It’s the first day of July, so summer is here and rent is due. You probably have to pay your student loans and credit cards, too. Feeling a bit light in the ol’ wallet? Well, don’t fear. Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler has an interesting way of looking at wealth and debt, which is that it is not real. Not a thing.
In a fact-check on the night of the second Democratic debate last week, Kessler took issue with Bernie Sanders’ assertion that “Three people in this country own more wealth than the bottom half of America.” Not because that isn’t true—it really, actually is. Instead, Kessler’s take was simply that having no wealth is not comparable to having lots of wealth (emphasis added):
This snappy talking point is based on numbers that add up, but it’s also a question of comparing apples to oranges. Sanders is drawing on a 2017 report from the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies, which said that three billionaires — Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos (who owns The Washington Post) and Warren Buffett — had total wealth of $248.5 billion, compared to $245 billion for the bottom 160 million of the United States. The wealth of the three men has gone up even more since then.
But people in the bottom half have essentially no wealth, as debts cancel out whatever assets they might have. So the comparison is not especially meaningful.
Kessler acknowledged that Sanders’ comparison was “based on numbers that add up,” which would seem to be the fulfillment of his role as a fact-checker. But he nevertheless asserted that it’s just not “meaningful” to point out that half the country has less wealth than a trio of billionaires who could fit comfortably in a Hyundai Elantra, because that poor half has nothing, and having nothing or negative wealth is... Different? Fake? Like, you don’t actually have less money if you have no wealth?
This makes no sense. It makes so little sense that I don’t even know how to explain that it’s wrong, like trying to explain to a toddler why “giraffe butter” isn’t real. How do I explain that it is, indeed, “meaningful” if half the country has no wealth? How do I convey to Glenn Kessler, prestigious fact-checker, that many people having no wealth is actually the problem Bernie was talking about? I don’t know why he thinks that debt canceling out assets is some kind of technicality instead of a real state of financial affairs that affects what people can do. For example, if you have to pay hundreds of dollars in student debt, credit cards, or a car loan (or all three) every month, you have less money to spend on other things. This is how money works.
This is a very simple matter of comparing numbers. It is not, as he says, a question of comparing apples to oranges. It’s comparing apples to no apples, which is very important when how many apples you have determines how many things you can buy. (The apples are dollars. That’s how easy this is!)
I can’t explain how a person whose job is checking facts could have such a loose grip on basic concepts about money. My only explanation is that Kessler somehow thinks that having massive debt doesn’t impact how much money you have or whether you can afford things; that someone with $5,000 but $10,000 in debt is doing fine. (This, of course, says nothing of the interest that accrues over time, which makes that debt bigger the longer you can’t pay it off.)
The contents of Kessler’s brain are unknowable. But it is clear that his fact-checking process is not some sort of neutral assessment of reality—nor could it ever be—and that presenting this sort of drivel as the last word on objective truth is absurd.