WASHINGTON, January 29, 2016 — In an interview last week with NBC’s Chuck Todd, President Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway said that Press Secretary Sean Spicer used alternative facts when measuring the number of people who witnessed Trump’s inauguration. Despite the hysteria about Orwellian thinking that comment provoked, Conway was right about alternative facts.
There are a number of facts that can be referenced when trying to make a point or describe a situation. Economists and politicians often selectively choose facts. The facts not chosen could be referred to as alternative facts. For instance, suppose we asked a Democrat and a Republican to rate President Obama’s performance on economic policy.
The Democrat’s fact selection would say that Obama did an excellent job managing a terrible economy. It was an economy that was left to him by George Bush’s disastrous policies which eventually led to the Great Recession. When Obama took office, the economy was losing 700,000 jobs per month. The economy today has a streak of 76 consecutive months of job growth bringing the unemployment rate down to 4.7 percent.
Obama reduced the deficit by more than 50 percent, extended tax cuts to all Americans except the very wealthy who haven’t been paying their fair share. In the third quarter of 2016 economic growth accelerated to 3.5 percent. The economy continues to recover and is in good shape today.
Overall, Democrats’ facts would earn Obama an A.
The Republicans would look at a different, alternative set of facts. The recovery from the Great Recession has been the slowest in history. President Obama is the first president to serve a term in office without having at least one year of economic growth above 3 percent. In fact, Obama averaged about 2 percent growth for his time in office. The fourth quarter of 2016 saw growth slow to 1.9 percent, which means growth for all of 2016 was 1.6 percent, barely exceeding population growth.
Obama’s spending policy, Republicans would continue, did little to stimulate the economy but instead led to massive deficits and a near doubling of our public debt. The Dodd/Frank legislation that he signed put so many restrictions on banks’ lending practices that monetary policy was rendered virtually ineffective. Obama’s regulations discouraged small business formation and so discouraged new job creation.
Overall, Republicans would give Obama an F.
Depending on the facts that are referenced, different conclusions can be made.
Press Secretary Sean Spicer said, “That was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe.” Todd said that NBC rated that a “pants on fire” which means it is a complete falsehood.
Todd asked Conway why Spicer would even “litigate a provable falsehood?” Todd reached his conclusion by looking at photos of the size of the crowds for Trump’s inauguration and similar photos taken during Obama’s inauguration. Those factual pictures clearly show much larger crowds for Obama.
But Conway chose to look at different, alternative facts. She noted that Spicer was considering all people who witnessed, presumably in person or on TV both in the US and globally, Trump’s swearing in. Nielsen said that 31 million people watched Trump’s inauguration while only 20.5 watched Obama in 2013. In total, using those facts, Spicer was correct.
Selectively choosing facts, especially when they lead to biased conclusions, is a serious problem. Economics has a term, “Gruberizing.” Gruberizing is named after MIT economist Jon Gruber who admitted to selectively providing facts to the public regarding the Affordable Care Act. He said he relied on the “stupidity” of the American public to justify a conclusion using only limited information so that the Obama administration could get the law passed.
Conway is right. Anyone can selectively reference facts in order to prove a point while the opposing view can choose alternative facts and reach an entirely different conclusion. Alternative facts do exist and they are not the falsehoods that Todd said they were.
President Truman suggested a possible solution to this fact selection dilemma. In the late 1940’s he brought in an economist to help him shape his government spending policy. On the one hand, the economist said, we should increase government spending to stimulate economic growth. On the other hand, we should decrease government spending so that we keep inflation low.
Truman’s solution was, “Give me a one-handed economist.”
Maybe we need more one-handed people in government today.