Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Everybody is Wrong, Continued

Last week, I declared a pox on both the houses of Harry Reid, for making reckless and irresponsible charges, and Mitt Romney, for violating the norm of releasing tax returns.

Now? Politfact, too. They gave Reid a "Pants on Fire" rating, despite the uncomfortable situation that they have no evidence at all about whether Reid is telling the truth when he claims that a "source" told him Romney hasn't paid taxes.

Look, three things are true here. The first is that Harry Reid is misbehaving, and he should be called on it, and it should stain his reputation. Kevin Drum is absolutely correct on this when he tells liberals:
Take a deep breath, folks. This is contemptible stuff and it's not just business as usual. We've spent too many years berating the tea partiers for getting on bandwagons like this to get sucked into it ourselves the first time it's convenient. It's time to quit cheering on Reid and get off this particular bus.
And that's true even though Romney deserves what he gets because he hasn't released his tax returns.

But none of that makes what Politifact has done any better.

Brendan Nyhan has been defending Politifact on twitter today, but I really disagree with him on this one. If they're to be any use at all, fact checkers need, in my view, to take their mandate narrowly and literally: they need to check facts. Granted, the line between "fact" and "interpretation" can be slippery both in theory and in practice, but that's all the more reason for these folks keep things as narrow as they can.

See, even in the best of all possible versions, it's not at all clear that the fact checkers can really do much (see, in addition to Nyhan generally, the case my brother has been making). But every time they leave themselves open to obvious partisan rejoinders, they risk whatever nonpartisan authority they do have.

Reid may be simply flat-out making stuff up, or he may "only" be behaving irresponsibly by being deliberately naive about what someone tells him, and at any rate what he's doing is not how people should conduct politics. But Politifact doesn't really know how to sort that out, and it's not their job to judge political ethics. It's even worse than that, perhaps: by dredging through the accusation, odds are they're just rewarding Reid by putting  the spotlight on speculation about what Mitt Romney may be hiding. I know it's cheap and cheesy to end with it, but when it comes to Politifact and the others of their type, the real guiding idea really has to be: just the facts.

33 comments:

  1. The more annoying thing is when fact checkers take it upon themselves to assess the motivations for, say, why a FEC commissioner would talk to a reporter about Mitt Romney's filings, rather than say whether the commissioner was accurate. Kessler is less than worthless IMO.

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  2. I don't talk to strangers on the street about politics much.... are liberals really going around saying "Mitt Romney hasn't paid taxes in ten years because Harry Reid told me so?"

    I'm sure some die-hards are, but I think most see this as just a way to keep tax returns in the news. It's a way of making the point of "we have no idea who this guy is; even the most outrageous, most easily disproven claim isn't answered." Democrats have just put that point in a form that will get traction in the modern press: a controversy that gets a rise out of conservatives.

    I understand the need to operate and campaign in the world as it is, not as we'd like it to be. That's why I'm alright with Reid's allegations (as a Democrat). They're said with a wink. They aren't damaging to Romney on a personal level- nobody's making up a story about his wife or saying he burned an American flag sometime in the last 50 years. It's a (probable) lie that only lives because Romney won't do what is right.

    If Reid uses his position as leader to call witnesses and hold hearings, that's another story.

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  3. The reason this is so effective - and likely won't go away - is that it undermines not just Romney's personal story but his policy agenda as well. Romney has made it a centerpiece of his economic plan that taxes for the wealthy must not be raised, and indeed should be cut. Well, don't we need to know how much the ultrawealthy are paying now to know if that might be an effective economic plan? Romney is in a perfect position to make that case - yet he refuses to do it.

    It seems entirely plausible to me that Romney has paid virtually nothing in taxes over the past decade. If that's the case, there is no economic benefit to maintaining the Bush tax cuts for people like him. That's why this issue is so toxic to Romney.

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  4. What I like about Reid's attack is that its just so much sauce for the goose. Reid might as well have come out and said that he doesn't know whether Mitt Romney (together with Glenn Beck, of course) raped and murdered a young girl in 1990. (http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/glenn-beck-rape-murder-hoax)

    That said (and necessarily linked....I'm always surprised at how many people haven't heard the rumor that Mitt Romney raped and killed a young girl in 1990), JB is right on all counts.

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  5. Still find it bizarre how much respect is given to a project run by the Tampa Bay Times -- respect in terms of even paying it any mind, reporting on and critiquing it. As far as I can tell, the only reason it's given such due is the superficial authority of its name; ever since it's creation it's been a laughably hit or miss enterprise, naively executed.

    On the other hand, it makes sense to me why Glenn Kessler's Washington Post column is regularly debated.

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    1. Out of a relatively obscure paper, but it's been featured on CNN from early on. And they've put serious resources into it; they've earned the attention. They just make some really poor calls, more so in design than in execution.

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  6. If Reid had wanted to attack Romney in a way that wouldn't draw the ire of fact-checkers he should have just accused Romney of wanting to end Medicare as we know it. You know, stuff that's objectively true.

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  7. "Reid may be simply flat-out making stuff up, or he may "only" be behaving irresponsibly by being deliberately naive about what someone tells him"

    Or he could be accurately describing what a source told him that is factually correct. I'm not sure other than general cynicism of politicians why we should automatically assume Reid is doing anything other than speaking the truth.

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    1. Rob of PortlandiaAugust 7, 2012 at 9:21 PM

      You are kidding, right?

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  8. I don't understand Harry Reid. If he's right, why not just put his source in touch with a reporter? They love anonymous sources. If he's wrong, he could wind up more than a little discredited.

    Mitt Romney is a real mystery. Why not release his taxes? Why didn't he do it a year or more ago? Bad gets worse with delay. And what's the point of escalating an argument with a non-contestant that can only hurt him?

    Maybe the Romney strategy is to make everyone in the universe overconfident, right up to his election loss.

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    1. Romney obviously believes that the damage which would result from releasing his tax records is worse than the damage from not releasing them. That means that he did something which his campaign believes voters will see as illegitimate.

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    2. Bob of PortlandiaAugust 7, 2012 at 9:25 PM

      Romney is not releasing his tax returns for the same reason that Harry Reid will not release his .. and I would not want to release mine .. because tax returns do not provide genuine insight on one's income, wealth and assets - rather they provide a fun-house mirror of those things in response to a complicated and byzantine tax code. The Clintons may not have had any problem publicising a list that includes 'fair market value' of each and every old piece of dirty underpants donated to charity .. but more discrete people (and that would include most Mormons .. Harry Reid included) would rather not.

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  9. Both Kevin & JB are holding their noses, but the smell ain't that bad.

    PoliticsUndelivered and Ron E. have it right.

    Romney is breaking a norm, and if we've learned anything over the past 15 years I hope we've learned that norms matter, and that once broken they are hard to rebuild.

    Presidential nominees are now fantastically rich, and Citizens United has empowered rich people still more. The norm that presidential candidates show their taxes is one of the few brakes we have left against these trends.

    Reid is justified because this is important. The Democrats need to do all they can to raise the price for Romney's intransigence until he either breaks or the price costs him the election.

    In the real world that is the only way the Democrats can keep this norm in place. If Romney breaks it and wins it is gone.

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    1. congrats to Tom for making what was for me THE point of this whole story.
      Some people are confused about M Romney because he first ran as a moderate republican in Mass. They think that's who he really is. Wrong, he is as he presents himself today. To the right of GW Bush, perfectly at home with D Cheney and the "real" establishment Republicans. All those people who will get influence, and money should the White House become Republican, along with the House and maybe even the Senate.
      And that figures into what Harry Reid is doing, because he wants to remain the Senate MAJORITY leader(for the reasons listed above). If Romney's campaign falls apart as much as McCain's did by mid September,that means more resources to protect the fragile majority in the Senate.

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  10. If Reid had said that Romney avoided taxes for ten years by breaking the law, that would be contemptible. He hasn't, though. If it were impossible or implausible for a wealthy person to arrange his affairs to avoid taxes for ten years, what Reid is saying would also be contemptible. However, I am unaware of any suggesting such a thing is not possible under current law. So at worst Reid is saying that a credible source has told him that Romney did what the law allows and what Romney himself and other Republicans believe the law should allow: for capital and business income to escape taxation. As irresponsibility goes, that seems to me pretty tame stuff.

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    1. I'm with you on this one. Many wealthy people make a game of not paying taxes. I might point out that people who play this game also like to talk about it. They are proud of arranging their finances to avoid taxes. Reid could easily be citing hearsay.

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    2. Wealthy people? EVERYONE makes a game of it. I've had to hold my nose in doing my own taxes - I would rather pay more in exchange for documenting less (about the least interesting bits) about my life to the IRS.

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  11. Leaving the ethics question aside, this move on Reid's part has clearly confused and irritated the hell out of Romney and his campaign. Romney is STILL as of today challenging Reid to name his source, i.e. he's keeping the whole question of his taxes and tax rates in the news. Which is just crazy. Here's my guess: He did pay taxes, albeit at low rates, and it frustrates him immensely that he can't just go ahead and prove this against Reid. But the reason he can't is that (a) the rates were indeed low (and kept so using unpatriotic-looking gimmicks like Cayman accounts), and he doesn't want the campaign to become a debate about taxes on the wealthy; and (b) his returns would show, if not that he was flatly lying about his involvement with Bain after 1999, at least that he clearly benefited financially from things that Bain did in later years, i.e. his wealth is a product in part of outsourcing, offshoring and other such charms of vulture capitalism. He didn't break completely from Bain years ago, even after he'd begun a political career, because he was too freakin' greedy. Reid has alleged something that's probably, narrowly speaking, false and therefore COULD be denied, but only at the cost of revealing a bunch of other things that are worse. So Mitt's head is threatening to explode. It's quite brilliant, really.

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    1. Jeff, Romney's campaign is a debate about taxes on the wealthy (he's against them). Other than that, I think you're on the mark. I read somewhere that his arrangement with Bain provided that he would continue to get a cut from new deals after he left. (I can't name a source on that--just plain don't remember--but I'm saying it anyhow.) I'm sure whatever means he devised for evading taxes was legal and the sweetheart separation from Bain was legal. I don't even think it really makes him responsible for decisions Bain made after he left (which I'm sure weren't illegal either), but it will highlight the advantages that such people have and it won't be well received.

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    2. One quibble, Scott: Romney's campaign isn't a debate about taxes on the wealthy from his perspective. That's what it looks like to you and me, but the whole point is that he's trying to minimize the number of people who see it that way. He and the GOP don't say anything about taxes on "the wealthy" and avoid even using that term (which they claim is an invention in service of "class warfare"). What they claim to favor is low taxes on "Americans," the "freeing" of the "economy" from tax and regulatory burdens that get in the way of "job creation," etc.

      So when I say that Romney "doesn't want the campaign to become a debate about taxes on the wealthy," I mean that he wants to stick to those misleading generalities and doesn't want the kind of specific discussion that we get into when we start looking at which groups benefit from which loopholes, how income streams that most middle-class people don't have get favorable tax treatment, what kinds of fancy moves are involved in getting an IRA's value to $100 million, and so on. His tax returns would be Exhibit A in all these areas.

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  12. I would find this much more deserving of tut-tutting if it weren't the sort of thing Romney could disprove so easily by releasing his returns. That, to me, is what sets this apart from a "Hey, I hear Mitt Romney killed a hobo in 1937..." attack. It's entirely plausible and easily refutable. It has legs because Romney's not doing the one, simple thing that would refute it.

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    1. Wow! Now there are rumors that Romney is a serial killer!

      Why won't Romney address the rumors that he has killed people throughout the 20th century? What does he have to hide?

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    2. Good point, Chris.

      When a charge is easily refutable, yet goes unrefuted because Romney, against tradition, won't release his taxes...

      Exactly why again are JB and Kevin Drum tut-tutting?

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  13. If Romney's tax burden really has been burdensome, requiring the kind of relief he and other conservatives have been arguing for, if it is was and is a genuine obstacle to his ability and willingness to invest, etc., he would be happy to demonstrate that with his tax returns. But the reality is that even if he has paid taxes in everyone of the years in question, he hasn't paid them at a rate that is burdensome for a man of his means. That is the reality that he wants hidden. Not that he hasn't paid taxes, but that he most likely could, like everyone else in his economic cohort, pay much more without any pain.

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  14. I want to see a previous example of Politifact deeming a Republican pants of fire for the same type of comment.

    Oh, I know there's no such example. I just like to make them squirm.

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  15. Interesting comments here; I particularly like Scott and Jeff's above, but taking a step back, its amazing how "Zero-tax-gate" has so thoroughly put the shoe on the other ideological foot.

    Look: by virtue of the fact that Romney coughed up most of the returns to McCain in 2008, we know Romney filed something for most of the ten years in question. We know there was income, deductions, a tax rate, and taxes owed. That last bit is very unlikely to be zero, in the same way that its very unlikely to be any particular number.

    We're also pretty certain, by virtue of Romney's unusual stonewalling, that his taxes owed for the ten years prior is something very different from the $3 M in 2010. Very much less. Zero? Close enough for government work! What Reid has figured out, brilliantly it seems, is what the Republicans have known for at least a generation: if you're going to win these things, you have to frame the argument in a memorable way - if said framing stretches the truth, but stays in the ballpark, no harm done.

    There's a priceless moment in the politifact piece, a quote from a tax attorney named David Miller: "It’s possible (Romney) paid very little in taxes, but I find it hard to believe that he paid none," Miller said

    Shit. Miller's quote might have been lifted straight out of the Bob Shrum playbook in response to some directly cutting provocation of an Atwater/Rove type. Its pretty startling to see the Democrats pushing the Republicans up against the ropes in almost exactly the same way Democrats have been pushed for a few decades now.

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    1. CSH: one quibble. Wouldn't zero be a more likely number than any other number near it, simply because many tax credits are non-refundable? That is, many tax breaks that Romney's people found for him might take him to 0 but no further. Just a thought.

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    2. Matt, that's an excellent point and more than a quibble: indeed, any random "tax owed" result that would otherwise be negative is going to in reality end up zero.

      What's more, many of these deductions and credits can be carried forward across tax reporting periods (particularly Bain Capital-related ones), such that a negative tax owed in a particular year becomes less negative due to the carryforward, while subsequent years' tax bills become smaller.

      Yeah, you're right, and I should have made that connection: depending on the particulars, which we obviously don't know in the Romney case, it would not be outrageous for an individual to land exactly on zero taxes owed several years in a row.

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    3. CHS,
      There's this interesting take on Romney's taxes too: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/31/opinion/the-mysteries-of-mitt-romneys-financial-records.html?_r=3&ref=opinion&pagewanted=all (noted by B. DeLong yesterday.)

      The fact that Romney and Reid are both Mormons adds another level to this story. Romney could bring charges of bearing false witness against Reid within the LDS hierarchy. The fact that he hasn't is telling. It might even expose Romney as not only a tax cheat, but a tithe cheat as well.

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  16. Check out this exchange from TPM. Bottom line, for those who understand the tax intricacies of private equity, Reid's source could be telling the absolute truth. http://talkingpointsmemo.com/archives/2012/08/missing_the_key_issue.php?ref=fpblg

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  17. In case anybody else is catching up on "old" posts (from maybe 12 hours ago) and reads to the bottom of the comments, I'd like to add Alex Wagner's point: where is the outrage over Republican members of Congress and others making wild accusations about President Obama's birth and school records, and a Muslim Brotherhood connection in the Sec of State's office? Reid at first said a source told him that Romney paid no income taxes for 10 years, and then asserted that he believed this. A factual statement that no one has disproven and a belief, the inaccuracy of which could be proven by an act consistent with what presidential candidates are expected to perform, releasing tax returns.

    It has certainly stirred up interesting responses. Romney carefully not sayin he has paid federal income taxes every year, many speculations that Reid's charge could be true or likely is true, and a host of speculations and beliefs on what Romney could be hiding that's so terrible he won't release his returns.

    Here's what I'm waiting for: the only people known to have seen Romney's returns besides Romney and his attorneys and the IRS are certain people inside the McCain campaign. If you were a reporter, which of those sources would you be working?

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    1. To be fair, McCain (and Boehner, I believe) did come down pretty hard on Bachmann for the Muslim Brotherhood business.

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  18. I disagree -- Reid has every right to accuse, especially given that he named a source, yeah, an anonymous source, but still a source. "Fact-checkers" can either grow up and become real journalists (I'm guessing they make as much money as journalists) or at the very least they can call on journalists to do the legwork, i.e., the JOURNALISM that can shed light on Reid's accusation, one way or the other.

    How? Well, start with a bit of research. Reid identified his source as a "Bain insider." How many "Bain insiders" will have a working or personal relationship with the Democratic Majority Leader of the US Senate? Look for public records or newspaper reports of meetings, ribbon cutting ceremonies, charity or other functions that might include prominent men and women of business, industry...and public service. Look for any public records that might be available regarding meetings between Reid and businessmen. Check campaign finance disclosures.

    One problem with trying to take a pox on both sides with this is that the "equivalence" (in quotes because I think it's a false equivalence) anyway, the equivalence from the wingnut crowd -- birtherism, Obama's-an-Islamo-Facist-Socialist, the ACA is government death panels, or, going back to 2004 the Swiftboating of John Kerry -- never got real scrutiny. Instead, alleged journalists hid behind a one-side-said-this, another-side-said-that fake journalism that's a huge disservice to the public...

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