Misleading Truth

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John Kerry (or someone in his team) seems to be very good at the kind of deception I'm best at -- saying something that's technically true but extremely misleading. When Athanasius was being hunted down for heresy (before his view won out), someone rowing down a river in the opposite direction of his boat asked him where Athanasius was, and he responded by saying they weren't far from him and then continued on while they pursued in the direction he'd just come from. It's not technically lying, but it's deceitful. If lying is wrong, it's because deceiving is wrong, and Athanasius didn't avoid that charge. Sticking with the letter of the law to avoid the spirit of the law is worse than simply denying the law, because it has the marks of righteousness without any underlying truth to the impression.

John Kerry has made all sorts of claims about what he'd do if elected president. He's proposed policies and so on without adding up all the numbers and saying how much more he'd tax people and how much more the budget would be. Others have calculated what it would come to (see this post for some of this). I don't have the exact figures on this, but it's pretty clear that Kerry's proposed budget is higher than what the proposed changes in his tax cut would allow in terms of additional spending beyond what we've got now (which many people have been saying is out of control as it is).

So the Bush campaign puts a commercial together saying that John Kerry will raise taxes by a certain amount, mentioning a real figure. Kerry responds by saying that he never uttered such an amount. This is true. He didn't. But don't his policies require that sort of thing? I don't think it's dishonest for the Bush campaign to point this out, though perhaps they should have been more clear about how they got the figure. I do think it's dishonest for him to respond to the charge by saying he said no such figure, as if his already-stated policies don't require such a figure, without giving an argument how he will avoid the steps in their reasoning to arrive at the figure. Merely saying that you didn't utter exactly the words attributed to you doesn't dismiss the charge that what you've said leads to what those words said. That's what he needs to do to refute the charge. The worst part of this is that he self-righteously frames his response as if the other ad is the dishonest one. That's probably my biggest problem with Kerry. He always sounds self-righteous and better than everyone else. It's true that he's supposed to do that as a presidential candidate, at least in comparison with his opponents, but he makes it seem like it's his normal mode of living.

2 Comments

I think it's quite reasonable to call both ads 'misleading'. When Bush says that Kerry intends to raise taxes by $900 billion, the omitted fact that this is based on projections of what the projects Kerry seems committed to are likely to cost does seem relevant.

If the Bush ad had just come out and said, "Kerry wants X, Y, and Z, but experts predict that would cost n! In order to pay n for X, Y, and Z, Kerry would have to raise taxes by m!", then the charge would have been clear and non-misleading (if true). Then we'd have a cleary empirical disagreement, and ideally, such things are resolvable into a correct side and an incorrect one.

But of course, everyone's just slinging mud. Interesting historical feature in today's NYT about it.

I agree with Jonathan--both ads are misleading. Bush's ad as it stands assumes 1) That all of Kerry's policies would pass if he were elected, and 2) Kerry would do no deficit spending. Only of both conditions were true would that tax figure be accurate.

Bush's ad would have been far more accurate (and more effective IMHO) if he had said "In order to afford Kerry's policies, you'd have to pay $X more in taxes!" This not only has the benefit of being factually correct, it still maintains the emotional punch of higher taxes and in addition makes Kerry look either like an idoit who didn't realize that policies have costs, or like a hustler who is trying to hide the costs of the programs.

At any rate, both the Bush and Kerry budgets are out of control. Neither party seems to have a handle on fiscal responsibility. I'm left trying to decide which is worse on this issue: Bush who has a lower absolute budget, but tries to deal with the budget deficits by cutting taxes, or Kerry with his higher budget which he will presumably raise taxes to cover. The latter seems more intellectually (and financially) honest even if means that the budget is ultimately more bloated.

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