Posted tagged ‘Lies’

Just In Case Anyone Was Worried About A Sudden Shortage…

January 13, 2012

…one more thought on Truth-Vigilante-gate.

I certainly agree with what seems like every front pager at my other bloggy home  Balloon Juice (some more than once!)* feels about the ludicrousness of anyone even having to ask whether or not it might make sense to call out lies in print.  But it still seems to me that for all the fun at the expense of the Grey Lady, one key element in the story has been underplayed.

That would be that covering politics today is actually a genuinely different and more difficult task than it was back when folks like me (folks I knew) first got into the business at places like the Times.

The problem is really simple.  The current Republican elite simply has no problem lying.

In this short post I’m not going to retail even a tithe of the examples available, instead outsourcing just a taste of the tsunami of bullshit that constitutes GOPster public argument to Steve Benen, who himself confines his review to the bullshit spewed by the current frontrunner, that 3-dimensional caricture of Eliot’s trope, one Willard Mitt Romney.

He/they lie all the time.  About anything.  But — and this is the key — for all the “politics ain’t beanbag” and “they all do it” reflexes, this really is a new (ish) phenomenon.

Now, I’m not saying that American politics hasn’t included a lot of lying for a very long time.  But the difference now is that it’s not just the agents — John Adams’ rumoristas or the Swift Boat scum — but the principals themselves who are now willing to retail and repeat direct falsehoods into microphone after microphone.

That’s hard to confront, even for experienced hacks:**  most of us don’t think people will flat out lie to our faces — especially when the lie is easily checked.  When I got started as a reporter, I was certainly trained to expect sources to spin, dissemble, shape their accounts.  But the idea that they would default to flat out lying, as opposed to retreating to it when pressed — that really wasn’t the expectation.

The goal was to write a story in which the spin was unwound.  If you could do that — demonstrate through the totality of your reporting how, say, jobs lost to downsizing were either corporate raiding at its worst or the best outcome for what would otherwise be a bankrupt business — then you’d done your job.

So, yes:  to the question of whether the Times or any journalistic operation should become  “truth vigilantes,” the answer is, obviously, yes.  Still, it’s important to remember that the Times  and its reporters face this problem specifically because the Mitt and his merry men have made the gap between what they say and what actually is so deep and so wide.

I’m not trying to absolve anyone here.  But it is important to condemn the greater sin as well as the lesser. It is genuinely difficult for the individual journalists tasked with the job of covering the election this year to do that job well  because a forty+ year campaign to derange our politics has come to full flower in the Romney campaign.  (Not to mention in GOP politicking and governance across the country.  Think Scott, Daniels, Kasich, Walker, Perry, and all the rest.)

Root causes matter.

*Plus, it seems, all those others on ‘branes in the bloggy multiverse.  I’m not even going to bother to link; throw a rock in this quarter of Blogistan and you’ll hit something relevant on every bounce.
**I’m using the word here in its Fleet St. sense, with love.
Image:  Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, In the Cafe, 1898

Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics: Andrew Sullivan, Brit Election edition

May 6, 2010

Update:  The original of this post mischaracterized the Treasury figures for government spending as a percentage of GDP; I repeatedly referred to them as the percentage of GDP due to the deficit year over year.  It’s been corrected below, and thus, in fact, tracks the figures Sullivan was citing.  The argument remains the same, though in a post piously demanding attention to what numbers tell you, I can’t say I’m not embarassed.  Do not blog after too effusive a dinner party the night before; that’s my motto.

Thanks to friend-of-the-blog Lovable Liberal for the catch.

Andrew Sullivan has been blogging the Brit election extensively, and his reflexive loathing for Labour has come through on a number of occasions.

He has some considered loathing too, I’ll grant you, but he admits that “in my native land, unlike America, I have residual partisan loyalty…” to the party of his youth.

That means its just a bit hard to assign a root cause for his rote repetition of a favorite anti-Labour meme, that the party is a bunch of big government spendthrifts.

It could be Sullivan’s difficulty in dealing with facts presented in the form of quantified data (see for example, this old chestnut). Or it could be a leap to unexamined conclusions propelled by his self- acknowledged Tory partisanship. Or, perhaps most likely, both.

In any event, he parrots the charge that the 13 years of Labour government produced a spending regime that has dramatically changed the size and cost of British government.  He writes:

Britain’s debt piles higher – because 13 years of Labour’s reckless spending has neither solved the country’s social problems nor stabilized the country’s economy….

…And then he attempts to put meat on the bones of that “reckless spending” cliche by borrowing from The Wall St. Journal vie The Corner:

Since 2000, public spending in Britain has grown faster as a share of GDP than any other country in the 28-member OECD — up 17 percentage points to 53% of GDP, compared to 15 points for Ireland and 10 points for Iceland

Sullivan might have wanted to consider his sources.  Doesn’t he know that any statistic with political consequence that emerges from The Wall St. Journal has to be considered guilty until proven innocent — that is, checked for oneself?  And by all that the FSM considers holy (semolina, for one), he of all people has had enough experience of The Corner to realize that they are what Ronald Reagan should have been talking about when he said “don’t trust and verify.” (What — RR didn’t say that? Sorry — ed.)

Shoulda, coulda, woulda … but here, he takes on face value a number that should have provoked more scrutiny.

That would be the date for the start of the time line, 2000.  Why 2000?  First because that marked the lowest deficit figure for all thirteen years of Labour governance — and thus choosing that date, rather than the start of Labour rule in 1997, would make any increase since that time loom larger in percentage terms.  This is called gaming your data.

And then there is the question of context and trend.  What should we make of that one number for a deficit in 2000?  Was it much different from other years’ and other governments’ budget work?  Did what come after trace a steady trend, or were there distinct outliers that need particular explanation?

I’m not going to pretend for a moment that I am an expert, or even knowledgeable about British state finances.  But even from a state  of near total lack of information, it just isn’t that hard to find the broad outlines of the history of UK government deficit spending.  A moment with Teh Google, leads one, for example, to this.

So what happened?

Well, from 1997 to 2007-8, the Labour government spent at levels that ranged between a low of 36.6.% to a high of 41.1% of GDP

From 1990-1997, a Tory government led by John Major, ran budgets that ranged from a low of 39.4% of GDP in the year he took over from Maggie Thatcher, to a high of 43.7% in 1993, from which it declined slowly to the number he handed off to Tony Blair.

Go back to the Thatcher years, and you see the same story.  She inherited a budget that accounted for 45.1% of GDP in Fy 1978-9.  She brought in a slightly reduced percentage the next year, her government’s budget spending coming in equal for 44.7% of GDP in FY 1979-80, but that figure rose for the next several years, and only dropped to the level she inherited in 1985-6.  Her high was 48.1 percent of GDP, and her best year was still above that best number achieved by Blair, with Brown as his Chancellorof the Exchequer — right around 39% for the Tories, compared with the Labour best figure of roughly 36 1/2 percent.

In other words:  for most of its time in office, Labour budgets included deficits well within the historical range established over the previous 18 years of Tory rule.  Just not much change in it — and often below that of their Tory predecessors.

Repeat:  for most of Labour rule, budget deficits were in a very familiar range.  You can debate whether Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown were all drunken sailors ashore, but that’s a different question than whether or not Blair/Brown/Labour have a distinctively different record on spending than their friends on the right.  You can argue who will best deal with the situation going forward, Cameron, Brown or Clegg — and that’s a different question.  Nothing I’m writing here bears very much on that question (except, perhaps, to call into question the presumption that Cameron will be more fiscally responsible than his peers — but others have much more directly made that same point).

But hold on to the key point:  Most of the recent Labour record is one of ordinary, familiar approaches to the broad outlines of what British governments have approached spending levels for more than three decades.

Still, there is no doubt that the budget deficit is huge now, and the leap in government spending over Labour’s starting point quite noticeable.   From spending 41.1 percent of GDP of 2006-7, Labour governments produced a budgets amounting to 43 percent of GDP in 2008-9, with spending levels that are projected to rise as high as 48.1% in 2009-10 and 2010-11 — the same level as Thatcher’s high.

So, yes, a leap in government spending under Labour in 2008-10 period, just as there has been a leap in spending and deficits under Obama’s adminstration around the same time.

Now, refresh my memory:  what happened in September of 2008?

Oh yeah. The global financial system went into cardiac arrest, the American real estate bubble burst, and economies around the world shuddered under the impact.  US and UK governments responded in classic Keynesian fashion, perhaps not expansively enough, and spent much more than they had to pump capital into the banking system and cash into the daily economy.

Sullivan, of course, has lauded this on the American side, in grand tones and  little posts.  He does not do so for poor Gordon Brown.

Why he didn’t isn’t really that important.

The fact that he didn’t is, as it is a specimen of a dangerously common failure of modern political reporting.

Here’s my credo:  Numbers matter.  Understanding what they do and don’t tell you in any encounter with them is the crucial task for any would-be serious political journalist — hell of anyone who wants to take him or herself seriously as an observer of contemporary life.

Failure to do so means that you will get lots of your writing wrong — and you won’t know it, you can’t know it — until rude and wordy bastards like myself point it out (and one deigns to notice such gnats gnawing on the body politic).  But it matters, to audiences and to any writer who takes their craft seriously.

And in this story, here’s the bottom line:  it is certainly true that government deficit spending in 2010 in Britain (and the US) is much higher as percentage of GDP than it was in 2000.  But it is so for a reason, and that reason is not the one either Brown’s or Obama’s critics say it is.  Stating that out loud, as often as needed, ought to be the job of someone who aspires to be “of no party or clique.”

That is all.

Image:  Martina Schettina, “Fibonacci’s Traum (Dream)” 2008.

Dog Bites Man: McCain Campaign lies again

September 28, 2008

I used to like euphamisms, like “dissemble,” “misleads,” “fabulates.”  But my thesaurus got sulky at all the work and has headed off to a bar on an unscheduled work action, so I’ll just call it like it is:

In one of the least surprising post debate reactions imaginable, Senator John McCain’s campaign continued to lie about big things and small.

The big?  Well I was struck by the candidate himself charging that in the matter of the bailout, his opponent, Senator Obama put electoral politics before the country — given this story.  (Not to mention the interesting sequence of events that followed Obama asking McCain to join him in providing a common set of principles for the solution.

This isn’t news, of course — McCain continuously, routinely lies about his own shenanigans, that of his associates, and of course, on a daily basis, that of his opponent (just think of the often debunked lie about Obama’s tax proposals repeated in Friday’s debate).

On some level, I must admit, these big lies neither surprise me nor bother me all that much.  The problem he faces, of course, is that McCain’s record itself is at odds with what every poll seems to suggest the American electorate wants.

Given where McCain actually stands, thus, his only chance is to accuse Obama of precisely the sin he has just committed — see his behavior in the bailout story referenced above for only the most recent of a long list of examples —  and hope he can confuse the voters enough about what Obama and he actually stand for to sneak out a victory. (H/t and shorter form of the link above to Andrew Sullivan.)

What really gets me, though, and what I think reveals the deep pathology at the heart of any prospective McCain administration, are the little lies, the unnecessary b.s.-is-better-than truth stuff that seems to be a constant in that campaign.

The one that caught me eye was this one, from yesterday.   Justifying McCain’s attempt to inject himself into the bailout negotiations again, this time by phone, his spokesman, Mark Salter said,

“He’s calling members on both sides, talking to people in the administration, helping out as he can.”

So whom did the Senator call?  Paulson, Bush, and Bernancke — and about a dozen Republican members of Congress.

That’s fine.  McCain is a grown man (are you sure?…ed) and he should call whoever he thinks needs to hear from him.  And whatever you think of the proposed deal on its merits, the hold-up now is coming, by all accounts, from the loon wing of the House Republican caucus, so having the Presidential candidate from that party lean on some folks might even have an effect.  The list of his calls is as uncontroversial as anything can be in an election season.

But why lie about it?  Why say you are going to call Democrats when you are not?  This is just so petty, so minor, why even bother?

Because, of course, once you get the habit of deceit it becomes hard to break.

The only remaining question, I hope a rhetorical one, is to ask whether a man and an organization he leads that displays this kind of habit should be entrusted with the Presidency.

*Institutional logrolling alert:  I note with pleasure that the article in the Boston Globe to which this link leads was written by Carolyn Johnson, one of the growing number of accomplished graduates of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.  See — there is life after a masters program.

Image: Robert Arneson, “See No Evil/Hear No Evil”, one of seven “eggheads” found around the UC Davis campus. Released under the GNU Free Documentation License. Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Numbers are Fun: McCain/Palin Bankrupts America edition.

September 9, 2008

Josh Marshall notes today that the weight of lies coming from the McCain campaign around their choice of teh-worst-Vice-Presidential-nominee-evah ™ is beginning to bear down to the point where even such rabid running dogs of the liberal media elite ™ as Fox News and the Fournier-burdened AP are taking note.

So far press attention is focusing on the Bridge to Nowhere deceit that has been part of the New Improved Palin marketing campaign since day one — and more power to that story, as it strikes to the twin cores of the GOP claim on this election:  that John McCain and Sarah Palin are honest, incorruptible; and that they are agents of change primed to upset business as usual.  Begging for money, lying about it, and then keeping the cash once the project is cancelled doesn’t do wonders for such an image.

But just to make sure we don’t lose sight of the larger picture, which is that  Palin has been a disaster at each level of government she has so far attained — and hence that her choice by John McCain represents a truly telling indication of what a McCain administration might do to the American people.  It ain’t pretty.

Today’s demonstration of that claim comes from Palin’s mismanagement of the one significant public works performed in Wasilla, AK, during her tenure as mayor.

As that frothing pinko rag, The Wall Street Journal has reported, Palin’s administration championed the construction of a roughly 15 million dollar sports complex for the town.  The project itself was mismanaged, with rookie errors like failing to complete the purchase of the land needed for the complex before the project began. (Perhaps Palin should have described herself with this edited line:  “What’s the difference between a sheep to be shorn and a small town mayor?  Lipstick…”  Just sayin…)

That’s bad enough — are you sure you want to let this kind of incompetence loose on America again? (In case you’ve blessedly erased the memory, let me just repeat, “Heck of a job, Brownie….”)

But the real sting in the tail comes from the financial consequences for the good citizens of Wasilla that their former mayor is now leaving far, far behind.

When Palin took over as mayor, Wasilla had no long term debt.  When she left, it had accumulated almost 20 million bucks of loans that the town will be paying off for years.*

To understand what that means in the context of a national campaign, all it takes is a little arithmetic.

For example:  One way to look at government debts as something other than just the raw number of the total is to do the simple calculation of how much that debt works out to be for each resident of the jurisdiction paying for a spending spree.

We know how many people live in Wasilla — just under 6,000 at the time Palin stepped down and left her luckless fellow citizens with the bill.  We can thus count her debt not as a total that is hard to place in context, but in units we can compare across the country:  debt per person in the jurisdiction — or roughly $3,600 per Wasilla resident in Palin debt.

Now take that number onto the national stage. By this measure, if Palin/McCain were to achieve a budgetary debacle at the federal level only as bad as that then-Mayor Palin managed for her home town, the total new debt our country would owe (much of it to the Bank of China, most likely) would come to 308 million people times $3,600.

That adds up to $1,108,800,000,000 or more than one trillion dollars.

We’re real money, even by the standards set in the last eight years of GOP misrule.

And that’s not all:  there’s another way to think of the numbers that make Palin’s performance look even worse:

Calculate the accumulated debt as a multiple of the annual budget of the jurisdiction.

In her last year as mayor, Wasilla spent about 5.8 million dollars in non capital expenditures (up 50% from the time she took over, BTW).   Twenty million is roughly 3.3 times that total.

Now take it to the federal level:   The proposed budget for FY 2009 totals 2.65 trillion in discretionary spending (omitting Social Security, Medicare and interest on debt already accumulated).  Multiply that by 3.2 and you get a number in the 9 trillion dollar range.  Even if you cut out military spending from the discretionary total, you still are left with a number that multiplies out on the Palin scale to around 4 trillion.  Ouch.

All of which to say is that while the media is beginning to focus (at last) on the question of whether you can trust  John McCain, his running mate and his campaign say, they might want to pay some attention to another line of inquiry.

Trust them?  Hell–can we afford them?

Image:  German banknotes from the hyperinflation of 1922-1923.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Why it helps to run the numbers…

July 23, 2008

and why it matters.

Brad DeLong reproduces a  memo from Obama campaign econ. policy director Jason Furman.   In it, Furman discusses the latest Tax Policy Center report on the true costs and beneficiaries of the Obama and the McCain tax plans.

Money quote from the TPC report:

The two candidates’ tax plans would have sharply different distributional effects. Senator McCain’s tax cuts would primarily benefit those with very high incomes, almost all of whom would receive large tax cuts that would, on average, raise their after-tax incomes by more than twice the average for all households. Many fewer households at the bottom of the income distribution would get tax cuts and those tax cuts would be small as a share of after-tax income. In marked contrast, Senator Obama offers much larger tax breaks to low- and middle-income taxpayers and would increase taxes on high-income taxpayers. The largest tax cuts, as a share of income, would go to those at the bottom of the income distribution, while taxpayers with the highest income would see their taxes rise significantly.

For extra credit and reading pleasure, see the extensive comparisons the Center made between the tax proposals as described the candidate’s advisors, and as set out in stump speeches and or campaign policy documents.

The key point there, at least as the Obama campaign would have you know, (PDF here), is that there is a $2.8 trillion gap between what the McCain advisors say the GOP nominee-apparent’s plan would cost, and what the number is in what we laughingly call the real world.

These are important numbers, and as important, they are not, in the last analysis subject to that much controversy.  That is:  while it is possible to argue a great deal about the long term economic effects of different tax policies, coming up with the immediate or even the medium term costs of different proposals is not a black art.

These are what scientists call deductions.  They are not quite facts, not yet.  But starting from a baseline of factual knowledge — the current tax code, revenues, analysis of earlier changes in tax policy and so on — it is possible to make well grounded predictions of what would happen if each candidate were able to impose the policies they now promise.

The bottom line:  well, my argument that a McCain presidency will be disastrous for scientific, technological and medical research is strengthened by this latest report.  With non-defense discretionary spending already squeezed by the disastrous Bush brew of tax cuts for the top brackets and an unfunded war, McCain’s proposed tax and spending priorities leave essentially nothing for such luxuries as advanced education, basic and applied research and all the rest.

If our investment in science lags, of course, we will suffer along every axis from national security to our ability to relieve human suffering or to uncover novel sources of human happiness (who knew the ARPANET would enable us to Twitter at each other.  Hmm.  Perhaps I should rethink that example.)

But the key here is that you cannot make this argument without the baseline numbers.  McCain can and does say that he supports research and innovation to solve such fundamental problems as America’s energy needs.  I don’t doubt that he believes it when he says it.  But such commitments are meaningless, lies in fact if not in intent, given his tax and budget policies — or else his tax promises are lies.  That’s what you can say when — and only then, you actually dig in the weeds of the data.

In this context, TPC study offers one more valuable yardstick against which to weigh all the other commitments McCain is making.  The question is will anyone (but your earnest, but rather low-profile blogger) do so?

But not to snark before time, I’m waiting.  This is my question: will the reporting on this story emphasize the actual differences between the two plans and the consquences?  Or will it focus instead on some variant of the “McCain counters Obama’s tax sally.”  That is — do the voters/audience get an account of the facts that McCain would wish to dispute, or just the dispute?  Will the story make it onto the news budget at all?

We’ll see.  As an extra credit question, I’m wondering whether Marc Ambinder will engage this at all?  He’s reproduced a lot of Scheunemann.  So how about a little domestic substance from the “Reported Blog on Politics?”  Will update as events warrant.

Image: James Gillray, “A great stream from a petty-fountain; or John Bull swamped in the flood of new – taxes,” hand colored etching, 1806.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.