Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Ranting and Rating: Why PolitiFact's Numbers Don't Add Up

"I've given you a decision to make,
Things to lose, things to take,
Just as she's about ready to cut it up,
She says:
  "Wait a minute, honey, I'm gonna add it up."

One of the more common methods of using PolitiFact's findings is to add up total ratings and form a conclusion based on the data. In its simplest form, this is when someone looks at, for example, 100 PolitiFact ratings, 50 from Republicans and 50 from Democrats, then adds up who received more trues and who had more falses, and concludes from that total who is more credible. The reality is that a collection of PolitiFact's ratings provides far more information about the ideological bias of PolitiFact's editors than it does about the people they check.

One of the reasons this flawed method is so popular is that PolitiFact frequently promotes it as part of its shtick. Whether it's the ubiquitous report cards, or the iPhone app with its absurd Truth Index (described as a "Dow Jones Industrial Average of truth"), PolitiFact implicitly tells readers they can simply click a link to find out the credibility of a particular politician. Like most diet pills and get-rich-quick schemes, it's snake oil science and complete junk.

The most obvious flaw with this method is selection bias. There's simply no way for PolitiFact, or anyone for that matter, to check every statement by every politician. This means PolitiFact needs to have some sort of random selection process in order to ensure their sample reflects the wide variety of political statements being made, as well as the politicians making them. Without a random process, editors and writers might investigate statements that pique their own ideological interests. And how does PolitiFact choose its subjects?
"We choose to check things we are curious about. If we look at something and we think that an elected official or talk show host is wrong, then we will fact-check it."

This "things we're curious about" method may explain why Senate hopeful Christine O'Donnell (Rep-RI) garnered four PolitiFact ratings, while the no less comical Senate hopeful Alvin Greene (Dem-NC) received none

Officially, PolitiFact only checks claims that are the "most newsworthy and significant." (Unless it's about Obama getting his daughters a puppy. Or baseball). PolitiFact also has a penchant for accepting reader suggestions. Anyone visiting PolitiFact's Facebook page is aware that their fans overwhelmingly reside on the left side of the political spectrum. If PolitiFact asks 50,000 liberals what statements to check, guess what? Statements about Fast and Furious won't be as popular as, say, Sarah Palin.

It's also important to consider the source of the statement being rated. For example, when Barack Obama made the claim that preventative health care is an overall cost saver, and Republican David Brooks wrote a column explaining Obama is wrong; PolitiFact gave a True to Brooks. This spares Obama a demerit in his column* while granting Republicans an easy True. Another example of this source selection is evident in the rating about $16 muffins for a Department of Justice meeting. Despite the claim being made in an official Inspector General report and being repeated by several media outlets, including the New York Times and PolitiFact partners NPR and ABC news, PolitiFact hung a False rating around Bill O'Reilly's neck. PolitiFact refrained from judging the nominally liberal media outlets--and the source of the claim--all while burdening O'Reilly with a negative mark in his file.

One of the most overlooked problems with analyzing a tally of the ratings is the inconsistent application of standards PolitiFact employs in different fact checks. Even if one was to assume PolitiFact used a random selection process and assigned its ratings to the appropriate source, we still have a problem when subjects aren't checked according to the same set of standards. For example, Politifact rated Obama "Half True" when he made a claim about the rates certain taxpayers pay. His claim only earned that rating when PolitiFact considered the amount their employers contributed to the employees' tax burden. Almost simultaneously, they labeled Herman Cain Mostly False in a similar claim specifically because he used the same formula. A cursory analysis of total ratings fails to detect this disparate treatment. When considering such flexible guidelines, the "report cards" don't seem like such a credible evaluation.

Ultimately, the sum of PolitiFact's ratings tells us far more about what interests PolitiFact's editors and readers than it does about the credibility of any individual politician. With so many flaws in their process, and such a minute sample size in a vast ocean of statements, conclusions about a subject's overall honesty should be considered dubious. We recognize that this flawed process will undoubtedly affect liberal politicians as well. However, it's our contention that the personal bias of the editors and writers will harm those on the right side of the aisle more often and more dramatically than those on the left.

Adding up PolitiFact's ratings in an attempt to analyze a person's or party's credibility produces misleading results. Until PolitiFact includes a check for selection bias and establishes and adheres to transparent and objective standards, an analysis based on their cumulative work is ill-founded at best, and grossly inaccurate at worst.

*PolitiFact did eventually give Obama a False after he repeatedly made the claim, but still spared several high profile Democrats for the same statement. Unlike perennial fact check favorites like the jobs created by the stimulus or Obama's birth certificate, PolitiFact seems to think the issue isn't worth revisiting.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Total Clusterfact: Sorting out Solyndra

“There’s never been more money shoved out of the government’s door in world history, and probably never will be again, than in the last few months and the next 18 months, and our selfish parochial goal is to get as much of it...as we possibly can,” -George Kaiser

Slowly but steadily the media have been picking up the Solyndra story. That's the failed solar panel company that lost over $500 million of taxpayer money. PolitiFact has decided to tackle this complex issue with it's usual high standards. If you're short on time, let me give you the condensed version coming out of the Obama campaign headquarters St. Petersburg Times fact checkers:

There is no scandal. But if there is a scandal, it was inherited from the previous administration.

That's right. It's Bush's fault.

For those readers with a bit more time on their hands, lets take a look at PolitiFact's recent assault on reality:

Image from PolitiFact.com

PolitiFact reviews an Americans for Prosperity ad and helpfully specifies what they're going to sort out the truth of:

We decided to fact-check the ad, focusing on whether the president gave "half a billion in taxpayer money to help his friends at Solyndra, a business the White House knew was on the path to bankruptcy."

They can't screw this one up, can they? Multiple media reports have shown beyond dispute that Obama donors are closely tied to Solyndra, and also that the White House was aware of Solyndra's problems prior to the loan. So just how bad did PolitiFact flub this rating? As the indefatigable Inigo Montoya once said: Lemme esplain...No, there is too much. Lemme sum up.

Are Solyndra executives really Obama's friends?

Ben Bierman, executive vice president of operations and engineering for Solyndra, donated $5,500 to Obama’s election campaign. Karen Alter, senior vice president of marketing, donated $23,000 in 2008.

According to information collected by the Center for Responsive Politics, Solyndra board members have donated at least $27,400 to Democratic campaigns and affiliates.

Since 1998, Solyndra board member James F. Gibbons has contributed $13,500 on his own. Board member Winston Fu has contributed $4,550 since 2008. Since 1991, board member Thomas Baruch has contributed $7,150. And board member Steven R. Mitchell donated $2,300 to Obama in 2007.

What kind of crack investigative journalism did I have to perform in order to unearth this inculpatory evidence that PolitiFact was unable to find? I clicked on the link PolitiFact provided in their rating. It leads to the Daily Caller article that Americans for Prosperity used as a source for their ad. PolitiFact doesn't refudiate these claims, they simply dismiss them as irrelevant by saying only "A handful of other executives affiliated with Solyndra's management and board donated to the Obama campaign or other Democrats over the years."  A "handful of executives" is enough to make the Americans for Prosperity ad True with respect to the "Obama's friends" portion of the claim. At any fact checking outfit other than PolitiFact, that is.

PolitiFact instead focuses on the big fish, George Kaiser. Throughout the unfolding scandal Kaiser has become the main target of political kickback accusations. Kaiser is a well known bundler for Obama and even donated $53,500 of his own cash to Obama's campaign. PolitiFact, however, poo-poo's Kaiser's status, writing:

For a little context, in the big-money world of presidential fundraising, he's among 560 elite fundraisers for Obama, though not in the top tier who gathered upwards of half a million each.

Kaiser's involvement with Solyndra is hardly tenuous. Simply put the George Kaiser Family Foundation is a private foundation. The investment arm of the Kaiser Foundation is Argonaut Ventures. Argonaut Ventures is the largest stakeholder in Solyndra. Dots=Connected.

But PolitiFact doesn't want you to get confused with all that messy business. They quickly point out
the clarifying facts of these prejudicial perceptions:

Kaiser, though, is neither a shareholder nor an executive of Solyndra.

That would be an excellent rebuttal if Americans for Prosperity claimed that he was. The AfP ad describes "wealthy donors with ties to Solyndra," a description that fits Kaiser perfectly.

Kaiser isn't on the foundation's board or Argonaut's or Solyndra's.

I'm noticing a pattern here.

It's important to note here that Kaiser was never in a position to profit from Solyndra...

Has PolitiFact mentioned that Mr. Kaiser would not have benefited personally in any way from his foundations investments?

"The investment in Solyndra would not have benefited Mr. Kaiser personally in any way."

Says who?

...said C. Renzi Stone, a spokesman for the foundation.

I see.

Glad we sorted that out.

Or did we?

Unfortunately our fact-furnishing friends forgot to inform us of one little thing: There is another Solyndra investor that may possibly have ties to George Kaiser. I'm speaking of the curiously named George Kaiser Family Foundation Investment Company, LLC. (Note: that's different than the George Kaiser Family Foundation.) The GKFF Investment Company is another investment arm of the private foundation. GKFF IC is invested in Solyndra to the tune of $50 million dollars. The MuniLand column at Reuters does the math:

Two of Solyndra’s largest investors are Argonaut Ventures I, L.L.C. and the GKFF Investment Company, LLC. Both firms are represented on the Solyndra board of directors by Steven R. Mitchell (see Solyndra S-1 page 119). Both are investment vehicles of the George Kaiser Family Foundation of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

George Kaiser alleges that he didn’t discuss Solyndra with any White House officials but his investment vehicles were very hot for Solyndra. I went back into Solyndra’s IPO filing and totaled up the amount of funding Kaiser’s investment businesses gave Solyndra. Over 9 rounds of financing it invested approximately $337 million, or 48% of all equity raised for the business.

Ultimately whether or not George Kaiser profited from Argonauts investment in Solyndra is totally irrelevant to the veracity of Americans for Prosperity's claim. (Though it may be relevant to understand that there can be plenty of upside in a colossal collapse). Even if Kaiser doesn't personally profit from the investment, clearly he has a vested interest in seeing that his foundations investments are successful. The fact that Kaiser visited the White House seventeen times (including four times the week prior to the loan approval) is enough to qualify him as one of "Obama's friends." Assuming the Argonaut investment was intended purely for charitable purposes doesn't make the ads claim false. And we still have the list of Solyndra executives that did donate to Obama. Whatever Kaiser's role in this mess may be it is undeniable that Kaiser is a "wealthy donor with ties to Solyndra," exactly the accusation made in the Americans for Prosperity ad.

Despite dismissing Kaiser for not being a campaign donor in "the top tier who gathered upwards of half a million", there is one Obama bundler connected with Solyndra who resides in Obama's "$500,000 plus" club. That would be Steven Spinner. According to the Los Angeles Times Spinner raised over half a million dollars for Obama's '08 campaign, took a break from fundraising, and now he's back at it, most recently setting up Obama's L.A. cash grab at the W hotel. To be fair, Mr. Spinner is not, and never was, an executive at Solyndra. Rather, during his short break from raising money for Obama, Spinner was enjoying his appointed position as a top administrator in the Department of Energy. And what was Spinner's job at the DOE? (Wait for it...) Spinner was responsible for the loan program that approved Solyndra's 535 million dollars in taxpayer money. But that's not all! Whose law firm represented Solyndra in negotiations with the DOE? None other than the lovely Mrs. Steven Spinner. But you wouldn't know that from reading PolitiFact.

Even though he signed an ethics pledge specifically regarding Solyndra, and officially recused himself from any Solyndra negotiations, Spinner's emails proved embarrassing to the White House. ABC News has the goods:

"I have OVP [the Office of the Vice President] and WH [the White House] breathing down my neck on this."

And while Spinner claims he had nothing to do with the Solyndra negotiations, he still got an attaboy from his boss at the DOE, Matt Rogers:

Thanks for driving Solyndra.

But maybe Spinner and his wife don't count as one of Obama's friends at Solyndra. They certainly weren't worth mentioning in a fact-check article sorting out the truth of any shenanigans going on, at least not to PolitiFact. But what about Ken Levit?  Investors.com sums it up nicely:

In a Feb. 27, 2010, email, Ken Levit, executive director of Kaiser’s foundation wrote: “Thanks. We met with ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka the stimulus bill) recovery team in (Vice President Joe) Biden’s office — the seemed to love our Brady Project — also all big fans of Solyndra.” The name of the recipient of the email is redacted.

He was a little more colorful in an email the same day to Steve Mitchell, a Solyndra board member:

“They about had an orgasm in Biden’s office when we mentioned Solyndra.”

“That’s awesome! Get us a DOE loan,” Mitchell replied.

Somehow all of this escaped our fact finding friends. See no scandal, hear no scandal, speak no scandal. What PolitiFact does have time and space for, however, is pointing out the nefarious deeds of those ubiquitous bogeymen of the left, the Waltons:

Meanwhile, Madrone Partners, which owns more than 10 percent of Solyndra, is an investment vehicle for another family — the Waltons of Walmart fame. While some argue that Walmart is no longer a conservative company that focuses solely on GOP causes, a search of Federal Election Commission records for contributions from people who list Madrone as an employer still shows most cash benefited GOP recipients. General partner Gregory Penner, for example, a Walton in-law, gave primarily to Republicans, such as $5,000 to the Senate Conservatives Fund, $10,000 to the Republican Party of Kentucky and $10,000 to McCain Victory 2008. He also made smaller contributions to a handful of Democrats such as U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
Notice that earlier PolitiFact only devoted a single line to the direct donations to Obama ("A handful of other executives affiliated with Solyndra's management and board donated to the Obama campaign") yet now devotes an entire paragraph to an investment group with (supposedly) conservative sympathies donating to Republicans. Speaking of handfuls, we see that word again repeated in the final sentence, noting that a Madrone partner gave "smaller contributions to a handful of Democrats."  The National Legal and Policy Center fills us in on the details PolitiFact doesn't deem worthy of reporting:

Madrone’s Greg Penner and his wife Carrie – the daughter of Walmart chairman of the board Rob Walton – most recently gave $7,200 to the successful U.S. Senate campaign of Democrat Michael Bennet, from Colorado. Mrs. Penner also donated $2,300 to President Obama’s 2008 campaign...

PolitiFact wants us to know about the donations from the Walmart group to Republicans, but the $2,300 to Obama isn't noteworthy in this fact check about taxpayer money going to Obama's friends at Solyndra.

Click the "Read More" link below to continue reading this post.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Attack of the Context Eating Zombies

I identify myself as an Objectivist, but I've never intended this to be an "Objectivist blog". There are plenty of exceptional spokesmen, and resources, that do a much better job of promoting and advocating the philosophy than I can. But every once in a while there's something so outlandish that even I feel the need to point it out.

The internet is filled with scathing attacks on Ayn Rand. Every single one I've ever read has been written by someone who is either woefully ignorant of Rand's ideas or just intentionally dishonest. Ari Armstrong wrote an outstanding piece that debunks most of the popular smears that is well worth the read. But a tweet this week from Mark Wickens of Randex highlighted a pretty glaring distortion of an Ayn Rand quote published in the Scientific American that deserves review. The article, by Christie Wilcox, seems to be a Halloween inspired and otherwise innocuous report on creepy bugs. Fair enough. But check out the blurb that headlines the article:

“The purpose of man’s life…is to become an abject zombie who serves a purpose he does not know, for reasons he is not to question.” – Ayn Rand

Holy Context Removal, Batman! Is Wilcox quoting Ayn Rand or Anne Rice?

The use of ellipses in this case is grossly misleading. By cutting out two significant words and replacing them with 3 dots, the quote gives the impression that Rand said something contrary to what she did say.

Let's see what happens when we offer some context to the snippet from Galt's speech (emphasis mine):

Man’s standard of value, say the mystics of spirit, is the pleasure of God, whose standards are beyond man’s power of comprehension and must be accepted on faith. Man’s standard of value, say the mystics of muscle, is the pleasure of Society, whose standards are beyond man’s right of judgment and must be obeyed as a primary absolute. The purpose of man’s life, say both, is to become an abject zombie who serves a purpose he does not know, for reasons he is not to question. His reward, say the mystics of spirit, will be given to him beyond the grave. His reward, say the mystics of muscle, will be given on earth—to his great-grandchildren.

Not even morse code uses dots to remove as much context as Wilcox does here. Compounding the error, the link provided in the Scientific American quote directed readers to Wikipedia, hardly a reliable source for Rand, or anything else for that matter.

A charitable interpretation of Wilcox's article lends itself to the impression that she found a cool quote about zombies and ran with it. There doesn't appear to be any political motivation or intentional smearing behind her use of the phrase. But that doesn't excuse employing ellipses to completely distort Rand's words. It's dishonest and amateurish to present the quote in that fashion, especially when she didn't link to a reputable source for the quote in it's entirety. It's curious that this passed muster at the Scientific American and makes you wonder that if perhaps Rand was a more likeable figure, would the distortion have made it to print?

Wilcox would have better served her readers had she followed the advice posted yesterday at Alexander Marriott's Wit and Wisdom:

Only repost a quotation when you know for sure that it is authentic and you are familiar enough with the context in which the quote came about to explain why, where and when it was either said or written.

Marriott highlights several oft-repeated "historical" misquotes and debunks them with ease. He also offers seemingly obvious yet underused tips on spotting the frauds. If more people adhered to Marriot's standards the internet would be a better place, and Rand wouldn't be the zombie promoting monster she's made out to be.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Don't Pin The Tale On The Donkey

The Justice Department is feeding conference guests $16 dollar muffins?! Is that true?

Recently ABC News reported that a Justice Department Inspector General audit revealed that the DOJ had been spending taxpayer money a little too freely. The pricey muffins quickly became an oft repeated gag exemplifying government waste.

But what are the facts?

Fear not PolitiFans, the team was on the case:

The $16 muffin started with a 122-page report released Sept. 20, 2011, from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General. The report followed a 2007 audit that found few internal controls on conference spending, especially for food and beverages. New guidelines were issued, and this year’s report was a check-up to see how the department was doing.

Not so great, according to the recent report.


But we can't just take PolitiFact's word for it. No worries. As you already know, PolitiFact likes to quote their sources directly. They give the facts to us straight in this excerpt from the IG report:

All the conferences occurred at major hotels that applied service fees – usually around 20 percent – to the cost of already expensive menu items. Our assessment of food and beverage charges revealed that some DOJ components did not minimize conference costs as required by federal and DOJ guidelines. For example, one conference served $16 muffins, while another served Beef Wellington hors d’oeuvres that cost $7.32 per serving...

To the untrained eye it would appear that ABC's report was dead on accurate. That's why fact checking is better left to the pros:

Media reports summarized the inspector general’s overall negative findings, but couldn’t resist starting with the $16 muffin. In fairness, it was a verbatim quote from the report.

However, reading deeper into the report revealed that the $16 muffins were not completely a la carte. The department received some complimentary beverages and some fruit, though whether additional items were served at breakfast or at a later break is not quite clear.

Justice Department officials also told the inspector general that they were provided the meeting space without charge, though the report notes it’s departmental policy to use federal government meeting spaces whenever possible. And, the inspector general found that conference planners didn’t do any kind of cost breakdowns to show that the government got a better deal overall when it purchased food and received free meeting space.


Well, this can only lead us to one conclusion: The ABC story is simply false. I suppose there's gonna be some awkward moments around the water cooler the next time PF editor Bill Adair shows up on ABC to do an interview. Wait, you knew PolitiFact and ABC have a partnership, right? Nevermind though, because they wouldn't let a silly little partnership get in the way of spreading the truth:

Image from PolitiFact.com (Arrow added)

What the what?

Because the federal government didn't pay $16 for a muffin even if it paid too much for breakfast, we rate O’Reilly’s statement Mostly False.

Instead of passing this rating off to ABC news, or NPR, or the New York Times, PolitiFact made a deliberate choice to saddle Bill O'Reilly with the baggage. The story was widely reported, why pick on Bill? Come to think of it, PolitiFact even noted in their rating that the $16 muffin "was a verbatim quote from the report." Why not ding the Inspector General?

The answer is simple: Ratings.

PolitiFact isn't the benevolent truth seekers they portray themselves as. The facts are Bill O'Reilly made the statement on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. If you've ever gone to PolitiFact's Facebook page you know that the number of commenters goes through the roof if they even mention Stewart's name.  I also happen to know that my other blog experiences abnormally high traffic and search hits whenever Stewart and PolitiFact get in a tussle. The opportunity to make O'Reilly look bad while making an appearance on Stewart's show was a can't miss opportunity to gin up publicity from Stewart's followers.

Far be it from me to oppose publishing material with the intention of grabbing web traffic. But with PolitiFact there's a disturbing problem with misleading readers. The dishonesty stems from PolitiFact's insistence on urging readers to infer that a subject's overall rating on the Truth-O-Meter is an indication of that person's general honesty. Here's a quote from the latest app they're shilling:

Our new PolitiFact app allows you to see Truth-O-Meter ratings in ways that aren't possible with our website. In some cases, the picture isn't pretty.

The app allows you to compare our tally of all Truth-O-Meter rulings from PolitiFact National with the totals for individual subjects and groups. So for the first time, we can see how pundits' and talk show hosts' ratings compare with the overall count.

The results, shown in the table below, reveal that pundits and talk show hosts get more False and Pants on Fire ratings -- and fewer Trues -- than the overall totals. (Keep that in mind the next time you're watching cable news!)

Yeah, no problem with those stats.

So far Bill Adair has done his best Sgt. Schultz impression and dutifully dances around the topic of selection bias. But selection bias at PolitiFact does exist, and it's ratings like this that expose that. There were dozens of media organizations, not to mention the IG who actually authored the audit, that this Mostly False rating could and should have gone to. Instead it's recorded as a demerit in the "non-partisan" ratings file of a conservative pundit. Picking O'Reilly was an intentional, political choice.

So the next time you hear someone dragging out the same old tired argument about PolitiFact "checking both sides" you should recognize that it's an argument that is based on bogus numbers and PolitiFact's own ideological bias. And whenever you see PolitiFact promoting their apps or their "guides" to help you "get the facts" of a candidates statements, remember that those specific statements were chosen for a specific reason.

And it wasn't to sort out the truth.

After Hours: I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that O'Reilly's underlying point was that the muffins, regardless of their exact price, were an example of an out of touch government unwisely spending taxpayer money. As Bryan White over at Sublime Bloviations often points out, PolitiFact already has a strict policy regarding numbers claims:

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

Complimentary beverages and fruit notwithstanding.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Money For Nothing and Your Checks Fact Free

Fairy Godmothers, Leprechauns and the Federal Reserve.

What do they have in common? Obviously, the magical ability to create something out of nothing. In the Fed's case, it's cold hard cash. Don't believe me? Just ask PolitiFact:

Image from PolitiFact.com (Arrow added)

In this case, for once, PolitiFact deals relatively fairly with Kucinich's statement, and provides a decent analysis of what transpired regarding how the Fed created the money and how and to whom it was passed out to. For that reason there's no need to get into the details of their fact check.

The problem with this rating is their acceptance of the liberal dogma that the money is just simply created out of nothing without any tangible cost. PolitiFact even gives a "Hells Yeah!" to the success of the operation-

Eventually, all the money was repaid, with interest. But according to [Walker] Todd, rather than wipe the money off its books, the Federal Reserve chose to use much of it to further stimulate the economy by purchasing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgage-backed securities on the open market. So that money remained in circulation.

Hooray! It worked so well the magic money created even more money, and then went to support housing programs for the poor! Heck, it makes you wonder why the Fed doesn't just print a gajillion quadzillion dollars every day. Goodbye debt and deficit, helloooo Easy Street.

The reality that PolitiFact is evading is this money actually does come at a cost. It's not created out of nothing, but rather at the expense of the money that's already in circulation. This my friends, is the evil known as inflation.

To individuals, inflation is a lot like getting mugged, but not at the point of a gun in the streets. Inflation is the slow theft of your property by the very people charged with protecting it. Jonathan Hoenig has a simple explanation:

One need not be an economist to understand inflation. If you started writing checks with no money in your account, they'd throw you in jail. Yet when the government does it, at least for the time being, it's called "stimulus" and rewarded with high approval ratings, that is, until the bills come due. And they always do.


The law of supply and demand cannot be conned. And as the supply of money increases, prices rise, and the dollars you and other productive members of society have worked so hard to save decrease in value.

PolitiFact doesn't tell its readers that inflation, created by government tomfoolery, hurts those who save and the poor the most. And if there's any doubt about the destructive nature of inflation, Hoenig wrote another article about the chilling yet very real case of Zimbabwe:

In 2008, the Los Angeles Times reported how a beer in the Zimbabwe capital that cost 100 billion Zimbabwe dollars on July 4 had already risen to 150 billion an hour later. A few months after that, Zimbabwe issued the 100 trillion-dollar banknote, then worth about $30 (U.S.).


In 1980, the Zimbabwe dollar was actually worth more than the U.S. dollar. What deteriorated over those 29 years wasn't the weather or the water, but the political philosophy. Once known as Africa's breadbasket, government destroyed the currency to the point where even "billionaires" were starving in the street.

Frankly, I haven't spent $150,000,000,000 on beer since I hung out with these guys one morning in Green Bay. I can't imagine paying that for a single can of sudsy goodness.

The bottom line is PolitiFact did a serious disservice to their readers by ignoring the real cost of the Fed's magic money. It's not created out of thin air. It's a tax on income you've already earned and a tax you had no chance to vote on. Inflation devalues the wealth you have labored so hard to produce, its worth destroyed by the whim of political expediency.

History is littered with examples of the evils of inflation. Unlike magic money, inflation is real. Kucinich should be allowed a license for hyperbole. He's a politician and was speaking in a condensed television format. But PolitiFact promotes themselves as the arbiters of truth and likes to squawk about giving readers the whole story. The act of ignoring such a relevant component of this story proves they're inclined to pick and choose which facts they want their readers to know.

After Hours: I actually have a few Zimbabwean hundred trillion dollar bills that I purchased on Jonathan Hoenig's website, along with some other cool things. You should go there and buy stuff.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Perry on Barry: PolitiFact Picks Paraphrase To Promote President's Policies

Ever since GOP candidate Rick Perry announced he's running he's been a lightning rod for attacks from the left and even a few on the right. It's no surprise then that PolitiFact had to get in on the action-

Clipped from PolitiFact.com

Yup. Out of all the claims made by the wily Texan our fearless fact-checker-outers decided to sort out the truth of whether or not Rick Perry faithfully paraphrased something President Obama said. PolitiFact felt it was important to point out that, despite being the largest fact checking effort in history, they aren't actually going to rate what the President actually said:

For this item, we're not evaluating whether the border is safer, but whether Perry is accurately characterizing what Obama said.

Brave journalism indeed.

Make no mistake: This is intentional and it serves several purposes.

For one, it gives PolitiFact carte blanche to reprint Obama's talking points without challenging their veracity. Which happens to be exactly what they did (emphasis in original):

So did Obama actually say the border with Mexico and the United States is now "safer than it ever way (sic) in history"? Let's review Obama's words:

He said there is more border enforcement than ever: "They wanted more agents at the border. Well, we now have more boots on the ground on the southwest border than at any time in our history."

He said seizures and apprehensions are up: "Over the past two and a half years, we've seized 31 percent more drugs, 75 percent more currency, 64 percent more weapons than ever before. (Applause.) And even as we have stepped up patrols, apprehensions along the border have been cut by nearly 40 percent from two years ago."

He said violent crime is down: "Violent crime in southwest border counties has dropped by a third."

He said El Paso and other border cities are safe compared with other U.S. cities: "El Paso and other cities and towns along this border are consistently among the safest in the nation."

Glad we got that settled. Here's another Obama gem in the article, with plenty of fact-checkable claims, including one that's possibly ridiculous. PolitiFact threw this into the rating despite it not having any bearing whatsoever on the Perry statement being checked:

"We have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement. All the stuff they asked for, we've done. But even though we've answered these concerns, I've got to say I suspect there are still going to be some who are trying to move the goal posts on us one more time.

"You know, they said we needed to triple the Border Patrol. Or now they're going to say we need to quadruple the Border Patrol. Or they'll want a higher fence. Maybe they'll need a moat. (Laughter.) Maybe they want alligators in the moat. (Laughter.)

Thanks for letting us know when the audience laughed in approval. Keep in mind this recitation of Obama's Greatest Hits is coming under the guise of a non-partisan fact-check.

Another purpose of rating Perry on this specific statement is two-fold. The statement itself won't offend the liberals that are PolitiFact's core audience. It's a statement they tend to agree with. Putting Obama's comments in quotes, even if they're being repeated by Perry, right next to a big "Mostly True" sign gives the impression that what Obama said was itself true. This only reinforces the talking point. An additional benefit that certainly isn't lost on PolitiFact's editors is they earn brownie points for being balanced. The next time you hear someone making the case that PolitiFact isn't biased because they rate both sides, keep this rating in mind. "Heck! They even gave Rick Perry a Mostly True!" A quick glance at PolitiFact's Facebook page provides a few examples of this theory in action:

Images from PolitiFact's Facebook page

PolitiFact: Mission Accomplished.

Aside from the subtle campaigning done on Obama's behalf, PolitiFact's troubles with basic fact-checkering exist in this piece as well. Consider that PolitiFact didn't even provide a transcript for Perry's comments. The first hint of trouble comes from their version of what Perry actually said on August 13th, at the Greenland, New Hampshire house party:

Clipped from PolitiFact.com

I'm not sure what the Pulitzer Stylebook says about it, but considering PolitiFact's dubious use of ellipses (not to mention their failure to use them) should leave readers wondering if Perry was accurately quoted quoting Obama accurately. Unfortunately, despite their principle of publishing "a list of sources with every Truth-O-Meter item" so a reader can "judge for themselves whether they agree with the ruling", PolitiFact provides no source for Perry's statement. If you don't think providing a source is a big deal, see if it passes muster with a sophisticated and reputable group of people with high standards of integrity without hearing the ubiquitous "got a link?" reply.

What PolitiFact does provide as sources are three articles written at different dates about different events in different cities with Perry making similar claims.

From an ABC News Radio post, we get this Perry quote, made during a business roundtable event on August 17th in Nashua, N.H.:

"Six weeks ago the president went to El Paso and said the border is safer than it's ever been," Perry said. "I have no idea, maybe he was talking about the Canadian border."

PolitiFact also links to a Tulsa World article quoting Perry during a press conference in Oklahoma on the 29th:

"The president of the United States came to El Paso earlier this year and made the statement that the Texas-Mexican border was safer than it had ever been," Perry said.

"I have no idea who briefed him, but they need to come to Texas and spend some time with Democrat sheriffs along the border and they will find out that we have a war going on in places and citizens on both sides of that border are in jeopardy for their safety," Perry said. "We have a major issue with the security of our borders."

These articles are instructive in that both* of them show Perry not only accurately paraphrasing the president (even in PolitiFact's judgment), but also immediately refuting Obama's claim. PolitiFact had to have known about this because they used these articles as sources!

It's also interesting that PolitiFact dropped Perry down from a solid "True" on their scale because he flubbed the specific date of Obama's comments. But in the Tulsa World quote Perry used the much more vague "earlier this year" time frame as opposed to the "4 weeks ago" PolitiFact judged him on. Can we assume if they had rated the Tulsa quote Perry would have been granted a True? What do the Tulsa and ABC Radio quotes have to do with Perry's statement on August 13th? What value do they have as sources? How can you fact-check a statement without fully quoting the actual statement? Why ignore the most important aspect of Perry's comments (that the borders are not safe)?

The real truth is that PolitiFact wasn't interested in sorting out the truth of anything. What PolitiFact offers us is a classic bait and switch. The readers are presented with what appears to be a serious review of a statement made by the most controversial (legitimate) GOP presidential candidate regarding his position on the even more controversial topic of border control. Instead, readers are given a stinky rehash of Obama's same old tired talking points. Talking points, I might add, that could use a legitimate fact-check of their own. But don't expect to find that at PolitiFact.

The bottom line is this isn't so much a fact-check as much as it's spreading Obama's message on border enforcement. PolitiFact is more pep rally than it is non-partisan. And a pretty shameful one at that.

After Hours:

So how did we get to our final rating? I'll let PolitiFact answer for themselves:

Obama did not actually "pronounce that the border with Mexico and the United States was safer than it ever was in history." His time references were primarily for recent years. Still, Obama's tone and his examples definitely supported the overall point that the border is safer now than it was before. We rate Perry's claim Mostly True.

In short, while PolitiFact couldn't find any instances of Obama using those exact words, they determined Perry did provide a fair characterization of Obama's comments, and rated him Mostly True. I wonder how George Will feels about that. Check out this long forgotten rating:

Clipped from PolitiFact.com

Doh! It seems poor Will made the mistake of accurately paraphrasing Obama over something that doesn't sit too well with PolitiFans. NO TRUE FOR YOU!

Check out this post at Ace of Spades for a tear down of the Will rating.

*The third article cited, like PolitiFact, has a gripe with Perry's timeline as well as other gaffes, but doesn't offer any information regarding Perry's statement on August 13th.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hacky Birthday!

PolitiFact is having a birfday-

Image from PolitiFact.com

My opinion of PolitiFact is no secret. But how cynical does one have to be to find faults in a straightforward anniversary announcement? Not very.

Since we launched on Aug. 22, 2007, we have published more than 4,000 Truth-O-Meter items, which we believe makes PolitiFact the largest fact-checking effort in history.

Fans of the Gregorian Calendar may have noticed that PolitiFact published this announcement on August 19th, instead of the 22nd, the actual 4 year anniversary. Those unfamiliar with PolitiFact might think that's nitpicking on my part. Then again new readers may not remember when PolitiFact used margin and font size to give Orrin Hatch a Mostly False for claiming an early version of ObamaCare was longer than 'War and Peace'-

The Oxford World's Classics paperback edition of War and Peace weighs in at 1,392 pages, according to Amazon.com. By that measure, the 2,074-page Senate bill would indeed be longer.

But using pages as the benchmark is misleading. The page layout of a Senate bill is much different from a novel. The bill uses much larger type, on 8.5-by-11-inch paper. The margins are larger and there are wider spaces between the lines. On balance, then, fewer words fit on a page of the Senate bill than fit on the page of the paperback novel.

Another missing piece in PolitiFact's announcement is a link to the government's Weights and Measures experts. You'd think an outfit that claims to be the largest fact-checking effort in history would have some kind of standard to judge size. Just ask Mitt Romney-

Image from PolitiFact.com

When they called themselves the "largest" fact-checking project I'm sure PolitiFact thinks they were simply using a rhetorical device. It's not a literal statement that can or can not be proven. [Fact-checking operations] do not exist in space and time so their the distance from [fact-checking] constructs can't be measured. [PolitiFact] is simply summarizing [their] impressions of things and conveying that to [their] audience. Reasonable people would assume PolitiFact offers that kind of charitable interpretation to the subjects of their ratings. But reasonable people would be wrong.

The congratulations continued-

Our 4,000 Truth-O-Meter fact-checks have helped readers make sense of political debates and the daily discourse. We've checked everything from the effectiveness of the economic stimulus to the price of Slim Jims, from the magnitude of U.S. debt to the price of delivering a gallon of gas to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

What they don't mention about their ratings is everything from the effectiveness of the economic stimulus to the price of Slim Jims, from the magnitude of U.S. debt has been debunked. They don't fare too well on fact-checking gallons of gas ratings either.

Interestingly, their 4000 Truth-O-Meter ratings claim links to PolitiFact National's 103 pages of 20 ratings per page (2060). Are they including their syndicated state spinoffs' ratings in the national sum? I don't know (Disclosure: I don't care.) But it wouldn't be the first time they flubbed the numbers between individual states and the nation as a whole . Meh. What's a few flubbed numbers when you've got a Pulitzer?

Unfortunately for those of us who do want a reputable source to fact-check various political statements, PolitiFact's 4 year milestone only represents a prolonged attack on reality.

Not everyone is a policy wonk. The real victims in PolitiFact's charade are the busy people who sincerely attempt to sort out the truth from all the political statements they hear or read by doing some simple research. When presented with a flashy website complete with easy to read flaming graphics, a claim of non-partisanship, and a Pulitzer thrown into the bargain, it's easy to understand how people without political savvy find PolitiFact so attractive.

PolitiFact markets themselves as the magic diet pill of political acumen.

But PolitiFact is no substitute for diligent research and paying attention. And like all carny games and get rich quick schemes, PolitiFact has far more empty promises than it does substance.

8/22/11- Fixed link in 5th paragraph-Jeff