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.)
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.
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 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."
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.