Monday, February 28, 2011

Grading PolitiFact (Virginia): Tim Kaine on jobs & pop

To assess the truth for a numbers claim, the biggest factor is the underlying message. 
--Bill Adair

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Sean Gorman:  writer, researcher
Warren Fiske:  editor


Kaine's claim obviously represents a numbers claim, so we'll be on the lookout for the underlying point.  That's the most important thing when fact checking a numbers claim.  Or so it is said.

Take it away, PolitiFact:
Kaine said in a speech that during the Bush administration "while the population in that period grew by 10 percent, the number of jobs in the nation grew by 1 percent."

We wondered if that was really the case. Alec Gerlach, a DNC spokesman, couldn’t identify the source on which the former Virginia governor based his claim. So we tried to find it on our own, comparing census records from January 2001 - the month Bush was sworn in - to January 2009, when Bush left office.
It makes sense to investigate the raw numbers prior to assessing the underlying point.

PolitiFact found that the population increased by about 7.8 percent according to Census Bureau estimates.  Kaine's number was inflated by about 22 percent in order to reach the minimum reasonable interpretation of "10 percent" (9.5 percent).  Insisting on the full 10 percent--and I don't--would represent an inflation of about 36 percent.

Additionally, PolitiFact found that non-farm employment increased only about .83 percent from the start of Bush's two terms to the end.  Kaine could be viewed as doing Bush a favor by rounding that figure up to 1 percent.
While Kaine’s numbers are a little off on employment and census, he’s right in suggesting that that U.S. population grew 10 times faster that (sic) jobs during George W. Bush’s presidency.
Hmmm.  Could that be the underlying point?  Or was it hidden in the three paragraphs' worth of caveats?
Even so, several economists told us comparing raw population growth and job numbers is not a preferred way to examine job creation versus demand. That’s because not all of the new people -- such as babies born during the Bush administration -- need jobs.

We were told a more meaningful measure is labor force participation: the percentage of the population between 16 and 64 that is either employed or looking for work. According to BLS, participation was at 67.2 percent when Bush took office and 65.7 percent when he left.

Here’s another thing to keep in mind: Economists have told us time and again -- on this claim and others -- that the policies of presidents and governors have only minor impact on economic cycles and job creation. "They get too much credit and too much blame," said Sylvia A. Allegretto, economist at the Institute for Research on Labor & Employment at the University of California, Berkeley.
... and hinted at in the introductory paragraph(?):
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine may not have given the crowd at the Feb. 19 Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Richmond the scoop on whether he’s running for the U.S. Senate, but he made no secret of his disdain for former President George W. Bush’s record on job creation.
No, apparently the 10:1 thing was the underlying point, if the conclusion is any indication:
Kaine’s numbers are a little off his and spokesman doesn’t know where they came from. Even so, his suggestion that population growth outpaced job growth by a ratio of 10 to 1 is pretty much on the mark, so we rate his claim Mostly True.

The grades:

Sean Gorman:  F
Warren Fiske:  F

The grades assume that Bill Adair knows what he's talking about when he says the underlying argument is the most important aspect of a numbers claim.  Making the supposed 10:1 ratio the underlying point is little better than making the raw numbers the underlying point (and thus the same as the superficial point).


The presentation by Gorman and Fiske left it unclear just how far off the mark Kaine ended up with respect to the supposed 10:1 ratio.  Divide 7.8 by .83 and the resulting 9.4 ends up reflecting a ratio closer to 9:1  than 10:1.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Notes on the war for Wisconsin

The battle between some public employee labor unions and the state government in Wisconsin means a great deal in the modern political landscape, as numerous pundits have suggested.  I'm going to weigh in by juxtaposing a pair of recent stories from David Cay Johnston and Robert Tracinski.

Johnston's story bemoans the media's mistake in adopting Gov. Walker's language in calling for public employees to bear a greater share of the expense for their medical and pension costs:
Out of every dollar that funds Wisconsin' s pension and health insurance plans for state workers, 100 cents comes from the state workers.
Johnston's point is trivially right.  The Republican-controlled state is asking public sector workers to take a reduction in its overall compensation.  But Johnston's point also misses the point.  There are two corporate entities involved, the state and the public workers.  The state is the employer and 100 cents out of every dollar that funds Wisconsin's pension and health insurance plans comes from the employer since the employer is paying for both salary and non-salary benefits.

The point is that Johnston is silly to make a big deal about the money coming entirely from the workers.  Walker would fire a bunch of them if the bill didn't pass, simply because the state's budget could not bear the costs.

The answer to Johnston's point clicked entirely into place when I read through the fourth paragraph of Tracinski's column:
There is something that almost amounts to a twisted idealism in the Democrats' crusade. They are fighting, not just to preserve their special privileges, but to preserve a social ideal. Or rather, they are fighting to maintain the illusion that their ideal system is benevolent and sustainable.
Johnston's trying to sustain the illusion.

Think about those deferred wages.  Suppose for the sake of argument that a Wisconsin employee put in 10 years at $30,000 per year and earns a pension of 50 percent of their salary in perpetuity.  Suppose the employee goes on to live for 50 years on that pension.  The state will have paid that employee, using Johnston's terms, $750,000 in deferred salary.  So the employee did not make a mere $300,000 over ten years but over $1 million in 10 years.

The example is made up, but the principle is real.  Some of the union deals are too expensive, and the employers (the people and their representatives) need to do some serious work to get them back in line with fiscal reality.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Mitt Romney and Obama's apologies

At PolitiFact's FaceBook page:
We had several readers ask us recently to fact-check whether Obama has apologized many times for the United States. Here's a report we wrote last year, for those who are interested in the issue.
The term "recycled garbage" comes to mind ...

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Angie Drobnic Holan:  writer, researcher
Morris Kennedy:  editor


What Romney wrote, with yellow highlights indicating the portions reproduced in the PolitiFact story:
Never before in American history has its president gone before so many foreign audiences to apologize for so many American misdeeds, both real and imagined," Romney writes. "It is his way of signaling to foreign countries and foreign leaders that their dislike for America is something he understands and that is, at least in part, understandable. There are anti-American fires burning all across the globe; President Obama's words are like kindling to them.

President Obama, always the skillful politician, will throw in compliments about America here and there.  But what makes his speeches jump out at his audience are the steady stream of criticisms, put-downs, and jabs directed at the nation he was elected to represent and defend.

In his first nine months in office, President Obama has issued apologies and criticisms of America in speeches in France, England, Turkey, and Cairo; at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and the United Nations in New York City. He has apologized for what he deems to be American arrogance, dismissiveness, and derision; for dictating solutions, for acting unilaterally, and for acting without regard for others; for treating other countries as mere proxies, for unjustly interfering in the internal affairs of other nations, and for feeding anti-Muslim sentiments; for committing torture, for dragging our feet on global warming and for selectively promoting democracy.
The lone portion from the above not directly quoted by PolitiFact was accurately summed up via paraphrase.

After noting that criticizing Obama over apologies makes up a theme of conservative criticism, writer Drobnic begins the fact check:
(A)s we looked over Obama's remarks, we noticed that he never used the word that is the universal hallmark of apologies: "sorry." Merriam-Webster defines an apology as "an admission of error or discourtesy accompanied by an expression of regret." If someone is apologizing, it seems that is a discrete act that can be verified and fact-checked. We set out to discover how accurate Romney was in describing Obama as constantly apologizing.
Drobnic's approach provides ample reason for concern.  If "sorry" is "the universal hallmark of apologies" then wouldn't Merriam-Webster include that in the definition?  Or American Heritage, maybe?
To make excuse for or regretful acknowledgment of a fault or offense. (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
Regret may be expressed by means such as the tone of voice or even body language.  "Sorry" is not necessary.

From this precarious foundation, PolitiFact proceeds to specific examples.

Strange citation of the week

Some chap going by the screen name of "KarateKid" helped bump traffic here a bit by linking one of my posts in a commentary thread over at the Huffington Post.

The citation, along with similar ones from Hot Air and Reason, not to mention a sore thumb oddball from Time's Swampland blog, did not appear to make much sense:
For those of you who think Politifacts (sic) is some kind of objective bible, read some of this. I DARE you, righties.

The post here was about PolitiFact's inconsistent standards in handling numbers claims. While the post does note that PolitiFact went soft on Ron Paul compared to Mitt Romney, there's nothing else in it to support the notion that PolitiFact has a conservative bias. PolitiFact was soft on Paul respecting an issue more popular with the left and libertarians than with mainstream Republicans.

The point was that PolitiFact's methods are suspect, not that the example amounts to an ideological bias, though if one tried to wring evidence of bias out of it the evidence probably favors the left more than the right.

I don't recommend using the example as evidence of bias except where many other examples show that one side is favored clearly more often than the other.

Is "KarateKid" a troll? I've no idea. His number of fans (2073) argues against it, at first blush.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Grading PolitiFact (Wisconsin): Scott Walker and the budget repair plan

Words matter -- We pay close attention to the specific wording of a claim. Is it a precise statement? Does it contain mitigating words or phrases?
--Bill Adair, PolitiFact
Context matters -- We examine the claim in the full context, the comments made before and after it, the question that prompted it, and the point the person was trying to make.
--Bill Adair, PolitiFact

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Dave Umhoefer:  writer, researcher
Greg Borowski:  editor


PolitiFact's presentation of this fact check raises an immediate red flag for those who agree with Bill Adair that words matter.  The quotation of Gov. Scott Walker includes a parenthetical portion provided by PolitiFact.  Those editorial embellishments are customarily intended to assist the reader in understanding the context of the statement.  But reporters and editors sometimes fail to accurately convey the context with such interpolations.

PolitiFact examines two associated statements from Walker.  In each, we get an accurate idea of Walker's exact words:

A reporter asked if the move to limit union power was payback for pro-union moves made by Democrats in the past.

"It’s not a tit for tat," Walker responded. "The simple matter is I campaigned on this all throughout the election. Anybody who says they are shocked on this has been asleep for the past two years."
Asked if he was "ramming through" the budget-repair bill, Walker said:

"We introduced a measure last week, a measure I ran on during the campaign, a measure I talked about in November during the transition, a measure I talked about in December when we fought off the employee contracts, an idea I talked about in the inauguration, an idea I talked about in the state of the state. If anyone doesn't know what's coming, they've been asleep for the past two years."
And, for review, the PolitiFact paraphrase of Walker's position based on the two quotations above:
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker says he campaigned on his budget repair plan, including curtailing collective bargaining.
PolitiFact described/justified the above framing in the story like so:
There is no dispute that Walker campaigned on getting concessions on health and pension benefits from state employees. And, to be sure, that is an important part of the measure.

But for Walker to be right, he has to be correct on the entirety of the plan. So we’ll look more deeply at the collective bargaining side of the equation, which has caused the ongoing firestorm in Madison.
The key premise in PolitiFact's argument occurs at the start of the second paragraph just above:  "(F)or Walker to be right, he has to be correct on the entirety of the plan."  That key premise is based, in turn, on PolitiFact's interpretation of Walker's words at two press conferences, one on Feb. 17 and the other on Feb. 21.

Given the critical nature of the respective interpretations, we examine each in turn.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Keeping up appearances at PolitiFact

Yesterday PolitiFact published a piece by editor Bill Adair apparently intended to reassure readers that PolitiFact is, well, politifair in the way it does business.

Given Adair's recent past of expressing indifference to the public's perception of bias at PolitiFact this is a significant development.  Eric Ostermeier probably deserves a great deal of the credit for putting PolitiFact on the defensive.  Ostermeier published a study of PolitiFact's results suggesting the strong possibility of selection bias and called for PolitiFact to make its selection process transparent.

Though Ostermeier's name might as well have been "Voldemort" for purposes of Adair's article, the latter probably serves as Adair's response to Ostermeier's call.

How does the answer measure up?
Editor's Note: We've had some inquiries lately about how we select claims to check and make our rulings. So here's an overview of our procedures and the principles for Truth-O-Meter rulings.
The editor's note is about half true.  PolitiFact didn't just have inquiries.  It found itself criticized by a serious researcher who made a good case that PolitiFact ought to be viewed as having a selection bias problem unless PolitiFact could allay the concern by making its methods transparent.  The editor's note isn't exactly transparent.

Adair's off to a great start!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Grading PolitiFact (Wisconsin): Paul Ryan and the Madison riots

 The issue:

The fact checkers:

James B. Nelson:  writer, researcher
Greg Borowski:  editor


Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) appeared on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program on Feb. 17 and weighed in on the Wisconsin governor's run-in with the state's union workers:

"It's not asking a lot, it's still about half of what private sector pensions do and health care packages do. So he's [the Governor is] basically saying, I want you public workers to pay half of what our private sector counterparts and he's getting riots -- it's like Cairo has moved to Madison these days," Rep. Ryan told MSNBC's "Morning Joe."

Here' an example of how PolitiFact editors choose their stories:
Now that warrants a news flash: Riots?

That conjures images of tear gas, broken windows, cracked heads. Is that really happening?
That's how the fact check proceeds.  It is assumed that Ryan was saying that the Madison protests were violent, so the fact check involves trying to find examples of violent behavior.

We get a number of contrasts to violent antiwar protests from the American 1960s.

We get highlighting of the fact that there is little tension between the police and Wisconsin protesters (perhaps the police are unionized?).

Finally, PolitiFact asked for a response from Ryan's office:
Puzzled, we called Ryan’s office and asked what he was referring to in his comments about riots and his comparison of a week of Madison protests with 18 days that led to the resignation of the president of Egypt.

Ryan’s response: "It was an inaccurate comparison."
Ryan's response was perhaps too deferential.  Not everyone thought the comparison was inapt, as quite a few signs in the Madison crowd made a direct comparison between Governor Walker and (former) Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.  But it's pretty easy to figure out why Ryan would back away from the comparison.  More on that after a little video showing the riot in Cairo:

That's right, ladies and gentlemen.  The Egyptian protesters were by and large peaceful.  The scenes depicting violent behavior come from the riot control folks (police and the like).

Given that Ryan invoked the comparison with Cairo in the immediate context, what is the justification for taking "riot" as literally meaning violent behavior?

There apparently is no such justification, other than taking the literal definition of the word and trying to make Ryan wear it regardless of the context.  The similarity to Cairo is sufficient for Ryan to make the comparison.  Big crowds turned out to protest the actions of the government (peacefully in both cases).  The state hasn't yet used teargas to disperse the crowds, nor have government supporters instigated violent clashes with protesters as happened in Egypt.

Given the explicit comparison to massive protests in Egypt, Ryan's comment ought to have been taken as hyperbole (exaggeration for emphasis) and politically inadvisable because the Wisconsin protesters deliberately tried to invoke the comparison themselves between Walker and Egypt's Mubarak.

The Egyptian protesters were notably repressed.  The Madison protesters suffered no comparable harm.

This item is classic "gotcha" journalism.

The grades:

James B. Nelson:  F
Greg Borowski:  F

Grading PolitiFact: Obama and shifting "domestic discretionary spending"

To assess the truth for a numbers claim, the biggest factor is the underlying message. 
--Bill Adair
While wearing out the above quotation from PolitiFact's Bill Adair, I've been looking for statements from Democrats constituting number claims.  Without strenuous effort I've found a number such claims concerning Republicans where the importance of the biggest factor seems to approach nil.  And with just a bit more searching a comparable example from a Democrat turned up.

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Robert Farley:  writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor


As a numbers claim this on is a bit more similar to Sarah Palin's statement about U.S. military spending as a percentage of GDP than to some others I've focused on recently.

On with the fact check:

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The civility of the left: Wisconsin edition

The Republican Party of Wisconsin put together a video of some of the more outlandish signs and statements from the Madison protests (at least they all look like they were legitimately collected there):

Friday, February 18, 2011

Econ 101 with Blayne Bennett

I love this video series from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Grading PolitiFact: John Boehner and adding 200k federal jobs

To assess the truth for a numbers claim, the biggest factor is the underlying message. 
--Bill Adair
The issue:

The fact checkers

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor


The graphic above states the issue sufficiently well.

Here's a video of the press conference, with the relevant statement from Boehner occurring near the end:

I'm unable to make out the reporter's question to Boehner just prior to his comment, and so far unable to locate a transcript of the exchange.  As a result, the context as provided by PolitiFact is about all we have to work with.

To calculate the number of new federal jobs, PolitiFact first used two different metrics via the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
The first is the overall rise in federal employees between January 2009 and January 2011. The net increase was 58,000.

The second is the number of federal employees without counting U.S. Postal Service workers. Over that same two-year period, the increase was 140,800.
Should postal workers count?  The U.S. Postal Service is set up as a quasi-independent entity.  The argument might be made either way, but the keepers of stats clearly see some value in keeping track of federal employment other than postal workers.  The 140,800 figure may be valuable, then.  PolitiFact points out that 140,800 is less than 200,000 and then offers a different count:
We also checked with John M. Palguta, vice president for policy with the Partnership for Public Service, a non-profit that promotes government service, and he confirmed our general conclusion using numbers from a different database.

He dug into the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s on-line federal workforce data source, "FedScope." He found that in fiscal years 2009 and 2010, respectively, the federal government filled a net 59,995 and 47,062 new permanent, full-time, non-seasonal, non-postal jobs. Combined, that means that federal employment rose by 107,057 jobs -- well short of 200,000.
An organization that extols the value of public service may not be the ideal place to go for unvarnished analysis.  Farming out a significant portion of the fact check to such a figure seems curious.  Why, for example, does Palguta exclude non-permanent, part-time and seasonal jobs?  If the government shifted entirely to a part-time workforce would we have zero federal government employment in Palguto's eyes?  Palguta's totals are suspect unless we receive some sort of explanation.

We checked with Boehner’s office to see what his statement was based on. Aides said they had used figures from December 2008 to January 2011, which produced an increase of 153,000 federal, non-postal jobs. Then they factored in, on a discounted basis, the temporary jobs required to carry out the 2010 Census. According to the Census Bureau, such temporary employment peaked at 585,729 in early May 2010.
The base total from Boehner's office (153,000) differs from that reached by PolitiFact, apparently because the start date varies by a month.  Is it fair to count the difference between December and January during the transition from an election year?  It seems plausible, since the old administration may be less likely to make new hires than the new administration.

Also note that Boehner's 200,000 estimate included temporary Census jobs, a practice PolitiFact questioned in the past, though with a different set of circumstances.  The Census jobs do not really belong in a complaint about federal government expansion except in the context of the past practices of the Census.

Discounting the Census jobs and the estimate from Palguta, we have a range from 140,800 to 153,000 new federal jobs compared to Boehner's claimed 200,000.

PolitiFact finds Boehner false:
All told, we find that Boehner’s 200,000 number is way off. We rate it False.
That was the last line of the fact check.

Some of you from the Bill Adair school of fact checking may be wondering "Um, where's the emphasis on the underlying point?  The most important aspect of a numbers check is the underlying point."

I could detect no evidence that PolitiFact considered a point underlying Boehner's 200,000 figure.  It seems possible to hypothesize, however, that Boehner was making the underlying point that federal employment had increased considerably over the past two years under President Obama.  An increase of 140,800 is short of 200,000 but may be sufficient to make that underlying point at least somewhat true.

Further, if the increase was as high as 153,000 then Boehner could legitimately round up to 200,000 (the nearest 100,000).

It's true that we don't ordinarily round to the nearest 100,000 in normal communications.  The nearest 10,000 or nearest 1,000 are more commonly used.  For the sake of argument, let's take the figure 195,000 (Boehner could reasonably round up from that figure) and compare the Boehner rating to an early PolitiFact fact check of Ron Paul.

Paul was rated "Mostly True" for an estimate of American war casualties ("over 5000 Americans") that was inflated by about 15 percent (using 5001 as the minimum baseline).  Boehner's estimate was inflated by 38.5 percent using the minimum baseline for rounding to the nearest 10,000 (195,000).  Using the figure Boehner's office used the inflation percentage changes to just over 27 percent.

Could a 12 percentage point difference turn a rating from "Mostly True" to "False"?  Or does it need to be about 25 percentage points off?

Or is the key to Boehner's rating an underlying point that PolitiFact neglected to discuss?

The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Martha Hamilton:  F

The fact check leaves too many unanswered questions, including one about the proper role of the underlying point in a fact check about numbers.  If the fact check is fact and not opinion then PolitiFact should employ consistent methods.  Justifying a rating by the underlying point in one case and ignoring any underlying point in other cases critically undermines any appearance of objectivity.

March 29, 2011:  Added some clarifying language in the paragraph explaining methods of rounding.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Again: Pensito Review misrepresents findings of Ostermeier study

Continuing a notable trend among liberal/progressive blogs & bloggers, Pensito Review has joined Kos and Alan Colmes (among others) in lauding the Eric Ostermeier study for showing that Republican lie more than do Democrats.

Have a taste:
The University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics blog serves up a delectable comparative analysis of PolitiFact ratings of Republicans and Democrats and finds that members of the GOP accounted for 76 percent of statements rated either “false” or “pants on fire” for real doozies, compared to 22 percent for Dems. You could probably name the worst offenders with your hands tied behind your back and blindfolded (...)
There's only one thing to say ... and Spock says it better than I do:

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

FreakOutNation freaks out

Freaks out in a minor way, that is.

The freaks joined other misguided progressives in taking Eric Ostermeier's study as proof that Republicans lie more than Democrats.  I dropped a line to express my amusement at their silliness.  The responses I drew compounded the problem:

I don't think I need to respond to these comments.  The absurdity is self-evident or nearly so.  But it's at least worth pointing out that neither Sammy nor Anomaly100 addressed what I was saying.  Both responses seem to qualify as ad hominem fallacies.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Irony alert at the Minnesota Network for Progressive Action

Pity Dave Mindeman.

Mindeman writes for the Minnesota Network for Progressive Action blog, and Eric Ostermeier's study raising the possibility of selection bias at PolitiFact apparently hit Mindeman pretty hard.

See what Mindeman wrote on Feb. 12 as an item under the title "If Something's Wrong - It's the Liberals' Fault":
(L)ocally, Eric Ostermeier (Smart Politics Blog) just can't allow for the possibility that Republicans are often caught being a little light on facts by watchdog media. So therefore, it has to be the liberal bias of the watchdog groups themselves.
Mindeman claims that Ostermeier "can't allow for the possibility that Republicans are often caught being a little light on facts."  Is it true?

One could theoretically argue that one political party has made a disproportionately higher number of false claims than the other, and that this is subsequently reflected in the distribution of ratings on the PolitiFact site.
Contrary to what Mindeman claims, Ostermeier does allow for the possibility that Republicans often caught being a little light on the facts.  Which, of course, makes Mindeman's statement a little light on the facts.

Ostermeier even replied to an earlier post from Mindeman and explained it personally:
02/11/11 16:29
> Could it be possible that the Republicans
> make more outrageous and indefensible
> assertions?

FYI: this very possibility was in fact addressed in my report:

"One could theoretically argue that one political party has made a disproportionately higher number of false claims than the other, and that this is subsequently reflected in the distribution of ratings on the PolitiFact site."
Mindeman apparently can't accept the possibility that Republicans don't really dominate prevarication the way PolitiFact presents it.

Pity Dave Mindeman.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

PolitiFact's numbers racket

Lately I've used a quotation from PolitiFact's founder and editor Bill Adair to preface some of my individual grades of PolitiFact fact checks.
To assess the truth for a numbers claim, the biggest factor is the underlying message. 
--Bill Adair
I started using that quotation to help emphasize where it appears PolitiFact has fallen short of Adair's aspirations.

PolitiFact handles numbers claims in a ridiculously inconsistent manner.  In this post I'll contrast PolitiFact's handling of a claim involving Ron Paul with a recent claim made by Mitt Romney at CPAC.  I'll use Bill Adair's explanation of the Paul rating to establish a contrast with the method used to derive Romney's "Truth-O-Meter" rating.

Our first encounter with a numbers problem came last September when Ron Paul cited the war death toll in a debate. "We've lost over 5,000 Americans over there in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and plus the civilians killed," Paul said.
Like Rep. Paul, Romney made a claim about numbers:
Today there are more men and women out of work in America than there are people working in Canada.
Granted, there's a difference between the claims.  Paul specifies his numbers while Romney pegs his to a statistic about Canada that probably isn't widely known but that people would imagine is high given the size and population of Canada.  Is that difference significant?  I wouldn't think so, but PolitiFact may have reasons for treating the two differently.  Just in case we'll ready an alternative quotation for Rep. Paul to use for the sake of argument:
We've lost more Americans over there in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and plus the civilians killed, than we could seat at Dublin Scioto Stadium.
--Paul quotation fabricated for the sake of argument
Dublin Scioto Stadium, for those reluctant to click the URL, has a capacity of 5000.

PolitiFact found that Paul was incorrect about the number of Americans killed under Paul's conditions, calculating the number at 4349 as of the date Paul made his claim.

PolitiFact found that Romney was incorrect about the number of Americans out of work in relation to the number working in Canada.  PolitiFact found that 16.7 million Americans were out of work compared to PolitiFact's figure of 17.2 million working Canadians.

Paul's figure inflated the actual figure by about 15 percent according to PolitiFact's figures, and Paul received a "Mostly True" rating from the "Truth-O-Meter."

Romney's figure inflated the actual figure by about 3 percent using PolitiFact's numbers.  The "Truth-O-Meter" found Romney "False."

The unenlightened reader may be wondering "How could that be?"

There are a number of possible explanations, not that I think any of them are necessarily any good.

1)  Paul would have been rated "False" if he had used Dublin Scioto Stadium as his benchmark.
2)  PolitiFact is grading Romney on his explanation rather than on the claim.
3)  Paul's underlying point was much more accurate than Romney's.

I assume out of charity that the first explanation is too ridiculous to consider.

As for the second explanation, it seems more than slightly misleading to grade Romney on the explanation rather than on the claim itself.  Especially when PolitiFact creates graphics such as the following to appear with the story:

click image to enlarge

Compare a corresponding blurb related to Paul's claim:

click image to enlarge

Using the second justification makes PolitiFact look inconsistent, inaccurate, or both.

But we have reason for hope.  Bill Adair, the creator of PolitiFact, has declared the underlying point the most important thing when fact checking number claims.   The third possible explanation.

What underlying point did PolitiFact identify in Paul's claim?  Here's how Adair expressed it:
To assess the truth for a numbers claim, the biggest factor is the underlying message. In Paul's case, his point was a simple one, that many people have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He overstated the number, but not by all that many.
And Romney's underlying point?

Unfortunately, I was unable to identify any evidence in the story by Louis Jacobson that an effort was made to identify the underlying point.  If the point was that many Americans are unemployed then it's hard to see why Romney wasn't graded "Mostly True" or better, given that the figures PolitiFact provided put Romney's claim much closer to accuracy by percentage than Paul's.

But maybe there's a fourth explanation:

4)  PolitiFact has changed its standard (and forgot to tell us?).

What's the evidence in favor of the fourth explanation?  It's thin, but potentially compelling:  Bill Adair was Jacobson's editor for the Romney story.

Seriously, if the underlying point is the most important thing about claims involving numbers, then shouldn't we expect PolitiFact to always identify an underlying argument whenever possible?

"Political Wire"--with blinders on

"Political Wire," a blog focusing on politics, did an absolutely epic job of playing up the one favorable-to-Democrats aspect of Eric Ostermeier's recently published analysis of PolitiFact.  The headline:
Many More False Statements by Republicans
The headline hotlinks to the results of Ostermeier's study, published at the Smart Politics blog (University of Minnesota).

For comparison, here's the headline accompanying Ostermeier's post:

Selection Bias? PolitiFact Rates Republican Statements as False at 3 Times the Rate of Democrats

Position a blinder just right and the first two words may be eliminated from one's field of vision.  Or, one could view the whole of Ostermeier's title and elect to only pay attention to part of it (employing selection bias, in other words).

Political Wire's description of the story likewise preserves the blind spot:
A Smart Politics analysis of more than 500 PolitiFact stories over the last year finds that statements made by Republican politicians have been rated as false at more than three times the rate of those made by their Democratic counterparts.

Leading the way for the GOP with the largest number of false statements: Sarah Palin with eight, Michele Bachmann with seven, and John Boehner, Mike Pence, and the National Republican Congressional Committee with four each.
So, if anyone wonders how to use selection bias, Taegan Goddard's Political Wire provides a marvelous example.  Be sure to check out the sheeplish commentary thread accompanying Goddard's summary of Ostermeier's study.

Grats to Kylar Vonzain and "Golbez" for being the two who understood what Ostermeier was saying (honorable mention to Peter Olson).

"Death to False Metal" (Updated)

Check out the cover of this music sampler (actually Weezer is the artist) that ended up on my recommendations list.

Unless I misremember my art history, the illustration is a dead ringer for the Jehovah's Witness style, particularly when the theme falls along the lines of "You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth."

Traditional features:  idyllic pastoral setting, effortless farming, nature appreciation and racial integration.

It's hard to tell, but I'd bet money the little girl is intended to appear Asian.

I'd like to know exactly what the idea was behind the album art.  Equate the pure non-false metal of their artists with the pure religion claimed by the Jehovah's Witnesses?  And is it a pastiche or a literal borrowing?

Whatever the case, it's hilarious.


Added a correction about the artist responsible for the music, plus a link to another blog post about the similarity of the image to the art of the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society.

People, get a clue.  It's a joke.

And a good one.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Bill Adair not afraid of being perceived as biased

Great news for those of us hoping to see PolitiFact clean up its act.  PolitiFact's creator and lead editor Bill Adair says PolitiFact restores teeth to fact check stories that had shrunken to the gums because of--what else?--fear of the perception of bias.

Perhaps the limited context fails to do Adair's talk justice, but what we have of it is pretty much bunkum.  It may be true that fact check stories have on occasion kept to providing the justification coming from both sides of the issue.  But was there ever a bar against the fact checkers providing solidly sourced data to contradict claims from the partisan combatants?  I know of none, unless it was indeed based on the fear of being perceived as biased.

But here's the rub:  The perception of bias may be an accurate perception.

I anticipate that PolitiFact will go down in history for making a breakthrough in public recognition of that fact.  Maybe Adair is starting to gather a glimmering of realization on that point as the glow of that 2009 Pulitzer Prize dims over time.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: O'Reilly v. Obama on health care reform approval (Updated x3)

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Angie Drobnic Holan:  writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor


The relevant exchange between Fox personality Bill O'Reilly and President Obama:
O'REILLY: But the entitlements that you championed do redistribute wealth in the sense that they provide insurance coverage for 40 million people that don't have it.

OBAMA: What is absolutely true is I think in this country, there's no reason why, if you get sick you should go bankrupt. The notion that that's a radical principle, I don't think the majority of people would agree with you.

O'REILLY: Then why do the majority people in the polls not support Obamacare?

OBAMA: Actually, I think it's pretty evenly divided.

O'REILLY: It's close.

OBAMA: It's evenly divided, Bill.
Politics Daily (yellow highlights indicate portions quoted in PolitiFact story)
On with the fact check:
Here, we wanted to referee the dispute on the poll numbers: Do a majority of people in the polls oppose the health care law? Since O'Reilly brought it up, we decided to check his statement.
Hold it right there.

PolitiFact has flubbed the fact check already.

(W)hy do the majority of people in the polls not support Obamacare?
(implicit assertion:  A majority of people in the polls do not support Obamacare)

PolitiFact version:
Do a majority of people in the polls oppose the health care law?
(implicit assertion:  O'Reilly claims a majority of people in the polls oppose Obamacare)

Granted, President Obama appeared to frame the argument the same way PolitiFact framed it.  But there's a big difference in bounding the group of persons who do not support Obamacare as opposed to the group of persons who oppose it.  A person who couldn't care less about Obamacare does not count as one who opposes Obamacare.  But that same person counts as a person who does not support Obamacare.

This is yet another PolitiFact blunder that is difficult to understand without invoking the blinders of bias as an explanation.  Isn't it basic logic?
The best evidence for O'Reilly's position was the most recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard School Of Public Health. In its most recent tracking poll, it found that 50 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of the law, while 41 percent viewed it favorably. But another 9 percent said they didn't know or didn't want to answer. Certainly, the largest category in this poll didn't like health care, but if you combined supporters with the unknowns, you do get an even split.
(blue highlights added)
On what planet does it make sense to group the unknowns with the bill's supporters?  If the unknowns belong in either group they belong with those who do not support the reform bill.  The phrasing O'Reilly used gives him a much better claim on that group.
Things get even trickier when you ask people about repealing the law, because a significant portion of those who say they view the law unfavorably also say they they are opposed to a complete repeal. The most recent Kaiser poll showed that 19 percent said keep the law as it is; 28 percent said expand the law; 23 percent said repeal the law and replace it with a Republican alternative; 20 percent said repeal it and don't replace it. That means 49 percent want the law kept or expanded, and 43 percent want it replaced with a Republican alternative or simply repealed.
(bold emphasis added)
They're not kidding when they say things get trickier.  Things get so tricky that the 19 percent who want to keep the law as it is when added to the 28 percent who want the law expanded gives us a total of 49 percent who want the law.

On this planet 28+19 typically equals 47.  Nothing like a little creative rounding to inspire confidence in a fact check.

Do the math correctly and you get approximately 47 percent in favor of the law in comparison to about 53 percent who do not favor it.  Advantage:  O'Reilly.

Update 3:

Some polls have also found that at least a portion of people who dislike the health care bill dislike it because they wanted to see more dramatic changes to the health care system. A CNN poll in December found that 13 percent of those who opposed the law did so because it wasn't liberal enough. Another 43 percent favored the bill and 37 percent said it was too liberal.
While the 13 percent figure is interesting, it doesn't affect the premise of O'Reilly's question.  It does provide material that might have informed the president's answer to the question if he had elected to use it.  But the numbers break down to 54 to 57 percent not supporting the law compared to 43 percent expressing support.  A more current CNN poll also supported O'Reilly (50-55 percent not supporting compared to 45 percent supporting).

PolitiFact's conclusion:
O'Reilly said that a "majority of the people in the polls" do not support the health care law. If we were rating Obama's statement on its own, that the public is evenly divided, we would rate that True. But O'Reilly isn't entirely wrong, in the sense that support for the bill does not hit 50 percent or higher. Taking a broad picture of the polls reveals a divided public, so we rate his statement Half True.
Obama is correct that the country is evenly divided between those who favor the reform law and those who oppose it.  But Obama's response to O'Reilly did not address the issue, which was the number of persons who did not support the new law.  Obama's response was misleading in context with O'Reilly's on a point of fact ("It's evenly divided, Bill").  Obama was wrong on that point.  O'Reilly's premise was correct.

For PolitiFact, it's the fact-checking equivalent of striking out during batting practice.  O'Reilly's premise was accurate and could have warranted anything from "Half True" all the way to "True."  Based on the flawed reasoning and botched math discussed above, PolitiFact gave him the lowball rating.

The grades:

Angie Drobnic Holan:  F
Martha Hamilton:  F


Feb 11, 2011:  It's time to belatedly recognize PolitiFact's weak admission of the point on which I criticized the story:  "O'Reilly isn't entirely wrong, in the sense that support for the bill does not hit 50 percent or higher."  Of course, it ought to have read "O'Reilly is correct in the sense that support for the bill does not hit 50 percent or higher."  And because that's the sense of O'Reilly's literal words, PolitiFact needs some sort of reason for saying that O'Reilly was wrong.  I don't think PolitiFact can make that case.  The argument might be made that he didn't provide sufficient context, but that approach ought to also apply to Obama--yet PolitiFact was willing to give Obama an unqualified "True" despite the fact that the president did not admit the sense in which O'Reilly was correct.  The grades for Drobnic and Hamilton remain the same.

Update 2:

Very early on Feb. 13, I sent a message to the writer and editor pointing out the likelihood that the 49 percent figure was wrong and the lack of support for charging O'Reilly with error.  At about 11:30 a.m. today I received a message from the editor thanking me for pointing out the error in math and pointing me to a corrected version of the story.  Corrected for the math error, that is.  O'Reilly's still supposedly wrong, for reasons PolitiFact has yet to make clear.

Here's the relevant portion of my message to Drobnic and Hamilton:

Click for larger view

Update 3 (Oct. 30, 2011): 

PolitiFact eventually corrected the 49 percent figure, replacing it with the appropriate 47 percent figure.  PolitiFact did include a correction notice this time.  The logic error in evaluating O'Reilly's statement remains the central thread of the story, unfortunately.

Feb. 12, 2011:  I misidentified the PolitiFact editor throughout the original post and the update.  The post now reflects the fact that Martha Hamilton edited the story, not Bill Adair.  My apologies for the error.  Also deleted a redundant occurrence of "adding" in the paragraph about trickiness.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

A true lie from President Obama

In the fact checking game, it's typically difficult to dependably divine the motives behind a given communique.  PolitiFact, for example, doesn't even really try, sticking with determinations of true or false as to the fact, except when designating a "Lie of the Year."  This despite the fact that PolitiFact rates "ridiculous" claims with a "Pants on Fire" rating, recalling the "liar, liar, pants on fire" taunt still used today by children and clever adults.

Fox personality Bill O'Reilly's interview of President Obama preceding the Super Bowl drew a whopper of a response from the president, however.  In answer to one of O'Reilly's questions, Obama gave a two part statement in support of his answer.  PolitiFact graded the two different parts like so:

The first rating is probably generous according to PolitiFact standards, ignoring as it does the considerable taxation embedded in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  The second rating is fair.

The gravity of the president's deceit is really only apparent in the context of O'Reilly's question.  PolitiFact did quote O'Reilly in both fact checks but never offered any determination about the truth value of Obama's answer to that question.

It was a softball question in some respects.  But apparently the president couldn't bring himself to admit who he is:
O'REILLY: Do you deny the assessment? Do you deny that you are a man who wants to redistribute wealth.

OBAMA: Absolutely.

O'REILLY: You deny that?

OBAMA: Absolutely. I didn't raise taxes once, I lowered taxes over the last two years.
Politics Daily
Obama categorically denies that he is a man who wants to redistribute wealth, and he offers as proof his tax record.  He says he did not raise taxes ("once," just in case that's important) and he lowered taxes over the last two years.

Neither claim, given the underlying facts, can support his denial.

Obama did raise taxes.  The most obvious example in the past two years is a cigarette tax hike.  Since that hike is regressive it suits Obama's argument reasonably well.  But the tax hikes embedded in PPACA tend to strike at the wealthy, such as the tax on high-end health insurance and a surtax on investment income.  At the same time, PPACA strongly subsidizes health insurance for poorer demographics.

Obama's key tax cut, the "Making Work Pay" tax credit, allowed workers who paid no federal income taxes to receive money back from the government based on the tax credit.  It was a "tax cut" that worked like welfare for lower-income workers and gave a gradually smaller tax break the more money workers made.  It was a tax policy that accentuated the progressive nature of the tax system and explicitly redistributed wealth, in other words.

The president cannot be ignorant of these facts.  Both of his justifications for denying he wants to redistribute wealth end up contradicting his claim.  He was again doing his artless impression of President Clinton, who also shamelessly twisted the truth in his public statements.

None of this should come as any surprise, given Obama's past statements and policy plans such as his proposal to raise taxes on those making more than $250,000 per year.

He must think you're pretty stupid.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

PolitiProps: Obama's 12 judges

Credit where it's due:  The PolitiFact rating of President Obama regarding his claim of support from 12 judges for the constitutionality of health care reform seems quite fair.

I can see room within PolitiFact's grading system for anything from "Pants on Fire" to "Barely True."  PolitiFact aimed for the middle with a "False" rating.

An accurate grading, even if repeated regularly, obviously does not free PolitiFact from the charge of political bias.  But it does help serve as a reassurance that PolitiFact's journalists operate with the aim of doing their jobs fairly.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Glenn Beck and the Muslim Brotherhood

We always try to get the original statement in its full context rather than an edited form that appeared in news stories.
--About PolitiFact

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Robert Farley:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


Let's jump right in with PolitiFact's fact check:
As Americans watch the Egyptian uprising from afar, politicians and pundits have speculated about whether the Muslim Brotherhood, an opposition group, will gain power.

On his radio show on Jan. 31, Glenn Beck said listeners should know that conspirators of the 9/11 attacks were part of the group.
Writer Robert Farley nearly fashioned a perfect beginning.  The main problem is the ambiguity of "were part of the group."  "Were" as in currently or "were" as in formerly?  The nature of the "al-Qaida links" may be quite different depending on what is meant.  So what did Beck say?
"So the Muslim Brotherhood, they're nothing to worry about," Beck began sarcastically.
That's an odd place to begin.  Does Beck's audience automatically possess functional knowledge of the Muslim Brotherhood, that Beck can begin the tale more-or-less in the middle?  We have a major clue here indicating missing context.  I was able to locate the relevant segment of Beck's radio program at YouTube:

The video appears to show that Beck "began" talking about the Muslim Brotherhood following a commercial break.  Beck's opening provides a strong indication that the preceding program segment provides additional context for his remarks.  From a journalistic standpoint, it is inexcusable not to consider that full context as it colors the meaning of Beck's statements.  It is nearly as inexcusable for the journalist to consider that full context without giving the reader any indication that the author considered the full context.

After watching the video, it is also clear that PolitiFact left out much of the more immediate context.  Beck was lampooning the presentation of the Muslim Brotherhood as presented by the mainstream media, specifically by an unnamed CNN anchor who had described the organization as "tirelessly and many times courageously campaigned for elections.  It has campaigned against the government.  It has campaigned on behalf of the poor."

So maybe Beck was just trying to helpfully distinguish between  the Muslim Brotherhood and the March of Dimes or maybe the Peace Corps?  Let's return to what PolitiFact says Beck said:

Sunday, February 06, 2011

SPT on Sen. Bill Nelson: If liberal label doesn't fit, we must elect?

The St. Peterburg Times seems to be trying to inoculate Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) against the charge that he is a liberal.
WASHINGTON — The punch is coming at him in slow-mo:

L ... I ... B ... E ... R ... A ... L.

Even in the earliest moments of his 2012 re-election campaign, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson can see the windup. Twice before Republicans tried to discredit him as a liberal. Twice they failed.

"Facts," Nelson says, "are stubborn things."
Huh.  Nelson must not be a liberal if Republicans failed to discredit him as one on two occasions.

The story goes on like that, even to the point of giving some detail about the two elections Nelson survived--one against the relatively bland Bill McCollum and the other against a self-destructing Katherine Harris.  Is it possible that, all other things being equal, Nelson could have been defeated by stronger candidates?

Could it be???  That the election isn't necessarily about labeling Nelson as a liberal?

Don't float that idea past the Times:
McCollum was perhaps too conservative for the time, and Harris ran a disastrous campaign. A more formidable opponent may be able to wield the liberal stick with more force.
Maybe Nelson will whack himself with that stick?  The story earlier admitted that Nelson reliably supports President Obama's legislative initiatives.  But, hey, maybe Obama is a moderate, too.
In 2009, Nelson ranked as the 39th-most liberal member of the Senate and the 60th-most conservative, according to a National Journal analysis. That puts him in the centrist camp. Longer-range studies show the same.
Interesting definition of "the centrist camp."  One would think that our government is not sharply polarized.  And maybe we'll forget that the Democrats had about 60 senators in 2009.  The cusp of the bottom third most liberal Democrats makes you a centrist.  Go figure.
A statewide poll released Thursday showed that 44 percent of voters think Nelson's views are "about right'' and 23 percent say he's too liberal. A plurality of voters, 46 percent, say Nelson generally shares Obama's views but his disapproval rating dropped 10 percentage points from August, suggesting criticism surrounding the president is not sticking.
That's the good news for Nelson.

The poll came from the folks at Quinnipiac.  Forty-three percent of those polled felt Nelson deserved another term in office.
"Sen. Bill Nelson's numbers are mixed. Only one in five voters is unhappy with his job performance, which indicates he hasn't stirred up strong opposition. But history shows that when only 43 percent of voters say an incumbent deserves another term, that incumbent sometimes doesn't get another term," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
That's the bad news for Nelson.

But the Times is interested in the positives while pushing the theme that Nelson isn't a liberal and therefore should be re-elected.

We get it, St. Petersburg Times.  You want the incumbent to win.

Nelson's fortunes do ride with Obama's.  If Obama tacks to the right then Nelson can profitably tag along.  If, on the other hand, Obama tacks little then Nelson's record of supporting Obama's legislative agenda will be easy for Republicans to pin on Nelson's lapel.  And that's a true message to the effect that Nelson's a liberal.  Not the most liberal.  But right there in the camp.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Journalistic transparency alert: PolitiFact @ FaceBook

Not long after I finished praising PolitiFact for its willingness to entertain contrary views, I've been given reason to revisit the issue.

One does not necessarily obtain the same view of FaceBook when one is logged in as one does when one is logged out.

Here's a logged in view of a recent thread:

Four replies to the thread.  I do not lightly explain the obvious.

Logged out:

Reece Martin's comments do not appear, at least on my computer, when I am not logged in at FaceBook.  I've discovered that select comments of mine do not appear (on my computer) when I'm not logged in.

Curiouser and curiouser ... Reece Martin's comments do not appear in Google results searching the domain.  We only get mentions of her name when she happens to be listed as liking something.

I suppose privacy settings might explain the search results for Ms. Martin.  They do not explain why some of my posts appear under certain conditions and some do not.

If the problem isn't wonkiness (admittedly not at all a settled question), then shouldn't PolitiFact offer some sort of explanation for its system of comment moderation?

Friday, February 04, 2011

Journalistic transparency alert: New York Times (Updated)

I love stuff like this:
The New York Times editorial board is never wrong. Or at least, they won’t print anything that says they are.
Eugene Volokh, a professor at UCLA law school, wrote on his blog The Volokh Conspiracy Tuesday about a friend of his, Andy Pincus, who had written a letter to the editor at the New York Times about a court case in which he was currently working on as a lawyer.
“The Times is just wrong,” his letter to the Times said, in part. The paper wrote him back, asking if an edited version of his letter, with that phrase removed, would be ok.

Read more:

Gotta love that transparency and dedication to free speech.

While I'm at it, I have to toss some props to PolitiFact for allowing people like me to flatly call them wrong in their own domain at FaceBook. I'm on record predicting that it can't go on like that indefinitely. So far there's no real sign that PolitiFact will change its policy.


I may have spoken too soon regarding signs of PolitiFact's change of heart with regard to audience input.  There are now some signs, though it remains a question as to where they lead.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Mark Warner & the tax break crisis

The nation is hemorrhaging cash in the form of tax breaks, according to Democrat Mark Warner.  Something tells me I'm about to shadow one of the dumbest fact checks of all time.

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Warren Fiske:  writer, researcher
Daniel Finnegan:  editor


Sen. Warner's statement on Fox News was reasonable and unremarkable, on balance.  See for yourself:

PolitiFact zeroed in on the goofiest part:
"I don’t think that most Americans realize that we actually spend more on tax expenditures, or tax breaks, than we collect in personal income taxes each year," he said. "So that has to be on the table, also."
Why do I say it's goofy?
1)  A tax break is not an expenditure any more than the discount value of a retail coupon is a business expenditure.
2)  Any distinction between taxes stipulated by law and those legitimately not paid according to the same law is ultimately artificial (a business, for example, can issue a $2 coupon while raising the price $2 at the same time).
3)  In accord with point No. 2 above, Warner's conclusion that tax breaks need to be on the table is a non starter.

PolitiFact unaccountably treats Wanner's statement with perfect seriousness:
Personal incomes taxes are the federal government’s largest revenue source, providing 45 percent of its tax receipts. Is Uncle Sam exempting more than he’s taking in? We checked.
Why check?  We can count a 15 percent tax on $20,000 of income as an 85 percent exemption if we want.  None of it really means anything, and by itself does nothing to justify looking at removing existing tax breaks.

Wouldn't that explanation best serve PolitiFact's readers?

Apparently PolitiFact doesn't agree:
(W)e untangled the numbers. Computing data in a Dec. 21 report by the Joint Committee on Taxation, we found that individuals receive about 91 percent of the value of income tax breaks, with corporations getting the rest.

That means during the last two fiscal years, individuals received a total of about $1.98 trillion in breaks for the $1.85 trillion in income tax they paid. Warner’s claim, in other words, holds true when compare you the income tax paid by individuals to the tax breaks they receive.
 Heh.  Suckers.

Now watch as PolitiFact concedes the point I made above without apparently realizing it:
Under the commission’s proposal, individuals would be compensated for some of the loss in tax breaks by lowering the rates charged in all income tax brackets.
Exactly!  Just like raising the price of a mattress 10 percent to make up for the customer's coupon entitling him to 10 percent off.  There's no need to mess with the coupon at all.  Warner's rhetoric suggests that the coupon needs to be adjusted to a mere 8 percent off or something like that.  It's ridiculous.  Raising the price of the mattress works just as well as adjusting the discount on the coupon.

What neither PolitiFact nor Warner bother to explain is the parallel economic effect.  Most tax breaks exist for a reason other than to reduce federal revenues.  Like a factory coupon, they exist to encourage some type of economic activity.

I respect the overall aim of Sen. Warner's committee, but his reasoning on this particular point is specious, and PolitiFact ought to have done something to point out how ridiculous it is.  Before considering the removal of any tax break one needs to consider the reasoning behind the tax break.  It's foolish to treat the tax break itself as an expenditure and nothing more.

PolitiFact rated Warner "True."  It was a pointless exercise.  It was like trying to confirm whether or not a desert wanderer perceives a mirage.  Even if the mirage is confirmed it won't make it real.

The grades:

Warren Fiske:  F
Daniel Finnegan:  F

Fiske gets some props for his dogged determination in tracking down pointless data and playing the obligatory mathematical games with it.  But he's still a sucker at the end of the day.

Everyone associated with the editorial decision to rate this claim can share in the criticism.

Warner spouted malarkey and PolitiFact couldn't figure it out.

Grading PolitiFact: Paul Broun tweets on the Gummint

We always try to get the original statement in its full context rather than an edited form that appeared in news stories.
--About PolitiFact

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor


Supposedly Paul Broun (R-Ga.) says government is a barrier to innovation and development.

Supposedly Broun says innovation would flower if government would get out of the way.

This is what Broun tweeted:
If the govt would get out of the way, we could have innovation and development
The first paraphrase of Broun ("government is a barrier to innovation and development") could pass as a universal rule.  Or it could pass as proverbial wisdom.  Or possibly as a recommendation applied to a specific set of circumstances.

The second paraphrase seems less like a universal rule and more like either proverbial wisdom or a recommendation applied to a specific set of circumstances.

How do we figure out which meaning matches Broun's intent?  The obvious first step, in keeping with PolitiFact's stated fact-checking policy, is to refer to the context.

Rep. Broun made a series of Twitter tweets during the president's State of the Union speech in January.

click to enlarge

The image above comes directly from, representing Broun's tweets.  Note that the tweets occur in reverse chronological order.  Knowing as we do that Broun was tweeting in response to President Obama's remarks, we can get an idea of the context of Broun's comments based on what was said by Obama at the time.  The tweet preceding the one in question contains an important keyword, "free enterprise," making it very likely that the 9:22 p.m. tweet was in response to the following portion of the president's address: