Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Debate Question, Answered

QUESTION: Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it's not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?

This was a question from the second Presidential debate, and as you may have noticed both candidates dodged it and talked about their own energy policies. But I think this question was answerable, and an answer would have advanced public debate. In particular, it would have dried up a couple of perennial Republican talking points.

"The main thing that determines gasoline prices is the world price of oil. We're a part of the world oil market. The oil that we produce doesn't remain in a separate pot marked "American oil;" it goes into world oil supply, and the oil that we consume comes out of world oil supply. So the question you're asking could be asked as: what can Secretary Chu do to reduce world oil prices? 

"The answer, unfortunately, is not very much. If supply increases, then the price will go down. So world oil prices will go down, somewhat,  if we produce more. However, oil prices will also go down if Norway or Saudi Arabia produces more. Similarly, if demand decreases, the price will go down, so we can lower the price, somewhat, by using less energy. But again, oil prices will also go down if other countries use less energy.

"The best way that we can insulate ourselves from higher gasoline prices is to make gasoline a smaller part of our budgets. Back when people were getting around by horse, a big increase in the price of oats would have really hurt the economy. Now most people wouldn't notice. As more fuel-efficient cars get on the road, the price of gasoline will be less and less important.

"So I would say Secretary Chu's job is not to lower gas prices, which he can't do very much about; it's to help us get to a future where gas prices are not so important. And he's doing a good job of that."

More Meaningless Numbers

What on earth makes journalists write things like this?

Australians, as it turns out, watch lots of telly. According to the survey data, in 2008, the year that the researchers chose as their benchmark, Australian adults viewed a collective 9.8 billion hours of television.

A collective 9.8 billion hours! OK, quick, how much television does the average Australian watch in a day? I have no idea, but if you paid them $10 per hour of TV watching, it would form a stack of dollar bills 6000 miles high. That's lots of telly! Or maybe not. Again, I have no idea. (Do Australians say "telly," by the way? I thought that was more a British thing.)

I think the problem here (and here and here) is an attempt to make numbers look big by multiplying them by other big numbers, such as the population of a country or the days in a year. But what actually defines a number as big is comparison to similar numbers. A large number without other numbers for comparison looks big, but doesn't give much information about whether it actually is or not.

This may be the intended effect if you're a politician trying to avoid scrutiny of your ideas. Classic recent example: cite cost of Obamacare by giving total cost over a ten-year period (almost a trillion dollars!) without comparing it to, say, total health-care costs over the same period (30 trillion dollars!).

But journalists should have higher aspirations than that.

Note: If you're wondering, it comes out to about an hour and fifteen minutes per day. Not real couch potato territory, but that's just the average. Apparently, though, the reporter decided the story needed a big number to make a point (about an Australian  study that finds sitting is bad for you), so she threw in an impressive-sounding but meaningless number.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Just Give Us the Facts

As I was commenting just the other day, OK, I'm a bit partisan at times. But I am also a small-d democrat. I would like to see the electoral process work.

That's what's really upsetting about Obama's performance in the first debate. Yes, he definitely did himself some short-run damage in public opinion. But the long-run damage is that Romney was able to win the debate while egesting a huge amount of misinformation  and deception.

You probably have heard about some of the more blatant, um, inaccuracies: that under Romney's proposal for health care people with preexisting conditions would be covered (they wouldn't), that half of all the green-energy companies that got support in the stimulus went bankrupt (not even close), and of course the famous $716 billion raid on Medicare. None of these was effectively countered by Obama.

 If this is allowed to stand, democracy in America is pretty much a lost cause. Candidates who are approximately truthful will be crowded out by the most creative, morally untethered fantasists. If there is no price to pay for misleading the public, then it's a race to the bottom. All that is necessary for the triumph of gibberish is for the informed to do nothing.

But the whole debate was just a particularly egregious example of a political failure of Obama throughout his administration. There's a hackneyed old lawyers' adage that begins, "When the facts are on your side, pound the facts." What this administration has consistently neglected to do is pound the facts, even though usually the facts are on their side. We saw this clearly in the health care debate, when neither fact (we're worse than Cuba on infant mortality, yet we have by far the most expensive health care system in the world) nor fiction (death panels, government takeover of health care) was clearly labeled as such by the administration.

The New York Times reports that Obama and the Democrats raised $181 million in September (back when Obama was far ahead in the polls). How about spending some of that money calling out some of the false claims that Romney made in the debates? That would be good for Democrats. And democrats.