Last Updated:November 26 @ 07:29 am

Sowell: Big Lies in Politics

By Thomas Sowell

It was either Adolf Hitler or his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, who said that the people will believe any lie, if it is big enough and told often enough, loud enough. Although the Nazis were defeated in World War II, this part of their philosophy survives triumphantly to this day among politicians, and nowhere more so than during election years.

Perhaps the biggest lie of this election year, and the one likely to be repeated the most often, is that the income of "the rich" is going up, while other people's incomes are going down. If you listen to Barack Obama, you are bound to hear this lie repeatedly.

But the government's own Congressional Budget Office has just published a report whose statistics flatly contradict this claim. The CBO report shows that, while the average household income fell 12 percent between 2007 and 2009, the average for the lower four-fifths fell by 5 percent or less, while the average income for households in the top fifth fell 18 percent. For households in the "top one percent" that seems to fascinate so many people, income fell by 36 percent in those same years.

Why are these data so different from other data that are widely cited, showing the top brackets improving their positions more so than anyone else?

The answer is that the data cited by the Congressional Budget Office are based on Internal Revenue Service statistics for specific individuals and specific households over time. The IRS can follow individuals and households because it can identify the same people over time from their Social Security numbers.

Most other data, including census data, are based on compiling statistics in a succession of time periods, without the ability to tell if the actual people in each income bracket are the same from one time period to the next. The turnover of people is substantial in all brackets -- and is huge in the top one percent. Most people in that bracket are there for only one year in a decade.

All sorts of statements are made in politics and in the media as if that "top one percent" is an enduring class of people, rather than an ever-changing collection of individuals who have a spike in their income in a particular year, for one reason or another. Turnover in other income brackets is also substantial.

There is nothing mysterious about this. Most people start out at the bottom, in entry-level jobs, and their incomes rise over time as they acquire more skills and experience.

Politicians and media talking heads love to refer to people who are in the bottom 20 percent in income in a given year as "the poor." But, following the same individuals for 10 or 15 years usually shows the great majority of those individuals moving into higher income brackets.

The number who reach all the way to the top 20 percent greatly exceeds the number still stuck in the bottom 20 percent over the years. But such mundane facts cannot compete for attention with the moral melodramas conjured up in politics and the media when they discuss "the rich" and "the poor."

There are people who are genuinely rich and genuinely poor, in the sense of having very high or very low incomes for most, if not all, of their lives. But "the rich" and "the poor" in this sense are unlikely to add up to even ten percent of the population.

Ironically, those who make the most noise about income disparities or poverty contribute greatly to policies that promote both. The welfare state enables millions of people to meet their needs with little or no income-earning work on their part.

Most of the economic resources used by people in the bottom 20 percent come from sources other than their own incomes. There are veritable armies of middle-class people who make their livings transferring resources, in a variety of ways, from those who created those resources to those who live off them.

These transferrers are in both government and private social welfare institutions. They have every incentive to promote dependency, from which they benefit both professionally and psychically, and to imagine that they are creating social benefits.

For different reasons, both politicians and the media have incentives to spread misconceptions with statistics. So long as we keep buying it, they will keep selling it.


Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. His website is


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  1. inluminatuoComment by inluminatuo
    July 31, 2012 @ 8:38 am

    When the economic pie begins to shrink Everyone’s share of the pie becomes smaller,,,,even for the rich, and most demonstrably for the rich. Fools who cannot contrive to life honestly off their own labor must contrive to live dishonestly off others like the rich. One of the reasons these people have to live dishonestly off others is because they are stupid to the point where they never get it, not ignorant to the point where education could correct their misconceptions. Attempting to destroy by making political war upon the very object you feed off of, i.e. the rich and destroying the very thing and object that allows you to live the life of an economic parasite is not just defined as stupid, but a recipe for your own class destruction. Even a dumb tape worm is smart enough to let the host that it feeds off survive to live another day so that the worm itself can survive. These self destructive and other destructive democrats are basically just dumber than worms, so why in hell do we elect them to rule over us????

    It is not a matter of “It’s the economy Stupid”. Our problems reside in “It’s the Dishonestly Stupid”,,,,caused and spoken by Stupid Dishonest Liberal leaders who Lie to us when they tell us there is actually a real thing called “Free Lunch” and that real wealth that provides food and consumption for the parasitic class of American Society appears out of thin air and is never something created by hard work, sweat and sacrifice.

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    • tenbearsComment by tenbears
      July 31, 2012 @ 7:33 pm

      Ten Bears agrees and we will not make peace with the Liberal Forked Tongues!

      We will bury them in their own secretion that runs from their mouth! Talking Sh*t is never a good thing, no matter what people you come from!

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  2. RWComment by RW
    July 31, 2012 @ 8:48 am

    Those statistics simply prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the saying, “You aren’t poor because someone else is wealthy,” beyond a shadow of a doubt.

    ‘Nuff said.

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  3. JDZComment by JDZ
    July 31, 2012 @ 10:14 am

    I have suspected that the movement up and down the income levels is dynamic and that the statistics used by politicians are shaped to support the arguments they want to push on the public. The average income or “wealth” of every American is impacted by the overall economic health of the country, except for those that live off of government subsidies such as SS, food stamps, disability payments, etc. and particularly, those that work in the public service domain (government, teachers, first responders, prison guards, etc) whether working or retired, who continue to get their government checks and automatic pay raises, etc. regardless of whether the economy is up or down. The public service domain has become the “elitist” group in the country who are insulated to a large extent from the ups and downs of our economy as the governments will borrow money to keep the checks coming while those Americans who represent the “makers” in the country are on their own and have to suffer through the effects of a recession, etc.

    This situation is why those working in government at large do not feel the sense of urgency in dealing with our economic problems in our private economy. The federal government has no real incentive to cut programs or do anything to upset the apple cart that might affect those that run for elected office. Those that are full time government employees are insulated from the trauma their policies and overregulation does to destroy jobs in the private sector.

    Lawmakers are exempted from having to live under the rules and regulations they institute in many cases. For example, Congress has its own pension and medical programs which exempts them from social security and Obamacare. Members of Congress can approve their own salaries and benefits including perks within their expense accounts. They get lavish lifetime pension benefits for only working in Congress for relatively short periods of time.

    They use social programs and other manipulative issues to pander to voters to stay in office but effectively circle the wagons to protect themselves (their best use of bipartisanship) if anyone challenges their “exclusive taxpayer provided” lifestyles.

    We need someone like a Mitt Romney, who is not a career politician, to take over our Presidency and represent the interests of the American people. Only a Washington outsider, who has no interest in being a career politician, can actually provide objective leadership with minimal self interests at stake.

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    • CharieComment by Charie
      July 31, 2012 @ 8:58 pm

      I have to ask why you include Social Security as a government subsidy when people have paid into it all their working lives?

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    • canada3dayerComment by canada3dayer
      August 1, 2012 @ 3:18 am

      as a government employee of 31 years I resent several of your allegations. mostly they apply to the dipwads in DC, not the average gov’t worker. first of all, our pay has been frozen pretty much since Obama took office. our bills continue to rise, just like the private sector’s bills do. every year my health insurance premiums go up, while the amount it will pay on a claim goes down. we certainly are NOT the “elites”, sheltered from the realities of the economy. pretty much the only thing we have going for us is job security, and that can be a double-edged sword too – I’ve seen far too many people just where I work that sit on their kiesters and do nothing because I usually have to pick up the slack for them. those of us working for the government at large have ZERO input into economic policy-making – Washington does that. and, despite popular misconception, lawmakers do not get “lavish lifetime pensions” for short periods of service. sadly, they do get to set their own salaries, but not in the way you’re thinking. they do not vote to increase their pay, IT IS AUTOMATIC UNLESS THEY VOTE NOT TO DO IT! that way they can tell their constituencies – with a straight face, too – “I did not vote to raise my pay”. so please don’t tar us all with the same brush.

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    • bna42Comment by bna42
      August 1, 2012 @ 8:57 am

      Canada, which government to do work for, U.S. or Canada?

      After reading all your complaining I felt the need to respond. Government is TOO BIG, they have too many employees, your job security comes from a UNION, government employees are paid MORE and have BETTER benefits than those in the private sector. You mentioned 31 years on the job–at least you have a job. .I have a good friend who worked for a company for 23 years, spent the last 2 years training employees in Laredo, and while she was on vacation 2 weeks ago, she was part of a conference call where she and 16 other employees were laid off OVER THE PHONE. As soon as the company felt comfortable moving their operation across the border, the U.S. employees are no longer needed. There are millions of people who are out of work and not able to even find a job. The taxpayers who are expected to pay your salary for your protected job resent your whining and complaining, especially since only about half of us are taxpayers.

      As a government employee you are protected so why don’t you become a whistle blower and start reporting those who sit around doing nothing while they are actually stealing their salaries and benefits? That would be much more beneficial than complaining to taxpayers who are keeping you in a job while you complain about the additional work you must complete because of these lazy thieves.

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    • canada3dayerComment by canada3dayer
      August 2, 2012 @ 2:37 am

      bna42, I work for the US gov’t, the Air Force specifically. I agree that gov’t IS too big – there are too many areas that could be cut way back or even eliminated. and here’s a news flash for ya – I’m a taxpayer, too. I am not a union member. you say we’re paid too much – let me tell you something, of those 31 years I’ve been here, more than 18 of them were spent as a GS-4 or below. and it wasn’t because I’m an incompetent worker – it was because I am not an ***-kisser. I work very hard, I’m very good at my job. most of the time I’M the one the guys in my area come to when they need help. I’m not complaining about additional work, I just DO it because it needs to be done in order for the US Air Force to remain the dominant air power in the world, if DC doesn’t sell us all out first. what I DO resent is the attitude that we’re all incompetent fat cats, soaking the taxpayer (which WE are too!) for all we can get when that is actually a very narrow brush – strictly politicians. like I said before, job security is about the ONLY thing we have on our side, and with the restructuring going on that might not last much longer. government employees also include the people that pick your trash up, cops, firefighters, and the like. politicians are the ones that give all gov’t workers a really bad name so kwitcherbitchin about US!

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    • bna42Comment by bna42
      August 2, 2012 @ 10:30 am

      “. . .government employees also include the people that pick your trash up, cops, firefighters, and the like.”

      Canada, NOW you have arrived at the reason behind the resentment of government workers. None of the people you mentioned are ‘politicians’, yet they are the ones who are constantly whining about more pay, more benefits, etc. They are all covered under government employee unions, they are all supposed to be in “public service”, they all depend on the taxpayer for their jobs, yet they strike, use “sick-outs”, walk off the job, and protest in the streets when their lucrative government contracts are in peril because of the economy. You should have also included school teachers because they are in the same category. None of these groups are willing to make any concessions when the city they serve is in dire financial condition and trying to negotiate ways to survive.

      From your own comments I infer that you have a chip on your shoulder because of your remark that you spent 18 years as a GS-4 or below simply because you weren’t an “***-kisser”. You chose to be a “government worker”, so if all government workers are seen in a negative light these day, that’s not our fault, so “kwitcherbitchin about US!”

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  4. joelinpdxComment by joelinpdx
    July 31, 2012 @ 10:32 am

    No one practices the big lie more than Obozo. In fact, Obozo has outdone Hitler when it comes to telling the big lie. But like Hitler, Obozo will be defeated when it counts…on November 6th, 2012…a red letter day if there ever was one.

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  5. nickster99Comment by nickster99
    July 31, 2012 @ 10:32 am

    This is old hat and many or all of you may have heard this before. But it sure bears repeating! food for thought…

    At about the time our original 13 states adopted their new constitution, in
    the year 1787, Alexander Tyler (a Scottish history professor at the
    University of Edinburgh) had this to say about “The fall of the Athenian
    Republic” some 2,000 years prior.

    “A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a
    Permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until
    the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts
    from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for
    the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with
    the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal
    policy, (which is always followed by a dictatorship).”

    “The average age of the worlds greatest civilizations from the beginning of
    history, has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations
    always progressed through the following sequence:

    From Bondage to spiritual faith;
    From spiritual faith to great courage;
    From courage to liberty;
    From liberty to abundance;
    From abundance to complacency;
    From complacency to apathy;
    From apathy to dependence;
    From dependence back into bondage.”

    Professor Joseph Olson of Hamline University School of Law, St. Paul,
    Minnesota, points out some interesting facts concerning the most recent
    Presidential election:

    Population of counties won by:
    Gore=127 million
    Bush=143 million

    Square miles of land won by:
    Gore = 580,000
    Bush = 2,242,7000

    States won by:
    Gore = 19
    Bush = 29

    Murder rate per 100,000 residents in counties won by:

    Gore = 13.2
    Bush = 2.1

    Professor Olson adds:

    “In aggregate, the map of the territory Bush won was mostly the land owned
    by the tax-paying citizens of this great country. Gore’s territory
    encompassed those citizens living in government-owned tenements and living
    off government welfare…”

    Olson believes the U.S. is now somewhere between the “apathy” and
    “complacency” phase of Professor Tyler’s definition of democracy; with some
    40 percent of the nation’s population already having reached the
    “governmental dependency” phase.

    “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do
    nothing.” Edmund Burke (1729-1797)

    This is exactly what is happening in our once great country and the people that are voted into office that promise all those wonderful things like welfare, food stamps. automatic pay raises for public sector employees know what they are doing. It is for this very reason, to control the population. They will continue to spew the lies and promises as long as the lemmings are there to believe and follow them. It is truely class warfare! God help us!

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    • inluminatuoComment by inluminatuo
      July 31, 2012 @ 1:41 pm

      I haven’t seen the map,,,,but wonder if a nuclear war occurred whose territory of the map would be destroyed,,,Bush or Gore? A good war might just relieve us of a lot of non tax-paying Liberals……Just a thought.

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    • canada3dayerComment by canada3dayer
      August 2, 2012 @ 2:40 am

      inluminatuo, it’s too bad a nuclear war would get ALL of us! :D

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  6. sunnybluesComment by sunnyblues
    July 31, 2012 @ 10:41 am

    “We’re going to have to let truth scream louder to our souls than the lies that have infected us.”
    ― Beth Moore

    We are going to have to be unafraid of the liars and boldly stand against them or we will be lost. God is on the side of the righteous but He expects us to do our part. We cannot afford to sit this one out and hope it goes away. It will not. We must be louder, prouder, bolder and tenacious until the enemy is defeated. We must never give up. We must fight for our brothers, our families, our homes and our country. It really is up to us.

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  7. 14HimComment by 14Him
    July 31, 2012 @ 10:51 am

    I have a bumper sticker on my 2000 Yukon XL that reads “Work Harder, Millions on Welfare are Depending on You”

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    • bna42Comment by bna42
      July 31, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

      “Most of the economic resources used by people in the bottom 20 percent come from sources other than their own incomes.”

      aka welfare, food stamps, section 8 housing subsidies, utility subsidies, child care subsidies, tax “credits” to those who pay no income tax such as “earned income credit”, “child tax credit”, “additional child tax credit”, free cell phones, and upcoming free contraception. All of this is defined by the federal government as “safety net” rather than bribery for votes.

      Politicians will admit that this situation is unsustainable because the top 1% pay 40% of all federal income taxes and the bottom half pay NO federal income taxes. However, they refuse to do anything to rectify the situation because it takes courage and a willingness to do what’s best for the nation.

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  8. Dingbat36Comment by Dingbat36
    July 31, 2012 @ 11:01 am

    For the record, it was Propaganda Minister Goebbels who coined the phrase about lies but it seems to hold true even today. How very little the people of this planet learn from world history. How little the peoples of any given country learn from their own nation’s history.

    I hated history as a student in all levels of education and I came to realize, far too late that the only way to avoid making stupid mistakes IS to learn from the historical record. I am now at 75 making sure that my children and grandchildren know about my mistake and DO NOT repeat it themselves.

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  9. Mort_fComment by Mort_f
    July 31, 2012 @ 11:41 am

    Unfortunately, one has to be literate to read Sowell, and also, unfortunate, there are a great mass of illiterates, and lazy, who will not read Sowell.

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  10. VoiceOfReasonComment by VoiceOfReason
    July 31, 2012 @ 12:51 pm

    The reason most poor people are poor is that they have made very poor, life-affecting decisions while they are in their teens: unwed motherhood; drug abuse, alcohol abuse, criminal activities. My parents were poor, but honest, farmers, first generation Americans who concentrated on raising a family. Almost everyone with whom they grew up in the Depression Era was in the same condition, struggling just to get by. In contrast, I and my brothers and sisters, although from a poor family, grew up in the post-WWII period, took advantage of the public schools available, managed to work our way through college and then were able to build wealth while we raised our families.

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  11. greenteethComment by greenteeth
    July 31, 2012 @ 1:26 pm

    definition of a lie. a sign of desperation. Never trust a desperate person.

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  12. Recce1Comment by recce1
    August 5, 2012 @ 3:00 am

    The statement was made that, “There are people who are genuinely rich and genuinely poor, in the sense of having very high or very low incomes for most, if not all, of their lives. But “the rich” and “the poor” in this sense are unlikely to add up to even ten percent of the population.”

    I wonder if many of the 10% who are rich for most of their lives are members of political class families like the Kennedys and Kerrys eve if such families got their start in the drug businesses.

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