Archive for September, 2012

47% Mean

Saturday, September 22nd, 2012

Romney’s private rant about those who don’t pay any income tax raises some interesting questions about the exactly what the current Republican philosophy is.

The concern is fairly easy to determine based on how Romney positions his claim against Obama.  Romney feels that any government support of individuals robs those individuals of the opportunity to be successful and responsible.  He also feels that this sort of government support encourages a dependency which endangers democracy.  The logic is that if the number of “takers” grows large enough, they can vote themselves benefits that will be difficult for the “makers” who do the work and pay the taxes to supply.

There are several problems with this position.

The first is that the data doesn’t support that we are anywhere near a tipping point with regard to the number of people receiving support.  While a high percentage of households DO receive some level of government support, the nature of the recipients and the type of support tend to undermine the concern that there is some growing army of “takers” waiting in the wings.  Once you eliminate the elderly and disabled from the ranks of those receiving government supports, you’re left with approximately 9% of the households in this country receiving support.

When you also parse the number of people receiving government support, you find that a majority of them currently vote Republican (elderly and the white working poor).  So the concern that their votes have been secured by the funding that they are receiving doesn’t add up.

The next problem is that the bulk of these supports reflect INCENTIVES that previous Republican administrations put in place to encourage the poor to choose work over welfare.  By all accounts, these programs have been a success with welfare numbers dropping by 2/3 over the last two decades.

Now it appears that this thought of providing government incentives to encourage poor people to choose work over welfare has morphed into a concern that any government support of any kind produces dependency.

“Since when has it been the job of Republicans and conservatives to make sure everyone has IRS obligations?” wrote Jim Antle at the Daily Caller. He accused Romney of “[i]gnoring the rising payroll tax burden of the last few decades while dismissing many of those who have borne it as deadbeats.”

“Conservatives have even less reason for worrying about people who don’t pay federal income taxes,” wrote Ramesh Ponnuru in Bloomberg View. “A major reason that the number of those people has grown is that a Republican-controlled Congress created, and the Bush administration expanded, a tax credit for parents.”

“One thing that frustrates me,” wrote Reiham Salam in the National Review, “is that many Republicans who’ve embraced the ‘takers’ interpretation of the fact that 46% of tax units didn’t pay federal income taxes forget why Republican policymakers of the past created policies like the EITC and the child tax credit in the first place…. We need conservative politicians who are willing to explain why low-income and middle-income parents should be removed from the tax rolls during the years they are making the biggest investments in their children, and who are willing to make the case for the EITC program as an alternative to worklessness and lifelong dependency.”

For Matt Welch of the libertarian magazine Reason, the problem is that Romney’s message contradicts the pitch Republicans made to voters at the GOP convention.

“This is economic determinism at its worst, going against the very message the Republican Party was trying to sell to the world during its quadrennial national convention last month,” he wrote. “Over and over again, we heard speakers there talk about how their immigrant grandparents came to this country, worked hard, built ‘that,’ never asked for a handout, and as a result their descendants have enjoyed the American Dream of ever-upward mobility. What the 53/47 dividing line says, to the direct contrary, is that income status is a permanent political condition, defrocking all Americans of agency and independent thought…. There are to my mind many more important things to consider in this presidential race than Mitt Romney’s reductive parroting of plausible-but-wrong GOP tropes. But the reason this controversy will have legs is ultimately because many Republicans think Romney’s comments were just fine. They are about to learn what the rest of the country thinks about that.”

Latest polls show a consistent turn to Obama across the country and in particular in battleground states like Wisconsin, Virginia, Colorado, Ohio, and North Carolina.  This swing is attributed to independent voters reacting to the 47% video.

Shady All the Time

Friday, September 14th, 2012

I had the good fortune to count the late Steve Goodman among my circle of friends. Part of the lyric of his song “Looking for Trouble” fits this particular post.

The first time you shade the truth
You want to run and hide
Your tongue gets tied
Your throat gets dry
And you start thinkin’ that maybe no one knows you lied
And now you’re shady all the time

Truth has taken a beating in this election. What’s worse, there are many who suggest that this should not only be expected, but it is the new normal. Candidates are providing voters exactly what they have asked for.

One of the telling admissions of this political cycle that supports this view came from Romney’s pollster, Neil Newhouse. In response to criticism that a series of deceitful Romney ads about welfare received, Newhouse said, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

This raises the basic question of how important facts are in a political campaign.

One opinion is echoed by Jack Shafer of Reuters who wrote , “I suppose fact-checking would matter more to voters if they expected honesty from their politicians, but most don’t. … Voters crave rhetoric that stirs their unfact-checked hearts. As long as the deception is honest, pointing in the direction they want to go, they’re all right with it.”

This goes along with the studies of a phenomenon called “motivated reasoning”. That says that because we as humans have a built-in bias to form groups, we also develop biases which discount information that calls our beliefs into question while seeking out information which supports our beliefs. This phenomenon explains why 15% of Republicans chose Mitt Romney over “don’t know” or “Barack Obama” in a recent poll in Ohio on who should receive credit for killing bin Laden.

This is also why right wing publications like the Weekly Standard and National Review have provided readers an excuse to disregard fact-checkers by claiming that they all share the some fictitious liberal bias associated with the “mainstream” media.

Political campaign managers would much prefer an atmosphere where they are not held accountable and truth is defined in the minds of the listener rather than measured against an objective standard. “Look, when people give speeches, not every fact is always absolutely accurate,” former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani told CNN’s Piers Morgan with aw-shucks candor at the Tampa convention.

What started as a trickle with the Willie Horton distortions that brought down Dukakis and the Swift Boat attacks that tarnished Kerry’s military record, has become a veritable waterfall of propaganda and deliberate misinformation promoted primarily by the right wing media. First you had the release of Dishonorable Disclosures – an attempt to discredit Obama’s role in the killing of bin Laden. Next was 2016 Obama’s America which tries to build the case that Obama has some deep seated hatred of the United States because of slavery. Most recently we’ve had the disturbing political posturing of Mitt Romney trying to curry favor with those who dislike Obama because of the color of his skin and next reaching out to those 15% of voters who believe that Obama is sympathetic to radical Muslims because of his name.

I think that voters have a right and the media has a duty to hold politicians to a higher standard. The stakes are too high to let elections be decided on who does a better job of deceiving the public. Voters can choose to ignore those facts that make them uncomfortable, but hopefully these biased partisans on the right and left will balance each other out. Those remaining voters who approach elections with an open mind deserve a better fate. They should be able to honestly evaluate the facts and the details behind those facts before they place their votes. Otherwise we give ourselves over to a future where we are governed by those who stand to make the most money from promoting the biggest lies. That is certainly not the future contemplated by those who founded our democracy, enshrined the right to vote, protected free speech, and depended on a free press to inform the public and hold politicians accountable.

Fact-checking the Democratic Convention

Friday, September 7th, 2012

If you take Politifact.com as any guide, the Democratic Convention that just concluded spent a lot more time discussing facts than the Republican Convention in Tampa. There were only two statements tracked by Politifact that rated a “false”. One by Delaware Governor Jack Markell who used a Romney quote out of context about firing people who provide poor healthcare as indication of how Romney would respond to a potential factory closing. The other was the claim by Rep. James Clyburn that Republicans stood on the sidelines when Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid were created. While there was vigorous debate about all three programs, a majority of Republicans supported all three in the final vote.

That said there were still issues that should be mentioned because they weren’t entirely accurate.

On the debt, Obama said, “Independent analysis shows that my plan would cut our deficits by $4 trillion. Last summer, I worked with Republicans in Congress to cut $1 trillion in spending.”

The problem with this statement is that there was no mention of the timeline on the $4T which could give the impression that the current $1T deficit would be eliminated. The facts are that a the end of the most recent 10-year budget proposal, the debt would be 76% of GDP. That represents and increase of approximately 4% of the 74% debt figure today. Simpson-Bowles, by comparison, would reduce the debt as a percentage of the GDP over the same period to 60%. The bulk of the deficit reductions comes from tax increases on the wealthy rather than spending cuts.

On a related topic, Obama also said that savings from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be used to rebuild roads, bridges, schools and runways. The problem is that those wars were financed with “deficit” dollars. So ending those wars doesn’t magically free up money for other projects. Any infrastructure spending using the same model that funded the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will increase the deficit in the same way the wars have done.

Obama referenced trade agreements that he signed which will improve our exports. What he didn’t say is that the Bush administration negotiated those agreements. Obama still had to get those agreements through an obstructive Congress, but he can’t take full credit for the final product.

Obama implied that Romney would turn Social Security over to Wall Street. While Romney did support this position in 2008, he no longer does. Obama does get positive marks for including modest Social Security reform in his latest budget proposal.

Joe Biden and the film that aired before Obama spoke referenced an incident during Obama’s mother’s hospitalization for breast cancer. She did have a dispute with an insurance company, but it wasn’t over health benefits. It was for disability pay. So the clear line from the death of Obama’s mother to healthcare reform, is really a more complicated story than the Democrats have been telling.

Biden also repeated the line that Romney was willing to let Detroit go bankrupt. The actual WSJ opinion piece that Romney wrote didn’t say that. Only the headline, which Romney didn’t write. Romney did, however, support that headline in a TV appearance. What Romney was recommending a “managed bankruptcy” and claimed that the private sector could finance that. The Obama administration explored that concept but couldn’t find any private firms willing to participate, so the government essentially funded the managed bankruptcy and reorganization of GM and the sale of Chrysler to Fiat. They do, however, deserve credit for the results of this actio.

Biden claimed the the Romney plan would cause Medicare to go bankrupt. The inaccurate term here is “bankrupt”. The reference here was to Medicare Part A which is funded by a payroll tax paid by employees and employers. The administration negotiated a $716B savings in the ACA which would benefit this fund and extends its life well past the 2016 date. Romney wants to repeal the ACA which will eliminate this savings and shorten the life of the Medicare trust fund. The fund won’t technically go bankrupt, but if it does run low on fund, the government is going to have to respond to make up the shortfall or cut benefits.

Biden cited a new territorial tax as being part of Romney’s proposal and that it will create 800,000 overseas jobs. Romney does propose as part of his corporate tax reform initiative to exempt foreign corporate profits from domestic US taxes. The study cited by Biden does support Biden’s claim with regard to foreign employment gains, though it doesn’t specifically examine Romney’s proposal. The study does not suggest that these foreign jobs will come at the expense of US jobs.

Finally Biden claimed that Romney’s tax plan would include an effective tax increase of $2,000 for middle class families. This is based on an analysis of the Romney plan by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. Romney has claimed that his tax reductions would be revenue neutral because he would simultaneously close man tax loopholes, but he hasn’t said which ones he would close. The Tax Policy Center in their analysis said that the only way to make the math work, would be to close some tax loopholes like the deduction for mortgage interest that benefit the middle class. The Romney campaign disputes these findings but hasn’t provided an alternate explanation of how their math would work. In the absence of this explanation, Biden’s claim has to stand.

The quick summary is that the Republicans generally were significantly more fact-challenged than the Democrats and also shared far less detail about what they planned to do than the Democrats.  The Democrats did their fair share of fact stretching, but none of these compared with the many “pants on fire” lies that were core portions of the Republican convention message.

In Search of Large Souls

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

In 1776 John Adams was concerned that the deeply divided and fragile colonial union would fracture over its petty differences and fail to fulfill the destiny that lay before it.  He wrote of his fears that the Continental Congress’ decisions would be dictated ‘by noise, not sense; by meanness, not greatness; by ignorance, not learning; by contracted hearts, not large souls.'”

Adams wrote, “There must be decency and respect and veneration introduced for persons of authority of every rank or we are undone. In popular government, this is our only way.”

Many say that this is an important moment for our democracy.  Just like 1776, we appear to be vulnerable to the same small thinking.

Here’s a quick fact-check on the past week in politics

Let’s start with the convention.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune said the Obama administration “proposed banning farm kids from doing basic chores!”  That’s a “pants on fire” lie.  What he was referring to were new safety rules proposed by the Labor Department for minors working on farms.  The only chores it would prohibit were those that were dangerous and should be done by adults.

Rob Portman, a U.S. senator from Ohio said President Obama “never even worked in business.”  That’s also false.  He did work as a research assistant for a New York company in the 80’s and was a partner in a Chicago law firm.

Paul Ryan claimed that Obama broke a promise to keep a Wisconsin GM plant from closing.  In fact Obama never made that promise and the GM plant was closed before he took office and could have intervened.  Another lie.

Ryan misrepresented Romney’s record in Massachusetts saying, “unemployment went down, household incomes went up,” and the state “saw its credit rating upgraded.”  The truth is that household incomes, when you include inflation, went down.  While unemployment went down, there is little evidence that it was the direct result of any particular Romney policy.  The state’s credit rating did go up, but it was the result of a tax increase passed before Romney took office.  His office did lobby for the credit rating improvement, but was not responsible for the policies that improved the state’s financial condition.

Ryan repeated the claim that the Obama administration “funneled” $716 billion out of the program “at the expense of the elderly” to pay for his health care law.  In fact this number came from the CBO, not the White House.  It reflects projected savings from a reduction in the GROWTH of Medicare costs.  Those savings come from a deal that the administration struck with primarily Hospitals who agreed to a reduction in Medicare re-imbursements in return for getting a higher percentage of insured non-Medicare patients under the ACA.  It took no money from existing Medicare programs.  Big lie.

Ryan claimed that “The stimulus was a case of political patronage, corporate welfare and cronyism at their worst. You, the working men and women of this country, were cut out of the deal.”  If that’s true, Ryan was in on the deal.  Ryan’s pleas to federal agencies for stimulus funds included letters to Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis seeking stimulus grant money for two Wisconsin energy conservation companies.  He ended up securing over $20M for Wisconsin companies.

Ryan claimed that “Obama “created a bipartisan debt commission. They came back with an urgent report. He thanked them, sent them on their way and then did exactly nothing.”  What he neglected to say was that he was part of that commission and voted against the final report.

Gov. Christie said, “Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to end the torrent of debt that is compromising our future and burying our economy. … Tonight, our duty is to tell the American people the truth. Our problems are big and the solutions will not be painless. We all must share in the sacrifice. Any leader that tells us differently is simply not telling the truth.”

The reality is that Romney has promised to cut $500 billion per year from the federal budget by 2016 to bring spending below 20 percent of the U.S. economy, and to balance it entirely by 2020, but the math on what he has proposed so far doesn’t add up.  There are none of the “hard truths” Christie referenced.  Instead there has been a lot of political pandering.  The promised repeal of the Affordable Care Act will add $100B to the deficit according to the CBO.  He will decline to implement that Hospital Medicare cost reduction deal worth $716B.  He has also proposed increased military spending and decreased taxes without any specific plan to pay for either.  Since he has also pledged not to touch Social Security or Medicare, there just isn’t enough money left in the rest of the budget to fulfill his promises.

Senator Rob Portman leaned on his foreign policy expertise in criticizing Obama on his China policy.  “China manipulates its currency, giving it an unfair trade advantage. So why doesn’t the president do something about it? I’ll tell you one reason. President Obama could not run up his record trillion-dollar deficits if the Chinese didn’t buy our bonds to finance them. Folks, we are as beholden to China for bonds as we are to the Middle East for oil. This will end under Mitt Romney.”

What he didn’t say is that he was the ambassador to China in the Obama administration during a time when imports increased 25%.  During the same time the deficit increased only 10%.  He also failed to mention that both Bush and Obama have opened unfair trade practice cases against China with the World Trade Organization.  Finally he didn’t say what Romney would do that is any different than what Bush or Obama have done in their attempts to rebalance the relationship with China.

Former Senator Rick Santorum dragged out Romney’s welfare claim saying “This summer (Obama) showed us once again he believes in government handouts and dependency by waiving the work requirement for welfare. Now, I helped write the welfare reform bill. We made a lot crystal clear. No president can waive the work requirement, but as with his refusal to enforce our immigration laws, President Obama rules like he is above the law.”

The facts are that the administration did not waive a work requirement. Instead, it invited governors to apply on behalf of their states for waivers of administrative requirements in the 1996 law. Some states have complained those rules tie up caseworkers who could be helping clients directly.

In a July 18 letter to congressional leaders, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that to be eligible for a waiver, governors must commit that their plans will move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work. Moreover, states must show clear progress toward the goal within a year, or lose the waiver.  Big Lie.

Up next fact checking the movies.