Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Grading PolitiFact (Virginia): Eric Cantor and small business taxes

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Warren Fiske:  writer, researcher
Daniel Finnegan:  editor


PolitiFact rated Cantor "Barely True" on this item.  As to the why of it ...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The polygraph that tells more about the tester than the testee

If I deliberately provide information that I know will probably mislead my readers, does it make me a liar?

I'd say "yes," but what do I know?

PolitiFact's system tracks how many of a political figure's statements fall into each of its rating categories such as "True," "Half True" and "Pants On Fire."  As media professionals I expect them to possess substantial knowledge regarding the use and abuse of statistics--especially since PolitiFact wears the "fact checkers" label with pride.

With that in mind, I have approved of PolitiFact's reluctance to actively promote the value of its collected ratings with respect to judging an individual's truthfulness.

Unfortunately, that reluctance doesn't so much resemble following the dictates of logic as it does an insincere method of granting the benefit of the doubt.  It's kind of like, "We're too polite to call this person a chronic liar, but isn't it obvious from these statistics?"

As I've pointed out before, PolitiFact's selection bias makes its collected statistics all but useless for grading the individuals whose statements receive scrutiny.  The primary value of such information--skimpy as it is--lies in the indication it provides of selection bias by PolitiFact.

Though that's a fact as much as any other, PolitiFact does not inform its readers as to that point.  Instead, we get stuff like this:

Disclaimer:  These ratings should not be taken as a reliable guide to the subject's truthfulness.

Only there is no such disclaimer.  And by its lack, PolitiFact encourages its readers to draw false inferences.  Many are tempted to look at the collected data and draw ill-founded conclusions, perhaps like "Kay Bailey Hutchison is just as likely to lie as to tell the truth!"

Vic Pilkington drew that type of conclusion in a recent post at PolitiFact's FaceBook page:
Did you know that 90% of the Politifact Pants-on-Fire and False statements come from the Right. It’s true, count them!
Pilkington's other comments discourage offering him the charitable interpretation that he feels he has discovered an indication of PolitiFact's selection bias.

Mounting anecdotal and other evidences compound the criticism by showing a pattern of bias in PolitiFact's stories.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Trickle-down works, says the St. Petersburg Times

What, you thought I meant trickle-down (supply-side) economics? No, of course not! Obviously we're talking about trickle-down nuclear restraint as a partial solution to North Korean belligerence:
The [Korean] crisis also underscores the need for Senate Republicans to support ratification of the new START arms control treaty with Russia. Placing further limits on strategic nuclear warheads and reinstating mutual inspection regimens would have a trickle-down effect by inducing smaller and less stable states such as North Korea to redefine what it takes to have global influence.
Um--by making it easier for North Korea to quickly build the world's largest nuclear arsenal?  That redefinition?  The North Koreans are supposed to reason that if the U.S. and Russia weaken themselves then it is in their best interest to likewise weaken themselves?  Otherwise, I don't get it.  Maybe there's more of an explanation in there someplace.  Let's finish the paragraph:
Stronger ties with Russia also would further build international support for immediate action to forestall North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Sanctions have not worked. Neither has the routine of paying North Korea a bounty every time it backs down from a belligerent threat.
Good grief.  Russia is hardly the ringleader of a group of nations whose help is required for "international support."  Russia can be trusted to act in Russia's self-interest and that's pretty much it.   A good number of Russia's neighbors keep hoping for an international coalition to confront Russia.

It's true that sanctions haven't worked.  But it's not hard to figure out why:
This study finds that North Korea's nuclear test and the imposition of UN Security Council sanctions have had no perceptible effect on trade with its two largest partners, China and South Korea.
I can't think of a truly effective UN sanctions regime.  Maybe the informal one against South Africa should count.

The Times admits that appeasement hasn't worked either?  Strike me pink.  While not rocket science, it's a least a more realistic view of foreign policy than I would have expected.

Unfortunately, from there we just get more apocalyptic hilarity from the Times:
The Obama administration may not have many good options, but it needs to press forward on a broad political front. This week's crisis underscores the dangerous thinking by many conservatives who in the recent election cycle called on the United States to withdraw from the United Nations. As long as North Korea remains a threat, America must remain engaged. Its diplomatic partners have an essential role to play, and the United States should be reminding them of it.
So let's get this straight.  According to the Times:
  • sanctions don't work
  • appeasement doesn't work
The Times makes no recommendation of something that does work, other than the following:
  • remain diplomatically engaged with N. Korea
  • by all means work through the UN
  • sign the START treaty
Maybe the plan is to get a bunch of nations to unilaterally disarm and thus shame North Korea into doing likewise.

Other than pointing out the obvious fact that appeasement and sanctions don't work, the editorial is another waste of space and/or bandwidth from the Times.

Find a serious opinion about the Korean conflict here.

Happy Thanksgiving

Hat tip to Hot Air.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The conscience of a journalist, Pt. 2 (Updated)

Having found information contradicting a series of PolitiFact stories about Ponzi schemes, I have since noted the evidence that the source newspapers have probably located the contradictory information via the Internet.

The other day I decided to ensure PolitiFact's familiarity with the conflicting evidence.  I sent an e-mail message to the PolitiFact Texas version of the story, W. Gardner Selby:

Dear Mr. Selby,

Two things.

First, Social Security is a Ponzi scheme (or game) as the term is used by economists.  That fact should not be overlooked in a fact check of this type at the very least for purposes of informing readers, though it also probably should affect the "Truth-O-Meter" rating.

Second, it's "Mitchell" Zuckoff, not "Michell."

A Ponzi scheme is a strategy of rolling over a debt forever and thereby never paying it back.

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.

It simply isn't proper to ignore a large body of work in the professional literature recognizing Social Security-style financing as a Ponzi game without taking appropriate note of that fact.

One would think me an errant second-grader based on Mr. Selby's reply:
If it was a game, no one would play, no? It's not a game. It's a government program. If it was a Ponzi scheme, someone might be in jail by now. Ponzi schemes are illegal.

Dang it, why didn't I think of that?  If it's a game then no one would play!

Those familiar with game theory, realize that everything up to and including the government is a game in that sense--not the sense of deciding whether to play chess or checkers.  Selby's reply marks him as either ignorant of how "game" rightly applies even to a non-voluntary economic scheme or as a smartass with special emphasis on the second syllable.

I try to remain always inclined to offer charitable interpretation, but how can I assume Selby's ignorance after I provided information that ought to have dispelled ignorance?  Could it have been more obvious that Ponzi schemes as described in the material I provided him are not necessarily illegal?  His message made no sense.

I dashed off a reply:
I'm startled at your complete success in ignoring the unequivocal evidence I provided that you are wrong.  That evidence contradicts your reply.
I flubbed up and referred to Selby as "Mr. Gardner" in the salutation.  I hope that doesn't impact the chances of obtaining another response.


Of note, the online version of Selby's story continues to refer in two instances (the only two) to the mythical "Michell" Zuckoff.

It's as though they don't care.


In the Better Late Than Never department, PolitiFact finally got around to fixing a double misspelling of Mitchell Zuckoff's name (formerly "Michell").  Predictably, PolitiFact supplied no time stamp on the update.

Admitted errors are known errors and may affect the brand.

It will probably take considerably longer for PolitiFact to fix its thrice-repeated mistake on the subject of Ponzi schemes.  The linked story continues to totally ignore abundant evidence that "Ponzi scheme" is a perfectly legitimate way to refer to certain legal and potentially sustainable financing models that attempt to perpetually avoid paying off a debt.

Friday, November 19, 2010

PolitiFact blew it again

The folks at PolitiFact can't even seem to check their mailbag without a breach of the principles of objective journalism.

PolitiFact's latest mailbag update features the following title:
"PolitiFact blew it again!"
PolitiFact's sift through its mailbag is true to type.  Publish a few praises, publish a few brickbats.

I recognized one of my posts to PolitiFact's FaceBook page among the brickbats:
"PolitiFact blew it again with the Social Security/Ponzi comparison. Many (most?) of Social Security's participants do not know how the program operates, and economists do not consider fraud a necessary component of Ponzi-style financing."
Hmmm.  I wrote "PolitiFact blew it again."  Did somebody else make the same criticism, that it appeared as the title with an exclamation point grafted on at the end?

As it happens, nobody expressed the idea that PolitiFact "blew it" with a similar phrase.  Therefore, PolitiFact's title breaks with the normal standards of print journalism by adding the exclamation point.  If a journalist hears a person say "PolitiFact blew it again" in a loud voice, it is contrary to the standards of objective writing to add an exclamation point.  Instead, the journalist has the option of factually describing how the speaker raised their voice.

The transgression is no less notable in quoting the written word.

Why would a journalist add an exclamation point contrary to the standards of objective writing?

Maybe it's not objective writing.

Ignorance is one excuse.  Maybe the writer and editor simply do not know that objective writing does not permit that type of gamesmanship.  Regardless of whether ignorance was involved, the result fails to qualify as objective.

Perhaps writer and editor are acutely aware that their work is not objective journalism?

If that were the case it would still not excuse the breach of style.  Even opinion journalists are expected to reproduce quotations without altering them other than to match AP style.

The unavoidable conclusion? The mailbag piece was not objective journalism.

Now the question:  Given the downside of altering the quotation, why was it done?

Most likely the exclamation point was added as a signal to the reader that a person who says that PolitiFact "blew it" is emotional about it--the sort of person who we might expect would yell "PolitiFact blew it again!" if provided the opportunity to express the idea audibly.  It can't hurt to make the criticisms look like they come from unhinged loons.

My statement that PolitiFact blew its story about Ponzi schemes was a matter-of-fact statement accompanied by verifiable supporting statements.  And I'd have no need to yell in making the point, assuming anything resembling an attentive audience.

There's at least one charitable interpretation that replaces sinister non-objective intent with minor incompetence.  Perhaps an early draft of the story contained the exact quotation used in the title but the second quotation was cut during the editing process and the team simply didn't get around to altering the title to match the quotation they used.

For what it's worth, here's the quotation complete with context:

If a representative of PolitiFact had visited the provided link they might have had the opportunity to read something like this:
The strategies we investigate are perfect foresight versions of the "Ponzi schemes" discussed by Minsky (1982) and Kindleberger (1978), where individuals or companies pay out funds to some parties by borrowing funds from others.  Since the perfect foresight assumption rules out schemes based on imperfect information (e.g., swindles), or irrationality of lenders (e.g., fallacies of composition), we are asking under what circumstances these Ponzi games can continue indefinitely.  When, in other words, is it feasible for a government to incur debt and never pay back any principal or interest?  We call such a policy, where all principal repayments and interest are forever "rolled over," i.e., financed by issuing new debt, a "rational Ponzi game."
The quotation, from the International Economic Review journal, unequivocally illustrates the use of the term "Ponzi" to describe systems like Social Security without any necessary reference to fraud or inevitable collapse.

PolitiFact publishes the criticism, at least in part, but never addresses it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The conscience of a journalist (Updated)

After demonstrating PolitiFact's error on  a recent fact check touching Ponzi schemes, I did a subsequent post showing evidence that the host newspaper (the Providence Journal) had accessed the criticism and therefore likely knew that its story was in error.  Yet no corresponding change in the story resulted.

Will the same pattern play out after the Austin Statesman notices that its version of the same story is likewise in error?

Yes, the Statesman is a Cox newspaper.

We'll see what happens, if anything.  If Paul Krugman can't convince these left-leaning journalists that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme then I don't know who can.

On the other hand, if the Statesman doesn't correct the misspelling of Mitchell Zuckoff's name (twice) then there's a good chance that no attention at all was paid to the criticism.

Maybe they're above all that.


The thot plickens as the Providence Journal pays an afternoon visit:

As of this update the Statesman is still going with "Michell Zuckoff."

Grading PolitiFact (Texas): Rick Perry and Ponzi schemes

This again?  It's illuminating to find PolitiFact so unrepentant regarding its failures.  PolitiFact has found the comparison between Social Security financing and Ponzi schemes "Barely True," "False" and now "False" again.

Just one problem:  It's true.  A reasonable effort by PolitiFact should find it "Half True" or better.

On with the grading of PolitiFact Texas:

The issue:

The fact checkers:

W. Gardner Selby:  writer, researcher
Brenda Bell:  editor


This fact check is little different than the one I flunked PolitiFact Rhode Island over a few weeks ago.

Perhaps the key difference is PolitiFact Texas' reliance on "Michell Zuckoff."  Earlier PolitiFact efforts used Mitchell Zukoff as a key source instead.

All kidding aside, Michell and Mitchell are evidently the same person.

The key PolitiFact finding is that the "Ponzi scheme" is fraudulent by definition.  And if you can get journalist and non-economist Michell/Mitchell Zuckoff to proclaim that as a fact in his role as expert source then it's mission accomplished, in a manner of speaking.
Michell (sic) Zuckoff, a Boston University journalism professor who has written a book on Ponzi, noted critical dissimilarities between Social Security and a Ponzi scheme, which by definition is both fraudulent and unsustainable.

"First, in the case of Social Security, no one is being misled," Zuckoff's January 2009 article in Fortune magazine says. "...Social Security is exactly what it claims to be: A mandatory transfer payment system under which current workers are taxed on their incomes to pay benefits, with no promises of huge returns."
(bold emphasis added)
The problem for Zuckoff and PolitiFact is that economists don't see it that way:
A Ponzi scheme is a strategy of rolling over a debt forever and thereby never paying it back.
Kevin X. Huang and Jan Werner are not alone:
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)
What gives Mitchell Zuckoff (and PolitiFact) the right to discount the definition of "Ponzi scheme" as understood by economists?

Nothing.  Nothing at all.

Zuckoff and PolitiFact make the claim of exclusive definition out of apparent ignorance, though I have evidence that staffers at the Providence Journal (source of PolitiFact Rhode Island) took note of the criticism and didn't care enough to change the story.

When three teams of journalists successively flub a similar fact check it starts to resemble a pattern.

The grades:

W. Gardner Selby:  F
Brenda Bell:  F

Perhaps there's a tendency to trust their colleagues at PolitiFact.  Regardless, it's unacceptable and appalling that PolitiFact got this fact check wrong on three consecutive tries.


While doing additional research on this item I stumbled across a helpful blog post at scrivener.net, which made me aware of the following bit from economist and lefty darling Paul Krugman:
Social Security is structured from the point of view of the recipients as if it were an ordinary retirement plan: what you get out depends on what you put in. So it does not look like a redistributionist scheme. In practice it has turned out to be strongly redistributionist, but only because of its Ponzi game aspect, in which each generation takes more out than it put in. Well, the Ponzi game will soon be over, thanks to changing demographics, so that the typical recipient henceforth will get only about as much as he or she put in (and today's young may well get less than they put in).

Monday, November 15, 2010

Panthers-Bucs aftermath: Cheap shot by Talib? (Updated x2)

One of the bigger stories following the Bucs' 31-16 home win against the Carolina Panthers involved the Bucs' goal line stand, where the defense stopped Panthers QB Jimmy Clausen on an attempted QB sneak from the one yard line on fourth down.

On the play, Panther wideout Steve Smith was flagged for unnecessary roughness, hitting the pile late to peel off Bucs CB Aqib Talib.

Smith defending himself regarding the play:
"Jimmy was over the top, and 25 and 26 (Talib and Bucs safety Sean Jones) went head-first into Jimmy, and I followed. So that wasn't frustration. Despite what people think, I actually am a team player. I'd do it again, I'd do it 10 out of 10 times, 100 out of 100 times. Guys going in there, he's going head-first in there, I'm going to follow.

"That's not frustration. That's the fight in me. I'm not going to quit, I'm not going to let whoever it is come in there and cheap-shot my guy.
(Charlotte Observer)
The play did not look like a cheap shot by Talib when I first viewed it.  Then again, I'm a Bucs fan so I may be biased.  So I went to the tape to double check.

It seems possible that Talib's helmet contacted Clausen's.  Sometimes that's enough to generate a fine from the league office.  I do not expect much of a fine if any, however.  Why?  Because the video playing shows that Talib led with his arms, not with his head.  Talib jumped into the pile looking to push Clausen back, and was able to get his hands on Clausen's shoulders as the two collided.  The helmet contact was incidental.

Might as well look for Sean Jones on the play

Jones' hit looks much the same.  He jumps into the pile looking to push Clausen back with his hands and may (I can't tell from the video) have helmet-to-helmet contact with Clausen on the play.

The video from the opposite side of the field helps confirm that any helmet-to-helmet contact was minimal.  Clausen's head and shoulders are visible throughout the play from that angle, and his head never bobs out of position in relation to his shoulder pads.

I don't doubt that Smith believed to at least some extent that he was defending his quarterback from a cheap shot.  But the video evidence makes it look like his judgment was off.

Officials aren't the only ones who do that, apparently.  And in this case the officials made the right call by citing Smith for unnecessary roughness.  But only just barely.  Smith's hit on Talib wasn't particularly vicious.

If Smith wants an example of a cheap shot he can go here.  No doubt about that one.


I found an interesting take on the Clausen story from Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times:
Carolina's Clausen was injured when he was stuffed short of the goal line on a fourth-down keeper against Tampa Bay. Replays showed Buccaneers Aqib Talib and Sean Jones diving at the quarterback, and the helmets of Talib and Clausen colliding. After the play, Panthers receiver Steve Smith received a 15-yard penalty for shoving Talib.
The helmets collide.

Smith shoves Talib.

Interesting choice of verbs.

Note the airborne Smith "shoving" Talib.  Shoving him with the shoulder pad, that is, and leaping (how else?) head first.  Talib is the guy with Smith's shoulder pad in his ribs.

I doubt Farmer had available to him any view of the play showing clear helmet-to-helmet contact, let alone something that would justify describing the helmets as "colliding."

Update 2:

Via the St. Petersburg Times:
TAMPA — Likely to the dismay of Panthers coach John Fox, Bucs CB Aqib Talib was not fined or otherwise disciplined by the NFL for a hit the Panthers say likely left QB Jimmy Clausen with a concussion.
The story goes on to quote Panthers coach John Fox to the effect that Clausen was involved in a number of plays that might have caused his concussion.  Thanks for a local blackout of the game I'll have to trust Fox on that assessment--but it's entirely what I expected.

Krugman again singing praises of "death panels"

Apparently leftist hack/brilliant economist Paul Krugman opened his yap again to say how great it's going to be when ObamaCare gets around to controlling costs.

Krugman talked about "death panels" helping to rescue the federal budget and later explained what he meant at his blog:
(W)hat I said is that the eventual resolution of the deficit problem both will and should rely on “death panels and sales taxes”. What I meant is that

(a) health care costs will have to be controlled, which will surely require having Medicare and Medicaid decide what they’re willing to pay for — not really death panels, of course, but consideration of medical effectiveness and, at some point, how much we’re willing to spend for extreme care

(b) we’ll need more revenue — several percent of GDP — which might most plausibly come from a value-added tax
When Medicare and Medicaid "decide what they're willing to pay for"--including "how much we're willing to pay for extreme care," that's exactly what Sarah Palin was talking about when she applied the label "death panel."  It is, after all, the making life-or-death decisions based on economics.

"Not really death panels, of course."

No, of course not.  It's more a "death board-of-directors" or something.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Grading PolitiFact: Rand Paul and the public-private employment gap

The issue:

The fact checkers:

 Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor


Rand's statement in context:

PAUL: My -- my hope now -- my hope is to be on the Budget Committee and to go through all of these numbers and, by January, to have a balanced budget that I will introduce. I want there to be a Republican alternative -- whether it wins or not, I want the Republican message to be one of balanced budgets. If they won't do it in a year, we'll say, how about two years? If they won't do it in two years, how about three years? But someone has to believe it.
AMANPOUR: Give me one specific cut, Senator-elect.
PAUL: All across the board.
AMANPOUR: One significant one. No, but you can't just keep saying all across the board.
PAUL: Well, no, I can, because I'm going to look at every program, every program. But I would freeze federal hiring. I would maybe reduce federal employees by 10 percent. I'd probably reduce their wages by 10 percent. The average federal employee makes $120,000 a year. The average private employee makes $60,000 a year. Let's get them more in line, and let's find savings. Let's hire no new federal workers.
(yellow emphasis added)
 We investigated this question 10 months ago, when we looked at a statement by Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., that "federal employees are making twice as much as their private counterparts." At the time, we ruled it False. But we're taking a fresh look.
PolitiFact also investigated a similar question three months ago, finding it "Half True" that the average federal worker makes more than $100,000 while the average private worker makes less than $70,000.  A fresh look seems like a fine idea.  Perhaps PolitiFact will reconcile the apparent discrepancies in its reporting.

The story goes on to make a couple of important distinctions.

Government employment does not perfectly mirror the different types of employment from the private sector.  There are fewer government burger-flippers, for example.  So the compensation comparison is an apples-to-oranges comparison to a significant degree.  Also, overall compensation is not what people normally think of when discussing salary.

Prior to finding Rand's claim "False," PolitiFact's Louis Jacobson finds it literally accurate:
According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, a federal statistics-gathering agency, federal worker compensation in 2009 averaged $123,049, which was double the private-sector average of $61,051. That's a gap of almost $62,000 -- and is pretty close to what Paul said on This Week.
In fact, Rand's numbers are perfectly accurate when rounded to the nearest 10,000.  Rounding to the nearest 5,000 Rand could have accurately said $125,000 and $60,000, respectively.
PolitiFact offers that comparing similar jobs makes for and apples-to-apples comparison, finding that federal compensation does trend higher than private pay compensation.  If we were interested in underlying arguments ("Let's get them more in line") then PolitiFact's apples-to-apples comparison would support Rand:
Despite Paul's exaggeration of the numbers, critics of federal compensation patterns do have some valid points.

For instance, Chris Edwards, an economist at the libertarian Cato Institute, notes that federal pay has risen faster than private-sector pay in recent years, despite the recession. "BEA data show that average federal salaries rose 58 percent between 2000 and 2009, which was much faster than the 30 percent increase in the private sector," he writes.
Despite indulging in an comparison that is arguably apples-to-oranges, then, Rand is literally accurate and has a valid underlying argument touching the disparity between federal and private compensation.  "Half True," then, like PolitiFact's ruling on Mike Keown's similar claim?

No such luck.  The rating instead matches the one given earlier to Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.):
But let's return to Paul's assertion. Paul said that the "average federal employee makes $120,000 a year. The average private employee makes $60,000 a year." Most people hearing that would assume he was talking about salary alone, but  he was talking about total compensation, including benefits such as retirement pay and paid holidays. Although studies show federal employees typically earn more than their private-sector counterparts, the difference is nowhere near as much as the doubling Paul says. So we rate his statement False.
Rand's supposedly "problematic" phrasing is actually in line with Keown's.  Brown's choice of words was only marginally more misleading since his use of the term "counterparts" might move listeners to infer a strict apples-to-apples comparison.  And the latter probably cannot justify the "False" rating given to Brown.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Martha Hamilton:  F

Selection bias:  Referencing past rating of Brown while ignoring past rating of Keown, failing to credit Rand's underlying argument in the final rating.

Failure to follow standards:  Finding Rand "False" despite the literal truth of his statement when given a reasonable charitable reading (total compensation rather than gross monetary salary).

That's no way to conduct a fact check.  Nor does it constitute objective analysis.


Though it was close, I wasn't the first to point out the basic failure of this fact check on PolitiFact's FaceBook page:
Terry Kinder Alers
But PolitiFact, suppose Rand Paul had clearly stated that these numbers INCLUDED BENEFITS? Would the result still be false?

I'm worried that your group is beginning to slant your findings. I want to "like" the results, because I myself lean left - but I don't want any of my opposers to be able to find fault in your analyses.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Grading PolitiFact (Texas): Rick Perry and the lightbulb police

The issue:

The fact checkers:

W. Gardner Selby:  writer, researcher
Ciara O'Rourke:  editor


Let's get right to the PolitiFact analysis:
Saying there's "no end to the reach of Washington," Perry writes that Washington is "even telling us what kind of light bulb we can use."
The quotation is pulled from page 37 of Perry's book, "Fed Up":
But the problem goes far deeper than that.  Prohibition on school prayer, the redefinition of marriage, the nationalization of health care, the proliferation of federal criminal laws, interference with local education, the increased regulation of food--even telling us what kind of lightbulb we can use--there is seemingly no end to the reach of Washington.
(Yellow emphasis added)
Perry, then, provides little context for the remark.  It is simply a statement intended to illustrate the broad reach of the federal government.

We asked Perry for backup on that claim and didn't hear back. Then we launched a search for "use-this-bulb" regulations.
PolitiFact appropriately looked for and found the obvious bill from 2007 signed by President George W. Bush.  That legislation phases out traditional incandescent bulbs (with apparently some exceptions) starting in 2012.

PolitiFact also noted that President Obama has pledged to "phase out all incandescent light bulbs."

Then PolitiFact followed its custom of presenting expert opinions:
Jen Stutsman, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Energy, told us that conventional incandescent bulbs are not expected to meet the efficiency standards Congress set, though the government expects manufacturers to improve incandescent technologies to meet the higher standards or consumers will move to compact fluorescent light bulbs, LED technologies or halogens. She said new standards for 100-watt bulbs take effect in January 2012. New standards for 75-watt bulbs start in 2013 and standards for 60- and 40-watt bulbs start in 2014.

Stutsman said the expected shifts aren't equivalent to the government telling Americans which light bulbs to use. "Under no circumstances does it say that a consumer must purchase a specific type of light bulb," Stutsman said.
Did it occur to PolitiFact that Stutsman is simply wrong?

When the government prohibits the sale of light bulbs that fail to meet its efficiency standards then it is equivalent to the government determining that those within its jurisdiction must purchase a specific type of light bulb--that is, one that meets the federal efficiency standard.  Stutsman appears to equivocate on Perry's meaning, uncharitably supposing that Perry meant that the government would force consumers to use very specific light bulbs for very specific applications.  Stutsman creates a straw man argument, and PolitiFact proceeds to treat it as the real McCoy:
So, is Washington telling us what kind of bulb to use?

Not yet, though the 2007 law steps up efficiency requirements and that's expected to result in consumers purchasing and using different bulbs. These factors give Perry's statement an element of truth. We rate it Barely True.
Good grief.  Washington told us in 2007 that we would not be able to replace our typical incandescent bulbs with similar bulbs, with the phase-out starting in 2012.  It takes uncharitable interpretation to rate Perry's claim below "Mostly True."  The typical reader knows exactly what Perry was talking about.  Rather than making an attempt to inform readers about surprising government intrusion, Perry was illustrating the intrusion with an example likely present in the reader's knowledge base.

The grades:

W. Gardner Selby:  F
Ciara O'Rourke:  F

What's wrong with this picture?

Today while doing research I ran across "NewsTrust," a website intended to help separate wheat from chaff in the world of journalism.  NewsTrust develops ratings on a scale from 0.0 to 5.0 to help users determine the level of trust for various news sources.

If you haven't examined the picture yet, it's time.

Notice the trend that has left-leaning agenda journalism exhibiting higher level of trust than (mainstream and left-leaning) news organizations like NPR and the New York Times?  FactCheck is probably the only independent in the group that deserves its high rating.

NewsTrust uses its membership as a giant review panel to rate news stories.  The members evidently pick the stories as they please.

Here's a sample review of a PolitiFact story I panned last year:
PolitiFact shows in this story how the Death Panel lie started and how it spread like wildfire via all forms of media; how it became part of the congressional record on 40 occassions.
Reviewers have the option of providing material that contradicts the finding of a story.  The reviewer in this case found nothing so objectionable about the story and the information she fed the system resulted in a 4.1 rating for the story.

Survey says:  NewsTrust further institutionalizes institutional media bias.  The journalists involved in the ratings will carry, as usual, their leftward tilt and that tilt is probably magnified by a membership pool with an even more pronounced port list.

It's a good idea, but badly flawed in its execution.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Job creation under Roosevelt

While searching for information about job creation numbers during the Great Depression, I stumbled across this excellent video from Reason TV:

Sunday, November 07, 2010

High speed rail a partisan issue?

With Robyn "Blumñata" no doubt still on the mend after Tuesday's Republican electoral wave, the St. Petersburg Times came up with a nonsensical and byline-less Sunday editorial to take up the slack.

The editorial cautions (Republican) lawmakers not to cease feeding money to the high speed rail project that would connect the Tampa region to Orlando.

The concluding paragraph:
Rail service may have to evolve in Florida, especially amid this down economy. But it presents a tremendous opportunity for the state to grow, ease congestion, link the major cities and tourist destinations and put people to work. Florida rarely gets its fare share of federal dollars, and the state's new Republican leaders should not throw up roadblocks to high-speed rail because of partisan politics. 
 Isn't that kind of like asking Congress not to renew the Bush tax cuts because of partisan politics?  How ridiculous.

The issue with high speed rail is and should always be:  Is it a good idea?  If it loses money because cars remain the more efficient means of transportation then it's a bad idea, period.  If the only way to make the rail trip less expensive (and convenient) than the car trip is to tax the latter to artificially achieve that result then it is likewise a bad idea.

Florida should proceed with high speed rail only when it looks like a method people will prefer in moving from one place to another at the price it's going to take to get there.

It's not a partisan issue.  It's an economic issue.

Where's the high speed rail success story?
WISN 12 News obtained a copy of the Wisconsin DOT federal grant application. The DOT estimated one-way tickets to Madison would range from $22 to $33. But, the conservative Cato Institute calculated the cost to taxpayers would be much higher with a $68 per ticket subsidy, bringing the real cost of a one-way high-speed ticket to nearly a $100.
Not in Wisconsin, evidently.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Alex Sink: White House to blame for loss to Rick Scott

Via Hot Air and Politico:
Florida Democratic gubernatorial nominee Alex Sink pointed an accusatory finger Friday at what she called a “tone-deaf” Obama White House to explain why she narrowly lost her campaign.
Hot Air's Ed Morrissey expressed amusement at Sink's complaint, given the extensive aid Sink's campaign received from Washington.

Morrissey tagged Sink with a big share of the blame for the cheating episode that took place during a televised debate:
Sink also neglects to mention that she had leads in polls in the final days of the election until she got caught cheating in a debate — and then lied about it.  That didn’t do anything for her relationship to Florida voters, either.
I remain unsure about the impact of the cheating incident.  The Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times supported Sink's story that she did nothing wrong--that campaign staffer Brian May deserved the blame and was appropriately terminated as a result.

Every paper of note in the Sunshine State endorsed Sink.  Isn't it expected that the newspapers would soft pedal the story?

The Orlando Sentinel may have done the best job out of Florida's big three papers:
"The makeup artist held up her phone and said 'I just got this message. I don't know who it's from,'" Sink said on MSNBC Tuesday, adding she thought it might be a family emergency. "I glanced at it. I didn't really know what it was, and I ignored it."

However, CNN's John King, a moderator of the debate, questioned that on his show Tuesday night. "[W]e listened very closely to the audio, and the makeup artist, when she approached Alex Sink, said, 'I have a message from the staff,'" King said.
The Sentinel may have buried the above story (I don't know one way or the other), but at least the story came out as something other than a blog post under the Sentinel's masthead.

The Jacksonville-area Florida Times-Union buried the story.

The Tallahassee Democrat has a wall set up, so it's hard to tell.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Grading PolitiFact: The NRSC and "the deciding vote"

When is the deciding vote not the deciding vote?  And, alternatively, when is the deciding vote the deciding vote?  Never fear!  PolitiFact is here to cast the deciding vote in making the determination.

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor


Is there more than one way to understand the phrase "the deciding vote"?  If so, we ought to keep watch for the fallacy of equivocation in this PolitiFact item.

First, the ad:

"One vote makes a difference," the narrator says. "Michael Bennet cast the deciding vote for Obama's stimulus that wasted billions, added to the debt and didn't create the jobs they promised. Bennet cast the deciding vote to allow passage of the trillion-dollar health care bill that slashed Medicare, hurting seniors. Bennet's vote was the key to billions in job-killing taxes, too. Michael Bennet: He's been their vote, not Colorado's."

We won't tackle the ad's description of the substance of the two bills. (We've addressed some of those points in the past.) Instead, we'll look at whether it's fair to call Bennet the deciding vote on those bills.
 PolitiFact looks at whether it's fair to call Bennet the deciding vote on those bills.  In the three paragraphs following the quoted portion above, PolitiFact notes that the bills were passed by a single vote in each case and in the next paragraph presents a fair summary of the NRSC ad's argument:
The idea that the Democrats couldn't spare even a single vote is the crux of the NRSC's argument.
Now we can narrow the question a tad.  Is it fair a vote "the deciding vote" if it is simply one vote among many on a measure that succeeded by a single vote?
We ran the issue by a variety of congressional scholars, and most agreed that it was a stretch for the NRSC to label Bennet's vote "the deciding vote."

"That statement is misleading and a distortion of fact," said James Thurber, a political scientist at American University.
Was the vote in which most agree that it was a stretch close?  Was Thurber (who gave to Charles Schumer's election campaign in the past) the deciding vote?

Seriously, is this the type of thing for which experts need to vote?  Shouldn't this fact check consist of a simple examination of common English usage?  Is it misleading if people are not reasonably misled?

PolitiFact finds the NRSC ad "Barely True" based on the majority criticism a group of experts.

It's a convenient way to avoid doing the fact check the proper way:

"I cast the deciding vote to pass health care reform."
--Blanche Lincoln

"Every Democrat cast the deciding health-care vote."
--WSJ opinion

"The court divided along ideological lines on the decision with Justice Anthony Kennedy casting the deciding vote and writing the majority opinion."
--Kenneth P. Vogel, for Politico

"Prejudice could cast deciding vote for Obama, Hillary"
--Chicago Sun-Times (headline)

"It was defeated by one vote. Ric Keller was the deciding vote against our troops."
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.)

"... Arlen Specter cast the deciding vote in favor of a Recovery Act that has helped pull us back from the brink."
--President Obama

"... O'Connor repeatedly cast the fifth and deciding vote ..."
--Charles Lane, staff writer for the Washington Post

Are all of these folks wrong?  I included two examples touching the Supreme Court for a reason:  I think it represents a suitable comparison for the NRSC ad.  Any time two sides are closely balanced when it comes time to vote the tie-breaker is the deciding vote.  With nine on the bench one or two justices will sometimes obtain the label "swing vote" and their vote will end up being called "the deciding vote" even though there may have been no delay in the voting that makes the swing voter's vote any different from any other on the Court.

The answer to the question, then, is a resounding yes.  It is fair to call any person whose vote was part of a one-vote victory the deciding vote.  People will typically understand what is meant.  And that brings us back to the ad.  Was it clear from the context what was meant?

It seems clear enough.  PolitiFact uncovered the ad's argument with no apparent difficulty ("Democrats couldn't spare even a single vote").  The language from the ad does nothing to suggest that Bennet's vote was delayed or held special status other than by calling it "the deciding vote."  But since the overall context simply conveys the message that Bennet's presence enabled Democrats to win some notable one-vote victories this fact check does, as anticipated, serve as an example of the fallacy of equivocation.

Is it possible that somebody might be misled by the language?  Sure.  But no attempt at communication is foolproof.  On the point at issue, the ad is accurate enough to rate as high as "True," and the "Barely True" rating is a stretch.

My justification applies just as well to Alan Grayson's statement about Ric Keller, of course.  Obama's praise of Arlen Specter seems like a different story since the Recovery Act passed with 61 votes in the Senate.  Where was PolitiFact on that one?

PolitiFact's concluding paragraph:
The NRSC ad would have been quite justified in describing Bennet's vote for either bill as "crucial" or "necessary" to passage of either bill, or even as "a deciding vote." But we can't find any rationale for singling Bennet
I was poised to give both PolitiFacters "D" grades for at least getting in the ballpark with the "Barely True" rating and recognizing the basic legitimacy of the ad's argument.  But the logical jumble of the concluding paragraph makes that impossible.  Jacobson identified the message of the ad ("Democrats couldn't spare even a single vote") and then finds that argument out of agreement with other senators playing a key role.

That makes no sense.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson: F
Martha Hamilton: F

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Presidential approval of waterboarding: "Damn right."

George W. Bush has refreshed the topic of waterboarding in the news with a portion of his memoir.  Bush wrote that he responded to the request to use waterboarding on Khalid Sheik Mohammed with "Damn right."

The reporting leads to the same types of meandering circles of disinformation as it did in years past.

The normally estimable Thomas E. Ricks, for example:
In February 1968, a U.S. soldier was court-martialed simply for holding down a Vietnamese man while two Vietnamese soldiers waterboarded him, according to Guenter Lewy's America in Vietnam. (329)
Ricks' reference leads to a single paragraph in Lewy's book.  Lewy's account describes the case as resulting in a "special court-martial."  A "special" court martial is "often characterized as a misdemeanor court."  If Ricks' account conjured images of prolonged imprisonment or of execution then it succeeded in misleading readers.  More importantly, the Lewy's book recounted the court-martial incident by citing an announced U.S. policy of encouraging South Vietnamese forces to hew to compliance with the Geneva Conventions.  Thus any finding of the court with respect to the so-called "waterboarding" incident would likely take into account whether the victim was entitled to Geneva protections.  In short, the incident contributes virtually nothing (if anything) to our knowledge of the legal status of CIA waterboarding.

Yet Ricks follows with this:
I mention this because both George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney now have publicly admitted they were approving of waterboarding, a form of torture that once was a crime in the eyes of the U.S. government -- and still is under international laws.
Ricks appears to follow in the footsteps of Evan Wallach and others who use an equivocal definition of "waterboarding" along with spurious arguments to the effect that U.S. law forbids the practice.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Sink concedes, offers advice

I don't think I'd call the speech or her subsequent interaction with the press gracious:

Sink's advice to Scott, to focus on achieving unity with those who did not support him, provides a bit of a contrast with President Obama's philosophy of rule expressed not long after he took office:

"I won."

Aside from the video, the St. Petersburg Times published a story about Scott's victory speech and Sink's concession.  The Times' story included one of those bits I love--a bit of liberal opinion presented as factual common knowledge:
Scott, spending $73 million on his campaign and promising to bring new jobs to the state, capitalized on the economic anxiety and anti-incumbent sentiment embodied by the tea party, a movement he once helped finance with a campaign-style group that fought President Barack Obama's health care changes.
The tea party embodies the sentiments of economic anxiety (fear) and anti-incumbent sentiment (anger).  Objective fact!  The tea party folks are angry and scared.  The Times has measured it and dutifully reported its objective findings to its "in the know" readers, who can add it to their store of knowledge if they didn't get the message already.

Maybe the tea party just doesn't agree with using government (deficit) spending and government employment to address economic woes?

Nah, that couldn't be it.  They're just skeered and angry.  We see that all the time with uneducated yokels.  Or something.

Red tide

Voters expressed their opposition to federal government creep yesterday, putting a Republican majority in control of the House of Representatives and narrowing the  Democrat majority in the Senate.

President Obama remains in office, unfortunately.  Hopefully that problem can be addressed in two years.

The election also saw some notable gains in state government.  Pennsylvania ended up with a unified state government under the GOP.  Minnesota's legislature went Republican, though Mark Dayton won back the governorship for the Democrats.

In Florida, Marco Rubio handily won the race for the seat formerly held by Mel Martinez.  Rick Scott appears to have narrowly won the race for governor over Alex "Honesty.  Integrity." Sink.  Sink may increase her resemblance to Al Gore by challenging the results of the election.

Here's the latest from the State of Florida (myflorida.com)

Florida election law calls for a mandatory machine recount for elections closer than one half percent of the vote.  The figures above show Scott with a full percentage point lead with a bit to spare (a 68,000 vote lead).  That's quite a bit for Sink to make up, and these figures apparently represent all of Florida's precincts after some counties (like Palm Beach county) counted late into the night.

I'd worry a bit about fraud if Sink somehow gets a recount going.  The recount seems unlikely, however.