Thursday, January 14, 2010

Don't Shoot the Pollster - Attacks on Scott Rasmussen and Fox News show a disturbing attitude toward dissent

Attacks on Scott Rasmussen and Fox News show a disturbing attitude toward dissent.
WSJ, Jan 15, 2010

Polling is both an art and a science, but recently it's also become a subject of political intimidation.

One shot was fired by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Dec. 8, when he dismissed Gallup's daily tracking of President Obama's job approval. It had hit a record low of 47%, and Mr. Gibbs called the results meaningless:

"If I was a heart patient and Gallup was my EKG I'd visit my doctor. If you look back I think five days ago. . . there was an 11 point spread, now there's a one point spread. . . I'm sure a six-year-old with a crayon could do something not unlike that. I don't put a lot of stake in, never have, in the EKG that is the daily Gallup trend. I don't pay a lot of attention to meaninglessness."

Polling is a science because it requires a range of sampling techniques to be used to select a sample. It is an art because constructing a sample and asking questions is something that requires skill, experience and intellectual integrity. The possibility of manipulation—or, indeed, intimidation—is great.

A recent case in point is what has happened to Scott Rasmussen, an independent pollster we both work with, who has an unchallenged record for both integrity and accuracy. Mr. Rasmussen correctly predicted the 2004 and 2008 presidential races within a percent, and accurately called the vast majority of contested Senate races in 2004 and 2006. His work has sometimes been of concern for Republicans, particularly when they were losing congressional seats in 2004 and 2006.

Most recently, Mr. Rasmussen has been the leader in chronicling the decline in the public's support for President Obama. And so he has been the target of increasingly virulent attacks from left-wing bloggers seeking to undermine his credibility, and thus muffle his findings. A Politico piece, "Low Favorables: Democrats Rip Rasmussen," reported on the attacks from blogs like the Daily Kos, Swing State Project, and Media Matters.

"Rasmussen Caught With Their Thumb on the Scale," cried the Daily Kos last summer. "Rasmussen Reports, You Decide," the blog Swing State Project headlined not long ago in a play on the Fox News motto.

"I don't think there are Republican polling firms that get as good a result as Rasmussen does," Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow with the progressive research outfit Media Matters, said in a Jan. 2 Politico article. "His data looks like it all comes out of the RNC."

Liberals have also noted that Rasmussen's daily presidential tracking polls have consistently placed Mr. Obama's approval numbers around five percentage points lower than other polling outfits throughout the year. This is because Rasmussen surveys likely voters, who are now more Republican in orientation than the overall electorate. (Gallup and other pollsters survey the entire adult population.) On other key issues like health care, Rasmussen's numbers have been echoed by everyone else.

Mr. Rasmussen, who is avowedly not part of the Beltway crowd in Washington, has been willing to take on issues like ethics and corruption in ways no other pollsters have been able to do. He was also one of the first pollsters to stress people's real fear of the growing size of government, the size of the deficit, and the concern about spending at a time when these issues were not really on Washington's radar screen.

The reaction against him has been strident and harsh. He's been called an adjunct of the Republican Party when in fact he has never worked for any political party. Nor has he consulted with any candidates seeking elective office.

The attacks on Rasmussen and Gallup follow an effort by the White House to wage war on Fox News and to brand it, as former White House Director of Communications Anita Dunn did, as "not a real news organization." The move backfired; in time, other news organizations rallied around Fox News. But the message was clear: criticize the White House at your peril.

As pollsters for two Democratic presidents who served before Barack Obama, we view this unprecedented attempt to silence the media and to attack the credibility of unpopular polling as chilling to the free exercise of democracy.

This is more than just inside baseball. As practicing political consultants, both of us have seen that the established parties try to stifle dissent among their political advisers and consultants. The parties go out of their way to try to determine in advance what questions will be asked and what answers will be obtained to reinforce existing party messages. The thing most feared is independence, which is what Mr. Rasmussen brings.

Mr. Gibbs's comments and the recent attempts by the Democratic left to muzzle Scott Rasmussen reflect a disturbing trend in our politics: a tendency to try to stifle legitimate feedback about political concerns—particularly if the feedback is negative to the incumbent administration.

Mr. Caddell served as a pollster for President Jimmy Carter. Mr. Schoen, who served as a pollster for President Bill Clinton, is the author of "The Political Fix" just out from Henry Holt.

Don't Like the Numbers? Change 'Em

Don't Like the Numbers? Change 'Em. By MICHAEL J. BOSKIN
If a CEO issued the kind of distorted figures put out by politicians and scientists, he'd wind up in prison.
WSJ, Jan 14, 2010

Politicians and scientists who don't like what their data show lately have simply taken to changing the numbers. They believe that their end—socialism, global climate regulation, health-care legislation, repudiating debt commitments, la gloire française—justifies throwing out even minimum standards of accuracy. It appears that no numbers are immune: not GDP, not inflation, not budget, not job or cost estimates, and certainly not temperature. A CEO or CFO issuing such massaged numbers would land in jail.

The late economist Paul Samuelson called the national income accounts that measure real GDP and inflation "one of the greatest achievements of the twentieth century." Yet politicians from Europe to South America are now clamoring for alternatives that make them look better.

A commission appointed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy suggests heavily weighting "stability" indicators such as "security" and "equality" when calculating GDP. And voilà!—France outperforms the U.S., despite the fact that its per capita income is 30% lower. Nobel laureate Ed Prescott called this disparity the difference between "prosperity and depression" in a 2002 paper—and attributed it entirely to France's higher taxes.

With Venezuela in recession by conventional GDP measures, President Hugo Chávez declared the GDP to be a capitalist plot. He wants a new, socialist-friendly way to measure the economy. Maybe East Germans were better off than their cousins in the West when the Berlin Wall fell; starving North Koreans are really better off than their relatives in South Korea; the 300 million Chinese lifted out of abject poverty in the last three decades were better off under Mao; and all those Cubans risking their lives fleeing to Florida on dinky boats are loco.

There is historical precedent for a "socialist GDP." When President George H.W. Bush sent me to help Mikhail Gorbachev with economic reform, I found out that the Soviet statistics office kept two sets of books: those they published, and those they actually believed (plus another for Stalin when he was alive).

In Argentina, President Néstor Kirchner didn't like the political and budget hits from high inflation. After a politicized personnel purge in 2002, he changed the inflation measures. Conveniently, the new numbers showed lower inflation and therefore lower interest payments on the government's inflation-linked bonds. Investor and public confidence in the objectivity of the inflation statistics evaporated. His wife and successor Cristina Kirchner is now trying to grab the central bank's reserves to pay for the country's debt.

America has not been immune from this dangerous numbers game. Every president is guilty of spinning unpleasant statistics. President Richard Nixon even thought there was a conspiracy against him at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But President Barack Obama has taken it to a new level. His laudable attempt at transparency in counting the number of jobs "created or saved" by the stimulus bill has degenerated into farce and was just junked this week.

The administration has introduced the new notion of "jobs saved" to take credit where none was ever taken before. It seems continually to confuse gross and net numbers. For example, it misses the jobs lost or diverted by the fiscal stimulus. And along with the congressional leadership it hypes the number of "green jobs" likely to be created from the explosion of spending, subsidies, loans and mandates, while ignoring the job losses caused by its taxes, debt, regulations and diktats.

The president and his advisers—their credibility already reeling from exaggeration (the stimulus bill will limit unemployment to 8%) and reneged campaign promises (we'll go through the budget "line-by-line")—consistently imply that their new proposed regulation is a free lunch. When the radical attempt to regulate energy and the environment with the deeply flawed cap-and-trade bill is confronted with economic reality, instead of honestly debating the trade-offs they confidently pronounce that it boosts the economy. They refuse to admit that it simply boosts favored sectors and firms at the expense of everyone else.

Rabid environmentalists have descended into a separate reality where only green counts. It's gotten so bad that the head of the California Air Resources Board, Mary Nichols, announced this past fall that costly new carbon regulations would boost the economy shortly after she was told by eight of the state's most respected economists that they were certain these new rules would damage the economy. The next day, her own economic consultant, Harvard's Robert Stavis, denounced her statement as a blatant distortion.

Scientists are expected to make sure their findings are replicable, to make the data available, and to encourage the search for new theories and data that may overturn the current consensus. This is what Galileo, Darwin and Einstein—among the most celebrated scientists of all time—did. But some climate researchers, most notably at the University of East Anglia, attempted to hide or delete temperature data when that data didn't show recent rapid warming. They quietly suppressed and replaced the numbers, and then attempted to squelch publication of studies coming to different conclusions.

The Obama administration claims a dubious "Keynesian" multiplier of 1.5 to feed the Democrats' thirst for big spending. The administration's idea is that virtually all their spending creates jobs for unemployed people and that additional rounds of spending create still more—raising income by $1.50 for each dollar of government spending. Economists differ on such multipliers, with many leading figures pegging them at well under 1.0 as the government spending in part replaces private spending and jobs. But all agree that every dollar of spending requires a present value of a dollar of future taxes, which distorts decisions to work, save, and invest and raises the cost of the dollar of spending to well over a dollar. Thus, only spending with large societal benefits is justified, a criterion unlikely to be met by much current spending (perusing the projects on doesn't inspire confidence).

Even more blatant is the numbers game being used to justify health-insurance reform legislation, which claims to greatly expand coverage, decrease health-insurance costs, and reduce the deficit. That magic flows easily from counting 10 years of dubious Medicare "savings" and tax hikes, but only six years of spending; assuming large cuts in doctor reimbursements that later will be cancelled; and making the states (other than Sen. Ben Nelson's Nebraska) pay a big share of the cost by expanding Medicaid eligibility. The Medicare "savings" and payroll tax hikes are counted twice—first to help pay for expanded coverage, and then to claim to extend the life of Medicare.

One piece of good news: The public isn't believing much of this out-of-control spin. Large majorities believe the health-care legislation will raise their insurance costs and increase the budget deficit. Most Americans are highly skeptical of the claims of climate extremists. And they have a more realistic reaction to the extraordinary deterioration in our public finances than do the president and Congress.

As a society and as individuals, we need to make difficult, even wrenching choices, often with grave consequences. To base those decisions on highly misleading, biased, and even manufactured numbers is not just wrong, but dangerous.

Squandering their credibility with these numbers games will only make it more difficult for our elected leaders to enlist support for difficult decisions from a public increasingly inclined to disbelieve them.

Mr. Boskin is a professor of economics at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He chaired the Council of Economic Advisers under President George H.W. Bush.

Health Experts and Double Standards - Jonathan Gruber, Peter Orszag and the press corps

Health Experts and Double Standards. WSJ Editorial
Jonathan Gruber, Peter Orszag and the press corps.
The Wall Street Journal, page A18, Jan 14, 2010

The press corps is agonizing, or claims to be agonizing, over the news of Jonathan Gruber's conflict of interest: The MIT economist has been among the foremost promoters of ObamaCare—even as he had nearly $400,000 in consulting contracts with the Administration that weren't disclosed in the many stories in which he was cited as an independent authority.

Mr. Gruber is a health economist and former Clinton Treasury hand, as well an architect of Mitt Romney's 2006 health plan in Massachusetts that so closely resembles ObamaCare. His econometric health-care modelling is well-regarded. So his $297,600 plum from the Department of Health and Human Services in March for "technical assistance" estimating changes in insurance costs and coverage under ObamaCare, plus another $95,000 job, is at least defensible.

However, this financial relationship only came to wide notice when Mr. Gruber wrote a commentary for the New England Journal of Medicine, which has a more stringent disclosure policy than most media outlets. Last week the New York Times said it would have disclosed Mr. Gruber's financial ties had it known when it published one of his op-eds last year. Mr. Gruber told Politico's Ben Smith that "at no time have I publicly advocated a position that I did not firmly believe—indeed, I have been completely consistent with my academic track record."

We don't doubt Mr. Gruber's sincerity about his research, though the same benefit of the political doubt wasn't extended to, say, Armstrong Williams when it was revealed that the conservative pundit had a contract with the Department of Education during the No Child Left Behind debate. Any number of former Generals-turned-TV-analysts were skewered in the New York Times in 2008 merely because of continuing contact—and no financial ties—with the Pentagon.

The political exploitation of Mr. Gruber's commentary is another matter. His work figured heavily into a recent piece by Ron Brownstein in the Atlantic Monthly that the Administration promoted as an antidote to skepticism about ObamaCare's cost control (or lack thereof). White House budget director Peter Orszag has also relied on a letter from Mr. Gruber and other economists endorsing the Senate bill.

In a December conference call with reporters, Mr. Orszag said that "I agree with Jon Gruber that basically everything that has been put forward in health policy discussions for a decade is in this bill." He also praised "the folks who have actually done the reporting and read the bill and gone through and done the hard work to actually examine, rather than just going on buzz and sort of loose talk, but actually gone through and looked at the specific details in the bill," citing Mr. Brownstein in particular. Which is to say, the journalists who had "done the reporting" were those who agreed with the Gruber-White House spin.

Mr. Orszag never mentioned Mr. Gruber's contract. Nor did HHS disclose the contract when Mike Enzi, the ranking Republican on the Senate health committee, asked specifically for a list of all consultants as part of routine oversight in July. His request noted that "Transparency regarding these positions will help ensure that the public has confidence in the qualifications, character and abilities of individuals serving in these positions."

We're not Marxists who think everyone's opinion depends entirely on financial circumstances. But if Mr. Gruber qualifies as a health expert despite his self-interest, then the studies of self-interested businesses deserve at least as much media attention. The insurer WellPoint has built a very detailed and rigorous model on the likely impact of ObamaCare, using its own actuarial data in regional markets, and found that insurance costs will spike across the board. The White House trashed it, and the press corps ignored it.

This is a double standard that has corroded much of the coverage of ObamaCare, with journalists treating government claims as oracular but business arguments as self-serving. We'll bet Messrs. Orszag and Brownstein that WellPoint's analysis will more closely reflect the coming insurance reality than the fruits of Mr. Gruber's government paycheck.