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Fact-checking the second Democratic debate (night 1)

Here's a round-up of four claims from the second Democratic presidential debate of 2020. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

In the second debate of the Democratic primary season (part one), 10 presidential hopefuls came prepared with facts and figures, some of which were overstated or incorrect. Here is a round-up of 13 statements that caught our attention. As is our practice, we do not award Pinocchios during live events.

“Science tells us that we have 12 years before we reach the horizon of catastrophe when it comes to our climate....By 2030 we will have passed the point of no return on climate.”

— South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg

“Scientists are very clear we don’t have more than 10 years to get this right.”

— Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.)

Buttigieg is using a figure that is frequently cited but often misused. It is drawn from the a 2018 special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It said that the planet, which has already warmed 1 degree Celsius, would warm 1.5 degrees between 2030 and 2052 unless dramatic steps were taken to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. (The mid-point is 2040.)

That’s been translated to just 12 years to take action. (To get to 10 years, O’Rourke appears to be counting from 2020 to 2030.) But scientists have argued the statement in the report has been misunderstood.

“Slogan writers are vague on whether they mean climate chaos will happen after 12 years, or if we have 12 years to avert it. But both are misleading,” Myles Allen, one of the lead authors, wrote in April.

“Please stop saying something globally bad is going to happen in 2030,” he wrote. “Bad stuff is already happening and every half a degree of warming matters, but the IPCC does not draw a ‘planetary boundary’ at 1.5°C beyond which lie climate dragons.”

“This has been a persistent source of confusion,” Kristie L. Ebi, director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the University of Washington, told the Associated Press. “The report never said we only have 12 years left.”

That said, Buttigieg’s phrase of “horizon of catastrophe” is actually a clever way of suggesting that to some extent there is indeed a continuum here, rather than everything bad suddenly happening all at once when the earth moves from 1.49°C to 1.5. The report, for instance, suggests that at 1.5°C, there could be the loss of most coral reefs, the backbone of one of the Earth’s fundamental ecosystems: “Coral reefs, for example, are projected to decline by a further 70–90% at 1.5°C (high confidence) with larger losses (>99%) at 2°C (very high confidence).”

Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper: “I think the guarantee [in the Green New Deal] for a public job for everyone who wants one is a classic part of the problem. It’s a distraction …”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.): “I put a real policy on the table to create 1.2 million new jobs in green manufacturing. There’s going to be a $23 trillion worldwide market for this. This could revitalize huge cities across this country and no one wants to talk about it. What you want to do instead is find the Republican talking point of a made-up piece of some other part and say, ‘Oh, we don’t really have to do anything.’ That’s the problem we’ve got in Washington right now.”

Warren is one of the sponsors of the Green New Deal resolution in Congress, and Hickenlooper, a more moderate Democrat, criticized the resolution’s universal job guarantee.

Warren began her rebuttal by running down her own plan for green manufacturing. But she also seemed to dismiss Hickenlooper’s criticism as a “Republican talking point of a made-up piece of some other part.”

Actually, the Green New Deal resolution calls for a “10-year national mobilization” that would include “guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States,” among many other provisions. (See our explainer here.)

The resolution is nonbinding and would not have the force of law if it passed Congress. But in her own green manufacturing plan, Warren says her proposals would help “achieve the ambitious targets of the Green New Deal.”

“Tonight in America as we speak, 87 million Americans are uninsured or underinsured but the health-care industry made $100 billion in profits last year.”

— Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

In the first part of his statement, Sanders is quoting from a 2019 report from the Commonwealth Fund. The report said that the number of people who are uninsured — 24 million — had declined since the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, but that more people are “underinsured.” That term refers to out-of-pocket costs that exceed 10 percent of income (or 5 percent of income if low-income, as well as deductible that were more than 5 percent of income. It also covers people who may have had a gap in insurance coverage. The report said that 43.8 million people had insurance but were underinsured, while 19.3 million people had a coverage gap.

As for the claim that the “health-care industry” made $100 billion profits, the Sanders campaign provided a list of profits in 2018 for drug companies, which totaled $101 billion. The health insurance industry was not nearly as profitable, according to a March report by AM Best. Profits rose 19 percent to nearly $26 billion through the third quarter of 2018, compared to the same prior-year period. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners pegged the profits at $23.4 billion in 2018. (Warren got this number right when she said: “These insurance companies do not have a God-given right to make $23 billion in profits and suck it out of our health care system.”)

“It’s been well documented that if all the [hospital] bills were paid at Medicare rate, which is specifically — I think it’s in section 1200 of their bill — then many hospitals in this country would close.”

— former Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.)

It’s good to see Delaney scale back his Four Pinocchio claim that all hospitals would close if Medicare-for-all were implemented.

In this rebuttal to Sanders during the debate, Delaney said “many hospitals would close” if they were paid at Medicare rates. According to the New York Times, Medicare pays hospitals “only 87 cents for every dollar of their costs.” Delaney has cited that article before to claim that hospitals would be paid 13 percent below their cost under Sanders’s Medicare-for-all bill.

However, the Sanders bill is vague on whether hospitals would be paid at Medicare rates and seems to leave those decisions to federal health officials, so it’s not a given that hospitals would be asked to operate at 13 percent below their cost.

Health-care experts previously told us that under Sanders’s bill, some hospitals could close and some could cut staff or reduce services to cope with lower revenue from being paid at Medicare rates or at lower rates than they currently see. Some rural hospitals are already struggling, so being paid at lower rates would compound their troubles. But some urban hospitals treating high volumes of uninsured patients could end up with more revenue. And Sanders says bureaucratic costs would decline because of reductions in hospitals’ billing-documentation requirements and red tape.

“Even if you decriminalize — which we should not do — you still have statutory authority. The president could still use his authority to separate families.”

— Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio)

Unlike some other Democrats, Ryan would not decriminalize the act of crossing the border without authorization. Former HUD secretary Julián Castro called for the repeal of Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act at the previous debate, and other Democrats such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren have also come out in favor of decriminalizing the act of crossing the border without permission.

Section 1325 makes it an offense under federal law to cross or attempt to cross the border “at any time or place other than as designated by immigration officers.” It also penalizes anyone who eludes inspection or examination or deceives immigration officials. The penalty for a first-time offender is a fine or less than six months in prison; in other words, a misdemeanor. For repeat offenders, the offense becomes a felony punishable by up to two years in prison.

Ryan said that even if border-crossing is decriminalized, the president could still separate families. He mentioned “statutory authority,” but it’s unclear what Ryan was referring to and his spokesman did not immediately respond to our query.

It’s important to note that President Trump’s zero-tolerance policy of separating families at the border last year worked by using the criminal penalties in Section 1325. Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered that all adults be prosecuted for crossing the border. Children can’t be prosecuted with their parents, so families were systematically separated.

“The economic system that used to create $30, $40, $50 dollar an hour jobs, so that you can have a good solid middle class living, now force us to have two or three jobs just to get by.”

— Ryan

Some people may be working two or three jobs, but it’s a relatively small percentage. And the numbers have not changed in recent years.

There are more than 162 million people with jobs. But only 330,000 people had two full-time jobs in June, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Another 4.3 million had both a full-time job and a part-time job, while 2 million were juggling part-time jobs.

In all, there are almost 8 million people who hold more than one job — just 5.1 percent of Americans with jobs. The percentage has been roughly steady since the Great Recession, and in fact is lower than in the mid-1990s, when it hovered around 6 percent.

“When I went to that movie theater in Aurora in 2012…We decided that we were going to go out and take on the NRA and we passed as a purple state universal background checks. We limited magazine capacity. We did the basic work that, for whatever reason, doesn’t seem to be done in Washington.”

— Hickenlooper

The former Colorado governor presents a rosy account of actions taken after the Aurora theater shooting. The Colorado Sun has described his account of his record as “requiring a series of asterisks.”

He came late to the issue of gun control, advocates said. Immediately after the shooting, he expressed doubt that tougher gun control laws would make a difference. “This person, if there were no assault weapons available, if there were no this or no that, this guy’s going to find something, right? He’s going to know how to create a bomb,” he said on CNN.

Hickenlooper eventually came around the idea of tightening guns laws.

But, after a political firestorm erupted when Colorado lawmakers passed measures expanding background checks for gun purchases and limiting magazine sizes to 15 rounds, he distanced himself. “One of my staff had committed us to signing it,” he told the sheriffs of his support of the law limiting high-capacity magazines. One gun-control advocate told the Sun that the comments made her “sick.”

“Giant corporations and billionaires are going to pay more [under Sanders’s Medicare-for-all plan]. Middle class families are going to pay less out of pocket for their health care.”

— Warren

This isn’t as straightforward as Warren makes it sound.

Sanders has put out a menu of possible options for how to fund Medicare-for-all, though many experts says that he still falls short.

One option would require a 7.5 percent payroll tax that employers would pay to help fund the program. Virtually every economist will tell you that a payroll tax paid by an employer largely comes out of the pay earned by the employee, but Sanders argues that the savings on the premiums currently paid by the employer should result in an overall reduction in costs for the employer. He estimates that a company would save more than $9,000 in health-care costs per average employee. (We do not vouch for these numbers.)

Another option is a 4 percent income-based premium paid by households, starting at $29,000. Sanders has estimated that this would raise $3.5 trillion over 10 years, but the “typical middle-class family” would save more than $4,400 a year. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), a 2020 rival, has objected that this would amount to a tax increase on the middle class and has proposed to raise the threshold for paying the tax to $100,000. Instead she would impose a new tax on stock and bond trades.

Still, health care amounts to one-sixth of the U.S. economy. And when changing anything that large, there is really only one certainty: There will be unintended consequences. Medicare-for-all would involve disruption in the health-care market much larger than what the United States experienced with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid or the original implementation of Medicare.

“Right now, 500,000 Americans are sleeping out on the street and yet companies like Amazon that made billions in profits did not pay one nickel in federal income tax.”

— Sanders

Sanders’s number come from a single-night survey done by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. For a single night in January in 2018, the estimate was 553,000 people. But the report also says that two-thirds --nearly 360,000 -- were in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs; the other 195,000 were “unsheltered” --i.e., on the street, as Sanders put it. The number has also been trending down over the past decade; it was 650,000 in 2007.

Sanders has a point that large corporations including Amazon use many tools and strategies to substantially cut down their tax bills. But they do pay some taxes.

“Amazon for many years reinvested all its profits into expansion, with the result that it paid little or no taxes because taxes are calculated based on profits,” Joseph Bishop-Henchman, executive vice president of the Tax Foundation, told us in 2018. “However, in the last few years, it has expanded its warehouse footprint and now pays considerable federal taxes as well as state income and property taxes.”

The Wall Street Journal reported in June that it’s not clear whether Amazon paid taxes in 2018. But its tax rate from 2012 through 2018 was 8 percent, according to the Journal. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“From 2012 through 2018, Amazon reported $25.4 billion in pretax U.S. income and current federal tax provisions totaling $1.9 billion,” the Journal reported. “That is an 8% tax rate — low, but not zero or negative. Looking back further, since 2002, Amazon has earned $27.7 billion in global pretax profits and paid $3.6 billion in global cash income taxes, a 13% tax rate.”

“I have a D-minus rating from the NRA....Back in 1988, coming from a state that had no gun control, I called for the ban of the sale and distribution of assault weapons. I lost that election.”

— Sanders

Sanders likes to talk about his D-minus rating from the NRA, and his loss in his first congressional race. He says the NRA’s endorsement of his opponents during his first congressional race in 1988 may have cost him the election. This was one of Sanders’s repeated claims in the 2016 campaign, so we dug into this deeply then.

Sanders’s recent grade from the NRA was, indeed, a D-minus. Since 1992, the first year the NRA issued a grade for Sanders, he has received between a C-minus and F.

Since 1988, Sanders has been consistent on restricting the use of semiautomatic firearms (often called “assault weapons”). The evidence for whether his stance had anything to do with his 1988 loss is mixed. He could have just as easily lost the election because he split votes with a Democrat, as opposed to being the only candidate without an NRA endorsement. The NRA had endorsed one of his opponents, Peter Smith, in 1988 because Smith signed the NRA pledge to not support “additional restrictive firearms legislation."

But Smith changed his mind once he was in Congress and supported a ban on certain semiautomatic rifles. That angered the NRA, which actively campaigned for Sanders in 1990 to successfully oust Smith.

“Wind and solar jobs are the fastest growing jobs in the country.”

— O’Rourke

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects solar photovoltaic installers and wind turbine technicians will grow the fastest between 2016 and 2026. But that doesn’t mean they are common professions.

The number of solar photovoltaic installers is projected to grow by 11,800, or 105 percent, in that time, bringing the total number of installers to 23,100. Similarly, the number of wind turbine technicians is projected to grow by 5,800 jobs to 11,400 jobs. In both cases, that’s a minuscule percentage of the total 167.6 million people employed.

Plus, noted, “Four oil and natural gas occupations are on the bureau’s list of “fastest growing occupations,” and collectively those occupations would add more jobs to the economy than solar installers and wind turbine technicians.

“As governor of Colorado, [I] created the No. 1 economy in the country.”

— Hickenlooper

Hickenlooper keeps repeating this Two Pinocchio claim. He also said it at the last debate.

He presided over boom times in Colorado as a two-term governor who left office in January, but he goes into specious territory by describing it as the No. 1 economy from 2016 through 2018. California, Oregon and Washington state outperformed Colorado in gross domestic product growth all three years; Hawaii and North Dakota had lower unemployment rates.

Hickenlooper’s campaign told us he was referring to a ranking from U.S. News and World Report.

But there are different rankings out there, their methodologies vary, and Hickenlooper never says this claim comes from a magazine. That matters because CNBC ranked Colorado’s economy in eighth place among all states last year. WalletHub ranked Colorado’s economy in fifth place.

The lesson here is that “No. 1 economy” is in the eye of the beholder when relying on rankings such as these, and Hickenlooper can’t assume audiences will know what he’s referring to.

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