Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Why we cannot stay through 2014

Today, Wednesday, June 22, 2011 President Obama outlined America’s timetable for the war in Afghanistan. Before the speech he said that he would announce a substantial drawdown of US troops. Tonight, he declared that he would remove 10,000 troops by the end of the year, leaving 90,000 in the country. After the summer of 2012 a total of 33,000 would be withdrawn, leaving 67,000 troops in Afghanistan. That is nearly two times the number of troops we had in Afghanistan when Obama took office. He said that the combat mission in Afghanistan would end in 2014, leaving a support mission akin to our current situation in Iraq. By any estimation, this is not a substantial drawdown. Obama should have reduced the number of troops in Afghanistan by at least 30,000 by the end of this year.

Since 2001, 1,633 US military personnel have died in Afghanistan. Hundreds more will die every year that we stay in Afghanistan. Thousands received PTSD and other mental disorders from the battlefield. Some will be physically disabled for the rest of their life.

Civilians in Afghanistan face even larger casualties. From 2007 through 2010, 9,759 civilians have died in the Afghan war, according to the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan, most of which were the result of attacks by the Taliban and their allies. The financial cost is also high; we spend 120 Billion dollars on the war each year.

Afghanistan is not a democracy, it is an oligarchy. The central government cannot even provide a functioning court system to the Afghans under their control. The Taliban still control much of the country. The most that we can hope for is a power sharing agreement between the central government and the Taliban. We should try to accomplish this goal. It may or may not be successful. Last year we spent time negotiating with someone pretending to be a Taliban leader. The ceasefire ending the US involvement in Vietnam didn’t last long. But the Taliban cannot be killed off or run out of the country. They are there to stay. A ceasefire is our best and only hope at ending the violence in Afghanistan. But if we cannot reach a ceasefire one year from now, we must leave. If an agreement isn’t reached within a year, it won’t be reached in 3.

Afghanistan provides no threat to our security. There is less than 100 Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. They have moved their base of operations to Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. What would improve US security would be if we stopped being so involved in the Middle East. If we ended our constant military interventions in the region, Al Qaeda and their allies would leave us alone. The Mujahedeen did not follow the Russians back to Moscow; the Vietnamese Communists did not follow the French back to Paris.  

Even though I am a staunch liberal, I could very well vote for an anti-war Republican over Obama in 2012. I would support congress setting a timetable for withdrawal requiring all troops be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2012. After that date I will be in favor of an immediate withdrawal.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely either of these proposals will be implemented. It seems that the end to America’s longest war will be very long indeed. 

Originally Published June 22, 2011

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Politifact Gets it Wrong
Fox News Viewers are Consistently Misinformed

Today, Politifact wrongly rated Jon Stewart’s claim that every poll consistently shows that Fox viewers are the most misinformed media viewers. Politifact rated his claim false. Stewart made the claim on Fox News Sunday.

Politifact relies on 5 studies to make its conclusion. The first three came from the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. These studies asked whether the US has a trade deficit, who the current Secretary of State is, and who controls the House of Representatives, among other questions. These studies found that viewers of the O’Reilly Factor and Hannity answered these questions quite well. They also found that Fox News viewers as a whole were close to but not quite at the end of the pack among news programs among their ability to answer the questions.

The problem is that these studies study how uninformed viewers are, not how misinformed they are. An uninformed person doesn’t know the answer to a question, so they guess. A person either knows who controls the House or they don’t. A misinformed person actually believes something that is false to be true.  A person can (correctly) believe that Health Care Reform didn’t kill jobs, not know whether Health Care Reform kills jobs, or (wrongly) believe that Health Care Reform kills jobs.

The other two studies were done by, a project of the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes. These studies focused on the kinds of things that people believe to be true which aren’t true, like whether the stimulus created jobs (it did), whether climate scientists  have reached a consensus that global warming is man-made (they have), and whether Heath Care Reform increases the deficit over the next ten years (it actually reduces the deficit). These are the misconceptions I have created this blog to combat. They are the things that politicians and pundits lie about, and those who believe them are misinformed.

The results of these studies are overwhelming. The first study was “Misperceptions and the Iraq War” which asked if there is clear evidence Iraq acted with Al Quaeda (they didn’t), whether we found weapons of mass destruction (we didn’t), among other questions. The study found Fox News viewers have a misperception rate of 45 percent. The next highest was 36 percent, and the lowest was NPR/PBS with 11 percent.

The Second study, “Misinformation and the 2010 Election,” was much more comprehensive, covering the stimulus, the bailouts, and global warming. The study stated,

Those who watched Fox News almost daily were significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe that:

 most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses (12 points more likely)
 most economists have estimated the health care law will worsen the deficit (31 points)
 the economy is getting worse (26 points)
 most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring (30 points)
 the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (14 points)
 their own income taxes have gone up (14 points)
 the auto bailout only occurred under Obama (13 points)
 when TARP came up for a vote most Republicans opposed it (12 points) 
 and that it is not clear that Obama was born in the United States (31 points)
These effects increased incrementally with increasing levels of exposure and all were statistically significant.  The effect was also not simply a function of partisan bias, as people who voted Democratic and watched Fox News were also more likely to have such misinformation than those who did not watch it--though by a lesser margin than those who voted Republican.

Other outlets did create an effect where viewers were more likely to be misinformed if they watched than if they didn’t, but at most they only promoted two falsehoods, compared to the 9 promoted by Fox.

Bafflingly, Politifact dismissed this study.

We think there’s a difference between bestowing a False rating on an elected official -- whose job it is to know about public policy -- and calling an ordinary American "misinformed" for getting the exact same question "wrong." At the very least, these questions seem less clear-cut than asking who the vice president is.

For this reason, we believe that this study should carry less weight in analyzing Stewart’s comment.

Knowing about the facts surrounding debates on public policy is actually more important than knowing who the vice president is. The 2010 study clearly showed that Fox viewers are substantially misinformed in a variety of public policy areas. These are the types of studies that actually reflect the effect of the falsehoods promoted on the news sources studied. Fox doesn’t lie about who the vice president is, but they do lie about the stimulus. This was the only study in the Politifact article that actually measured misinformation across multiple policy areas.

The only two studies that were cited in the Politifact article that actually measure how misinformed viewers are rather than how uninformed they are wholeheartedly confirmed Stewart’s statement that polls consistently show that Fox viewers are the most misinformed media viewers.

P.S. See this awesome Countdown video where guest host Chris Hays talks about the 2010 University of Maryland study with Media Matters’ Ari Rabin-Havt.

Originally written June 21, 2011

UPDATE (6/22/11): On his show last night, Jon Stewart issued a correction for his true statement based on the Politifact article. He then went through a list of Politifact articles that rated Fox News claims false or pants on fire. The lies filled the screen and included the only two lies of the year that have yet been awarded by Politifact. Stewart ended the segment by saying, “I’ll tell you what, they’ve got a lot of fucking correcting to do.”

If Fox News did issue a correction for every false statement they have made that Politifact has checked, I would be ecstatic. But I’m not counting on it.  

UPDATE (6/26/11): Media Matters did a masterful takedown of the faulty Politifact article. It pointed out some of the studies on how misinformed Fox News viewers are that I had been unaware of. The incorrect Politifact article was promoted as true on a variety of Fox News shows as well as CNN's Reliable Sources. Politifact itself highlighted criticism it had received on the article, but refused to change the rating. 

This is highly disappointing, but I will no doubt continue to use Politifact as a means of understanding the truth behind issues of public policy. I suppose we are all entitled to a mistake now and then.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Factchecking the CNN Presidential Debate

During the first Republican presidential debate, I couldn’t find any false statements. But at this debate, Michelle Bachman and Rick Santorum were in attendance.

Wide Swath of America

When addressing the concerns of a traditional republican on the influence of the Tea Party, Michelle Bachman described the tea party thusly

BACHMANN: Terry, what I've seen in the Tea Party -- I'm the chairman of the Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives. And what I've seen is unlike how the media has tried to wrongly and grossly portray the Tea Party, the Tea Party is really made up of disaffected Democrats, independents, people who've never been political a day in their life. 

People who are libertarians, Republicans. It's a wide swath of America coming together. I think that's why the left fears it so much. Because they're people who simply want to take the country back. They want the country to work again. 

Tea Partiers are Conservative Republicans who have been disappointed by the policies of the Republican Party. It is their goal to support conservative candidates to win the republican nominations for various positions in government. It is not a movement made of disaffected Democrats, not unless they had a political paradigm shift, which may occur on a small scale. The movement doesn’t include moderates in significant numbers (as she implied by placing the word independent between Democrats and Republicans). A Tea Partier is a Conservative Republican, pure and simple. (Who is the Tea Party? Republicans By Another Name-NPR)

Offshore Drilling

Rick Santorum articulated his criticism of Obama’s energy policy as follows [Emphasis Added]

SANTORUM: Throw on top of that what this president's done on energy. The reason we're seeing this second dip is because of energy prices, and this president has put a stop sign again -- against oil drilling, against any kind of exploration offshore or in Alaska, and that is depressing. We need to drill. We need to create energy jobs, just like we're doing, by the way, in Pennsylvania, where we're drilling 3,000 wells this year for gas, and gas prices are down -- natural gas prices are down as a result. 

It is true that Obama opposes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. However, he has embraced offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico (which remains incredibly dangerous). After the Deepwater Horizon Oil Disaster he put a moratorium on deepwater drilling in the gulf until new safety regulations could be put into place. Shallow water drilling continued on uninterrupted. The moratorium was lifted on October 12, 2010, allowing the permitting process for Deepwater oil drilling to begin again. Between October 12th 2010 and  March 26th 2011, 6 deepwater oil drilling permits were issued including one “exploration plan” for a new well whose permit had not been submitted before the moratorium. Santorum may criticize the pace of permitting of Deepwater oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico, but he cannot claim that the moratorium, his metaphorical stop sign, is still in place.

The Dreaded Job-Killing Obamacare

One of the reasons Michelle Bachman cited for her opposition to Obamacare (Obamny care?) is an old favorite of factcheckers across the country.

BACHMAN: This is the symbol and the signature issue of President Obama during his entire tenure. And this is a job-killer, Sylvia. The CBO, the Congressional Budget Office has said that Obamacare will kill 800,000 jobs. What could the president be thinking by passing a bill like this, knowing full well it will kill 800,000 jobs? 

Here is what the CBO actually said about the impact of Obamacare on the labor market.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the legislation, on net, will reduce the amount of labor used in the economy by a small amount—roughly half a percent—primarily by reducing the amount of labor that workers choose to supply. That net effect reflects changes in incentives in the labor market that operate in both directions: Some provisions of the legislation will discourage people from working more hours or entering the workforce, and other provisions will encourage them to work more. Moreover, many people will be unaffected by those provisions and will face the same incentives regarding work as they do under current law.

The CBO is saying that people who have an extra job just to qualify for health insurance will quit that job. With Obamacare they may qualify for Medicaid or a federal subsidy. Businesses aren’t going to fire people or offer fewer jobs. Workers will simply be able to work less. This claim isn’t just wrong, it’s laughably wrong. This falsehood has been factchecked by the Associated Press, Politifact, The Daily Show, and The Rachel Maddow Show.

On a side note, Politifact originally rated this claim false when Eric Cantor said it, but today they rated Bachman’s identical statement Barely True. It is the same claim, it hasn’t changed. As far as I’m concerned it’s a Pants on Fire.  

Originally Posted June 14, 2011

The CNN Presidential Debate

On June 13th, 2011 CNN hosted the second republican presidential debate of the 2012 election. John King was the moderator. Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Mitt Romney, Michelle Bachman, and Ron Paul attended the debate. Gary Jonson was not allowed to participate. He did not poll above 3 percent in enough polls to qualify. Polls this early only reflect name recognition, and the primary purpose of debates is to introduce candidates to voters. Gary Jonson was the governor of New Mexico, whereas Herman Cain has no political experience at all. The media should not be choosing winners and losers by excluding those who are relatively unknown from the national debates. Doing so amounts to serious journalistic malpractice.

The candidates were not allowed a formal introduction and were only given 30 seconds to answer most questions. This allowed for more questions, but resulted in shallower and less detailed answers. I believe that this rule didn’t give the candidates the time to fully express their stances on the key issues.  

Now, onto the candidates. Michelle Bachman is a walking contradiction. On whether she supports adopting an amendment to the US Constitution banning gay marriage she said, “I do support a constitutional amendment on-on marriage between a man and a woman, but I would not be going into the states to overturn their state law.” That’s what a constitutional amendment would do! You can’t say that marriage falls under the jurisdiction of the states and that the US federal Constitution should have an amendment banning gay marriage. Either marriage is a state issue or a federal issue; you can’t have it both ways.  

Many candidates expressed extreme positions. Gingrich supported defunding the National Labor Relations Board. He adopted this stance after the NLRB told Boeing that they couldn’t move a plant from Oregon to South Carolina to punish legal union activity at their Oregon plant.  Bachman reaffirmed her opposition to the EPA, the agency responsible for keeping our air and water clean. Cain expressed his support for eliminating the capital gains tax, a move that would almost exclusively benefit the rich. The capital gains tax is already lower than the standard income tax rate and needs to be raised, not lowered.

However, Romney took the prize for the most ridiculous position. He said that the federal government shouldn’t pay disaster relief to areas struck by flooding and tornadoes. He thinks that disaster relief should be the job of the states affected.  States cannot go into debt and are in an absolute fiscal crisis. He even suggested that disaster relief should be the job of private industry! I can’t wait for his explanation on how Target can make a profit off providing food, housing, and clothes to people without money.

John King asked Romney about disaster relief a second time to make sure his position was clear

KING: Including disaster relief, though? 

ROMNEY: We cannot -- we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we'll all be dead and gone before it's paid off. It makes no sense at all. 

No governor, what is immoral is denying disaster relief to those who just lost everything that they own to a tornado. It’s a testament to how idiotic the conversation over the budget has gotten that Romney is talking about denying disaster relief to Joplin. It makes no sense at all.

Foreign Policy, the most important topic in this race, was covered last. A voter asked if it was time to bring our troops home from Afghanistan. Romney said that he would withdraw troops in accordance to the advice of generals and conditions on the ground, a position that is identical to the irresponsible policy of the Obama administration. Ron Paul supported bringing our troops home immediately.  Gingrich surprisingly seemed to share this position. [Emphasis Added].

GINGRICH: I think that we need to think fundamentally about reassessing our entire strategy in the region. I think that we should say to the generals we would like to figure out to get out as rapid as possible with the safety of the troops involved. And we had better find new and very different strategies because this is too big a problem for us to deal with the American ground forces in direct combat. 

We have got to have a totally new strategy for the region, because we don't today have the kind of intelligence we need to know even what we're doing. 

Let’s hope Gingrich holds this position longer than he opposed the Ryan plan for Medicare or supported the individual mandate to buy health insurance.

John King failed to get the rest of the candidates on record on Afghanistan, the most important issue of the 2012 campaign.

This debate provided so much material to cover that I couldn’t fit it all into one post. I will be writing another post factchecking some of the factual claims make during the debate in my next article.

Originally Posted June 14, 2011

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Why we must leave

On June 6th, 5 US troops who served as advisors to the Iraqi police were killed in a rocket attack on the compound where they lived. The attack likely came from Shia militants who want the US to leave Iraq by the end of the year, and want credit for driving them out (Associated Press). These deaths bring the total number of US casualties in Iraq to 4,459.

Also on June 6th, explosions killed 9 Iraqi soldiers and 7 civilians in Bagdad and Tikrit, 20 others were wounded. On June 3rd a double bomb attack on a Tikrit mosque killed 21 people and injured over 60. 177 people died in May as a result of violence (Al Jazeera). These attacks bring the total civilian casualties since the beginning of the Iraq war to 101,229 according to the website Iraq Body Count.
That being said, violence has declined tremendously since the height of the Iraq war in 2006. Back then the murder rate was 100 people per 100,000, now it’s 14. That puts Iraq on par with Mexico and Brazil and below Venezuela, Columbia, New Orleans and Baltimore (NPR). However, Iraq has many more injuries than these places due to the prevalent use of explosives. 

The US has accomplished a lot in Iraq. We toppled an evil dictator, created a (somewhat dysfunctional) democracy, and brought drown the level of violence in the country. That being said, the Bush administration took the country to war on the falsehoods that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that Iraq was tied to Al Qaeda. The war cost $709 Billion dollars, according to the CBO, and that’s before accounting for the health expenses associated with treated our wounded veterans (Politifact). It diverted greatly needed resources from Afghanistan. Most importantly, it has cost the lives of 4,459 Americans and counting. All in all, I believe the decision to invade Iraq was wrong, but that shouldn’t stop us from appreciating what we have accomplished there.

At the end of the year, the agreement between the US and Iraq that allows the US to keep large numbers of troops in Iraq expires. Unless it is renewed, the vast majority of the 46,000 US troops in Iraq will be required to leave.

The militant Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened to reactivate his private militia if the US doesn’t leave Iraq. Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, fought against the US and Iraqi militaries and was one of the major reasons the Iraq war was so deadly in 2006 (NPR). If Sadr does bring back the Mahdi Army, it will threaten the stability of the government and return Iraq to its bloodiest days.

Some Washington officials want to maintain a presence in Iraq to prevent Iran from using it as a path to support the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas (Associated Press). But Iran would support these groups whether or not we continue to put US troops in harm’s way. This is hardly a reason to risk destabilizing Iraq.

Unfortunately, Washington will probably try to keep a large military presence in Iraq, as we did in Germany and Japan. So our best hope is that Iraq doesn’t extend the deadline for US troops. Even without extending the deadline, the US will find ways to keep a few hundred troops in Iraq (NPR). So Iraq will decide whether the US will have thousands of troops in their country or hundreds.

For our sake, I hope they choose hundreds.

(I would like to thank the Associated Press, NPR, Al Jazeera, and Politifact for their reporting that made this editorial possible. If you haven’t already checked out NPR’s Kelly McEvers’ reporting from Bagdad, you need to.)

Originally Posted June 8, 2011

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Media Criticism/Factchecks

            Fox News
                   Fox’s History of Dishonesty
                   Cavuto: MLK and public sector unions
                   Sean Hannity: Muslim Brotherhood
                   Happening Now: Orin Hatch
                   Fox Business           
                      Fox News viewers are Consistently Misinformed 
                  Ed Shultz: Bush Tax Cuts
                  Morning Joe: Social Security
                  Rachel Maddow: Politifact Feud
                  Rachel Maddow: Bush and Ryan Plans
                  Alter: Republican Candidates and the debt ceiling
                  Raymond Davis
                  George Will Misinforms on the Stimulus
                  The CNN Debate: Excluding Gary Jonson
                  Debt Ceiling
            Associated Press
                  Obama’s Deficit Reduction Plan
     Russia Today
           Adam vs. Journalistic Integrity
                      Politifact Misinforms on Fox News Misinformation

Media Praise
           The Rachel Maddow Show
           Journalistic Greatness
Political Factcheck
          Governor’s Debate
          Orin Hatch
Political Commentary