Bernie Sanders Claims the World’s Six Wealthiest People Have as Much Wealth as Half the Global Population
An awkward thing about checking that particular fact: One of the world’s six wealthiest people is the owner of the paper doing the factchecking. Or as the Post coyly (and parenthetically) puts it, “(Among the names on the list: Jeffrey P. Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post.)”
So it’s noteworthy that in analyzing this remark about the boss, the Post‘s Nicole Lewis doesn’t say that Sanders is wrong, exactly. Instead, she says that “he has made a habit of relying on simplified statistics that are provocative but do little to illuminate the complexities of the US economic system.” Or as she says of a similar statement Sanders made about US (not global) wealth, “While technically correct, the condensed soundbite lacked nuance about wealth accumulation and debt in the United States.”
If you’re going to be badmouthing the owner of the Washington Post, in other words, you better have plenty of nuance and illuminate those complexities.
The factcheck starts out by acknowledging that, yes, Sanders’ facts check out: The six richest people, according to Forbes, have net wealth of $462.6 billion. (The Post‘s owner is No. 2 on the list, with $80.8 billion, which is more than 300 times what he paid for the Post.) That’s more than $409 billion, the net wealth owned by the 3.75 billion people who make up the least wealthy half of the world’s population, according to Oxfam (1/17), using numbers from Credit Suisse (11/16).
“Since the wealthiest six people own $462.6 billion and the bottom 50 percent own $409 billion, the case is closed, right?” writes Lewis. Actually, yes—at this point, a genuine factchecker’s job is done, having ascertained that the claim being examined accurately conveys information that derives from a reliable source.
But part of the job of corporate media factcheckers is to convey to a target market that includes varying political perspectives that they are not on one side or the other, regardless of whether political lying is equitably distributed or not. As Factcheck.org‘s Brooks Jackson (Time, 10/9/12), the dean of establishment factcheckers, put it:
Even if we could come up with a scholarly and factual way to say that one candidate is being more deceptive than another, I think we probably wouldn’t just because it would look like we were endorsing the other candidate.
So rather than confining themselves to, you know, checking facts, corporate media factcheckers allow themselves to get into all sorts of non-factual disagreements with their subjects, to facilitate allocating unfactuality wherever it’s needed to convey impartiality. Which is what lets Lewis answer her rhetorical question—”right?”—with, “Well, not quite.”
So what are the nuances and complexities that Sanders has missed?
- “The Credit Suisse report measures wealth as net worth, or assets minus debts,” so some of the people who are at the bottom of the wealth scale are higher on the global income scale—for example, “a recent medical school graduate in the United States.” This would not likely come as a surprise to Sanders, who has made the problem of debt, particularly student loan debt, a centerpiece of his platform. It’s not clear what alternative measure of wealth that ignores debt the Post would prefer that Sanders use.
- “Credit Suisse used a statistical model to estimate wealth.” Yes, they did not actually have a spreadsheet that totaled the assets and debts of each individual household in the world.
- “The comparisons are mismatched. Gates’ wealth is held in a complex financial system, but his wealth is being compared with nonfinancial wealth, the value of which does not fluctuate (or soar) with the same ease.” This is sort of the point of modern capitalism—that you can take houses and land, and other physical goods that people need to survive, and turn them into commodities, allowing a handful of individuals to accumulate millions of times the wealth an ordinary person needs. The fact that billionaires’ wealth takes the form of financial assets rather than material objects does not, of course, mean that it has no impact on the real world the rest of us live in; to the contrary, that financial power can easily be redirected for maximum impact, as when Bezos’ Amazon bought the grocery chain Whole Foods–or when Bezos himself bought the Post.
- “Credit Suisse…does not convert currencies using purchasing power parity exchange rates.” This means that wealth figures weren’t adjusted for the fact that goods are more expensive in some countries than others. As the Post acknowledges, this is “because assets of the top few percentiles are often held in many countries.” In other words, you use exchange rates, not purchasing power, to compare wealth because wealth (unlike most income) easily crosses international borders.
- “Globally, inequality is decreasing among nations largely because of gains made by China and India.” It’s not clear why the Post brings this up, but it goes on about it for 159 words.
“Despite all this, Sanders’ team stands by Oxfam’s methodology,” the Post concludes—even after the paper painstakingly explained that Oxfam failed to ignore debt, and that it counted the value of Bill Gates’ Microsoft shares even though he owns relatively few cows or sheep. And so the Post awards “three Pinocchios” to Sanders—a rating that indicates “significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.”
Lewis goes on to explain that
wealth is a fundamentally misleading measure if you’re comparing countries across the globe…. Without considering how debt is measured and held, what kinds of assets each group owns, or how the currencies are converted, it’s hard to make heads or tails of what wealth actually means, with respect to people’s daily lives around the globe.
It almost sounds like the newspaper owned by the second-wealthiest person in the world doesn’t want people talking about how much the extremely rich own compared to the rest of us.