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A Koch op-ed that USA Today should have fact-checked -- but didn't

Charles Koch's USA Today op-ed is full of questionable numbers--why wasn't it fact-checked?
Memo to Charles Koch: There's still no data showing Obamacare has shifted work toward part-timers

Ever solicitous of underprivileged people who have no other way to get their voices heard, USA Today turned over some of its precious op-ed space Wednesday to billionaire Charles Koch, so he might offer his views on "how to really turn the economy around." 

Koch is chairman and CEO of Koch Industries and a leading libertarian financier, so his prescription is about what you'd expect. It includes cutting regulations, eliminating programs like the Affordable Care Act, and paring back food stamps, which he includes among the "costly programs...paying people not to work." (His citation for this description of the food stamp program links to a publication of the Heritage Foundation, which has received funding from Koch family foundations. This is undisclosed in the USA Today article.)

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FOR THE RECORD

Aug. 11, 2:22 p.m.: The headline on this post incorrectly states that USA Today did not fact-check its op-ed piece by Charles Koch. Michael Hiltzik did not contact USA Today to ask whether the piece was fact-checked. USA Today Forum Editor David Mastio said that the piece was fact-checked before publication in accordance with the newspaper’s practices.

Aug. 7, 2:36 p.m.: An earlier version of this post stated that the BLS figure of people working part-time for economic reasons as of July was 7.4 million. The correct figure is 7.5 million.
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Koch backs up his claims with statistics that aren't what they seem and studies from a couple of other scholarly institutions, such as the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, which also have financial ties to Koch. These are undisclosed in the USA Today article. 

Koch even suggests that his world view resembles that of Martin Luther King. That's audacious, to say the least, but we'll have to let the ghost of Dr. King take that up with him directly, at the appropriate juncture.

Essays like Koch's cry out for the sort of fact-checking the Kansas City Star applied (if belatedly) to a recent op-ed by Heritage Foundation chief economist Stephen Moore. Koch's piece didn't get it.

Let's look at some details.

In his op-ed, Koch rails against "destructive regulations" that he contends cost an estimated $1.86 trillion a year. His source for this is a study by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which has received contributions from Koch family foundations. (This is undisclosed by USA Today.)

The study spends very little effort analyzing benefits from these regulations, many of which are designed to protect public health and safety. It doesn't report what happens, for instance, when regulators take their eyes off the ball, at which point a city like Toledo, Ohio, can lose access to drinking water, or a California neighborhood can be leveled by a gas explosion, killing eight

Koch laments that "30% of U.S. employees need government licenses to work." His link to this figure points us to an op-ed in the New York Times by Morris Kleiner, a professor at the University of Minnesota. Kleiner's piece starts with the assertion that "in Minnesota, more classroom time is required to become a cosmetologist than to become a lawyer."

Izzatso? According to Minnesota's official website, a cosmetology license requires 1,550 hours of course instruction. That works out to about nine months of full-time study. To get licensed as a lawyer, however, typically requires a degree from a four-year college, a law degree from an accredited law school (three more years), and passage of the bar exam (often requiring further class study). I'm no mathematician, but seven-years-plus of study sounds to me like more than nine months.

Yes, maybe it's unnecessary for government agencies to license hair stylists, florists and manicurists. But what about lawyers? Surgeons? Electricians? Stockbrokers? Real-estate salespersons? Does Koch think the free market can adequately monitor their skills and honesty? Would he fly in a plane without an FAA-certified pilot?

The centerpiece of Koch's op-ed is a discussion of employment statistics. Here's where USA Today fact-checkers really could have added some value. 

Koch states that "government policies such as Obamacare have given businesses a powerful incentive to hire two part-time people to do one full-time job." For support, he cites June's employment statistics, which show a sudden increase of 275,000 Americans working part time for economic reasons. "In 2007, 4.4 million Americans worked part-time jobs because they could not find full-time work," Koch writes. "That number now stands at 7.5 million."

If Koch is suggesting that the ranks of part-time workers have increased steadily from 4.4 million to 7.5 million since 2007, that's disingenuous, especially if he's attributing the trend to Obamacare--oh heck, let's call it a lie.

The truth is that the number of people working part time for economic reasons (leaving aside those who work part time voluntarily, say because they have child-care or other family responsibilities) rose sharply from 2007 to 2009--surely because of the recession. Obamacare wasn't enacted until 2010.

Since 2009 the figure has been coming down steadily, from a peak of about 8.9 million to about 7.5 million as of July. The full-time workforce fell precipitously at the time of the recession, meanwhile, and has been climbing steady ever since. In other words, the trend is exactly contrary to what Koch seems to want you to believe. (See the accompanying graphic.)

As his source for June's statistical increase in part-timers, Koch cites a piece in the Wall Street Journal by his fellow billionaire Mortimer Zuckerman. But Zuckerman's piece ran on July 13, when the June figures were the latest available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Koch's ran on Aug. 6, five days after the BLS updated the June stats with July figures--and these show that the ranks of these part-timers resumed the long-term trend downward. Koch may have been too inattentive to update the statistics for his piece, but where were the USA Today editors?

Month-by-month changes in these employment statistics are notoriously volatile, which is why the effort of Zuckerman and Koch to hang a weighty conclusion on a single month's reading is suspect. Interestingly, neither Zuckerman nor Koch paused to ask why part-time workers might have surged in June--or why the part-time workforce aged 16 and older surges almost every June. Could it be that the workforce is swelled by high school and college students starting their summer vacations? 

That would be a reasonable explanation, as Doug Short of Advisor Perspectives observes. The phenomenon is masked a bit by the use of seasonally adjusted BLS monthly figures, but even those show a June spike in part-time work for economic reasons in six of the last 10 years; the trend typically reverses over the following two or three months, as one might expect as students return to school.

The trend can be detected more vividly in non-seasonally adjusted figures, which show a consistent June spike every year, averaging more than 523,000 a year over the last decade.

Short further examined the part-time statistics for workers aged 25-54, thus stripping away the school vacation effect. Result: No part-time surge. (See the accompanying chart.)

One can understand if Zuckerman and Koch failed to see this because they were blinded by ideology. But what's USA Today's excuse? 

No one should suggest that Charles G. Koch doesn't have the right to air his views. No one should suggest that USA Today doesn't have the right to give Koch a platform, even to treat him as some sort of faultless factual oracle. The question is what this adds to public discourse on topics as important as economic policy. Anyway, if USA Today's editors need some pointers about how to make sure their op-ed authors stick to the facts, they can call over to the Kansas City Star.

Keep up to date with The Economy Hub by following @hiltzikm.

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