There has been a lot of talk about how polluted out political discourse has become. By their nature political campaigns often bring into sharp focus differences in opinions, attitudes and philosophies. But this most recent campaign also had more than its share of distortion, innuendo and outright lying.
For example, during the recent election season, the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the coal mining industry issued repeated warnings to their members and the public at large about the coming Obama “avalanche of regulations.” This drumbeat has continued since the election. The NFIB website noted on Friday November 9th that the Obama administration had issued some 165 new regulations and notifications on its official regulatory tracking website. Terrifying right? But note the use of the hedge “notifications”, because not all, in fact not many, of the items listed on the website are actually new regulations. Nor are they particularly worrisome developments. One notice was an amendment to the Disaster Declaration for New Jersey about Superstorm Sandy. Perhaps some would prefer a FEMA that waited for weeks to respond to a natural disaster, but I’m reasonably confident that the people of New Jersey would prefer an agency that is responsive to their needs in the wake of that natural disaster.
Several of the items are notices about meetings of federal agencies, including the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Sinister activities? Hardly.
One was an application by Chevron for a license to export liquefied natural gas. Another was an announcement of the investigation of Chinese unfair trade practices related to manufacture of metal coat hangers. Both are items that the business community would generally support.
One can argue about the role and function of government and about the need for regulations in many areas. But to use the publication of open government records as an argument about a looming “avalanche of regulations” designed to cripple business is more than a little disingenuous. Yet this hype is all too common in what passes for political discourse and should win an award for untruth in advertising.
A second example of a hyperbolic attack was the viral campaign that Barack Obama had signed an Executive Order that would allow him to declare martial law and void the results of the election. Whew, I’m glad that one was ultimately foiled by the voters, who decided to re-elect the President. It turns out, this rumor, launched by several members of Congress, was a pretty serious misreading of an amendment to an order that has been in place for decades, updating a policy established by Dwight Eisenhower (remember he did warn us about the military industrial complex), which was also altered by the Clinton and Bush administrations.
This attack should also qualify for an ignominy award.
And my third award would go to the authors of a stealth rumor, based on the confrontation that occurred between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, about Obama’s investments in China and the Cayman Islands. In the manifestation that I heard from several sources, Barack Obama had an annual pension of over $150,000 for his service in the Illinois Senate and he had substantial amounts invested in the Caymans and China, as did Romney. In addition, he somehow finagled a massive federal pension for his time as President. As with the other conspiracy theories, there are some small elements of truth in these allegations.
Obama did in fact qualify for a pension for his seven years in the Illinois Senate. But while there is some evidence that Illinois’ legislative pensions are generous, Obama will draw down about $10,000 a year for that service when he begins to take it. Moreover, under Illinois law, state legislators do not qualify for Social Security payments based on their legislative salaries, unlike state legislators in many other states. And he didn’t serve in the US Senate long enough to qualify for a pension there.
Obama does qualify for the same generous Presidential pension that other former Presidents are currently receiving. Perhaps to his credit, Romney did not participate in the Massachusetts public pension system when he was Governor and he may not ultimately have accepted the federal Presidential pension had he been elected. We don’t know because that question was never raised in the campaign and certainly won’t be now.
Finally, the Illinois public pension system does have investments in both China and the Cayman Islands. And Obama also has an investment in an index fund managed by Pennsylvania based Vanguard Investments which also invests in companies who manufacture their products in China, such as Apple. Obama, of course had less ability to direct these investments than Romney did, even in his blind trust. And in both instances, these investments amount to less than $300. We don’t know how much was actually invested in Romney’s off shore accounts, but it is probably safe to assume that it was more than $300. Does Obama’s miniscule investments in these enterprises, undermine his credibility in attacking Romney? Perhaps, but understanding the facts here does change the nature of the argument.
There has been a lot of talk about the poisonous nature of our civil discourse over politics. And there are egregious examples, similar to these, of charges being levied by all sides in that debate. But don’t we deserve better? And shouldn’t the facts matter?”