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« Wednesday Caption Contest: Part 124. | WILLisms.com | Trivia Tidbit Of The Day: Part 467 -- Reagan Made His Own Image. »

Trivia Tidbit Of The Day: Part 466 -- Fact-Checking FactCheck.org.

Does FactCheck.org Have An Agenda, Or Are They Just Dense-


The Republican candidates for the White House debated in Iowa yesterday, and FactCheck.org was eager to offer its two cents on the whole thing.

What is unfortunate about FactCheck.org is that sometimes they need to FactCheck.org themselves.

Here is the summary that FactCheck.org breathlessly emailed out to its list, last night:

More exaggerations and misstatements in the final GOP debate before the Iowa caucuses.

In the Dec. 12 Republican presidential debate in Des Moines:

* Arizona Sen. John McCain promised to make the U.S. “oil independent” within five years, a goal experts say can’t be achieved.

* Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney claimed American students score in the bottom quarter among industrial nations, but they score about average in the most recent tests.

* Romney also claimed that federal programs to prevent teen pregnancy are “obviously not working,” while in fact births are dramatically below what they were in 1991 despite a relatively small increase last year.

* Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said a big federal tax cut would produce “a major boost in revenues for the government,” a notion that nearly all economists say is a fantasy.

* Former Gov. Mike Huckabee claimed he had the most impressive record on education of any GOP candidate, even though Arkansas children scored below the national average while those in Romney’s Massachusetts were No. 1.

* Rep. Duncan Hunter claimed the cost of administering and complying with the federal income tax is $250 billion a year, far higher than the figure given by a recent presidential advisory commission.

Let's go over these facts and fact-checks.

I. First, McCain's silly Manhattan Project notion:

McCain: We have got to achieve energy independence, oil independence in this nation. I will make it a Manhattan Project, and we will in five years become oil independent.

Okay, good call on this one by the FactCheck.org folks. A "Manhattan Project" is a focus-group-tested political talking point, driven by columnists like Thomas Friedman and eaten up by people who think supporting such a ridiculous concept makes them sophisticated. It's not a serious idea.

II. Next, FactCheck.org takes aim at Mitt Romney's assertion that our education system is failing in America:

Mitt Romney: Our kids score in the bottom 10 or 25 percent in exams around the world among major industrial nations.

FactCheck.org says this is wrong, citing recent results from PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) that put American children just below the middle of the pack in math and reading. Mediocrity, w00t!

FactCheck does give Romney some credit, however, for a 1998 study in which the U.S. finished 19th out of 21 nations in math and 16th out of 21 nations in science. They really ought to give Romney a bit more credit, though. Indeed, Romney was not incorrect in his assertion, according to these numbers:

The Program for International Student Assessment was first administered to 15-year-olds in 2000, testing them on mathematics, reading, and science. Students in the United States earned an overall math score of 493 on the 1000 point scale, seven points below average, placing us 18th out of the 27 participating countries. Three years later, PISA results showed no significant change in U.S. math performance. But according to the latest report the U.S. suffered a significant decline in mathematics achievement between 2003 and 2006. We now score 474 -- in 25th place among the 30 participating countries.

The last time I checked, 25th place out of 30-- the bottom 17% of scores-- is within Romney's assertion ("bottom 10 or 25 percent").


It's hard to blame Brooks Jackson and the Annenberg folks, though. After all, they are also products of America's shoddy educational system. Nevertheless, maybe the FactCheck.orgers should consider some remedial math classes. Or maybe they should only FactCheck when they are absolutely sure about something, not when there are lots of data that point to lots of conclusions.

Mitt Romney, furthermore, raises an important point. Even if FactCheck.org is 100% correct and Mitt Romney is 100% incorrect, America still is BELOW the middle on these important measures. And America already spends far more than those other countries on our school system(s). Something's got to give.

III. Moving on, FactCheck.org also went after Mitt Romney for his comments on teen pregnancy prevent programs.

Here's how FactCheck chose to characterize Romney's comments:

Romney also said federal programs to combat teen pregnancy are "obviously not working real well."

That's it. That's all the information they give the reader. As someone who did not catch the debate, I have no context for the comments.

This is precisely the kind of omission that you might see in an erroneous political attack ad. It's sad and telling that I found a broader version of Romney's comments at Huffington Post:

During the Republican debate in Iowa today, Gov. Mitt Romney responded to a question about how he would lower the national debt: "We don't have to run a deficit to pay for the things that are most important because we can eliminate the things that are not critical." Startlingly, Romney included in his list of federal programs that are unnecessary the "thirteen different programs to prevent teenage pregnancy." Romney went on to say that "they're obviously not working real well. We could cut it down to one or two that are making a difference."

Okay, wow. That changes everything. Moreover, if you watch the actual video response embedded in the Huffington Post story, you get precisely what Governor Romney is talking about. He notes that there are 342 different economic development programs, administered by various departments, 40 departments for workforce training, of which only a few are working, etc. His comments about teenage pregnancy prevention programs-- that there are 13 different programs, of which only a couple are even doing anything worthwhile-- are what you want to hear out of America's potential CEO-in-Chief.

At the same time, though, if FactCheck wanted to go after Mitt Romney on this one, they should have focused on the fact that cutting hundreds or even thousands of federal programs will still make a tiny dent in the federal deficit. Only entitlement program reform can really make a difference, something Romney understands and has articulated in the past.

Moreover, if FactCheck.org wants to quibble about the effectiveness of the teenage pregnancy programs, the burden of proof is on them. All they do to refute Mitt Romney's off-hand comment about some of the programs being ineffective is show that teenage pregnancy has declined since 1991. That proves nothing.

First, logically, correlation does not prove causation. Maybe teenage pregnancy rates declined because of increased prosperity, or because of the ABC Family network, or because of a generational value shift. We don't know why teenage pregnancy rates fell.

Second, even if (thirteen) government programs deserve the credit, Romney's assertion that one or two are indeed making a difference makes it clear that FactCheck.org is engaging in the worst kind of parsing, the kind of negative campaigning that brings only discredit and shame to Annenberg and UPenn.

Next, just because teenage pregnancy rates have fallen somewhat in the past 15 years (although rising in 2006) doesn't mean that our efforts (public or private sector alike) to bring those numbers down are doing enough. The U.S. still has a relatively high teen pregnancy rate, when compared to other industrialized nations. Moreover, how do we know that teenage pregnancy rates shouldn't have-- or couldn't have-- fallen much further from 1991 to today with more effective programs?

Finally, why did FactCheck.org choose 1991? Was it because 1991 was a high water mark for teen pregnancy and thus anything below that mark would seem like a fantastic improvement? Likely. Or was 1991 chosen for some other reason-- maybe that there were no teen pregnancy prevention programs before 1991? Or because data collection improved in 1991? Neither of those is likely. If FactCheck.org were more credible, I would give them the benefit of the doubt on that point, but since they seem to seek errors so often where there are none, they need to explain themselves.

IV. Moving on, FactCheck.org takes aim at Rudy Giuliani's assertion that cutting taxes boosts tax revenue:

Giuliani: And then we have to reduce taxes. Right now we should reduce the corporate tax. We should reduce it from 35 percent to 25 percent. It would be a major boost in revenues for the government.

This one is worthy of several separate posts (and we've made several of them here in the past), explaining why Rudy is absolutely right, but in the meantime, let's just remember the fact that in the aftermath of the Bush tax cuts of 2003, tax receipts rose faster than anytime in decades. There are a lot of reasons for this phenomenon, namely that an increasingly globalized world means that businesses and individuals can choose to do business pretty much wherever they want. If America's corporate tax rate is too high (right now, it's just about the highest in the entire civilized world), businesses will simply conduct their business elsewhere.

It's not rocket science. Governments generally collect more in tax revenue when they have lower tax rates. Sure, some revenue might be "lost" for a little while, but in the long run the stronger economic growth will more than make up for those "losses" (or, as they really ought to be called, "keeps," since we're talking about people NOT losing their money to confiscatory government coercion). Rudy is absolutely right that you cannot tax your way to prosperity, and you cannot out-tax other nations to fund your government's voracious appetite. Rudy has every right to make this assertion, although it's clear that FactCheck.org will continue to pounce on this statement through November 2008 and beyond, much to the pleasure of Hillary or Obama or whatever other tax-lover the Democrats nominate.

V. Next, Huckabee and Romney both claimed to have a better record on education. FactCheck.org actually does a decent job on this one, simply laying out a few facts about Arkansas during Huckabee's tenure and Massachusetts during Romney's tenure and letting the reader decide. So we'll move on.

VI. Finally, let's turn to Duncan Hunter's claim that doing the taxes (not actually paying them, just complying with them) costs Americans 250 billion dollars annually. FactCheck says this is wrong. They are wrong to say Rep. Hunter is wrong. This one is actually the easiest of all to FactCheck FactCheck.org on, and, frankly, they ought to be ashamed of themselves on this one. They're just setting themselves up for ridicule. First, let's just lay out how FactCheck.org presents the argument:

Rep. Duncan Hunter of California overstated the compliance burden of the federal tax system:
Hunter: The tax that we're all paying that doesn't help anything ... is the $250 billion-plus that we pay each year not to the federal government, to the Treasury, but to prepare our taxes, defend our taxes, and for the massive cost of the IRS. That's all overhead – 250 billion-plus dollars.

We're not sure where Hunter gets that figure. The President's Advisory Panel on Tax Reform puts total compliance costs at around $140 billion per year, a figure that includes the value of individual taxpayer's time spent filling out forms, which strictly speaking is not money "that we pay." Add to that the "more than $10 billion" that the government spends to administer the tax system, and the figure comes to $150 billion, not $250 billion. The advisory panel report says other estimates of compliance costs fall between $100 billion and $200 billion.

They're not sure where Duncan Hunter gets that figure?

Have they never heard of the authority on this very subject, the Tax Foundation? Good grief. From the Tax Foundation, some data:

In 2005 individuals, businesses and nonprofits will spend an estimated 6 billion hours complying with the federal income tax code, with an estimated compliance cost of over $265.1 billion. This amounts to imposing a 22-cent tax compliance surcharge for every dollar the income tax system collects. Projections show that by 2015 the compliance cost will grow to $482.7 billion.

And a table to go with it (.pdf):


So, if anything, Duncan Hunter may have understated the staggering cost of tax compliance in America. FactCheck.org's insistence on only using numbers from the President's Advisory Panel on Tax Reform, to the exclusion of other figures, is troubling but consistent with the FactCheck.org modus operandi. The admission of not being sure where Hunter's numbers came from (only the world's experts on the subject!) is just plain embarrassing.

Note to the Annenberg FactCheck.orgers: DON'T ASSERT SOMETHING IS WRONG JUST BECAUSE IT DOESN'T FIT INTO YOUR WORLDVIEW. Moreover, hire some fact checkers to examine your own all-too-often erroneous FactChecks. FactCheck.org, all too often, you are just plain wrong:


Previous Trivia Tidbit: Some Good News.

Posted by Will Franklin · 13 December 2007 03:09 PM


Nancy Pelosi spends $16000 on flowers per year for her office on the tax payers bill.

Posted by: Zsa Zsa at December 14, 2007 09:19 AM