The rise of fact-checking websites, which aim to run the statements of politicians through the truth wringer, should be a positive development for the Republic. In theory.
The problem is that these outfits claim to be faultless arbiters of truth. That's a claim they can't back up. When they get something wrong, it's worse than if they said nothing at all.
That brings us to PolitiFact.com, which operates an Oregon edition in conjunction with the Oregonian of Portland. On Monday, PolitiFact Oregon analyzed a statement by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) that "Social Security has never contributed one cent to the deficit. Not one cent."
They rated Merkley's statement "half true." They're wrong. It's 100% true.
They would have known that if they made a better effort to understand how Social Security works. And I don't mean merely by quoting me, which they did, or quoting several experts who told them Merkley was correct. Instead, they relied on other PolitiFact websites, which is a bit like asking your mother if you're the sweetest little snookums who ever lived.
Unfortunately, those sites also got Social Security wrong. Wildly wrong. PolitiFact Oregon also quoted the Congressional Research Service in support of their conclusion, but they quoted the CRS selectively, missing the part where the CRS would show them they were wrong.
Leaving aside the sheer illogic of PolitiFact's ruling -- a categorical statement like Merkley's can't be half true, but can only be true or false -- let's look at where the site went off the rails. That's important, because Merkley's electoral challenger, Monica Wehby, will probably be citing the PolitiFact finding against him as though it's some kind of authority.
First and foremost, PolitiFact errs in stating that "after years of rolling up surpluses, Social Security in 2010 began paying out more in benefits than it was collecting." It said the program is "leaking money." It said that it "bleeds red ink." It said "the program has chalked up increasingly large deficits each year since (2010), requiring money to be taken from its bonds to make up the difference."
Social Security is still in surplus, and its trustees expect it to remain in surplus at least until 2020. The raw figures, from the 2014 trustees report, are right here. Social Security has not taken a single cent "from its bonds" to pay for benefits. Saying it has done so is incredibly inaccurate, and if PolitiFact is a respectable reporting organization, it should retract its assertion, now.
The trustees report three major revenue sources: the payroll tax, income taxes on Social Security benefits (which are credited to the program), and interest on its $2.8 trillion in Treasury bonds. These are all legally equivalent revenue sources, and if PolitiFact is going to unilaterally rule any of them second-class or nonexistent, it needs to explain why. It doesn't.
The money accounted for in the trust fund was borrowed by the federal government and spent on non-Social Security needs, as PolitiFact's own source says. When the bonds are redeemed, that's a repayment transaction exactly equivalent to what happens when you repay your mortgage, not a deficit-creating transaction. Even if you want to say that paying interest or principal on the bonds adds to the deficit, it's the spending on those non-Social Security needs that created the deficit, not Social Security.