Friday, December 15, 2017

Doubling Down on Lies

David Leonhardt doubled down this week on the principle of false balance coupled with the technique of counting lies (instead of evaluating lies) as an analytical tool.

The original NYT list of "Trump's Lies" appeared as a June 23, 2017. 'opinion' piece -- even though the determination of whether a statement is true or false and, if false, is therefore a lie is arguably an objective exercise. Certainly, in this case, the author is at least implicitly claiming objectivity by proceeding with the lie count. The original piece openly asked for input from readers regarding appropriate next steps. Our Counting Lies post criticized the effort on two counts:

1) Evaluation of Trump's lies has nothing to do with presidents Bush or Obama. Going down that rabbit hole distracts from important issues and, but once again using balance as the yardstick for evaluation, automatically leans toward normalization of Trump and improves the chances that false equivalence of Trump with others will rule the day.

2) A better analysis would categorize the lies by their apparent nature and quality. The NYT is a group of slow learners. In September 2016, the NYT referred to Trump as "mischievous" even while asserting that they would finally start calling a lie a lie.

Despite the flaws in the NYT approach to objectively describing Trump's extreme behavior, Leonhardt has updated the list of lies by comparisons with Obama in "Trump's Lies vs. Obama." Though the list he compiles clearly ranks Trump with a high lie count compared with the count they compile for Obama, proceeding with this exercise is particularly troubling.

First of all, this exercise was a response to Trump supporters who "didn’t doubt that he[Trump] sometimes bent the truth. But they thought he was no worse than other recent presidents, and they challenged The Times to do the same exercise for a president other than Trump."

But is there any doubt that Trump supporters who believe that Trump's lies are few and innocent will be moved by such an exercise? Of course not. They will either ignore it or look for one or two real or perceived flaws in Leonhardt's Obama lie count and use that "finding" as a cudgel to reject the entire exercise as "biased" in favor of Obama. But the goal of distracting from useful evaluation of Trump's fundamental mendacity will have been achieved by those Trump supporters. Leonhardt does not even seem aware that this Trump supporters criticism fits into the Deny/Distract/Deflect/Accuse framework (see Birtherism as a Service or All Tactics All the Time) recently highlighted by John Oliver as "whataboutism".

Additional thoughts:

To David Leonhardt - why not tell the Trump supporters to ask Fox News to count up the Obama lies if they are so interested in them. My guess is that Fox would not do it because that is not how they plan  this game. Fox News identifies a "fact" that motivates strong emotions of hate and fear of liberals and countervailing "facts" to motivate feelings of patriotism  and loyalty to conservatives.

What if Trump were the first president and lied all the time?  For lack of predecessors, would you compare him to King George? Or would you wish there had been other presidents for purposes of comparison because you would have no idea how to assess whether or not his constant lies is a serious concern?

Sorry, but Obama appeared at all times to be a president who was sincere and spoke at length pointing to facts in support of his statements. If his statements did not hold up, then he was in a good position to make corrections and generally did. Anyone who could not see that will not be moved. He was also disadvantaged by a relentless unfair series of attacks on his character. Fortunately, his character was so solid that those attacks were ultimately ineffective. Trump, on the other hand, has a long history of only thinking of himself and acting on his own behalf, and, as Steve Schmidt has been saying, "Trump lies 100% of the time."

About Doubt

"Doubting the Intelligence, Trump pursues Putin and leaves a Russian threat unchecked" reads the headline this week in WaPo. But does he doubt the intelligence, or reject the intelligence? The text of the article does not mince words quite like the headline, going on to state that - "Nearly a year into his presidency, Trump continues to reject the evidence that Russia waged an assault on a pillar of American democracy and supported his run for the White House."

So if he indeed rejects the intelligence, the question is why. Is it a healthy skepticism? Is he a spy?
The thought that the POTUS is an agent of a foreign power is such an extreme idea that, even if all of the evidence pointed in that direction, our responsible journalists in their everyday reporting bend over backwards to present alternative theories with equal weight.
Three Amigos courtesy
Now the main thrust of the article is clear as it states "The result is without obvious parallel in U.S. history, a situation in which the personal insecurities of the president — and his refusal to accept what even many in his administration regard as objective reality — have impaired the government’s response to a national security threat. The repercussions radiate across the government." So whatever the reason for the actions of the president, the article highlights the clear threat to national security of a president who refuses to hold a hostile foreign power accountable for their direct actions against the U.S.

This piece comes at an important time with Republicans in the House challenging the reliability of the FBI and the Mueller investigation.  U.S. foreign policy tilts heavily in favor of Russia and other dictatorships and away from nations allied with the U.S. in the decades before 2017.

But when it comes to the possible culpability of the president, instead of offering the simplest explanation for his actions, the WaPo piece scales back from a common sense conclustion to an ostensibly plausible (but really implausible) explanation. "White House officials cast the president’s refusal to acknowledge Russian interference in the election as an understandably human reaction."

The article unearths a series of encounters between and among senior government officials, which does shed light on how the Trump position on Russia has played out throughout 2017.

And WaPo notes "Trump has never explained why he so frequently seems to side with Putin.
To critics, the answer is assumed to exist in the unproven allegations of coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign, or the claim that Putin has some compromising information about the American president. Aides attribute Trump’s affection for Putin to the president’s tendency to personalize matters of foreign policy and his unshakable belief that his bond with Putin is the key to fixing world problems."

That "To critics.." statement is the weakest point of the piece. As a hard news article, editorial policy of WaPo dictates that any interpretation of events that would constitute a reasonable best guess, but would appear highly accusatory must be consigned to the 'he said/she said' bin of logical discourse, the "on the one hand yes, but on the other hand, no."  The 'we report the facts, but we have no interpretation.'

So the most important point - is the president a spy? a money launderer? an agent of a foreign power? is shunted aside to an evenhanded tug between "unproven allegations" and "the president's tendency to personalize matters of foreign policy" as well as a never explained and vague "unshakeable belief that his bond with Putin is the key to fixing world problems."

The problem with this approach is what Republican political strategist Steve Schmidt calls, to paraphrase, starting fresh every Monday morning with Trump as if we know nothing about him, as if we only have the claims made by two equal and opposite sides, even though this president "lies 100% of the time." as Schmidt has said many times.

Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine is one of the few observers who picks up on the significance of this reporting flaw in "Advisers Afraid to Bring Up Russian Hacking Around Trump Because It Triggers Him". Chait states that the WaPo article reports "in devastating detail" about the short tempered president, while pointing out "And yet, as humiliating as the treatment of the president’s fragile psyche may be, in its most important aspects, the account is exculpatory. "

The problem with the WaPo piece that quotes top aides about Trump's "frustration" because "he believes he is innocent" is that, as Chait says - "This is a perfectly sensible frame for analyzing the thinking and behavior of a normal person. But it is not a sensible frame for analyzing the thinking and behavior of Donald Trump." Chait ends with the simple statement - "But it’s quite possible his hair-trigger anger over the subject of Russia is a tactic designed to close off a subject on which his guilt runs very deep."

And so the frame of the WaPo report is a flawed frame that exists due to the use of outmoded standards for 'objective' reporting, but which are not accurate. Avoiding the obvious explanation for Trump's behavior because it makes him look guilty, guilty, guilty results in distorted presentation of the story. One could read the WaPo piece and reasonably conclude - No wonder Trump becomes furious! He knows he is innocent after all. What could be more frustrating. Sure, let's shut down that infuriating Mueller investigation at once would be a reasonable takeaway from the WaPo piece.

Political journalists interested in accuracy need to center every news story on the frame most likely to be accurate, then point out the areas of possible doubt - not the frame that assembles the facts that are most easily proven and combines these with speculation, such as second hand witness accounts of alleged state of mind - as if anyone truly knows another person's true state of mind.

At the very least, WaPo and other news organizations need to face the reality that when they report accounts of state of mind or feeling, they are presenting opinions as facts, which jeopardizes the accuracy of their reporting. That correction would be a small step to improve reporting.

But the more important red flag in the article is the "To critics.." statement noted above. Each time a news reporter tries to boil down the facts to an argument between equal and opposite 'sides', they need to recognize that that is an improper frame. Their knee jerk tendency to do this is the reason we are in this mess today.

In fact, by this standard, perhaps WaPo news articles should note "To critics, the Washington Post is so-called 'fake news' that says whatever Jeff Bezos tells them to say..."

Monday, December 4, 2017

When Balance Is Unfair and Unreasonable

In Why a Lot of Important Research Is Not Being Done, Aaron Carroll presents a compelling case that industry groups and individual companies have been using the courts for decades as a tool to intimidate researchers whose findings threaten their revenue streams. His detailed examples of this chilling effect include the lead industry, gun manufacturers, surgeons who treat back pain, and manufacturers of dietary supplements.

But in a last paragraph nod to balance typical of pieces in the New York Times, Dr. Carroll notes that  "Lawsuits like these aren’t necessarily bound by ideology or partisan politics." citing the suit by Mark Jacobsen, has filed against "the National Academy of Sciences and the authors of a recent paper published in the academy’s journal, PNAS. The paper criticized Mr. Jacobson’s analyses that the United States could fully power itself with wind, water and solar energy. Many, including some identified as environmentalists, have criticized the lawsuit."

Now, in terms of simple logic, a single example of one "side" in contrast to many examples on the other "side", instead of supporting the proposition that "both sides do it" equally,  actually argues in favor of the proposition that both sides don't do it in equal measure. And, if it is worth mentioning at all, then the reader must wonder -
1) Is this just an example of a fragile ego prompting a lawsuit? Or,
2) Is there industry interference on one side (fossil fuels) or the other side (wind, solar, water)?

My own guess is that the boldness of Jacobsen's 100% renewables claim prompted healthy skepticism among academic researchers. But the Times article does not provide enough information for the reader to judge. And that's the problem. In the Times, the editor is biased in favor of any statement that suggests "balance" between two equal and opposite sides, which is accepted as a truism. Accepting balance in all situations regardless of the underlying facts without further examination meets the Times definition of objectivity.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

When Both Sides Don't Do It

David Leonhardt has an interesting piece in NYT with a proper focus on Republican party tactics to advance the proposed tax legislation: The Four Big Tax Deceptions

1. Describe the benefits of a different tax plan and make it sound as if they are talking about this one. I would lump this tactic together with calling the proposal "tax reform" as if it somehow goes beyond tax cuts aimed at the wealthy, which is in sharp contrast to the 1986 Tax Reform Act which broadened the tax base by closing many loopholes that had evolved over the years while lowering the top tax rates on individuals.

2. Talk about the plan's middle class tax cuts - and ignore the middle class tax increases

3. Pretend that the future will never arrive. Krugman in "The Biggest Tax Scam in History" (along with others) puts this a little more accurately. Make two arguments, each of which can be true in a given context, but both of which can not be simultaneously true: "Here’s how it works: If you point out that the bill hugely favors the wealthy at the expense of ordinary families, Republicans will point to the next few years, when the class-war nature of the plan is obscured by those temporary tax breaks — and claim that whatever the language of the law says, those tax breaks will actually be made permanent by later Congresses.

But if you point out that the bill is fiscally irresponsible, they’ll say that it “only” raises the deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next decade and doesn’t raise deficits at all after that — because, you see, those tax breaks will expire by 2027, so the tax hikes will raise a lot of revenue."

4. Rush, rush, rush. This one is a big a red flag. Rush, rush, rush before anyone has time to notice and better understand your tactics in 1, 2 and 3 above. Of course, rush, rush, rush was the tactic of choice used for the push to repeal the ACA.

What all this adds up to is the "Silver Bullet" approach to government.  Do whatever you want and make any claim that supports your desired action, whether or not true so long as the claim you make is the claim which, if true, would or might support your action. And, whether or not true, may not be relevant, but if irrelevant, would crowd out meaningful consideration of relevant policy details.

Is it any wonder that the Republican president lies all the time?

The Silver Bullet is also used in electoral campaigns including the permanent campaign pursued by the Trump administration. So the president argued in the campaign that he could not release his tax returns because he was under audit. That was a patently false statement, but it was a statement. The fact of the audit was irrelevant. He did not provide additional detail which would have been refutable. End of discussion. Mission accomplished.

So a visit by the few surviving Navajo code talkers is used as a campaign event to insult those White House guests with a "Pocohantas" jab, ostensibly aimed at Warren, but really used as a deflection. Funny how these moments so often involve people of color.

The Leonhardt piece ends with a mention of the failed Roy Moore scam targeted as the Washington Post. Suppose the scammer had been able to obtain video footage of the meeting with WaPo that could be sliced to place Wapo in a damaging light, whether or not fairly. That footage would be the Silver Bullet discrediting the Post, even though that particular footage would still be irrelevant to the guilt or innocence of Roy Moore of the charges brought by his accusers to date. Logical fallacies are of no concern to this crew and, no, both sides don't do it. Not like this. [Late update: the post-truth scammer doctored - whoops, I mean heavily edited - the tapes per Wapo here.]

An interesting sidebar to all this is the number of staunch Republicans -pundits and former officeholders - who find the current administration completely abhorrent. To name a few -  George Will, Steve Schmidt, Bruce Bartlett, Joe Scarborough, Mary Matalin, and many others. There is literally no precedent to the level of distress among party loyalists to an administration of their own party. In the decades preceding the electoral success of Trump, the Republican strategy consisted of saying almost anything and using hardball tactics during election campaigns, but pivoting to a softer tone while in office even while employing three-card-monte tactics now and then. An example would be the GW Bush 2001 Commission to Strengthen Social Security with members drawn from both parties, but which was stacked with advocates of private accounts.

When Tactics Become Policy refers in part to this post-1970 Republican game and the fact that when winning is all that matters, the tactics used to win elections or to win Congressional votes on policy matters inevitably end up distorting those policies, sometimes beyond recognition. In fact, the outcome ends up being a situation that absolutely no one ever wanted.

Unless your name is Vladimir Putin. Or Donald Trump.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Elusive Truth about the Still Amazing 401(k)

Republican proposals to limit pre-tax contributions to employer sponsored 401(k) plans have been short on detail so far and, due in part to the complexity of tax rules, long on misunderstanding.

The annual limit on tax-advantaged contributions to an employer sponsored plan 401(k) (assuming you are under age 50) is $18,000 in 2017. This limit is unlikely to go down as a result of the Republican tax proposal, despite what you may read about a drop to $2,400.

That's because the $18,000 is comprised of two types of contributions - regular pre-tax 401(k) contributions and so-called "Roth" after-tax contributions to a 401(k) plan. Under current law, you decide how much of the $18,000 limit you contribute to regular pre-tax 401(k) and how much you contribute to a Roth 401(k). Many employers have not made the Roth after-tax feature available to their employees, so many people, even financial writers seem to be unaware of it.

The author of this Washington Post article seems to be unaware of the distinction, not even mentioning Roth.

Don't confuse the "Roth" 401(k) that an employer sponsors with the "Roth" IRA that has been around a lot longer. You set up your own Roth IRA, not your employer and the dollar limit on contributions to a Roth IRA is only $5,500.

So, back to the tax proposal - it's really just a matter of Uncle Sam saying "Pay me now or pay me later."

There are important differences, which we's get to, but some people will be better off with the change.

If your tax rate when you retire is the same as the tax rate in the year that you saved, then there is no difference between the pre-tax 401(k) and a Roth 401(k).

For example, suppose I want to set aside $1,000 today in a pre-tax 401(k) account that earns interest for 15 years at 6% per year and my tax rate is 20%. My $1,000 account would grow to $2,400. After paying taxes of $480,  I would have $1,920 left to spend after withdrawal.

Now suppose instead that instead of putting all of that $1,000 in a regular pre-tax 401(k), I pay taxes at 20% today on that $1,000 which leaves me with $800 after taxes to put in a Roth. What happens? You guessed it - the $800 in the Roth account grows at the same 6% per year to $1,920 which is tax free.

For a lot of people, the Republican tax proposal has no impact on retirement saving!

But the real story is more complicated.

If you expect your tax rates to be lower in retirement, then you are better off in the pre-tax 401(k), not the Roth. If tax rates increase for everybody due to future tax law changes, then now is a good time to save more in the Roth.

And there is one more impact no one seems to talk about. Those who are financially well off and  looking for an upper hand on taxes are better off with the Roth. Why? Suppose a wealthy individual is in a 35% tax bracket both  this year and in retirement and saves $18,000 in a pretax 401(k) account that grows to $100,000 at retirement, is withdrawn and taxed at 35%, leaving $65,000 in spending money.

That same person could set aside $27,700 of salary today by paying taxes of $9,700 (35% of $27,700) and put the remaining $18,000 in a Roth 401(k) that grows to $100,000 at retirement in the same year as the previous example - but pay no taxes on the $100,000!

So, for anyone who is hitting the tax law limits on saving, changing to a Roth contribution has the same impact as increasing the tax law limits.

None of this highly technical analysis touches on the real life impact that could discourage saving by lower paid workers if this $2,400 limit is made law. But that story is more complicated than it sounds. Most 401(k) plans have automatic enrollment features these days. Low paid employees contributing by automatic enrollment to a 401(k) are not likely to change their minds and take action to stop making Roth contributions. And they might even end up contributing more effectively for retirement if they have saved the same dollar amount after tax that they would have pre-tax, but their Roth account is not taxed when it is withdrawn at retirement.

That's the story from the worker's perspective. If you are well off, this change is not necessarily bad. If you are low paid, it's probably not bad because automatic enrollment will keep you saving for retirement. But from the perspective of the country, this proposal increases tax revenues today by removing future sources of  tax revenue.  This is yet another Republican tax policy slight of hand - eliminate the estate tax and reduce corporate taxes, offset those tax revenue reductions with a measure that increases current tax receipts, but blow up the deficit in the future. Let's forget about tomorrow cuz tomorrow never comes.

Ironically, DJT may have been told something about the 401(k) proposal that prompted the Oct. 23 tweet
"There will be NO change to your 401(k). This has always been a great and popular middle class tax break that works, and it stays!"

As tweets go, that may not be far off the mark. But we will never know, will we?

The Party of Lincoln is Now the Party of Trump

Thomas Edsall has thoughtful piece "The Party of Lincoln is Now the Party of Trump" in the NYT today about the extent to which the Republican Party of today is losing its moorings. But his argument fall short in one important sense.

As I comment in the NYT editor's picks:

"The statement that 'Democrats are hardly exempt from tribalism' misses the larger point. No prominent Republican has stepped forward to repudiate Trump unless they are a former officeholder, current officeholder who has decided not to run for re-election, or member of the conservative pundit class. If you are a Republican Senator or Representative who is not running for reelection, then you are not a "GOP pol who stands up to Trump", Nolan McCarty and Ryan Enos notwithstanding. Standing up means putting yourself on the line."

Unfortunately, waiting for a Republican officeholder in the Senate or House to step forward feels like a doomed exercise. The fact that no one has taken this step is evidence of a consensus political calculation - that there is only downside to being the first and potentially only Republican to take such a risk.

From Bush to Trump to What?

As noted previously here and by others, Trump is not an aberration. The Trump phenomenon is the result of a natural progression of corrosive Republican party tactic over recent decades. The Bushes in particular embraced extreme tactics in political campaigns. George H.W. Bush was expert at the pivot from divisive campaign tactics to more normal behavior as president. George W. Bush carried tactical politics to an extreme in both campaigns and governing. Rich Benjamin has a pretty good rundown in the allotted space today in WaPo: George W. Bush is not part of the Resistance. He's part of what brought us Trump.

Benjamin's piece is mostly spot on, but the ending is a bit off; "Americans may like to forget history. But this year is showing us in real time that we are, indeed, doomed to repeat it."

Actually, we are not repeating history. We are experiencing the natural progression of history that happens when tactics employed to win become more important than any other consideration - like survival of the republic.

The Trump phenomenon is more extreme than the Bush phenomenon ever was. Anything bad about Bush is taken to a never-before experienced extreme with Trump. With Trump, literally no one knows where this goes. If the current Republican Congress continues to support Trump, everything has to get worse before it gets better.