Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Truth is Out There (But It's Hard to Find)

Discerning the truth about political facts and claims is an onerous and unfulfilling one.  What you're most likely to find is that, by and large, everyone lies or distorts.  Certainly, no televised advertising can be trusted (this seems given), the candidates are going to present their case in the most favorable light possible, and we cannot rely on journalists to present any kind of useful analysis, a small handful aside.

The two best sources I've found so far, FactCheck and Politifact are certainly useful tools, although they require a good deal of time to wade through to understand the often shaded nuances (outright fabrications are easier to sort out) of the claims made by politicians, PACs, SuperPACs, and other partisan organizations.  Sometimes, the About page on Urban Legends and Netlore is useful, and Snopes can be good where more personal claims are made (e.g., Q: Is Hillary Clinton the liberal Marxist America-hater I know she is? A: If you take her statements out of context, she's handing America over to Fidel Castro right now.)  None of these sources are infallible and both liberals and conservatives alike have taken specific aim at Politifact from time to time, but these sites do try to lay out data as much as possible

I wonder how widely these (or other reliable) sources are used and who uses them?  I'm inclined to think only those most invested or interested in political discourse and strategies do--with most people leaning on soundbites offered on broadcast news, entertainers (e.g., Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, Stewart) primarily, faux-political commentors (e.g., Hannity, Van Susteren, Schultz)   and, to a lesser extent, partisan wonks (e.g., Huckabee, Maddow).  Confirmation bias (i.e., the theory that we seek and ignore evidence in ways that help maintain the beliefs we want to maintain) is a real threat for people of all political inclinations.  And, existing research suggests that getting people to re-think their deeply held beliefs, even opposing factual evidence is offered, is very difficult anyway.

As an example, I'll use the above popular macro, seen circulating on a Facebook page near you, to illustrate how difficult discerning such claims can be, or at least how much more complex such claims are.
I'll be addressing some of these items, but not all of them.  The time to investigate each one is not necessary to prove my point.

"Recession is over."

This is a highly debatable claim, completely contingent on what you consider as ending the recession.  And even if you want to claim it's over, does it matter when so many Americans are still facing an array of economic hardships?

"27 Straight months of job increase" / "4 Million Private Sector Jobs Recovered" / "Unemployment coming down."

These kinds of claims depend on how you count such things, and different people use different markers.  Both Democrats and Republicans often use certain standards for themselves and different ones for the opposition. There are also regular fluctuations, and unemployment varies state to state, with many seeing increases lately.  And, again, whatever gains are made (and there have been some), there are still very real existing challenges and problems.

"Dow Jones (DJI) over 13,000"

Yes, but only as of March 2012, and it has experienced significant drops under Obama also.  Overall, it's been steadily climbing in the past two decades, however.  I don't know enough about the Dow to know to what extent the administration influences this, or to what degree this signals any returns for most citizens.  One Motley Fool blogger thinks it's less indicative of a recovery than some purport it to be.  And, again, to beat a tune on a dead horse, the economy is a mixed bag.

"1.4T Deficit to 1.3T Deficit"

Politifact shows that is true only if you begin in 2009, and attribute none of that year's deficit to the Obama administration.  Even if one wants to claim that Obama and Democrats can't be held responsible for the increase ffrom 458 billion to 1.4 Trillion, after the next year's decline to 1.29T, it has increased since.  FactCheck shows that expenditures differ dramatically from revenues.  Partly to blame are Bush era tax cuts (extended by the current administration) and continually increased spending on the military.  FactCheck smartly assesses that there is plenty of blame to go around to both parties and to the American public that stubbornly refuses both cuts or increased taxes.

"GM & Chrysler Profitable"

TARP was a highly controversial move, and while it clearly had some positive effects, debate continues as to its potential negative ramifications and precedents, along with its clear failures (such as not preventing many foreclosures).

"Clear exit strategy" and "Osama dead."

It's almost certain that we will have a continued presence in Afghanistan well past 2014.  Obama has also been incredibly hawkish, expanding drone usage, which may kill who knows how many innocents.  Obama also has not questioned the logic of increased spending in the military.  Bin Laden's death is certainly a great case of national schadenfreude, and it's perhaps only human to desire revenge.  In terms of the President, it's more of a symbol used to refute the attempted claims to show him weak on defense, to resist the stereotype of the effeminate liberal.  No, the President has performed his masculinity; now, why is that such an accomplishment?

I do all of this to make a simple point: Both sides lie and distort, or, if we want to be more generous (and we may not want to), offer truths, to quote Ben Kenobi, "from a certain point of view."  For instance, Ohio governor Kasich smartly chose his wording about the impact of the auto industry bailout on Ohio.  Making a statement about "direct" jobs "created" by the Obama bailout, Kasich can claim a small figure that overlooks jobs retained and indirect jobs created and/or retained.  What he said was true, but it elides other relevant information.  Related to all of this, the truth is vastly more complex that most mediums accommodate them.

My second point is that we, the American public, are woefully under-educated (and I include myself in that) in the complexities of these issues and frequently fail to discern what that "point of view" is.

My third point is that these kind of claims stand no chance of changing the conversation; they just rehearse schoolyard taunts that don't address more systemic and institutional issues that cause both parties to act against the interest of the vast majority of Americans--and a public that just participates by being the crowd that stands around the fight and yells.

An ancillary point that I haven't proven here, but I think by using these resources one will find, that in many of the economic respects, the Democratic and Republican platforms are shades of the same neoliberal hue. No politician is holding any of the banks or any individuals accountable for their backwater dealings and, indeed, Bernanke seems to collude with some of the worst practices out there.  That said, I'm not willing to go back to Bush-era-like policies that will privilege the wealthiest at the cost of the rest of us, and exacerbate the problems that such policies greatly contributed to in the first place.  Indeed, I wonder if it's possible to sever, or even minimize, the oligarchic rule over American life at this point without a major collapse occurring.

For various non-economic reasons (and some economic), I'll be voting Democrat this season.    And those reasons are important--the future make-up of the Supreme Court is just one of those vital areas.  Romney and Ryan clearly do not support gay civil rights in their Oval Office aspirations, even if they aren't always overtly hostile to them; his views on issues relative to women's health are also contrary to mine.   Economically, I do not wish to see the wealthy further advantaged while middle and lower income people are penalized.  I do not wish to see cuts in federal college loans.  I do not wish to see the kind of

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