Michele Bachmann: Just sayin’ stuff

The longer you look at her facial expression, the less it looks like a smile.

Yesterday, in our discussion of whether stupidity provides a natural barrier to participation in democratic politics, we linked to an article describing Michele Bachmann’s mildly disastrous appearance on Fox News Sunday. After lamenting that “one hundred percent of the private economy used to be private,” Bachmann alleged that federal interference in private industry is at an all-time high, and that the US government now controls “over 50% of the private economy.” Who knows what’s really going on in the nest of old newspapers and children’s drawings of Jesus that Representative Bachmann calls a head, but it appears that when she says “private economy” she means “domestic economy.” It also appears that when she uses the word “control”—as in, “the US government now has direct ownership or control over the health care industry,”—she means “regulates in some way.” Bachmann says a lot of things that sound terrifying when taken literally, and she backs them up with numbers. Here she is running down the same talking points on Face the Nation:


Scary, right? The federal government controls 51% of the economy, it owns half the mortgages in the country, 30% of doctors intend to leave the practice of medicine now that Obamacare has passed—all of these numbers describe an America in dire straits. Fortunately for us, they’re also made up. Bachmann’s tour of news show appearances to warn us about creeping socialism is built primarily on “facts” she got from chain emails or fabricated entirely, and while that sort of thing might fly on Fox News, CBS don’t play that. It turns out they have a whole staff of people whose job it is to find out whether the stuff people say on their television show is actually true, and Bachmann did not do so hot.

Good news: the federal government has not nationalized half our economy. In fact, the highest level of government spending as a percentage of GDP came in 1944, when World War II took us to 47.9%. The lowest level, nine percent, came in 1929, which suggests that maybe government spending isn’t such an unequivocal curse anyway. The actual level of government spending as a portion of GDP in 2009 was 20.9%, which begs a question: where is Bachmann getting her number? When she appeared on Glenn Beck in Octobor, it was 30%. That figure appears to have come from an article in the Washington Times, in which Arizona State economics professor William Boyes “estimates that the government now owns or controls businesses that generate about one-third of U.S. economic activity.” The ballpark estimate of a college econ professor is perhaps not so reliable a source as the Bureau of Economic Analysis, but Bachmann has been running with it anyway. The 51% figure appears to have been derived from her belief that government now “controls” health care, which industry comprises 18% of the economy.

Of course, “one guy thinks about a third” plus “government takeover” of an 18% industry equals 51% control only if you view statistics as vague metaphors. Is it Representative Bachmann’s fault if her constituents can’t distinguish between the 51% that literally means “fifty-one out of one hundred” and the 51% that figuratively means “a lot, when you think about it?” For that matter, is it her fault if the dubious sources she quotes without citation on national television turn out to be unreliable? In the same Face the Nation appearance, Bachmann said, “The New England Journal of Medicine released a survey the week that President Obama signed Obamacare stating that over 30 percent of American physicians would leave the profession if the government took over health care.” First of all, I don’t know if you noticed the suddenly large number of former doctors working at Jiffy Lube during the last three weeks, but that’s why. Second, it turns out that some of the people who work at the New England Journal of Medicine also watch CBS, and they deny ever conducting or publishing such a survey. It appears that Bachmann was referring to a poll conducted by the Medicus medical recruitment firm and printed in Recruiting Physicians Today, which is published by the same company that owns the NEJM.

The critically-minded among us might make a qualitative distinction between information presented in the advertising newsletter of a doctor recruitment company and that published in the New England Journal of Medicine, but Bachmann doesn’t give us the opportunity to do so. It’s all just apparent fact coming out of the mouth of a US congressperson—much like her statement that “we do have and will have federal funding of abortion for the first time, which means we’ll have 30 percent more abortions than we’ve had in the past.” Of course, federal funding for abortion remains specifically unchanged in the recent health care bill, and Bachmann’s 30% appears entirely made up. Its nearest analog is in the 3% estimate made by the Guttmacher Institute, which is itself contingent on the repeal of the Hyde Amendment—something that has not yet happened. Since she said it, Bachmann’s spokespeople have disavowed the claim, albeit in the most weaselly way possible. “The point she’s trying to make is that there’s documentation that with the public funding of abortion, there’s going to be an increase,” said staffer Dave Dziok. Of course, there is no public funding of abortion, just like there’s no documentation, but still: the point she’s making without any evidence when she cites a specific percentile upswing is that there’s going to be an increase.

There’s obviously a difference between “there’s going to be an increase” and “30% increase,” but only if you’re looking at the factual content of statements. If your considering their efficacy as rhetorical tropes you can employ to convince people to support a cause that you already know is right, it’s hard to see what the big deal is. It appears that Michele Bachmann is a liar. Her own excuses and the language of her spokesman suggest that, like most liars, she believes that what she’s saying gets at an essential truth. Apparently it’s so essential that we can’t be trusted to recognize it on our own. If Bachmann sees a difference between figures and figures of speech, she’s decided that it’s not important enough complicate her larger message. If she doesn’t see the difference, she’s even dumber than her vacant expression suggests. The congresswoman from Minnesota has forced us to explain her behavior in terms of either stupidity or dishonesty. It’s an unpleasant choice, and one we have to make far too often.

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  1. I dislike unfounded statistics, but I can strongly state that Michelle Bachmann is a moron, with 100% certainty.

  2. While I love this post, and the principaled indignation girding it, there is absolutely no value in disputing the finer points of “facts” or “basic reasoning skills” with people like Michelle Bachmann.

    She’s a tittering Goebbels in the culture war.

  3. She didn’t say anything about spending. Government spending doesn’t matter at all. I’m not really sure why you even compared the two. In fact, if you look at the makeup of our GDP sector, you would realize that government spending accounts for over 70%. Industry is about 21% and agriculture makes up the rest. It’s pathetic.

    I hate to burst your bubble, but Bachman is 100% correct. The government now owns, (or controls in some way), over 50% of the economy. This has happened in just the last 18 months. Also, it was not Bachman who “made up” these numbers. Many economists are saying the same thing and she got that information from them. Think about this. Citi Group, Bank of America, GM, Fannie/Freddie, AIG and now health care with Wall Street pending. “Public”, “domestic”….it doesn’t matter how you say it. This should be a big red flag for everyone.

    I’m a Hillary supporter and a lifelong Democrat, so please don’t comment on my “right wing” craziness. I am very much a lefty.

    We all need to pay attention and see the forest for the trees. Peace.

  4. Oh dear, I think it happened to me. Being stuck in DC on tax day has apparently caused me to lose my sense of irony. It must be all of those slogans.

  5. Yes Mark, I am just as crazy and as uneducated as Bachman. While Bachman and I are busy being crazy and uneducated, in the last 18 months the government has taken ownership (or the largest share) or is “regulating”……

    Fannie/Freddie=50% of all mortgages held in the USA.
    AIG=Largest insurer in the world.
    Citi/BoA=Largest financial institutions in the USA.
    GM/Chrysler=Largest manufacturers in the USA.
    Health care= 1/6 of our total economy.
    Wall Street=$600 Trillion dollars of worth.

    “Regulate”………To govern or direct. To bring under the control of the law; constituted authority.

    You can keep turning the other cheek and continue to blast those crazy, uneducated “right wingers”……..I am finally listening after years of doing the same thing myself. You may want to set your ideology aside and give it a try. The USA is heading in the wrong direction.

  6. Ellie, I think there’s an important difference between regulating an industry and controlling it. Consider the FDA: the federal government regulates which ingredients can be used in food and how meat is packaged, but it doesn’t control that industry—private companies still set prices, establish production schedules and keep 100% of their profits after taxes. The same can be said of the health care industry and Wall Street; the government may pass laws regulating how those companies do business, but the companies themselves remain sovereign entities. The feds no more “control” health care by outlawing pre-existing condition exemptions than they control the tobacco industry by making it illegal to sell cigarettes to minors.

    As for Citigroup, Bank of America and AIG, I find the bailout and subsequent federal influence over those corporations troubling, too. But consider the alternative. Had there been no bailout, the “largest insurer in the world” and “largest financial institutions” would have simply gone bankrupt, and the effect on our economy would have been cataclysmic. Was it morally gross to use taxpayer money to save private tycoons from failing by their own ineptitude and dishonesty? Totally. Is that preferable to a multi-year depression? Probably.

    Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been federally controlled since their inception. Fannie Mae was created in 1938 as a government-backed issuer of home mortgages, and wasn’t converted to a stockholder-controlled corporation until 1968. Two years later, the government created Freddie Mac, also as a federally owned and controlled entity. Saying that the federal government “took over” Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is like saying they took over NASA. Both entities were government-controlled at their inception.

    I don’t know where you got your statistic about government spending being 70% of GDP, but it is inaccurate. First of all, there is no “GDP sector.” GDP stands for Gross Domestic Product, and is the estimated total dollar value of all the goods and services produced by a country in a given year. The GDP of the United States in 2009 was $14.27 trillion. That same year, total federal spending was $3.52 trillion, or 24.7% of GDP. That’s still too much, in my opinion, but it’s nowhere near seventy percent.

    I agree with you that we shouldn’t let ideology cloud our judgment, especially when it comes to issues this important. Getting away from ideology doesn’t just mean listening to ideological sources from both ends of the spectrum; it means trying to get at the truth. My complaint against Bachmann isn’t that she’s a Republican. It’s that she’s constantly spouting off “facts” without bothering to check if they’re true. Words like “regulate” and “control” have fixed, distinct meanings, and it’s not fair to simultaneously use them to convince people and argue that they’re basically the same thing. It’s intellectually dishonest, and we all—Democrat, Republican, whatever—deserve better than that.

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