October 10, 2010

Cynthia Needfacts and the Politiham Feature

Justin Katz

Frankly, if the folks behind the Providence Journal's PolitiFact feature wish not to lose entirely the salable premise thereof — its neutrality — mere months from its introduction, they should ban Cynthia Needham from touching the Truth-O-Meter. Monique made mention of Needham's take-down of Republican Congressional candidate John Loughlin, last week, but the matter deserves a little closer look, beginning with Needham's prior finding that Democrat David Cicilline was being "half true" when he said that "the Republican candidate has talked about privatizing Social Security... so we know where he stands on the issue."

Taking it point by point, Cicilline is correct when he says Loughlin has talked about privatization. It's important to note however that words matter. Had Cicilline made a more stringent accusation, we might have judged it differently.

It's important to note, too, that it would be entirely accurate, by this measure, to state that David Cicilline has "talked about privatization." It's a dumb measure that one would only apply if the objective was to assist the Cicilline spin. Note, especially, that the folks at Politifact chose the phrasing that they investigated. Alternately, they might have looked to a September 29 article in the Pawtucket Times, helpfully provided on Cicilline's campaign Web site:

Privatization, which Cicilline contends his Republican opponent, John Loughlin, has said might be appropriate for younger workers, would "eliminate Social Security the way we know it and make seniors take their savings, go into the stock market, and gamble your future."

Everything about this statement is false. Loughlin has suggested that partial privatization would be appropriate for younger workers, leaving Social Security "the way we know it" intact; the money being invested, rather than stored away in phony federal IOUs, would come from those young workers, not "seniors"; and the money would not come out of savings, but out of contributions already slated for Social Security taxation. Personally, I think Loughlin's view isn't nearly strong enough, but I'm not the one trying to claim an elective office. The point is that PolitiFact is supposed to investigate actual statements and facts, and in this case, Cynthia Needham chose a particular quotation from a field of lies that she found to be easier to spin in a positive way for the candidate whom she presumably prefers. She goes on:

He's also right that Loughlin voted against the resolution urging Washington to oppose it.

Again, Needham's parsing of language is entirely one-sided. The accusation in question is that Loughlin wishes to privatize Social Security. There's plenty of room between that position and thinking that a state legislature shouldn't pass a symbolic resolution in favor of not doing so.

On the third point, however, Cicilline misses the mark. He does not appear to know where his opponent stands on the issue. Loughlin himself says Cicilline is flat out misinterpreting his position. Yet that hasn't stopped Cicilline from criss-crossing the state using the accusation to scare elderly voters and win votes.

So, here at the end of an article that provides the quick-check device of a Truth-O-Meter to allow skimming readers to get the sense of the article, Needham acknowledges that the core substance of Cicilline's comment constituted a misrepresentation. She proceeds to give that an equal rating to an irrelevancy ("has talked about") and an insignificant vote made half a decade ago.

Now turn to Needham's subsequent attack on John Loughlin's veracity on the same issue, which is utterly absurd. The statement under investigation is that "Social Security is a Ponzi scheme" (click here for video of that answer). To which Needham finds:

There are similarities. As PolitiFact Wisconsin notes, Social Security uses taxes on current wage earners to finance the retirement checks of millions of Americans.

So, structurally, Needham acknowledges that Social Security operates in a way at least similar to Ponzi schemes. How does she weave a Truth-O-Meter "False" from a statement that is substantively accurate?

... there is a second, critical component that defines a Ponzi scheme: fraud. To reach the level of this kind of scam, an investment setup must intentionally con investors, while making efforts to convince them that the finances are legitimate.

At best, this is a statement of opinion. As an investor in Social Security, I absolutely distrust the promises being made about the returns that I can expect on my investment. More importantly, whatever honesty the government is able to muster for its own scheme (whether Ponzi or some other variety) derives from the fact that the "investors" have no choice. Would Needham pick the "fraud" nit if an entity other than the federal government were offering the same investment opportunity and threatening to confiscate property and even imprison people who chose not to participate? To ask is to answer.

The article then moves from opinion to advocacy with this:

A Ponzi scheme is guaranteed to run aground when the pool of investors is tapped out, whereas the Social Security administration's troubles could be remedied by raising taxes or other restructuring, should the federal government choose to do so, [URI Economics Professor Rick McIntyre] said.

In other words, Social Security differs from a Ponzi scheme because the latter will inevitably fail, while the government can simply transform its own variation of the scam into a straight-up redistribution of wealth. When the "investors" in Social Security can no longer keep up with the recipients, the government has the power to unilaterally change the payouts and/or draw on resources (taxation) external to the program. Any Ponzi scheme could be resolved with that sort of power.

And for closing, Needham simply can't maintain the mask of objectivity:

But there's one more thing. Loughlin doesn't just compare Social Security to the Ponzi scheme concept, he takes it a step further and draws a parallel with the specific case of Madoff, who is believed to have run the largest fraud of this kind in history.

Publicly measuring a 75-year-old U.S. government program against such a massive crime is not only overstating the issue, it's bordering on irresponsible.

Deploying poor logic and a tautology, Needham illustrates her personal investment in the issue of which she's presenting herself (falsely) as a neutral arbiter. That the perpetrator of the scheme is the U.S. government does not make it less of a scam. That the program has lasted 75 years is merely a consequence of the fact that each wave of investors is a full generation or more removed from the beneficiaries, meaning that the demographic collapse is certain to be slow. And raising ire on the basis of comparing a federal program to a crime merely begs the question.

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A Ponzi scheme is guaranteed to run aground when the pool of investors is tapped out, whereas the Social Security administration's troubles could be remedied by raising taxes or other restructuring, should the federal government choose to do so, [URI Economics Professor Rick McIntyre] said.
Saying that when the government does it, it is by defintion not a Ponzi scheme is exactly equivalent to Richard Nixon saying that when the President does it, it is by definition not illegal.

Posted by: Andrew at October 10, 2010 3:39 PM

Needham is another example of a so-called "journalist"whoring(figuratively of course)for the twin scumbags,Cicilline and Chafee.
Cicilline wouldn't make a pimple on Loughlin's butt but with our lousy President coming in,how can a decent candidate win?When Patrick Kennedy ran against Kevin Vigilante,that lowlife Bill Clinton came in and launched a savage,lying attack on Vigilante,including an attack on his name(OTL,big time Italian,are you reading this?)causing us to be represented for years by a drunken,drug addled,piece of mentally deranged crap.
if this state elects Chafee and Cicilline,we deserve to go down the drain.
I adopted RI as my home 26 years ago,and I don't wanna leave.These two dregs are making that pretty hard to stick to.

Posted by: joe bernstein at October 10, 2010 5:01 PM

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Posted by: Rod Deldeo at May 6, 2012 1:36 PM
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