Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Politifact, handwaving, and "Both sides do it"

Both sides do do it.

Democrats complain about abuses of civil liberties outside of office, then go in and do the same thing that Republicans complain about.

Democrats express concern about the unemployed with out of office, and then suddenly don't give a rat's ass when in office.

But that doesn't mean you can simply point at any random fact and say "Oh, both sides do it". For example, both sides lie, but that doesn't mean you can point at a random fact stated by one party and say "It's a lie".

Politifact has decided that Democrats who argue that the Republicans plan to abolish Medicare are lying. It has no basis to make this claim, given Republicans did, actually, plan to abolish Medicare. And Politifact knows that. This is the first paragraph of its attempt to argue that Democrats are "lying" when they claim Medicare is being abolished:

Republicans muscled a budget through the House of Representatives in April that they said would take an important step toward reducing the federal deficit. Introduced by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the plan kept Medicare intact for people 55 or older, but dramatically changed the program for everyone else by privatizing it and providing government subsidies.

OK, that looks like abolishing Medicare to me. People over 55 will eventually die. For the rest of us, we won't get what we know as Medicare, we'll get its replacement, which is government subsidized private system. Of course, Politifact is leaving itself wiggle room for its attempts to call Democrats liars later on - it says Ryan's proposal is about "changing the program" rather than "replacing it", but, well, what is described is clearly not, by any definition, Medicare.

So, what statements does Politifact claim are lies? Let's look at what riled Politifact:

But more often, Democrats and liberals overreached:

They ignored the fact that the Ryan plan would not affect people currently in Medicare -- or even the people 55 to 65 who would join the program in the next 10 years.

They used harsh terms such as "end" and "kill" when the program would still exist, although in a privatized system.

They used pictures and video of elderly people who clearly were too old to be affected by the Ryan plan. The DCCC video that aired four days after the vote featured an elderly man who had to take a job as a stripper to pay his medical bills.

So, let's see:
  • Democrats didn't mention that some people will be grandfathered in. And?
  • Democrats said the system would be killed, when in fact an entirely different system with the same name will exist. This means they're lying... how?
  • Apparently only young people are affected by changes to Medicare.
Of the three objections, the first is protesting that the Democrats need to explain points irrelevent to their argument. The fact some people are going to be grandfathered in does not mean that the program isn't being abolished.

For the other two complaints, it's Politifact that's lying. Politifact is trying to argue the following:
  • That a system utterly unlike Medicare is Medicare if it has the same name going forward.
  • That people who are young now are not going to get old, and thus it's not legitimate to make a complaint that abolishing (or completely replacing with something else) Medicare will affect people who are going to be old when they themselves suffer the effects.
According to Politifact's logic, the campaigns going forward should show young, healthy people, instead of the elderly, when depicting victims of Ryan's proposals.

I'm not suggesting that no campaigns contained a minor misleading point or two, but that's true of any campaign. To describe, however, the general thrust of the Democrats objections to the Ryan's proposals as "lies", when actually they were fundamentally true and alerting people to a real danger, is hideously wrong.

Of course, even Paul Ryan has walked back the proposals. What we're now seeing is a proposal to offer people a choice of Medicare or subsidized private services. We can argue about the wisdom of such a choice, but there's little doubt that the revised proposal exists because people were concerned about Medicare going away.

In their efforts to appear non-partisan, Politifact has resorted to sophistry and demands parties be actively misleading, both of which are opposite to its supposed advertised purpose. It's difficult to take the group seriously going forward, and that's a shame, because a group that actually fact checks campaign statements, rather than criticizing anything it deems unbeltwayish, would be actually very positive.

Instead, we see handwaving, sophistry, and in some cases the shoring up of actual lies, in an attempt to portray one party as actually lying about an issue. One thing's for sure - Politifact isn't a fact checking organization any more.

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