Thursday, March 5, 2020

PolitiFact Wisconsin: Real wages increasing but not keeping up with inflation

PolitiFact Wisconsin published a fact check of a claim by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) that says real wages for Americans have gone up in the past 30 years, yet the increase fails (by a long shot!) to keep up with inflation.

We hope that red flags went up for every person reading that sentence.

"Real Wages" takes inflation into account. If real wages stay perfectly flat, then wages are keeping even with inflation. If real wages increase then wages are increasing faster than inflation.

The fact check is something to behold. It may perhaps be the early leader for worst fact check of 2020.

We faulted this fact check right away for failing to link to the source of the Pocan quotation.

Here's the source:

We're seeing the failure to link to the primary source of claims all too often from PolitiFact lately.

As the image above the video embed shows, PolitiFact Wisconsin focused on Pocan's wage comparison involving the Amazon distribution center in Kenosha.

Ignore Illogical Spox?

It didn't take long for us to find a second reason to fault PolitiFact Wisconsin. As PolitiFact related in its fact check, Pocan's communications director, Usamah Andrabi, said Pocan was talking about pay in the auto industry in the 1990s.

PolitiFact Wisconsin blew Andrabi off, in effect:
Andrabi said Pocan often uses auto worker pay to make his point, because auto manufacturing was the dominant industry in Kenosha when he was growing up there.

But Pocan did not mention auto pay in his claim, and pay in that industry historically is far higher than many other jobs. So, we focused on the weekly and hourly earnings data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Instead of looking at the comparison Andrabi specified, PolitiFact Wisconsin decided to look at whether real wages were flat nationally over the past 30 years.

Just $3 in Thirty Years?

Before we knew it, we had a third reason to fault PolitiFact Wisconsin. After reporting the wage difference over 30 years without adjusting for inflation, PolitiFact tried to show the insignificance of the increase by adjusting for inflation. But PolitiFact used misleading language to make its point:
But using the Bureau’s inflation calculator, the 1990 weekly wage translates to $800.88 per week in today’s dollars, or $20.02 an hour. So, that’s a roughly $3 increase in 30 years.
To communicate clearly, a journalist would express the increase to the weekly wage in dollars and the increase in the hourly pay in dollars per hour.

PolitiFact Wisconsin used dollars to refer to the increase in dollars per hour, leaving readers with the impression that weekly pay increased from about $800 to $804.

Here's what one fix of that misleading error of ambiguity might look like (bold emphasis to highlight the change):
But using the Bureau’s inflation calculator, the 1990 weekly wage translates to $800.88 per week in today’s dollars, or $20.02 an hour. So, that’s an increase of roughly $3 an hour in 30 years.
Using the same language as in the preceding sentence ("an hour") tips the reader to connect the $3 change to the hourly rate instead of the weekly rate.

The Coup de Grace

Finally, we encountered the gigantic error we highlighted at the beginning.

PolitiFact admitted Pocan was literally wrong for (supposedly) suggesting that real wages were flat. Real wages have gone up. PolitiFact National had underscored that fact with a 2017 fact check of a claim from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Ah, but that literal untruth only came to light by looking narrowly at Pocan's claim. PolitiFact said Pocan's true point, Andrabi notwithstanding, was "that wage growth has been largely stagnant."

PolitiFact cited a Pew Research Study that supposedly showed that the growth of real wages for groups below the top 10 percent of earners were "nearly flat" from 2000 through 2018.

All of them went up noticeably (look), but PolitiFact said they were "nearly flat."

We call that spin.

And it quickly got worse:
What’s more, the cost of living has undergone a much steeper hike: from 1983 to 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a roughly 3% annual increase in rent and food prices, and a 1.3% annual increase in new vehicle prices.

So, a small growth in median wages is dwarfed next to the rise in cost of other goods.
That's fact check baloney.

It's true the BLS reported annual increases in rent, food and vehicle prices between 1983 and 2013, but those were inflationary changes, not inflation-adjusted changes.

It's wrong to say that inflation outpaced wage growth if real wages increased. It's startling that a fact checker could commit that error.

To be sure, real wages are calculated in a way that counts as arbitrary in a sense, totaling the price of a "basket of goods" where the goods in the basket vary over time. But still, it's ludicrous to say wages that have gone up after adjusting for inflation--that's what "real wages" are--failed to keep pace with inflation. Some items in the "basket of goods" might see higher inflation than others, but would it be proper to cherry pick those to claim that wages generally weren't keeping pace with inflation?

We don't think so.

PolitiFact Wisconsin wildly altered Rep. Pocan's point and after that completely blew its fact check of what it had decided he must be saying.


We alerted PolitiFact Wisconsin about these problems by responding to its tweet of its fact check and followed that up with a message to in the late afternoon of March 3, 2020.

We noticed no attempt to correct the flawed fact check through March 4, 2020.

We won't be surprised if PolitiFact never corrects its mistakes in the Pocan fact check.

But we will update this item if we see that PolitiFact Wisconsin has updated it.

Correction Feb. 13, 2021: Fixed three instances where we misspelled Usamah Andrabi's last name as "Adrabi." Our apologies to Andrabi and our readers for the errors.