June 15, 2012 § Leave a comment
When the U.S. House of Representatives voted last month to eliminate the American Community Survey (an ongoing statistical survey of American households, administered annually by the Census Bureau), news organizations, academic researchers, and business associations (including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) were united in their dismay. If government agencies, businesses, and nonprofits are rendered blind by the defunding of research programs that provide them with information about the socioeconomic makeup of communities across the country, how are they supposed to decide where to build new schools and roads, where to open new stores and hospitals, etc.? One does not have to be an expert on statistics to predict that even the “compromise” solution proposed by Senator Rand Paul – to make participation in the survey voluntary rather than mandatory – would inevitably result in a marked decrease in the quality of data collected by the Census Bureau. (I do suspect that this may come as a surprise to Representative Daniel Webster [R-FL], who revealed a troubling lack of knowledge of the basics of research methods when he suggested that defunding the survey would not be a big deal, because “in the end this is not a scientific survey. It’s a random survey.”)
Even more disconcerting is the prospect of fake data manufactured by unscrupulous political operatives filling the void left by the dismantling of legitimate data collection programs. And this prospect is neither far-fetched nor purely theoretical. Consider PolitiFact’s investigation of the widely reported finding that 85% of recent U.S. college graduates end up living with their parents after graduation. In countries where it is fairly common for unmarried adult children to live with their parents – Japan is one example of such a place – this statistic would hardly cause a stir, but in the U.S., it is nothing short of scandalous. So, it comes as no surprise that the figure has been prominently featured not only in an anti-Obama ad produced by Karl Rove’s PAC American Crossroads, but also in TIME Magazine, New York Post, CNN Money, U.S. New and World Report, and other news sources. Well, it turns out the statistic is fake.
PolitiFact’s inquiry (covered by NPR’s On the Media on May 11, 2012) strongly suggests that Twentysomething Inc., the now defunct “prestigious, world-renowned management consultancy” that was the apparent source of the made-up statistic, was itself an elaborate sham – complete with nonexistent employees and stock photos downloaded from the internet and passed off on the company’s web site as pictures of its staff. The only outstanding question is who paid for this fraud. (When Louis Jacobson of PolitiFact finally spoke with David Morrison, the founder and former president of Twentysomething Inc., Mr. Morrison stated that a nondisclosure agreement barred him from commenting on the “poll” that had supposedly produced the 85% figure or from revealing the identity of the client who had commissioned the study.) We can be sure about one thing: it is highly unlikely that this example of fraudsters-for-hire deliberately feeding disinformation to the media and the public is unique.
In 2008, I attended a public debate between two academics – one representing the liberal camp and the other speaking for the conservatives – at a large private university in the Northeast. The topic of the debate was whether the media should play the role of fact-checkers in presidential elections. The conservative scholar argued in all seriousness that fact-checking was not a proper task for the media because [a] journalists lacked the skills/training/expertise to make judgements about the veracity of candidates’ statements and [b] most of what candidates said on the campaign trail was not factual anyway. Judging by the failure of multiple news organizations to verify Twentysomething’s “data” before publishing them, many reporters and news editors have decided to take it to the next level and abandon fact-checking altogether. Supporting quality journalism and taking media companies to task when they fail to verify factual claims before reporting them is one way to counteract the not-so-subtle and, to date, largely successful push to create an environment that allows politicians to lie without fear of any real push-back from the media. More important, we have to ensure that decision-makers at all levels have access to comprehensive and accurate socioeconomic data.
Academic institutions and independent research organizations have an important role to play here. (One of the clues that the 85% estimate of the number of recent college grads living with their parents is fraudulent can be found in a recent report by the Pew Research Center, which puts the real numbers for all young adults at 12% for 25- to 34-year-olds and 40% for those ages 18 to 24 as of December 2011. Interestingly, the Pew report notes that the vast majority of 18- to 24-year-olds currently living with their parents or grandparents say “they did not move back home because of economic conditions [in fact many of them may have never moved out in the first place].” These figures may still be too high for comfort, but they are a far cry from the 85% figure concocted by David Morrison.) However, much of the analysis performed by nongovernmental research organizations relies on raw data gathered by the American Community Survey, the Economic Survey (which measures the health of the U.S. economy and which the House Appropriates Bill eliminates as well), and other government-sponsored projects. In the end, only the Census Bureau has the capacity and the mandate to survey 3 million American households each year and 5 million businesses every 5 years to produce massive datasets used by researchers, government agencies, nonprofits, and businesses across the country. Eliminating the American Community Survey project would undoubtedly please the paranoid fringe and their champions at the Cato Institute who claim that questions about monthly utility costs, level of education, commuting time, and the availability of flush toilets constitute an unconstitutional invasion of privacy and bring the country one step closer to a totalitarian dystopia. (It is hard to imagine why anyone outside Congress would seriously advocate for the elimination of the Economic Census.) The rest of us have every reason to tell Congress to leave these research programs alone and let the Census Bureau do its job.
January 14, 2012 § Leave a comment
As the last U.S. military units got ready to leave Iraq at the end of 2011 after almost nine years of occupation, a familiar cast of Bush Administration officials responsible for starting the 2003 invasion and then managing its aftermath hit the talk show circuit one more time. Their message was predictable: it is too early to say how history will judge their decision to invade Iraq, and no, they do not regret their role in the whole affair. That the likes of Condoleezza Rice and Paul Bremer would prefer that their actions be evaluated by future generations of historians is not surprising: after all, by any measure available today the war can be fairly judged as an unmitigated disaster. And so the distinguished guests rehashed the same arguments they had used since 2002: Saddam Hussein did not comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions, he was a ruthless dictator who had used chemical weapons against his own people, everyone believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, etc. What was somewhat more surprising was that the talk show hosts mostly treated their guests with the same kind of unquestioning deference that characterized the media’s posture in the run-up to the war, obediently citing the most conservative (and almost certainly understated) estimates of the number of Iraqis who died as a result of the war and allowing long-discredited claims to go unchallenged. It is as if the talk show hosts thought it impolite to contradict their guests by questioning the validity of the peculiar form of consequentialist ethics favored by Iraq war apologists, or by bringing up the long list of former U.S. and British government officials who have described in great detail how senior officials in the Bush Administration pressured intelligence agencies into producing reports that would support their case for war, and how members of the Administration deliberately and systematically ignored and suppressed intelligence that did not fit their preferred narrative.
I happen to think that this kind of politeness is a tad overrated, so, at the risk of being insensitive to the wishes of those who think that nine years after the start of the war the time is till not right to judge it, I’ll go out on a limb and declare Operation Iraqi Freedom a crime. The hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed in the war, the Abu Ghraib, and the failure to find the mythical weapons of mass destruction are certainly part of the overall picture. But what made the war a crime before any of the above happened was the indisputable fact that from the very beginning, it was a war of aggression, identified by the Nürnberg Tribunal as “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
The site of the International Criminal Court reminds visitors that the Tribunal “held individuals accountable for ‘crimes against peace,’ defined as the ‘planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances, or participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing….’ When the United Nations General Assembly unanimously affirmed the Nürnberg principles in 1946, it affirmed the principle of individual accountability for such crimes.”
I am not so naïve as to think that those responsible for this supreme international crime will be brought to justice any time soon. “International law” remains largely a misnomer when it comes to questions of war and peace, an instrument of victor’s justice in a world where might still equals right. This impunity will help ensure that the American people learn nothing from the experience of the last nine years. (Note the eagerness of most Republican Party candidates for presidency to strike a belligerent pose whenever they talk about Iran.) By pretending that the war was anything but a crime, the media once again fail in their duty of informing the public and thus help lay the groundwork for future wars. U.S. media’s desire to honor the American men and women who were sent into Iraq is understandable, but it must not mean whitewashing history. Those who survived the war can handle the truth.