Thursday, July 28, 2011

Yet one more thing noted in passing

So Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation, rambles on in the Washington Post about how
We do not have a debt crisis. We have a spending crisis. There is only one way you get to a debt crisis — you spend too much money.
Now, that last part is complete bullshit: While some people do just overspend, the way most people get into a "debt crisis" is a sudden emergency or turn of events, such as loss of a job, health issues, divorce, and so on. (In fact, health care costs are the single most common factor in personal bankruptcies, cited in 62% of cases.) Only the comfortably unafflicted such as Phillips who have never had the experience of daily calls from bill collectors or of having the idea of bankruptcy move out of the merely theoretical could continue to make the smug, condescending, and full of crap claim that he does.

But what I actually wanted to note was something else: The deceptive use of sources.

For one example, he cites a GAO report from March which he claimed showed
billions of tax dollars that were being squandered in duplicative, wasteful programs or ones that had completely failed or were fraudulent.
Um, not really, no. The primary focus of the report was on waste, yes, but it was on waste due to inefficiency resulting from programs being scattered across various agencies, leading to duplication of efforts. Not that the programs themselves, i.e., their purposes and goals, were wasteful, but that the way they functioned was. The focus, that is, was not on the programs but on efficiency.

What's more, "failed" programs and "fraud" were mentioned neither in the cover letter attached to the report nor in its summary. In the body of the report they were mentioned only in passing as among possible causes of some cases of "improper payments."

Of course, Phillips would claim he'd been accurate because the word "fraud" did appear in the report, but clearly that is not what he expressed, which was that the report gave equal stress to "failed" programs and "fraud" as it did to inefficiency and laid equal blame on them for waste - which it flatly did not. Put another way and bearing in mind my definition of a lie is "a statement made with the intent to deceive," Phillips lied.

(Interestingly, Phillips in his "we're spending too much" fury doesn't get around to mentioning that the GAO's analysis also revealed duplication and inefficiencies in so-called tax expenditures - that is, it included means of "revenue increases," higher taxes, in its proposed fixes. I wonder how he missed that.)

Piling on the "I'm citing this source thinking you won't look closely at it if at all" bullshit, Phillips doubles down with this:
The GAO found in 2008 that more than 40 percent of the purchases made with government cards were improper, fraudulent or constituted embezzlement. These credit cards are being used to purchase Xboxes, lingerie and more.
Again, a serious distortion of what the report actually says. What the GAO did was to test the internal fiscal controls of various agencies by asking for documentation that purchases had been properly authorized and that someone other than the cardholder signed for them when they came.
Using a statistical sample of purchase card transactions from July 1, 2005, through June 30, 2006, GAO estimated that nearly 41 percent of the transactions failed to meet either of these basic internal control standards.
Note well: It doesn't say a damn thing there about fraud or embezzlement; it doesn't even assert the purchases were improper. Only that they weren't properly documented.

Again, Phillips would defend himself by noting that the GAO did go on to say that the lack of proper controls had lead to "examples of fraudulent, improper, and abusive purchase card use" and mentioned some specific cases. But again, that's not the essence of what he expressed, the impression he meant to give, which rather was that the GAO found that fraud and embezzlement make up 41% of government credit card purchases. That is, he lied.

His use of sources was thoroughly if unsurprisingly dishonest.

What was I just saying about Rule #13?

Footnote: The term "improper payment" was defined by the GAO as "any payment that should not have been made or that was made in an incorrect amount (including overpayments and underpayments) under statutory, contractual, administrative, or other legally applicable requirements. Reported improper payments also include payments for which insufficient or no documentation was found."

Which means "improper payments" can be a measure of government efficiency but not as the basis for a claim that government is "spending too much." That's not only because some of the payments may have been proper but just lack documentation, but because if the government underpays, the amount of the underpayment still gets added to the total of improper payments.

Just by way of example to make that clear, leave aside cases of inadequate documentation and just think of over- and underpayments, if the GAO had found $25 billion in overpayments and $100 billion in underpayments, it would record that as $125 billion in "improper payments." But instead of meaning the government spent $125 billion too much, it would actually mean it spent $75 billion too little.

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