Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Politifact and Fiction

Hopefully, this will be my last blog post on this catastrophic election. No promises though.

One of the more annoying talking points that Clinton supporters were parroting during the election was that Secretary Hillary Clinton was the most honest politician around. Ironically, it was an obvious lie which undermined their point and probably eroded support.

Certainly Secretary Hillary Clinton was more honest that Donald Trump who constantly spouts outrageous falsehoods. (I believe it is how he breathes.) But making her more honest than Senator Bernie Sanders took some cherry-picking. Clinton supporters pointed out that she has the highest percentage of “True” statements on Politifact - twenty five percent. But they ignored all the site’s other categories: Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False, and Pants on Fire. Combine the True and Mostly True statements and her percentage is exactly equal to Bernie Sanders at fifty one percent. In fact, at one point, Sanders enjoyed the highest combined rating of all politicians in both parties: fifty four percent (see chart).

But shouldn’t winning the top category still give Clinton a slight edge?

Well, it would, if not for her Pants on Fire statements like her strange claim that as First Lady she was under sniper fire in Bosnia. This was a stupendously stupid lie. Hillary Clinton was in Bosnia for a photo op and the press was traveling with her: If a sniper had fired on the tarmac it definitely would have been major international news. Any database search would have pulled up tons or articles. Why would anyone tell a lie that is so easily checked? Had she beaten Barack Obama in the 2008 primary, you can bet that John McCain would have hammered that obvious whopper all the way to the White House.

That last paragraph is foreshadowing. File it away in your brain for later.

Interestingly, the only politician to never get a Pants on Fire rating was Bernie Sanders – something that Politifact’s editors felt compelled to remark on in an article devoted to that fact. If I wanted to cherry-pick Politifact, I would post a link to that article and claim Sanders is the most honest on the sole basis of that.

What makes Bernie Sanders’ flame-retardant pants so remarkable is that Politifact’s standards of truth are often ridiculously difficult to meet – especially when the candidate in question is Bernie Sanders. Time and again, they downgraded indisputably true statements of his to Half True and Mostly False.

Let’s start with a “Half True.” Take when Bernie Sanders’ said that “It costs a hell of a lot more money to put somebody in jail than send them to the University of Virginia.” 

This is a pretty obvious and uncontroversial claim, yet Politifact still took issue with it. They contacted the campaign, which responded with incarceration and tuition figures, so Politifact then took Sanders to task for ignoring housing and other college costs.(1)

Okay, if we're playing that game, Politifact left out a lot more costs on the incarceration side of the ledger.

In his speech, Sanders was obviously talking about the total societal costs of prioritizing prisons. This would include everything from court costs to the inmate’s lost income potential. Making jeans for pennies an hour is not exactly a Keynesian stimulus for the economy - especially since it costs jobs to people on the outside, thereby increasing crime as employment opportunities shrink. And never mind that college students are less likely to become criminals in the first place which was clearly implied. Otherwise, why mention them together? Granted, Sanders did not enumerate these costs in his speech. Indeed, he did not enumerate anything. But he was clearly talking broadly about the economy, employment, and society.

This is Politifact playing stupid, plain and simple. Education is an investment that will pay future dividends for society. Even Republicans agree mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders is a burden to the taxpayer and a drag on the economy that will never pay for itself - let alone profit society in the long run. They may remain skeptical of education's benefits and balk at Sander's free college proposal, but now they finally admit that harsh sentencing is a human and budgetary tragedy.

To illustrate this dynamic, consider recidivism costs. As even the famously conservative US News and World Report acknowledged, "each dollar spent on funding prison education programs reduces incarceration costs by $4 to $5 during the first three years after an individual is released, the period when those leaving prison are most likely to return." Imagine if these inmates weren’t sent to prison in the first place. And that is just gen ed and vocational training - not college - but it is the same principle.

I imagine the Sanders campaign did not anticipate Politifact's tack and simply answered in the shortest, most article-friendly fashion they could. That's what you do when a question is a total no-brainer. Had Politifact followed up with "Does that include housing and other expenses?" the campaign would have sensed the trap and realized that a longer response was required.

Now let’s now move on to a Bernie Sanders statement that Politifact rated “Mostly False.”

During the Iowa Democratic primary debate, Sanders said, "[C]limate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism." This claim was also made by President Obama, the Pentagon, and various academic studies - as Politifact acknowledges. So how did they spin it "Mostly False" when Sanders said it?

By pouncing on the word "direct." Never mind that Sanders was speaking extemporaneously in a debate. I'm not going to address the absurdity of that because Sanders was actually using the language correctly. Sanders was not arguing that global warming was the sole cause of terrorism, but rather that it was a proven contributing factor. That's what a direct link is.

Consider this medical comparison: As a pre-diabetic, I have a list of dos and don'ts in order to avoid getting Type 2 diabetes. Some are obvious such as watching my sugar intake. Others are not so obvious such as not skimping on sleep. (Who knew?) Each of these things I should avoid has been shown to contribute to my chances of getting diabetes - i.e. each has a proven direct link. Part of the scientific method is weeding out other possible factors and narrowing it down to those that actually have an impact.

Do you want another biology analogy? Okay, smoking causes lung cancer. Does that mean it’s the only cause of lung cancer? No, maybe it is genetic in a particular patient's case. Maybe he is the dying physicist in Repo Man. But that does not get smoking off the hook. There is a direct link that only the Tobacco Institute - and perhaps Politifact - would dare deny. Each factor is a direct link.

This shit is ridiculous and I would hope that most Clinton supporters would agree. If such indubitably true statements get downgraded to Half True and Mostly False it is obviously going to water-down Sanders' score. In fairness, I have not looked for similar nitpicking of Hillary Clinton's statements. Perhaps Politifact applies the same impossible "Gotcha!" standards to all politicians on the premise that it will enhance their reputation for hard-assed exactitude. (Except Politifact's sometime penchant to prioritize the appearance of even-handedness over the practice of it tends to benefit conservatives.) If so, then comparisons between the candidates' scores are equitable - if deceptive - and it all comes out in the wash.

But I strongly suspect Politifact was harsher on Bernie Sanders because the corporate press has always been so toward socialist proposals of any sort. Talk about, say, single payer healthcare and pundits and editors alike will talk themselves into pretzels to dismiss you and your ideas. They always have and they always will. Establishment spin is a given and Politifact is no different. 

But whatever you think of Politifact's integrity, it seems that Sanders' and Clinton's scores were roughly equal overall overtime. If only Clinton's supporters had just said that and not succumbed such to overt, number-fudging overreach.(2) Like Clinton's stupid sniper lie, it was easily debunked and thus just disheartening. It made it a lot harder for voters to give her the benefit of the doubt even though the claim was not being made by Clinton herself because it was repeated so relentlessly that it was an obvious talking point. Moreover, it made her supporters look like out-of-touch zealots - which is of course how they routinely portrayed Sanders supporters. There was a lot of projection going on there.(3)

If they had simply likened Clinton's Politifact score to Sanders' they might have piggybacked on, if not co-opted, his reputation for blunt earnestness. By overplaying their hand, they by association confirmed Clinton's reputation for dishonesty instead of debunking it. I'm not arguing that the election hinged on such obviously shoddy talking points. But they sure as hell didn't help.

But, more importantly, fuck Politifact.


(1) No doubt the Politifact writer was hoping the reader would nod in agreement reflecting on how college housing has become more spa-like as tuition rises. Don’t worry, folks: The poor kids still live in shitty concrete bunker dorms which were built in the seventies – if not the fifties. The more modern, comfy, condo-like accommodations are for rich kids and athletes. These fancy Potemkin dorms are anything but typical, no matter what the brochure says. They just want you to spend unnecessary extra money. Cruise ships use the same sales strategy.

(2) It was similar to the overreach to calling her the most qualified candidate to ever seek the presidency. Yes, I know Obama said that. That does not automatically make it true. Politifact should get on that. Ever? In over two centuries? She didn't invent résumé building. Holding multiple federal posts before seeking the presidency is actually pretty normal. She is not even the first Secretary of State to try. That would be our first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, who was also our Minister to France, a delegate to the Continental Congress (where he wrote the Declaration of Independence) - and Governor of Virginia at the state level. Before entering the Oval Office, George Bush Sr. was a Congressman, our Ambassador to the U.N., Chief of the U.S. Liaison Office to the People's Republic of China, Director of the CIA, and Vice President. But he was not exactly an excellent president, was he? Of course, I am not the first to notice Obama's hyperbole. Or to realize that experience is a poor predictor of performance.

(3) How else would you explain self-identified "realistic pragmatists" claiming that charisma and popularity do not matter in an election (and are sexist to mention)? How else would you describe people who insisted that Hillary Clinton could "get things done" in Congress when obstructionist Republicans hate her as much as they hate Obama? As I kept saying, no Democratic president would accomplish anything if the GOP held Congress. The key is to flip Congress and you do that with enthusiasm and coat tails. Their beliefs were either extraordinarily quixotic or pathetically desperate. Before June, they made my eyes roll. By July, they made my stomach freeze. I then knew the rest of the year would be grueling.

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