Monday, December 22nd, 2014

Readers talk back to the Truth-O-Meter

The latest batch of mail brings both criticism and kudos for our Truth-O-Meter rulings.
The latest batch of mail brings both criticism and kudos for our Truth-O-Meter rulings.

Now that the campaign signs are coming down, the TV attack ads are fading into memory and the victors are enjoying their brief political honeymoons, we thought we'd share what some PolitiFact Rhode Island readers had to say about our work during the 2010 general election campaign.

Judging by the volume, our readers are especially passionate about two topics: Social Security and global warming. Our rulings on those issues drew far more comments, pro or con, than anything we've ever done.

But we figure if the Truth-O-Meter can dish it out, it has to be able to take it.

So here's a roundup from our mailbag:

Social Security

We published two items on the third rail of American politics, checking statements from Democrat David N. Cicilline and Republican John J. Loughlin II, the winner and loser respectively in the 1st Congressional District.

Most of the reaction was to Loughlin's statement that "Social Security is a Ponzi scheme." In our view, Social Security is far from a secretive criminal enterprise, designed to defraud investors; we ruled his statement False.

Many readers saw it differently.

"I feel that the Truth-O-Meter story did not address very legitimate public concerns regarding the Social Security Trust operation and funding," wrote Gary Sahakian, of North Providence, referring to the investment of Social Security payroll taxes in Treasury bonds, essentially a government I.O.U.

"By way of comparison to Social Security, employee contributions in corporate plans must be deposited into a trust fund for the exclusive benefit of the participants. Lending money from the trust fund to the plan sponsor is a prohibited transaction," he said. "Even if you ignore the dubious nature of the trust fund, one must consider the adverse economic consequences of redeeming the non-negotiable treasury securities when needed."

Said Morton D. Cross, of East Providence: "I think that you have missed the point. I believe the $2.5 trillion in government bonds [that back Social Security] is a debt owed, not an investment made. Just have a look at the retirement program for congressmen, which includes real investments in equities."

Others agreed with our ruling.

"There are about four reasons, not one, that make [Social Security] not a Ponzi scheme," wrote Sue Runyon, of Austin, Texas.

"One that you never mention, you only hint at. It's not an investment scheme. It is retirement insurance," she said. "As such, it's not intended to provide investment income on one's contributions. It's not a lockbox for one's contributions! Just like in my local Savings and Loan, the money I put there doesn't remain in a vault."

We also examined this statement Cicilline made about Loughlin: "The Republican candidate has talked about privatizing Social Security.... So we know where he stands on that issue."

We ruled Cicilline's statement Half True,  finding that Loughlin advocated voluntary private social Security accounts for young people but did not support wholesale privatization.

Some thought we were too critical of Cicilline.

"Perhaps you should have gone further in your research," wrote Tom Souza, of Fall River. "The Republicans have been committed to the goals of eliminating/privatizing [Social Security] since the Reagan administration! While Loughlin may not have said it, it's an integral part of the Republican goal for this country."

Global Warming

Unlike many Republicans, Loughlin doesn't dispute the idea that the earth is getting warmer. But in his view, it's more likely caused by nature than by man. Said Loughlin during a debate with Cicilline: "I'm saying really the earth is warming, but it's not conclusively caused by man. It's not conclusive. I mean 94 percent of the carbon emissions which you [Cicilline] so want to get rid of are caused by nature."

The climate scientists we talked to said that the scientific data clearly show the increase in climate-changing carbon emissions is almost entirely caused by humans, not nature. So we ruled Loughlin's comment False.

"Calling your column a 'Truth-O-Meter' does not make it true, anymore than citing so-called experts from one end of the issue," wrote Richard Sparks, of Foster. "It is an established fact that all CO2 from whatever source contributes something less than 3 percent to the global warming effect from gases with the other 97 percent coming from water vapor, methane, NO2, etc."

"Of the less than 3 percent from CO2, some fraction of less than 1 percent comes from mankind. Thus, if mankind eliminated 100 percent of their emissions, 99 percent of the warming from gases would be unaffected. Loughlin is far more correct on this issue than Cicilline, and your article is 'False,' therefore really propaganda, not factual," Sparks said.

Added Don Perera, of Rocklin, Calif.: "How do the Global Warming experts explain the numerous times in the past, before man-made [global-warming gases] when the earth was warmer?"

Immigration and more

We got several comments on a statement by state Rep. Peter Palumbo, who advocates stricter enforcement of immigration laws.

Talking on Fox News' "On the Record with Greta van Susteren" about the costs of illegal immigration, he said Rhode Island gives undocumented pregnant women health insurance, a cash card "with $400 a month on it" and up to $275 a month "to spend on food."

We found that Palumbo was right about the health insurance but wrong about the rest of his claim, which we ruled Barely True.

"Your PolitiFact article ... was excellent and timely," said Bob Clark, of Warwick. "Rep. Peter Palumbo's attack on immigrants is the basest form of scapegoating. Too often in the media, especially TV and talk radio, 'facts' are put out there and left unchallenged by an interviewer."

Cathleen Griffeth, of Harmony, zinged us for our item on a jet engine for the military's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Mark Zaccaria, the Republican candidate in the 2nd District, accused his Democratic opponent, Rep. Jim Langevin, of voting to spend "$3 billion on a jet engine no one wants." We found that 230 other Congress members voted for the controversial engine and ruled Zaccaria's statement Barely True. (Langevin won the election.)

"Are we debating semantics?" asked Griffeth. "I think the premise was missed completely. Zaccaria's [news] release was about Langevin's legislative judgment. It was not about whether the Congressman and his colleagues who voted for the expensive alternative constituted a block that made it inaccurate to say that Nobody wanted the other engine."

Mark Poirier, of Pawtucket, objected to the Barely True ruling we gave to Robert Healey Jr., the unsuccessful independent candidate for lieutenant governor, who advocated abolishing the office.

Healey, in a commentary piece in The Journal, said many states "are currently discussing the need for such an obsolete office." He listed seven. We found that columnists and others in several states had discussed the idea, but there was no evidence of any current official discussion in those states.

"I checked the Internet for definitions to the words discuss, discussion, and discussing, and not one of them defined them in any way from a political standpoint," Poirier wrote. "I find Bob Healey's definition … to be more in line with the true, dictionary definitions of 'discussion.' "

Finally, there was this nice comment from Joyce Miller, of Warwick: "Thanks for creating this informative source for information in politics. It has been very helpful to decide some of the issues and digest some of the statements put out by the politicians. Keep it going for future elections."

We intend to, Ms. Miller.

Thanks, everyone, for your comments. Keep them coming.

And remember us whenever you hear a questionable statement from a politician or get one of those crazy chain e-mails that makes you wonder: Is that really true?

Pass it on to the Truth-O-Meter at politifact@projo.com.