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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Fiscal Fracas: It's a Deal!

Well, it seems congressional Republicans and Democrats have struck a deal to raise the U.S. borrowing limit and cut spending (sort of). President Obama presumably supports the agreement, since he announced it earlier this evening from the White House briefing room. No votes are expected to be cast until tomorrow (because the legislation has to at least be drawn up and brought to the floor of both houses for a vote), so only time will tell if this compromise becomes law. I'll hold off on analyzing the content of the deal until then. Tonight, however, I ask the question that a lot of people are (or will soon) be asking: is this a good deal? To answer that question, I use an objective three-part test that can be applied to just about any compromise, regardless of the details:

1. A good compromise leaves everybody mad.

I first saw this expression used in a Calvin & Hobbes comic strip. Like many expressions, it's generally applicable if you don't interpret it too literally. I suppose the political version of this may be, "Both sides walk away feeling like they caved." That was certainly the case of the last two grand compromises to come out of D.C. (the agreement on taxes last December and the budget deal this past spring). From what I've heard said by members of Congress on this agreement, this criterion has definitely been satisfied.

2. The far left hates it, and the far right hates it.

The major blogs were already abuzz this evening, and from a sampling of left-wing and right-wing forums, I can safely say that this deal has very much angered the extremes. Far-left members of Congress are already attacking the deal. The Congressional Black Caucus, which has only one Republican member, reportedly called the deal a "sugar-coated Satan sandwich," and out-and-proud socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said it was "grotesquely immoral."

3. A majority of the electorate voices at least tacit support for it.

Here, we'll have to wait and see what the American people say, but I expect a majority of those polled about this big debt deal to express relief (or some positive reasction) that a huge crisis was averted but react unfavorably to the content of the legislation.

Well, that's all I've got for y'all tonight. I'll be adding more posts to this blog and updating my web site quite frequently in the next few weeks, so check back often, and spread the word!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Fiscal Fracas: My Solution to the Debt Ceiling Problem

For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been trumpeting a four-part deficit-reduction package as a comprehensive, center-right accompaniment to any debt ceiling increase. Reactions have been mixed, and I know that it has no chance of passing, but it’s not like anyone in Washington would actually take it up, so why should I bother trying to come up with something that could actually make it to the president’s desk?
As I've said repeatedly, whatever compromise ends up averting a crisis, it will be far from the best possible solution. Any plan that would garner enough votes to pass both houses of Congress and the president's signature will contain less-than-adequate curbs on spending and changes in the tax code that fall well short of the real tax reform needed to make this country's tax system simpler, fairer and more productive. So, today I'd like to elaborate on the four pieces of legislation that should be attached to any debt-ceiling increase.

  1. A Balanced-Budget Amendment

  2. This was a major sticking point in the past couple of weeks. Boehner couldn't get a debt-ceiling increase through the Republican-dominated House without attaching a BBA, and the Democrat-controlled Senate wouldn't vote for any bill that included the BBA. I've listened to and read up on the arguments for and against amending the Constitution to require a balanced budget—the debate is far from new—and, on balance, I have to say it's not only a good idea but possibly a necessity. In the first place, it would provide the strongest possible restraint to guard against future spending sprees by Congress that always occur whenever revenues increase. At some point, our economy will recover, and God willing, the federal government's coffers will once again be flooded with cash. History has taught us that, no matter what the composition of Congress, there comes a point where all that additional money is just too much to resist. If we're ever going to balance the federal budget, then nothing short of a BBA will provide the requisite bulwark against fiscal irresponsibility.
    At the risk of pointing out the obvious, voting for a BBA carries virtually zero political risk. Multiple polls indicate that between 60 and 70 percent of Americans who participate in these surveys support it, which makes congressional Democrats' near-unanimous opposition to it somewhat confusing. Consider also that getting it through Congress is only the first step. No less than thirty-eight states must ratify any change to the Constitution, so what we're really talking about here, inasmuch as Congress is involved, is submitting an amendment to the states.
    As for the logistical problems associated with such an amendment, we could start with the language of S. J. Res. 1, the 1997 version of a BBA that won approval from 66 Senators (including the current Vice President), one short of the requisite 2/3 needed to submit a Constitutional amendment to the states. Then there are the arguments about how deficit spending is necessary in times of great economic strife and inevitable in times of war. These are all good arguments, but I'm going to ignore them right now so that I can get to the rest of my plan.

  3. Full Repeal of Obamacare

  4. I'm aware of the "Repeal & Replace" mantra that the GOP has largely adopted, but an adequate replacement to the so-called "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act" is not something that can be crafted and properly evaluated, debated and sold to the American people in a matter of days or even weeks. Besides, since our country and its health-care system would be better off without Obamacare than it is with the law in place, whether or not we replace it with anything, just repealing the damn thing is arguably an improvement in and of itself.
    The House already passed a bill to repeal the Act in toto; the Senate voted down a similar measure in April. As far as I'm concerned, the language of H.R.2 is satisfactory. All we need now is a Senate with enough reasonable people to approve it.

  5. REAL Spending Cuts

  6. When we talk of spending CUTS, it's important to distinguish between reductions in spending and reductions in the projected growth of spending. Put a different way, are we actually going to spend less than it is now or just less than it had planned to spend? (In some cases, the answer is both. But don't be fooled. Spending less than the "baseline" is often characterized as a "cut," even if it still amounts to a net increase over the current budget.) Ideally, we would actually reduce total outlays by enough to bring government spending down to less than 19% of GDP by ... let's say 2016. That's five years from now, plenty of time for the economy to adjust and Washington to ease a public that's frankly been spoiled for years now on government largesse into a new era of austerity. I say 19% of GDP because it's still more than what the government normally collects in tax revenues but low enough to shrink the deficit down to a manageable size so that we're on track to balance our budget by the time the Constitution is amended to require it.

  7. REAL Tax Reform

  8. It's been 25 years since our government last overhauled the entire federal tax code. We're about due for another comprehensive reform. The basic scheme is not that complicated: eliminate/reduce a lot of these costly deductions and tax credits, and lower income tax rates. Some people may end up with a slightly higher effective tax rate, but a lot of households and individuals would pay less, and the best part (arguably) is that the resulting increases/decreases in the tax burden wouldn't be skewed toward one particular group of people.
    There are so many deductions and credits in the Internal Revenue Code that it hardly seems worth it to list which ones should be eliminated/reduced. It may be simpler to list which ones should be preserved as is. The only two that come to my mind are the deductions for charitable contributions and education expenses. (The latter group really ought to be expanded.) As far as I'm concerned, there is no argument for reducing or eliminating these types of deductions that is less persuasive when used to justify reducing or eliminating any other deductions. Even the wildly popular Home Mortgage Interest Deduction ought to be phased out. Deductions for state and local taxes are fair and helpful but difficult to justify given the current fiscal mess we're in. Ditto the deductions for work-related expenses (travel, meals, lodging). As for credits, you've probably heard a lot of criticism directed at these green-energy tax credits and wasteful boondoggles like Cash for Clunkers, but there are some others that have been around for a long time but do a lot more harm than good. The Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, should have gotten the axe a long time ago. It's basically welfare for people who have a job. I'd keep the child tax credit, but don't increase it for a while. , remember how Obama & the big spenders in Washington tried to sell us on the "stimulus" bill of 2009 by claiming that something like 40% of it was "tax cuts"? Well, to the extent that's true, all of the tax cuts in the Act ought to be repealed, if they're not going away automatically. Here's why: according to an AP article I claim to have read, "many taxpayers are seeing their bills drop under Obama because of more generous tax credits for college students, working families, homebuyers and the working poor. Many of the changes were enacted as part of the big economic stimulus package passed in 2009."
    I should point ut that, in explaining what I think "real tax reform" would entail, I've mainly focused on individual income taxes. That's because, if we want to be fair and, most importantly, smart about this, then we need to devote much more attention to detail when making changes that affect individual income taxes (as opposed to corporate income taxes). This rather simplistic notion of "closing tax loopholes" and lowering rates is much easier to apply to taxes on corporate income for many reasons that I won't go into right now.

Of course, the current president wouldn't sign off on any part of this, and there's no way you'll find a supermajority (2/3) in each house to approve all four parts. But, as I said, I'm not burdened with having to conjure up something that has a realistic chance of becoming law. This article is about what should be done, not what will get done. That's just one of the few small pleasures of being a columnist and not a legislator.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Fiscal Fracas: Much Ado About the Debt Ceiling

Moments ago, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill touted by Speaker John Boehner as a compromise to raise the country's debt ceiling and cut spending by trillions over the next decade. All 218 "Yea" votes came from GOP members. 22 Republicans joined 188 Democrats in opposition to the bill, which would raise the debt limit by about $900 billion, necessitating another increase in about six months.

According to FOX News, Boehner rallied skeptics in his own party around the plan in a passionate speech on the House floor that drew "roaring applause" from Republicans:

"I stuck my neck out a mile to get an agreement with the president of the
United States," he said.
"It's time for the administration and time for our colleagues across the aisle to put something on the table. Tell us where you are!"

Instead of promptly voting down the proposal (like they did with Cut, Cap & Balance), the Senate put the House bill “on hold” while they tweak an alternative proposal by Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), who should have been voted out of office months ago but was somehow re-elected by a bunch of people who were either idiots, fools or villians out to destroy the U.S. and our way of life.

Anyway ... we seem to be at an impasse, which is where we've been for weeks (actually, months) now. Neither the Reid plan nor the Boehner plan sound palatable, and neither has any chance of becoming law. Both combine less-than-adequate spending cuts with a debt-ceiling increase that almost nobody wants but nearly everyone acknowledges we need.

I've said repeatedly that I think both sides will cobble together some half-assed bill at the last minute and then rush it through Congress to the president's desk. He'll sign it, averting a crisis but once again kicking the proverbial can down the road. The far-left and far-right will rave against the compromise, but most of America, having long tired of this nauseating debate, will ignore them.

As for me, I'm going to keep blogging, posting columns that no one will read and videos that ... sorry. It's supper time. I have to go!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Fiscal Fracas: Now It's Getting Serious.

By now, you've probably gotten sick of all this fuss about the debt limit without anything substantial being accomplished. I know I have. Things came to a head Friday when it came out that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) had given up on trying to negotiate a "grand bargain" with the White House. Apparently, Boehner sent a letter to Republican House members saying that he had "decided to end discussions with the White House and begin conversations with the leaders of the Senate in an effort to find a path forward."

Then, a visibly angry President Obama called a press conference and spent more than half an hour at the podium, explaining his version of what had happened and answering questions from the press corps. Shortly thereafter, Speaker Boehner took to the airwaves and said that talks with the White House had collapsed for two reasons:

First, they insisted on raising taxes. ... secondly, they refused to get serious about cutting spending and making the tough choices that are facing our country on entitlement reform.

Obama claimed Republicans walked from an "extraordinarily fair" deal, while Boehner said the President "moved the goalposts" after a deal had been reached. Despite this apparent stalemate, however, both men met at the White House earlier today, along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and, for some reason, Joe Biden. I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for sure what transpired, but this photo should tell the tale:

Unsurprisingly, no deal was reached.

So, where do we go from here? I'm no soothsayer, but it looks like each side is going to present their own proposals for what to do going forward, and their surrogates in the media will argue about it while the country moves closer and closer to the brink of chaos.

Few things are certain in life, let alone in politics, but I think it's fair to say that the nation's debt limit will only be raised if the legislation authorizing it is attached to significant curbs in spending. Without getting into the complexities of the federal budget and the CBO scoring criteria, I'd like to offer my take on a few of the plans that have been put forward:

The "Gang of Six" Proposal

We still don't have all the details of this underwhelming product of months of negotiations between three U.S. Senators from each party; you can read their own thumbnail report on it here. Frankly, I think G-6 is a good start. It reduces or eliminates a lot of costly deductions and reduces individual and corporate income tax rates, much like the Tax Reform Act of '86. However, it needs some major tweaks. First off, the reductions in spending should be much greater (but I understand there's only so much a group of six men that includes the notoriously fiscally irresponsible Kent Conrad and Dick Durbin can agree to). Also, this concept of scrapping deductions and tax credits and lowering rates works much better with corporate income taxes than the individual income tax. For one, the charitable deduction should not be altered (even though it benefits higher-income taxpayers more). To make up for this, the Mortgage Interest Deduction, which the G-6 plan reduces but does not eliminate, ought to be phased out.

Cut, Cap & Balance

So far, this is the only package both the House and Senate have voted on. It passed the House late Tuesday evening and was rejected by the Senate, in a party-line vote, on Friday. I read through this bill (It's only 12 pages), and I have to say, while it's a good, straightforward way of tackling this impending debt crisis, I'm not sure I would like to have seen it become law. For one, it places too much power in the Executive Branch (an especially dangerous thing to do with this administration in charge). Title II of the bill–the "CAP" in "Cut, Cap, and Balance"–caps government spending as a specified percentage of GDP for each fiscal year through FY2021, but it defines "GDP" for any fiscal year as "the gross domestic product during such fiscal year consistent with Department of Commerce definitions." What's more, § 319, entitled “Enforcing GDP Outlay Limits,” calls for using the OMB estimates for projected GDP. In other words, the entire “CAP” part of the bill would be executed using the Commerce Department's definition of GDP and the OMB's projections of what that GDP will be! This and the next administration would be in a position to manipulate the numbers and undermine the spirit of the law.
Another problem with H.R.2560 is the Balanced Budget Amendment. In Friday's Wall Street Journal, Yale Law School Prof. Peter H. Schuck points out a downside to amending the Constitution to require a balanced budget, as many states have done: it would empower judges to exercise more political and policy-making discretion than any other law. He lays out a persuasive argument, but getting thirty-four state legislatures to approve a federal BBA is such a hurdle that it's hardly worth having this discussion right now, and at any rate we know it won't even get out of Congress with the current Senate.

McConnell's Debt Ceiling Fix

This is a crafty way of shifting the power/responsibility to raise the debt ceiling from Congress & the president to just the president. Essentially, McConnell's proposal would allow the president to raise the debt limit by $2.5 trillion, provided he does it in three installments through the end of next year. The president would request each debt-limit increase, which would be subject to what McConnell called "a resolution of disapproval." Then, all the president would have to do is veto that resolution, and if Congress didn't override his veto (which it wouldn't do), then Presto! He's got his debt-ceiling increase.
Do I even have to explain why this is a bad idea? Maybe I do, seeing that unimpeachably conservative commentators such as George Will and Ann Coulter have voiced support for it. Like Cut, Cap & Balance, McConnell's plan places too much power in the hands of the president. Also, it doesn't include any spending cuts. But Harry Reid seems to like it, so maybe it can pass the Senate. Just don't count on it making it through this House of Representatives.

Whatever solution they come up with, it won't be the optimal one. There are too many unreasonable people in Washington. I have more to say - much more - but I'm finding it very hard to think stragiht and focus. Maybe it's because it's late, and I'm tired. Or, maybe it has something to do with that third Gin & Tonic I downed half an hour ago. Either way, good night, and God bless.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Fiscal Fracas: The Austan Goolsbee Trilogy

In light of the pervasive discourse over our country's fiscal policy, I am republishing three articles I wrote earlier this year and posted on my web site. The first was prompted by a bunch of stuff Austan Goolsbee said during his May 18, 2011 appearance on The Colbert Report. I wrote a follow-up column after watching Colbert's “unedited, extended interview” with Goolsbee online. Then, somebody posted a comment to that column under the name “GladYouWrote”, and I noticed that (s)he sounded a lot more erudite than Austan Goolsbee, so I posted a lengthy reply to his/her comment.
Hopefully those of you who haven't seen these posts before will find them interesting and informative. I also hope you'll share them with people who need to learn more about our fiscal situation.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Fiscal Fracas: “Morning Joe” Panel Confused About Debt, Deficits, History

Usually, “Morning Joe” is too boring to draw my attention. Then, last month, Mark Halperin said something interesting (and, in my opinion, spot on) about President Obama, and I decided to pay the show a little more mind.

On Friday, one of the shows guests was Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), Chairman of the House Republican Conference. Now, Jeb is not my congressman, but he does represent an area I'm very familar with—namely, the northeastern suburbs of Dallas. (It's a very nice place to live.) Anyway, you can watch the full segment here:

I was very glad to hear Hensarling make a point that more Republicans really ought to be driving home to the spectators in this debt debate—to wit: that President Obama expects Republicans to agree to tax hikes in order to pay for spending that they opposed. How can any Democrat justify making Americans pay more in taxes to pay for spending that many taxpayers didn’t want and knew wouldn't work? (If any of you have an abnser to that, then PLEASE let me know.) Anyway, before, after and during the congressman's appearance on the show, I caught several curious comments by the panel that gave me pause. I'd like to address three of them now.

When Hensarling chided President Obama for not offerring a budget plan since his last proposal was rejected by the Senate in a humiliating 97-0 vote, Mika Brzezinski seemed to think she had something relevant to say and chimed in. If Republicans aren’t willing to “give on everything,” she asked, then “why should the president lay out a plan?”

I think that question is absurd enough on its face, so I didn’t bother to transcribe Hensarling’s response, but I also want to call attention to Mika’s apparent surprise when her co-host noted that, in his budget plan, Paul Ryan got rid of a lot of costly loopholes in the tax code. Evidently, she didn't know that Republcians were willing to close up those "tax loopholes" our president keeps talking about. How about that? Months before Obama started talking about "tax loopholes," Republicans had already laid out a tax reform plan that included eliminating a bunch of these deductions and credits that allow corporations to avoid paying their fair share.

I'd advise Mika to make sure that she knows what she's talking about before she asks a serious person like Jeb Hensarling a question about such an important topic from now on, but since she seems to think that listening to everything Obama says is tantamount to being well-informed, I don't think my words would have any positive effect on her. Also, she doesn't read my blog.

On to something that Joe Scarborough said. Frankly, I was surprised to hear this from Joe, who served as a Republican member of the House from 1995 to 2001:

"George W. Bush and Republicans took a $155 billion surplus, turned it into a $1.4 trillion debt, took a $5.7 trillion national debt, turned that into an [$11.5-trillion-dollar debt]."

The Morning Joe Staff actually excerpted that statement, along with the question by Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R - TX) that preceded it, and posted it on the show's blog. Here’s the problem: I’m not sure what Joe Scarborough is talking about (Also, when Hensarling stated that he thought Republicans were “rank amateurs compared to the president and the previous democratic Congress,” Joe said “That’s not true ... as a matter of math, that is not accurate.”)

So, what do the numbers say? Well, since he said “George W. Bush and Republicans,” we can start with the numbers for FY2001, when the federal budget ran a $128.2 billion (not $155 billion) surplus, even though I think Joe Scarborough did Republicans (many of them his former colleaguse) and his viewers a disservice by not acknowledging that Republicans first took us from a $164 billion deficit to that $128.2 billion surplus. Well, assuming Joe meant to say “a $1.4 trillion deficit” and not “$1.4 trillion debt” (a charitable assumption, to be sure, but I think the context warrants it), that’s not even close to true. In fact, there are no objectively true facts to support such a claim. True, during George W. Bush’s first term, the surplus turned into a deficit that peaked at $412.7 billion in FY2004. Then it came down. By the time Democrats took over Congress and control of the federal budget, the deficit was down to $160.7 billion. So, it’s fair to say that George W. Bush and Republicans took a $128.2 billion surplus and turned it into a $160.7 billion deficit. But, where on earth did Joe get the $1.4 trillion number from? Even while George W. Bush was still in charge, the deficit went up to $458.6 billion for FY2008, but by that time, Republicans & Democrats were @ least equally culpable for the mess. When Bush left office, the deficit for FY2009 was somewhere between $500 and 600 billion. (It’s difficult to calculate because the federal government only gives us month-to-month numbers; also, no one can say for sure what would have happened before the fiscal year ended had Bush still been president.) As for the debt, Joe’s numbers are pretty much accurate.

Then, towards the end of the segment, I heard John Heilemann say this:

"What Republicans are saying is that they will not accept any net increase in revenues, and the truth is, as we know, over the long haul, the only way to address ... the deficit and the debt is to have a net increase in revenues ... ."

Before I dissect his remarks, I just want to express my dismay that Heilemann had to shout over the other talkers on the panel to get his thoughts out. I know what it's like to be in the company of people who claim they want to hear your opinion and then don't let you get a word in edgewise, but anyway, like John Heilemann, I don't know what Congressional Republicans are thinking, but he's not claiming to know what the GOP wants; he's interpreting what he's seen and heard them say. I have no doubt that congressional Republicans want to see an increase in revenues. throughout this debate, Many of them have repeated the conservative mantra on how to increase revenues: we don't need more taxes; we need more taxpayers. And, while I can't speak for anybody in Congress, I can tell you that some republicans, including me, would like to see people who are gainfully employed but currently have no federal income tax liability start paying their fair share. Everything I've heard from congressional Republicans throughout this debate leads me to believe that most of them would like to see the government collect more in tax revenue; the question is how best to achieve that. Bottom line: the totality of the circumstances should lead a reasonable person to believe that GOP members of Congress would agree to changes in the Tax Code that would result in more money being collected by the federal government.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Fiscal Fracas: What To Do About the Debt Ceiling

Now that the Casey Anthony trial is over, the cable news media can redirect its attention to much more important matters. Lately there's been a spike in coverage of/relating to the debate over raising the debt limit and the larger issue of how to get our fiscal house in order. This has given me a lot to talk/write about, and even when I pare it down to what people need to hear and what I think their actually interested in, I'm still left with far to much material for a single post. So, today I am starting a new series about the federal budget. In addition to providing my personal analyses of things I pick up on, I'll be offerring some of my own ideas for dealing with the fiscal challenges that confront us. As usual, I'll be careful to only speak authoritatively about things where such a confident and assertive tone is justified.

Right now, the hottest issue in the fiscal arena concerns the national debt ceiling/limit. Before I get into specifics, there are a lot of questions that Americans are asking (or should be) about this topic:

What is the Debt Limit?
The debt limit or "debt ceiling" is an arbitrary number limiting the amount of money our federal government can borrow. If the national debt ever exceeds that limit, then planes will fall out of the sky mid-flight, crops will be burnt or devoured by locusts and our rivers will run red with the blood of children and the disabled ... or not. I don't know.
Why is it so important that we raise the Debt Limit?
Don't ask me that. Everybody seems to have a different answer. There are plenty of answers to that question out there right now, so if you don't like what you hear, then just look for a different response.
Will our nation default on its loans if we don't rate the debt ceiling?
It doesn't have to. Basically, as long as the U.S. continues to pay the interest owed on our debt, we will never default. Even according to the most dire predictions, the federal government would still have enough money (from tax revenues) to make these payments on time.

Now that I've gotten the basics out of the way, everybody listen to Paul Ryan. He always knows what he's talking about:

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Thoughts on Turning 24

It's been a week since my 24th birthday, and I have to say, I'm feeling pretty good about where I am in life right now. I'm past the halfway point (knock on wood) in my law school career; I'm working for a great judge at the Tarrant County Justice Center; and next month I hope to return to Baylor and finish out my law school career without taking another quarter off. In spite of all that, I can't help but feel a little dejected when I consider that:

  • Tim Tebow is 23 and, in addition to being a two-time winner of the "Best Male College Athlete" ESPY Award, is/was the first college sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy.

  • Rory McIlroy is 22 and just won the U.S. Open, the youngest bloke to do so in nearly 90 years.

  • Petra Kvitová is 21 and just upset 5th-seeded Maria Sharapova to win the women's singles at Wimbledon.

Of course, we're not just talking about professional athletes here, and these aren't just achievements; these are their careers. I have chosen to follow a different path in life, and right now I'm right about where I'm supposed to be, according to my plan. So, I thought, I needn't feel sad about not having done more at this point in my life. After all, how much can a 24-year-old full-time law student accomplish outside of school?

Then I found out about Ricky Gill, a second-year law student at UC Berkeley who is currently running for the U.S. House of Representatives in California's 11th Congressional District. Gill, a Republican, just reported raising an eye-popping $420,000 in the 2nd quarter, all of it from individuals. If he wins the GOP primary, then he'll likely face three-term Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Pleasanton) next November. By then, Gill will be 25, the minimum age members of the House must "have attainted to" under the Constitution.

Maybe I should run for Congress. On second thought, that's a really stupid idea.

Damn Blogger!

I just wrote a very lengthy post, and when I clicked "PUBLISH POST," I got one of those "Oops! This link appears to be broken" messages, so hit Backspace, only to find that my entire post had been wiped out.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Jon Stewart, PolitiFact & FOX News (Part II)

Last week, I blogged about Jon Stewart's misuse of PolitiFact to try and point out various "false statements" FOX News had made. If you haven't read that post, then you really should. Today, I hope to finish the job I started and never blog about this again.
One highly dubious analysis on PolitiFact's part fact-checked FOX News Alpha Male Bill O'Reilly's claim that "Attorney General Eric Holder is involved in the dismissal of the criminal charges" against the New Black Panther Party for voter intimidation. PolitiFact rated O'Reilly's statement "False." Trouble is, nowhere in the analysis did PolitiFact provide any evidence that Holder was not involved. Instead, its analysis focused on the distinction between the civil lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice in 2009 (before Eric Holder became AG) and the decision by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division not to pursue criminal charges. Whoever wrote the PolitiFact piece stated that "O'Reilly and other Fox commentators have confused the issue by suggesting Holder and the Obama administration made the call not to pursue more serious charges against the New Black Panther Party members. [Assistant Attorney General Thomas] Perez stated that the Civil Rights Division decided pre-Obama not to pursue more serious, criminal charges. So when O'Reilly brings on legal analysts who paint it as an outrage that the Justice Department did not pursue a criminal case, and the only person condemned by O'Reilly is Holder for not 'representing the United States in a fair and balanced way,' that's misleading and misplaced. We think it's fair to hold Holder accountable for the decision to limit the civil case, but not the criminal one."
Frankly, I think PolitiFact is splitting hairs with this one. At any rate, it's hardly comparable to Stewart's blatantly false assertion that "FOX viewers" are "the most consistently misinformed media viewers," according to "every poll."
Sometimes PolitiFact's fact-checking hinges not on the interpretation of the statement being checked but on the speaker's interpretation of one or more sources. Here's an example: two years ago, PolitiFact analyzed this allegation by Glenn Beck:

John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, "has proposed forcing abortions and putting sterilants in the drinking water to control population."

PolitiFact offerred a lengthy analysis of Beck's claim and ultimately rated it "Pants on Fire!" It acknowledged that "Beck's allegation has its roots in a book Holdren co-authored with Paul and Annie Ehrlich more than three decades ago called Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment." The analysis provided several excerpts from the book that explained Beck's damning accusation but concluded, "We think it's irresponsible to pluck a few lines from a 1,000-page, 30-year-old textbook, and then present them out of context to dismiss Holdren's long and distinguished career." Trouble is, as I read Holdren's writings, Beck's interpretation seems reasonable. Even if Holdren has since changed his views, what's at issue is whether he had ever proposed forcing abortions and putting sterilants in drinking water to control population, not whether he currently supports such measures.
As I pointed out in my last column, PolitiFact often runs the risk of making someone sound like a liar by ruling a statement false or "Pants on Fire!" even though the person(s) making the statement relied in good faith on a reliable source. Many of the "false statements" Jon Stewart said PolitiFact "checked" FOX News for were just such claims. I like to call these "WMD statements," where the speaker says something that he/she has every reason to believe is true but turns out to be false. Yesterday I offerred the examples of Kimberly Guilfoyle's remarks about the web site and the oft-repeated claim about White House Political Director Patrick Gaspard once being Bertha Lewis's "right-hand man" at ACORN. Here's another example:
In a Dec. 3, 2009, broadcast of his FOX News show, Glenn Beck said that Andy Stern, then head of the Service Employees International Union, was "the most frequent visitor of the White House." Said PolitiFact:

We found the source of Beck's claim. When the White House released its first batch of visitor logs on Oct. 30, 2009, as part of a pledge to bring more transparency to the White House, Stern's name did indeed appear 22 times, more than anyone else listed, including [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton, who was listed three times.

Yet, PolitiFact again slapped Beck with a "False" ruling because, it said, "that's not the whole story."
It seems Beck's data was out-of-date. PolitiFact explained:

Stern led the pack for the first data release, which covered visits from Jan. 20, 2009 to July 31, 2009. But he was surpassed by several other individuals in the second release, which updates the data through Aug. 31, 2009 (and which was made public more than a week before Beck aired his comment).

Also, PolitiFact says, "the first batch of data -- covering the period from Jan. 20, 2009, to July 31, 2009, which found Stern in the lead -- is not a complete accounting of White House visits during that period. It only includes data for visitors whose names were first requested by the public. If no one requested a specific name, then that name wouldn't appear in the database. So there's no way of knowing whether Stern actually had the most visits for that period; he simply had the most of anyone whose name was requested by the public." So, in that particular instance, PolitiFact was right to rate Beck's claim false. But then Stewart took PolitiFact's work and again made it sound like somebody at FOX News had intentionally misled the public.
In a couple of instances, PolitiFact fact-checked statements that nobody at FOX News had even made. I gave one such example yesterday (PolitiFact twisted Laura Ingraham's words about Mitt Romney to make it sound like she said the health care plan he signed into law as governor is "wildly unpopular" among state residents.). Here's another: opinion After Dr. George Tiller, the well-known Kansas abortionist, was shot to death while attending church in Wichita on May 31, 2009, Bill O'Reilly became the target of more vicious attacks from left-wing hatemongers. In a widely published article, O'Reilly asserted that he "reported on the doctor honestly," but "the loons asserted that my analysis of him was 'hateful.'" He continued:

Chief of among the complaints was the doctor's nickname, "Tiller the baby killer." Some prolifers branded him with that, and I reported it. So did hundreds of other news sources.

PolitiFact seized on those statements, which its staff apparently interpreted as O'Reilly claiming "he didn't call Dr. George Tiller a baby killer, as liberal groups charge, but was merely reporting what 'some prolifers branded him.'"
Now, if you read O'Reilly's article - or just the excerpts (which, by the way, PolitiFact's Angie Drobnic Holan included in her piece) - then you'll notice that O'Reilly didn't claim that he never called Dr. Tiller a baby killer. Had he said that, PolitiFact could have justifiably rated his comments false.
The rest of the statements on Stewart's list that had received a false or "Pants on Fire!" rating were demonstrably false, and PolitiFact provided the relevant context. It's worth pointing out, though, that in several cases, the claims attributed to FOX News were not just made by FOX News personalities; Stewart declined to mention that as well.
Hopefully, that's the last we'll hear about the unpleasant three-way between Jon Stewart, FOX News and PolitiFact. Good night, all!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Jon Stewart, PolitiFact & FOX News (Part I)

Earlier in the week, I promised a critical analysis of PoltiFact's so called "fact-checking" of FOX News items, specifically the stuff that Jon Stewart mentioned on his show last week as part of a "21-Lie Salute" to FOX News. Before I get to that, I feel I should explain the mindset with which I approached this.

Any truly credible fact-checker should take care to distinguish between facts (statements that can be declared "true" or "false") and opinions (subjective expressions of how someone feels). The distinciton is key in defamation cases. Genuine statements of opinion are not actionable (meaning someone can't sue another for defamation based on the latter's expression of his/her opinions). However, one cannot escape liability simply by disguising a factual statement as an opinion. Perhaps then-Justice William H. Rehnquist put it best:

Thus, unlike the statement, “In my opinion Mayor Jones is a liar,” the statement, “In my opinion Mayor Jones shows his abysmal ignorance by accepting the teachings of Marx and Lenin,” would not be actionable. Hepps ensures that a statement of opinion relating to matters of public concern which does not contain a provably false factual connotation will receive full constitutional protection.

Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1, 20 (1990). Now then, on to the matter at hand. As I mentioned in my earlier column, PolitiFact rates the accuracy of selected statements with its registered "Truth-O-Meter" rulings. Says PolitiFact, "The goal of the Truth-O-Meter is to reflect the relative accuracy of a statement."

Of the 21 claims Stewart referenced in his comedy bit, fourteen were rated False, which according to PolitiFact means "The statement is not accurate." Five received a "Pants on Fire" rating, which PolitiFact says means "The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim." The other two were each dubbed "Lie of the Year" by PolitiFact.

The first flaw I want to point out in Stewart's use of PolitiFact to assail FOX News's credibility (or whatever he was trying to do) has less to do with PolitiFact's credibility and more to do with Stewart's deceptive use of their analyses. Many of the "lies" Stewart attributed to FOX News were actually not made by FOX, or at least not just by FOX, according to PolitiFact. Let's start with one of those two "Lie of the Year" awardees.

In a December 16th, 2010, announcement, PolitiFact Editor Bill Adair and reporter/researcher Angie Drobnic Holan published the following:

PolitiFact editors and reporters have chosen "government takeover of health
care" as the 2010 Lie of the Year. Uttered by dozens of politicians and pundits,
it played an important role in shaping public opinion about the health care plan
and was a significant factor in the Democrats' shellacking in the November

Jon Stewart not only listed as one of the "false statements" made by FOX, he said, "That one was all over FOX. They were runnin' wild on that one!"

Sure they were, Jon, sure they were. However, nowhere in the extensive "Lie of the Year" analysis (which you can read in full here) did PolitiFact mention FOX News or even the FOX Network. Adair and Holan did, however, take care to point out specific instances in which the "lie" was uttered elsewhere in the press:

The phrase proliferated in the media even after Democrats dropped the public option. In 2010 alone, "government takeover” was mentioned 28 times in the Washington Post, 77 times in Politico and 79 times on CNN. A review of TV transcripts showed "government takeover" was primarily used as a catchy sound
bite, not for discussions of policy details.

In most transcripts we examined, Republican leaders used the phrase without being challenged by interviewers. For example, during Boehner's Jan. 31 appearance on Meet the Press, Boehner said it five times. But not once was he challenged about it.

PolitiFact also published items attributing the "government takeover” claim to Rep. Robert Hurt (R-Va.), Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch (R), the Republican Party of Florida and Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young (R-Fla.), but I couldn't find a single thing on the web site attributing such a statement to FOX News.

That's just one example. Others require an even more complicated explanation. Consider FOX News contributor and occassioal O'Reilly Factor guest host Laura Ingraham’s remarks on the May 12, 2011, edition of the Factor. Discussing a speech given earlier that day by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, in which he discussed the historic reform of his state's health care system that has caused him so much grief on the campaign trail, Ingraham said, "Look, I like Mitt Romney. I think he's a really smart guy, and I think he would be a good president. ... On this, I don't get it, though, Bill. I mean, costs have gone up. It's wildly unpopular."

PolitiFact rated Ingraham’s statement False. Actually, the statement it rated "false" was actually not uttered by Laura Ingraham. It was what the site's editors/writers interpreted Ingraham as saying. The item Jon referenced on his program is published on the site under the heading, "Laura Ingraham says Massachusetts health plan is 'wildly unpopular'". On that page, you'll also find that the "claim" PolitiFact actually fact-checked was "The Massachusetts health care plan is 'wildly unpopular' among state residents."

So, before doing its analysis, PolitiFact made two assumptions about Ingraham's statement: (1) that she was referring specifically to the "Massachusetts health care plan," and (2) that she was saying it is (not was) is "wildly unpopular" among state residents. (So, I guess that's actually three assumptions.) The first may be fairly inferred, given context and the subject matter of their conversation, but I personally think it's a bridge too far to declare that Ingraham was only referring to Romneycare's popularity among Bay Staters. Even if that is what she meant, though, PolitiFact had no way of knowing what she was thinking. The entire analysis should have been disregarded.

That brings me to PolitiFact's 2009 Lie of the Year: "Death panels."

Some of you gramatically astute folks probably seized on the obvious: "Death panels" is not a statement. Actually, the original "statement" that PolitiFact rated was, like the thing about Romneycare being "wildly unpopular" among state residents, a mutation of what someone actually said. Back in August of 2009, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin posted the following on her Facebook page:

The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's ‘death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care.

The statement that PolitiFact rated "Pants on Fire!" read as follows:

Seniors and the disabled "will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care."

Now, it's plainly obvious that Palin was not making a definitive accusation about any part of the Democrats' health care reform bill, but the use of the phrase "death panel" - something ostinsibly absent from the American lexicon prior to Palin's notorious post - became commonplace in the health care debate that continued through the end of the year. HOWEVER, attributing the origin of the phrase to FOX News was way out of line. Palin was not hired by FOX News until January of 2010, according to the network, so even if she did unequivocally assert that "death panels" were part of the Democrats' "nationalized health care plan," the claim still would not have originated with FOX. Again, this is not an error on PolitiFact's part; it's Stewart's misuse of PolitiFact's analysis.

I'll do one more for now, just because I'm getting tired. PolitiFact rated this statement, which it attributed to FOX News legal vixen Kimberly Guilfoyle, false:

If you log into the government's Cash for Clunkers web site ( from your home computer, [then] the government can "seize all of your personal and private" information, and track your computer activity.

As PolitiFact acknowledges, what Guilfoyle actually said was: "They are jumping right inside you, seizing all of your personal and private information, (crosstalk) and it's absolutely legal. . . ." Guilfoyle was talking to Glenn Beck on his FOX News show. When Beck pulled up the web site on his computer, he told his viewers, "I go in and I say, 'I want to turn in my clunker.' The dealer goes to, and then they hit 'submit transaction.' Here it says 'Privacy Act and Security Statement,' and it's like, oh, it's the Privacy Act of 1974. Whatever. I agree." Beck then read the warning statement that appeared out loud. PolitiFact verified the language that appeared and included it in the post dubbing Guilfoyle's statement a falsehood:

"This application provides access to the DOT CARS system. When logged on to the
CARS system, your computer is considered a federal computer system and it is
property of the United States Government. Any or all uses of this system and all
files on this system may be intercepted, monitored, recorded, copied, audited,
inspected, and disclosed to authorized CARS, DOT, and law enforcement personnel, as well as authorized officials of other agencies, both domestic and foreign."

Despite acknowledging the context of Guilfoyle's words and her clear reliance on the language that appeared on the Cash for Clunkers web site, PolitiFact rated her "claim" false because, they say, "we think anyone who saw the July 31 program — in which she claimed 'seriously, they can get all your information' — would be left with the clear impression that anyone who logged into the site was opening their computer to Big Brother. And that's False." (BTW, Jon Stewart got the mangled version of Guilfoyle's claim that PolitiFact fact-checked wrong. On his program, he listed the statement as "Cash for Clunkers will give government complete access to your home computer." Now that claim would be false, but Jon Stewart's allegation that such a statement was ever made by anyone at FOX News deserves a "Pants on Fire" rating.)

So, it seems Jon Stewart owes FOX News another apology. He may also want to apologize to PolitiFact for trying to use their work in an attempt to ridicule/discredit one of the few reputable news organizations left in this world.

I'll have more to say on this later, but tomorrow is July 4th, and I've got some big plans. Also, some idiot just set off a bunch of fireworks somewhere near my house, and now my dogs won't leave me alone, which makes it hard for me to get any work done.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Okay, Michele, You Have My Blessing, But for the Love of God, Will Somebody Please Stop Rick Perry?

Photo Courtesy San Antonio Express-News.

Back in May, I wrote about why I didn't think it was a good idea for Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) to run for president this time around. Then she announced her candidacy. As I made clear, I will vote for the Republican ticket in 2012 no matter who the nominees are. Now let me make something else clear: I don't like Rick Perry. I have never voted for him, and I hope I never will. To me, he is the Republican Clinton (Bill, not Hillary): a media-savvy politician who's had a pretty smooth run as chief executive, thanks in large part to his predecessor's sound governance. Like Slick Willie, Ol' Rick seems to have no problem taking credit for a good economy he had very little to do with. Yet, it's that economy - and the laissez-faire policies that facilitated it - that may make Perry an appealing candidate if he decides to throw his hat into the ring.

I have to admit that, on paper, Perry looks like an awfully appealing candidate. He has a wealth of experience. He succeeded to the governorship in 2000 having served nearly two years as lieutenant governor, eight years as Agriculture Commissioner and three terms in the Texas House of Representatives. He's also an Air Force veteran and former Eagle Scout. Originally elected to the state legislature as a Democrat, Perry joined the Republican Party in 1989 and could thus make a personal appeal to Democratic and independent voters about crossing over to the GOP, à la Ronald Reagan. Now, the Wall Street Journal reports that the three-term governor “has decided to run for President, though the official word from Team Perry is still a definite maybe.”

So, why is that such a bad idea? For one, Perry's impressive résumé is undermined by his problematic, sometimes larger-than-life personality. Originally a "big-government conservative" in the mold of his predecessor, Perry co-opted the Tea Party movement to assist in his 2010 re-election bid. His main obstacle to winning a third term came not from the Democrats but from his own party: he faced Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and the self-proclaimed Tea Party candidate, Debra Medina, in the Republican primary. Painting Hutchison as a creature of Washington, D.C., and basically ignoring Medina, he managed to win the nomination with 51% of the vote, narrowly avoiding a runoff. His hypocrisy in casting Hutchison as the big-government Republican in the race was just the latest in a long line of stunts and follies that soured me on him.

His first year in office, Perry proposed the Trans-Texas Corridor, a privately-operated transportation network of tollways, rail lines and data lines that would criss-cross the state. Despite an elaborate plan and enthusiastic pitch, Perry failed to sell a majority of Texans on the project, which some decried as "Tolls Across Texas." Even more disturbing (to some) than the idea of privately owned and operated toll roads was the manifest potential for rampant eminent domain abuse. In 2006, all three of his opponents in the gubernatorial race ran against it. Yet, it took a decade before the Legislature finally killed what had become arguably the most salient boondoggle of Perry's governorship.

There's a lot more I could say about Rick Perry that could well turn some of his most ardent fans against him, but I'll hold back out of decency (and laziness). Also, divulging some of the more unseemly details about Perry's life and career would likely endanger my sources, whether or not I identified them. So, suffice it to say, I hope Perry doesn't run. If he did, then he could well mess things up and possibly even win the nomination. I seriously doubt he could beat Obama, but even if he could, I still wouldn't want him to run. Republicans have a good shot at taking back the White House next year, and we can do a lot better than Rick Perry.