As we head into the peak season for political lies, half-truths and pre-planned obfuscations, I dug out an old article I wrote a couple of years ago about how political lies and deceits are ill-defined and typically misconstrued in the national news media.
This problem was particularly evident during the news coverage of the Republican National Convention last week when President Donald Trump’s acceptance speech produced a predictable flurry of stories about how the “lies” in his speech.
His reported lies ranged from claiming the U.S. has “the largest and most advanced (COVID-19) testing system in the world” (Fact: The U.S. has conducted more COVID-19 tests than any other country outside of China) to suggesting that the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic has “saved or supported more than 50 million American jobs” (which is most likely an exaggeration).
Oddly, the news media ignored one of Trump’s genuine untruths spoken during his acceptance speech: That a President Biden would bring socialism to America.
Joe Biden is as socialist as I am a Mongolian sheep herder.
On the topic of Joe Biden, the same news media that torched Trump for the truthfulness of his acceptance speech was noticeably silent on the Democratic nominee’s own acceptance speech.
Granted, Biden’s speech contained little concrete information and so few testable propositions that it was impossible for anyone to judge its veracity.
But there was one moment that forced me to jump out of my Mr. Bubble bath as I watched his speech:
“(This election) is about winning the heart and, yes, the soul of America,” intoned Biden during his Democratic Party acceptance speech. “Winning it for the generous among us, not the selfish…For all the young people who have known only an America of rising inequity and shrinking opportunity (emphasis mine).”
No reason to fact-check that statement, right? Except for the fact that eight of those years of growing wealth inequality were on the Obama-Biden administration’s watch (see Figure 1). Deception doesn’t always require telling factual lies. Sometimes you just have to put facts in the wrong frame and context.
Figure 1: Percent of U.S. Wealth Owned by Top 1 Percent
If the percentage of wealth owned by the Top 1 percent matters, it is hard for me to take Joe Biden seriously on economic inequality. Since 1989, when reliable data collection started on the issue, one president stands out as doing more for the Top 1 percent than any other: Barack Obama. It’s not even close.
In the second quarter of 1989 (during the George H.W. Bush administration), the Top 1 percent owned 23.5 percent of all U.S. wealth. In the first quarter of 2020, that percentage is now 31.2 percent.
Where it gets interesting is in how this percentage has changed across presidential administrations. Assuming the first two quarters of any administration belongs to the prior administration, the differences across the last five administrations on wealth inequality are stark (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: Change in % of U.S. Wealth Controlled by Top 1% (by Presidential Administration, 1989 to Q1 2020, unadjusted for term length)
Under the Obama administration, the Top 1 percent gained an additional 4.4 percent of the nation’s total wealth. The next closest administration for helping the extremely wealthy is George H.W. Bush’s four-year tenure at 1.8 percent — and had he been president for Obama’s eight years this number would project to 3.6 percent.
And how friendly has Trump’s administration been to the Top 1 percent?
If we include 2020’s first quarter — the first measurement period in which the coronavirus makes an impact on the U.S. economy — the Trump administration has not been nice to the wealthy. Under Trump, they’ve lost 0.8 percent of the nation’s total wealth, mostly due to dramatic declines in the equity markets.
But that comparison is not fair to the Obama administration. Trump hasn’t served an eight-year term and the coronavirus pandemic masks the genuine gains the wealthiest Americans made prior to 2020.
If we judge Trump on the data prior to the coronavirus pandemic (i.e., Q3 2017 to Q4 2019), a more accurate picture emerges.
Excluding 2020, America’s wealthiest one percent have seen a 0.7 percentage point increase in their share of U.S. wealth. Projecting that number over an eight-year term, the Trump administration would be on pace to increase that share by 2.2 percentage points.
I don’t care what your political leanings are, Barack Obama did disproportionately more for America’s wealthiest than any other president in recent history. Trump looks only marginally better in comparison.
And this money grab by the wealthy is not a function of economic growth.
Under Bill Clinton, the U.S. economy grew by 33.6 percent — more than any other recent president, even after adjusting for term length — and, yet, the Top 1 percent gained only 1.4 percentage points more of the nation’s wealth.
In other words, Bill Clinton grew the U.S. economy for everyone, while Barack Obama disproportionately grew it for the Top 1 percent.
You would think the national news media would call out Joe Biden on his claim that he was for America’s most economically dispossessed.
But, of course, they didn’t.
And why should we hold Biden accountable for what happened under the Obama administration? Beyond the fact that Biden continuously touts his role during the Obama years, the reality is that Obama had a heavy hand in ensuring Biden’s nomination is indisputable.
According to the New York Times, “With calibrated stealth, Mr. Obama has been considerably more engaged in the campaign’s denouement than has been previously revealed, even before he endorsed Mr. Biden on Tuesday.
I’m not sure what ‘denouement’ means, but I’m pretty sure it means Obama helped tipped the scales in Biden’s favor during the Democratic Party’s nomination race. And that most likely means Biden is beholden to the same donor class that helped make Obama a two-term president.
So what is the bigger falsehood? That Trump has led a strong federal effort to combat the coronavirus, or that Joe Biden is a nemesis to the super-wealthy?
I know my answer.