Fishing for facts

Do the wealthiest 400 people in the United States actually earn more than the rest of us all put together? Yes, said a speaker at a recent forum in Minneapolis. Just one problem: like a fisherman describing the big one that got away, he didn’t get the facts quite right. The big fish—the large and growing income disparity between the extremely wealthy and the rest of us—is out there, but the numbers used to measure its weight and length are a little slippery.

In fact, the 400 wealthiest people in the United States own more of the nation’s wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the U.S. population. That’s different from what the speaker claimed in two ways:

1.     The difference between income and wealth: Income is what is earned in a year. Wealth or net worth is how much someone owns.

2.     The difference between “greater than all the rest of us” and “greater than the bottom 50 percent of the population.”

Michael Moore talked about the 400 wealthiest people at a Wisconsin protest. PolitiFact checked the original statement by Michael Moore, crunched numbers from half a dozen places, and found that the statement was true:

How could it be that 400 people have more wealth than half of the more than 100 million U.S. households?

Think of it this way. Many Americans make a good income, have some savings and investments, and own a nice home; they also have debt, for a mortgage, credit cards and other bills. Some people would still have a pretty healthy bottom line. But many — including those who lost a job and their home in the recession — have a negative net worth. So that drags down the total net worth for the poorer half of U.S. households that Moore cited.

I agree with the speaker that the widening disparity in distribution of wealth and income, and the increasing concentration of wealth and income in the hands of the top five percent or one percent or 400 people is an outrage and a disgrace to our nation.

Facts, like fish, are slippery things. If the length of a fish grows each time the story is told, no one really minds. When someone gets the economic or political facts wrong, they lose credibility and that hurts the rest of their message.

The question-and-answer portion of the forum provided more examples of problems with facts. An elderly African-American woman stood up to make a point about people sticking together and making sure that government works for all of us, but veered off-track.

“A lot of people are coming here free,” she said. “They can get health care free. A lot of people are coming over here. They are coming from other countries, getting this health care. The elderly, people like us, we are paying these big bucks for health insurance.

There are other people coming over, groups, whole nations, coming to this state and they’re getting health care free. You may not believe it, but I know it’s true.”

Well—it’s not true. And in the room full of activists and community members and public officials, not a single person challenged or corrected this firmly-held prejudice about immigrants.

The repetition of long-discredited myths about immigrants (or about African American people, welfare recipients, gay people, etc.) hurts more than the groups who are stereotyped. Not-quite-accurate or outright-false “facts” multiply and grow with each re-telling. Their proliferation in civic discussion pollutes the waters and that’s not good for any of us.

I wasn’t sure how to respond to the misstatements made this morning, and I’m still not sure. Part of the problem is that the statements are made in real time, and checking the facts to document the errors takes a little time.

Then there’s the question of whose “job” it is to correct the facts. Who should have answered these statements? How could they answer without seeming to be uppity authority figures or experts squashing the voice of a regular citizen?

I’m still fishing for answers to these questions.

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One response to “Fishing for facts

  1. Pingback: Minnesota malarkey: On dropout rates and facts | News Day

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