Media repeatedly deceives public in Hobby Lobby coverage

By James D. Agresti
July 29, 2014

In the buildup to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, and even more so in its aftermath, prominent news outlets have been aggressively spreading falsehoods about key aspects of the case. Beyond logical fallacies about who is imposing their will on others, many reports and commentaries also contain statements that are discredited by the scientific facts at the core of this case.

Although journalism standards give commentators “wide latitude” to express their views, this is not a license to mutilate the truth. In the words of New York Times deputy editorial page editor Trish Hall, “the facts in a piece must be supported and validated. You can have any opinion you would like, but you can’t say that a certain battle began on a certain day if it did not.”

Yet, the New York Times and other media outlets have repeatedly broadcast demonstrably false claims about the Hobby Lobby case. Among the most frequent of these are as follows:

  • Medical science shows that the Obama administration’s “contraception” mandate has nothing to do with abortion.
  • IUDs don’t terminate human embryos.
  • Morning-after pills don’t kill human embryos.

As detailed below, all of those claims are deceitful and derived from politicized, unauthoritative sources. In reality, data from highly credible sources shows that:

  • The Hobby Lobby case concerns the destruction of living, viable human embryos.
  • IUDs terminate viable human embryos.
  • Morning-after pills may kill embryos, and claims that they don’t are based upon crass distortions of scientific studies.

What follows is the documentation of these facts, along with the details of how media outlets have flouted basic standards of journalistic integrity in their coverage of this case.

What is an embryo?

As explained in the medical textbook The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, an “embryo” is formed at “fertilization” and marks the “beginning of a new human being.” Per the American Heritage Dictionary of Science, the earliest stage of an embryo is also called a “zygote” or “fertilized egg.”

During fertilization, embryos acquire the genetic information that makes each of us human. Per a 2001 paper in the Biochemical Journal, “Sexual reproduction in mammals results in the formation of a zygote, a single cell which contains all the necessary information to produce an entire organism comprised of billions of cells grouped into multitudinous cell types.”

In more practical terms, the Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy explains that the genetic material formed at fertilization “will determine your baby’s sex, eye color, hair color, body size, facial features and – at least to some extent – intelligence and personality.”

Science has also revealed that each human embryo is biologically unique and irreplaceable. Genetically speaking, with the exception of identical twins, once a woman conceives an embryo, the odds against her conceiving the same one again are greater than 10600 to one. For comparison, there are roughly 1080 atoms in the known universe.

Even among identical twins (who have exactly the same DNA), the burgeoning science of epigenetics has shown they still have biological differences that make each of them remarkably unique.

What is an abortion?

As described in various dictionaries, an “abortion” involves the termination of a pregnancy. There is little controversy over that. However, there is disagreement over when pregnancy begins, and this boils over into the issue of what constitutes an abortion.

Some claim that pregnancy begins at fertilization, while others argue that it does not begin until the embryo implants in the uterus (which occurs 8-10 days after fertilization). Hence, under the second of these definitions, killing an embryo before implantation would not be considered an abortion. Instead, it would be called “contraception.”

Does the Hobby Lobby case concern abortion?

According to Annie Sneed in Scientific American, Anne Michaud in Newsday, and Jamie Manson in the National Catholic Reporter, medical science says that pregnancy does not begin until implantation, and thus, the Hobby Lobby case is not truly about abortion. In the words of Manson, “according to the medical definition, a woman is not considered pregnant until the developing embryo successfully implants [in] the lining of the uterus.”

Those are but a few examples of many who have made absolutist claims to that effect, but in reality, the definition of pregnancy is highly disputed in the medical profession. For example, polls of obstetrician-gynecologists published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Journal of Maternal-Fetal and Neonatal Medicine both show that doctors are divided over whether pregnancy begins at fertilization or implantation.

Likewise, medical literature abounds with the use of both definitions. Here is just a small sample of the countless medical texts that define pregnancy as beginning at fertilization:

  • Human Reproductive Biology: “In most textbooks and in legal rulings about induced abortion (see Chapter 14), pregnancy begins at fertilization: We will also use that definition in this book.”
  • Medical Physiology: Principles for Clinical Medicine: “A mother is considered pregnant at the moment of fertilization—the successful union of a sperm and an egg.”
  • What Every Woman Should Know about Cervical Cancer: “The pregnancy begins with the fertilization of the ovum [egg].”
  • Medical Terminology Made Incredibly Easy: “Pregnancy results when a female’s egg and male’s sperm unite.”
  • Placenta and Trophoblast: Methods and Protocols: “Pregnancy begins with fertilization of the ovulated oocyte by the sperm.”

Nevertheless, writing for Al Jazeera, Marisa Taylor quotes two people from the Office of Population Research at Princeton University—neither of whom have a medical degree—stating that Hobby Lobby and other companies “are really redefining what pregnancy is, and therefore what abortion is. … Either they are very stupid, or they don’t believe in science.”

When Al Jazeera gives a platform to that kind of rhetoric while failing to report the countervailing facts, they violate a central tenet of journalism: to tell “the complete, unvarnished truth as best we can learn it.”

Most importantly, the precise definition of pregnancy is a semantic distraction from the core of the case. The Hobby Lobby lawsuit is about the owners’ objection to being forced to pay for items that terminate living, viable human embryos. Whether one calls this “abortion” or “contraception” does not change this reality.

Do IUDs terminate viable embryos?

The Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services—which is the same agency that issued the “contraception” mandate—publishes a “Birth control methods fact sheet” that was last updated in July 2012. This document states that copper IUDs can keep “the fertilized egg from implanting in the lining of the uterus” and that hormonal IUDs affect “the ability of a fertilized egg to successfully implant in the uterus.” In other words, HHS has confirmed that these devices terminate viable embryos.

Yet, articles and editorials by Aaron E. Carroll in the New York Times, Sally Kohn in the Daily Beast, Jill Filipovic in Cosmopolitan, and countless others emphatically deny that IUDs terminate embryos. For a prime example, during an interview with Megyn Kelly of FOX News, Patricia Ireland, the former president of the National Organization of Women, said the “belief that an IUD or a morning-after-pill works against a fertilized egg is not scientifically based.” When Kelly challenged her on this, Ireland replied, “No, no, you need to do a little medical research.”

In fact, medical research proves that exact opposite of what Ireland and company have declared. For instance, a 2002 paper in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology reveals the results of “a rigorous examination of the evidence on the mechanism of action of IUDs.” The study found that “both prefertilization and postfertilization mechanisms of action contribute significantly to the effectiveness of all types of intrauterine devices.”

Likewise, a 290-page report dedicated to “long-acting reversible contraception” published by Britain’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 2005 and updated in 2013 explains that “IUDs prevent pregnancy by impairing gamete [sperm and egg] viability at fertilization and they have a strong inhibitory effect on implantation.” This statement is supported with citations of five medical studies, and the report recommends “women should be informed that intrauterine devices (IUDs) act by preventing fertilization and inhibiting implantation.”

Despite all of the evidence above, Aaron Carroll reports in the New York Times that “research does not support the idea that they [IUDs] prevent fertilized eggs to implant.” He attempts to back up this claim with studies showing “that a telltale sign of fertilization — a surge of the hormone human chorionic gonadotropin — occurred in only 1 percent of 100 cycles in women using IUDs. This would be consistent with the failure rate of IUDs in general.”

Carroll, however, neglects a key fact that undermines this entire line of reasoning. As detailed in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology paper cited above, human chorionic gonadotropin [hCG] “first becomes detectable relative to background levels in control subjects around the time of implantation,” and “between fertilization and implantation, substantial loss can occur. Therefore, hCG cannot be used as an indicator of fertilization, nor as an indicator of early embryo loss before implantation.”

In sum, contrary to the narrative being pushed by many media outlets, authoritative medical studies show that IUDs terminate living, viable human embryos.

Do morning-after pills destroy embryos?

The manufacturers of the three most common morning-after pills have been required by the FDA to affirm that the drugs may block implantation. Thus, the official company website for ella states that the drug “may also work by preventing attachment to the uterus.” Similarly, the website for Plan B One-Step states that the drug “may also work by preventing fertilization of an egg (the uniting of sperm with the egg) or by preventing attachment (implantation) to the uterus (womb).”

The website for Next Choice has recently been stripped of all but two pages, and neither of these explains how the drug works. In February 2013, this same website had a page stating that “it works by preventing” ovulation, fertilization, and “attachment of the egg (implantation) to the uterus (womb).” The full prescribing information for this drug, which is currently buried on a separate manufacturer’s website, says the same, only in more guarded and technical language.

None of the above hindered the editors at the Daily Beast from publishing Sally Kohn’s claim that there is “very little evidence” that IUDs and morning-after pills destroy embryos and “every scientific and medical study says so, as does the FDA.”

How does Kohn support this claim? By linking to a story at NPR and an analysis by RH Reality Check that relies upon the very same NPR story. This NPR story, in turn, is derived from a New York Times story that is rife with falsehoods. Just Facts has conducted an in-depth analysis of these NPR and New York Times articles; and to summarize, both are based upon gross misrepresentations of scientific studies and the unsupported claims of selected scientists with partisan political agendas (more on this below).

As detailed in Just Facts’ earlier analysis, the question of whether or not morning-after pills destroy embryos is reflected in their FDA-approved prescribing information: they may block implantation. If this occurs, they destroy human embryos.

Portraying activists as neutral authorities

The BBC’s journalism standards on “Avoiding Misleading Audiences” state that reporters should provide the “credentials” of their sources so “audiences can judge their status.” More specifically, BBC’s standards on “Impartiality” state that news professionals should not assume their sources are “unbiased” and should “make it clear to the audience when contributors are associated with a particular viewpoint, if it is not apparent from their contribution or from the context in which their contribution is made.”

That standard, which is meant to prevent journalists and commentators from portraying activists as impartial authorities, has been routinely ignored by news outlets in their coverage of the Hobby Lobby case. For example, the above-mentioned NPR and New York Times articles both rely upon claims from the following individuals to support the central narratives of their stories:

  • Susan F. Wood, an associate professor of health policy at George Washington University and a former assistant commissioner for women’s health at the FDA.
  • Diana Blithe, a biochemist and contraceptive researcher at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

What these NPR and New York Times articles fail to mention is that both Wood and Blithe are political donors to Barack Obama. More significantly, both are also donors to Emily’s List, a political action committee “dedicated to electing pro-choice Democratic women to office.”

Those are not isolated examples. One of the commonly cited authorities in this case is the emergency contraception website operated by Princeton University’s Office of Population Research and people associated with it. Yet, the following information is almost never disclosed: The website was founded by James Trussell, a Princeton professor who is a senior fellow with the Guttmacher Institute, an organization that operates under “guiding principles” that include support for legalized abortion. Moreover, Trussell is “a member of the National Medical Committee of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and a member of the board of directors of NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Society of Family Planning.”

Even so, Time magazine describes Trussell as “a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University who has done extensive research on the subject” of emergency contraception. He is similarly described by MSN, Reuters, and a host of other news organizations. Would these same media outlets describe a board member of the National Right to Life Committee in such a nondescript manner?

Another commonly cited authority in the Hobby Lobby case is the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Although media outlets regularly quote this organization as if were neutral, it has a track record of consistently opposing pro-life legislation and issuing statements that are transparently false. For instance, ACOG has declared “there is no evidence” a fetus can feel pain “until 29 weeks at the earliest” despite copious evidence to the contrary from journals such as Fetal Diagnosis and Therapy, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Pain: Clinical Updates, and PLoS ONE.

Furthermore, ACOG was caught modifying its clinical findings on partial-birth abortion at the behest of a Clinton White House lawyer. Incidentally, this lawyer was Elena Kagan—who President Obama later appointed to the Supreme Court. Again, media coverage is virtually devoid of this information, which has the result of deceiving audiences through the omission of vital context.

Journalistic integrity?

In flagrant disregard for basic standards of honest journalism, media outlets have propagated claims about the Hobby Lobby case that are falsified by credible scientific publications.

Many of these news organizations have written guidelines that call for unconditional integrity. The New York Times, for example, declares that “the journalism we practice daily must be beyond reproach,” and the organization has “an ethical responsibility to correct all its factual errors, large and small.”

Whether or not those are just lofty words will be shown by how the media responds to the facts above.

White House pledge on deportations belied by official data and actions

9 of 10 unaccompanied Central American minors caught illegally entering the U.S. over the past 5 years have not yet been ordered to leave.

By James D. Agresti
July 11, 2014

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest stated on Monday that the Obama administration is “committed” to “enforcing the law” and that most of the unaccompanied Central American minors illegally flooding into the U.S. will be deported. “Most of these kids,” said Earnest, do “not have a legal basis for remaining in this country” and “will be returned” to their homelands.

Earnest’s statement led to series of major media headlines, such as “White House Says ‘Most’ Children At The Border Will Be Sent Home” (Associated Press), “White House: Most will be sent home” (The Hill), and “White House: ‘Most’ unaccompanied minors at border will likely be deported” (Washington Post).

That claim, however, is at odds with data recently provided by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official at a Congressional hearing. While testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on June 25th, Tom Homan, ICE’s Executive Associate Director for Enforcement and Removal Operations, stated that 87% of the unaccompanied Central American minors who have been apprehended illegally entering the U.S. over the last five years have not yet been ordered to leave.

ABC News was one of the few major media outlets to report this 87% figure, but ABC quoted Homan out of context, thus giving the impression that the figure only applied to those who entered in the past year. Complete footage of the hearing shows that it applies to all who entered “in the last five years,” which dates back to mid-2009, or a few months after President Obama took office. The relevant excerpt and context from Homan’s testimony are shown in the video below. (For reference, an “NTA” is a notice to appear in immigration court.)

The White House is saying that this “influx of illegal migration from Central America” is an “urgent humanitarian situation” but that Obama cannot effectively address it because of a law signed by George W. Bush. The law, enacted in 2008 to combat human trafficking, requires special treatment for “unaccompanied alien children” from nations that don’t directly border the U.S., such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

The law states that when such children are “apprehended at the border” or a “port of entry,” they must be “promptly placed in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child,” “provided access to counsel,” and “placed in removal proceedings.” This means that they cannot be returned to their homeland without a court order. The Obama administration is placing about 85% of these minors with relatives in the U.S.

In contrast, under this same law, unaccompanied minors from countries that border the U.S., such as Mexico, can be returned to their “country of nationality” without a court order, largely at the discretion of ICE. ICE is part of the Department of Homeland Security, which is under the authority of the President.

In keeping with the message the President wants to speed deportations, the White House is calling on Congress to give Obama “greater authority” to “more efficiently and effectively remove and repatriate immigrants to this country that don’t have a legal basis for remaining here.” However, the Associated Press reported less than three weeks ago that the “Obama administration has released into the U.S. an untold number of immigrant families caught traveling illegally from Central America in recent months.”

Unlike unaccompanied minors, the law does not require that these apprehended illegal immigrants be released into the U.S. Yet, the Associated Press estimated that the Obama administration may have released more than 40,000 of them since October, and “although the government knows how many it’s released, it won’t say publicly.”

Likewise, as far back as 2010, the union representing 7,000 officers and employees of the ICE Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) unanimously passed a “Vote of No Confidence” in the Obama administration’s ICE leaders. The resolution stated that they “have abandoned the Agency’s core mission of enforcing United States Immigration Laws and providing for public safety” and:

The majority of ICE ERO Officers are prohibited from making street arrests or enforcing United States immigration laws outside of the institutional (jail) setting. This has effectively created “amnesty through policy” for anyone illegally in the United States who has not been arrested by another agency for a criminal violation.

Similarly, in 2013, Chris Crane, the president of this union, wrote a letter to Congress stating that “ICE officers are being ordered by” Obama administration “political appointees to ignore the law.” He also wrote that ICE officers have been disciplined “for engaging in routine law enforcement actions” and are being “barred from enforcing large sections of the Immigration and Nationality Act, even when public safety is at risk.”

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The science of abortion: When does life begin?

By James D. Agresti
June 10, 2014

In a recent interview, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) declared it is a scientific fact that “human life begins at conception.” He also said that “leaders on the left” who “wag their fingers” about the “settled science” of global warming are hypocrites when it comes to science, and someone should ask them if they accept the “consensus of scientists that says that human life begins at conception.”

Going further, the senator added, “I’d like to see someone ask that question. It’s never asked. And that’s not even a debatable thing, we can actually see that happening. I mean, that is a proven fact. And yet that’s a scientific consensus they conveniently choose to ignore.”

In the wake of these remarks, MSNBC reporter Irin Carmon and Washington Post blogger Philip Bump pushed back at Rubio, asserting that:

  • he made a “scientific blunder on abortion.” (Carmon)
  • “conception” and “life” “aren’t scientific terms.” (Carmon)
  • “the scientific experts we spoke with didn’t offer any consensus” on when life begins. (Bump)

However, as documented below, the facts of science support Rubio’s point and reveal that the claims of Carmon and Bump are scientifically baseless.

Science shows that life begins at conception

Contrary to Carmon’s allegation that “conception” and “life” are not scientific terms, both of these words are clearly defined in science dictionaries and widely used in scientific literature.

To cite just a few examples, the American Heritage Science Dictionary defines “conception” as “the formation of a zygote resulting from the union of a sperm and egg cell; fertilization.” (For reference, a zygote is the first stage of a human embryo.)

Likewise, the entry for “life” in the American Heritage Dictionary of Science states that life is “the form of existence that organisms like animals and plants have and that inorganic objects or organic dead bodies lack; animate existence, characterized by growth, reproduction, metabolism, and response to stimuli.”

Rubio’s statement that “human life begins at conception” is consistent with both of these definitions, because human zygotes display all four empirical attributes of life:

  1. Growth – As explained in the textbook Essentials of Human Development: A Life-Span View, “the zygote grows rapidly through cell division.”
  1. Reproduction – Per Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia, zygotes sometimes form identical twins, which is an act of “asexual reproduction.” (Also, in this context, the word “reproduction” is more accurately understood as “reproductive potential” instead of “active reproduction.” For example, three-year-old humans are manifestly alive, but they can’t actively reproduce.)
  1. Metabolism – As detailed in the medical text Human Gametes and Preimplantation Embryos: Assessment and Diagnosis, “At the zygote stage,” the human embryo metabolizes “carboxylic acids pyruvate and lactate as its preferred energy substrates.”
  1. Response to stimuli – Collins English Dictionary defines a “stimulus” as “any drug, agent, electrical impulse, or other factor able to cause a response in an organism.” Experiments have shown that zygotes are responsive to such factors. For example, a 2005 paper in the journal Human Reproduction Update notes that a compound called platelet-activating factor “acts upon the zygote” by stimulating “metabolism,” “cell-cycle progression,” and “viability.”

Furthermore, the science of embryology has proven that the genetic composition of humans is formed during fertilization, and as the textbook Molecular Biology explains, this genetic material is “the very basis of life itself.”

In accord with the facts above, the textbook Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology and Birth Defects directly states: “The zygote and early embryo are living human organisms.” This may be controversial from a political perspective, but the sciences of embryology and genetics leave no doubt as to when human life begins.
_______
ACOG is not an objective scientific authority

Bump’s article is entitled, “Marco Rubio demanded people look at the science on abortion. So we did.” Yet as far as the article reveals, the entirety of Bump’s “scientific” research consisted of speaking to a single organization: the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, or ACOG.

While Bump’s article clearly shows that ACOG avoided the question of when life begins and attempted to change the subject, Bump did not articulate this to his readers. Instead, he used ACOG’s non-answer to conclude that life “is something of a philosophical question,” and “the scientific experts we spoke with didn’t offer any consensus” on this issue.

That is not “looking at science,” as Bump claims he did. Rather, it is cherry-picking the opinions of selected scientists and uncritically relaying them. It also presumes that the chosen scientists are unbiased and incontestable authorities on this issue, which is demonstrably not the case with ACOG’s leadership.

For instance, when a debate over partial-birth abortion was raging during the Clinton Administration. ACOG prepared a statement disclosing that a “select panel convened by ACOG could identify no circumstances under which this procedure, as defined above, would be the only option to save the life or preserve the health of the woman.”

Yet instead of releasing this information to the public, ACOG faxed it to the Clinton administration with a header that stated: “CONFIDENTIAL, NOT FINAL, DO NOT COPY, DO NOT DISTRIBUTE.”

This document came to the attention of a White House lawyer and policy advisor named Elena Kagan (later appointed by President Obama to the Supreme Court). She was displeased with ACOG’s conclusion and wrote a memo warning that its release would be a “disaster,” especially since ACOG opposed banning partial birth abortions.

Kagan then proceeded to edit ACOG’s statement by adding that partial-birth abortion “may be the best or most appropriate procedure in a particular circumstance to save the life or preserve the health of a woman….” Those words did not reflect the thrust or scope of ACOG’s findings, which Kagan clearly understood because she had detailed them in a previous memo.

Nevertheless, ACOG adopted Kagan’s words as its own, thus using the rhetoric of a Clinton administration lawyer in place of its own medical conclusions. Those are not the actions of an objective scientific authority but of an organization that is willing to place politics over science.

What is science?

There is a lot of posturing about science in the world of politics, but some of what is reported as “science” is actually just the claims of selected scientists, which happen to be at odds with the facts of science.

Science, in the words of Webster’s College Dictionary, is the “systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.” Notably, this does not entail parroting the assertions of someone with scientific credentials.

In the realm of science, what matters is facts and logically inescapable conclusions that flow from them—not opinions, no matter who voices them or how prevalent they are. A classic example of this is Galileo, who wrote that when it comes to the sciences, “the authority of thousands of opinions is not worth as much as one tiny spark of reason in an individual man.”

In this instance, Rubio is that man, and Carmon, Bump, and ACOG are substituting their ideology for science in the public debate over abortion.

What will Obama’s greenhouse gas regulations cost and achieve?

By James D. Agresti
May 30, 2014

In an op-ed about the Obama administration’s pending regulation of greenhouse gases from coal-fired electricity plants, Paul Krugman recently declared in his New York Times column that:

  • the international community will join together to curtail greenhouse gases if only the U.S. would do so.
  • the regulatory costs of “saving the planet would be remarkably cheap.”
  • solar energy will make these costs even lower.

All of these claims are at odds with the economic, scientific, and historical facts of these matters.

First, Krugman says that “other countries, China in particular,” will not negate U.S. greenhouse gas reductions by “burning ever more coal.” He claims that this outcome would be prohibited by “international agreement,” but “U.S. unwillingness to act has been the biggest obstacle to such an agreement.”

He then lays out this vision: “If we start taking serious steps against global warming, the stage will be set for Europe and Japan to follow suit, and for concerted pressure on the rest of the world as well.”

Krugman seems oblivious to the fact that there already was an international agreement to restrict greenhouse gas emissions. It was called the Kyoto Protocol—it was ratified by every major developed nation but the United States—and the events that ensued were very different than the scenario painted by Krugman. As documented in Just Facts’ research on global warming:

  • “Between 1997 (the year Kyoto was adopted) and 2008 (the start of its compliance period), the combined annual CO2 emissions of the developed countries that ratified the treaty increased by 1.3%,” while those of “the U.S. decreased by 0.7%.”
  • “In the decade following the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, Earth’s atmospheric CO2 concentration increased by 5.3% or 19 parts per million, which is 35% more than the increase in the decade before the treaty.”
  • “In 2011, Russia, Japan, and Canada announced they would not extend their participation in the Kyoto Protocol beyond 2012 because developing nations were exempted from its conditions.”
  • “In 2010, the head of the head of the European Commission’s climate unit stated that the European Union’s participation in the Kyoto Protocol after 2012 will be based upon the participation of Russia and Japan.”

It is difficult to square these realities with Krugman’s prophecy of global climate change cooperation based on the U.S. cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. already did this, but the world did not follow, and the agreement fell apart due to the actions of other nations.

Krugman also argues that we can “achieve large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions at little cost to the economy.” He says, for example, that a study from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce shows that the total cost per household of Obama’s forthcoming coal regulation will be only $200 annually.

However, the Obama administration’s regulatory agenda on greenhouse gases is much more expansive than this single regulation. The administration has issued a far-reaching regulatory decision that a metric ton of CO2 has a “social cost” of $38. This is the figure used by the EPA and other agencies under the authority of the president to assess and justify regulations on greenhouse gases.

As explained by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), such regulations “can have the same consequences for energy prices, production, and consumption as the direct payment of a cash subsidy or the imposition of a tax.” According to this same federal agency, a CO2 tax of roughly the same magnitude as Obama’s regulatory decision will add 11% to the price of gas and 30% to the price of electricity by 2022.

These are recurring annual costs to American consumers, not a one-time fee.

Next, Krugman claims that the Chamber of Commerce’s analysis is pessimistic, because it assumes the replacement of coal with natural gas. According to Krugman, “dramatic technological progress taking place in renewables, especially solar power … should make cutting back on carbon even easier.”

That assertion is categorically false. Data from the Energy Information Administration show that solar-generated electricity will still be more than twice the cost of electricity from natural gas in 2018.

Though Krugman (and many others) are claiming that the world can cut greenhouse gases with minimal sacrifice, a 2011 report of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change bluntly declares that “in the end ‘no regrets’ methods won’t be enough to stabilize or reduce worldwide greenhouse-gas levels—governments, businesses, and people are going to have to make difficult choices and take painful steps.”

These painful steps generally involve higher energy prices, which drain household budgets and harm the broader economy. Numerous creditable sources, such as the Institute for Plasma Physics in the Netherlands, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Congressional Budget Office, the Congressional Research Service, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office, have affirmed that higher energy costs drive up unemployment, drive down wages, and cause other harmful economic effects.

Furthermore, these effects tend to be harsher on poorer nations and people, because they spend a greater portion of their incomes on energy than wealthier individuals, and because high energy prices drive up the costs of food. Hence, despite the pronouncements of certain individuals, there are significant costs to cutting greenhouse gases, and these costs should be honestly weighed against any potential environmental benefits.

Maddow’s tax and deficit doubletalk

By James D. Agresti
May 20, 2014

In a recent segment of her Emmy-Award winning television show, Rachel Maddow, an MSNBC host with a doctorate in political science from Oxford University, claimed that:

  • State government budget deficits in Kansas, North Carolina, and New Jersey are “huge,” because their Republican governors have cut tax rates.
  • Cutting tax rates invariably leads to lower tax revenues.
  • The federal deficit is “plummeting,” because President Obama raised taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

All of those assertions are false or misleading, and data from the federal government and the same sources cited by Maddow show that:

  • The federal deficit she applauded is 4.8 to 6.7 times larger than the state shortfalls she derided.
  • Tax revenues sometimes stay level and even increase when tax rates are cut.
  • The federal deficit naturally declines after a recession, but it is still larger than Bush-era deficits that Obama condemned as “reckless.”

Below is the documentation of these facts, along with the details of how Maddow has distorted the truth.

The federal deficit far exceeds the “huge deficits” cited by Maddow

While criticizing Republican governors and tax cuts, Maddow flashed the following snippets of news stories about projected state budget shortfalls:

  • Kansas: “a shortfall of about $900 million by fiscal year 2019″
  • New Jersey: “$807-million-revenue shortfall”
  • North Carolina: “Analysts expect $445M NC shortfall”

Maddow provided no sense of scale for these figures, which is vital to understanding their significance. Instead of providing some basic context, such as how large these shortfalls are compared to the size of the budgets, Maddow simply exclaimed that they are “huge.” She said this four times in less than three minutes while declaring that these budgets had “blown up” and were going “kablooey.”

However, compared to the size of their budgets, the projected budget shortfalls of these states are far smaller than that of the federal government. The projected 2014 fiscal year shortfall for Kanas is 3.0% of the budget—for Jersey, it is 3.0%—and for North Carolina, it is 2.2%. In comparison, the projected shortfall for the federal government is 14.5% of the budget.

In other words, the federal deficit that Maddow celebrated is 4.8 to 6.7 times larger than the state shortfalls she decried.

Higher taxes reduce the incentive to work

Throughout the segment, Maddow repeatedly used sarcasm to assert that reductions in tax rates inevitably produce lower tax revenues. In her words: “One thing that happens when you cut taxes is that taxes get cut!” That claim may seem intuitive, but it is not true in all cases.

As shown in the graph below, federal income tax revenues often do not correspond with top federal income tax rates (which lawmakers tend to raise and lower simultaneously with and more dramatically than the rates for lower brackets):

The reason that tax revenues don’t always mirror tax rates is because there are a host of other variables that affect revenues, one of which is that lower tax rates boost people’s incentives to work, thereby generating more taxable income.

As explained by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), “a lower marginal tax rate on labor income increases the incentive to work, raising the number of hours people work and therefore the amount of output and income.”

The strength of this effect is debatable, and not every cut in tax rates leads to higher revenues. However, even prominent liberal economist Paul Krugman wrote in his 2009 textbook, Economics, that higher tax rates diminish the incentive to earn more income:

Any income tax system will tax away part of the gain an individual gets by moving up the income scale, reducing the incentive to earn more. But a progressive tax takes away a larger share of the gain than a proportional tax, creating a more adverse effect on incentives.

The decline in deficits since 2009 is nothing to brag about

Just two weeks before President Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, CBO projected the path of the U.S. economy and federal budget for the next 10 years based upon current law. These projections showed rapidly improving economic conditions coupled with rapidly declining budget deficits after 2009, as is typical after a recession.

In the words of Krugman, “rapid growth is normal when an economy is bouncing back from a deep slump.” Economic growth, in turn, boosts tax revenues and lessens spending on government assistance programs, all of which serves to shrink deficits.

Before going further, it is important to note that CBO’s current law projections for the federal deficit are not directly comparable to actual outcomes, because such projections often use unrealistic assumptions. However, they do show that just before Obama took office, the laws already in place coupled with the economic growth that regularly follows recessions were expected to progressively reduce the federal deficit, as shown in this graph:

Nevertheless, Obama and supporters like Maddow routinely crow about the declining deficit, using the refrain that it has fallen at the fastest pace since World War II. What they neglect to mention is that every deficit from 2009 to 2012 was larger than any deficit since the World War II era. Thus, there was enormous potential and natural impetus for the deficit to fall.

Yet, even in 2013, four years after the recession ended, the deficit was still 72% higher than the average deficits that occurred solely during the presidency of George W. Bush (without overlap with Clinton or Obama). Obama denounced these Bush-era deficits on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 2006 when he stated that “reckless fiscal policies” had driven federal deficits to “historically high levels.” Now, he and others are bragging about deficits that are significantly worse.

More importantly, the national debt provides a much clearer picture of the financial health of the federal government than the deficit in any given year or string of years. As such, during the same Senate speech, Obama warned that “America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally,” “America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership,” and “Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren.”

On the day Obama gave that speech, the national debt was $8.3 trillion or 61% of the nation’s economy. The national debt now stands at $17.5 trillion or 102% of the economy. Hence, even after adjusting for economic growth (which accounts for population increases and inflation), our national debt is now 67% larger than the debt Obama railed against in 2006.

Finally, linking deficits to any particular president or governor fails to account for the actions of congresses, the impacts of preexisting laws, and many other variables that impact government spending and revenues. Hence, to attribute these deficits purely to presidents or governors, as Maddow and many others have done, oversimplifies and misrepresents the facts of these matters.

Think Progress exaggerates child hunger by 8,000%

By James D. Agresti
May 2, 2014

One of the most heartrending issues in society is child hunger, and polling shows that public support for addressing hunger is “high across party lines, age, race, gender, income, and geographical areas.” However, instead of reporting the facts of this important issue, a number of influential media sources are greatly exaggerating the problem.

One of these sources is Think Progress, which ranks among the nation’s top-15 political websites. In a recent article, Alan Pyke, the Deputy Economic Policy Editor of Think Progress, reports that “more than a fifth of America’s children are going hungry,” government food “programs have faced wave upon wave of funding cuts,” and “America does a slightly better job at feeding adults” than children.

All of those statements are categorically false according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Census Bureau, and the White House Office of Management and Budget. These primary sources show, for example, that on an average day, less than 1% of U.S. households with children have a child who experiences hunger.

These sources also show that the annual hunger rate for children is lower than adults and that federal spending on food and nutrition programs has risen by more than two thirds since 2007, even after adjusting for inflation and population growth.

Below is the documentation of these facts, along with the details of how Think Progress and others have distorted the truth.

“Food insecure” does not mean “hungry”

The crux of Pyke’s misreporting is that he falsely equates food insecurity with hunger. “Food insecurity” is a technical term used by the USDA to categorize households based upon a survey conducted by the Census Bureau.

This annual survey includes a series of questions about food consumption, and if respondents answer “yes” to at least three of ten questions, their households are classified as food insecure. For example, respondents are asked if they ever “worried” that their “food would run out before” they “got money to buy more.” For another example, they are asked if they “couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals.”

According to this survey, 21.6% of children and 15.9% of adults lived in households that were food-insecure at some point during 2012. These are the figures quoted by Pyke, but they do not apply to hunger, especially for children.

The title of Pyke’s article is “More Than A Fifth Of America’s Children Are Going Hungry.” Just to be clear, “hungry” means hungry (not food-insecure), “children” means children (not households), and “going” means currently (not once during the past year). Beyond the standard ten questions in this survey, the Census asked direct questions about child hunger, and the results look nothing like what Pyke reports.

For example, the survey found that 1.5% of households with children had a least one child who was hungry at some point in the year. Likewise, in the 30 days before the survey, 1.04% of households with children had at least one child who was hungry at some point in the month.

Finally, on the average day (i.e., presently), 0.25% of U.S. households with children have at least one child who experiences hunger. In other words, Pyke’s claim that “more than a fifth of America’s children are going hungry” exaggerates child hunger by about 8,000%.

What are the reasons for the disconnect between Pyke’s figure and the government data?

First, as the USDA explains, “Households classified as having low food security” experienced “food access problems,” but they “typically have reported few, if any, indications of reduced food intake.” Prior to 2006, the USDA’s label for such households reflected this fact—it was called “food insecure without hunger.”

Second, food insecurity in a household does not necessarily mean food insecurity for the children in that household. Per the USDA, “Not all children residing in food-insecure households were directly affected by the households’ food insecurity. … Young children, in particular, are often protected from effects of the households’ food insecurity.”

Third, the USDA emphasizes that “when interpreting food security statistics in this report, it is important to keep in mind that households were classified as having low or very low food security if they experienced the condition at any time during the previous 12 months. The prevalence of these conditions on any given day is far below the corresponding annual prevalence.”

These three factors account for the differential between Pyke’s figure and reality. Furthermore, they undercut his claim that “America does a slightly better job at feeding adults” than children. While average daily hunger rates for adults are not available, 4.7% of survey respondents reported that they were hungry at least once during the year, as opposed to 1.5% for any children in households with children. In other words, the portion of households that report hunger among children is three times lower than that of adults—not higher.

A common falsehood and misinformed public

Pyke is not the only purveyor of inflated hunger statistics. PolitiFact, the Pulitzer-Prize winning fact check organization, has alleged that 24.3% of children in Texas were “in hunger” and “according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ‘food insecurity’ means that at some point in a year, someone in a household went hungry because the household couldn’t afford food.”

That claim is in direct opposition to what the USDA explicitly states. Again: “Households classified as having low food security have reported multiple indications of food access problems, but typically have reported few, if any, indications of reduced food intake.”

Other journalists and commentators have also grossly overstated hunger in the U.S. This includes (but is not limited to) Paul Kurtz of CBS News, Bob Beckel of Fox News, Paul Krugman of the New York Times, and Stoyan Zaimov of the Christian Post.

Such widespread misreporting may explain why public opinion on this issue is so far removed from reality. A recent poll commissioned by Just Facts found that only 9% voters know that less than 1% of households with children have a child who experiences hunger on an average day. Contrastingly, 56% of voters believe this figure is above 10%.

Federal spending on food and nutrition programs has grown dramatically

To support his assertion that food assistance “programs have faced wave upon wave of funding cuts,” Pyke links to an article he wrote that doesn’t even support that claim. This is called a “citation bluff,” which is when someone cites a source to back up a claim, when in fact, the source does not prove it.

The article Pyke cites is about how 16 states are adapting to a recently closed loophole in the food stamp program. This is not a wave of cuts but the closure of a single loophole, which incidentally, was supported by staunch proponents of food stamps, such as the Washington Post editorial board, the New York Times editorial board, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Although it was not mentioned in Pyke’s article, a temporary increase in food stamp benefits enacted in the 2009 stimulus bill expired in November 2013. Such fairly mundane changes hardly amount to a wave of cuts, much less “wave upon wave” of cuts.

In stark contrast to the picture painted by Pyke, federal spending on food and nutrition assistance programs has risen steeply over the past dozen years, growing more than 70% between 2007 and 2013, and more than 120% since 2001—even after adjusting for inflation and population growth:

Does the Social Security Trust Fund really exist?

By James D. Agresti
April 17, 2014

In a memorable scene from the classic sitcom Sanford and Son, a legal predicament led Fred Sanford to consider hiring a man who was peddling cut-rate attorney services. When Sanford and the man met, the conversation that ensued went something like this:

Sanford: So, you’re a lawyer?
Man: That depends on who you ask.
Sanford: I’m asking you.
Man: If you ask me, I’m a lawyer.
Sanford: Then who says you’re not a lawyer?
Man: The state of California.

This exchange epitomizes the situation with the Social Security Trust Fund, because the legal and practical realities sometimes clash. Both liberals and conservatives have taken advantage of this paradox to make duplicitous claims about the Trust Fund and its finances.

First, there can be no doubt the Trust Fund legally exists. It was established by a 1939 law that is still in effect, which declares, “There is hereby created on the books of the Treasury of the United States a trust fund to be known as the ‘Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund’….” (A second trust fund was created for Social Security’s disability program in 1956, but for the sake of simplicity, Social Security’s two trust funds are commonly spoken of as if they were one.)

More significantly, the Social Security Administration has provided clear public accountings of both funds since their inception, which are mirrored in the books of other federal agencies. Consider, for example, the Treasury Department’s Monthly Statement of the Public Debt, which includes line items for the “Federal Old-Age And Survivors Insurance Trust Fund” and “Federal Disability Insurance Trust Fund.” This official accounting shows that as of March 31, 2014, these funds have combined assets of $2.763 trillion.

Now, let’s consider the practical side. The only reason the Trust Fund has assets is because the Social Security program had surpluses in previous years. However, these surpluses were loaned to the very entity that Social Security is a part of: the federal government. This is because federal law has always required that Social Security loan its surpluses to the federal government.

The key to understanding this unintuitive reality is a simple fact: the finances of the Social Security program are separated by law from the rest of the federal government’s finances, as shown in this diagram:

As is well known, the federal government has spent all of the money it has borrowed from the Social Security program (and then some). Thus, as explained in blunt terms by the Clinton administration’s 2000 budget proposal, the Social Security Trust Funds:

do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury that, when redeemed, will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures.

In keeping with this practical reality, the White House Office of Management and Budget, Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and many other organizations frequently report on federal finances as if the Social Security Trust Fund did not exist. They do this by merging all federal finances into a single budget, even if they are separated by law. In the words of a 2010 CBO report:

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the Administration’s Office of Management and Budget, and other fiscal analysts generally focus on the total deficit rather than on the deficit with or without particular trust funds. That comprehensive view of the government’s fiscal activities is often called the “unified budget.”

This unified view of federal finances effectively erases the debt that the federal government owes to Social Security. Hence, the Obama administration has argued that the money owed to Social Security “is debt that the federal government ‘owes to itself’ — and, as such, does not represent a ‘fiscal burden’.” Furthermore, the administration said that measures of federal debt that include the Trust Fund are not “meaningful” and have no bearing on “the federal government’s ability to pay its obligations.”

Beyond such explicit statements, numerous budget figures cited by the White House, other federal agencies, and virtually all media outlets are based on this accounting method in which the trust funds of Social Security (and other programs) are treated as if they do not exist. Perhaps the most notable of these figures is the annual federal budget deficit. This oft-cited statistic is based upon a unified view of federal finances, and thus, contrary to popular perception, it is not the same as the annual rise in national debt.

This is where political double-talk comes into play, because the same organizations and people who sometimes disregard the Social Security Trust Fund also talk about it as if it contained hard assets. For example, in 2013 the White House stated that the Social Security Trust Fund is projected to “be depleted by 2033.”

Likewise, in 2011 President Obama insisted that “Social Security is not the source of our deficit problems,” and in 2012 his press secretary claimed that “Social Security is not currently a driver of the deficit.” Given that Social Security’s expenses have exceeded its taxes every year since 2010 and are projected to do so for foreseeable future, those claims necessarily assume that the Trust Fund is covering these shortfalls. This contradicts other statements from the White House that disregard the Trust Fund.

This hypocrisy also manifests when talking about the national debt. In September 2012, noted economist Dean Baker claimed that the national debt would not reach 90% of our nation’s gross domestic product until around 2020. At the time he wrote this, the debt was already well above that level, clocking in at $16 trillion or 101% of GDP. So how did Baker come up with a lower figure for the debt? By excluding all of the money owed to the trust funds of Social Security, Medicare, and other such programs. In other words, Baker’s figure for the national debt assumes that these trust funds don’t truly exist.

In stark contrast, less than a year earlier Baker wrote that the Social Security “trust fund currently holds $2.6 trillion in government bonds” and that Harry Reid was “exactly right” to say that “Social Security does not add a single penny, not a dime, a nickel, a dollar to the budget problems we have.”

Those are quintessential cases of liberals talking out of both sides of their mouths, and conservatives are just as guilty.

For a prime example, Paul Ryan’s recent budget proposal states that “any value in the balances in the Social Security Trust Fund is derived from dubious government accounting. The trust fund is not a real savings account.” Yet, in November 2011, Ryan stated, “Today marks an infamous day in American history. It is the day that the national debt has surpassed the $15 trillion mark.”

This $15 trillion debt figure includes $2.6 trillion owed to the Social Security Trust Fund, which means that Ryan’s statements conflict with each other. If the balances in the Trust Fund are not “real” as Ryan claims, then the national debt did not reach $15 trillion in November 2011. He can’t rationally have it both ways.

Hence, whether one speaks about the Trust Fund from a legal perspective or a practical perspective, consistency is the watchword. Given that government agencies sometimes use different perspectives for prominent data they publish, it can be difficult to stay totally consistent when discussing these issues. However, jumping back and forth between perspectives to serve political agendas is disingenuous.

So does the Social Security Trust Fund really exist? That depends upon who you ask, but you stand a much better chance of getting a straight answer from Fred Sanford’s would-be lawyer than anyone in Washington.

Obama’s mandate imposes his views on all Americans

By James D. Agresti
March 26, 2014

In a blatant inversion of reality, the New York Times editorial board is claiming that corporations want to “impose their religious views on their employees — by refusing to permit them contraceptive coverage as required under the Affordable Care Act.” In truth, the so-called contraception mandate imposes the views of President Obama (and the Times editors) on all Americans.

The Affordable Care Act (a.k.a Obamacare) gives the Executive Branch at least 40 regulatory powers that have the force of law. The Obama administration has exercised this authority to mandate that “most new and renewed health plans” cover “all FDA-approved forms of contraception” without any copayments.

This means that nearly all Americans who pay for health insurance—whether they are private citizens, business owners, or taxpayers—are required to pay for the products that Obama demands. This is not about the legality of these products but forcing everyone to pay for them, whether they want to or not. In short, the mandate denies everyone the freedom to purchase a healthcare policy that covers what they want, instead of what the President wants.

Proponents of the mandate often focus on employees who want these items paid for by health insurance provided by their employers, but they completely ignore the business owners and other employees who don’t want to pay for these items. This is a critical omission, because when government forces all health plans to pay for certain items, all of the insured are forced to pay for them through their insurance premiums.

Thus, regardless of whether the mandate is upheld by the Supreme Court or struck down in part or in whole, the only people who are in danger of having someone else’s views forced down their throats are those who don’t want to pay for these products. Everyone else would still be free to buy them as they wish.

Similarly, CNN recently stated that Rush Limbaugh “called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a ‘slut’ and ‘prostitute’ for her support of women’s access to birth control.” This is a gross mischaracterization of the facts. Everyone in the U.S. already had “access to birth control.” What Fluke demanded is that others be forced to pay for it.

Moreover, Fluke argued that others must buy her the precise type of birth control she prefers. She didn’t want to pay for it, and she didn’t want whoever she was having sex with to pay for it. Instead, she wanted others with no role in her sex life to pay for it. That is not about “access” but coercion.

Proponents of the mandate have also been actively spreading falsehoods about the devices and drugs that the mandate covers. The scientific facts are clear that some of these products destroy viable human embryos, which is abortion or tantamount to it.

Yet, NPR, the New York Times, and others are obscuring these facts by misrepresenting scientific studies and uncritically quoting scientists who are donors to Obama—without even identifying them as such. These realities are scrupulously documented in Just Facts’ article, “Does the Obama mandate force you to pay for abortions?

While people can argue endlessly about the pros and cons of this mandate, let’s make no mistake about who is seeking to impose their views on others: It is the people who support the mandate, not those who don’t want to be forced to pay for products that others demand.

How biofuel profiteers fleece average Americans

By James D. Agresti
March 12, 2014
Correction appended

By masking the costs of ethanol, certain wealthy biofuel investors advance ideas and polices that line their pockets at the expense of average Americans. An enlightening example of how this occurs is revealed by the way a green energy mogul lashed out at an organization named Intellectual Takeout (ITO) for publishing data from Just Facts about the cost of ethanol.

In December 2013, Just Facts commissioned a nationwide scientific poll to determine what voters understand about public policy issues. This poll contained 19 questions dealing with voters’ knowledge of nine major issues, one of them being energy. Among the energy-related questions was this: “Without government subsidies, which of these fuels is least expensive for powering automobiles? Gasoline, ethanol, or biodiesel?”

The correct answer is gasoline, which only 46% of voters answered correctly, even though the unsubsidized costs of ethanol and biodiesel substantially exceed that of gasoline. As calculated with data from the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Energy Information Administration, without federal subsidies, the average nationwide retail price for ethanol in 2013 was 22% more than gasoline, and biodiesel was 41% more than gasoline.

The results of the poll—along with the documentation of the correct answers—were published by various organizations and media outlets that syndicate articles from Just Facts. One of these is ITO, which soon received an email from Eric McAfee, the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Aemetis, a company that manufactures ethanol, biodiesel, and other products. McAfee, whose biography states that he “has founded and funded more than thirty companies,” wrote:

• “Are you being funded by the oil industry and merely a front for there [sic] $100+ million annual budget to protect the 90% gasoline monopoly in the US?”
• “In July 2013, E85 ethanol (97 octane) was sold for $2.99 per gallon retail in the high-cost California market, compared to $3.99 per gallon for premium gasoline (91 octane). Ethanol has traded wholesale at a $0.20 to $1.10 discount to gasoline for many years.”
• “There were no federal subsidies [for ethanol] in 2013.”
• “Please publish a retraction of the error in the same manner as the original article. If you fail to do so, please consider renaming your website ‘Intellectual Fast-Food’, focusing on quick bites of erroneous ‘facts’ that have enormous impacts on government and financial policy.”

In the exchange that followed, ITO president Devin Foley replied that his institute is not funded by oil companies and offered McAfee the opportunity to write a rebuttal, which Foley pledged to publish “so long as the tone and tenor is civil and within reason.” On January 15th, McAfee replied, “We would like to respond to the article, as you suggest.” However, after nearly eight weeks and multiple follow-ups by Foley, McAfee has yet to provide it.

Regardless, McAfee’s email to Foley employed a common ruse used by biofuel proponents to understate the costs of these fuels. This involves comparing the prices of a gallon of ethanol and a gallon of gasoline, even though a gallon of ethanol has 31% less energy than a gallon of gasoline. In practical terms, this means that a car fueled with E85 (a mixture of 70-85% ethanol and 15-30% gasoline) will get 25-30% fewer miles per gallon than the same car when it is fueled with gasoline.

That is why the poll question was worded to ask which fuel is “least expensive for powering automobiles,” not which fuel is “least expensive per gallon.” This question reflects the actual value of a fuel to consumers, not its price for a given volume. In fact, fuels with less energy content per gallon (like ethanol) are an inconvenience to consumers, because they reduce the range that a vehicle can travel between fill-ups.

McAfee is not the only person to use this distorted measure of ethanol costs. For example, a recent article published by both Bloomberg News and the Washington Post reported that “at $1.92 a gallon, ethanol costs refiners 28 percent less than petroleum products used to make gasoline.” The journalists then uncritically quoted Todd Becker, CEO of the multi-billion dollar Green Plains Renewable Energy Inc., who said, “We’re the cheapest molecule in the fuel tank.” What they all fail to mention is that a molecule of ethanol “gives off significantly less energy on combustion than petroleum,” as detailed by a Western Oregon University physics course.

This tangible results of such deceit are spelled out in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities Alternative Fuel Price Report. This report explains that illusory savings based on price-per-gallon comparisons typically spur consumers to purchase biofuels, even if this “does not directly translate to savings on an energy-equivalent basis.”

Then there is the matter of subsidies. McAfee wrote “there were no federal subsidies” for ethanol in 2013. While the federal ethanol blending tax credit did expire at the end of 2011, the federal Renewable Fuel Standard still requires refiners, blenders, and importers of transportation fuels to use specified amounts of ethanol and other biofuels. This subsidizes the production of these fuels, because it forces the market to use them, regardless of the costs.

As the U.S. Energy Information Administration has explained, such mandates “offset any cost disadvantage renewable fuels may have over comparable petroleum products in order to achieve the required levels of consumption.” This effectively requires that almost every gallon of gas sold in the U.S. contains about 10% ethanol by volume. Because ethanol is more costly than gasoline, this drives up the price of gas.

In the documentation for the poll and the original version of this article, Just Facts double-counted this subsidy, thus greatly overstating the cost differential between gasoline and biofuels. Just Facts originally reported that without federal subsidies, ethanol and biodiesel were respectively 42% and 64% more expensive than gasoline. In reality, as detailed above, these figures are 22% and 41%.

Consumers and taxpayers ultimately bear the financial burden of these cost premiums, which drain household budgets and harm the broader economy. As the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Economics explains, “Biofuels also tend to require subsidies and other market interventions to compete economically with fossil fuels, which creates deadweight losses in the economy.”

Likewise, as explained by the Institute for Plasma Physics in the Netherlands, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Congressional Budget Office, the Congressional Research Service, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office, higher energy costs drive up unemployment, drive down wages, and cause other harmful economic effects. Furthermore, these effects tend to be harsher on poorer nations and individuals, because they spend a greater portion of their incomes on energy than wealthier people.

Even President Obama, who is a staunch proponent of renewable energy, has admitted that higher gas prices negatively impact ordinary people and the economy:

I want gas prices lower because they hurt families. Because I meet folks every day who have to drive a long way to get to work, and them filling up this gas tank gets more and more painful, and it’s a tax out of their pocketbooks, out of their paychecks. And a lot of folks are already operating on the margins right now. And it’s not good for the overall economy, because when gas prices go up, consumer spending oftentimes pulls back.

Nonetheless, biofuel investors financially benefit from such outcomes, because high fossil fuel prices make biofuels more competitive. In the words of Yale Associate Professor Matthew Kotchen, who currently serves as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Environment and Energy for the Obama administration Treasury Department: “History has shown repeatedly that nothing is worse for renewable energy — and the policies that support it — than cheap and abundant conventional energy.”

There are obviously environmental issues to consider, and some argue that the environmental benefits of biofuels outweigh their added costs. However, there can be no rational basis for such claims unless all of the relevant factors are honestly discussed and critically weighed. Without such clarity, citizens and policymakers will inevitably develop opinions and make decisions based upon half-truths and outright lies that can cause real harm to real people.

Correction (3/14/2014): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that without federal subsidies, ethanol and biodiesel were respectively 42% and 64% more expensive than gasoline. As stated in the corrected article above, these figures are actually 22% and 41%.

Audit reveals federal finances are far worse than publicized figures

By James D. Agresti
March 3, 2014

The U.S. Treasury has just released its annual “Financial Report of the United States Government,” which provides an account of the federal government’s finances using accounting standards like those that the government requires of large corporations. Because the federal budget is not bound by these standards, it does not have to account for all of its fiscal obligations.

For example, the Treasury report reveals that the federal government owes $6.5 trillion in retirement and health benefits to federal employees and veterans. This legal responsibility amounts to $53,000 for every household in the United States, but none of these liabilities are reflected in the 2013 budget deficit or national debt.

The report also accounts for fiscal obligations that are not legal liabilities but are still considered to be commitments of the federal government. These primarily consist of benefits due to current Social Security and Medicare participants that exceed the dedicated revenues they pay into these programs.

Likewise, the report accounts for federal government assets, such as cash, real estate, and stocks in certain corporations. It does not, however, include federal stewardship land and heritage assets, such as national parks and the original copy of the Declaration of Independence. While these items have tangible value, the report explains that the government “does not expect to use these assets to meet its obligations.”

By tallying this newly published data, Just Facts calculates that the federal government has accumulated $71.0 trillion in debts, liabilities, and unfinanced Social Security/Medicare obligations. Spread equally over all U.S. households, this shortfall amounts to an average of $580,000 per household.

During the federal government’s 2013 fiscal year, the official federal deficit was $680 billion, but this comprehensive accounting reveals that the federal government’s fiscal position deteriorated by $3.3 trillion or an average of $27,000 for every household in the U.S.

In reality, all of these figures may be higher, because some of the federal agency projections on which they are based are decidedly optimistic. Most notably, Medicare’s 2013 annual report states that the program’s financial projections “do not represent a reasonable expectation for actual program operations” because:

• “Current law would require a physician fee reduction of an estimated 24.7 percent on January 1, 2014—an implausible expectation.”
• The Affordable Care Act [Obamacare] eventually reduces “Medicare prices for hospital, skilled nursing facility, home health, hospice, ambulatory surgical center, diagnostic laboratory, and many other services” to “less than half of their level [under the prior law]. …. Well before that point, Congress would have to intervene to prevent the withdrawal of providers from the Medicare market and the severe problems with beneficiary access to care that would result. … [This] would lead to substantially higher costs for Medicare in the long range than those projected under current law.”

The implications of the facts above can be seen in the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) “current policy” projections of publicly held debt (a partial measure of the national debt). When CBO includes the economic effects of taxes, government spending, and debt, these projections show that the next generation of Americans is inheriting a fiscal situation like never before seen in the history of the nation:

Such levels of government debt portend far-reaching negative consequences, such as lower wages, weak economic growth, inflation, higher taxes, reduced government benefits, or combinations of such results. In the words of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, “the costs of federal borrowing will be borne by tomorrow’s workers and taxpayers” and “ultimately may reduce or slow the growth of the living standards of future generations.”

Further reading:
Do large national debts harm economies?