Setting the Record Straight on Obama’s Record

Political Myth: According to PolitiFact.com, President Obama has kept only 37% of his campaign promises.

Reality: That’s not the whole story

Explanation

PolitiFact.com is generally a reliable source of information when it comes to determining the accuracy of a claim made in the political world.  In a sense, it falls within the same family as FactCheck.org, Snopes.com, and this site.  But as with any other source of information — even one that holds itself as a “fact checking” site — it is important to treat statements attributed to PolitiFact.com with the same healthy dose of skepticism as those attributed to any other media outlet.

PolitiFact maintains a section on its website called the “Obameter,” in which it lists a total of 508 promises Obama has made, and classifies them as “Promise Kept,” “Compromise,” “Promise Broken,” “Stalled,” or “In the Works.”  In that framework, out of the promises that PolitiFact selected, as of today Politifact classifies 188 (37%) of Obama’s promises as “kept,” 13% as “compromised,” “10%” as “stalled” [meaning that others, such as Congress, are preventing him from acting on the promise], and 24% as “in the works.”  That leaves 15% of the 508 promises PolitiFact selected as “broken.”

The claim that “President Obama has kept only 37% of his campaign promises,” is deceptive for two reasons: First, by not enumerating the various categories that PolitiFact places Obama’s promises into, the statement implies that the 63% of Obama’s promises that were not “kept” must have been “broken.”  Second, it assumes without analysis that the 508 promises that PolitiFact chose to evaluate are a representative sample of the entire universe of all of the promises Obama has made.  Although the “Obamameter” is a very useful source of information, it is probably best looked at as a qualitative rather than quantitative resource.  In other words, it’s a good place to go if you want to find out whether Obama kept his promise on A or is working on B, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that a president who “kept” 35% of his promises is necessarily better than one who “kept” only 28% of them.

Those who wish to continue using PolitiFact as a source of quantitative information despite the above caveat may be interested to know that according to PolitiFact, the Republicans in Congress have kept only 19% of their promises.  However, even fewer conclusions can be drawn from that, since PolitiFact hasn’t yet gotten around to rating 44% of Congressional Republicans’ promises.

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A Few Gaffes That Never Actually Happened

Political Myth: During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Sarah Palin said “I can see Russia from my house.”

Reality: That phrase was actually uttered by Tina Fey, who was imitating Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live.  While we make no guarantees as to how long this link will continue to work, for the moment you can watch the skit here.

What Sarah Palin actually said, in an interview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson, was “They’re our next-door neighbors, and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.”

Political Myth: Barrack Obama once claimed that the United States consisted of “57 states.”

Reality: In a campaign speech he gave in 2008, then-candidate Barrack Obama said the following:

“… it is just wonderful to be back in Oregon, and over the last 15 months we’ve traveled to every corner of the United States. I’ve now been in fifty …. seven states? I think one left to go. One left to go. Alaska and Hawaii, I was not allowed to go to even though I really wanted to visit
but my staff would not justify it.”

We are normally reluctant to engage in speculation, but you can probably assume that he started to say “fifty states,” and then corrected himself mid-phrase to “forty seven.”  In other words, he most likely misspoke, rather than literally believing there were 57 states.

Political Myth: Dan Quayle once said “I was recently on a tour of Latin America, and the only regret I have was that I didn’t study Latin harder in school so I could converse with those people.”

Reality: As a general rule, the accuracy of virtually any apparently absurd quotation attributed to Dan Quayle should be taken with a grain of salt.  This particular utterance was first said in 1989 by Rep. Claudine Schneider (R-RI) to a group of her supporters.  Although she attributed the statement to Dan Quayle, she made it clear that she was joking.

Political Myth: Dan Quayle once said “I was recently on a tour of Latin America, and the only regret I have was that I didn’t study Latin harder in school so I could converse with those people.”

Reality: As a general rule, the accuracy of virtually any apparently absurd quotation attributed to Dan Quayle should be taken with a grain of salt.  This particular utterance was first said in 1989 by Rep. Claudine Schneider (R-RI) to a group of her supporters.  Although she attributed the statement to Dan Quayle, she made it clear that she was joking.

Political Myth: Al Gore claimed to have “invented the Internet.”

Reality: During the 2000 Presidential campaign, Vice President Al Gore said during an interview on CNN’s “Late Edition.”

During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country’s economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system.

In other words, Al Gore claimed to have “invented the Internet” in much the same way John F. Kennedy invented the Apollo program, or Dwight D. Eisenhower invented interstate highways.

Political Myth: Mitt Romney said “I like being able to fire people.”

Reality: Yes, he did utter those particular words, but the context may be important.  Here is the full quotation:

I want people to be able to own insurance if they wish to, and to buy it for themselves and perhaps keep it for the rest of their life and to choose among different policies offered from companies across the nation. I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep people healthy. It also means if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. If someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I’m going to go get somebody else to provide that service to me.


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The United States Isn’t Going To Adopt Sharia Law Any Time Soon.

Political Myth: There is an imminent danger that “Sharia Law” will be adopted by courts in the United States.

Reality: Not even remotely likely.

Explanation

It was 1531, and King Henry VIII of England wanted the Convocation of the Clergy to declare him (as opposed to the Pope) to be the Head of the Church of England.  This was, needless to day, a highly controversial issue among the English clergy.  They reached a compromise:  They declared King Henry to be the Head of the Church of England “so far as the Law of Christ allows.”  Of course, nobody had any idea what the “Law of Christ” had to say on the subject, if anything, but that was the point.  The proviso could mean anything you wanted it to mean.

“Sharia Law,” is, in many ways, a lot like the “Law of Christ” of the 16th Century in that what people think it requires varies widely from one Islamic sect to another.  Sunni “Sharia Law” differs substantially from Shea “Sharia Law,” which, in turn, is significantly different from the Sufi idea of “Sharia.”  Perhaps the biggest difference between the “Sharia” of today and the “Law of Christ” of the 16th Century is the simple fact that Islam is much more fragmented than Christianity was — at least back then.  There has never been an Islamic equivalent of a “Pope,” or any other centralized authority who could declare authoritatively and for everybody what the “Law of Christ” (or Sharia) does or does not say.  So, in some countries, “Sharia” permits polygamy on a limited basis; in others, “Sharia” strictly forbids it.  In some countries, the penalty for theft is, literally, amputation — in others judges can (and generally do) impose lesser penalties.

But if you happen not to be a Muslim, the above probably doesn’t make you feel much better about Sharia law.  Even if you do happen to be a Muslim, you probably wouldn’t want to live under a legal system that imposes a type of Islam you don’t happen to agree with on you.  If that is your point of view, then you will be glad to know that neither the United States nor any of the 50 states has a legal system based on any version of Sharia law, nor do they have any plans to adopt Sharia as the basis of its legal system, nor have they ever.  The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, as applied to the states via the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, would forbid any government in the United States from trying to adopt a legal system based solely on its interpretation of the cannons of a particular religion.  If it were to do so, then it is important to keep in mind that 78.5% of Americans self-identify as Christians, while only 0.6% of Americans self-identify as Muslims.  Thus, if the United States were to adopt the precepts of a particular religion as the basis of its legal system, it would far more likely be the “Law of Christ” than Sharia.

49 of the 50 states, and the United States itself, use English Common Law (which has nothing to do with Sharia) as the basis of its legal system, while Louisiana uses a legal system based in part on the French and Spanish Civil Codes (which also have nothing to do with Sharia).  Yet, there are still legitimate reasons why Sharia law (or foriegn law generally) might play a role in deciding a case, even if the case is being litigated in a jurisdiction that hasn’t  adopted Sharia law.  Here are some examples:

  • A in Texas makes a contract to buy goods from B in Pakistan.  A dispute arises.  Should that dispute be litigated under Texas law, or Pakistani law?  Oftentimes, the contract itself contains what is commonly called a “choice of law” clause that specifically answers that question, and American courts will generally honor a “choice of law” clause as long as the jurisdiction whose law is being chosen has some interest in the dispute (in other words, it’s okay in this example to chose Texas law or Pakistani law, but not Chinese law, since nobody involved in the transaction is in China).  Of course, there is always a “strong public policy” exception to this principle, such that if, for example, a contract interpreted under foreign law were to require one of the parties to become a slave, such a provision would not be enforced in the United States even if it would be valid in the foreign jurisdiction.
  • Sometimes, a dispute that occurs entirely within a foreign jurisdiction might be litigated in an American court.  If, for example, A, and American, travels to London and gets into an accident as a result of forgetting that he was supposed to be driving on the left side of the road, when B, the Englishman who gets hit, sues A in an American court the American court will adjudicate the dispute according to English traffic laws.  Similarly, if a dispute of some sort arises entirely within a country that has adopted “Sharia law,” the American court — subject to the “strong public policy” exception noted above, will adjudicate the dispute according to the law in effect where the events occurred.
  • Under the legal doctrine of “comity,” an American court will generally enforce a judgment entered by a foriegn court, provided the foriegn court had jurisdiction over the case, and subject to the aforementioned “strong public policy” exception.  In one of the cases sometimes sited by those who claim that Sharia law is being used in the U.S. court system, Ali v. Ali, the plaintiff was trying to enforce in a New Jersey court a custody decree that had been issued by a Sharia court in Gaza.  The New Jersey court refused to do so, saying “The law of the Sharia Court is undeniably arbitrary and capricious and cannot be sanctioned by this court, which uses the ‘best interest of the child’ as the overriding concern.”  Thus, it is odd that this case should be cited as an example of Sharia law being used in U.S. courts when it stands, instead, as an example of a U.S. court refusing to apply Sharia law.

Here are a few more examples of cases that Sharia law alarmists use in an attempt to prove that the U.S. legal system is in immenent danger of being replaced by some version of Sharia:

  • In S.D. v. M.J.R. a husband whose wife was seeking a restraining order against him tried to raise the defense that what was being characterized as “domestic violence” was, in fact, consistent with the couple’s cultural norms (they were Muslims from Morocco).  The court rejected this claim, saying:

    Every act necessary to constitute the crime was knowingly done, and the crime was therefore knowingly committed. Ignorance of a fact may sometimes be taken as evidence of a want of criminal intent, but not ignorance of the law. The only defen[s]e of the accused in this case is his belief that the law ought not to have been enacted. It matters not that his belief was a part of his professed religion; it was still belief, and belief only.

    [W]hen the offense consists of a positive act which is knowingly done, it would be dangerous to hold that the offender might escape punishment because he religiously believed the law which he had broken ought never to have been made. No case, we believe, can be found that has gone so far.

  • In In re: Marriage of Obaidi, to children of Afghani immigrants signed a prenuptial agreement before getting married, which is customary in most Muslim countries.  The problem was, the prenuptial was drafted by the wife’s family, and it was written in Farsi, so the husband did not know what he was agreeing to when he signed it.  The couple got divorced, and the Washington court expressly ruled that it would not use Islamic law to determine whether or not to enforce the prenup, but it would instead use the same Washington contract law that it uses with prenuptial agreements generally.  It ultimately found the prenup unenforceable.
  • In In re Marriage of Shaban a California court refused to apply “Islamic Law” in dividing property after a divorce, and instead applied California law, despite the fact that the couple, who had been married in Egypt, had signed a prenuptial agreement that called for property to be divided according to Islamic law in any dispute.  The reason why this case is often cited as an example of how Sharia law is influencing American courts (despite the fact that it, like the ones discussed above, is really an example of the opposite), is because the Court bases its ruling, not on any general distaste for Islamic law, but instead on the vagueness of the phrase “Islamic law” (as noted above, there are many competing schools of Islam), and on the fact that the agreement had been signed by the wife’s father rather than the wife herself.  In other words, the California court treated it like any other prenuptial agreement in deciding whether or not it was enforceable.


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Members Of Congress Have Really Good Healthcare, But Not “Free Healthcare.”

Political Myth: Members of Congress, unlike the rest of us, get free healthcare.

Reality: They have a good healthcare plan, but they pay for it.

Explanation

For an annual fee of $503, members of Congress can recieve primary healthcare from the Office of the Attending Physician in the U.S. Congress.  If necessary, they can be referred to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center(a.k.a. the Bathesda Naval Hospital), and the stay will also be covered by that same $503 fee.  The $503 fee, however, only allows members of Congress to be treated in those two places. If they want to be treated elsewhere, of if they want the spouses or children to be treated (the OAP will treat only the Member himself), then have to sign up for one of the “cafeteria” health insurance plans offered all other federal employees.  Of course, since “federal employees” is a much larger group than the employees of the typical private company, they pay a slightly lower rate for their coverage.

 

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Polling Results Within the “Margin Of Error” Are Not a “Statistical Tie.”

Political Myth: If the difference between two candidates’ polling numbers is less than the “margin of error” for the poll, then it’s a “statistical tie.”

Reality: Even if the results are “within the margin of error,” the candidate with higher polling numbers is still most likely to be in the lead.

Explanation

Suppose you have a bag with 100 million balls.  Some of them are blue, and some of them are red.  You want to know how many of your 100 million balls are red and how many are blue, but it would take too long to count them all.  So, you thoroughly mix up the balls in the bag, close your eyes, and pick out 500 balls at random.  By counting those 500 balls, assuming you truely did pick them randomly, you can come up with a pretty close approximation of how many of the 100 million balls in the bag are blue, and how many are red?

So the question is, how close an approximation can you get, and how reliable is it?  If 250 of the balls you chose were blue and 250 were red, then it is theoretically possible that the total number of blue balls in the bag was 250, and you just happened to randomly select all of them.  It is, similarly, theoretically possible that there were only 250 red balls in the bag.  The chances against either being the case are astronomically small, but it’s possible.

If you choose 500 balls at random from a bag with 100 million balls, there is a 95% chance that the 500 balls you picked will accurately represent the colors of the balls in the bag +/- 4.4%.  The “95%” figure is called the “Confidence Level.”  The “4.4% figure is called the “margin of error.”  A 4.4% margin of error at a 95% confidence level means 95% of the time, the result will be accurate within + or – 4.4%, but it also means that 5% of the time it will be more than 4.4% inaccurate.

So, suppose Candidate A is polling at 47% and Candidate B is polling at 50%, with a poll that has a margin of error of +/- 4.4% at a 95% confidence level.  Since the two are only 3% apart, we can’t be 95% cure that Candidate B is beating Candidate A.  But does that mean each candidate is equally likely to be winning?  Not by a long shot.  We’re 95% sure that the sample is accurate within +/- 4.4%, but we’re 90% sure that the sample is accurate within +/-3.7%, and 80% sure it’s accurate to within 2.9%.  The “margin of error” and “confidence level” of a poll go hand-in-hand.  One number is meaningless without the other.  Unfortunately, most polls published in the press do not specify what their confidence level is, but the industry standard is 95%.

Of course, the closer the two candidates’ polling numbers are, the more likely it is that the candidate who appears to be behind is actually ahead, but just because we can’t be 95% sure that Candidate B is ahead doesn’t mean that we might not be 90% sure, or 80% sure, or even 75% sure.  But, to stretch a point, even if a poll with a margin of error of +/- 10% at a 90% confidence leval has Candidate A beating Candidate B by 51%/49%, there is  always more than a 50% chance that Candidate A is winning.  Depending on the poll it may be a 60% chance, an 80% chance, or an 85% chance, but it’s always more likely than not that the candidate who appears to be ahead actually is ahead.

That said, “margin of error” is far from being the biggest issue in accurate polling.  The only thing “margin of error” accounts for is random variation — i.e. the possibility that a random sample might not be completely representative of the population the sample is taken from.  But if you’re confident that you can determine what an entire pot of soup will taste like by tasting only one spoonful, you can also be generally confident that you can determine how 100 million people will vote by asking a randomly selected 1,000 of them.

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Debunking the Myths About Marijuana

Although Marijuana is a “Schedule I Controlled Substance” under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning that it is forbidden by federal law to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, or possess with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense it, sixteen U.S. states and the District of Columbia have adopted laws decriminalizing personal Marijuana use and, in most cases, allowing patients with certain medical conditions to obtain marijuana legally if they have a doctor’s prescription.  These laws are controversial, as is the federal law listing marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance.  As always, with great controversy comes a great propensity to circulate political myths.  Some of the myths that deal with marijuana will be addressed here.

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If You Don’t Think Members Of Congress Should Get Better Retirement Benefits Than Any Other Federal Employee, We Have Good News For You.

Political Myth: Members of Congress, unlike other federal workers, do not have to pay Social Security taxes, and they get a pension of $174,000 for life upon retirement.

Reality: Members of Congress receive essentially the same retirement benefits as other federal workers.  Like other federal workers, they must pay Social Security taxes.

Explanation

In 1920, federal civil service employees began to be covered under the Civil Service Retirement System, under which federal workers were entitled, upon retirement, to a lifetime pension of as much as 80% of their annual salary.  The exact percentage each worker got was determined by means of a fairly simple formula:  1.5% for each year of service for the first five years, 1.75% for each year of service for the second five years, and 2% for each year of service thereafter.  So, if a federal worker retired after only 10 years of service, his lifetime pension would be 16.75% of his former annual salary, but if he waited until he had served 20 years, that amount would go up to 36.75%.  These employees did not pay social security taxes, but the trade-off was that they would not be eligible to receive social security benefits upon retirement.  All that changed in 1987.

That is when the Federal Employee Retirement System came into being.  Under FERS, federal employees do pay Social Security taxes, and receive social security benefits upon retirement.  The trade-off is that their annual pension is reduced to 1% for each year of service, as opposed to the 1.5-2% they were receiving under CSRS.  In addition to the pension and Social Security benefits, federal employees covered by FERS may also participate in what the federal government calls the “Thrift Savings Plan” — essentially a defined contribution plan, under which a pre-determined amount is deducted from each paycheck, the employer matches it, and it is invested to help fund the federal employee’s retirement.  All federal employees hired after 1984 participate in this plan.  Federal employees hired before 1984 may choose between FERS and CSRS.

That brings us to members of Congress.  Until 1946, members of Congress weren’t covered by any retirement plan at all.  Then, Congress passed Public Law 79-601, under which they participated in CSRS, along with other federal employees.  That continued until CSRS was replaced by FERS, both for Congress and for other federal employees.  Now, members of Congress who were elected after 1984 participate in FERS, while those who joined Congress before 1984 can choose between FERS and CSRS.  There are currently 9 U.S. Senators and 28 members of the House of Representatives who were elected early enough to be covered by CSRS.

Upon retirement, years of service in Congress is combined with any years of other federal service in determining a former member of Congress’ retirement benefits, but no member of Congress would be eligible for a lifetime pension of as much as $174,000.  $174,000  is the current annual sallary of a member currently serving in Congress.  Even under CSRS, the highest annuity a person can be eligible for is 80% of the person’s former salary.

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