2012 - %3, September

We Should Focus on Deception, Not Lying

| Sun Sep. 2, 2012 12:41 PM EDT

Did Paul Ryan lie repeatedly in his acceptance speech last Wednesday, as countless fact-checking articles later claimed? Stephen Hayes thinks it's an unfair charge. "Here’s the funny thing about most of these articles," he says in the Weekly Standard today. "They fail to cite a single fact that Ryan misstated or lie that he told. In most cases, the self-described fact-checks are little more than complaints that Ryan failed to provide context for his criticism of Barack Obama."

He's right. There are two big problems with getting obsessed about "lies." The first is that it's usually too hard to prove. You have to show not only that something is unquestionably factually wrong, but that the speaker knew it was wrong. That's seldom possible. The second problem is that it's too narrow. Politicians try to mislead voters all the time, and only occasionally do they do this with flat-out lies. Bottom line: if you focus only on actual lies, you miss too much. But if you try to turn everything into a lie, you sound like a hack.

A better approach is to focus instead on attempts to mislead. But how do you judge that? A few years ago I developed a three-part test that I use to check my immediate emotional reaction to things politicians say. I've found it pretty useful in practice, though it's not perfect and it doesn't apply to every kind of slippery statement. Here it is:

  1. What was the speaker trying to imply? This is necessarily a judgment call, but it's what gets us away from "lying" and instead focuses our attention on how badly a speaker is trying to mislead us.
  2. What would it take to state things accurately? This is the most important part of the exercise. Without getting deep in the weeds (nobody expects politicians to speak in white paper-ese), what would it take to restate things reasonably accurately?
  3. How much would accuracy damage the speaker's point? Obviously, if accuracy dents the speaker's point only a bit, not much harm has been done. If it demolishes the speaker's point completely, it's as bad as an actual lie.

Here's an example from Ryan's speech, where he talked about the $716 billion "funneled out of Medicare by President Obama":

  1. He's implying that Obama reduced Medicare spending and this will hurt Medicare beneficiaries, something that Republicans oppose.
  2. A more defensible version might be something like this: "Obama has reduced payments to hospitals and private Medicare plans. This will lead to less service, lower quality, and fewer plan choices for seniors. Until a few weeks ago, I thought this was a good idea and proposed the same cuts in my budget, which was supported by 95% of the Republican caucus in the House."
  3. The first two sentences don't damage Ryan's point much at all. The third sentence is a major change that turns it completely on its head. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is reserved for flat-out lies, this is about a 9. There's obviously a huge attempt to mislead here.

Here's another one. Ryan talked about Obama's 2008 visit to a GM plant in Janesville, where he told the workers, "I believe that if our government is there to support you ... this plant will be here for another hundred years." On Wednesday Ryan said: "Well, as it turned out, that plant didn’t last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day. And that’s how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight."

  1. He's implying that the plant closed on Obama's watch and that lots of other plants remain shuttered because the economy has remained weak.
  2. A more accurate version would go something like this: "That plant closed before Obama took office, and none of his bailouts or stimulus bills were able to bring it back to life. And that’s how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight."
  3. This is a small change, and frankly, it doesn't really change the emotional resonance of the sentence much. It's maybe a 2.

I chose these two examples for a reason. The first one, on examination, was worse than I thought. Obama did cut planned Medicare spending by $716 billion, so at first glance an accurate rephrasing didn't change Ryan's point much. But when I remembered that Ryan and the entire Republican caucus had supported those cuts just a few months ago, it was obvious that this was a major-league whopper — and there's simply no way to restate it without changing its impact completely. The attempt to mislead is enormous.

Conversely, the second example annoyed me a lot when I first heard it, but when I went through the exercise of writing a more accurate version, I realized that it didn't really change things much. The restated version has much the same impact as the original. There's an attempt to mislead here, but for most listeners it's fairly subtle.

It's Step 2 of this test that's key. You have to rewrite the offending statement to be defensibly accurate. Keep in mind that this doesn't mean rewriting conservative attacks to include every possible liberal talking point. This is a presidential campaign, not a graduate seminar. You need to do the absolute minimum it would take to make the statement tolerably defensible.

Needless to say, this doesn't work for everything. In Romney's infamous welfare ad, for example, he says that Obama is "dropping work requirements" and "Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check." This actually is a flat-out lie, not merely an attempt to mislead. Beyond that, though, the real dirty work of the ad is the way it pushes obvious racial hot buttons, and that's simply not something you can judge on a scale of truthfulness vs. deceit.

Still, for many things, this test is useful. What's the minimum change it would take to keep the offending statement from being actively misleading? Once you've made the change, how much does it really change the emotional resonance of the statement? If you do an honest job of this, you might surprise yourself now and again.

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Quote of the Day: Mitt Romney's Apology Tour

| Sun Sep. 2, 2012 9:52 AM EDT

"Hey," tweets Andrew Sprung, "Romney's kicked off an apology tour on behalf of the GOP." He chose Ohio to unveil his new schtick:

Mitt Romney said Saturday that his party had fallen short on its fiscal promises even as he campaigned alongside a top Republican congressional leader....“When we had the lead, we let people down,” Mr. Romney told a crowd in this important swing state. “We need to make sure” they are not let down again. “I will cut the deficit and get us on track to a balanced budget.”

You know who else thinks that Republicans have let us down? President Obama. Kudos to Romney for finally delivering a message that the American people can all rally around.

The Surprising Power of the New Hampshire Primary

| Sat Sep. 1, 2012 1:39 PM EDT

As you probably know, there are lots of models for predicting who will win the presidential race this year. To summarize: most of the models predict a small Obama victory, but a few predict a Romney victory. Most likely, it's gonna be close.

Dylan Matthews rounds up a few of the forecasts here. Most are fairly ordinary, but I was pretty intrigued by the model from Helmut Norpoth and Michael Bednarczuk of SUNY Stony Brook. Unlike every other forecaster on the planet, they don't include any economic variables at all. Maybe the economy is great, maybe it sucks. They don't care. Their model has two inputs: (1) how well you did in the New Hampshire primary, and (2) whether you're an incumbent running for reelection.

This is....eccentric, to say the least. Not the incumbent thing: most forecasters recognize that, historically, incumbents usually win if their party has been in the White House for only four years. But the New Hampshire primary? According to the authors, it tells us a lot. An incumbent who gets serious competition (Carter 1980, Bush 1992) is in trouble. Likewise, a challenger who doesn't clean up against the opposition is also in trouble. And out of all possible primaries, New Hampshire has the most predictive power. This all gets translated into a formula, of course, and here it is. Note that 3rd and 4th terms are Democrat-centric because the current incumbent is a Democrat:

Here's how the arithmetic plays out:

  • .445 (65 - 56.7) - .138 (63.2 - 47.7) + .366 (53.7) - .333 (48.8) + 48.2445
  • .445 (8.3) - .138 (15.5) + .366 (53.7) - .333 (48.8) + 48.2 
  • 3.69 - 2.14 + 19.65 - 16.25 + 48.2
  • = 53.15% popular vote margin for Obama

As it happens, I don't believe this for a second. Lop off a couple of points because Obama is black and I think you're closer to the final outcome. My best guess is that Obama will win about 51% of the popular vote.

But who knows. The authors claim that their model explains 89% of the variance in party shares of presidential votes, and that's pretty good. On the other hand, it's wise to be cautious. The simpleminded rule that incumbent parties win after four years in office and lose after eight or more years correctly predicts 13 out of 15 elections since 1952 (the outliers are 1980 and 1988). That's an 87% success rate.

Still, I thought this model was pretty fascinating. I have a hard time believing it, but if Obama really ends up winning 53% of the vote in November, my hat's off to the authors.

Paul Ryan Likes to Supersize It

| Sat Sep. 1, 2012 10:37 AM EDT

Last week Paul Ryan told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that he had once run a sub-three hour marathon. More specifically, "I had a two hour and fifty-something," he said. That's pretty impressive. And, as it happens, untrue:

This evening, the terrific running journalist Scott Douglas figured out that Ryan had actually run a 4:01 in the Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1990, when he was a college student. This is not quite so fast.

....Ryan, through a spokesman, responded that he’d just mixed things up: "The race was more than 20 years ago, but my brother Tobin—who ran Boston last year—reminds me that he is the owner of the fastest marathon in the family and has never himself ran a sub-three. If I were to do any rounding, it would certainly be to four hours, not three."

Does Ryan deserve a bit of mockery for this? Sure. But if there's anything really telling about Ryan's character here, it's the fact that when he misrepresents himself, he doesn't do it in a small way. Ryan didn't just shave five or ten minutes off his time, the way some of us might if we were bragging about an old athletic accomplishment that no one could check up on, he shaved off a full hour, giving himself an extremely respectable, elite amateur time. This doesn't quite rank up there with Kim Jong-Il carding eleven holes-in-one on his first round of golf, or Pat Robertson leg-pressing 2,000 pounds at age 76, but it's in the same ballpark.

Keep this in mind when Ryan talks about his tax and budget plan and promises with a straight face that it will slash the deficit, benefit the middle class, protect the social safety net, and supercharge economic growth all at once: lying is easier when you tell a big lie. This is Ryan's oeuvre. His mistake was letting himself be lulled by Hugh Hewitt's blandishments and forgetting that even 20-year-old marathon times, unlike his rather spectacular economic claims, are pretty easy to verify.