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The Washington Post's "Fact Checker" column turned its reptilian eye to statements made during last week's second half of the first Democratic debate, and found some fibs (Joe Biden did oppose busing), some truths (Michael Bennet did introduce a very generous path to citizenship bill), and some judgment calls (was it really the "most progressive" immigration bill ever?). The column also suggested a statement by Bernie Sanders was true, but also somehow false, which is a truly impressive achievement, like Schrodinger's Socialist. Let's wonksplore!

The column takes issue with Bernie Sanders's statement, "Three people in this country own more wealth than the bottom half of America," even after noting that it's true. But you see, it's a misleading kind of true (it's not), per the factchecker:

This snappy talking point is based on numbers that add up, but it's also a question of comparing apples to oranges. Sanders is drawing on a 2017 report from the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies, which said that three billionaires — Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos (who owns The Washington Post) and Warren Buffett — had total wealth of $248.5 billion, compared to $245 billion for the bottom 160 million of the United States. The wealth of the three men has gone up even more since then.

So that's true. The combined wealth of the Three Cool Pluto-Cats was even more a couple years later and they're all richer than the bottom 160 million Americans. So why's that wrong, huh?

But people in the bottom half have essentially no wealth, as debts cancel out whatever assets they might have. So the comparison is not especially meaningful.

We have read that sentence a whole bunch of times, and it is indeed composed of words in an order and ended with a punctuation mark.


We are not an economist, but having "essentially no wealth" due to a high degree of debt sounds to us like a pretty real problem. We're trying to see the logic in saying you can't "meaningfully" compare three enormously wealthy people with $248.5 billion to 160 million folks splitting $245 billion amongst themselves. One of those numbers is a lot bigger than the other, yes?

Not a lot of help from this shorthand reference to a different fact-check, either, which rounds out the entirety of the Sanders fact-check:

We once gave Sanders Three Pinocchios when he asserted that the six wealthiest people had more wealth than the half of the world's population. That was an even more problematic comparison, and we said at the time it was better to focus on inequality within a country.

Um. But this comparison IS within a country?

Nonetheless, we dutifully looked at that 2017 piece, and it may explain why the Checking Crew thinks comparisons of net worth are bad, maybe? Basically, the argument is that in advanced economies, credit is readily available, so debt is not necessarily a horrible thing (that column uses the example of "a recent medical school graduate in the United States with high earning potential and loads of debt"). So it's magically unfair to compare debt-ridden Americans to the ultra wealthy because they actually live OK despite having no net wealth -- or something. As Sanders's folks pointed out at the time, even people who are only in the bottom part of the wealth barrel, and who "may lead nice lives," still face a Very Bad Time if they suddenly get laid off or very sick, because "There is just no wealth to fall back on to tide you over the bad times."

Sounds fairly fucking meaningful to us, particularly as we think about the ratio of our own assets (a car with a loan, a really nice Hot Wheels collection, and more My Little Pony merch than we want to admit -- the depreciation is hell) compared to our student loan debt, which could probably buy several hammers and toilet seats at military contractor prices.

The debate Fact Checker column was a group effort, so we can't say for certain the "true but not meaningful because I don't like that comparison" judgment came from head Factcheck lad Glenn Kessler. But it sure reeks of an earlier piece he wrote in which he nitpicked a largely true comment by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to pieces because he disagreed with some of its underlying economic assumptions.

Yr Dok Zoom majored in rhetoric, and while it's true you can use factual statements to push a lie ("The President has not been indicted, so he's innocent"), we're not sure how a completely factual statement comparing wealth can be transmuted into a "not especially meaningful" point about wealth inequality.

In conclusion, we are glad we did not major in economics, and presumably neither did these idiots, the end, OPEN THREAD.

[WaPo via Jesse Taylor on Twitter]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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