It is rare that I feel obliged to compliment a FOX News personality, but when Megyn Kelly used those words when she was challenging Karl Rove, I clapped and cheered. The words were so wonderful that Jon Stewart suggested they should replace the FOX slogan of “fair and balanced”.
Now, for the more serious stuff. What are they doing and why do they get away with it? Let’s start with some of the lies that we have heard over the last four years, especially during the campaign season:
1. Obama raised taxes. We know he didn’t, but this was the false math-meme repeated ad nauseam. And yet all people had to do was check their tax returns or their payroll checks or deposits and see that this was not so. (Given how little credit he received for this I almost wish he had raised them.)
2. Planned parenthood is 97% abortions. Thanks Senator Kyl, who claimed on the Senate floor that well over 90% of PP’s services were abortions and who later had to walk it back with this was “not intended to be a factual statement”! Yet it is just the opposite – 97% of their services are not abortion-related.
3. Unemployment is growing. No, actually it is coming down, and Obama has an excellent record of private sector job growth.
4. Romney is ahead in the polls. At least this is one point that we no longer need to discuss.
5. Trickle-down economics works. This is the greatest load of BS that has been sold to the American public, one which has been used to fleece several generations of Americans, by stealing from the pensions that should be available to retiring Baby Boomers and putting them in accounts in the Cayman Islands, to preventing investments in infrastructure and education and instead creating a mound of debt for our grandkids (and yes, trickle-down economics is immoral). Finally we are seeing push back here. Obama caved on the first negotiation with respect to the Bush tax cuts (at which point I left his mailing list), but he is indicating he will stay strong here. I think we may finally have the political will, thanks in large part to Occupy Wall Street, which encouraged the populist movement, to others writing here, to people such as Maddow who promoted it earlier. John Boehner has indicated a willingness to discuss increases in revenue and Bill Kristol just wrote about the fact that it will not hurt millionaires to pay a little more.
6. Romney’s tax plan. Both the Ryan and the Romney tax plans were farces. Ryan had the reputation of being a policy wonk but his budget was absurd and/or cruel.
7. Obama stole 716 billion from Medicare. Saved, not stole from!
Note that lies are not confined to what Republicans are saying to the general public. They say it to themselves. Rove said it to himself and he said it to his donors. If you analyze the 47% recording Romney made to his donors on that tape, and you go through what he said, you realize that it is an extremely flawed analysis.
Why are people screwing up the numbers so badly and what can we do about it? Part of it – a large part of it – is because people have already decided what the conclusion should be and they seek corroboration instead of running a real test of their hypotheses. But when numbers are available they grow worse:
1. People are scared and/or lazy when it comes to numbers. They have mathphobia, and they think that doing the math will be harder than it actually is. For example, it is not that hard to check if you have more after-tax income now than you did in the past.
2. The numbers are not available. Hard to check Romney’s tax returns when he won’t show them.
3. The reasoning behind the numbers is not available. R&R tax plans, anyone?
4. The numbers are being abused. Yes, there is a $716 billion number in Medicare – but it is savings!
5. Sometimes, yes, the math is more sophisticated and challenging and you may need above average math skills to get through it. I remember hearing about derivatives based on subprime mortgages and not understanding how they worked and so I never invested in them. A few investment firms were suspicious of the Madoff model and steered clear.
If we want our country to survive and thrive, we have to become more comfortable with numbers. Here are some suggestions:
1. Celebrate "legitimate" number crunchers, and throw eggs (metaphorically) at the frauds. I was thrilled to see Silver being feted after the election; I loved Biden’s “malarkey,” Megyn Kelly’s dismissal of Rove, and President Clinton’s explanation of “arithmetic” as the key to a successful budget.
2. Demand numbers. Always demand numbers. Go and look at them. Do not be afraid. You are probably better at it than you realize.
3. If something is too good to be true, it probably isn’t true. Trickle-down economics is an example. There are exceptions, however and Keynesian economic theory seems to be one of them. You have to examine it carefully and objectively.
4. Encourage math in your life and in the lives of those around you. I tutor kids in math; not only do I love doing it, I feel like I’m keeping the next generation from being ripped off.
5. Others may simply be mistaken. It is easy to make mistakes with math; adopt a trust but verify attitude and encourage it in those around you. Take the extra minutes to check.
Math has been used to fool people for a long time. The phrase Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics has been attributed to both Disraeli and Mark Twain - but it has been around for a long time.
Want a break from politics and even from math? I write Greek-mythology based novels. Want to read what it was like for Jocasta to be married to Oedipus? Or how about a trilogy based on the life of Niobe, and a mass murder and gods falsely accused?