Saturday, July 31, 2010

Economic slavery

There must be more blindly partisan editorial columnists than Robyn "Blumñata" Blumner.  But I could not name one.  This week Blumner acts as a slave to her idea of Democratic economic policy.

Blumner's latest column tries to inform her readers that liberal policies deserve great credit for rescuing the country, and therefore Democrats should be rewarded with continued political power.
The next election should be a contest over which economic world view — laissez-faire or Keynesian — turned out to be the better one, and on that score the Democrats should win.
Blumner's simplistic analysis overlooks the fact that tax cuts are a type of Keynesian stimulus.  Need proof?  Just look at the stimulus package that Blumner wants to count as a triumph of Democratic economic policy.  Of the $787 billion price tag, $288 billion was in the form of tax cuts.  The Republican Party tends to favor lowering taxes more so than the Democratic Party, and Republicans were on board with the tax cutting portions of the stimulus bill.  The objections occurred because Democrats were counting all manner of run-of-the-mill government spending programs as stimulus.  And of the remaining $499 billion, "almost $200 billion remains unspent."  Depending on the span of time over which the tax cuts were calculated, about half of the stimulus was in the form of tax cuts through the present.

So, Blumner offers us what President Obama likes to call "a false choice."

Back to the Blumnerian rant:
Deregulation got America into this mess — decades of it — the kind of laissez-faire economics enacted by the Chamber of Commerce, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and Republican leaders. America barely survived life under their tie-regulators-hands approach to markets. Wall Street sucked up the wealth in this country, hollowing out our productive sectors, while bankers got drunk on risk. It was only after $17 trillion in American household wealth was wiped out in 18 months that Greenspan acknowledged how bankrupt his views were.
Did Blumner forget to mention that much of the $17 trillion only existed because of the same policies she decries?  Oopsie!  Did Blumner likewise forget to mention that government regulation encouraged the housing bubble that set off the banking crisis in the first place?  Double oopsie!   Keep those in mind as Blumner continues:
Blinder and Zandi go on to write that the TARP "has been a substantial success, helping to restore stability to the financial system and to end the free fall in housing and auto markets." And on the $787 billion fiscal stimulus, the authors say that the stimulus alone will add nearly 2.7 million jobs and 2 percent to GDP in 2010.
Meh.  Blumner is accurate in relating the 2.7 million figure, but did a substantial round up to reach the 2 percent figure.  Here's how Blinder and Zandi phrased it:
Nonetheless, the effects of the fiscal stimulus alone appear very substantial, raising 2010 real GDP by about 3.4%, holding the unemployment rate about 1½ percentage points lower, and adding almost 2.7 million jobs to U.S. payrolls.
Blinder and Zandi may be rounding up to reach the 1.5 percentage point figure, and if so then Blumner's estimation is even worse than a 33 percent inflation.  Why not just stick with 1.5?  Maybe that didn't sound good enough?

Again, the Republicans would have acted to stimulate the economy.  But the bill would have relied more on tax cuts and probably would have spent less money--hopefully on things having a greater chance of improving economic performance down the line.  The bill for the stimulus eventually comes due, after all, and that is a legitimate concern of the voting public.

Perhaps Blumner's worst spin comes from her downplaying of the Republican role in TARP, which Blinder and Zandi believe was more beneficial than the stimulus package.  She grudgingly allows that TARP was "passed while George W. Bush was president" though perhaps she wants her readers to think that it passed in spite of the president's veto.  Bush, of course, was the principal force behind TARP, and much of the Republican resistance was due to the lack of accountability of the program.  Blumner is correct on one minor point, in that TARP has received more criticism than it deserves.  The program was effective in averting a severe credit crisis and the loaned monies have been substantially repaid--over half according to Zack's Equities Research.  A bailout via loan is not as bad as a gift bailout unless the borrower defaults.

The big hole in the column is Blumner's failure to acknowledge the drawbacks of a government-managed economy.  Yes, government intervention can soften the landing when times are tough.  But the policy has the effect of slowing the climb and lowering the eventual peaks.  Is it that trade off worth the price, especially if the U.S. follows Greece and Spain toward fiscal oblivion?  Spain, by the way, was one of the Western European socialist nations Blumner would have had us emulate just a few short years ago.

Which reminds me.  If you want to try to predict the next Western European socialist nation Blumner will suggest as the appropriate pattern for the U.S. to copy, take a stab at it in the poll in the sidebar (lower right).

Friday, July 30, 2010

He must be joking

I only made it part way through a Paul Krugman column flagged over at Hot Air for its statement of disillusionment with Obama's Hope 'n' Change.

This one stopped me:
Mr. Obama rode into office on a vast wave of progressive enthusiasm.
The claim is partly true at best.

Progressives could have voted for Dennis Kucinich if their wave had been vast.  Kucinich is serious and unapologetic about his progressive stance.  This Obama character, on the other hand, ran as the post-partisan who would unite the nation, not as the left-winger who would make progressivists' dreams come true.  Obama didn't run as a leftist in public, anyway.

Thanks for the laugh, Krugman.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Grading PolitFact (Ohio): Sherrod Brown and presidential job creation

One of the most common manifestations of liberal media bias occurs when a liberal presupposition goes unchallenged in the context of either an objective news story or in news analysis.  Though PolitiFact apparently continues to present itself as objective news, it is better categorized as news analysis if not editorial opinion.

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Stephen Koff:  writer, researcher
Richard Exner:  researcher
Robert Higgs:  editor


The quotation of Sen. Brown came from a segment of the Rachel Maddow Show.  Maddow segued from a caricature of Marco Rubio's plans for improving the economy to her conversation with Brown:
(MADDOW:) Right now our deficit is around $1 trillion, republicans are proposing to add $3.5 trillion more to it.  Thank you very much. 
Now let them all fall down.  Well done.  There we go.  Don‘t let the door hit your fiscal responsibility when you‘re on your way out.  All right.  Joining us now is democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio.  Senator Brown, thank you for joining us tonight. 
SEN. SHERROD BROWN (D-OH):  You‘re having too much fun, Rachel. 
MADDOW:  I am having too much fun.  Whenever things fail visibly on television, I enjoy myself. 
BROWN:  You do.  And we do!
MADDOW:  Well, thank you.  Let me ask, though, if there is something that I‘m missing aside from good double-stick tape.  Are republicans essentially campaigning on adding all this tax cut stuff to the deficit? 
BROWN:  Yeah, in some sense, what you‘re missing is you‘re only telling half the story, in this way that not only what they‘re doing provably increases the deficit, and did increase the deficit in the first several years of this decade, this century, we know that.  You proved that and we knew that. 
What else it did is it doesn‘t create jobs.  Just contrast the last two eight-year administrations.  During the eight Bush years, 3 million jobs, net jobs created.  During the eight Clinton years, 22 million net jobs created.  So I care about deficits, absolutely.  But what I care even more about is job creation that people have a chance to join the middle class. 
We saw jobs created, 22 million in the Clinton years.  Because they were responsible about cutting taxes selectively and increasing taxes selectively and they were responsible about what government programs they formed and they dismantled.  22 million jobs created and incomes went up in those eight years for the average American.  And in the next eight years, the eight Bush years, only 3 million jobs created and that wasn‘t even enough to keep up with population growth. 
So in that sense, there was a relative decline in job creation.  And wages were flat or worse for the average American.  So—and coupled with that, what the republicans did in eight years is they cut taxes for the richest Americans and they deregulated Wall Street and deregulated worker safety.
Brown makes a ton of dubious claims in the above set of talking points.  PolitiFact Ohio accordingly applies selection bias:
Politicians can slice and dice monthly job reports expertly, a useful skill for scoring economic talking points. Include a few months’ worth of job losses here, exclude some job gains there, or do it in reverse, and pretty soon it’s all some scoundrel’s fault. (Never mind whom that scoundrel is.)

So U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown caught our attention when he took a broader historical look while appearing July 14 on Rachel Maddow’s program on MSNBC.
This, plain and simple, is a laugh.  It is not a "broader historical look" to assess economic policy by looking at the beginning and end points of presidential terms.  It's simply the aforementioned slicing and dicing intended to direct blame at a scoundrel.  The start and finish of a presidential tenure count as relatively arbitrary points in terms of the implementation of economic policy within the ebb and flow of the business cycle.  PolitiFact's failure to pick up on this raises an immediate red flag.

Hold on to your hat, because PolitFact will end up producing red flags like a Leningrad parade in the old Soviet Union:
The quantitative claims seemed worth checking out, and in doing so we found a surprise: Brown is wrong – but not in a way he’ll likely mind. No fan of President George W. Bush, Brown grossly understated the poor job growth that occurred on Bush’s watch.

The comparison should have been this: Job growth through Clinton two terms was 22.7 million. Through Bush’s two terms, it was 1.1 million.
We might ignore the fact that Clinton inherited a recovering economy from President George H. W. Bush while President George W. Bush inherited an economy poised to enter recession, and the fact that banking crisis at the tail end of the latter Bush presidency had a substantial root in Clinton's policy.  But should we ignore those factors while comparing fiscal and economic policy?  Should we ignore those factors while fact checking?

A chart from Heritage Foundation (click chart for enlarged view) helps fill in some of the blanks:

The two worst periods of job creation during the Bush presidency, as the chart helps highlight, occurred during a recession worsened by the destruction of the World Trade Center towers and the banking crisis for which Democrats share considerable blame.  As for Clinton's impressive record of job creation, that was accomplished with the assistance of a Republican-controlled Congress after Clinton inherited an economy on the rebound from recession.

Armed with something more akin to a "broader historical outlook," back to the PolitiFact story:
The quantitative claims seemed worth checking out, and in doing so we found a surprise: Brown is wrong – but not in a way he’ll likely mind. No fan of President George W. Bush, Brown grossly understated the poor job growth that occurred on Bush’s watch.
The fact check on the raw numbers proves satisfactory--but isn't Brown doing far more than making a comparison between the net job creation numbers for Clinton and Bush?  He has an underlying argument supposedly girded by those numbers, doesn't he?  So what is it?

Skipping over the justification for the 1.1 million figure, PolitiFact continues:
OK, but what about Brown’s claim that incomes went up under Clinton?

The numbers bear this out, too. BLS data, adjusted for inflation, show that average weekly wages grew by 21 percent from the start of Clinton’s first term to the end of his second term. They grew by only 2 percent under Bush’s two terms.
OK, so what's Brown's argument based on these numbers?

Is it fair to compare job growth under these presidents? Just in case we were missing some context – because these numbers seemed to turn conventional wisdom of its head -- we ran this by Dan Mitchell, an economist and fan of fiscal restraint who works as a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian-oriented think tank. Mitchell said he didn’t find the numbers surprising. Luck and the economic cycle played a role in both presidencies, but the officeholders’ policies played bigger roles, he said. Citing free-trade agreements, welfare reform and deregulation in the telecommunications and agriculture industries, Mitchell said that Clinton’s economic policies were actually geared more to free markets than Bush’s, and the results speak for themselves.
Mitchell, unsurprisingly, makes some of the points to which I alluded above while giving appropriate credit to Clinton for favoring free markets in his economic approach.

But if Clinton's success occurred largely because of a free market approach, besting Bush in terms of conservatism, then might there be consequences for Brown's underlying argument?  And speaking of Brown's underlying argument, does PolitiFact have any insight as to what it might be?

Sorry, folks!  It's conclusion time already:
But that’s for others to argue. Bush, while insisting on tax cuts, faced a national security crisis unparalleled in the last half-century, and his response – including wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – had serious economic consequences.  Political values, including those of Sen. Brown, shape the debate on whether the president took the right or wrong approach. As for us, we’re sticking to the factual claims.

Brown’s numbers on Bush were off, but his point was right on target. We rate his statement True.
"(H)is point was right on target."  Apparently PolitiFact takes Brown to mean simply that Clinton's job creation numbers were much better than Bush's measured from the start to the end of their two terms.  But the caveats discussed above make that an effectively meaningless comparison except perhaps, as Cato's Mitchell put it, as a measure of Clinton's free market savvy.  But seriously, doesn't the context demand that Brown's underlying argument is something other than that?

The whole of the Maddow-Brown interchange amounts to an attack on the notion of cutting taxes to grow the economy.  Brown tried to make the  point that cutting taxes does not create jobs, using the Clinton/Bush comparison to prove his point.  Review the transcript:
"What else it did is it doesn‘t create jobs.  Just contrast the last two eight-year administrations.  During the eight Bush years, 3 million jobs, net jobs created.  During the eight Clinton years, 22 million net jobs created."
Without specifically identifying Brown's point, PolitiFact declares his point "right on target."  But given the information above, it should be obvious that Brown's intended point--that tax cuts do not create jobs--cannot find reasonable support in the Clinton/Bush comparison.

PolitiFact again ignored the clear underlying argument of a Democratic Party figure.  The supposed fact check serves to frame, rather than interpret, Brown's statement in the most favorable manner possible.  Any communication deserves charitable interpretation.  Charitable framing, however, should not be the business of a fact checker.  That is the job of public relations workers and partisan spinners.

The grades:

Stephen Koff:  F
Richard Exner: F
Robert Higgs:  F

Exner may have done a fine job, but the research on this story is so thin that he gets an "F" by default.  I like to hope that he made some sort of comment to the writer and editor to the effect that their story was fundamentally flawed.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Grading PolitiFact: Joe Biden & the Iraq partition plan

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.' 
--Lewis Carroll, "Through the Looking Glass

The issue:

The fact checkers

Robert Farley: writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor


Biden's statement came from his appearance with Jake Tapper on ABC's "This Week":
(TAPPER):  You once advocated for a three way partition of Iraq because you were not confident that Iraq's government was capable of having a strong central government. You said:

"The most basic premise of President Bush's approach that the Iraqi people will rally behind a strong central government headed by Maliki, in fact, looks out for their interests equitably is fundamentally and fatally flawed. It will not happen in anybody's lifetime here including the pages!"

So it's -- that was from 2007.
Is it possible that you were right back then...
TAPPER: -- that it is just impossible...
BIDEN: -- and, by the way...
TAPPER: -- to have a centralized government...
BIDEN: No, it's -- I don't want to debate history here, but I never called for a partition. I called for a central government with considerable autonomy in the regions.
TAPPER: Three provinces.
BIDEN: Well, it was...
TAPPER: I'm...
BIDEN: -- not -- it wasn't even, it was to allow them more autonomy, like what's happening in Kurdistan right now, like what's happening in Anbar Province right now.
(yellow highlights added)
Biden's view on Iraq was routinely called a "partition" over the last few years.  PolitiFact's initial response to Biden's statement reflects that:
Biden responded by taking issue with the word "partition" -- which was often used to describe Biden's plan at the time -- saying it was never about breaking Iraq into three separate countries.

"I don't want to debate history here, but I never called for a partition," Biden said. "I called for a central government with considerable autonomy in the regions."
I searched through the rest of Biden's response to Tapper's question and failed to find the vice president saying that it was never about breaking Iraq into three separate countries.  That statement from PolitiFact must therefore count as a liberal paraphrase of the subsequent quotation of Biden.  That paraphrase apparently finds its justification from taking "partition" according to the dictionary definition "3. To divide (a country) into separate, autonomous nations" and not the dictionary definition "b : to divide (as a country) into two or more territorial units having separate political status."

How does one explain this phenomenon?  Watch PolitiFact try:
Check the headlines in 2007, and it's clear that the word "partition" or "soft partition" was often used to describe Biden's proposal, which called for boundaries to be drawn for the country's Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite populations. And so we decided to check his claim that he never called for a partition.
PolitiFact proceeds to provide Biden's own words on the subject of setting up areas within Iraq under the control of the major factions--things that clearly meet the latter definition of "partition"--and include Biden's contemporaneous protestations that he was not proposing a partition of Iraq:
(O)ur plan is not partition, though even some supporters and the media mistakenly call it that. It would hold Iraq together by bringing to life the federal system enshrined in its constitution. A federal Iraq is a united Iraq but one in which power devolves to regional governments, with a limited central government responsible for common concerns such as protecting borders and distributing oil revenue. 
 The conclusion of the fact check indicates that PolitiFact fully accepts Biden's contention:
So is it fair to call Biden's plan a call to "partition" Iraq? Certainly Biden advocated carving out three semi-autonomous regions. In that sense, we could see why many characterized Biden's proposal as a "soft partition." But the word "partition" carries heavy political implications, namely the creation of three separate nations. And that was never Biden's plan. He consistently upheld the idea of one Iraq with a central government, albeit a more modest one responsible for such things as defense, foreign affairs and sharing oil revenues. That's an important distinction. We rate his claim True.
PolitiFact suggests those who use "partition" to mean something other than the establishment of a new autonomous nation or nations are mistaken, even if that includes "some supporters and the media."  The PolitiFact story represents something of a media mea culpa:  "We goofed, Mr. Biden!"

It's time for yet another review of PoltiFact's rating system:

TRUE – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.
MOSTLY TRUE – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.
HALF TRUE – The statement is accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
BARELY TRUE – The statement contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
FALSE – The statement is not accurate.
PANTS ON FIRE – The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.
Robert Farley and PolitiFact concluded that Biden's account left nothing significant missing.  Unfortunately, that claim can't even stand up to the facts collected in Farley's story.  Biden failed to mention while talking with Tapper that his plan was called a partition plan.  That isn't an important clarification?  If the clarification isn't important then why mention it in the story?  The clairification is important, and as a result Farley's conclusion is self-defeating.  PolitiFact pointed out something important that Biden left out and then proclaimed Biden innocent of leaving out anything important.

But at the bottom line Biden did more than simply neglect to mention that his plan was called a partition plan.  He redefined the word to exclude a portion of its traditional meaning.  For example:
On May 13, 1862, Governor Pierpont of the "Restored Government" of Virginia called his General Assembly into session, and this body promptly gave assent to the partition of the state and the formation of West Virginia.
Note that the division of West Virginia from the original state of Virginia is called a "partition."  It is the type of partition that Biden proposed for Iraq.  Importantly, it was not merely benighted supporters of the Biden-Brownback proposal or unsophisticated journalists who perceived partitioning in the Biden proposal.  It came from experts:
“Federalism” is receiving the bulk of attention in Washington and Baghdad, but it is by no means the only restructuring buzzword swirling in foreign policy circles. Edward P. Joseph, a visiting scholar at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, write in USA Today that they prefer less subtle terminology: “soft partition.”
Paul R. Williams and Matthew T. Simpson, in "Rethinking the Political Future:  An Alternative to the Ethno-Sectarian Division of Iraq":
A number of prominent American law makers and foreign policy shapers have strongly advocated for the soft, and sometimes hard, partition of Iraq—either through the creation of a loose federal structure based on ethno-sectarian lines, or through its outright partition.
Lieutenant Colonel David W. Riggins, in "Ending the Conflict in Iraq--Is Partition the Answer?":
Over a year before the 2006 elections, one such recommendation was raised in foreign policy circles and circulated throughout the media. Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware subsequently endorsed one variant of this recommendation. The plan called for the partition of Iraq into three mainly autonomous federated regions with a “strong” central Iraqi government.
 Major Douglas W. Merritt, in "Is Federalism based on Ethnic Partition a Viable Solution in Iraq?":
Delaware Senator Joseph R. Biden proposed, in a news release on 6 October 2006, a plan to partition Iraq as the new strategy to conclude Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) successfully (Biden Press Release 2006, 1).

Merritt dedicated a section to defining "partition":
The ethnic partition of Iraq does not require ethnically pure provinces. The partition of Iraq refers to the creation of internal borders to establish three ethnic provinces, with a central government headquartered in the city-state of Baghdad. For this thesis, the provinces are Kurdistan, Shiastan, and Sunni-Iraq. The borders shown in figure 3 established a common concept of the partition of Iraq and do not represent draft borders from any official source. The borders represent the well-known rifts between Kurds, Shias, and Sunnis.
These references represent the tip of the iceberg.  Professional literature on international relations abounds with references to "partition" while describing the type of Iraqi governance recommended by Biden and Leslie Gelb.  Perhaps nobody at all mistook Biden's proposal as a suggestion that Iraq divide into three separate nations, at least until Robert Farley started checking the facts.

Biden suggested partition of Iraq, and his denial that he offered partition as a solution was disingenuous from the start.  He apparently deliberately chose to employ euphemisms to avoid the negative connotations that PolitiFact eventually used to justify rating his denial as perfectly true.  "True" is the one rating that cannot apply.

The grades:

Robert Farley:  F
Martha Hamilton:  F

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The JLTV competition as competition

The National Defense Industry Association's magazine, National Defense, has a terrific story on the competitive process currently being used to develop the JLTV.

The story helps illuminate some of the technology-related decisions (indirectly explaining the decision against the diesel-electric power plants offered by two early competitors) and provides details regarding Australia's involvement with the JLTV program.

Blumner Explains: How to finance elections!

Another week, another Robyn "Blumñata" Blumner column to dissect.

Last week on "Blumner Explains," she told you what was wrong with the GOP view of the financial crisis. And this week she'll tell you the solution to the huge problem of rich people spending their own money to finance their political campaigns:
(W)e have a hamstrung candidate who has to continuously raise money in small amounts challenged by one who simply digs in his own pocket. Not fair, right? What to do? The answer is public financing.
Dang.  That was easy.  Pretty much like figuring out your name, your favorite color or identifying the fact that your quest is for the Holy Grail.

But why isn't it fair for Rick Scott to dig into his own pocket for campaign finances?  Because he has more money than McCollum?  Barack Obama had a ton more money than John McCain during the last presidential election and I don't recall Blumner whining about it.  Maybe it's fair to have more campaign money than the other guy for reasons other than personal wealth.  But Blumner never really explains that, so I guess we'll have to leave it hanging.

If the issue is fairness, then how many other things should we change about elections?  Rigid controls on campaign promises?  I mean, is it fair to promise things like tax cuts or other popular goodies?  Is it fair to strongly imply (if not promise) that one will not raise taxes on certain folks and then turn around and raise taxes on those folks?

Is it fair to have better name recognition than an opponent?  Or more experience in public office, such as having been elected dogcatcher?  Is it fair being smarter than one's opponent?  Or having better administrative skills?  Or having a better speaking style?

Perhaps what we really need is the Harrison Bergeron Campaign Reform Act of 2010, not some paltry public financing scheme.

Half of Blumner's gripe is aimed at the recent Supreme Court decision that jeopardized some campaign finance laws.  The majority in the 5-4 decision reasoned, in a nutshell, that the government needed a compelling case to limit spending since spending constitutes a type of political speech.

Blumner disagrees:
I don't think the First Amendment is injured under the public financing model. The dissent by Justice John Paul Stevens in Davis explains why. He wrote the millionaire's amendment "quiets no speech at all" and simply assists an opponent "in his attempts to make his voice heard" — an "amplification," Stevens said, that "in no way mutes the voice of the millionaire, who remains able to speak as loud and as long as he likes."
The Davis decision, for what it's worth, was not a public financing model.  The summary of the case makes that clear:
The self-financing candidate remains subject to the normal limitations, but his opponent, the “non-self financing” candidate, may receive individual contributions at treble the normal limit from individuals who have reached the normal limit on aggregate contributions, and may accept coordinated party expenditures without limit.
As for the First Amendment argument, Blumner initially argued that it was not "fair" for Scott to spend more than McCollum.  Fair like this, apparently:
(Davis contended the "Millionaires amendment") unconstitutionally burdens his exercise of his First Amendment right to make unlimited expenditures of his personal funds because making expenditures that create the imbalance has the effect of enabling his opponent to raise more money and to use that money to finance speech that counteracts and thus diminishes the effectiveness of Davis’ own speech.
If Davis wasn't correct, then in what respect would public financing improve the fairness of election in Blumner's eyes?

Blumner's argument rests on an attitude dismissive of the voters' ability to correctly choose their preferred candidate without the help of the omnibenevolent government.


I'm glad Rick Scott had a chance to push his candidacy for Florida governor.  I found quite a bit to like about his policy positions.  Plus he physically resembled Max Headroom compared to Bill McCollum's passing resemblance to Howdy Doody.  Advantage Scott on that one.  However, Scott carries a large burden of negatives into the governor's race.  Though I think Scott is more conservative, I'll be voting for Bill McCollum in the belief that he will fare better against his Democratic opponent.

The reason, by the way, for the influx of moneyed candidates is obvious:  Open seats, weak competition and a contentious political atmosphere will collectively make up a strong draw for candidates more blessed with money than either party support or name recognition.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Is this news? Jay Bybee and overreach by interrogators

I finished listening to an audiobook version of Marc A. Thiessen's book "Courting Disaster" this week.  That book was partly responsible for my jaw dropping when I saw this story in the New York Times:
WASHINGTON — A former Bush Justice Department official who approved brutal interrogation methods by the C.I.A. has told Congress that he never authorized several other rough tactics reportedly inflicted on terrorism suspects — including prolonged shackling to a ceiling and repeated beatings.
Isn't it widely know by now that the Bush administration set strict limits on harsh interrogation methods?  And since when is "brutal" an acceptable judgment in objective reporting?

This news was old even when Attorney General Eric Holder contemplated charging CIA interrogators who went beyond the use of techniques authorized by the Bush administration.

Researchers hoist with own petard?

In a recent post I took note of the publication of new research purported to support the notion that partisans reject information that contradicts strongly held beliefs more readily than do non-partisans.  I've identified and read the study by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler.

The verdict?  Read on.

One of the instantly striking aspects of the study, titled "When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions," was the redefinition of "misperception" employed by the authors:
(W)e define misperceptions as cases in which people’s beliefs about factual matters are not supported by clear evidence and expert opinion—a definition that includes both false and unsubstantiated beliefs about the world.
That definition occurs in a section devoted to the case for redefining the term for purposes of the study (pp. 304,305).  I suggest to the researchers that a term redefined to reflect that "factual matters that are the subject of contemporary political debate are rarely as black and white as standard political knowledge questions" will result in an increased ambiguity in the finished results where the redefined term occurs.  In particular, if news reports seize on the term "misperception" without mentioning the spin placed on the term by Nyhan et al., the news report will end up producing or reinforcing an unsubstantiated belief in the reader.  Which we might call a "misperception" regardless of whether it contradicts the expert opinions of Nyhan and Reifler.  Clear evidence, after all, constitutes a requirement according to their definition.

The study provides fairly clear evidence that Nyhan and Reifler were "hoist by their own petard."

Friday, July 16, 2010

Blumner Explains: Errors of the GOP on the financial crisis!

Robyn "Blumñata" Blumner returned last weekend with yet another senseless screed.

Blumner's column, perhaps once again inspired by a book from a liberal author, attempts to explain why Republicans are wrong to pin the financial crisis on the Community Reinvestment Act along with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

But there's a problem. Blumner's column largely disagrees with the take on the subprime mortgage crisis published by her own paper, the St. Petersburg Times, back on Oct. 12, 2008. See my review and (relatively!) effusive praise of that story here.

A few of the juicier tidbits from Blumner's column:
Fannie and Freddie bought home loans that met certain underwriting standards to free up credit so banks could lend to other borrowers. Many of these loans were packaged into bonds (known as agency mortgage-backed securities) and then sold. But Fannie and Freddie kept much of the risk on its own books by guaranteeing the underlying mortgages against default.
Fannie and Freddie's buying allowed banks to profit from writing the loan and then selling the risk to American taxpayers!  How does Blumner not figure that out even if her nose is buried in an ideologically tilted fairy-tale account of the crisis?  The Washington Post explains:
The agency neglected to examine whether borrowers could make the payments on the loans that Freddie and Fannie classified as affordable. From 2004 to 2006, the two purchased $434 billion in securities backed by subprime loans, creating a market for more such lending. Subprime loans are targeted toward borrowers with poor credit, and they generally carry higher interest rates than conventional loans.
The government made subprime mortgages profitable with its actions.

Another tidbit:
Since about 1995 Wall Street started encroaching on this business, but with a key difference. After Wall Street bought the mortgages, securitized and sold them, it did not guarantee them against default. Wall Street banks had no skin in the game and not surprisingly had less interest in making sure they were buying sound mortgages.
Wall Street still had a good amount of skin the the game, but they were able to peddle off quite a bit to taxpayers (through Fannie and Freddie) as well as to foreign investors.  But the system was enabled and originally forced on the banks by the government.

Blumner again:
Financial expert and author of Bailout Nation Barry Ritholtz puts it another way. He writes that if the CRA caused the crisis, then foreclosures in CRA regions should be the highest in the country, but in fact it's the "sand states" — non-CRA regions such as Southern California, Las Vegas, Arizona and South Florida — that have the worst rates. Ritholtz says the banks making CRA mortgages should be disproportionately failing. But again, Ritholtz notes, that's not what has happened. CRA banks have been relatively healthy. Compared with other factors, Ritholtz says, "the CRA impact is all but irrelevant." 
Ritholtz's logic is faulty, and Blumner shares the criticism for buying it.

1)  The government regulated banks by making the percentage of risky loans a key criterion for things like bank mergers.  The number of "CRA loans" is a red herring.  The risky loans didn't have to be CRA loans.  Banks simply had to use a certain amount of money on such loans to remain in compliance with government standards.

2)  The point above pretty much negates the point Blumner cites from Ritholtz about the prediction of banks with CRA mortgages failing disproportionately.  John Carney at Business Insider goes into greater detail and specifically debunks Ritholtz's objection, using the Countrywide mortgage company as an example.

Carney makes a comprehensive and fair case in "Here's How The Community Reinvestment Act Led To The Housing Bubble's Lax Lending," which contains abundant links to his more detailed arguments.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

PolitiFact & the expert interview

Journalists keep secrets.

No, not secrets like a deal by the U.S. government to get banks to help find terrorists via their transaction records.  And not secrets like the existence of secret CIA prisons.  They keep other secrets.

They keep secrets such as their political leanings.  And secrets like the context of the quotations they use in their stories.  The latter secret accounts for this post, combined with my suspicion that PolitiFact reports don't always follow the best practices when obtaining comment from expert sources.

My first confrontation with PolitiFact's shortcomings in this area occurred while researching their story about John McCain's supposed earmarks.  I expressed the suspicion that Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union may been taken a bit out of context.  Eventually I contacted Sepp and confirmed that suspicion to my satisfaction.

Often since I have wondered what questions PolitiFact reporters used to obtain statements from expert sources.  The reporter must take care not to ask leading questions.  Moreover, the reporter needs to tailor the question to ensure that the response reflects the expert's area of expertise.

Monday, July 12, 2010

They're baaaack ... (Updated) (The Boston Globe) has resurrected the story about studies supposedly confirming that political leaners right and left entrench rather than rethink when confronted with facts that contradict their erroneous views.

It sounded familiar, and with good reason.  The main point of the story rested on studies led by political scientist Brendan Nyhan:
Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.
The story later identified Nyhan as the lead researcher.

I dissected that study as well as one led by John Bullock in a Sept. 17, 2008 post.

Nyhan's problem was his attempt to simulate the manner in which individuals encounter contradictory facts, as by reading a newspaper.  That approach is flawed because people can have good reasons for not trusting the newspaper over their own beliefs.  Beyond that, the specific cases used in Nyhan's study had internal ambiguities that very likely affected the outcomes.

The story also refers to a study from 2000 conducted by James H. Kuklinski:
Kuklinski’s welfare study suggested that people will actually update their beliefs if you hit them “between the eyes” with bluntly presented, objective facts that contradict their preconceived ideas.
The source of the contradictory information makes a difference.  What else would we expect?

Find the Kuklinski study here.

The story referred to one other study:
New research, published in the journal Political Behavior last month, suggests that once those facts — or “facts” — are internalized, they are very difficult to budge.
So far as I could determine, the story did not provide any substantial material from the study in Political Behavior, nor did it name any of the authors responsible for the study.  But I look forward to surveying it once I've located it.


The new study in Political Behavior is apparently a reworked version of the old Nyhan study and was again led by Nyhan.  I'll update in a new post after I assess whether the researchers effectively minimized the problems with the earlier study.

July 14, 2010:  Reworked for the first sentence in my fifth paragraph for clarity.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Grading PolitiFact: Sarah Palin & defense spending (Updated)

"There is ... a deep anti-military bias in the media. One that begins from the premise that the military must be lying, and that American projection of power around the world must be wrong."
--Terry Moran of ABC News, broadcast on the Hugh Hewitt Show May 18, 2005
Who knew?

Sarah Palin submitted a new post to her FaceBook page.  That's news, and time again for PolitiFact to fact check.

The issue:

PolitiFact did its work for two of Palin's claims.  I'm posting the main page blurbs together as they appeared there:

I'm including both images because the second one accounts for some of the context of Palin's statement about the 25th ranking for the U.S.

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Morris Kennedy:  editor


PolitiFact often deals with the literal statement as well as the underlying argument.

Louis Jacobson begins:
In a June 30, 2010, Facebook post, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin posted excerpts from a speech she gave in Norfolk, Va., primarily on national security. At one point, she said, "Did you know the U.S. actually only ranks 25th worldwide on defense spending as a percentage of GDP?"
PolitiFact claims that it grades claims while keeping them in context.  Perhaps revealing the her overall subject, national security, adequately fulfills that goal.  Just in case, here's more:
Our Defense Secretary recently stated the “gusher” of defense spending was over and that it was time for the Department of Defense to tighten its belt. There’s a gusher of spending alright, but it’s not on defense. Did you know the US actually only ranks 25th worldwide on defense spending as a percentage of GDP? We spend three times more on entitlements and debt services than we do on defense.
(yellow highlights added)
Note that the third sentence represents this fact check.  The following sentence is the one also receiving a fact check.  What is the underlying argument?  Most likely Palin sought to support her claim that there is no "gusher" of defense spending compared to other spending and chose two stats she expected to surprise her audience in order to underline that judgment.  That Palin presents one of the factoids as a question supports that interpretation.

Assuming I am correct, PolitiFact's decision to fact check the two claims at least partially validates her underlying argument.  PolitiFact found the claim surprising, as was made clear by Jacobson statement after he had quoted Palin:
At one point, she said, "Did you know the U.S. actually only ranks 25th worldwide on defense spending as a percentage of GDP?"

We didn't, so we decided to check up on her statistic.

We quickly tracked down the chart from which we suspect she pulled her factoid. (Her staff didn't return our e-mail query.) It's a credible source -- the CIA World Factbook -- and, as Palin said, the U.S. does rank 25th in the world, spending an estimated 4.06 percent of GDP on defense in 2005.
With the "False" and "Pants On Fire" ratings apparently ruled out, let's review the descriptions for the remaining "Truth-O-Meter" possibilities:
TRUE – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.
MOSTLY TRUE – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.
HALF TRUE – The statement is accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
BARELY TRUE – The statement contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
Review completed, back to Jacobson:
Case closed? Not really.

The list includes all countries, regardless of size, so some tiny countries outrank the United States on the CIA list. There's Eritrea at number 9 (with an economy about 1/1000th of the size of the U.S. economy); Burundi at number 11 (with an economy that's even less than 1/1000th the size of the U.S. economy); and Maldives at 13th (with an economy roughly the same size as Burundi's).
Though Palin specifically stated that the U.S. was 25th "worldwide," apparently she misled in Jacobson's eyes.

All told, only four nations on the CIA list could be described as either industrialized democracies or major world players. They are Israel (6th), Turkey (16th), China (23rd) and Greece (24th).
Probably Jacobson meant that only four of the nations rated above the U.S. on the list were major world players.  If the list "includes all countries" as Jacobson claimed earlier, then we ought to find every industrialized democracy and major world player on the list.  It's OK for PolitiFact to misstate things like that, however.  The important thing is the other guy is not accurate.  Apparently Palin should have asked "Did you know that U.S. actually only ranks 5th among major world players on defense spending as a percentage of GDP?"  That would have made a huge difference or something.

Then Jacobson drops what probably accounts for the bigger complaint:
Is there a better yardstick? We think there is -- using rankings of members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD is a group of 31 nations that are generally large, industrialized democracies. This list makes the comparison closer to one of peers.
Hmm.  How many of those "large, industrialized democracies" are members of NATO and thus substantially subsidized in their defense by the U.S.?  It's easier to list the world players not part of NATO:
  • Australia
  • Chile
  • Korea
  • Mexico
  • New Zealand
  • Sweden
  • Austria
  • Finland
  • Ireland
  • Japan
  • Switzerland

We can add Japan and Korea immediately to the list of nations substantially subsidized in their national defense by the U.S.

Should any others qualify as resting under U.S. protection? I would suggest Australia (by treaty), Austria (nestled in the midst of NATO), Mexico (by proximity) and Switzerland (like Austria surrounded by NATO).

That leaves us only with Chile, New Zealand, Sweden and Finland as nations not unambiguously subsidized in their defense by the U.S. military. PolitiFact wants us to compare our military spending as a percentage of GDP with nations whose defense we subsidize plus two nations, Finland and Sweden, with an official policy of neutrality. New Zealand is geographically isolated and has a defense treaty with Australia. Chile has no history of using its military away from its home continent of South America. That's the best comparison? Ridiculous.

Additional sifting through the data revealed more problems. The OECD did not originate the data from which its list was derived. The data came from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.  And the following is from their description of their methodology:
SIPRI data reflects the official data reported by governments. As a general rule, SIPRI takes national data to be accurate until there is convincing information to the contrary. Estimates are made primarily when the coverage of official data does not correspond to the SIPRI definition or when there are no consistent time series available.
What makes SIPRI data better than CIA data?  Clearly superiority is not established by concentrating the comparison between the U.S. and other nations whose defense the U.S. subsidizes.  Just as clearly, giving non-transparent regimes (such as China) the benefit of the doubt minus strong evidence to the contrary tilts the board in favor of secretive nations.  To be sure, PolitiFact grants the caveat that secrecy is a problem--but then why prefer SIPRI as a data source in the first place?  Minus a recommendation from a consensus of neutral experts, PolitiFact's preference cannot count as an objective judgment.  It is opinion.

Speaking of expert opinions, Jacobson includes but one in his story:
Todd Harrison, a fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said other factors set the U.S. apart.

"In absolute dollars, we spend almost as much as all other countries combined," Harrison said. "So saying we are 25th is a bit misleading and a selective use of facts."
OK, then, let's take the test.  It consists of one question:

Which of the following best matches "a bit misleading and a selective use of facts"?

A)  The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.
B)  The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.
C)  The statement is accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context. 
D)  The statement contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different    impression.

If you chose D then you have something in common with Louis Jacobson and PolitiFact:
Although she's technically correct, the numbers are wildly skewed by tiny, non-industrialized countries. We find her claim Barely True.
If, on the other hand, you thought Harrison's statement fit B or C just about as well if not better, I sympathize.

The fact is that Palin provided additional context that touched on the great expense involved in projecting power throughout the world:

It takes a lot of resources to maintain the best fighting force in the world – especially at a time when we face financial uncertainty and a mountain of debt that threatens all of our futures.
If we lose wars, if we lose the ability to deter adversaries, if we lose the ability to provide security for ourselves and for our allies, we risk losing all that makes America great! That is a price we cannot afford to pay.
Secretary Gates recently spoke about the future of the US Navy. He said we have to “ask whether the nation can really afford a Navy that relies on $3 to $6 billion destroyers, $7 billion submarines, and $11 billion carriers.” He went on to ask, “Do we really need... more strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one?”

Well, my answer is pretty simple: Yes, we can and, yes, we do because we must. Our Navy has global responsibilities.
Palin was "technically correct."  So what was misleading in the underlying argument?  What numbers were supposedly "wildly skewed" by Palin's use of the CIA fact book?  Jacobson never identifies the target he claims Palin missed other than to claim that U.S. defense spending ought to be compared to nations either under our protective umbrella or with other reasons for low defense spending that do not allow for a fair comparison.  And he uses a dubious source to make the critical comparison with the nations who might tend to cause defense concerns for the U.S.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Morris Kennedy:  F

PolitiFact left important data hidden and inserted opinion, if not error, by preferring a different measure based on incoherent grounds.

The fact check is not so much horrible for its rating of Palin but for the fact that PolitiFact does the same types of things for which Palin is faulted.  If it is wrong for Palin to leave out relevant data then it is wrong for PolitiFact to leave out relevant data.


Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Yummy yummy blogroll

Thanks to the TEFAP Alliance Blog for the blogroll add.

TEFAP apparently distributes the Foodlinks America Newsletter.  I'm not entirely certain of the connection (I could offer a minimally educated guess), but it may be a good idea for me to post more about food.

How about those "Little Debbie" Swiss Cake Rolls?  Not quite chocolate, but not quite inedible, either!  Your USRDA of sugar all in one little package.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Pelosi: Unemployment benefits create jobs or something

Watch out, Hillary Clinton. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has her sights set on your "Smartest Woman in the World" title and she's headed straight to the top.

Via Hot Air, to which you might go for additional commentary.

Megyn Kelly talks to J. Christian Adams (Updated with newer video)

Attorney J. Christian Adams left his job at the DOJ in protest of the decision to drop a case against uniformed New Black Panther Party members who stationed themselves in front of a polling station in Pennsylvania.

Part 1

Part 2.1

Part 2.2

Paging Robyn Blumner, Robyn Blumner the subject of your next editorial column is waiting.


Kelly updates the story with Adams' allegation that laws requiring states to cull ineligible voters from their rolls are going unenforced for political reasons:

Was this the flip side of the Bush administration's increased emphasis on voter fraud cases? I don't know the details enough to launch into judgment. Until I hear more I'll tend to give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt.

If this aspect of the situation is reasonably comparable to the aforementioned emphasis on prosecution carried out by the Bush DOJ, then Adams' credibility will suffer. That would surprise me, as Adams has appeared extremely credible so far.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

PolitiFact doesn't know the answer

Score one for sanity:
Despite the defense of U.S. actions by Panetta and Koh, we are uncomfortable stating with any certainty that a covert program is definitively operating within the law. We simply can't verify it independently. So we are refraining from rating Panetta's comment on the Truth-o-Meter.
PoltiFact refrained from setting the needle for its cheesy "Truth O Meter" because the claim was unverifiable.

That's a good policy.

In the past--and I suspect the tendency will continue in the future--PolitiFact has boldly executed its ratings based on tentative evidence.  For example, PolitiFact rated Nancy Pelosi "False" where additional evidence might (I have my doubts) have supported her.  Candidates who make political claims will receive poor ratings if they fail to provide evidence beyond PolitiFact's unknown thresholds.

Would PolitiFact have used the same rating method if the policy was attributable solely to the Bush administration?  I think there's a good chance that PolitiFact would have ruled consistently based on its evidence.  The responsibility would kick back to experts in academia and at think-tanks.

So ... would experts at the universities have offered different interview responses depending on the degree of sympathy with the administration's politics?
When possible, we go to original sources to verify the claims. We look for original government reports rather than news stories. We interview impartial experts.
(, ironic URL added)