Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Smartest Boy in a Dumb, Dumb Class

Carpetbagger watched the GOP debate that I couldn't have endured, and writes this of Giuliani:
Giuliani fared well overall, just so long as facts have no meaning (he denied his own recent comments from a Charlie Rose interview on Pakistan, he exaggerated his NYC adoption numbers, and he exaggerated his role in protecting New York’s bridges). At one point, Giuliani insisted, “The last time we raised the capital gains tax, and you can go back and check it, from 20 to 28 percent, we lost $45 billion.” So, folks went back and checked it — Giuliani’s claim was completely wrong. For voters for whom facts have no meaning, he’s the ideal candidate.

And so I clicked through to read about Rudy's bogus claim, and was astounded to read this bizarro interpretation of Rudy's performance by Slate's John Dickerson:
Giuliani has a smartest-boy-in-the-class aspect not too different from the one that Republicans used to pound Al Gore. He loves to show off his smarts, dropping facts, boasting about reading the hundreds of pages in the immigration bill, and insisting that he'd not only read a book on taxation but had underlined it.

Did Dickerson watch the same debate as Carpetbagger? I suppose he did. The only difference is that Carpetbagger was rating Rudy's performance based on reality, while Dickerson was rating it based upon how things would appear to an unwitting viewer. One apparently like Dickerson himself. And yet, why did he even bother to fact check Rudy at all?

Dickerson went on to say:
But in an otherwise politically effective defense of tax cuts Sunday, he appears to have botched his facts. He claimed that when the capital gains rate was increased to 28 percent from 20 percent, revenues decreased by $45 billion. If he's talking about the 1986 increase, they didn't. Giuliani boasted, "You go back and check it," but his campaign couldn't find the supporting data. An aide says he may have misspoke, meaning instead to have said revenues decreased 44 percent. That's closer to the truth but still distorts the case by cherry-picking the data.

But why does Dickerson stop there? I clicked through to his numbers, and see that 44% still was far from the truth. The real number was 36.3%, a difference of over $4 billion from what Rudy's campaign correction was, and $25.8 billion off from Rudy's original claim. In fact, Rudy's "go back and check it" fact suggested that capital gains tax revenues dropped from $52.9 billion to $7.9 billion in one year; a complete absurdity. The actual drop was only $19.2 billion, not $45 billion. And this is the guy Dickerson would have us believe looks like the "smartest boy in the class"?

Rudy's Just Wrong

And even Rudy's basic point is entirely wrong: higher Capital Gains tax rates don't seem to have a detrimental effect on tax revenues. Sure, Capital Gains Revenue did drop $19.2 billion from 1986 to 1987, when the tax rate went up. But that's because Capital Gains were super-high in 1986, having gone up $155.7 billion from 1985. And that's most likely because tax accountants knew that the rate was going up in 1987 (along with many other significant tax changes), so they wanted to cash-in their gains during the more favorable period. And that looks to be the case because the pre-1986 Capital Gains were comparable to post-1986 Capital Gains.

So Rudy's bogus number relied entirely on a single freak occurrence. As proof of that, I'll note that Capital Gains averaged $145 billion in the three years before 1986, compared with $155 billion after 1986. And the 1986 Capital Gains were over $327 billion. So unless we're to believe that there was something magical about the 20% Capital Gains tax rate in 1986 that didn't apply to the prior years, I'd say Rudy's point is entirely wrong.

Even more so, Capital Gains tax revenue averaged $22.2 billion for the three years before 1986, and averaged $35.9 billion for the three years after 1986. Overall, the three years after 1986 brought in over $41.2 billion more in tax revenue than the three years preceding 1986. That would entirely refute Rudy's point. Tax revenues went up due to the higher tax rates, just as you'd expect to see.

But it wasn't just 1986. Looking over the 50-year tax chart Dickerson linked to, there doesn't seem to be any real relationship between the Capital Gains tax rate and Capital Gains. While there is fluctuation, it follows the general economic flows; which don't seem to be based on the tax rate. And while there is a relation between tax rates and tax revenue, it's the one you'd expect to find. The higher the tax rate, the more revenue you get. No duh. It doesn't appear that people are willing to forgo making large amounts of money in order to avoid tax payments. And that would again be a "duh" moment.

Missing the Picture

And let's face it, Giuliani did not wade through all these charts, crunch the numbers, and make some sort of error in arithmetic. He was given a list of factoids to repeat during the debate and just happened to repeat a bad one. Does this make him less presidential because he repeated a bad factoid? Had he not flubbed that one factoid, would Dickerson have anointed him Chief Smart Guy? Why? Because he could memorize a few facts? Is that really the standard we should be going by?

But that's the thing, politicians aren't supposed to be the experts. They're supposed to be Big Picture guys who hire the right experts. And whether or not Rudy flubbed this factoid, he's clearly got the wrong experts. The factual slip-up isn't the problem. The problem was that he was trying to make it in the first place. It wasn't the fact he flubbed. He's got the wrong Big Picture. And whether or not he sounds like he knows what he's talking about, it's pretty obvious that he never really will.

Moreover, was there any nominee on that stage who wouldn't have gladly used that factoid, had they believed they wouldn't be fact-checked on it? Iraq and the "War on Terror" are pretty touchy subjects for Republican politicians to be truthful about. But supply-side economics? What was once derided as "Voodoo Economics" by Bush Sr. is now considered gospel by the Republican base. You'd be better off questioning Jesus' resurrection than to question supply-side economics with many of these people.

Dittoing Carpetbagger

So what should Dickerson have done? I mean, most of the folks watching that debate weren't likely to learn how wrong Rudy was. So in a sense, Dickerson was just reporting what most people would have taken from that debate: That Mr. Fact Check Giuliani really knows his stuff. And Dickerson did fact-check one item of Rudy's. Isn't that enough?

And the answer is simple: He should have written what Carpetbagger wrote. If a candidate is tossing out bogus facts, it should be an objective reporter's duty to report that the candidate was being bogus. And if Dickerson was being subjective, he had even more a duty to this. Instead, he left the impression that Rudy is quite knowledgeable, but got one fact wrong. Perhaps he doesn't know any better and really thinks Rudy nailed it. But if that's the case, then he shouldn't be writing at all. There are too many knowledgeable writers out there for us to bother with the unknowledgeable ones. It's guys like Dickerson that allow candidates like Giuliani get away with what they do. Democracy deserves better.

And that should be the real report. Not that Rudy is the smartest boy in a dumb class, but that Rudy doesn't know what he's talking about and has no problem faking it. And if I were Rudy's opponent, that's exactly what I'd nail him for. And no, "cherry-picking" is not the word I'd use to describe Rudy's deceit. I'd nail him for being a phony using the horror of 9/11 for his personal benefit. That's the way it works. He's counting on phony factoids and 9/11 to support his candidacy, so you've got to cut his legs right out from under him. And the best part about it, it's the truth. And that seems to be Rudy's biggest weakness.


whig said...

This is way too complicated for voters to understand. Keep it punchy.

Okay, I'm basically admitting that the stream of numbers you threw at me made my eyes glaze because I'd rather not try to do calculations if I don't have to.

whig said...

Also, it's way past my bedtime and I'm tired. But seriously, make it understandable to an idiot, because I know you can, and many voters are functionally innumerate anyhow.

whig said...

I don't even know why I am writing another comment except that I don't know to stop digging sometimes.

Doctor Biobrain said...

Count yourself lucky. I was going to explain exactly what Capital Gains were and why I thought a change in tax rate wouldn't make a difference, but decided it had already gotten too long. And really, I wasn't making my campaign pitch here. I just wanted to prove that Rudy was wrong and I LOVE crunching numbers. That's why I'm an accountant.

But the dummies can just skip past the number section. I probably should have put a dislaimer saying that before I started tossing out the numbers. Oh well. Live and learn.

Mumphrey Bibblesnæð said...

Well, the real problem as I see it is that Republicans don't mind lying in the least. I guess it could be that Giuliani just got it wrong, but I lean more toward him lying. I mean, just about every big name Republican will lie about anything. Bush, Cheney, DeLay, Boehner, McConnell, ALL the Republican pundits, they just lie.
It's rather clever, really: they know that the only way to catch them on it is to point out the truth, and then you have to go into all kinds of details, and a lot of people's eyes just glaze over, or the Republican can whine that you're just nitpicking over little details and that you're overlooking the big picture, which they're telling the truth about, even if they did get a little thing wrong here or there...
I don't know how you can effectively fight political battles when one side has shown again and again that it just doesn't give a shit about the truth or the rules of fair play or decency law or even the Constitution, and it will not aboide by them. It makes me fear for the future of my country.

Doctor Biobrain said...

I honestly don't think Rudy was lying. It's possible, but it seems odd to knowingly pull up a fake fact like that for no particular reason. He could have said the same line without an actual number attached and gotten away with it. Or even had he merely said $19 billion, it would have had a similar effect. It would still have been dishonest, but it wouldn't have been outright wrong.

I think this was just a factoid he got wrong or someone misled him about. And the main point is that he doesn't really know his stuff and doesn't give a damn what he's saying. And in my book, being purposefully dumb is about the same as lying. And yes, people need to call him on this BS, and as I said, that's the exact tact I'd take if I were his opponent.

Mumphrey Bibblesnæð said...

I don't know' these people lie the way most of us breathe. George Bush lied about what kind of cheese he like on his cheesesteaks when he was campaigning in Philadelphia back in 2004. I think the truth means so little to them that thry'll lie about anything if they belive it will give them even the most trivial advantage.