Sunday, October 31, 2010

Bucs move to 5-2 with road win over Cardinals

What a game.

The Bucs used two defensive touchdowns to achieve a 24-14 halftime lead in Phoenix, then lost the lead in the 4th quarter after a furious comeback by the home team left Tampa Bay trailing by four late in the fourth quarter.  Quarterback Josh Freeman, in just his second year with the club, engineered yet another late drive to make the score 38-35, and the defense made it stand after a few more changes of possession.

Whew.

The win puts the Bucs near the top of the NFC with a first-place showdown looming with the Atlanta Falcons.  I'll skip talking smack about that game because the Bucs have suffered humbling losses to Pittsburgh and New Orleans this year.  Instead, I'm going to emphasize the goodness of the 5-2 record all things considered.

Yes, the Bucs have played so-so competition so far.  But every team has to play the schedule the way the NFL makes it.  Every win counts.  And though I'm an optimist (I'd have predicted nearly 10 wins this year), I expected two things that have not materialized.

1)  A solid season by the defense led by a secondary featuring Tanard Jackson at safety.

2)  A solid running game featuring Carnell "Cadillac" Williams and speedy Kareem Huggins.

Tanard Jackson may be the best player in the Bucs' secondary, but after flunking a test for substance abuse he was lost for the season.  Coach Raheem Morris surprised many of us by inserting rookie Cody Grimm into the lineup instead of Piscitelli.  Grimm has responded with solid, if imperfect, play.

Cadillac Williams has had a terrible time running the ball.  Huggins only carried a few times before suffering a season-ending ACL injury.  The Bucs' running game remains a work in progress, but waiver-wire claim LaGarrette Blount has come through to bolster the running game.

Meanwhile, the Bucs' offensive line has suffered injuries at center, left guard and right tackle and has cycled through three different starting punters since preseason.

Most teams that suffer those problems hover near .500 or worse.  Hardly anybody picked the Bucs to finish over .500 in the first place.

Obviously there's no guarantee of even one more win this season.  But the team's performance so far has at least made the season exciting and enjoyable so far for Buccaneer fans.

Bring on the (beatable) Falcons.

More on the Alex Sink cheating debacle (Updated)

Alex Sink cheated during last week's gubernatorial debate with Republican candidate Rick Scott.  And, as is so often the case, the coverup ends up as the larger story.

Sink blamed the cheating on campaign staffer Brian May, who sent Sink a text message by phone.  But video shows Sink looking at the message for some 10 seconds or so and excusing the event to the CNN staffer who confiscated the phone shortly after by saying "Oh that's okay. It didn't have anything on it that was-."  Yes, she clammed up abruptly at that point.

Regardless of May's actions, Sink was guilty of cheating when she received debate advice from the makeup artist "They want you to stand up."  And evidence keeps popping up that pokes holes in Sink's story about the incident:
John King, a co-host of the debate, said on CNN Tuesday that CNN reviewed an audio clip that clearly reveals that the makeup artist alerted Sink about the message.

"We listened very closely to the audio,'' King said, "And the makeup artist, when she approached Alex Sink, said, 'I have a message from the staff.' And at that point they looked, it was on a cell phone... It was essentially advice after the last segment of the debate telling her if that question comes up again,
remember this, and be more aggressive when Rick Scott questions you.''
(Miami Herald "Naked Politics" blog)
The Herald blogger, Marc Caputo, notes that we're taking John King's word for the audio content.  The aired portion of the video that includes the conversation between Sink and her makeup artist picks up with the attempt to read the message on the phone.  Caputo has a point that hearing the audio firsthand would be nice, but if we're not trusting the reports of journalists without seeing the evidence where does that end?  Do we need a Marc Caputo for anything other than posting audio and video clips?

I find it interesting that the Herald--a liberal newspaper if there ever was one--is still on this story while the St. Petersburg Times has gone silent since Oct. 28 (a story about a Rick Scott ad that mentions Sink's cheating).


The Times sponsored the debate, but has demonstrated no real interest in the story.


Oct. 27
Oct. 27

Update (Nov. 1, 2010)

Looks like I missed a Times story from Oct. 28 that mentions the cheating episode.  But the story is not objective reporting, instead making editorial excuses for Sink based on an earlier Caputo story that did the same thing:
Sink has spent the last two days responding to the flap after debate moderater John King of CNN concluded that Sink knew she was receiving coaching from an aide during the debate. It took Sink's campaign two days to persuade the media that she did not cheat and unwound the video to show that she did not realize why she was being handed the phone.
Simply reporting the facts ought to lead any reasonable reader to the conclusion that Sink ought to have known she was cheating.  King stated that CNN had audio of the stylist telling Sink she had advice from her campaign staff ("[T]he makeup artist, when she approached Alex Sink, said, 'I have a message from the staff.'").  The stylist also wondered aloud--loud enough for CNN's microphones, anyway, whether it was campaign staffer Brian (May) who sent the message.  On top of that, Sink received advice separately from stylist, who told her twice--the second time in response to Sink's request--to "stand up" to Scott. 

There's simply nothing in the video that permits any so-called "objective" determination that Sink did not know what she was doing.

This is probably a good example of how, when the chips are down and the pressure is on, the desire to see the Democrat win affects a news staff's ability to report the news.

I naively felt that Rick Scott was unwise to put so much emphasis on Sink's debate cheating.  I did not think the media would be able to ignore it.  It lasted about two days in the news cycle before the Times eventually accepted Alex Sink's fig leaf as though it was a suit of armor.

Though King's statement appeared on Caputo's Miami Herald blog, regardless the Herald published a story with largely the same content as the one from the Times:

Again, there's no objective indication from the video that Sink didn't know why she was show the phone screen.  And such determination relies on granting Sink the benefit of the doubt.  Consider, for example, that Sink might be smart enough to pretend that she doesn't know what's going on long enough to look at the message while preserving plausible deniability.  An objective reporter doesn't dimiss that possibility out of hand.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Grading PolitiFact: President Obama and job loss timing

Does it take want-to in order for a journalist to ignore an inconvenient underlying argument?

The issue:



The fact checkers:

Martha Hamilton:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


Analysis:

PolitiFacter Martha Hamilton wrote a fact check relating to President Obama's recent appearance on the Jon Stewart Show.  Note that the second quoted paragraph implicitly acknowledges an implicit, or underlying, argument from the president:
 "We lost 4 million jobs before I was sworn in; 750,000 the month I was sworn in; 600,000, the month after that; 600,000 the month after that. So most of the jobs that we lost were lost before the economic policies we put in place had any effect."

Candidates have sparred endlessly over who deserves the blame for the nation’s high unemployment rate -- 9.6 percent in the latest tally. After the Daily Show interview, one of our readers asked us to check Obama's numbers. So we decided to take a look.
Who deserves blame for the nation's high unemployment rate?  Do Obama's numbers have any particular bearing on that?  Hamilton doesn't hazard a guess.  But it must have a direct bearing if PolitiFact bothers with a fact check without explaining that the policy implication doesn't follow.  Right?

Beware, dear reader.

Though Hamilton skipped quickly past, Obama did present an underlying argument with his above statement.  That is, since most of the jobs lost since he took office occurred before his economic policies were put in place, therefore (probably) his economic policies were responsible for slowing the loss of employment.  But recessions are part of the business cycle, so purported explanations should receive careful examination and correlations examined closely before concluding causation.

PolitiFact will not be conducting any kind of examination of the correlations other than to determine whether they exist in the first place.  We'll follow Hamilton through the disturbingly brief process:
We found a match: Looking at BLS data on seasonally adjusted non-farm employment from December 2007, when the recession officially began, to January 2009, the month before the stimulus was enacted (a 25-month period), the jobs number declined by 4.4 million. So Obama’s first number was right, although he could have been clearer about the time frame.
This so-called match doesn't have much to do with the underlying argument noted above.  It has more to do with a different underlying argument (Bush's fault).  Since that number is relatively meaningless there's not much point in double-checking it.  It's not controversial that many jobs were lost at the tail end of the Bush administration, and those occurred owing to a complex set of causes.

What about the claims PolitiFact posted to the item description, like "Most of the jobs we lost were lost were lost before the economic policies we put in place went into effect"?  Based on the stats Obama mentioned, it makes sense to take the lost jobs Obama talks about as jobs lost after he took office and before his policies went into effect.

It's unclear whether Hamilton sees it the same way:
When he refers to his economic policies, we presume he is referring to his main economic stimulus, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It passed in February 2009, but it took several months before the impact of its spending was felt in the economy.

Job loss didn’t stop, but Obama is right that it slowed down. In the 19 months from February 2009 through September 2010, the month of the most recent preliminary data, the overall job decline in the private and public sectors was 2.6 million. And the number of jobs lost per month has declined from around 700,000 a month at the beginning of the administration to months in which there were small net gains. Since May, however, the losses -- albeit smaller ones -- have returned, giving Republicans fresh ammunition. For example, payroll employment dropped 57,000 between July and August 2010.
Hamilton provides information relevant to the issue I identified, but does not appear to address Obama's claim.  Instead of comparing 4.4 million lost jobs attributed to Bush to the 2.6 million lost under Obama, she ought to have compared job losses under Obama prior to implementation of his economic policies to job losses after implementing those policies.

PolitiFact's numbers from the Bureau of Labor statistics showed "around 700,000" jobs lost in Jan. 2009.  Obama claimed 650,000.  I'm not sure of the exact source of either figure.  I constructed a graph using the BLS's monthly employment press releases (like this one).  The figure for Feb. 2009 was 651,000--very close to the figure Obama offered for January.  Was that his source?  I don't know.  Regardless, here's the graph (click to enlarge):



  • The skinny vertical red line represents Obama taking office.
  • The skinny vertical blue line represents passage of the economic stimulus bill.
  • The transparent red block represents a period greater than two months but less than many (the definition of "several," following the reasoning offered above by Hamilton.  Feel free to imagine it stretching further to the right to match your expectation for less than "many."
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics credits over 400,000 of the April 2010 jobs to temporary work with the Census Bureau.  In short, the high spike is because of the Census.
Judging from the way Obama phrased his argument, he does not expect job losses in February and March to count against his record.  He's taking a minimalistic view of the window of "several" carved out for him by PolitiFact's Hamilton.

But there's a problem.  By taking credit for the job losses from March through April, the president puts himself on the hook for 1.9 million jobs lost (at least for the set of figures I'm using).  That compares to 1.95 million for the first three months according to the figures Obama used--barely "most," though pro-rating the numbers would give him a beneficial cushion.   And if Obama was to say that it took longer for his policies to take effect then they're going into effect after the job loss numbers have already begun to trend downward.  The latter doesn't lead to a strong inference toward his policies as the reason for the reversal of the trend.

Where does this leave us in terms of fact checking?  Hamilton may be right that Obama is claiming that most of the jobs lost during the recession occurred before his policies went into effect.  That makes for a very weak implicit underlying argument, so I think it charitable to believe that Obama is arguing that while on his watch most of the job losses occurred before his policies were implemented.  The figures I used total 1.91 million jobs lost for the first three months of his administration.  That's slightly less than half the total of 1.94 million lost since that time under Obama.  It's very close, then, and another set of figures might show the president correct--barely--and with a slightly improved but still weak inference in support of the effectiveness of his policies.  The literal statement is probably true and the underlying argument is dubious.


The grades:

Martha Hamilton:  F
Bill Adair:  F

I fault both PolitiFacters for ignoring the alternate interpretation of Obama's statement and the underlying argument.  Plus the citations were not nearly as helpful to readers as they might have been.


Afters:

I've been surprised at how difficult it is to locate graphic material on job loss trends.  I'll probably pretty up the data I've collected and start performing updates like I did for the Iraq War casualties.


Nov. 8, 2010:  Deleted "drop in" where it preceded "job losses" in the second paragraph of analysis following the graph.  The original wording created something like a double negative.
Nov. 29, 2010:  Corrected spelling of Jon Stewart's name, omitting the "h" from his first name.  Also removed a sentence fragment for which I could no longer recall the completed version (second paragraph following the graph).  Reworked the second paragraph following the graph to assist coherence.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Grading PolitiFact (Florida): Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio's alleged You're either with me or leave the country

This is another strange fact check from PolitiFact.


The issue:



The fact checkers:

Becky Bowers:  writer, researcher
Amy Hollyfield:  editor


Analysis:

Sometimes PolitiFact fact checks a strange fact.  Other times PolitiFact checks a fact strangely.  This item falls in the latter category.

To wit:
On Oct. 24, 2010, in their fifth debate of the campaign, Crist strove to paint Rubio as a rigid idealogue who wanted to overturn Roe v. Wade and didn’t support stem cell research. Then he turned it up a notch, saying Rubio had said that folks who didn’t agree with him ought to leave the country.

"You know, these are extreme views that I am not comfortable with," Crist said. "(Rubio) took it to a point so much so that (he) said that, you know, people who essentially don't agree with him, ought to leave the country, like Keith Olbermann."
The quotation features editorial helps (parenthetical material) prominently.  What were Crist's words in context?
MEEK: Let me just say this. Let me just say this. All right, we know why the governor is running as an independent, because he couldn't beat Marco Rubio. OK? Let's just put it that way.

(CROSSTALK)

MEEK: No, that's OK. No, no, no, no, no, wait a minute.

CROWLEY: One second, let me just ask the audience--

MEEK: Let me finish.

CROWLEY: You're going to cut into our time and they want to talk. So--

MEEK: Let me finish -- let me--

CRIST: I want to speak for myself on this point, if I can.

MEEK: You just spoke, Governor. Wait a minute.

(CROSSTALK)

CROWLEY: Why don't you go ahead and finish your time. I promise you--

CRIST: The reason I'm running as an independent is because it's what the people want and it's what's right with my own heart. I have got to be honest with myself. The Republican Party and the right wing of that party went so far right, it's exactly why Marco Rubio stayed there, it's exactly the same reason that I left. He wants to overturn -- listen to me, women watching -- overturn Roe versus Wade. He does not support stem cell research. You know, these are extreme views that I am not comfortable with. He took it to a point so much so that said that, you know, people who essentially don't agree with him, ought to leave the country, like Keith Olbermann.
(CNN)
Crist's statement is a tad on the vague side.  He goes from two concrete examples of supposedly "extreme views" to saying that Rubio "took it to a point so much ... that people who essentially don't agree with him, ought to leave the country ..."  Took what to that point?  The two concrete examples?  Or extremism generally, so that we should understand the latter as just another example of Rubio's supposed extremism?

PolitiFact gives no attention to the details.  After quoting Crist author Bowers simply asks "Could it be true?" and passes on the justification provided by the Crist campaign:
Then, he closed the speech with a thought he said originated from Glenn Beck, FOX News' popular conservative talk show host,.

"There are millions of people in America that hate our country, so why can't we just do a trade?" Rubio said. "We'll send you Sean Penn, Janeane Garofalo and Keith Olbermann, and you can send us people that actually love this country and want to help us build it."
(The Palm Beach Post)
At first blush, this glove doesn't fit.  It is unlikely that a trade could be arranged where millions of people are traded for other millions.  This suggests the possibility that Rubio was making a joke.  Even a joke can have an underlying argument, of course.  But is it reasonable to suggest that the underlying argument is that those who don't agree with Rubio ought to leave the country?

This reed is a bit too thin to support the argument, and Bowers came up with little else:
Spokesman Alex Burgos offered this quick response from his BlackBerry after the debate: "It's true what Marco said, and we appreciate the governor bringing it up."

Given that Rubio's statement was about making a trade based on love of country rather than a deportation program based on agreement with Rubio, Burgos' response makes little sense.

Hoping to make some sense of Burgos' message, I asked PolitiFact writer Becky Bowers about it.  Bowers promptly responded to my email message and said she sent Burgos Crist's statement along with material from the Post and asked for the campaign's response.

That didn't do much to help me understand the reply from Burgos.  It was enough for Bowers, however:
Given the evidence, and both sides’ endorsement of it, we rate Crist’s statement True.
The evidence doesn't do much at all to support Crist's presentation, for the reasons noted above.  And the endorsement of both sides is effectively irrelevant.  If A says X is black and white and then A and B agree that A said X is not black and white it remains true that A said X is black and white.  A and B are thus incorrect in the later reports.

Bowers appears to have placed the opinions of Crist and Burgos over the facts, and Bowers did precious little to check facts other than to seek Burgos' opinion.  Minus a complete account of Rubio's speech, there was too much doubt about his message, based on the words he used, to judge Crist's version "True."  A tape of the speech would likely have helped demonstrate that Rubio spoke in jest about the proposed trade.


The grades:

Becky Bowers:  F
Amy Hollyfield:  F

Failure to note the incongruity between the Crist claim and the Crist campaign's supposed supporting evidence results in the failing grade.  This was a fact check without any real fact checking.  Doing a little research isn't always enough to support a determination, and in this case the PolitiFact team was obliged to largely ignore what primary source evidence there was in making the ruling.



Afters:

I still don't know what Alex Burgos was thinking when he gave the campaign's response to this issue.  Did he really believe that Rubio was saying that those who disagree with him ought to leave the country?  That seems doubtful, and if we were to suppose it true then it requires some explanation beyond the facts at hand.

Perhaps Burgos meant merely to affirm Rubio's message as, roughly:  "America:  Love it or leave it."  If that's what he meant then his attempt to express it pretty much counts as incompetent.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

St. Petersburg Times spinning for Sink

CNN continued its reporting and analysis of the Alex Sink debate story.  Sink's debate with Republican opponent Rick Scott has stayed in the news because Sink was caught breaking the rules.  Sink compounded the error by scapegoating the staffer who sent the message.  CNN's panel does a nice job on the story:



The St. Petersburg Times posted a story this morning on the new audio material. Watch for the spin. Put your head down if dizziness occurs.
TALLAHASSEE — A debate-cheating flap continued to nag at Democrat Alex Sink on Wednesday even as new video surfaced showing she might not have known a campaign staffer broke the rules until it was too late.
The makeup artist was also part of Sink's staff.  Why doesn't she know better than to show Sink a message that may be from "Brian"?  Shouldn't Sink be wary of any message she receives during the break because of the rules to which her campaign agreed?

Just wait 'til they get started:
The new video clip, posted Wednesday by CNN, indicated Sink was handed the phone before she realized the message was about her debate against Rick Scott, her Republican opponent for governor.
Ahem.  The above is not news reporting, because the video evidence can provide no assurance that Sink did not know the message was from a member of her staff.  It is news analysis at best and more probably ought to count as an opinion.  I will cheerfully concede that Sink may not have initially known the message was from her staff.  The evidence is ambiguous on that point.  But when Sink accepted a message from her staffer by reading it off the phone, she broke the rules.  And the breakage was doubled because the makeup artist, according to the CNN transcript, conveyed a corresponding message to Sink.
Makeup: Do you want some food? … A grape? Anything?
Sink: No if I eat a grape, I won't have anything. I'm okay. Thanks though. …
Makeup: This is from … they said … (they both look down at device). I don't know who that's from, if it's from Brian or …
Sink: I don't know.
Makeup: They're saying you need to stand up.
Man walks over: Are you okay?
Sink: Yeah. You want to give me a little more water? (Man walks away.) They're saying what?
Makeup: Stand up to them more.
CNN political editor Mark Preston: I'm sorry, did you just show the BlackBerry? I'm sorry (bends over to pick it up).
Makeup: What's that?
Preston: (unintelligible)
Sink: Oh that's okay. It didn't have anything on it that was …
I believe Sink meant to say "It didn't have anything on it that I could comprehend" since that is essentially the account she later gave of the incident.  Unfortunately, her response to Preston makes it appear that she understood the message and judged that it was of little importance to the debate, and apparently not even a breach of the rules ("Oh that's okay.")!

More spin control from the Times:
CNN didn't post all of the audio from the exchange, but CNN debate moderator John King accurately noted that the stylist twice discussed the contents of the message, in which a campaign adviser wanted Sink to "stand up'' more to Scott.

Sink, who wasn't clear about what she was being told, even asked the woman to repeat the message.
Again, the story breaks the conventions of objective journalism.  An objective writer does not know whether or not Sink is clear about the message.  It is clear that Sink wanted the makeup artist to repeat what "they" were saying, and since the makeup artist was able to receive messages Sink may have expected content not included in the text message.  The objective writer doesn't make that call.

Compare the "contents" of the message as expressed by the makeup artist to the text of the message on the phone (appearing in a separate story from the Times):
Alex Sink's makeup artist shows her a message that reads: "The attorney on Sykes suit said Alex did nothing wrong. Tell not to let him keep talking about her."
The content of the text message helps make clear that the infraction was twofold.  The makeup artist was used as a go-between.  The text instructs her to convey instructions to Sink.  And she did.  But Brian May was made the scapegoat and the Sink campaign refused to identify the makeup artist:
The makeup artist, whom the Sink campaign would not identify, didn't seem to know much, either, as she showed the phone to Sink.

"I don't know who that's from,'' she said, her voice growing quiet with a question: "If it's from Brian?"
The makeup artist didn't know much?  She knew the gist of the message ("They're saying you need to stand up"), she knew it was from a "they" that might have included "Brian."  Since she was part of the staff it is reasonable to assume she referred to Brian May, in which case she made an accurate educated guess as to the sender.  She knew a good bit, even if her execution of her role helped land the boss in hot water.

New questions in light of the additional information released by CNN:

What was said prior to the makeup artist showing Sink the phone?

Who is the stylist and why wasn't she fired, given that she transmitted debate strategy to Sink?

Why won't the campaign identify the stylist?

Why can't the Times (Marc Caputo, Beth Reinhard) report the story straight?


Oct. 28, 2010:  Removed a couple of duplicate paragraphs.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Implausibility in action

I still can't get over Alex Sink's attempts to downplay her behavior at her debate with Rick Scott.

The St. Petersburg Times posted a video of Sink denying that she was even able to read the message shown to her by the makeup technician.  Caption time!

             "I've been looking at this for 10 seconds and I still can't read it."


 It turns out I can embed the video from the Times:



It seems as though the Times has changed the text identifying this story, or at least has used the video with two different stories. The one I used this time adds an interesting twist:
  "Alex Sink says she didn't mean to break debate rules."
Sink doesn't say that.

Transcript mine:
AS:  I just have a couple of minutes 'cause I am about to catch a plane, guys.

Reporter:  Could you just tell us what you talked about with that aide when she passed you the message?

AS:  Oh, last night at the debate?

Reporter:  Yes.

AS:  Well, I looked around, she put this phone in my face and said I don't know who this is from, and I turned around and looked and I said, I mean I couldn't tell, really, what it was.

Reporter:  You didn't discuss it ahead of time?

AS:  Oh, absolutely not. In fact, when I went back, afterwards, I said find out where that text message came from, and it act act actually came from a member of my campaign staff, clearly against the rules, and, uh, that person's had to leave my campaign.  Brian May.

Reporter:  Can you see, there's a bit of an irony which Rick Scott had mentioned yesterday.  You've staked your campaign on saying that he's cheated and been deceptive, but your campaign cheated.

AS:  When I learned what had happened and got to the bottom of it, I took accountability and I held the person who was responsible for the cheating accountable and he's no longer with my campaign.  That was the right action to take.

1)  If I'm a makeup assistant (yes, that's a stretch) and I get a phone message from somebody I don't know, I probably don't take my phone to the debate participant I'm supposed to be working on during a short commercial break to get her to help me figure out the author of the message.  It is overpoweringly likely that the assistant knew at least that it was a message for Sink and that she presented the situation that way to Sink.  Sink ought to have known that receiving messages was forbidden, so once she starts looking at the phone to interpret the message she is without excuse.  Sink cheated.
2)  Sink was probably able to tell what it was.  She took her time looking at it.  If I'm on a break during a debate I probably don't spend much time looking at something I don't understand from somebody I don't know even if it's not against the rules.  Wrong time, wrong place.
3)  Meh.  The reporter's follow up question could have been better.  Yeah, he gets a break because it's the spur of the moment.  How about this one:  "You knew you weren't supposed to receive messages during the debate, right?  Why did you look at it at all?"
4)  Brian May was made Alex Sink's scapegoat.  May couldn't cheat without Sink's help.  It's unlikely the debate rules forbade attempts to send messages to the candidates.  Rather, the candidates were probably bound not to receive debate advice during the debate.  Sink was right to fire May because he his actions contributed to a disastrous performance for her campaign, not for cheating in the debate.  She was the cheater.

The fourth point strikes me as Alex Sink's Al Gore moment, at least with me.

Let me explain.

I used to like Al Gore.  He ran for president in 1980, and he was the most conservative and sane-sounding of the Democratic candidates.  He dropped considerably in my estimation during the Clinton years, but though he shifted left I still felt he was probably an OK guy.  The Al Gore moment that soured me came during one of his debates with George W. Bush.




What.  A.  Maroon.

That's the Al Gore moment.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Alex Sink, sank, sunk

Unbelievable (via Hot Air and CNN).

During a debate with candidate Rick Scott, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink was caught cheating.

What a way to level the playing field after continually attacking Rick Scott on ethics.




As the video reveals, Sink is shown debate advice on a cell phone during a break.  Scott notices and brings the violation to a staffer's attention and mentions the cheating during the debate (also seen on the video).

Ridiculously, Sink fired the staffer who sent the message and offered no apology for her actions.

Does Sink owe an apology?  Of course.  She had a choice, assuming she knew the rules (Scott knew the rules).

She could have looked at the makeup artist instead of at the phone screen and asked the girl if she's crazy.  It's against the rules to show her something like that.  Or she can read the information and hope nobody notices.

Sink chose the latter, then used her staffer as a scapegoat.  Clearly the type of leader we need in Florida.
"After the debate tonight, one of my campaign advisers admitted he tried to communicate with me during one of the breaks," Sink said in the statement. "While he told me it was out of anger with Rick Scott's repeated distortion of facts, it was a foolish thing to do. It violated a debate agreement and I immediately removed him from the campaign."
(Politico)
No admission that she read the message? 

No class.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Grading PolitiFact: Dan Coats and Medicare creep

The issue:



The fact checkers:

Angie Drobnic Holan:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


Analysis:

This item caught my eye because the claim from Republican senate candidate Dan Coats seems rather innocuous.  What would PolitiFact check, I wondered?  The use of "force" to get seniors to accept the ObamaCare version of their health care?  The "government-run" aspect of health care reform?  Either option seemed a bit like nailing Jell-O to the wall, yet PolitiFact had the flames of untruth burning in the nearby "Truth-O-Meter" graphic ("Pants On Fire").

Friday, October 22, 2010

Why was Juan Williams fired? Pt. 2

Alicia Shepard, ombudsman (-person?) for NPR has weighed in on the firing of Juan Williams.

Shepard chose a missive from Mohamed Khodr, a Winchester, VA. doctor, to exemplify the objection to Williams:
"NPR must and should take a stand against this bigotry and tell Williams' he must choose NPR's code of ethics or be let go to join the racist bigoted fearmongerers of FOX,” continued Khodr. “NPR can't have it both ways."

NPR's management acted. In a statement released at 12:27 a.m. Thursday, NPR said Williams' remarks “were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.”
If concern existed that NPR bowed to pressure from Muslims in firing Williams, the two paragraphs above do little to help ease that concern.

Shepard tried to provide specifics missing from the official announcement:
“News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts, and that’s what’s happened in this situation,” said Schiller in an email to NPR member stations, some of which are upset about Williams' firing.
It's a personal public position on a controversial issue to feel nervous around persons who are obviously Muslim when the planet is experiencing an ongoing rash of Islam-linked violent extremism?

There's NPR's problem right there:  It shouldn't be controversial.  Williams' claims to the contrary notwithstanding, it is rational to experience nervousness around obvious Muslims in the current context.  It simply isn't rational to think that every obvious Muslim is a terrorist.

Lottery tickets serve to illustrate.  Suppose you see an intact lottery ticket on the ground.  It is rational to experience some hope that it is the winning lottery ticket, recognizing that the probability is low.  It is not rational to assume that the ticket is for sure the winning ticket, given the low probability.

But let's examine this ethical issue more closely.  NPR's stance is that journalists may not take public positions on controversial issues because it undermines their credibility.

Think about that for a moment.  If I hold to controversial position C and announce it publicly, I lose credibility.  On the other hand, if I hold to controversial position C and keep it secret, I have credibility.  By this measure, the deceitful journalist who hides his controversial opinions is more ethical than the journalist who is honest about the same.

What kind of code of ethics is that?

I'll tell you what kind of code of ethics it is:  It is a code of ethics designed first and foremost to give the company more control of its brand.  Regardless of the truth, NPR wants to foster the impression that its journalists do not hold controversial opinions.  NPR is lying to you.  Implicitly, that is.  For the greater good.  The greater good of NPR, that is.  Supposedly.

The firing of Williams is all about maintaining a particular image at NPR.  That is manifest as Shepard adds to the supposed justification for sacking Williams:
The issue also is whether someone on NPR's payroll should be allowed to say something in one venue that NPR would not allow on its air. NPR’s ethics code says they cannot.
 And the precise wording on that portion of the NPR ethics code is:
10. In appearing on TV or other media including electronic Web-based forums, NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist. They should not participate in shows electronic forums, or blogs that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.
I think Shepard is stretching it on this one.  The stipulation about TV (and other media) appearances occurs under the heading "Outside work, freelancing, speaking engagements."  The enumerated portions of the code follow that general order.  Williams' arrangement with NPR stipulated that he was not identified in association with NPR when appearing on Fox.

Shepard continues:

NPR, like any mainstream news outlet, expects its journalists to be thoughtful and measured in everything they say. What Williams said was deeply offensive to Muslims and inflamed, rather than contributing positively, to an important debate about the role of Muslims in America.
 Sorry, but what a crock.  How does suppressing the truth that some of us feel nervous around Muslims contribute positively to the debate about the role of Muslims in America?  On the contrary, it muzzles debate regarding aspects of that role.  Don't Muslims who count as good and decent American citizens deserve the truth?

Muslims need to face the fact that their brand is tarnished, whether deservedly so or not.  The ethical response is not to suppress that truth.


Oct 29, 2010:  Paragraph 14 updated to correct an omission, with the following change:   "The greater of NPR, that is."=>"The greater good of NPR, that is."

PolitiFlub: The SEIU take on the Fair Tax

I don't have time to do a full in-depth grading on every flawed PolitiFact story I see, hence the new story category, "PolitiFlub."

PolitiFact very recently posted a new story about an SEIU ad attacking a Republican candidate for one of  Indiana's congressional seats:


PolitiFact commits at least one major blunder in concurring with the SEIU that the Fair Tax would result in double taxation.  The PolitiFact story omits the fact that income and Social Security taxes are already embedded in the things we buy.  So seniors are already double-taxed as it is, but the taxes are hidden in the cost of the item.

PolitiFact used FairTax.org as a source, yet apparently neglected to notice a key statement:
The tax is completely transparent in that it is easily seen and understood at the time of purchase. As such, it makes clear to the citizenry the amount of federal revenues collected. This transparency also makes embedding “hidden” federal taxes almost impossible, unlike the current system which taxes goods and services multiple times before the point of purchase.
It isn't certain at this point whether the rate of the Fair Tax would necessarily exceed the current amount of embedded taxation.  Some claim that the 23 percent rate would prove insufficient for maintaining the government's current funding level.  But that's another story.  The story here has PolitiFact omitting information critical to a proper understanding of the Fair Tax and thereby lending the SEIU undue credibility.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Why was Juan Williams fired?

NPR's statement as to why Juan Williams was fired:
On Wednesday night we gave Juan Williams notice that we are terminating his contract as a Senior News Analyst for NPR News.

Juan has been a valuable contributor to NPR and public radio for many years and we did not make this decision lightly or without regret. However, his remarks on The O'Reilly Factor this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.
Williams made some comments while speaking with Fox personality Bill O'Reilly to the effect that flying with obvious Muslims present made him nervous.  Thus the question naturally springs to mind:  With what NPR editorial standard/practice did Williams' action prove inconsistent?

The hunt is on.

Hey, I think I found the relevant portion (bold emphasis added):
III. Statement of principles
Our coverage must be fair, unbiased, accurate, complete and honest. As NPR journalists, we are expected to conduct ourselves in a manner that leaves no question about our independence and fairness.
Unfortunately, the firing of Williams gives rise to questions about NPR's independence and fairness.  Thus, those who fired Williams need to be fired.  And those who fired those who fire Williams likewise need to be fired since that action will doubtless cause questions about independence and fairness.  And so on.

Goodbye, NPR.

Seriously, though.  If only it was the case that NPR places itself in a catch-22 with this policy.  This is the type of policy that, in real life, is used to get rid of people you don't want.  Those you do want will be excused from compliance.  If it was a serious policy then public polling that reliably indicated that the public perceives NPR as a biased network would show the entire operation afoul of its editorial policies.

Grading PolitiFact: Michael Bennet, Ken Buck and the abortion issue

Democrats facing tough re-election battles are having a tough time running on their records in Congress.  A number are trying to bring social issues to the forefront in hopes of fracturing the broad support the electorate is showing for the conservatives' messages of fiscal responsibility and restrained government.  Incumbent Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) played the abortion card with his opponent in a Florida race.  Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), appointed by Colorado's governor to replace Ken Salazar after the latter was named to the Obama cabinet, tried the same tack with Republican opponent Ken Buck.  And PolitiFact was there.


The issue:




The fact checkers:

Angie Drobnic Holan:  writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor


Analysis:

Let's first review the way PolitiFact has initially framed this story:

Ken Buck wants to "outlaw abortion, even in cases of rape or incest."
Ken Buck opposes abortion, including cases of rape or incest

From where I sit, "wants to 'outlaw abortion'" does not seem entirely equivalent to "opposes abortion" (taking the subsequent qualifications into account in both cases).  It is potentially equivalent but not necessarily equivalent, just as a bird potentially flies (think hummingbird) but does not necessarily fly (think ostrich).  A proper fact check would distinguish whether the equivalency is justified in the context of the political claim.

Speaking of the political claim, the story presents it like so:
"Extreme beauty, extreme sports -- good extremes in Colorado," the ad says. "But what about Ken Buck's extreme ideas? Do we really want to privatize Social Security and risk it in the stock market? ... Are we ready to outlaw abortion, even in cases of rape or incest? Extreme beauty is a good thing, but Colorado's no place for Buck's extreme ideas."
Let's see where writer-researcher Angie Drobnic Holan takes it:

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Grading PolitiFact: Chris Coons and his phantom fact

The issue:



The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor


Analysis:

This story by PolitiFact counts as one of the more unusual ones I've evaluated.  Review the graphic PolitiFact uses to summarize the story.  "New Castle's unemployment rate has not almost doubled in the last two years."  "In debate, Chris Coons says Christine O'Donnell is wrong on county unemployment rate."

What did Coons actually say?  In response to opponent O'Donnell's claim that unemployment had doubled in the past two years for New Castle County, he said this (according to PolitiFact, bold emphasis added):
A moment later, Coons countered, "I also frankly can't imagine where she found the numbers that unemployment doubled in just the past year under my watch. I suspect we're going to need to keep a close eye this evening on the numbers that go flying back and forth."
Is "New Castle's unemployment rate has not almost doubled in the last two years" in there anywhere?

Did Coons claim that O'Donnell was wrong about the county unemployment rate?

The answers are no and no.  Coons made an ambiguous reply that implies skepticism about O'Donnell's claim but falls short of contradicting it.  Given that Coons did not directly contradict O'Donnell, why not fact check O'Donnell and deal with the claim directly?  A good question, but not one we're likely to see answered.
Sounds like a dispute tailor-made for PolitiFact: How much did unemployment rise in New Castle County, the most populous of Delaware's three counties?
In one year or two, we might wonder.  But not to worry.  PolitiFact has selection bias on hand to guide us through this difficult process:
Lets first clarify a few matters. In Coons' reply, he misstated the time frame O'Donnell had used, saying it was one year when in fact she had said she was looking at the past two years. We'll analyze the question using O'Donnell's criteria -- two years -- while noting that Coons garbled O'Donnell's time frame.
There's nothing wrong with a little garbling, is there?

More:
We also won't get into the question of whether a county executive deserves direct blame for rising unemployment, even though one can argue that unemployment is more sensitive to national and international economic factors than local ones.
Coons' detrimental influence on unemployment, if any, would have been O'Donnell's underlying argument beneath the unemployment numbers she cited.  I'd count that as a bad argument without mention of some policy from Coons that reasonably might affect unemployment.  Otherwise it smacks of the cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.  But this isn't about how I would have checked the facts.  This is about how I second guess how other people check facts.

O'Donnell said she got her stats from the Department of Labor, so PolitiFact sensibly paid a visit to the website of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an arm of the Department of Labor.
In the most recent available month, August 2010, New Castle County, Del., registered an 8.7 percent unemployment rate. Two years before, in August 2008, the rate was 5.5 percent. (The figures are not seasonally adjusted, but since we're comparing August of one year to August of another, making seasonal adjustments should be irrelevant in this comparison.)
PolitiFact found that the 3.3 percentage point difference represents a 58 percent increase in unemployment.  And either for reasons of selective reading or selection bias, PolitiFact ignored comparisons for other months.  It may be that the PolitiFact researcher (Louis Jacobson) accepted a narrow set of search parameters at the bls.gov site.  I selected a search method providing a broader view.

Here's what I found (click image for enlarged view):




The information has a couple of significant implications in terms of fact checking.

1)  PolitiFact used a preliminary figure (from 2010) for the August comparison and did not inform the reader.
2)  For five out of the eight months represented in the data, O'Donnell would have been understating the increase in unemployment.  An increase over 100 percent represents a more than doubled rate of unemployment.

By completely overlooking the numbers for the rest of the year, caused by the decision to focus on the August 2008-August 2010 comparison, PolitiFact made O'Donnell's claim seem far off.  It was primarily the increase in unemployment from May through August of 2008 that pushed unemployment below "close to double" the rate from two years ago.  For July, the difference of 66 percent might qualify as "almost doubled" and the June figure of 82 percent ought to reasonably qualify.

Precisely why was the comparison kept to August in the first place?  Other than to explicitly benefit Coons, of course.

The historical record shows that data might easily justify a claim of doubled unemployment between 2008 and 2010.

PolitiFact kept its focus on August, of course:
That's a difference of 3.3 percentage points, or an increase of 58 percent over the August 2008 unemployment rate of 5.5 percent. If the rate had doubled as O'Donnell said, it would have needed to increase by 100 percent, which would have brought the unemployment rate to 11 percent today. And it clearly isn't that high.
"If the rate had doubled as O'Donnell said ..."  I thought O'Donnell said "almost doubled"?  I guess PolitiFact decided to go with the garbled Coons version where he expressed doubt that the rate had doubled rather than "nearly doubled."

Ready for the incredible conclusion?
While O'Donnell is correct that unemployment has risen in New Castle County, as it has everywhere, the increase wasn't almost double over two years -- the period she said during the debate. By saying that she meant to measure it from the beginning of Coons' term as county executive, her campaign team is essentially conceding that she got the fact wrong. In our role as debate referee, we give Coons' stance that O'Donnell erred a rating of True.
As shown above, the unemployment rate more than doubled over the past two years, depending on when the measurement begins and ends.  Whether by accident or not, PolitiFact cherry-picked to Coons' benefit.  And PolitiFact is simply wrong that O'Donnell concedes that she got the fact wrong by stipulating what she meant to say.  She could, without logical contradiction, be correct both in terms of what she said and what she meant to say.  What she said is only necessarily wrong in terms of not being what she intended to say.

Neither candidate covered themselves with glory in this exchange.  O'Donnell should have said what she meant, and either backed it up on her website as promised or provided an explanation.  Coons defended himself with skepticism but received the benefit of very generous fact-checking from PolitiFact.  PolitiFact invented a claim on his behalf and then made the invented claim look much truer than it was.  As it turned out, Coons' skepticism could only receive support with cherry-picked numbers.


The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Martha Hamilton:  F

Coons gets a "True" after changing O'Donnell's statement by a year and rounding up from "almost doubled" to "double"?  Must be nice.

The failing grades are dispensed for the tunnel-vision treatment of the data, failure to deal forthrightly with what Coons' actually said and for faulty logic in supposing that O'Donnell's admission of stating something other than what she meant to say means that what she said was therefore not factual.  And I could throw in the fact that the underlying argument is actually the important thing in cases like this.  O'Donnell made a statement that, without considering the underlying argument, should have been ruled at least "Barely True."  But even if it had been 100 percent true it doesn't necessarily reflect poor performance by Coons in office.


Oct. 18, 2010:  Corrected inaccurate quotations of O'Donnell--they were OK as paraphrases but not as quotations.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Two of my biggest political disapppointments of the new century



I thought Arnold would follow somewhat in the steps of Reagan.  I thought Crist was ideologically conservative.

OK, so I was wrong.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sam Harris on morality (Updated)

I sometimes offer atheists and agnostics the advice that atheism's great shortcoming is its inability to offer a plausible grounding for moral realism. Apparently "new atheist" Sam Harris also perceived a glaring need in that area. Harris has written a book ("The Moral Landscape") intended to fill the void.

And here's a video of Harris giving a talk on the subject:



I'm afraid that Harris' approach to the issue is all too familiar.
He tries to make the point that science can address morality because science is about facts and morality, if it exists, is a fact. That's all well and good, but even if you assume that there is an existent morality how do you detect it using science? And that's where Harris falls flat on his face:
Now, to speak about the conditions of well being in this life, for human beings, we know there is a continuum of such facts. We know that it's possible to live in a failed state. Where everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Where mothers cannot feed their children. Where strangers cannot find the basis for peaceful collaboration. Where people are murdered indiscriminately.
How do we know? We just know! What could be more convenient?
And we know that it's possible to move along this continuum, toward something quite a bit more idyllic, to a place where a conference like this is even conceivable.  And we know, we know, that there are right and wrong answers to how to move in this space.  Would adding cholera to the water be a good idea.  Well probably not.
Apparently we don't know quite enough about the cholera question to answer definitively!

Seriously, a guy with a degree in philosophy from Stanford can't do any better than this?  It's not even difficult to illustrate the problem.

Suppose for the sake of argument that morality is an illusion.  We have ideas of morality but moral precepts are not real.  Now suppose in that scenario we know--we know--there is a continuum of moral facts.  If that subjective impression of knowledge is sufficient to make morals real then this scenario results in a contradiction.

In the end, Harris adopts a strategy akin to that used by Ayn Rand and George Smith:  assume that something basic ("well being") is an objective moral good and then propose that science can help figure out certain things that result in well being.  Then claim that science can answer moral questions while ignoring the fact that the finding of science is utterly reliant on the axiomatic moral precept ("well being is good").


Update:

Though not on precisely the same subject, a just-published story by Michael Gerson about the brothers Hitchens seems like a good companion to the above.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Cliff of despair

Unh.

Lefty Cliff Lee pitched the Texas Rangers past the Tampa Bay Rays last night, allowing just one run in a 5-1 victory.

The Rays performance in the playoffs encapsulated their season in some ways.  The team played well in spurts and the offense underperformed.  In the fifth game the Rays made defensive mistakes that were rare during the regular season.  And of course the big difference was the Rays experienced regular season success to the tune of the AL East title and the best record in the AL while playing in baseball's toughest division.

All in all it was a disappointing end to the season, but not the type of end that should surprise Rays fans who often had to watch the offense sputter.

Of course a substantial amount of credit for the Rays' troubles goes to the Texas Rangers, who played with alacrity and enthusiasm.  Plus they had ace-for-hire Cliff Lee, who deserves the MVP award for the series in light of his two wins in two games with only two runs allowed.

Best of luck to the Rangers.  May they disappoint the World Series hopes of the well-hated New York Yankees.

***

Next year:  The Rays will again play in baseball's toughest division.  The Baltimore Orioles and the Toronto Blue Jays are both on the upswing.  The Red Sox figure to have a better year with fewer injuries, and the Yankees have the dough to finish the season with a good team no matter what they start out with.  And they'll start out with a good team.  The Rays could experience a slight drop-off and fail to make the postseason.  That's probably what will happen as the team will say adios to Carl Crawford and a handful of other key players perhaps including pitchers James Shields and Matt Garza, 1B Carlos Pena, SS Jason Bartlett and closer Rafael Soriano. 

The team will continue to compete for a playoff spot if it fills almost every hole with a comparable replacement.  Only time will tell.  Desmond Jennings has a huge upside and may be able to replace Carl Crawford adequately.  Reid Brignac plays shortstop well but needs to learn to handle the high fastball.  Dan Johnson may be the solution at first base, though Pena's defensive skills will certainly be missed.

Hopefully J. P. Howell will make a successful return from injury.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Grading PolitiFact: Alan Grayson defines his opponent

Alan Grayson doesn't know when to quit.  Neither does PolitiFact.


The issue:



The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Aaron Sharockman:  writer, researcher
John Bartosek:  editor


Analysis:

PolitiFact:
Here's a full transcript of the new ad:

Daniel Webster's Washington backers are attacking Alan Grayson on women's issues. The facts on Webster's record:

Fact: Webster sponsored a bill to create a form of marriage that would trap women in abusive relationships.

Fact: Webster is an advocate for a group that teaches that mothers should not work outside the home.

Fact: Webster would force victims of rape and incest to bear their attacker's child.

Those are the facts. Don't let Daniel Webster make the laws we will have to live with.
The story is obviously concerned with the third supposed "fact."
We checked with his campaign to confirm whether he is opposed to abortion even in cases of rape and incest, and a spokeswoman confirmed it.
Good move.  And from a pro-life standpoint an abortion is always a moral wrong.  Kathy Mears was apparently the "spokeswoman."  I'm not sure why she goes unnamed in the story.  The specific words of her statement on behalf of Webster may be important.  We do get specific words from Webster's campaign website: (under "Sanctity of Life"):
  • As affirmed in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life is our first right.  Daniel Webster would support legislation that the Constitutional protections of life and liberty extend to the unborn.
  • Dan would oppose any use of public revenues to promote or perform abortions or to support organizations that promote or perform abortions.
PolitiFact mentions the first part but not the second.  And the two bullet points seem mismatched to some degree.  Isn't the second one needless in light of the first?  The first is probably best understood as a legislative ideal with little chance of passage.  The latter represents a realistic goal.  But it doesn't sound quite as scary to claim that "Webster wants to prevent public revenues from being used to provide or support abortion services!"

PolitiFact:
So Grayson's ad is correct on Webster's philosophical beliefs about abortion. But does that mean that Webster "would force victims of rape and incest to bear their attacker's child"?
Grayson's ad provides an ambiguous take on Webster's philosophical beliefs about abortion.  One can oppose something philosophically without thinking it is the government's role to enforce that opposition.  Legislation recognizing rights of life and liberty for the unborn might fill that bill.  But then again it might not.  Credit goes to PolitiFact for asking the right question.

In trying to reach the answer to that question, the story goes over Webster's legislative career and notes a fairly consistent pragmatic streak, including Webster saying that Florida isn't ready for a broad abortion ban such as that proposed in Kansas.  Not ready in what way?
So where does this leave us? There is no question that Webster believes that abortion should be banned except to save the life of the mother, and that gives the Grayson campaign a lot of cover for its charge.
Is it true that there "is no question that Webster believes that abortion should be banned except to save the life of the mother"?  If there is no question on that point then PolitiFact should have settled it with evidence rather than with a statement lacking the benefit of clear evidential support.  Webster's legislative history did not offer that kind of support.

To review:
  • Parental consent for minors seeking abortion (1988)
  • Woman's Right To Know Act (1997)
  • State ban on "partial birth" abortion (1997)
  • Voted in favor of parental notification bill (1998)
  • Guardians for unborn children (2004)
  • Requirement that parents receive notification if minor child sought abortion (2005)
  • Ultrasound requirement prior to abortion (2008)
That simply doesn't add up to "There is no question that Webster believes that abortion should be banned except to save the life of the mother."  Nowhere in the story does PolitiFact unequivocally support that claim with evidence.  Yet that supposed finding gives Grayson his cover.
Grayson's charge has a substantial grounding in the truth, so we rate it Mostly True.
Huh?
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.
The PolitiFact analysis found that it could not be known how Webster would act on abortion legislation.
It's impossible to know precisely what abortion bills Webster would propose or support if he were to be elected to the U.S. House.
So how can it follow that Grayson's "statement is accurate"?  Grayson's ad claims to know how Webster would legislate.  That was another PolitiFact finding:
So Grayson's ad is correct on Webster's philosophical beliefs about abortion. But does that mean that Webster "would force victims of rape and incest to bear their attacker's child"?

We don't think that's so clear-cut, since Webster's legislative efforts on abortion, while extensive, have stopped well short of what Grayson's ad suggests.
Taking into consideration PolitiFact's description of its grading system, this story is logically incoherent.  Grayson's claim cannot be ruled accurate and impossible to judge at the same time and in the same sense.  That is a contradiction.


A literalism interlude

Now a brief digression into my initial interest in this PolitiFact story.

Look again at the claim Grayson makes of Webster:

Fact: Webster would force victims of rape and incest to bear their attacker's child.
If I'm playing dumb as PolitiFact occasionally does (think Rudy Giuliani and his claim that no terrorist attacks happened under Bush), I can take Grayson as saying that if a woman is attacked then her attacker has the right to have her bear his children.  So let's say Joe Smith rapes Jane Doe.  After doing his time, Smith decides he wants to have kids.  So, thanks to the Webster Act of 2013, Smith's victim must then receive his seed and bear his child(ren).

Of course that's not what Grayson meant.  But it is the literal meaning of what he said, just as surely as when Giuliani was taken to task over the 9-11 attacks occurring during the Bush administration.

Everyone deserves charitable interpretation.  PolitiFact acted properly in not taking Grayson in wooden-literal fashion.  I look forward to the extension of that courtesy to all subjects of PolitiFact stories.


The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Aaron Sharockman:  F
John Bartosek:  F

Internal inconsistency is one of the worst possible features of a journalistic account.  The problem is worse when the inconsistency represents the main point of the story.

Extremism apparently now mainstream

Barack Obama rode popular sentiment to his election as president of the United States.  Obama ran on the unpopularity of Republicans and a message of bipartisan change that transformed shortly after election day to a message of partisan change.

Campaign messaging is different today, and Robyn "Blumñata" Blumner of the St. Petersburg Times is here to explain it to us.
Will someone please wake me from this bad dream that is the coming election? No matter how kooky, mean or incoherent Republican candidates get, voters seem willing to support them. Maybe former witchcraft dabbler and perennial deadbeat Christine O'Donnell won't be taking a U.S. Senate seat in Delaware, but there are plenty of other congressional races from Florida to Colorado to Utah in which radical tea party-backed Republicans have a good (or certain) chance of victory. Extremism is the new Republican must-have accessory for fall, and it's working for them.
Think about her thesis seriously for a moment.

Is it possible to forge a successful national political strategy based on an appeal to extremism?

Electoral politics is about forging coalitions.  It cannot succeed at the national level through the appeal to any brand of extremism which a majority strongly opposes.

Blumner's sentiment reminds me of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink's impression that nearly half of all Floridians are extremists.  Both ladies need to get out of the office more often.

Extremism with majority appeal is an oxymoron minus very special circumstances (a majority of extremists are extremists, for example).

Blumner's column brought us more of the usual silliness, including a bizarre claim involving Jack Kemp:
Where is the next Jack Kemp, a self-described "bleeding-heart conservative"? He's a Democrat. The Republicans no longer want him.
The majority of conservatives are quite compassionate.  Survey data confirm again and again that conservatives tend to give more generously to charity, for example.  Conservatives just don't want the government in charge of charity.  We see that as a poisonous arrangement.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Divisional playoff returns to St. Petersburg

Yes, I granted the Texas Rangers the advantage over the Rays when I made predictions for the AL playoffs.

I just didn't know if the starting pitching would come through, nor if the Rays' bats would return to life from late-season slumber.

It took long enough.

Texas pitching gave Rays batters fits through almost three full games, coming within two innings of a sweep.  Since then the Rays look like the team that won 96 games with many of those games against the toughest division in baseball, the AL East.

So now it comes down to a Tuesday night showdown rematch between the Rangers and the Rays and between aces Cliff Lee and David Price.

Lee is a terrific veteran pitcher.  Price is a terrific young pitcher.

The advantage again belongs to Texas based on that matchup.  But the Rays have spent much of the season producing wins against great pitching.  Just ask Cliff Lee and C. C. Sabathia.

I don't know who will win, though I'll naturally root for the Rays.  But in any case the full five game series has done more to fulfill my hopes for the Rays than a three game sweep by Texas would have done.

Rays extend divisional playoff in Texas

It was looking bleak.

The Texas Rangers took two from the Rays in St. Petersburg and had a late 2-1 lead in their home ballpark.

The Rays staged an 8th inning rally and ended up winning 6-3.  The teams hook up for game four later today, pitting Wade Davis against Tommy Hunter.

I had expected Cliff Lee to start after early reports had Texas leaning toward a three man rotation for their starting pitchers.

I like the idea of starting Davis.  Analysts for MLB TV questioned using Davis if Price feels ready to pitch.  But if somebody has watched Davis pitch this year then it is apparent that he has a type of veteran composure that is very rare in rookie pitchers.  He's been solid late in the season and I expect him to keep the Rays in the game.

As for Hunter, I haven't watched him pitch much.  I just hope the Rays' offense can get to him.

Go Rays.

Friday, October 08, 2010

My special interests are good. Yours ... not so much.

No in-depth fisking of the latest Robyn Blumner column from last week.  I'll simply observe for potential future reference that when T. Boone Pickens spends money promoting his special interest in alternative energy Blumner seems to think it's fine and dandy.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Rangers @ Rays game 2 (Updated)

Before the game starts, I wanted to make sure that I went on record as continuing to see the Rays as capable of winning the series with Texas.

OK, I'm kind of cheating by taking positions on all sides of this thing.  I gave Texas the advantage in the series by noting Tampa Bay's year long offensive underperformance. 

I dissed James Shields by supposing that both he and Matt Garza might be left off the starting rotation in the playoffs.

Garza gets the nod because you can't leave a guy off the staff who three a no-hitter earlier in the season.  And Garza's got great stuff.  It's just a matter of locating his pitches.

Shields I figured might be out because he gives up so many home runs.  Texas is a power hitting team (witness the three dingers yesterday).  The Yankees are a power hitting team.

But I'm just little old me.  I completely allow that Joe Maddon might have a statistical insight that makes it a good idea to send Shields to the hill against Texas.  And if Shields gives up fewer than two home runs while pitching five or more innings then I won't engage in any "I-told-you-so's."  He'd have done better than Price in that case.

***

Foul tip?

It looked like the umpire deprived the Rays of a run yesterday, as Carlos Pena was apparently nicked on the hand by an inside pitch with the bases loaded.  Would the Rays have won if they had scored an early run off Cliff Lee?  Nobody knows.  But the Rangers played a good game and collected three home runs so I won't grouse about the outcome.  I'll just stick with grousing about having the outcome influenced by faulty umpiring.


Update:

I'm barely done posting and Shields completes the first inning without surrendering a hit.  Here's to more of the same.  Go Rays!

The corrections game (Updated)

In the most recent entry from my long-running "Grading PolitiFact" series I noted an unambiguous error by PolitiFact Rhode Island (The Providence Journal) in a story about the comparison between Social Security and Ponzi financing.

PolitiFact failed in that instance to dig into the definition of "Ponzi" relevant to economic theory.  In economic theory it is not important whether or not deceit is used to perpetuate the financing scheme.  PolitiFact, with help of an economics professor used as an expert source, assumed that deceit or fraud was necessary to the understanding of a "Ponzi scheme."  The logic is apparent in this blurb from the PolitiFact website:


Note the text to the lower right:  "Not without intent to deceive."

PolitiFact's use of an equivocal definition was only partly excused through reliance on expert sources.  A better set of sources might have been used, and independent verification of the information would not have been difficult to accomplish.

PolitiFact Rhode Island made an error in its reporting.  So what now?  If the publishers of the error don't know about it then they have no moral responsibility to correct it.

Funny I should mention that (click image to enlarge).


It is reasonable to suppose based on the above visit record (along with a subsequent handful of other R.I. visits with "No referring link") that Journal staffers are aware of the criticism of the story.

Will it make a difference?  I'm still waiting for the St. Petersburg Times to correct two matching mistakes it made in reporting Charlie Crist's share of Florida's public campaign financing pie.

There's a threshold below which news organizations don't really care enough about the truth to make corrections.  I'm not sure what explains it.  Economics?  Ideology?  Some combination of the two?

Is is correction time for the Journal?  Or wait it out and hope nobody of note notices?


Update:

ObamaCare and The Rule of Waiver

I can't improve on Ed Morrissey's analysis from Hot Air regarding the Obama administration's issuing of ObamaCare compliance waivers:
The Rule of Law depends on an environment with clear regulation and unbiased enforcement.  From the start, ObamaCare lacked any clarity in regulation.  Congress filled the bill with the phrase “The Secretary shall determine” in place of establishing rules and regulations for the massive regulatory regime Congress created.  Now, the White House has added arbitrary enforcement to uncertain regulation and opaque processes.  This is not the Rule of Law, but the Whim of Autocracy.
Morrissey continues to emphasize--and I concur--that business thrives best in a predictable and favorable regulatory climate.

Contrary to the way it was advertised, ObamaCare has damaged the economy by increasing uncertainty.

And it's worth pointing out that the routine use of waivers provides one more avenue for exerting central control over the economy, albeit in a relatively small way in the context of the overall economy.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Grading PolitiFact (Rhode Island): John Loughlin, Social Security and Ponzi schemes

The issue:


John Loughlin is a Republican running for the House of Representatives in Rhode Island's District 1.

The fact checkers:

Cynthia Needham:  writer, researcher
Susan Areson:  editor


Analysis:

Full disclosure:  I've referred to Social Security as a Ponzi scheme in the past.

PolitiFact Rhode Island provides ample context in presenting Loughlin's statement:
In perhaps the most extensive example, Loughlin had this to say while speaking in February at a Rhode Island Voter Coalition forum:

"For those of you who haven't retired yet, Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. The people who are working are paying for the people who are retired. There is no Social Security trust fund per se. Your money doesn't go into a big bank and come out when you retire. You're hoping there will be enough young people working to be able to pay your Social Security when you retire. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a classic Ponzi scheme. It's a textbook definition."
Though the story provides plenty of context for Loughlin's remarks, Needham brackets the quotation with references to Bernie Madoff, the guy convicted of securities fraud in association with a Ponzi-structured system.  Madoff was also found guilty on a host of other charges.  Needham writes that Loughlin is comparing the federal government to Madoff (which Loughlin did during an interview with PolitiFact Rhode Island).

So what is a Ponzi scheme?  Needham provides an answer:
The current definition on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission website identifies it this way: "A Ponzi scheme is an investment fraud that involves the payment of purported returns to existing investors from funds contributed by new investors."

Sound familiar? Loughlin thinks so. He insists that's the same process used to finance the federal Social Security program. And he believes that when benefits owed exceed the money coming in, the system will fall apart.
All three of Needham's statements concerning Loughlin appear dubious.  Since Loughlin's description of Social Security is different in substance from the SEC version it does not necessarily follow that Loughlin thinks the SEC version sounds familiar.  Likewise the presumption that it's "the same process used to finance the federal Social Security program" since Loughlin says nothing about purported "returns" on the investment.  And the third represents an ambiguity in terms of how we define "the system will fall apart."  Private investment firms can't compel participation by law, so the government will not chase away potential investors the way the failure of a traditional Ponzi scheme might.  Should we assume that Loughlin assumes otherwise without hearing him say it?  Is it fact checking if we make that assumption?

PolitiFact Rhode Island allows "there are similarities" between Social Security's structure and a Ponzi scheme.  Monies from new investors (younger workers) go to those previously invested in the program.  And whatever "trust fund" is said to exist amounts to an IOU from the government.

PolitiFact asserts one major difference:
But there is a second, critical component that defines a Ponzi scheme: fraud. To reach the level of this kind of scam, an investment setup must intentionally con investors, while making efforts to convince them that the finances are legitimate.
Is fraud an absolutely critical component of a Ponzi scheme?  The government, as noted above, can compel participation in the program.  There's no need to dupe people into participation because they're forced to participate.  On the other hand, the program would not continue without a substantial degree of support from voters.

How does the government obtain that support from voters?  See the "Afters" section.

Fraud is not an essential aspect to the Ponzi scheme.  It is an optional element used by entities unable to force participation in their financial/insurance products.  Regardless, the government has arguably misled its citizens about the financial soundness of their social insurance program.
In fact, Social Security was set up in the midst of the Depression to serve as an insurance plan of sorts for the elderly. Since then, participants and those who pay into the system have been well aware of how the program is run.
 It wasn't too long ago that a commenter on PolitiFact's FaceBook page stated that she was entitled to get back what she paid into Social Security.  Apparently she didn't get the memo as to how Social Security works.  I mention that because Needham is using a technique discouraged in journalism:  She's stating something as a fact and leaving herself as the authority behind the truth of the claim.  Reporting journalists customarily refer facts to trusted third-party sources.

Is Needham's claim solid?

From a 1997 report (page 6) from the Social Security Advisory Board:
One survey found that 79 percent know that current workers pay for the benefits of current beneficiaries (EBRI, 1994).  However, in the same survey, nearly two thirds thought that current workers pay for their own retirement.
Wouldn't it be nice if Needham had substantiated her claim by citing a dependable source?

Needham did rely on an expert source to substantiate the claim that the lack of fraud keeps Social Security from being fairly compared to a Ponzi scheme.  Rick McIntyre, an economics professor at the University of Rhode Island, provided assurances that Ponzi schemes require deceit.

I had difficulty reconciling McIntyre's remarks with an abundance of professional literature in his field that talks about "Ponzi game" and  the "no-Ponzi game condition" in reference to government fiscal policy without any apparent reference to the critical nature of the deceit question.
To Kindelberger and other writers on financial scams, the essential feature of Ponzi's activities was 'misrepresentation or the violation of an implicit or explicit trust' (1978: 79-80).  In economic theory, however, the label 'Ponzi' survives largely stripped of its connotation of fraud. 
(The New Palgrave Dictionary of Money & Finance)
PolitiFact used one other expert source, Mitchell Zuckoff.  Zuckoff is a journalist who wrote a book about Charles Ponzi's original rip off.  Zuckoff agreed that fraud is essential to Ponzi schemes.  I'm supposing that Zuckoff is unfamiliar with the relevant professional literature.  I'd hate to make that assumption of McIntyre, but it may be the case.

Apparently unaware that her analysis lacks a secure foundation, Needham concludes:
Without that key element of deceit, we find it hard to find Loughlin's analogy -- or that of anyone who uses it -- credible.

But there's one more thing. Loughlin doesn't just compare Social Security to the Ponzi scheme concept, he takes it a step further and draws a parallel with the specific case of Madoff, who is believed to have run the largest fraud of this kind in history.

Publicly measuring a 75-year-old U.S. government program against such a massive crime is not only overstating the issue, it's bordering on irresponsible.

False. 
Leaving aside the problem of the false essential feature for Ponzi schemes on which PolitiFact rests its case, it isn't difficult to suppose a legitimate use of the Madoff example.  Madoff is now a well known figure, and using his name immediately brings to mind a recent and concrete example of Ponzi financing in action.  Ordinarily that's just good and effective communication.  Is it possible to fault Loughlin for invoking the comparison with Madoff's specifically criminal actions?  Sure.  But it's difficult to argue that as Loughlin's main point.  And Needham doesn't argue the point, instead allowing it to enter the picture by implication.

PolitiFact Wisconsin graded a similar claim "Barely True" using the same fallacy of equivocation present in the PolitiFact Rhode Island effort.  The latter story provides no explanation why the ratings differed.


The grades:

Cynthia Needham:  F
Susan Areson:  F

I've applied the tag "Journalists reporting badly."

Needham should have used more than two expert sources to substantiate the notion that fraud is essential to Ponzi schemes.   And whatever his familiarity with the original Ponzi scheme of Charles Ponzi, the journalist Zuckoff probably should not have been chosen a key expert source.  Ignoring the professional literature, which has quite a bit to say about Ponzi financing, helped lead Needham down the wrong path.  Using herself as the expert source for the claim that people understand the nature of Social Security financing was unacceptable.

As for the editor, Areson, she should have told Needham everything I just did but prior to publication.


Afters: