Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler gave United States Senator Tom Coburn the treatment yesterday. He awarded Senator Coburn three Pinocchios for Senator Coburn’s assertion that the United States has $128 trillion in unfunded liabilities. You may have caught the Wall Street Journal’s Saturday Interview with Stanley Druckenmiller; Druckenmiller actually provides a higher number (more here).
I reached out yesterday to Senator Coburn’s office for a response. Coburn spokesman John Hart responded:
Glenn Kessler’s piece on Dr. Coburn’s remarks today was more of a “gotcha” editorial than a fact check. According to Kessler’s own standard, Three Pinocchios means he found: “Significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.” Yet nowhere in his post does he precisely define Dr. Coburn’s factual error or obvious contradiction. In fact, Kessler says he “could not locate that data” and asked for more information about the number in question but “did not receive a reply.” Yet, in the absence of evidence Kessler admits he couldn’t locate he nonetheless accused Dr. Coburn of committing a “significant factual error and/or obvious contradiction.”
Moreover, when Kessler went the website (www.usdebtclock.org) where Dr. Coburn found the data he confirmed it was very close to what Dr. Coburn claimed – $126 trillion.
It’s also worth noting that economists have cited even higher numbers. According to over 1,000 economists, including 15 Nobel Laureates, our real long term shortfall is $222 trillion. Their letter in support of the INFORM Act (S. 1351 | H.R. 2967), a bipartisan bill that reveals the full size our country’s fiscal imbalance, is here.
Finally, Kessler’s real objection seems to be that Dr. Coburn did not provide what Kessler believes to be “proper context.” It’s fine for a fact-checker to have his own opinion about proper context, but a disagreement about context does not rise to the level of “significant factual error and/or obvious contradiction.” The reality is TV appearances provide a guest very little time to provide context. The context in which Dr. Coburn made his statement reflected his concern that we are living way beyond our means and are making promises to future generations that we can’t keep without major reforms. That sentiment is shared across the political spectrum with the exception, perhaps, of interest groups on the left who like to build demagogic arguments around entitlement reform.
So we give Kessler Three Pinocchios for substituting his opinion for fact.
We thank Mr. Hart for his gracious response to our inquiry.