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.