Wednesday, June 15, 2016

More word games at PolitiFact: voucher edition

On June 5, 2016, we reviewed PolitiFact's position, contrary to what economists write in published journals, that Social Security's "pay-as-you-go" financing is not a Ponzi game.

With this post, we'll see that PolitiFact adopts a different approach to the use of words when the term is "voucher."

Surprise! The inconsistency works against Republicans in both cases.

PolitiFact Wisconsin fact-checked a claim by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin that Republican Senator Ron Johnson voted to turn Medicare into a voucher program. PolitiFact Wisconsin rated the claim "Mostly True," ignoring the fact that the plans Johnson voted for involved no vouchers. Vouchers are pieces of paper representing value that will be covered by the government.

PolitiFact Wisconsin's explanation is priceless:
Our colleagues concluded that, although there are technical differences between voucher and premium supports that may matter to health policy professionals, the two definitions have become almost indistinguishable and voucher program is a fair description for what Ryan proposed.
It makes perfect sense to us that left-leaning PolitiFact staffers would accept that "voucher" is "almost indistinguishable" from "premium support. After all, who cares what health policy professionals think? What matter is what PolitiFact thinks.

So we move to the natural question: Did PolitiFact conclude that the terms were "almost indistinguishable" based on sound evidence? PolitiFact Wisconsin provided a source list featuring a number of PolitiFact stories, so we looked there for the evidence PolitiFact Wisconsin neglected to include in its story. We will review them for their evidence in chronological order.

PolitiFact National, Aug. 16, 2012

The differences between vouchers and premium support may matter to health-policy professionals, but not necessarily to a general audience. And while the 1995 Aaron-Reischauer paper may have offered a detailed definition for "premium support," language tends to evolve over nearly two decades.
The above essentially repeats the assertion that the terms have converged in meaning over time for the general audience. The fact check does elaborate on the argument. That elaboration takes the form of finding similarities between vouchers and premium supports, followed by having a pair of experts say it's reasonable to use "voucher" for "premium support." That is an approach PolitiFact could have applied to Ponzi schemes, but did not.

In fact, the fact check overlooks an obvious underlying Democratic argument. The fact check acknowledges that Republicans don't like the term "voucher" applied to the Medicare reform plan. But if the terms are interchangeable to the general audience then why would they care? Why would Democrats care, for that matter? We think people associate "voucher" with receiving a piece of paper and then having to go through the trouble of redeeming it. The perceived inconvenience accounts for the negative connotation the Democrats wish to pin on the Republicans' attempts at Medicare reform.

The Democrats are manipulating words to exaggerate inconveniences from a premium support system.

PolitiFact New Jersey, Sept. 10, 2012

PolitiFact New Jersey accepts and repeats the original argument from PolitiFact National:
As our PolitiFact colleagues noted, there are distinctions between the two terms, dealing with the type of inflation adjustment used and the degree of marketplace regulation imposed. Ryan’s most recent plan more closely reflects a pure premium support, but substantively, it’s somewhere between the two approaches. 

Henry Aaron, a senior fellow of economic studies at the Brookings Institution, a policy think tank, told PolitiFact National "that premium support is a type of voucher."
PolitiFact New Jersey adds nothing substantial to the argument.

PolitiFact National, Oct. 3, 2012

Less than a month later, PolitiFact National again recycled its earlier argument:
In the past, PolitiFact has found Obama’s "voucher" characterization reasonable, though as Obama noted, Republicans prefer "premium support."

Merriam-Webster defines a voucher as "a written affidavit or authorization … a form or check indicating a credit against future purchases or expenditures; a coupon issued by government to a parent or guardian to be used to fund a child's education in either a public or private school."

The plan pushed by Romney’s running mate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, isn’t exactly a coupon, but it’s not so far off.
May it never be that "Social Security isn't exactly a Ponzi scheme, but it's not so far off."

PolitiFact New Jersey, Oct. 5, 2012

PolitiFact New Jersey stuck with the same mantra two days after PolitiFact National's "Mostly True" for President Obama:
Menendez’s claim is mostly accurate.

Ryan has proposed providing "premium support" payments to future Medicare beneficiaries to purchase health insurance. There are some distinctions between the two terms, but the word "voucher" generally describes this approach.

Again, the fact check contains no new reporting. The source list simply features the interview from which PolitiFact New Jersey pulled the claim it checked along with two earlier PolitiFact fact checks. That's it.

PolitiFact National, Nov. 19, 2013

In 2013, PolitiFact National finally added some new reporting. It's worth noting that the new reporting included another example of the "Ignore the Conservative Expert" game PolitiFact plays from time to time (bold emphasis added):
Yuval Levin, a health policy expert at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center told us he wouldn’t consider the proposal a voucher system at all.

There’s definitely debate over semantics, but to the average voter (if not the average policy wonk), it seems like the word "voucher" would accurately describe the basics of Ryan’s proposal (which, by the way, doesn’t sound all that different from the marketplaces for the uninsured). Calling programs like this "voucher systems" has been common in the field for years without negative connotations, Van de Water said.
The conservative expert disagrees with the others (liberals?)? The solution is simple. Ignore the conservative. The Democrat gets a "Mostly True" rating because "'voucher system' is the colloquial way to refer to a program that gives people credit to purchase something."

No matter how many economists refer to pay-as-you-go financing as a "Ponzi game," PolitiFact will not acknowledge that the characterization is anything better than "Mostly False" (thanks for nothing, PolitiFact Wisconsin).

It's just one more example of PolitiFact's inconsistency favoring the liberal point of view.


PolitiFact Wisconsin deserves special recognition for dinging Sen. Johnson with a "Mostly False" for comparing Social Security to a Ponzi scheme and giving an attack ad against Johnson a "Mostly True" since vouchers are (allegedly) pretty much the same as premium support.

PolitiFact's inconsistent approach to the proper use of terms is a disgrace to fact-checking.

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