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December 06, 2007

Better Press Corps, Etc

In some ways, I think Matt is giving Tom Friedman too much credit when he says that, "in order to reach a pox on both houses conclusion [Friedman] finds himself ignoring the very strong similarity between auctioned permit plans and carbon tax plans." I wouldn't, in this case, chalk up to ideology what I can attribute to incompetence. Instead, I'd bet that Friedman simply doesn't understand that auctioned permit plans are essentially equivalent to carbon tax plans.

This could've been caught, of course. Any expert would have noticed the misunderstanding at the heart of Friedman's argument. But no expert saw the piece before publication. So far as structural problems go in journalism, the way we do fact checking is actually a big one. Friedman's column probably went to some mid-level fact checker at The New York Times, who looked on the web sites of the various candidates, marked down that they had nothing called a "carbon tax" in their plan, and put a big checkmark on the day's Tom Friedman column. Same with Kit Seelye's piece, which went to some intern, who checked her quote and the googleability of the facts, and okayed the article.

For the sort of errors Seelye and Friedman are making to be caught, their copy would actually have to be evaluated by someone who understands the relevant policy issues. Anyone familiar with climate policy could have identified the problem with Friedman's argument, anyone with an interest in health policy, or basic statistics, could have seen the glaring methodological screw-up at the heart of Seelye's piece. But no such individuals were asked to weigh in on their pieces. Instead, the rough drafts went to the "fact checkers," who do something different and altogether less relevant.

December 6, 2007 | Permalink


Okay, so let's see if Friedman has the integrity that Joe Klein doesn't have: will he publish a retraction/correction in his next column? I'm not holding my breath.

Posted by: UG | Dec 6, 2007 10:04:42 AM

I'm not sure what you're advocating here, Ezra. It doesn't seem likely that any major newspaper can hire a stable of assorted policy experts to fact-check stories. I'm not sure how this problem can be addressed, except by journalists actually behaving ethically and talking to the relevant experts themselves in order to avoid writing things that aren't true.

And by pundits not writing about things they don't understand. It's one thing for a journalist to lack policy knowledge -- they presumably have to write quickly about a lot of different topics. But pundits get to choose their topics, they have time to talk to experts and get a real understanding of the topic, they really don't have any excuse for writing things that aren't true.

The only solution I can see here, other than hoping for voluntary ethical behavior on the part of journalists and pundits, is for a newspaper to have some kind of formal disciplinary policy that kicks in when an employee is discovered to have written something that they should have known wasn't true. Verbal warning followed by written warning followed by remedial training followed by termination. The same kind of policy that employers in other fields apply to employees who screw up.

Posted by: Tom | Dec 6, 2007 10:17:04 AM

But these outlets -- particularly big ones, like the NY Times -- do have experts on staff. The magazine has a health care reporter, an energy reporter, etc. It wouldn't be hard to run this copy past them. They just choose not to.

Posted by: Ezra | Dec 6, 2007 10:18:18 AM

The fact of the matter is that writers of "opinion pieces" have been given unwarranted latitude for years (the writings of William Safire come to mind). It's only in the past year or two that they have been effectively critiqued and held accountable in blogs such as yours.

Posted by: Independent | Dec 6, 2007 10:20:17 AM

In micro terms there is an equivalence between cap and trade and tax schemes. The problem is this glosses over the sleep-inducing dimension of administration, and administration can affect politics (and vice versa).

I can't speak to the Friedman piece since I'm getting old and don't want to sacrifice any minutes of my remaining years.

Posted by: The Forgotten One | Dec 6, 2007 10:26:09 AM

The science and higher-education communities have a policy that attempts and usually succeeds to avoid these 'subject matter expert' problems:

*** Peer Review ***

Tom sez: I'm not sure how this problem can be addressed, except by journalists actually behaving ethically and talking to the relevant experts themselves in order to avoid writing things that aren't true. [emphasis added]

Yes, this is an ethics problem, but it also a professional integrity problem. Can anyone explain why a pundit isn't required to subscribe to a set of professional integrity rules of their profession? Why is it required of lawyers or MDs, but not George Will?

I see no reason why either a journalist or pundit isn't required to document that they have consulted with subject-matter experts on the subject, just as they are should be required to have multiple sources to confirm a potential major leak or damaging disclosure.

License the SOBs if necessary, and create an integrity review panel that is charged with enforcing the code!

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Dec 6, 2007 10:32:10 AM

Although a tax and a cap/trade scheme are equivalent in the sense that for every cap level there is a tax rate that will result in output equaling that cap, they are not equivalent if you don't know what the tax rate is that will result in that level of output. It might take decades of fiddling with tax rates to achieve a particular output of carbon, with resultant economic impacts of changing tax rates every couple of years, but with a cap/trade scheme you can achieve that output of carbon right away, with greatly reduced economic uncertainty.

In the real world, the transitions to the steady state are very important, and time is not our friend with respect to global warming.

Posted by: John | Dec 6, 2007 10:37:02 AM

Oy. The difference between a carbon tax and a cap+trade regime is simple: With a tax, government sets the tax rate and the market determines the level of carbon output. With a cap and trade system, government determines the level of carbon output and the market determines the tax level needed to induce that level of output. Once the market has determined permit cost there is no difference on the back end between a tax and cap+trade.

This up-front difference is the only functional difference between a tax and cap+trade, and it marks cap+trade as superior if the goal is to reduce emissions rather than raise revenue. Regulating emission levels and letting revenues fall as they may is quite definitely the superior route if the goal is to regulate emission levels.

Posted by: Rob J | Dec 6, 2007 10:38:08 AM

But these outlets -- particularly big ones, like the NY Times -- do have experts on staff. The magazine has a health care reporter, an energy reporter, etc.

And these reporters all have more important things to worry about than fact-checking stuff from the opinion page. They have to actually report the news and stuff. I'd rather have decent work being done on reporting than a marginal improvement in opinion-writing, which is always going to be shitty.

Posted by: Christmas | Dec 6, 2007 10:46:04 AM

I think there's a clear solution in Friedman's case. Just start training taxi drivers that work near his favorite locals and international airports in the details of economic policy. They're the people he most likes to consult so they'll be able to catch any mistakes.

Posted by: Greg Sanders | Dec 6, 2007 11:27:21 AM

Just FYI, I believe newspapers generally do not have fact-checkers. This includes the Times.

Posted by: Ankush Khardori | Dec 6, 2007 2:13:39 PM

Tax rates can be set in light of an expected behavioral response. If you overshoot or undershoot, it's no biggie, you can try again the following period. An output target could be set for cap and trade, but that doesn't mean you would automatically hit it. There are leakage possibilities on that front as well. Neither approach is all that precise (and need not be).

Perception and politics matter, so administration does too. There is scope for funny business in the way permits are distributed, just as there could be compliance issues for a tax.

The difference is not quite as stark as some here make out.

Posted by: The Forgotten One | Dec 6, 2007 9:38:02 PM

I do not agree with the assesment of the comments as shitty they are not and I read them with great pleasure even tho I am probally older than your contributer who said he could not devote some of his time to reading them what is he doing with his time that is more valuable than being aware
of possible changes in the Health Care system in this country

Posted by: BILL KENNEDY | Dec 6, 2007 10:51:20 PM

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