Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Oy, PolitiFact

I basically ignore everything PolitiFact has to say at this point, and today's pathetic episode is exactly why. I mean, I was going to ignore this, as I've been trying to ignore everything about them, but really, PolitiFact -- if you not only make bonehead mistakes but refuse to correct them...well, as I said, I ignore everything they say.

Here's the thing. Eric Cantor said somewhere that the deficit was "growing." He probably actually meant the debt, which is in fact growing; he said the deficit.

Is it worth getting all fact-checky about? Probably not. But PolitiFact did, in fact, decide to fact-check it, and somehow managed to give it a "half-true." Wait, you're thinking -- everyone knows that the deficit has been going down, right? Ah, yes, says PolitiFact, but then projections say it's going to go up again in the medium or long run.

Oh, we could get all technical about this..."growing" has to mean either that it's going up now, or that it's now projected to go up more in the future than previously expected...it doesn't make any sense at all to say that it's "growing" if (as is the case) it's going down now, and then in the future it's (still) scheduled to go up, but less than older projections. PolitiFact's original item didn't bother to consider whether the long-term projected deficits had changed, but that seems to me pretty important to their own interpretation of Cantor's claim.

But we don't need to get all technical. Because today's follow-up actually brings two fact-checks together: the Cantor claim, and a Barack Obama statement that deficits are falling.

Here's the thing: it just can't be true that the deficit is falling at a record pace, and also half-true that the deficit is "growing."

No, really. It can't be.

Now, it's fine if you want to give Cantor the benefit of the doubt and ignore the literal meaning of what he said. Assume he meant debt, not deficit. Spin out some invented version in which he said that the deficit, after going down now, is projected to go up in the future. Or whatever. But then you're not checking facts. And at any rate, if you (oddly) believe there's an implied "forever into the future" any time people talk about the deficit, then Obama is wrong.

I think the real story here, and the real reason I've stopped paying attention to PolitiFact, is that they handle criticism extremely badly. They got this wrong; that's okay. In my view, they probably shouldn't have looked at it in the first place. Or, if it was a different kind of place, they could have just given us the budget facts, and not worried about their ratings. Or, having done it, they could realize that their two ratings really didn't reconcile, and they could have admitted error and dealt with it. But if they treat legitimate criticism this way (and I've seen it from both sides), then how can you take them seriously?

Really: I've been ignoring them for some time now. And if you catch me relying on them for anything, call me on it. They've unfortunately become useless.


  1. Their write-ups are mostly accurate, or at least they'd give a reader enough information to judge for themselves what's true and what isn't in context. Where they screw up and cause agita for everyone and themselves is when they assign a rating of Pants on Fire/False/Mostly False/Half True/Mostly True/True.

  2. If they wanted to make a point about the debt rising, or about the deficit rising later on, why the hell didn't they just give Cantor a "Mostly-False" and then say that? This seems like exactly the type of thing that they should use Mostly False for.

    This kind of stuff really makes me sad because the idea of Politifact is really great. We need fact checking because in this day and age conservatives and liberals operate with completely different sets of facts.

    Honestly I get the impression that Politifact's writers personally lean liberal, but that they get worried when they have to keep calling Republicans liars, so they bend their ratings so that they don't look partisan.

    The problem is that bending things so that both sides seem to be about the same completely goes against the point of fact checking.

    1. Pretty much. Just like how they always manage to find an equal number of whoppers for their year-end issue...

  3. The thing is, in their original rating of Cantor, their own charts show the deficit at a projected 4.0% of GDP in 2013, and then 3.5% in 2023. Sure looks to me like the deficit is falling in the long term too.

    They only get to say it is "growing" because it takes a dip to 2.1% of GDP in 2015, according to projections. But come on, draw a trend line and see what that looks like.

    1. +100. Only by including years we have no data on the economy plus no action on tax cuts that should fade do we get Cantor's numbers.

  4. (And since when is a projection 10 years out worth anything?)

  5. Our Half True rating means the statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context. That seem a good summary of Cantor’s statement, and it captures the complexity of the federal budget picture. -- Politifact

    In addition to the problems you all have noted, I think they go wrong calling one of their categories "half true." They should just say "indeterminate" or "partly true, partly false" or something else. "Half true" is too much like a basic endorsement, as well as an epistemological train wreck waiting to happen. "True" and "false" are binary opposites. So, when can the essential truth of a claim survive if half of it is missing? Doesn't that make it "half false"? Is half-true the same as half-false, or is there an important distinction? What missing halves flip the meter from true to false? etc. You end up needing Aristotle or Wittgenstein on hand just to read the damn newspaper.

  6. FWIW, the problem isn't just Politifact, it's our own biases. Here's Cantor's quote:

    "What we are trying to do is fund the government and make sure also that we take away the kinds of things that are standing in the way of a growing economy (and) a better health care, and all the while keeping our eye focused on trying to deal with the ultimate problem, which is this growing deficit."

    As politifact reminds us, there are pretty much two deficit realities (in the window the CBO can reasonably forecast): there's the shrinking deficit out to 2015, and there's the steadily growing one from 2016 to 2023. Cantor didn't specify whether he meant the (longer-term) steadily growing deficit or the (near-term) shrinking one.

    But his answer, paraphrased, is roughly thus: "We're gonna take care of the things we need to take care of today, make the cuts we can without hurting the economy today, without losing focus on the bigger picture" - which Cantor describes as the "ultimate problem" - a reasonable interpretation of the "ultimate problem" being the 3-10 year deficit picture, which is, pretty certainly, growing.

    If he had not said "this growing deficit" but rather "the growing deficit" - meaning, the CBO's growing deficit from 2016 to 2023, would we take less offense? Might it just have been a slip of the tongue over a small word, and thus plausibly half true?

    1. CSH, I agree there's a way to spin Cantor's remarks as not flatly false, and again, I think the problem is partly Politifact's terminology, which sounds too much like an excuse or an endorsement. But let me ask you this: Do you think Cantor's goal, deep down, was to enlighten his listeners, or scare-monger on behalf of a party that uses "deficits" as code for upward redistribution?

    2. CSH - which is why they shouldn't have rated the thing in the first place. It's just placing more weight on the thing than it deserves. When I saw the first round of liberals freaking out, I wasn't interested...truth is, liberals should be freaking out about Cantor identifying the deficit as the ultimate problem, not whether he told a fib about deficits or whether PolitiFact butchered it.

      But really: there's just no way that it can be true that the deficit is both coming down rapidly and "growing." To make those both true, you need a lot of gymnastics that just aren't the originals.

    3. Thanks for the comments, guys, I take both your points, further to Jeff's comment, its the spirit of the thing that probably qualifies as a "pants-on-fire" lie (i.e. the GOP Reps are looking to, in a "no new revenue" and "no entitlement/defense cut" way, 'do something' about the ballooning projected 2016-2023 deficits).

      To your comment, Jonathan, its like Cantor is sharing something of a political zen koan with his Fox viewers; so I take back my theory that he meant to talk about 2016 but failed to clarify: that would have been way too logical an explanation.

      When it comes to dissembling on budget issues, the GOP house leadership are surely 10,000 hour experts by now.

    4. A political zen koan! Excellent. :-)

    5. (Also, I'm not sure it's 10,000 hours, I think it might actually be genetic with them.)

    6. Also, I'm not sure it's 10,000 hours, I think it might actually be genetic with them

      This is the sound of one hand clapping for that joke!

    7. I would, because it would belie the point that he's not doing anything about it.

      If you're constantly cutting revenue what do you have to complain about deficits?

  7. A political zen koan! Excellent. :-)

    A political zen koan for Fox viewers is even more koan-like. It's sort of like: "What does this taste like to a man with no head?"


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