to look into criminal activity, but the agency running the voucher programme were still called the FBI, it would be unfair to say that the FBI had been ended.”

A funny thing though: Lewison wrote that back in April, when PolitiFact made its first of many attacks on this “lie”. And PolitiFact actually quoted him in their story announcing the “lie of the year”. But they didn’t even bother going through the motions of trying to refute his argument!  They just left it hanging there, staring them right in the face, a perfect illustration of what Mark Paul called PolitiFact’s “intellectual shoddiness”.

Partisan tilt

But it’s not just shoddiness in general.  There’s also a distinct partisan tilt involved. As Paul Krugman observed, “[T]he people at PolitiFact are terrified of being considered partisan if they acknowledge the clear fact that there’s a lot more lying on one side of the political divide than on the other. So they’ve bent over backwards to appear ‘balanced’ – and in the process made themselves useless and irrelevant. Way to go, guys”.

Further dramatising the partisan tilt, the day before PolitiFact’s national chapter announced their list of “lie of the year” finalists on December 2, their Wisconsin chapter ruled that former Governor Tommy Thompson was telling the truth when he made the remarkably similar claimed that he had “ended welfare” as Wisconsin governor in the 1990s, even though programmes continued, albeit with major rule changes. In contrast, with the Democrat’s nationally-identified “lie of the year”, programmes would not continue, they would all be privatised. These two arguably fuzzy cases were strikingly similar, yet the ratings assigned were wildly divergent.  PolitiFact uses a six-point scale: True, mostly true, half true, mostly false, false, and pants on fire, with the later meaning the same as false, plus “makes a ridiculous claim”. Had PolitiFact called Thompson’s claim “mostly true” and the Democrats’ claim “mostly false”, that’s what PolitiFact getting it wrong would look like. A competent judgment would be the reverse. But rating the Democrat’s claim “pants on fire” is way beyond wrong. It is, itself, a “pants on fire” lie. 

And that’s what makes it so significant, and worthy of attention. As I wrote above, ” [O]utright lies can attract unwanted, sharply-focused negative attention. Far better to keep things far blurrier, with half-truths that take forever to analyse and argue. “The fact that PolitiFact was caught in an outright lie provides us with one of those “teachable moments” Obama loves to talk about, but never quite seems to deliver. The primary lesson is what I already described: (1) That the real lie is Paul Ryan’s premise, the premise of the one per cent trying to systematically defund and destroy the middle class-supporting welfare state, and (2) that PolitiFact’s role is to support the one per cent in this long-term political project. The partisan differences I mentioned just above are quite real, of course. But there’s far more bipartisanship supporting the 1 per cent in Washington than there is a real partisan difference there. Indeed, PolitiFact’s attack on the Democrats “ending Medicare” rhetoric is specifically intended to prevent DC Democrats from identifying with their voting base, rather than with their funders from the 1 per cent. It’s purpose is to defeat democracy and support plutocracy. Period. End of story.

It’s worth noting that when it was challenged, PolitiFact defended itself in part by pointing out that its monopolistic “competitors”, FactCheck.org and the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” had the same “lie” on their year-end lists as well. But far from exonerating PolitiFact, this only underscores the systemic nature of how the fact-checking “industry” shills for the 1 per cent. Indeed, these groups commonly adopt the Republican frame of calling the Democrat’s sporadic truth-telling “Mediscare” – as if there were nothing legitimate to fear in Republican’s long-term political goal of trying to get rid of universal health care for seniors.

In a mid-June post, “Mediscare Redux: Is McConnell holding debt ceiling hike hostage to Ryan Medicare plan?”, Washington Post’s Fact Checker, made the claim, “The Fact Checker, PolitiFact.com, and Factcheck.org don’t always see eye-to-eye and certainly don’t form a cabal. No. Of course they’re not a cabal. They just act like one when the chips are down, because of the institutional role they play in service of the one per cent.

“This is life in our echo chamber nation. We protect ourselves from opinions we don’t like and seek reinforcement from like-minded allies,” wrote PolitiFact editor Bill Adair in an embarrassing response to its critics, that David Weigel utterly destroyed (“PolitiFact Weirdly Unable to Discuss Facts”). Adair seemed blissfully unaware of how precisely his echo chamber charge described the fact-checking non-cabal itself, not just those it self-righteously pontificated against.

However scandalous it may be, all the above is hardly surprising for those well outside the Beltway – especially those outside of the US altogether. After all, the US has yet to come to terms with its biggest pack of lies of the last decade, the pack of lies on which the Iraq War was based, which left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, and an entire nation shattered. Led by the example of post-Apartheid South Africa, countries around the world have come to realise the fundamental necessity to assign responsibility and reclaim historical truth in the aftermath of a time of lies. But the imperial United States, under the sway of its one per cent, continues to scoff at the very notions of accountability and historical truth.

It’s not just the Iraq War lies, and their continuation to this day, lies like those that Bradley Manning is being tried for exposing, just like Daniel Ellsberg, 40 years before him. The lies surrounding the financial crash and the great recession are equally unresolved, lies that have cost tens of millions their livelihoods, their homes, their hopes, their dreams. These are all of a piece with the Medicare lies and Ryan Plan lies, which have to do with how we crawl out of this mess – or else bury ourselves even deeper into it, dooming not just ourselves, but our posterity.

If Americans cannot cast off lies that directly steal money from their own pockets, and steal their children’s future from them, what chance is there confronting lies that only harm them indirectly? What chance is there with lies told in their name? With lies purportedly told in their interest? Lies told for their own benefit? What chance is there to stop being, at bottom, a people of the lie? What chance to once more become a people of the dream?

Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Length News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and no not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.