Recent Factcheck.org Material

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Factcheck.org has taken on the issue of whether Bush set New Orleans up for the fall caused by Katrina. [Hat tip: Jonathan Ichikawa] The best summary I can come up with is that there's no clear evidence that anything Bush did or didn't do had any significant impact on what happened. The proposed budget increases wouldn't have protected against anything greater than a category three hurricane anyway, and Bush's proposed cuts didn't even happen in the first place. The level of funding was kept where it was and neither increased nor decreased.

My growing sense that Factcheck.org isn't really non-partisan (or at least that they don't treat everyone equally) has another piece of evidence. This criticism of an ad against John McCain repeatedly complains that a whole bunch of true statements in the ad are misleading. But then the immediately previous piece defends the second NARAL ad a few times against John Roberts on the grounds that its statements are true, with no mention that they're misleading (which they certainly are, given that they fail to mention that all the statements they quote were involved in his arguments representing the government). When it's against a moderate like McCain, it's bad because it's misleading even if it's true. When it's against a conservative like Roberts, it's perfectly fine ("no distortion", according to the headline) because it's true, even if it's misleading.

Oh, and two of the three writers on one of these pieces wrote the other one. So these very same writers think true but misleading can mean something very different depending on who it's about. I suspect it's the primary writer of both articles who was responsible for this double standard.

8 Comments

The best summary I can come up with is that there's no clear evidence that anything Bush did or didn't do had any significant impact on what happened.

How about?: Bush did in fact drastically cut the funding for upgrading the levees, but it's possible that they might not have held even if he hadn't done that.

Actually, the Factcheck.org writeup is pretty clear that even the proposed changes were only designed for a Category 3 hurricane and almost certainly wouldn't have held even with a weaker hurricane in Cateogory 4. Saying that it's possible makes it sound unlikely that it wouldn't have held. They're making a much stronger claim.

Also, technically speaking, Bush didn't cut anything. He wanted to, but his budget didn't succeed, not that it matters. Any argument that what he did was immoral assumes something false, that he could have predicted that this disaster was more likely than any other protective measure that he wanted an increase in funding for. It's amazing how often people think the things they later know about the actuality of some disaster should affect what someone should have been able to predict beforehand when almost everyone involved, including many Democrats in Congress, thought this project was unnecessary and deserved less funding. Pinning it all on Bush is simply dishonest.

almost certainly wouldn't have held even with a weaker hurricane in Cateogory 4.

I guess I'm just not seeing where they (factcheck, or, for that matter, their main source, the Army Corps of Engineers) say this, or anything that makes it clear.

(I had a quick back-and-forth with Jonathan about this over at his blog.)

Re ACE: They say what the goal of their projects was: to protect through a Cat. 3. But as far as I can see, they venture no opinion either way on what would have happened if their projects had been funded. Of course, levees can -- and often do -- hold through storms larger than they're designed to hold through. And this hurricane, though it was beyond a Cat. 3, did miss a direct hit on New Orleans a bit to the East. Would the levees have held? I don't know, and I don't see the ACE saying anything that makes me think they even want to take a guess.

Re factcheck: They're quite explicit on their conclusion about the relevant counterfactual. I quote: We don't know whether the levees would have done better had the work been completed.

So I don't see where this "almost certainty" about the counterfactual is coming from.

What they clearly state explicitly is that there's absolutely no reason to think that this project could have protected anything in any way that's better than what actually happened. The way the article is worded in one place (not the place you quote) does seem to me to carry an intended implicature that we should think they wouldn't have held. Here is the encapsulation of it:

Blumenthal implies that increased funding might have helped to prevent the catastrophic flooding that New Orleans now faces. The White House denies that, and the Corps of Engineers says that even the levee project they were working to complete was not designed to withstand a storm of Katrina's force.

If they had used the expression 'would have' instead of 'might have', I think you'd be right. They do that in another place, and it doesn't carry the implicature that it wouldn't have withstood the force, just the explicit implication that it might not have. When it's contrasted with the statement that it might have withstood it, as it is here, I think it does carry the implicature that it most likely wouldn't have withstood it. Someone says it might have done better if the plan to repair and upgrade had been better funded. They respond that it was designed for a weaker storm. That seems to me to carry the illocutionary force of a denial of the statment that it might have been strong enough to withstand this storm if it had been improved according to that plan.

(Sorry about the repeat comment above.)

It's important to remember that this is the Army Corps of Engineers. They've sent communications saying how important their projects are, and now that what they've been warning about has come to pass, their communications are being publicized, and are making the Commander-in-Chief look bad. So they're being careful about what they say. They're asked about the projects they had been saying were so vital, but were severely under-funded. They state a truth that favors the President: Even if they had been funded, the goal would still not have been to get the levees certified for over a Cat. 3. I'm sure they'd be happy to hear people drawing the inference that the levees would have failed even if their projects had been adequately funded. But as far as I can see, they're careful never to venture any opinion about that counterfactual one way or the other.

What you quote in your above 8:59 comment is factcheck's conclusion. All factcheck says in the passage you quote is about what the levees are, and would have been, designed to handle. A deft changing of the subject, if the subject is what would have happened if they'd been funded. You claim to find some implicature there about what would have happened if the projects had been funded, but I think it's hard to maintain that in the face of factcheck's very nearby claim that does explicitly deal with what would have happened, and where they explicitly state about as clearly as can be that they just don't know. When what they explicitly say about the matter is that they don't know, it's seems quite a stretch to interpret their position as being that the levees "almost certainly wouldn't have held."

[I'm having a problem with my category archives rebuilding, and every time someone comments it gives an error after the comment saves but before it rebuilds. So I'm having to rebuild manually each time, and people aren't knowing that their comments have gone through.]

As I said, I would accept that if it had been put in opposition to a 'would have' statement, but it seems to be in contrast to a 'might have' statement. It's hard for me to hear that as anything but a strong suggestion that it's not the case that it might have.

The other place you're talking about is a contrast with a 'we know that it would have' statement, so it makes sense that all they'd say there is that we don't know that it would have.

Actually, the Factcheck.org writeup is pretty clear that even the proposed changes were only designed for a Category 3 hurricane

Everything's changed by the recent news that Katrina was in fact a cat. 3 when it made landfall. See:
http://www.cnn.com/2005/WEATHER/12/21/katrina/index.html )
Seems to make it extremely possible that the failure to fund the projects was responsible.

I don't have time to read the article now, but if that's right then it puts it within the range of possibility that the project could have minimized the damage considerably, but if I remember correctly they weren't even sure if the proposed changes would have been sufficient. As I said, I don't have the time to review all this at the moment.

I'll still stand by my claim above that the morality of forgoing this project in favor of others is immoral only if there was good reason to believe that the likelihood of disaster from this means in this location was higher than the likelihood of disaster in other areas that were funded. Any time someone proposes in increase in funding for something like this, those are the issues to be considered, and those who wanted it funded can so easily in hindsight act as if everyone knew beforehand what would happen simply because some people beforehand predicted that it could easily happen.

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