March 22, 2010

"You know what they say about statistics"

By Michael Doyle, "The Soapbox," Intelligencer, March 19, 2010:
We're told Bucks Countians are roiled up by Washington's "big spending" bills: bank bailouts, the stimulus package and health care reform. So when the National Taxpayers Union (NTU) announced its annual "fiscal prudence" ratings of Congress, local attention was focused on Congressman Patrick Murphy's "F" grade (an 8 percent score). Then Murphy was criticized for trying to spin this news. "It's hard to argue with the numbers," so they say.

I beg to differ.

You assume that "fiscal responsibility" is measurable by one number - the NTU score. It isn't.

NTU scores are just another example of focus group-tested talking points promoting the agenda of a favored constituency - Wall Street and investors - that deflect attention away from the very real problems confronting us all: economic recovery after the collapse of the housing bubble. We're drowning in such misinformation. But NTU prepared some tasty-looking bait and, as usual, some in the media swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

The "numbers" in this case don't tell the real story.

NTU ( says it's "a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization + for lower taxes, smaller government and economic freedom + on behalf of all citizens." Sounds great. But it is an advocacy organization, and its purpose is to only promote legislation friendly to Wall Street and investors. Its issue is not good governance to benefit all Americans.

NTU's belief is that (unregulated) "free-market principles are the best way to foster growth in any economy." This is an ideological belief not based on established economic facts. Yet NTU only supports policies congruent with this ideology.

NTU rejects Obama's energy and health care bills as market intervention. It opposed the government rescue of banking and the economic stimulus plan. It thunders about the deficits while ignoring their origin: collapse of the economy on the Republican watch, reduced tax revenues and necessitated government spending to prevent another Great Depression.

So how did Murphy get the "big spender" label?

NTU used 2009 House votes involving taxation and spending (333 votes), evaluated and weighted by a factor varying from1 to 100, to give an aggregate score for each member of Congress scaled from 1 percent to 100 percent, with a letter grade, too. The weightiest 15 votes counted for 30 percent of the final score. Below 15 percent is "F"; below 30 percent is "D" (poor); "C" is satisfactory; "B" is good and "A" (over 90 percent) rates as "taxpayers' friend." Out of the 252 Democrats, only 11 (4 percent) scored above a "D," and 213 (84 percent) got an "F." By contrast, 23 percent of Republicans scored an "A," while not one got "D" or "F" - not one.

Congressman Murphy supported the economic approach started by the Bush administration and continued by Obama to stop the economy sinking into a depression through bank rescue and economic stimulus. The NTU disapproved - not a "free-market" solution - so Murphy got an "F."

So, who in Congress rated an NTU top score, a "taxpayer's friend"? Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, got 99 percent. From his Web site, he supports "free-market systems" for everything, tax cuts and more tax cuts, and privatizing Social Security. Enough said.

The NTU approach to the estate tax illustrates the point. Recent legislation (HR 4154) established a $3.5 million (double for a marrieds) exemption, with a tax of 45 percent on the excess. This means that 99.8 percent of estates pass down tax-free. Not good enough for the NTU; it wants the estate tax abolished completely. This vote was assigned a weighting factor of 50 in NTU's scoring, and Murphy was penalized because he voted for it. Congressman Flake voted against and got full marks.

As for the implication that Murphy is an outlier in the Blue Dog caucus, that's not true, either. There are 12 others with lower scores, and even the "top" Blue Dog only got a "C" grade.

We should be angry. Accountability has been missing in action. But the question is angry at whom, and for what. So many express revulsion at anything "government," and yet we've been more betrayed by corporations. It's the corporations and private wealth that run Washington. Until we take ownership of government, we can only be angry at ourselves. Where were we when Bush started a $3 trillion war, cut taxes so irresponsibly, Congress deregulated Wall Street and watched the housing bubble grow, then burst?

I'm glad Congressman Murphy voted as he did. We're in a desperate mess, but it could have been much worse - and it will be again unless we keep obdurate ideologues away from power.

Michael Doyle is a retired engineer. He lives in Upper Black Eddy.