Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Rachel Maddow Show verses Politifact:
The Battle for Truth, Journalism, and Fairness

I was extremely distraught when I heard that two of my favorite sources for news were engaged in a heated argument. The trouble began when Politifact Wisconsin ranked one of Rachel Maddow’s claims about the Wisconsin Deficit false. She responded tonight (February 24th 2011) by saying that Politifact was wrong and in no uncertain terms attacked to validity of the entire organization. I decided to determine who was right and who was wrong.

The original claims in question were presented in the first 3 minutes of the first segment of Rachel’s February 17th show.  That is where she said the following:

            I‘m quoting their own version of the Congressional Budget Office, the state‘s own nonpartisan “assess the state‘s finances” agency.  That agency said the month that the new Republican governor of Wisconsin was sworn in, last month, that the state was on track to have a $120 million budget surplus this year.

She also said:

            The state is not bankrupt.  Even though the state had started the year on track to have a budget surplus—now, there is, in fact, a $137 million budget shortfall.  Republican Governor Scott Walker, coincidentally, has given away $140 million worth of business tax breaks since he came into office. Hey, wait.  That‘s about exactly the size of the shortfall.

Her show’s blog also included a post titled, “Wisconsin Governor made his own problem,” which blames the budget deficit on Walker’s tax breaks.

Politifact Wisconsin wrote an article that rated Rachel's statements false because the tax cuts that Walker signed into law don’t take effect until the next fiscal year and that the deficit for the current year is actually the result of expected shortfalls in Medicaid, the public defender’s office, and the office of corrections. Those shortfalls weren't included in the Legislative Fiscal Bureau's report (Wisconsin's CBO) because the non-partisan agency is uncomfortable with assuming budget fixes will be passed when creating a fiscal forcast.

The Rachel Maddow Show replied with two letters taking issue with the Politifact article that fact-checked Maddow. The letters correctly state that both the headline and summery of Politifact’s article gave the false impression that Rachel failed to acknowledge that there was a budget deficit in Wisconsin. Politifact Wisconsin also failed to contact The Rachel Maddow Show for explanation and comment before posting the article, a clear failure in fairness and journalistic ethics.

However, the letters also assert that Rachel never claimed that Walker’s tax cuts were the source of the budget deficit. That was certainly the impression that I came away with after watching the segment when it first aired. TRMS claims that Rachel was merely trying to show that Walker doesn’t care about fiscal responsibility and merely wants to break public sector unions. Nevertheless, the show’s blog clearly named Walker’s tax cuts as the culprit behind Wisconsin’s deficit. It even included an excerpt from the Madison Capital Times to prove it.

The Rachel Maddow Show also gave an on air response to the Politifact article. The video attacks Politifact for falsely claiming that she claimed that Wisconsin doesn't currently face a budget deficit, but completely ignores the controversy over what caused the deficit in the first place.

Both Politifact Wisconsin and The Rachel Maddow Show have acted irresponsibly in this dispute. Politifact failed to contact TRMS for an explanation before posting the article and created a poorly written and misleading headline and summery. The Rachel Maddow Show failed to admit that she implied that the Walker tax cuts were responsible for the budget shortfall, failed to debunk or even mention that misperception in their piece on the controversy, and failed to admit that their blog clearly stated the false claim.  Both sources need to offer corrections and apologies. This conflict is a disgrace for all involved.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Debt and Social Security:
The Venn diagram with no center

Today, Friday, February 18, 2011, Morning Joe spent most of its time discussing the protests over Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s plan to require public sector union members to pay a higher percentage of their salaries toward health care and pensions. His plan also eliminates the ability of public sector unions to negotiate with the state, a truly undemocratic thing to do. The discussion was balanced, but it became heated at times.

One of the show’s great strengths is that its guests come from across the ideological spectrum. It is a guarantee that on any given day Morning Joe will have both conservative and liberal guests. That is something that few other cable news shows can boast.

One of their guests today was former National Republican Committee Senior Advisor Terry Holt. The panel’s discussion shifted temporarily from the fiscal situation in Wisconsin to the fiscal situation in Washington. Holt stated, “If you look at what we promised to do in Social Security, over time, it is a mushroom cloud of debt.” He then went on to suggest that Congress make small reductions in the Social Security benefit scheme and for politicians to stop using Social Security fear-mongering to get elected.

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I strongly agree with Terry Holt’s positions on Social Security. In fact, if you add raising the cap on income that is subject to the Social Security payroll tax, than that is my position. Unfortunately, his claim that in the long run Social Security will become, “a mushroom cloud of debt” isn’t true.

Social Security currently has a surplus. In fact, it has a 2.5 Trillion dollar surplus (NPR). That’s trillion with a “t”. In layman’s terms it has a two and a half million million dollar surplus. That’s a lot of money. Social Security taxes will continue to be larger than Social Security payments for a few more years. After that, the surplus Social Security has accumulated will be used to make up the difference between costs and revenue. The non-partisan, non-ideological Congressional Budget Office projects that the Social Security trust funds [the surplus] will last until  2039 (CBO p 15). If Social Security isn’t tinkered with before then, Social Security benefits would be cut by about 20 percent to match the yearly revenues (CBO p11). In short, Social Security doesn’t have the legal authority to go into debt. Therefore, it cannot, in the short or long term, add to the deficit. Social Security and the debt are two completely separate topics. To say otherwise is intellectually irresponsible.

But that’s not quite the end of the story. The Social Security trust fund is invested in government treasuries (NPR). Essentially the government borrowed it, just as it borrows money from China. Like all borrowed money, it was spent. The rest of the government used that money to pay for everything in our discretionary budget: the Department of Health and Human Services, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the EPA, and so on. There appears to be some uncertainty whether that money will be paid back. It is horrific to even think that it wouldn’t be, because Congress could easily borrow money from China to pay back the loan if it couldn’t pay it back any other way. But that borrowing won’t be due to Social Security, but to the other things that were initially paid for using borrowed Social Security money. Blaming this part of the deficit on Social Security is like trying to blame our debt on China, it blames the lender for the money it allowed us to spend.

So no matter how you slice it, Social Security will not contribute to the national debt. There is no doubt that we ought to try to fix social security. But let’s not confuse the issue. There is the debt crisis and then there is Social Security. The former will never be the result of the latter.


CBO. "Social Security Policy Options." Congressional Budget Office, July 2010. Web. 18 Feb 2011. <>.      

NPR. The Friday Podcast: In Search of the Social Security Trust Funds. Planet Money. National Public Radio, 12 Nov 2010. Web. 18 Feb 2011. <>.

CORRECTION: It sucks to do a correction on a factcheck. This article used to describe Social Security as a, "0 interest credit card." In fact the tresuries in the Social Security trust fund do collect interest. (Politifact)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Muslim Brotherhood:
Democratic Actor or Threat to the United States?

On Tuesday February 1st , 2011 Sean Hannity and many of his guests spent most of the hour criticizing an organization called the Muslim Brotherhood that Sean fears may come to power in Egypt as a result of the current democratic uprising there. I decided to check the accuracy of his claims. I was truly surprised by what I found.

Unfortunately, fox news doesn’t post a complete transcript or video for previous shows, so my analysis will come from my admittedly fallible memory.   

Hannity began by claiming that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood supports Sharia law. That is true (bbc). Sharia law is a cruel and outdated Muslim religious code of law which requires women to be veiled in public, makes blasphemy a crime, and prescribes stoning as the punishment for a woman who commits adultery (Duhaime). However, supporting Sharia law is not too different from conservatives in the United States who wish to make laws based on the bible, which calls for the stoning of disobedient children (Bible Gateway). However, most politicians who wish to legislate based on the bible are doing so based on the more accepting and reasonable passages, while Islamists accept the whole of their religious text, not just the humane parts. Our longtime ally Saudi Arabia employs a strict adherence to Sharia (Council on Foreign Relations).

Hannity’s second claim was that The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood supports Hamas. That is also true (Yahoo News). Hamas has launched rocket attacks on Israel in the past, which has landed it on the US government’s list of terrorist organizations. Such attacks are morally abhorrent and contemptible. But Hamas won the election in Gaza and is seen by many Muslims as freedom fighters who are in a valiant struggle against their occupiers and oppressors. Negotiations haven’t worked out well for the Palestinians in the past, so it is understandable why some of them would support violent means even if others rightfully condem it.  

Hannity also claimed that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is violent. This one is false. While the Brotherhood has supported violence in the past, the Brotherhood disavowed violence in the 1970s and condemned a recent bombing in Cairo (CFR).

One of Hannity’s guest claimed that the symbol of the Muslim Brotherhood included a phrase which specifically used the word “terrorism,” and supported it. This claim is absurd on its face. No group would refer to themselves as terrorist-supporters. They would use a euphemism like “freedom-fighter” or “Martyr.” The phrase on their symbol actually translates as, “prepare yourselves” (Der Spiegal). That’s not the most conciliatory or peaceful message, but it is a far cry from an outright endorsement of terrorism.

Hannity went on to say that there is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States. That is true (Washington Post). He also went on to say that the group is a threat to the United States and Israel. The validity of that statement is mixed. The Brotherhood’s ties to Hamas means that it is a credible threat to Israel. However, the Muslim Brotherhood does not support terrorist attacks against the United States the way Al Qaeda does. Organizationally, the Muslim Brotherhood poses no threat to the United States. However, Individual members of the Brotherhood have gone on to join groups which do pose a threat to the US. The planner of 9/11, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, was formerly a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait (Washington Post).

Hannity’s final mistake was to characterize Jihad as “holy war.” This is a common mistake in the United States. To Muslims the term means something else entirely. It refers to a process of self-betterment towards being a better person. It also means trying to make the world a better place, much akin to the informal use of “crusade,” as in ‘the crusade against hunger.’ The term can also refer to the use of violence in an attempt to cure injustice, but the term refers to much more than violence alone (Quranic Studies).

Hannity’s concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood stem from an understandable concern for the safety of the United States and Israel, not from an attempt to deceive. He has a history of welcoming those who disagree with him to his show, an act which I applaud. It was truly amusing to watch him ask each of his guests if they have been following the events in Egypt, including Larry the Cable Guy.

On the bigger issue, I believe that the Brotherhood must play a part in a future democratic Egypt. The overwhelming majority of Brotherhood members are non-violent. Throughout the world the Brotherhood brings Muslims together to form friendships and community bonds. In Egypt the Brotherhood also provides social services such as health care and education (The Real News). It is unlikely that the Brotherhood would come to power in Egypt as CNN security analyst Peter Bergen estimates that if a free and fair election were held, they would only receive a third of the vote (CNN). Nevertheless, they form a significant portion of the Egyptian population and can’t be excluded from the political process if Egypt is to become a true democracy. Democracy is what Egypt yearns for, and after 30 years of dictatorial rule they are ready to seize it for themselves.

Decide for yourself what you think of the Brotherhood. Here is a link to their English-language website. The Doha Debates did a wonderful show on whether Political Islam is a threat to the West, I highly recommend it.