Friday, February 26, 2010

Seminar calling made easy

I'm far from the first to point out this fascinating form of outreach from the ongoing Obama campaign, but the audacity of the effort makes it worth highlighting.

The "Give me another show" button cycles through tons of options; pretty much any show you can imagine is represented.

Step 2 is "Add your voice":
Use the discussion points on the right in your conversation – but remember that the most important part of your call is your own story about why you support reform.

So.  Will Obama's transparency agenda include releasing a list of all the seminar calls reported to his campaign?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Was PolitiFact's Pulitzer deserved? Pt. 5

The fifth of the 13 items evaluated by the Pulitzer jury, items that ended up earning (?) PolitiFact its Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for the year 2008, may be the worst in the series so far.  Written by Bill Adair, the piece clearly goes beyond objective reporting into news analysis, and not particularly good news analysis at that.

The title, "As facts slid, so did Clinton" provides a preview of Adair's main idea.  But Adair does not stop with the attempt to demonstrate a correlation between Clinton's veracity and her poll numbers.  The tenor of the story suggests that the correlation is significant, that correlation in this case was enough to reasonably infer causation.  From Adair's concluding paragraph:
Clinton's fall from presumed nominee to also-ran is likely to be debated for years to come. But there's no question that her decline in poll numbers was matched by (or caused by) her drop in truthfulness. It might be worth reminding other politicians: If you're going to throw the kitchen sink, make sure you've got your facts right.
Adair operates under the assumption that the press did a good job of measuring the relative truthfulness of the respective candidates.  For example, Clinton's "drop in truthfulness" as measured by PolitiFact or other media sources is taken as an objective data point.  But candidate fact checks are spot checks subject to editorial judgment, and it is not fair to Clinton to judge her on that scale without adequate backing data that is not subject to the vagaries of editorial judgment.  Fairness is one of the criteria that Pulitzer juries are to use as a hallmark of journalism's highest standards.

Adair's facts, in truth, lend themselves to an interpretation that lets Clinton off the hook almost entirely.  Consider Adair's assertion that Clinton had the best record for truth-telling prior to her supposed "drop":
When we launched PolitiFact last summer, Clinton was on top of the world. Leading in polls, potent in fundraising, she seemed to be unbeatable. Back then, she stood alone among all the candidates, Republican and Democratic, for her disciplined adherence to the facts. When PolitiFact checked her claims, we found she was nearly always right.
Obama, in contrast, was among the candidates who carried a spotty record for truth-telling throughout the campaign.  Logically, it follows that Clinton should have maintained her lead in the public perception of her truthfulness unless she became significantly less truthful than her competitors.  That is, if her slide was a direct result of a perception that she was not as honest as her rivals.

Adair offers no evidence that he even considers an alternative angle.  Clinton may have been held to a higher standard because she is not personally as likable as Obama. Or the fact-check ratings may even have tended to favor the Democratic front-runner.  I won't try to make the latter case, since Obama continued to offend PolitiFact's "Truth-O-Meter" throughout the race.  But counting up the "Pants on Fire!" and "Mostly True" rating for comparison is a wholly inadequate method of judging unless we presuppose a uniform method of rating candidates' claims.  It matters which claims get rated, and beyond that it matters how the standards of judgment get applied.

The most obvious explanation for Clinton's drop in popularity should have been sensitivity to attack ads.  Adair's story even hints at it, though he ignores the elephant in the room.  When Clinton was perceived as throwing the "kitchen sink" at Obama while Obama avoided giving the impression that he was attacking Clinton in turn, Clinton's numbers fell.  That in conjunction with an increasing perception that Obama would be the Democratic candidate for president.

For its logical failures and its unfair treatment of Clinton, this PolitiFact story rates a 4 on a 0-10 scale where "10" represents the highest standards of journalism and a "6" counts neither for nor against Pulitzer worthiness.

Was PolitiFact's Pulitzer deserved? Pt. 4

The fourth of 13 items considered by the Pulitzer jury when awarding PolitiFact its Pulitzer Prize for national reporting concerned then-Sen. Barack Obama's claim that his uncle had been among the first American soldiers to liberate Auschwitz.

Recall from my previous writings on this subject that the Pulitzer juries are supposed to put a premium on fairness.

I guess snark can be fair.  Check out the opening sentence:
Political opponents of Sen. Barack Obama thought they finally had the goods to pin him as a serial fabricator.

The next day, the Republicans pounced. RNC secretary Alex Conant correctly noted that it was Soviet, not American, troops that had opened the gates of Auschwitz in 1945. Obama's story of his uncle was dubious, Conant said, while concluding that the latest of Obama's "frequent exaggerations" raised questions about his readiness to lead as commander in chief.

Objective reporting typically requires some sort of direct statement from at least one political opponent to the effect that they viewed the Auschwitz claim as PolitiFact says they did.

The opening line also hints at the eventual Truth-O-Meter finding.  Barack Obama will be rated "Mostly True," so apparently falsely claiming that one's uncle was among the first American soldiers to liberate Auschwitz does not contribute to serial fabrication.

The story on Obama's uncle is relatively well known by this time.  Obama did have a great-uncle who served with the soldiers who liberated the less-famous (but still extremely nasty) concentration camp at Buchenwald.

This example from PolitiFact points up again one of the problems I keep highlighting with their methods.  A statement like Obama's presents PolitiFact with a number of claims.  They could focus on just one (Does Obama really have an uncle?  Was Auschwitz liberated the way Obama described it?), take the whole set and/or deal with the underlying argument.  Choosing which portion of the claim to check makes huge difference when it comes to positioning the "Truth-O-Meter" needle.

PolitiFact took the whole set of statements from Obama as well as what they took as his underlying argument and essentially pronounced it no big deal.

But getting the concentration camp wrong should be kind of a big deal in this case.  It isn't as though Obama simply got Buchenwald mixed up with another nearby concentration camp.  He happened to settle on the most famous of them all, and one that his uncle could not have helped liberate without somehow serving with the Soviet armed forces.  The mistake was a notable historical error rather than a mere confusion of two otherwise interchangeable sites.

While I think it fair to consider the respects in which Obama's tale was accurate, PolitiFact went pretty easy on Obama for a historical error that a president should not commit.  The kid gloves for Obama, combined with a number of snarky references to Obama's detractors, compel me to count this entry mildly against PolitiFact's Pulitzerworthiness.  On a scale of 0-10 where 10 represents the pinnacle of journalistic achievement, I rate this story a five.  Make that a four, in consideration of my final word, below.


I can imagine some objection to Obama referring to his great-uncle as his uncle.  The term is very often used of persons who are not uncles in the more narrow sense of the parental sibling.


I was fascinated to find that the version of this story currently residing at the PolitiFact site has the snarkiness removed.  I now wonder at the history and chronology of the two versions.


One more, then I'll shut up.

I located the RNC statement attributed in the story to Alex Conant:
Barack Obama's dubious claim is inconsistent with world history and demands an explanation. It was Soviet troops that liberated Auschwitz, so unless his uncle was serving in the Red Army, there's no way Obama's statement yesterday can be true. Obama's frequent exaggerations and outright distortions raise questions about his judgment and his readiness to lead as commander in chief.
PolitiFact is guilty of a good old-fashioned inaccuracy in its reporting of Conant's statement.

Obama's story of his uncle was dubious, Conant said, while concluding that the latest of Obama's "frequent exaggerations" raised questions about his readiness to lead as commander in chief.
(blue highlights added)
Conant referred to the collection of exaggerations and distortions as raising questions about Obama's readiness.  The PolitiFact story erroneously had Conant placing special emphasis on the Auschwitz gaffe.  Pulitzer committees are supposed to place great importance on accuracy in addition to fairness.

Monday, February 22, 2010

"The President's Proposal" on health care

The White House has unveiled President Obama's health care plan.

Is it about messaging or content?  I suspect the former:
The proposal will make health care more affordable, make health insurers more accountable, expand health coverage to all Americans, and make the health system sustainable, stabilizing family budgets, the Federal budget, and the economy:

  • It makes insurance more affordable by providing the largest middle class tax cut for health care in history, reducing premium costs for tens of millions of families and small business owners who are priced out of coverage today.  This helps over 31 million Americans afford health care who do not get it today – and makes coverage more affordable for many more.
It's far from clear how a tax cut makes health care more affordable in terms of costs.  If my taxes are cut entirely then I am better able to afford a $50,000 Mercedes-Benz, but the cost of the vehicle doesn't change.  The reduction of premiums sounds like let another promise of getting something for nothing--either that or the traditional liberal approach of having "the rich" subsidize those who are "priced out of coverage today."
  • It sets up a new competitive health insurance market giving tens of millions of Americans the exact same insurance choices that members of Congress will have. 
I smell a big, unspoken caveat in that one:  You get the same choices as Congress but not necessarily the ability to pay for all those glorious choices.
  • It brings greater accountability to health care by laying out commonsense rules of the road to keep premiums down and prevent insurance industry abuses and denial of care.
Market competition keeps premiums down.  I imagine that insurance company abuses and denial of care help keep premiums down, so it will be interesting to see how the White House reconciles those contrary aims in this single bullet point.
  • It will end discrimination against Americans with pre-existing conditions.
The ending discrimination thing must play well with focus groups.  But adjusting risk according to pre-existing conditions is an ultra-basic feature of risk management in the health care insurance business.  Risk management of that sort is what helps keep premiums low for the majority.  A few weeks ago, I heard a caller to a radio show propose a similar arrangement for life insurance as a method of stimulating the economy.  Insurance companies would no longer be able to deny life insurance policies to people just because they happen to be dead.  It is an important analogy despite its inherent silliness.
  • It puts our budget and economy on a more stable path by reducing the deficit by $100 billion over the next ten years – and about $1 trillion over the second decade – by cutting government overspending and reining in waste, fraud and abuse.
This point sounds like the measures the CBO received with great skepticism.  The government has a poor record on cutting government spending and reining in waste, fraud and abuse.

The bullet point summary is singularly unimpressive.  I look forward to seeing more detailed analysis and perhaps a CBO analysis of the president's proposal.  It seems that either tax increases play a large part in the plan, or else the final bullet point represents the type of government control of health care services that Sarah Palin characterized as a "death panel."

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Grading PolitiFact: Paul Krugman compares Massachusetts with the U.S. of A

PolitiFact recognizes that there is a difference between the truth of a literal statement and the truth of the underlying argument.  But the fact check operation routinely ignores one in favor of the other or applies differing standards to each depending on the case.

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Greg Joyce:  editor


It isn't hard to obtain a clue that PolitiFact will give Krugman a break on his literal statement.  Krugman says the Senate plan is "identical" to the one passed in Massachusetts.  PolitiFact goes for an underlying argument to the effect that the plans are merely similar.

Jacobson provides some background:

Friday, February 19, 2010

Marines to purchase 1,050 additional MaxxPro Dash vehicles

The MRAP has not given way entirely to the M-ATV.  Not just yet, anyway.

Before Oshkosh Truck pulled off its notable victory in the M-ATV competition, the Pentagon had already tried to field a lighter version of the MRAP better suited to the terrain in Afghanistan.  Navistar came up the winner with its MaxxPro Dash before putting its MXT armored vehicle platform up to compete for the M-ATV contracts.

Apparently MRAP lite still has its uses:
Navistar Defense, LLC has been awarded a $752 million contract to provide 1,050 enhanced International MaxxPro Dash Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles. The vehicles under the contract from the U.S. Marine Corps Systems Command will include the DXM independent suspension solution.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Grading PolitiFact's grading of the stimulus bill

The PolitiFact headline caught my eye.  Here's how it looked at FaceBook:

I will focus on two general aspects of this PolitiFact entry, the visual presentation and the literary content.

The appearance of the FaceBook version offers special prominence to the bar graph seen just below ""  Once one gets to the full story by clicking the link, one has the opportunity to read a caption that describes the graph as part of the Obama administration's claims about itself ("David Plouffe, a political adviser to President Obama, circulated this chart ...").  I would suggest that the placement of the graphic provides an implicit support of the positive effects of the stimulus bill.  That effect is only slightly diminished at the main page, coupled as it is with the Truth-O-Meter rating of one of Vice President Joe Biden's  claims about reduced job losses over time.

So the visual presentation makes the stimulus bill look pretty good, even if the arguments underlying the presentation may be specious.  But what about the content?

The content, considering the piece is billed as a grade of the stimulus bill, contains precious little grading.  Indeed, it might not exaggerate the situation to state that authors Robert Farley and Louis Jacobson did not offer any specific effective/not effective judgment at all.  Instead, they treated the reader to a series of of political statements and expert opinions--more in line with the traditional methods of the objective reporting paradigm.

The story isn't exactly the best example of objective reporting, however.  In spite of a number of research references to, the assessment of the experts at Heritage apparently did not find their way into the Farley/Jacobson story.

Is that important?

Yes, it is.  Economists disagree on many things, and the Keynesian approach to economic intervention remains a very contentious point.  However, though Keynesian policies remain controversial among economists, they also remain very popular.  Thus, it is easy to find a good number--even a clear majority--who will affirm that Keynesian spending will effectively boost an economy.

The uncited work of Brian Riedl at offers a counterpoint to the entirety of the PolitiFact story:
Heritage Foundation, "Why Government Spending Does Not Stimulate Economic Growth: Answering the Critics," by Brian M. Riedl, Jan. 5, 2010  

Heritage Foundation,"White House Report Claims Stimulus Success-Despite 3.5 Million Job Losses," by Brian M. Riedl, Jan. 14, 2010  

Heritage Foundation, "CBO Says Stimulus Is Working Because We Predicted It Would," by Brian Riedl, Dec. 1, 2009  
The first of these articles provides an excellent explanation of Keynesian economics, by the way.

Farley and Jacobson end up relying on Keynesian assumptions to imply the success of the Keynesian stimulus.  It is worth noting that the third article by Riedl listed above, "CBO Says Stimulus Is Working Because We Predicted It Would," deals with that same aspect of begging the question.

CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf proclaimed that (Keynesian) economists' predictions of job creation were more accurate than the records of those spending the stimulus money.  But if that's the case, how would one ever test the accuracy of the predictions in the first place?  What is the origin of their predictive cachet?

Therein lies the mystery.  The Keynesian economists say Keynesian economic approaches work just great.  News/opinion outfits such as PolitiFact report what the Keynesians say.  So it must be true, right?

PolitiFact offered no grades as such in this story.  But even though I took a less formal approach than usual on this post, I will offer some grades:

Robert Farley:  F
Louis Jacobson:  F
Catharine Richert:  C

Though I don't know who researched what, Catharin Richert only did research on this piece.  As a result, she's off the hook for the implicit logical errors in the content, including such things as the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.  It was great that Riedl's work appeared in the list of sources, but unfortunate that the content of the story appeared to entirely ignore Riedl's contribution to the argument.

Overall, this PolitiFact story was a faux fact check.  All it did was affirm that Keynesian economists affirm the Keynesian approach.  As Riedl points out, with no thanks due to PolitiFact, at some point the empirical data from economic outcomes need to support the Keynesian models or else the latter are open to question.  It looks like PolitiFact cherry-picked its expert commentary.


One of the key experts cited in the PolitiFact story was Gus Faucher, director of macroeconomics at Moody's  "Augustine" Faucher's FEC-listed political contributions have all been to Democrats, including a $300 gift to the Obama campaign in Sept. 2008.

Does that mean that we can't trust Faucher?  No, it isn't so simple as that.  Faucher undoubtedly believes in Keynesian principles and government intervention in markets, so his comments as to their effectiveness are simply what we should expect regardless of whether he supported Obama's candidacy.  Faucher's politics when added to his predisposition toward the Keynesian approach should cause us to take his expertise with a grain of salt, though.  He is not a neutral party on this issue.

March 3, 2010
Corrected typographical error on the spelling of Gus Faucher's name (I had spelled it "Guy Faucher").  Apologies to Mr. Faucher and my reader(s).

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Obama goes nuclear

On Tuesday, President Obama will announce plans to break ground on two new nuclear reactors at a Southern Company plant in Burke, Georgia -- the  first new U.S. nuclear reactors since the incident at Three Mile Island in 1979.
(ABC News)
This is good news indeed for clean energy policy.  Nuclear power is probably indispensable as a bridge to the next energy breakthrough.

Kudos to President Obama, even if he's making the move with something akin to reluctance:
The White House is making no bones about the fact that they see this announcement as advancing two agenda items: clean energy and efforts at bipartisanship.
"In the State of the Union and at the House Republican Conference retreat, the President made clear that he is willing to work with Republicans towards a comprehensive solution to our energy challenges," a White House official said. "By announcing plans today to break ground on the first new nuclear reactors in nearly three decades, the President is making good on his offer to meet Republicans halfway."
I would hope that nuclear power would be an overwhelming political winner today rather than a mere concession to Republicans.  Public polling from during the 2008 presidential election campaign appears to at least show that people view nuclear power more favorably than not:
Will this move by Obama play well with the the electorate (especially independents) as bipartisanship?  It isn't as though Obama is giving just Republicans a concession.  He is embracing a position of at least plurality popularity.  Beyond the far left, the bipartisan angle is a tough sell.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Blumner emerges from glass house, bearing stones for throwing

Ah, I love the vapidity of editorial columns by Robyn Blumner.

Blumner went on the attack against Sarah Palin this week.  I suppose the joy of bashing George W. Bush has faded now that he has been out of office for over a year.

Let's root for those pearls of Blumnerian wisdom:
Since Sarah Palin won't rule out running for the presidency in 2012, her performance recently at the Tea Party convention in Nashville deserves more scrutiny. Voters may have to soon evaluate her as a future leader of our nation and defender of the free world. Which makes her strikingly vapid answers to the softball questions thrown her way all the more frightening.
Newsflash, Ms. Blumner:  Joe Biden is our vice president.  That is the here and now.

Sitting in comfy armchairs she answered questions put to her by the adoring Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation.

Palin was asked: "We hear about the Obama plan. What's the Palin plan?" Her answer on her national defense plan — the entirety of it — was this: "And when it comes to national security, as I ratchet down the message on national security, it's easy to just kind of sum it up by repeating Ronald Reagan when he talked about the Cold War. And we can apply this now to our war on terrorism, you know. Bottom line, we win, they lose. We do all that we can to win."

Compare that bit of nearly indecipherable triumphalism with the answer President Barack Obama gave at a news conference Tuesday when asked about Iran's decision to further enrich uranium, which is too long to reprint verbatim.
 Apples and oranges comparisons are where it's at, apparently.

Palin was asked a very general question, and so gave a very general answer.  President Obama was at his press conference for a particular reason, with a big part of that the purpose of describing the policy on Iran.  If he had been asked to describe his plan for national defense then it probably would have been very general.  Palin has no reason to develop a detailed foreign policy strategy at present.  The next presidential election isn't for almost three years.  In contrast, Obama has every reason to have a detailed approach to foreign policy as he is currently serving as president.  The comparison of the these two speeches could hardly be less apt.

The rest of Blumner's piece is a similar criticism of another of Palin's answers during the brief Q&A session following her keynote address.  The point, I suppose, is that Obama is much smarter than Palin and speaks better as well.  But even if that is the case, who really cares?  It ultimately comes down to which one has the better policy, and Blumner doesn't delve into that.  Her column counts mostly as a personal attack against Palin, showing yet more evidence that the Palin obsession may be even greater on the left than on the right.

All in all, a boring and unimportant column.

Compare Palin (Q&A at about the 45 minute mark) and Obama for yourself.

Obama, of course, went for months without giving a press conference.  This one offers some evidence that his attempts to improve his teleprompterless speaking are paying off.  He's stuttering less and using fewer "ummm's." But there are still quite a few during his answer on Iran.  Look for it at about the 21 minute mark.

I wonder if Blumner heard about Obama's recent "corpsemen" gaffe?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Grading PolitiFact: McCain reversal on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"?

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Catharine Richert:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


I wonder if either Catharine Richert or Bill Adair could accurately define "contradiction" for me if put on the spot with no opportunity to look it up.  This piece makes it appear that neither is practiced at evaluating differing statements for logical compatibility.

Richert sets the stage with some background:

Monday, February 08, 2010

Grading PolitiFact: Obama says he cut taxes for 95 percent

Sometimes I can't believe what I'm reading.  And that is a concern when I'm reading material that claims to be checking the facts of others.

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Angie Drobnic Holan:  writer, researcher

Amy Hollyfield:  editor


Writer/researcher Angie Drobnic Holan accurately conveys the context of President Obama's remarks.  Mr. Obama was highlighting the steps he took to bolster the economy.  I'll provide additional context since the underlying argument, if any, may arise from other portions of the context.
Now, as we stabilized the financial system, we also took steps to get our economy growing again, save as many jobs as possible, and help Americans who had become unemployed.

That's why we extended or increased unemployment benefits for more than 18 million Americans; made health insurance 65 percent cheaper for families who get their coverage through COBRA; and passed 25 different tax cuts.

Now, let me repeat:  We cut taxes.  We cut taxes for 95 percent of working families.  (Applause.)  We cut taxes for small businesses.  We cut taxes for first-time homebuyers.  We cut taxes for parents trying to care for their children.  We cut taxes for 8 million Americans paying for college.  (Applause.)

I thought I'd get some applause on that one.  (Laughter and applause.)

As a result, millions of Americans had more to spend on gas and food and other necessities, all of which helped businesses keep more workers.  And we haven't raised income taxes by a single dime on a single person.  Not a single dime.  (Applause.)
(Yellow highlights added)

Obama argues that he cut taxes in a way that stimulated the economy. That is his underlying argument. But this is yet another instance where PolitiFact has no interest in the underlying argument. Drobnic keeps a narrow focus on the 95 percent figure.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Grading PolitiFact: President Obama and what happened before he walked in the door

Obama's Jedi mind-trick ability comes to the fore nearly to the point of "Simon says."

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Catharine Richert:  writer, researcher
Greg Joyce:  editor


PolitiFact usually treats truth claims one of three ways.  One, rate the literal truth of a statement.  Two, rate the underlying argument.  Three, do a little of both.  But sometimes PolitiFact takes the fourth option.

To be sure, Catharine Richert's story sets out to rate the literal truth of this Obaman utterance.  As to whether she hit that mark, read on and judge for yourself.

As usual we emphasize the context of the statement in question. Curiously, in this case Richert failed to list a source.  I write that confidently, given that all save one of the referenced sources was dated in the year 2009, before President Obama gave his first State of the Union address.  The other one was written in 2001.

In any case, here is the version of Obama's speech from
At the beginning of the last decade, the year 2000, America had a budget surplus of over $200 billion.  (Applause.)  By the time I took office, we had a one-year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade.  Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts, and an expensive prescription drug program.  On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget.  All this was before I walked in the door.  (Laughter and applause.)

Now -- just stating the facts.  Now, if we had taken office in ordinary times, I would have liked nothing more than to start bringing down the deficit.  But we took office amid a crisis.  And our efforts to prevent a second depression have added another $1 trillion to our national debt.
(yellow highlights added)
The president said quite a bit within the space of those two paragraphs, and it would be fair to summarize it as "to whatever degree the state of the union is a fiscal nightmare, it is the fault of Bush (or the Republicans)."  But this is another of those times where PolitiFact shows little interest in the underlying argument.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Thales' "Hawkei" armored vehicle news video

Australia, of course, has thrown in with the U.S. JLTV program, which has made Thales rather unhappy. The company has responded by emphasizing that its vehicle represents a superior fit for the Australian fighting forces, as with the talking point that a Chinook helicopter can airlift a Hawkei.