Not long ago, a researcher contacted me for a survey on political fact-checking, touching on the habit of some media organizations to distort the fact-check process into political opinion. The Associated Press gives us Exhibit A today in a “fact check” of Jeb Bush’s economic agenda. Bush pledged to increase growth in the US to a consistent 4% level, which is not a fact but a proposal. In an opinion piece labeled “FACT CHECK” in its headline, the AP argues that such a goal may be unrealistic, leveraging their “fact check” on a throwaway phrase:
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush says there’s “not a reason in the world” why the U.S. economy can’t grow at 4 percent annually.
Actually, there are a bunch of reasons it probably can’t.
Many economists say the U.S. economy is ill equipped to grow consistently at even close to 4 percent. Current forecasts put growth averaging half that rate. Any president, Republican or Democrat, would have to overcome decades-long trends that are largely beyond the control of the Oval Office.
Those trends include the retirements of the vast generation of baby boomers — an exodus that limits the number of workers in the economy. Rising automation and low-wage competition overseas are among other factors. A result has been meager income growth, which has cut into the consumer spending that drives most economic growth.
“It would require substantial changes in fiscal and regulatory policy that I don’t believe any president could reasonably expect to enact in one term,” said Robert Stein, an economist at First Trust Advisors who was a Treasury Department official during George W. Bush’s presidency.
The use of the phrase “there’s not a reason in the world” is not literal, but so obviously rhetorical that seizing on it to conduct a fact check may be the most petty exercise in the history of this arrogant and tiresome Delphic media posturing of the last several years. Even at that, the AP doesn’t give any reason here why such growth is impossible, but only that they think it’s not likely. Stein’s opinion may be right. The same applies to the opinions of “many economists.” But those are just opinions, not facts.
By the way, it’s not as if that kind of growth is exactly unprecedented. Ronald Reagan managed to change fiscal and regulatory policies so significantly as to produce annual GDP growth rates of 7.2%, 4.2%, 3.5%, 3.5%, and 4.2% from 1984 to the end of his term in 1988 — and he made those changes within the first three years of his term. Contra Stein, George Bush almost hit the same level in the final year of his first term with 3.8% and might have gotten to 4% in 2005 had Hurricane Katrina not occurred. As it was, GDP growth in 2005 was still 3.3%. Finally, the US had a four-year stretch from 1997-2000 during the Bill Clinton era in which every year’s GDP growth was above 4%.
Not only can it be done, it has been done. Can Jeb do it? That’s a judgment call based on the specific regulatory and fiscal policies he has in mind, but judgment calls aren’t “FACT CHECKS” either. If the Associated Press wants to conduct fact checks, then they should stick to facts. If they want to write opinion pieces about the impossibility of sustained growth rates of 4%, then they should have the intellectual honesty to file those essays under Opinion where they belong — and perhaps sub-categorized under Obama Apologetics.*
* – That’s my opinion, but it certainly seems to be the purpose of this “fact check.”
Update: This is a fair criticism:
— Richard Riley (@rfrileyjr) June 17, 2015
Yes — I should have explicitly said “during the Bill Clinton era,” which I have now done in an update to that paragraph. Mea culpa.