Thursday, September 6, 2012
How reliable are the fact checkers?
Sadly, there is something to be said for the Romney camp's position that they will not let their campaign be ruled by fact checkers. But of course that only goes so far: there is room for independent thinking, but if you're constantly getting chastised for playing loose with reality perhaps there is room for circumspection.
For instance, the Romney campaign has engaged in some blatant lies and really ought to think twice. But then again there are times when fact checkers get huffy about imagined slights and over-react. But let's start off with a bit from Johnson's Rambler No. 2:
"Censure is willingly indulged, because it always implies some superiority: men please themselves with imagining that they have made a deeper search, or wider survey than others, and detected faults and follies which escape vulgar observation."
That having been said, let's look at an afternoon entry from Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler. I am told he is a nice guy. But there have been some situations (and today is one) where it seems as if he displays an astonishing degree of double jointedness in bending over backwards to find fault. To whit, this afternoon he complained about Clinton's remark last night that in the last 50 years more jobs had been created under Democratic Presidents than Republicans, in spite of Republicans holding the White House for more years.
Within each party's tenure in the White House, a too high proportion of the job increases are concentrated within the terms of a single President. Reagan accounts for 63 percent of the gains under Republicans, and Clinton accounts for "a full half" of the job gains under Democrats. Counter argument? Clinton accounted for a smaller percentage, and so the growth for the other Democratic Presidents is greater than the growth for the remaining Republicans. And in fewer years. Making Reagan the engine which sucks the oxygen out of the Republicans' room. Right?
The time span is too long: over a fifty year span, Nixon might have started to look like a Democrat by today's standards. Yes, Nixon opened up China and started the EPA. But look like a Democrat? I doubt that. More like a moderate Republican who has no power and sits out politics. There's no way you can convince me that the Nixon of the White House tapes holds the tolerant, diverse attitudes of today's Democratic party. Nope, not buying that bridge. Further, if 50 years is too long a time period, why not choose something briefer (such as Bush v Obama) to see if the 50 year demarkation smacks of being an arbitrary cut? Or take it further back than 50 years? This is what truth seekers really do: they see if a claim that "50 years is too long" holds up to longer or shorter time periods.
His other arguments are actually stronger, and should have led his piece. The other arguments consist of coincidence (technological advances while Clinton was President) and lag effects. I certainly buy the lag effects issue, but I'm not so sure that there is a lot of coincidence associated with the burst in computers and the Internet under Clinton as being merely some magical alignment of the stars. After all, Clinton and his Veep were very vocal about the information superhighway. Was that a coincidence? And isn't it appropriate to recognize that the recession which Bush said he inherited in 2001 was actually over before Bush took office, thus meaning that for all the grwoth associated with technology in the 1990's, there was a curtailing before Clinton left? Aren't both of them factors?
The point? I think Kessle was over-reaching. Perhaps he was trying to be "fair," although not failing as badly as when PolitiFact called the Democrats' claim that Ryan was going to change "welfare as we know it" their "Lie of the Year." (Yes, we remember.)
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(DISCLOSURE: I work for Abt SRBI. My company does polling. My opinions should not be construed as representing those of my employer.)