Wednesday, December 29, 2010

PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" readers' poll

Does PolitiFact's year-end readers' poll tell us anything about PolitiFact?

At the very least, the poll gives us a clue about the demographic breakdown of the PolitiFact audience.  No, it's not scientific because it's a self-selecting poll group rather than a randomly selected one.  But, in a sense, that gives us an even better picture of the PolitiFact operation since PolitiFact actively solicits input from its readers as to what stories to cover.  And the willingness (eagerness) to be counted in a poll will help measure the most active group of readers.  I did not vote in the poll, for what that's worth.

ObamaCare is a "government takeover" of health care        43.9
$200 million a day for a trip to India                                   19.2
No private sector job creation from Stimulus                      13.9
Dem plan raises taxes for 94 percent of small businesses      8.8
Ethics report exonerates Charlie Rangel                               6.7
"Taliban Dan" Webster and wifely submission                      2.6    
Phoenix No. 2 for kidnappings                                            1.8
Other                                                                                 1.6
GOP privatize Social Security                                             1.5                   

The breakdown assumes that voting for a "lie" that implicates the other party serves as a useful indication of the party favored by the voter.

The totals are a bit stunning.  The total vote from the ideological right, with "Other" thrown in, comes to about 12 percent (12.4).

Three individual "Lie of the Year" candidates received more votes than came from the presumed Republican bloc.

The total vote from the ideological left:  88 percent (87.6).

There's your audience, PolitiFact.  You want them directing your coverage?

Note:  Published originally with 11 percent vs. 89 percent because final item was miscategorized--fixed that within a few minutes of publishing.

Grading PolitiFact (Virginia): Bobby Scott and the cost of tax compromise

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Wes Hester:  writer, researcher
Warren Fiske:  editor


The context of Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott's (D-Va.) statement:

“This bill adds more than $800 billion to the deficit over two-years – more than the cost of TARP and more than the cost of the Recovery Act.   It costs about the same over two years as the 10 year cost of the Health Care Reform bill, which we paid for."


“We cannot add more than $800 billion to the deficit through tax cuts and tell the American people with a straight face that they won’t have to sacrifice anything in the future to balance the federal budget.  If we didn’t have the political will to end the Bush-era tax cuts tonight, we certainly won’t have the political will to do it two years from now during a presidential election.”
I included the latter paragraph to help make clear what Scott was trying to communicate.  He is saying that extending all of the tax cuts adds more than $800 billion to the deficit.  Note that PolitiFact does not frame the issue the same way:  "Rep. Bobby Scott says the tax deal costs the same as health care reform, exceeds price of Stimulus and TARP."

Tax cuts, tax deal.  The difference is significant, as we shall see.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The needle and the damage done

I needle PolitiFact often about its biased attempts at fact checking.  And though I did not predict it as such, it comes as no surprise that PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" story is doing considerable damage to their pretense of objectivity.

Let's face it:  Picking a "Lie of the Year" is not an objective activity in the first place, as I noted last year when PolitiFact first instituted the custom.  Picking a "Lie of the Year" is going to take subjective judgment at some level. This year's pick is steeped in subjective judgment perhaps even more than last year's.

I'll have more on PolitiFact's destruction of its reputation when I publish my review of PolitiFact for 2010.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Piquing PolitiFact: "Nuclear option" isn't really accurate, is it?

In the wake of PolitiFact's English language power grab (see Lie of the Year), a suitable analogy occurred to me.  And I couldn't resist employing it at a discussion area (thread:  "Fact Check This!") at PolitiFact's FaceBook page:

Byron York gets it: PolitiFact doesn't get it

Byron York of the Washington Examiner slaps PolitiFact with one of the same criticisms brought to bear earlier by Karl of Hot Air's Green Room and yours truly:
The group recently cited as "Lie of the Year" the charge that Obamacare represents "a government takeover of health care." Writes PolitiFact: "As Republicans smelled serious opportunity in the midterm elections, they didn't let facts get in the way of a great punchline."

PolitiFact says the charge is false because it "conjures a European approach where the government owns the hospitals and the doctors are public employees." But that's not even true in much of Europe. And imposing draconian new regulations on the health care industry, creating "exchanges" that tightly control the sale of health coverage, fining people who don't purchase coverage, and dictating to insurance companies what they may and may not charge -- if that's not a government takeover of health care, it's certainly in the ballpark.

Oh, wait.  What am I saying?

By any reasonable definition, there's no way that the Democratic plan could be considered a government takeover.

Therefore (logically), Byron York and others of his ilk are unreasonable.

Or something like that.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Message received, partly ignored

For the "Piquing PolitiFact" category, I'm reproducing a message I sent to PolitiFacter Angie Drobnic Holan regarding the Howard Dean interview published at PolitiFact:
Dear Angie Drobnic Holan,

I've written a number of times to the effect that it would be nice if PolitiFact would publish its interview material in order to provide a more transparent background for the quotations used in its stories.  For that reason, I was pleased to see the interview with Howard Dean appear on PolitiFact's (Web) pages.

On the other hand, the Dean interview was just one interview.  Why publish that one selectively?  What reasons contributed to that decision, please?

Bryan White

P.S. Dean is not a stupid man, so it can't be assumed for purposes of transcribing an oral interview that he does not know the difference between "you're" and "your" ("First of all, you don't play defense when your doing messaging, you play offense," for example).  But maybe Dean wrote out his comments, for all I know.

P.P.S.:  The PolitiFact story has at least one obvious and unambiguous error in it:

"The memo is about salesmanship, not substance. It doesn't address whether the lines are accurate."

Actually, the memo does address the accuracy of the lines, at least for the line in question:  "Nothing else turns people against the government takeover of healthcare (more) than the realistic expectation that it will result in delayed and potentially even denied treatment, procedures and/or medications.")

Luntz's mention of the "realistic" expectation of denied/delayed care is a judgment about the accuracy of the message Luntz is trying to help Republicans convey.

The wording used in the story creates the (false) impression that Luntz was unconcerned about whether the messaging conveyed an accurate message.  Quite ironic given the thrust of your story.

Of course it's possible to read the line charitably on your behalf and take it to mean that Luntz's emphasis in the memo wasn't the accuracy of the claims but rather the efficacy of the messaging.  On the other hand, I assume that you don't mind being held to the same standard to which you hold others. (pants on fire!  ;-)  )
(yellow highlights added)

Yes, there's a secret message at the end reproduced faithfully from the original.

But the point is that the Dean quotation has been altered since I sent the message:
"The Democrats are atrocious at messaging. They've gotten worse since I left, not better. It's just appalling. First of all, you don't play defense when you're doing messaging, you play offense. The Republicans have learned this well. We did a lot of great things when I was at the (Democratic National Committee) in terms of infrastructure but we never could get people to actually message better. You always play offense when you're messaging, and the Republicans do it and we don't. You don't defend (against a charge that it's) a government takeover, you just say, 'Well, that's ridiculous.'"
Is it certain that Drobnic edited the Dean interview in response to my missive?  No, of course not.  But it's fairly likely.

Almost needless to say, the careless language about Luntz remains intact as of this posting.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

White House blog on PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year": We told you so!

The White House was quick to weigh in on PolitiFact's choice as "Lie of the Year" for 2010:
As we’ve worked to implement the Affordable Care Act and give the American people the security of knowing that their health care will be there when they need it most, opponents of reform haven't been shy about making claims that are at odds with the facts. But one piece of misinformation always stood out: the bogus claim that health reform amounts to a government takeover of health care.  Today, Politifact, a respected nonpartisan watchdog, said that this claim is the “Lie of the Year.”
PolitiFact is nonpartisan in approximately the same sense that the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation are nonpartisan.  As for "respected," I guess it depends on whom you ask.
So, as we’ve been saying all along, the Affordable Care Act brings unprecedented transparency, consumer protections, and benefits that empower Americans to have better control over their health care decisions--bearing no resemblance with “a government takeover” of our health care system.
I'm surprised that White House mouthpiece Stephanie Cutter stopped short of reminding us that if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" for 2010 another study in irony (Updated)

PolitiFact, with some self-produced fanfare, announced its "Lie of the Year" for 2010.

Like the supposed "Lie of the Year" for 2009 (Sarah Palin's "death panel" remark), PolitiFact's choice itself represents a case study in disinformation.

The winner?  The oft-repeated word choice of Republicans in labeling Obama's health care reform as a "government takeover" of health care.

On to PolitiFact's reasoning:
In the spring of 2009, a Republican strategist settled on a brilliant and powerful attack line for President Barack Obama's ambitious plan to overhaul America's health insurance system. Frank Luntz, a consultant famous for his phraseology, urged GOP leaders to call it a "government takeover."

"Takeovers are like coups," Luntz wrote in a 28-page memo. "They both lead to dictators and a loss of freedom."
It's worth examining the context in this case, because Luntz made many recommendations in the memo:
“Washington Takeover” beats “Washington Control.” Takeovers are like coups – they both lead to dictators and a loss of freedom. What Americans fear most is that Washington politicians will dictate what kind of care they can receive.
The recommendation occurred at the end of a set of three bullet points where Luntz advised Republicans to use the most effective words in making the case against the Democrats' health care reform plans.

The line stuck. By the time the health care bill was headed toward passage in early 2010, Obama and congressional Democrats had sanded down their program, dropping the "public option" concept that was derided as too much government intrusion. The law passed in March, with new regulations, but no government-run plan.
Apparently it is PolitiFact's opinion that Luntz's line was responsible for sinking the public option concept.  Except that it was the failure of Democratic solidarity that caused the exclusion of the public option.  Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Del.), for example, opposed it.  Was Lieberman snookered by the "government takeover" language?  That's very doubtful.  PolitiFact makes its case without backing evidence, which helps mark the story as opinion-drenched news analysis.  PolitiFact has no fact-based case for the importance of its chosen "Lie of the Year."

PolitiFact again:
But as Republicans smelled serious opportunity in the midterm elections, they didn't let facts get in the way of a great punchline. And few in the press challenged their frequent assertion that under Obama, the government was going to take over the health care industry.
Speaking of not letting the facts get in the way, what are the facts that justify claiming that the facts didn't get in the way?

PolitiFact editors and reporters have chosen "government takeover of health care" as the 2010 Lie of the Year. Uttered by dozens of politicians and pundits, it played an important role in shaping public opinion about the health care plan and was a significant factor in the Democrats' shellacking in the November elections.
If dissatisfaction with the health care plan was such a big factor in the November elections then perhaps PolitiFact could have found a "Lie of the Year" in a claim that Democrats would be able to run on the passage of health care reform and/or keep control of the House of Representatives.  But I digress.  We return to PolitiFact's reams of evidence that Luntz's characterization is false:
By selecting "government takeover' as Lie of the Year, PolitiFact is not making a judgment on whether the health care law is good policy.

The phrase is simply not true.

Said Jonathan Oberlander, a professor of health policy at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill:  "The label 'government takeover" has no basis in reality, but instead reflects a political dynamic where conservatives label any increase in government authority in health care as a 'takeover.' "
Hmmm.  Could this be the same Jonathan Oberlander who wrote an advocacy piece in favor of the Democratic health care reform bill, published in the New England Journal of Medicine back in March?

The possible taint on Oberlander's objectivity aside, is it true that "government takeover" has no basis in reality?  Oberlander's own words suggest that he contradicts himself.  Does the legislation provide for increased government authority as he appears to grant?  And isn't an increase in government authority a takeover of that realm of authority, given that the authority came into existence with the passage of the legislation?  Oberlander appears to simultaneously affirm and deny that the terminology has a basis in reality.

PolitiFact sets aside a section under the heading "An inaccurate claim," which suggests evidence will follow.
"Government takeover" conjures a European approach where the government owns the hospitals and the doctors are public employees. But the law Congress passed, parts of which have already gone into effect, relies largely on the free market:
To the politically aware, "Government takeover" should equally suggest an approach where the government exerts overpowering control over health care via regulation.  Comprehensive regulation makes formal ownership unnecessary.  Odd that the fact escapes PolitiFact's notice?

The list of evidences:
Employers will continue to provide health insurance to the majority of Americans through private insurance companies.

• Contrary to the claim, more people will get private health coverage. The law sets up "exchanges" where private insurers will compete to provide coverage to people who don't have it.

• The government will not seize control of hospitals or nationalize doctors.

• The law does not include the public option, a government-run insurance plan that would have competed with private insurers.

• The law gives tax credits to people who have difficulty affording insurance, so they can buy their coverage from private providers on the exchange. But here too, the approach relies on a free market with regulations, not socialized medicine.
Addressing the bullet points in order:

1)  Private insurance will come under greater government control through the new legislation, and it is fair to call newly instituted regulatory powers as a taking.

2)  "Contrary to the claim"--contrary to what claim?  Apparently PolitiFact is hard at work stomping the straw man of socialized medicine.  As noted above, sufficient government regulation renders ownership superfluous as a means of government control.  All insurance could be provided privately yet at the same time fall under strict government regulation.  There's no necessary contradiction.

3)  The bill does give the federal government increased control over doctors and hospitals.  Seizure and nationalization are not the issues unless we're only interested in the socialized medicine straw man.
The majority of physicians (60%) said health reform will compel them to close or significantly restrict their practices to certain categories of patients. Of these, 93% said they will close or significantly restrict their practices to Medicaid patients, while 87% said they would close or significantly restrict their practices to Medicare patients.
(The Physicians Foundation 2010 survey)

(P)roviders for whom Medicare constitutes a substantive portion of their business could find it difficult to remain profitable and, absent legislative intervention, might end their participation in the program (possibly jeopardizing access to care for beneficiaries).
(Estimated Financial Effects of the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” as Amended)

4)  The lack of a "public option" is irrelevant.  As noted above, sufficient regulatory control of private insurance makes the creation of acquisition of a government-owned entity superfluous to government control of the industry.

5)  Methods of payment are irrelevant in excusing the increase in government control, especially when the example actually shows an increase in government control of the methods of payment.  The example accomplishes the opposite of its apparent intent.

Note that the list of evidences completely fails to eliminate the basis in truth for the claim that the government will take over health care:  The government does, in fact, take a substantially more significant role in regulating health care.  Any damage to the socialized medicine straw man remains beside the point.

Having run through its impotent supporting evidences, PolitiFact turned to other journalistic authorities for help within a section titled "'Can't do it in four words.'"
Other news organizations have also said the claim is false.

Slate said "the proposed health care reform does not take over the system in any sense.'
Daniel Gross' Slate commentary shares PolitiFact's blind spot for the role of regulation in conferring effective control of a business sector.  Gross also resembles Oberlander in that his comments result in apparent self-contradiction as he goes on to state that the government increased its control of health care simply on the basis of an increased share of health care costs borne by the government.
In a New York Times economics blog, Princeton University professor Uwe Reinhardt, an expert in health care economics, said, "Yes, there would be a substantial government-mandated reorganization of this relatively small corner of the private health insurance market (that serves people who have been buying individual policies). But that hardly constitutes a government takeover of American health care."
Reinhardt overlooks the new requirements for all health insurance policies, such as the elimination of insurance companies' ability to limit their risk by refusing coverage of pre-existing conditions.  There are many such requirements that are not relegated to individual policy market.  The claim that increased government control does not constitute a government takeover amounts to Reinhardt's opinion., an independent fact-checking group run by the University of Pennsylvania, has debunked it several times, calling it one of the "whoppers" about health care and saying the reform plan is neither "government-run" nor a "government takeover." has a deserved reputation as the best of the lot when it comes to fact checking political statements, so this appeal to authority does carry some weight at first blush.  Unfortunately, makes an error similar to PolitiFact's by assuming that "government-run" means a single-payer system like the systems in Canada or the United Kingdom.  There's nothing to prevent a government takeover from utilizing multiple payers.  Each story cited from commits that type of error.

And about that "four words" bit:
"If you're going to tell the truth about something as complicated as health care and health care reform, you probably need at least four sentences," said Maggie Mahar, author of Money-Driven Medicine: The Real Reason Health Care Costs So Much. "You can"t do it in four words."

Mahar said the GOP simplification distorted the truth about the plan. "Doctors will not be working for the government. Hospitals will not be owned by the government," she said. "That's what a government takeover of health care would mean, and that's not at all what we"re doing."
With all due respect to the progressive Century Foundation's Mahar, government ownership is not required for government control, and four words can contain substantial truth about a complicated subject even if they cannot encapsulate the entirety.

PolitiFact's subsequent section, "How the line was used," does little to contribute to the fact checking process other than to provide evidence counter to PolitiFact's conclusion.  The last paragraph from the section:
In rare cases when the point was questioned, the GOP leader would recite various regulations found in the bill and insist that they constituted a takeover. But such followups were rare.
It doesn't make much sense to blame the GOP for the failure of journalists to ask followup questions.  But it does make sense to credit with truthfulness (to at least some degree) those GOP figures who explained exactly what they meant by "government takeover" by citing specifics from the bill.  Particularly in those cases it makes little sense to charge that Republicans were working to mislead people into thinking that the reform bill instituted a single-payer system or socialized medicine.  Yet PolitiFact misleads its readers toward that very conclusion.

The next section of the story carries the heading "An effective phrase" and treats Luntz's communications strategy:
The memo begins with "The 10 Rules for Stopping the 'Washington Takeover' of Healthcare.”  Rule No. 4 says people "are deathly afraid that a government takeover will lower their quality of care – so they are extremely receptive to the anti-Washington approach. It's not an economic issue. It's a bureaucratic issue."

The memo is about salesmanship, not substance. It doesn't address whether the lines are accurate. It just says they are effective and that Republicans should use them. Indeed, facing a Democratic plan that actually relied on the free market to try to bring down costs, Luntz recommended sidestepping that inconvenient fact:

"The arguments against the Democrats' healthcare plan must center around politicians, bureaucrats and Washington ... not the free market, tax incentives or competition."
"It doesn't address whether the lines are accurate."  Actually, it does:
Nothing else turns people against the government takeover of healthcare than the realistic expectation that it will result in delayed and potentially even denied treatment, procedures and/or medications.
Where Luntz refers to the "realistic expectation" about denied or delayed health care treatment he is asserting that the point his language recommendations try to effectively communicate is a legitimate (accurate) concern.

Aside from the above PolitiFact-crafted lie, the section also features DNC Chairman Howard Dean making a statement that appears to contradict Mahar's claim from the preceding section:
Dean grudgingly admires the Republican wordsmith. "Frank Luntz has it right, he just works for the wrong side. You give very simple catch phrases that encapsulate the philosophy of the bill."
Dean's statement appears to leave ample room for four words to carry significant truth ("encapsulate the philosophy") about a complex subject.  PolitiFact fails to note the discrepancy.

PolitiFact's tone-deaf approach holds true through the last section, "A responsive chord."
By March of this year, when Obama signed the bill into law, 53 percent of respondents in a Bloomberg poll said they agreed that "the current proposal to overhaul health care amounts to a government takeover.”
If PolitiFact's analysis is accurate, then doesn't that mean that 53 percent of respondents came to believe that the health care reform bill represents socialized medicine or a single-payer plan?  The PolitiFact story emphasized again and again that "government takeover" can only mean that type of thing.

Probably no survey data will ever surface to support anything approaching a 53 percent belief that the 2010 health care reform instituted a single-payer system or socialized medicine.  And it should have occurred to PolitiFact to view the Bloomberg poll as a potential refudiation of its operating assumption.  I would expect survey data to show that "government takeover" ended up communicating the Republican position that the health care reform bill placed too much control of the health care market in the hands of the federal government.

PolitiFact failed to ask the obvious followup question regarding the poll results.


As with the 2009 "Lie of the Year," the cure is worse than the disease.

PolitiFact created the fantasy that "government takeover" can only mean socialized medicine or a single-payer plan.  Though that is a ridiculous notion, it occurs repeatedly in a story featuring a veritable chorus of experts from the political left.

The story never makes a credible case that Luntz's phraseology does other than take successful advantage of the negative connotations of words to raise awareness (and concern) about the reasonably anticipated results of the health care reform bill.

On top of that, PolitiFact makes a very weak case for the importance of the phrase in public debate over the course of the year.  The reform passed early in the year, after all, and PolitiFact provided no solid evidence that any misconception about the effect of the bill, such as the belief that it represented either a single-payer system or socialized medicine, had a significant impact on the 2010 elections.

Horrible work, PolitiFact.


PolitiFact also got around to publishing a lie about last year's "Lie of the Year" from Sarah Palin:
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat whose provision for Medicare end-of-life care was distorted into the charge of "death panels" (last year's Lie of the Year), said the Republicans' success with the phrase was a matter of repetition.
Look up the FaceBook post that Palin used in making her "death panel" comment and you'll find nary a word about the end-of-life counseling championed by Blumenauer.  Instead, it was all about the inevitability of government bureaucrats making what amount to life-or-death decisions.

The claim from PolitiFact doesn't even jibe with its original evaluation of Palin's "death panel" remark:
Palin's claim sounds a little like another statement making the rounds, which says that health care reform would mandate counseling for seniors on how to end their lives sooner. We rated this claim Pants on Fire ! The truth is that the health bill allows Medicare, for the first time, to pay for doctors' appointments for patients to discuss living wills and other end-of-life issues with their physicians. These types of appointments are completely optional, and AARP supports the measure.
That's ineptitude, pure and simple.


Karl from Hot Air's "Green Room" published a parallel criticism of PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" several hours before mine.  Karl's version makes an important point not found in my version:
As Michael Kinsley (founding editor of Slate, which PolitiFact relies upon as an authority) asked about ObamaCare:
If the government requires insurers to accept all customers and charge all the same price, regulates all aspects of their marketing to make sure they aren’t discriminating, and then redistributes the profits to make sure that no company gets penalized unfairly, in what sense is the industry still “private”?
Karl goes on to point out (citing that the CBO judged that government regulation of medical loss ratios throughout the health insurance industry were set just below the threshold at which private insurance should be considered "an essentially government program."

C'mon.  That quotation of the CBO has to be out of context, doesn't it?

'Fraid not:
A proposal to require health insurers to provide rebates to their enrollees to the extent that their medical loss ratios are less than 90 percent would effectively force insurers to achieve a high medical loss ratio. Combining this requirement with the other provisions of the PPACA would greatly restrict flexibility related to the sale and purchase of health insurance. In CBO’s view, this further expansion of the federal government’s role in the health insurance market would make such insurance an essentially governmental program, so that all payments related to health insurance policies should be recorded as cash flows in the federal budget.
The CBO report talks about rebates for MLRs above 90 percent.  the PPACA set the rebate threshold at 80 percent for the small group market and 85 percent for the group market.

Oopsie.  PolitiFact forgot to mention it.

Many thanks to Redstate for the connecting URL and additional analysis.

Dec. 21, 2010:   Added a connecting link for Karl's excellent critique of PolitiFact.  Apologies to Karl for the tardy action.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

PolitiFact-Pulitzer Prize update

One may have noticed a lack of recent entries in my series about whether PolitiFact's Pulitzer Prize in 2008 was deserved.

There's a reason for that even beyond the time requirement:  The dog ate my homework.

Sort of, anyway.

I completed the seventh installment and published it as the sixth installment, failing to realize that I had neglected to publish the sixth installment.  And while remaining under that impression I deleted what I took as an extra copy of the sixth installment (that is, the only true copy of the sixth installment).

It's been tough to motivate myself to redo the research on that item so far.  But don't lose faith.  It will probably happen within the next few months.

Now, related to my earlier research, it looks like the Pulitzer folks have updated their website with additional information about the method used to award their coveted prizes:

6. What are the criteria for the judging of The Pulitzer Prizes?
There are no set criteria for the judging of the Prizes. The definitions of each category (see How to Enter or Administration page) are the only guidelines. It is left up to the Nominating Juries and The Pulitzer Prize Board to determine exactly what makes a work "distinguished."
"(N)o set criteria."  In context, this is not so surprising.  The eligible publications are required to adhere to journalism's highest standards, which presumably include the fairness and accuracy stipulations that I've used to help evaluate about half of PolitiFact's winning group of entries.  The latter portion regarding the term "distinguished" I think reinforces my argument that PolitiFact won its Pulitzer in considerable part because of its groundbreaking format.  It's a legitimate consideration (not least because of the wide discretion given in the above FAQ item).  But it's certainly a reason to refrain from placing a high degree of trust in PolitiFact's general accuracy based on the 2008 Pulitzer Prize.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Grading PolitiFact (Ohio): Sherrod Brown claims unemployment is insurance, not welfare

The issue:

The fact checkers:
Stephen Koff:  writer, researcher
Robert Higss:  editor


Sherrod Brown appeared on MSNBC back on Nov. 30 and made the claim pictured in the above graphic (see "The issue").

Context is a wonderful thing.  Unfortunately, PolitiFact provides no way to verify the full context of Brown's conversation with Contessa Brewer (though Brown rhapsodized about the same subject on the Rachel Maddow Show back in July).

PolitiFact does provide enough context to make it look like Brown contradicts himself:
Brown says that Congress needs to show some compassion, because so many Americans are struggling to find work.

"Understand, this is unemployment insurance," Brown told MSNBC anchor Contessa Brewer on Nov. 30. "It’s not welfare, as a lot of my Republican colleagues like to suggest it is. You pay into it when you’re working. You get help when you’re not."
First Brown claims that Congress needs to show compassion.  Then Brown says that unemployment payments are a form of unemployment insurance.

Is an insurance company exhibiting "compassion" when it pays a claim?

No.  In most instances insurance companies pay claims because of a contractual obligation to pay the claim.  It's always possible, though not likely, that an insurance company will pay benefits beyond those called for in the terms of the contract.  Benefits in the latter category are conceptually identical to charity.  Brown, then, is arguing for charity (extending long-term unemployment benefits) and justifying it as the rightful payment of an insurance benefit.

It isn't cut and dried in the world of PolitiFact, however:
Brown raises several points that we thought were worth checking. The key point: Do workers pay into the unemployment system and then draw benefits from it if they lose their jobs?
PolitiFact's "key point" completely overlooks the context of Brown's statement.  Yes, prior to emergency extensions done at the discretion of the insurer (the government), unemployment benefits are an insurance benefit.  But there's no controversy in Congress about paying those benefits.  The controversy surrounds the interminable extension of unemployment benefits.

PolitiFact then digresses into the issue of who pays the premium for unemployment benefits.  Making the long story shorter, the employer pays the premium but most or all of the payment is considered part of the price of employment.  Regardless, PolitiFact is missing Brown's underlying argument and his main point as a result.

After that, PolitiFact notes that the federal contribution to unemployment benefits is not part of the insurance arrangement at the state level.  In other words, the federal dollars are not part of the insurance benefit for unemployment insurance.  One of PolitiFact's expert sources called the federal portion "deficit financing." Brown was talking about money appropriated by Congress.  How does he get away with justifying the expense as meeting the obligations of an insurance program?

PolitiFact is hot on the trail, albeit moving in the opposite direction:
One more component of Brown’s claim: that "a lot of my Republican colleagues" like to suggest that unemployment insurance is like welfare. This was an important part of the claim because it explains why he felt the need to clarify how the system is funded -- not by freeloaders but by workers who pay into the system.
Apparently we're supposed to ignore the fact that the federal component is not funded by the insurance premium.  PolitiFact uncovered that fact and has since ignored it.

As for the rabbit-trail itself, PolitiFact finds Brown "Half True" in saying that a good number of his Republican colleagues suggest unemployment insurance is like welfare.  The justification?  A good number of Republicans say that unemployment insurance serves as a disincentive to find work.


Isn't that entirely beside the point?  If welfare made it 100 percent certain that a person would find a job it would still be welfare, wouldn't it?  How did we end up defining "welfare" in terms of its supposed disincentive effect?  That conception of "welfare" is apparently assumed in the story.  The author provides no justification (and the editor apparently couldn't care less).

PolitiFact ends up breaking down Brown's claim into three component parts (in spite of their simultaneous effort to grade just one item where possible).
So let’s break down Brown’s claim and our fact-finding.

  • "A lot of my Republican colleagues" like to suggest that jobless benefits are like welfare. What he meant was clear enough -- that they equate jobless benefits to the public dole. We can’t quantify "a lot." But Brown’s staff provided numerous examples that show there are Republicans saying they worry that jobless benefits encourage people to stay out of work. This isn’t to suggest it is a majority view. But Brown did not say "most." He said "a lot." This part of the claim, then, warrants at least a Half True.
  • "You pay into it when you’re working." Economists from the right and left agreed that this is essentially correct, with some elaboration required. So it is Mostly True.
  • "You get help when you’re not." This is True.
No doubt the elephant in the room feels greatly relieved.

The key issue should have been whether unemployment compensation was comparable to welfare according to the context in which Brown was speaking.  PolitiFact rated the first component item "Half True" based on an illogical procedure, since welfare is welfare regardless of incentive effects or the lack thereof.  The second and third items relate tangentially to the key point.  Employees pay for unemployment insurance ("You pay into it when you're working"=>"You get help when you're not"), but Congress doesn't appropriate funds for extended unemployment benefits according to the insurance contract.  Extensions self-evidently go beyond the normal schedule of benefits.

PolitiFact bought Sherrod Brown's red herring and ended up pursuing rabbit-trails.

Oh, and the "caveat":
This entire discussion needs a caveat. MSNBC put Brown on the air because of the ongoing debate over extending federal jobless benefits. The reason for debate is the fact that the federal government has to pick up the tab and it will have to borrow more to do so, at least in the short term. To put matters clearly: You pay into the unemployment compensation through your employer, and that pool of money pays for your state benefits -- but not your federal benefits -- if you lose your job.
So, apart from the fact that Brown was misleading the audience, what he said was Mostly True.  Or something like that.  Supposedly.

The grades:

Stephen Koff:  F
Robert Higgs:  F

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


Sherrod Brown made a remarkably similar set of claims in July on the Rachel Maddow Show:

MADDOW:  One of the things that was proven not only to be the right thing to do with people that are down on their luck but also a big economic stimulus is extending unemployment benefits.  That is something you and the Senate have been dealing with over and over and over again as republicans continue to block it.  Do you think the Senate will be able to get an extension next week?
BROWN:  I think we are, because Senator Byrd‘s replacement will be appointed by Governor Mansion of West Virginia.  We need one more vote, but that is the hypocrisy.  They insist we—they give tax cuts to the rich, they start wars, they do a drug and insurance company bailout giveaway.  Charge that to our grandchildren.
All of a sudden now, we have to pay for unemployment benefits for working people who have been in the job market for 20 or 30 years, working.  They lose their jobs.  They‘ve paid into this.  Republicans seem to think, republican senators, 41 of them vote no on unemployment time after time after time.  They seem to think that unemployment is welfare.  It‘s insurance.  You pay in when you‘re working, you get help when you‘re not. 
The problem, of course, is that the repeated votes where Republicans express opposition to extending unemployment benefits all involve extensions of unemployment benefits.  Brown's words are very misleading, and PolitiFact finds it impossible to notice.

That same Rachel Maddow segment was the subject of an earlier PolitiFact fact check.  Koff and Higgs received the "journalists reporting badly" tag on that one, also.

Dec. 11, 2010:  A URL in the final paragraph led to the wrong destination, though not by much.  Fixed it.

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, 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