February 2007

A reply to critics, including Jason Lewis, of Eric’s Bachmann story

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

Esteemed colleague and co-blogger Eric Black has come in for some rough criticism of his reporting on U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s mysterious statement about Iran’s plans in Iraq.

 Eric, to be sure, can take care of himself. But one line of attack betrays such a naïve misunderstanding of how journalists do their work that I feel I should speak up, if only in my capacity as a political news editor.

Many Bachmann defenders – notably talk radio host Jason Lewis on Friday, Monday and Tuesday – have decried the fact that ardent and more or less full-time Bachmann critics tipped Eric to the statement Bachmann made in a recorded interview with the St. Cloud Times.

They also complain that the statement was two weeks old when Eric wrote about it and insist that he should be satisfied with Bachmann’s vague clarification of what she meant, which does little to explain what she said.

Above all, though, Lewis & Co. suggest that there is something discreditable about a journalist pursuing a story that is being peddled by people with an obvious political axe to grind. (Here’s a link to audio of Lewis’ recent programs. The Bachmann/Black portions start in the file labeled 2/23 -5 p.)

One wonders how such people think watchdog journalism happens. Seldom do politicians phone the newspaper to call our attention to their own misdeeds or missteps. Only rarely do the political or ideological allies of a politician, administration or legislative majority shine a light on instances of corruption or incompetence among their friends and standard bearers.

Sometimes, it’s true, journalists launch investigations entirely on their own. But most of the time, watchdog journalism starts with a tip from someone who has a grievance (political or personal) with the target of the inquiry. Incompetence and mischief in high places would almost NEVER come to light if reporters and editors were too pure to check out such leads to see if they are true and newsworthy.

Let me move from abstraction to real world examples.

(more…)

What do you make of the U.S. decision to join multi-party talks about Iraqi security with Iran and Syria?

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

bearing in mind that the administration says it is not a reversal of its no-direct-talks-with-Iran-and-Syria position?

Beware the business cycle fallacy

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007

Good Wednesday morning, Fellow Seekers of Wisdom and Truth.

With stock prices dropping Tuesday like globs of wet snow from drooping tree branches, it is either a splendid or a wretched moment for some advice on keeping economic news in perspective. Anyway, here goes:

Here is link to a chart that I heartily commend to all Big Questioners as an antidote to one of the most common misunderstandings in American economic debate. Call it the Business Cycle Fallacy.

Find the chart in question on page 4 of the Census Bureau report. The chart tracks the growth of real (inflation adjusted) median household income over the past 40 years.

What it reveals is an undulating wave pattern, in which incomes fall with each recession and — here is the key point — keep falling after the recession is over. Incomes do not return to the level of the previous pre-recession peak for a number of  years.

(more…)

Wash Post-ABC News poll shows Giuliani widening leader over McCain, Obama moving up on Clinton

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007

On the GOP side, with former Speaker Newt Gingrich thrown into the list of choices even though he is not a declared candidate, it came out:

  • Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani: 44
  • Sen. John McCain: 21
  • Gingrich: 15
  • Former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney: 4
  • and everyone else at two percent or less.

This was a significant improvement for Giuliani over January when he led McCain by only 34-27.

On the Dem. side, with former Vice President Al Gore thrown poll respondents  broke down this way:

  • Sen. Hillary Clinton: 36
  • Sen. Barack Obama: 24
  • Gore: 14
  • former Sen. John Edwards: 12
  • With everyone else at three percent or less.

This was an improvement for Obama over the poll in January when he trailed Clinton by 41-17. (more…)

My Favorite Measure of the fiscal mess we’re brewing for our children went in the wrong direction again in 2006

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007

In 2006, the economy was supposedly growing like gangbusters and the deficit was supposedly falling like a shrinking violet. So why did the National Debt grow faster than the economy last year?

The new Economic Report of the President confirms the bad news, although it calls no attention to it. (You can find the statistic here on table B-79, column F).

I may be the only fool in the world that thinks its worth looking every year at the Gross Federal Debt as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product. I gave my reasons previously on this attached page. 

In brief, I use the gross federal debt because it covers all forms of federal debt, including the 12-figure sum the U.S. Treasury borrows every year from the Social Security Trust Fund (in 2006 it was roughly $177 billion) and I use GDP because, although I would love to see the Gross Federal Debt decline in actual dollars (that hasn’t happened since 1969) I’m willing to consider that our children will have to pay the debt we leave them from the economy we leave them. Therefore, my favorite statistic for tracking how we are doing by our children is the Gross Federal Debt as a percentage of GDP, which I have nicknamed MFS (my favorite statistic) so I don’t have to call it GFD/GDP.

MFS actually did go decline for five years in a row, from 1997-2001. But it increased every year between 2002 and 2005.

Anyway, with all the talk about how fast the economy is growing and how fast the deficit is shrinking I was hoping to see MFS decline during 2006. But no, the total debt crept up from 64.4 percent of GDP in 2005 to 65.5 percent in 2006 and, according to the president’s report, is projected to rise in 2007 and 2008 as well. (That’s as far as the table projects.)

I know there are many competing priorities, but I believe the job of holding down the debt while keeping the economy growing would be one of the best things we could do for our kids. And, as everyone who’s paying attention knows, it’s going to get a lot harder in a few years when us Baby Boomers retire.

The written statement that Rep. Bachmann issued late Friday was a classic of the genre where you give the impression that you are retracting, apologizing and clarifying but do none of the above

Monday, February 26th, 2007

Good Tuesday morning Fellow Seekers of legitimate answers to legitimate questions, 

Friday was a record day for the Big Question. The piece on U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s comments on Iran and Iraq got picked up by several of the monster blogs of the left and right, which directed more than 200,000 pairs of eyeballs to our humble blog, which caused one of the bosses of the Strib website to send me an email declaring that we were “approaching Viking-gets-arrested territory.” Woo-woo.

Unfortunately, Bachmann decided not to talk to me on Thursday or Friday, nor, so far as I can tell, any other reporter. I asked again Monday, five times. I held this post back for a day, hoping that instead of discussing her two previous statements, which pass each other – and the legitimate questions they raise – like ships in the night, I could instead provide her opportunity to put the matter to rest. I did not receive even the courtesy of a reply.

The written statement that Bachmann issued late Friday, was a classic of the genre where you give the impression that you are retracting, apologizing and clarifying but actually do none of the above.

“I am sorry if my words have been misconstrued,” means that you said  what you meant to say but some fool — in this case apparently me — misunderstood your earlier remarks (although everyone who listened to her Iran remarks at the end of the interview she gave to the St. Cloud Times agreed that her meaning was quite clear).

She still hasn’t clarified how she came to make the amazing claims to know about an Iranian deal — not just a possible intention, but a deal already struck with unnamed other parties, with a name already chosen for the new nation – to turn northwest Iraq into a terrorist haven-state.

(more…)

Who’s for Whom for Prez?

McCain’s Minnesota team announced

Monday, February 26th, 2007

Sen. John McCain, who already has self-proclaimed “progressive conservative”  Gov. Tim Pawlenty solidly in his corner, today announced the addition of dozens of Minnesota politicians and advocates to his Minnesota Leadership Team.

The list is notable for the known moderates it includes, such as former legislators Dave Bishop, Bert McKasy (also a former Commerce commissioner), and Charlie Berg and current Rep. Dennis Ozment. It also includes some more conservative and more widely known names – former House Speaker Steve Sviggum and former GOP Chair Ron Eibensteiner, for example.

McCain’s support among Minnesota Republicans is beginning to look impressive. For the truly obsessed or those who want to see if your own local legislators are on the list, on the jump you will find the rest of those named to McCain’s Minnesota leadership team:

(more…)

Some fresh prez poll numbers

Monday, February 26th, 2007

Zogby polled folks who said they expected to vote in the Democratic primaries. It came out:

  • Clinton: 33%
  • Obama: 25%
  • Edwards: 12%

Among those who said they would participate in GOP primaries, it was:

  • Giuliani: 29%
  • McCain: 20%
  • Romney: 9%

Poll was taken by phone, Feb. 22-24. Total sample, Dems, Repubs and non-aligned who still planned to vote in primaries, was 1,078. Margin of error plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Richard Perle: “In this case international law stood in the way of doing the right thing”

Monday, February 26th, 2007

This is a follow-up to my Saturday post, in which I expressed some surprise that a White House spokesman had flatly asserted that the U.S. entered Iraq under U.N. auspices. In the comment thread, some of you argued that the U.S. did have U.N. authorization for the invasion of Iraq. I’m pretty sure that’s incorrect.

(more…)

What we think we’re doing: A Big Question Mission Statement

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

Good Monday morning, Fellow Seekers of Wisdom and Truth:

The new Big Question started over lunch. Many fruitful partnerships start that way — but then so do many misguided couplings and nefarious plots. Time will tell, and readers must decide, which the new Big Question is.

Actually, it was over a persistent series of lunches that Eric Black and D.J. Tice, two political journalists in, shall we say, the mid-afternoon of their careers, came slowly to recognize something that started them (or Eric, anyhow) scheming.

There was, in their vagrant discussions and debates about politics, history, culture and whatnot, a quality that Black and Tice wished they found more often in the public “conversation” in Minnesota and across the nation. They disagreed often, but never with rancor. They listened with real interest to one another’s contrary approaches to issues. They questioned one another’s facts, premises, and logic – but never one another’s motives.

It’s with confidence that we are not the only ones hungry for more constructive engagement on the big questions of our times that we embark on this joint blog, an experiment in a new kind of journalistic balance. A journalism of checks and balances, you might say.

(more…)


This is a place where open-minded critical thinkers of all political persuasions encounter information and arguments that both support and challenge their preconceptions. The goal is not to eliminate differences but to narrow and clarify them. We begin with a bedrock agreement that the search for insight and clarity is important, serious - and fun.

We ask commenters to be civil and substantive and, if possible, good humored. We reserve the right to delete comments that disregard this request.

Follow The Big Question on Twitter Do you use Twitter? Follow The Big Question.