That said, I think Glenn Kessler, the fact checker himself, graded Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate, too harshly regarding a number the senator cited on the labor market effect of the spending-cuts-also-known-as sequestration. Sanders is guilty of some degree of misinterpretation, but he’s making an important point, grounded in nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office analysis. I would have given him one Pinocchio at most, if not a Papageno, along with two Taminos (read on). Yet our fact checker hit him with the full four Pinocchios!
Here’s the issue, and for the record, I wouldn’t be going on about all this were there not an important fiscal-policy point at the heart of it all. Sanders asked the CBO to estimate the economic effect of eliminating the automatic spending reductions for 2016 and 2017. In reply, the budget office reported that, among other effects I’ll note in a moment, the increased government spending (“outlays”) would lead to more of what they call FTEs — full-time-equivalent employment — in both years.
I’ll take a leap here and assume you’re not familiar with an FTE, which isn’t the same thing as a job. According to CBO, “a year of full-time-equivalent employment…is 40 hours of employment per week for one year.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that someone gets a new job that wasn’t there before. It could mean a couple of people with half-time work now going full time and nobody gets a new job. (There are still more than 6 million involuntary part-timers out there who would very much approve of that scenario.) Or it could mean two new half-time workers account for one FTE, or four new quarter-time workers.
The fact checker objected to the way Sanders represented these data, specifically his claim that sequestration was responsible for “the loss of as many as 1.4 million jobs over the next two years.” Based on the difference between jobs and FTE’s, I can see where the fact checker would raise an eyebrow. A more accurate way to say this might be “the equivalent of as many as 1.4 million full-time jobs” or, more accurately, as EPI’s Josh Biven’s puts it: “Over the two years in question, the total hours of full-time employment that would be extinguished if the [spending] caps are not lifted would equal 1.4 million full-time jobs.” (Clearly, Bivens is not running for president.)
Next, to its credit, the CBO gave a range of estimates (e.g., 200K to 800K FTEs in 2016), and Sanders, in the interest of emphasizing the job-killing properties of the sequester, chose the high end of the range. Kessler makes the point that when someone says “as many as” X million jobs would be lost, “that’s a signal that a politician is using the high-end of a range.” Tru dat, and as long as we’re getting all truthy together, I’m sure I’ve used this construction myself. It’s a touch squirrelly, but it’s factually accurate.
[This seems like a good place for another nuanced point. I’ve recently objected to the use of dynamic scoring in budgets, where macroeconomic effects such as these are incorporated into budget scores. The problem is that given ranges like the one cited above, they’re too uncertain to build into an official score. But I’ve always been careful in such rants to point out that dynamic analyses like this one from CBO are instructive. They just shouldn’t be used in official scoring.]
Finally, and this has less to do with the fact check than just trying to flesh out the full implications of the CBO report, the budget office also points out that its jobs and growth numbers are net of the negative effect it assumes from higher deficit spending if the caps are lifted and the new spending is unpaid for. According to CBO’s model, the extra borrowing by the government would crowd out more productive private-sector borrowing. Given the low cost of capital and the absence of evidence of any such crowding out in recent years, it’s a questionable assumption, but we’re talking 2017, so maybe…but I doubt it.
My experience is that once he has ruled, the fact checker can’t be moved, so let me do my own scoring. In the great Mozart opera “The Magic Flute,” the character Papageno gets his mouth padlocked for telling a lie. That presents Mozart with the challenge of having him sing a duet without opening his mouth, a challenge the composer brilliantly solves. But I digress.
I’d maybe give Sanders one Papageno on interpretation, but I’d also give him two Tamino’s (the virtuous prince from the same opera) for elevating this point about the economic damage from these mindless budget caps. This recovery has been a long, hard slog in no small part because fiscal policy has so often pushed against it. By raising this issue in the context of a presidential campaign — one that has not exactly been a hotbed of thoughtful content — he is doing the nation an important service.
For the coda, back to that scene from The Magic Flute:
“If only every liar had
a lock like this upon his mouth
then would hate, calumny and rancor
be replaced by love and brotherhood!”
(and better fiscal policy, too…)