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ELUSIVE THINGS! Facts can be elusive things. Just check Sean’s clear explanation: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, MARCH 2, 2010

The seven percent description: This morning, we chafed again over a featured statistic. The statistic appears in Jeff Zeleny’s news report about Obama’s prescription for low-performing schools. Describing Obama’s speech on the topic, Zeleny included this:

ZELENY (3/2/10): [Obama] singled out Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, where last week the school board voted to dismiss the entire faculty as part of a turnaround plan for the school, which has a 48 percent graduation rate.

At Central Falls High, he said, just 7 percent of 11th graders passed state math tests. Mr. Obama said he supported the school board's decision to dismiss the faculty and staff members. ''Our kids get only one chance at an education and we need to get it right,'' he said.

The president's comments incensed the leadership of the American Federation of Teachers, which criticized Mr. Obama for ''condoning the mass firing'' of teachers at the Rhode Island school.

''We know it is tempting for people in Washington to score political points by scapegoating teachers, but it does nothing to give our students and teachers the tools they need to succeed,'' the president of the union, Randi Weingarten, said in a statement.

Who’s right about this mass dismissal, Obama or Weingarten? That of course is a matter of judgment. In this piece at the Washington Post, we thought Valerie Strauss did a good job arguing against the mass dismissal. Now that 93 teachers are toast, Strauss sketched the school board’s next step:

STRAUSS (3/1/10): Now, all they have to do is find 93 excellent professionals to take their places. Recruiting the best educators should be easy, especially when you can offer them life in a very poor town and a job with no security.

Central Falls is Rhode Island’s “smallest and poorest city,” Strauss wrote. (Many Central Falls students are children of immigrants.) “There is no evidence that wholesale changes at schools make a difference at schools,” she later wrote, “though it has been tried repeatedly in districts around the country.” For ourselves, we’ve never studied that topic.

Strauss called the mass dismissal a “grand gesture.” Who knows? Sometimes “grand gestures” may even work, though we ourselves would be major sceptics. But let’s return to our starting point—to the statistic we highlighted in Zeleny’s report: “At Central Falls High, [Obama] said, just 7 percent of 11th graders passed state math tests.”

We’ve seen that statistic in many reports. Here’s what we haven’t seen yet:

We haven’t seen the passing rate for the state’s 11th graders as a whole. A seven percent passing rate sounds very bad—but to quote Ed McMahon, How bad is it? Some states have very hard proficiency tests, which may produce very low passing rates. Some states have proficiency tests which are very easy.

How bad is the Central Falls passing rate, as compared to the rest of the state? It’s a fairly obvious question. For that matter, what’s the graduation rate for Rhode Island as a whole? (Zeleny says the Central Falls rate is 48 percent.)

Those statistics should be in every report. So far, we haven’t seen them.

Coming Friday, we think: Bob Herbert did his latest column about charter schools. For various reasons, the analysts writhed as they read it.

ELUSIVE THINGS (permalink): Facts are often elusive things. They can be quite hard to explain. Consider something Ron Brownstein said on Sunday’s Meet the Press.

It happened during the panel discussion. David Gregory sought a “reality check” about rising health costs. Brownstein’s answer brought our young analysts right up out of their chairs:

GREGORY (2/28/10): Let's reality-check this for a second, Ron. The, the, the, the claim by Congressman Cantor that there isn't cost reduction here, we're not lowering costs—is that accurate? Look what the CBO says about the effect on the deficit.

BROWNSTEIN: Well, well, there, there are two ways to look at this. The CBO says that it would, the Democratic plan would reduce the deficit. Republicans believe that many of the changes in Medicare would not be implemented in the long run and call that into question. The broader question of what [the Democratic plan] means to overall national health care spending has been analyzed by the Medicare actuary, which is an independent position. And what they concluded was that between now and 2019, if you did the Democratic plan, you would ensure 33 million more people and national health, total national health spending would increase by less than a penny on the dollar. So does it break the back of rising costs? No. But does it reallocate resources within the medical system more efficiently potentially than they are now? Clearly, the actuary is suggesting yes, if you can cover 33 million more people at a total cost of less than a penny on the dollar increase in our, in our total national health expenditures. That is a part of the debate that has not, that has not come through.

Say what? Everyone knows that the Democratic plan would extend coverage to roughly 30 million more people. But according to Brownstein, “total national health spending would increase by less than a penny on the dollar” between now and 2019 under terms of the plan. Just to show you what perfect rubes we still are, we actually wondered if that could mean what it seemed to say. Could it be? Could it be that the Democratic plan controls costs so much, our total national health spending would only be one percent higher in 2019? One percent higher than now?

Yes, we actually wondered that—and we raced to look it up. In fact, the Medicare actuary (Richard Foster) said this (in December): Under the Democratic plan, total health spending will be one percent higher in 2019 than it is projected to be under current law. As Brownstein said at the start of his statement, there are two ways to look at that:

You can look at Foster’s projection as Brownstein did, seeing the glass half full. Wow, you can say. An additional 33 million people will have health coverage. And yet, the nation will only be spending one percent more on health care than we’re currently projected to spend.

On the other hand, you can look at that fact with your glass half empty. Ugh, you can say. We’re constantly talking about the way our nation’s health spending will keep “sky-rocketing” absent reform. According to Foster, our overall spending will keep sky-rocketing even if reform is passed—it will even sky-rocket a tiny bit more! Especially since we start this game spending two to three times what the sane countries spend, shouldn’t an “overhaul” of our system do somewhat better than that?

You can look at that fact either way. But how many viewers could have explained the fact Brownstein cited? Even we wondered, until we checked, if total health spending would basically languish under reform, according to the actuary’s report.

Just a guess: Almost no one who watched Sunday’s program could have explained Brownstein’s fact. Just a guess: That would even include David Gregory, and the rest of his pundit assembly.

But then, facts can be elusive things. Just consider the clear explanation Sean Hannity offered last Friday night, one day after President Obama debated a fact with Senator Alexander.

The health summit occurred on Thursday. Sean had therefore had a full day to get his facts together. And sure enough! The newsman had put his time to good use! In this passage, he quoted the relevant CBO report, thus showing Fox News viewers that Obama had gotten a basic fact wrong. This was his clear explanation:

HANNITY (2/26/10): Joe Biden's hot mike wasn't the only problem that Democrats ran into at yesterday's health care summit. Facts also seemed to pose difficulty for them. That was particularly evident in the president’s exchange with Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander.

(begin videotape)

OBAMA: So, Lamar, when you mentioned earlier that you said premiums go up, that's just not the case according to the Congressional Budget Office.

ALEXANDER: Mr. President, if you're going to contradict me, I ought to have a chance to— The Congressional Budget Office report says that premiums will rise in the individual market as a result of the senate bill.

OBAMA: No, no, no, no. Let me—and this is an example of where we got to get our facts straight.

(end videotape)

HANNITY: All right. Now, a look back at that CBO report commissioned by Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh shows that it is the president who needs to get his facts straight. Now, the report concludes, quote: “The average premium per person covered would be about 10 to 13 percent higher in 2016 than the average premium for non-group coverage in that same year under the current law.”

Wow, what a great bill! No wonder the Democrats are obscuring the facts!

In a rather clear explanation, Hannity quoted the relevant CBO report—a report which does in fact say, “The average premium per person covered would be about 10 to 13 percent higher in 2016 than the average premium for non-group coverage in that same year under the current law.” Uh-oh! As compared to what will happen under current law, “the average premium per person covered” will go up! And that isn’t Hannity making that claim! That’s what the CBO says!

Eureka! “The Democrats are obscuring the facts,” 2.3 million Fox viewers were told. And that was just the number watching this newsman’s 9 PM broadcast! (For fuller data, click here.)

Elsewhere in the newsosphere, voters heard something quite different. That very morning, for example, Paul Krugman had included a few more facts—and he said that it was Lamar who “delivered a whopper:”

KRUGMAN (2/26/10): It was obvious how things would go as soon as the first Republican speaker, Senator Lamar Alexander, delivered his remarks. He was presumably chosen because he's folksy and likable and could make his party's position sound reasonable. But right off the bat he delivered a whopper, asserting that under the Democratic plan, ''for millions of Americans, premiums will go up.''

Wow. I guess you could say that he wasn't technically lying, since the Congressional Budget Office analysis of the Senate Democrats' plan does say that average payments for insurance would go up. But it also makes it clear that this would happen only because people would buy more and better coverage. The “price of a given amount of insurance coverage” would fall, not rise—and the actual cost to many Americans would fall sharply thanks to federal aid.

His fib on premiums was quickly followed by a fib on process.

The average premium will be higher, Krugman noted. But only because the average policy will be more inclusive. This week, we’ve noted Lamar tossing in yet another fact as this discussion drags on and broadens. The average policy will be more inclusive because of federal regulations, he has noted. According to Lamar, people will buy more coverage because they’ll now have no other choice.

Alas! It actually takes a lot of facts to explain the point which is under dispute. That’s why it’s hard, in sweeping matters like this, to win sweeping political support by arguing about discrete facts. In the course of last Friday’s clear explanation, Hannity did quote the relevant CBO report. As Krugman had already said, we guess you could say that he wasn't technically lying.

It’s hard to win wide support for a sweeping measure by arguing about discrete facts. Support will more likely be won by the use of sweeping narratives—including sweeping narratives which have stood the test of time. A really good narrative just keeps coming back when solons rise to argue health care. Just consider what Candidate Bush said, way back in 2004.

Tomorrow: What’s our line?