December 20, 2011

PolitiFact’s sometime “lie”

Lots of people on the left are angry at the political site for naming, as its “Lie of the Year,” the Democratic charge that the Ryan plan approved earlier this year would “end Medicare.” They are right to be dismayed, for all the reasons cited by Jonathan Cohn and others. But they have missed something important: what PolitiFact calls the lie of the year is apparently only a lie when Democrats say it.

Although PolitiFacts holds itself up as a fact-checker, there are no facts in dispute in this case.

As it currently operates, Medicare provides a defined benefit to eligible persons, paying for specified hospital, doctor, and drug costs. The risks of rising medical costs fall on the federal budget.

Ryan proposed to “change” Medicare (you have to be careful about what verb you use here because, in PolitiFact’s Alice-in-Wonderland world, using the wrong verb will get you called a liar). Under his plan, the federal government would contribute a specified and capped amount to each retiree to purchase health insurance. The risks of rising medical costs (and uncertain income) would fall on each individual retiree.

What’s at dispute here is the meaning of this switch from a defined benefit to a defined contribution system. Democrats say it would “end Medicare.” PolitiFact says that is a lie.

Anyone who pays the least attention to public policy will hear a familiar echo in this fight. Across the country, in state and local governments, citizens and policy makers are debating whether to shift public retirement systems from a defined-benefit to a defined-contribution model. As in the case of Medicare, this switch would transfer risks—the investment and longitivity risks—from governments to individual retirees.

And how do those pushing this change—many of them conservatives and Republicans but including some Democrats—describe what they want to do? They say they are fighting to “end public pensions.” And nobody is calling that language a lie. If you were inclined to counting angels on the head of a pin, you could say it’s a “lie” because the public retirees would still be getting a pension, albeit one in which they bear the risks. But that would make you look stupid and petty, wouldn’t it?

So here we have parallel policy changes, parallel risk shifts, and identical political language. Yet in the public pension case the language used to describe the shift goes unnoticed (and even gets used by journalists believing they are offering a neutral description), and in the Medicare case PolitiFacts calls it a “lie.”

Why? Not because of logic or reason. The difference is all about politics.

Nobody is contesting the claim that the switch from defined benefit will “end public pensions.” Those pushing the change are happy to be seen opposing benefits for public workers. But Medicare is popular with voters, even those who identify with the Tea Party. Conservatives, who have opposed Medicare from the start, don’t want the switch away from defined benefit in Medicare to be described in the same language they themselves use about the switch in public pensions. So they fight Democratic claims that they want to end it.

If PolitiFact had any sophistication about policy and politics, it could explain all this to readers. That’s what we expect from good journalism. Instead, it has provided another example of the dwindling competence of the old media. PolitiFact: Pants on fire and brain dead too.

--Mark Paul