False Equivalence: Here's How You Deal With It

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[Please see update below.] Joe Nocera -- disclosure: longtime friend -- has a column in the NYT today about the "controversy" over the Chevy Volt. The controversy is whether this ambitious hybrid car, which can get very high mileage per gallon of gas (~ 200 mpg), illustrates Obama-administration overreach for industrial planning, enforced conservationism, and across-the-board liberalism gone mad.

As Nocera points out, Fox News has repeatedly presented it that way. There was even a Volt-ish allusion in some of the argument against the Obama health care plan before the Supreme Court last week. If the government can force me to buy medical care, why shouldn't it force me to buy not just broccoli but also an electric car? After all, as former Solicitor General Paul Clement pointed out in his anti-Obamacare argument, other people's failure to buy electric cars makes their price higher, by eliminating economies of scale. Why isn't that just like people who decide not to buy health insurance?

You can go to the transcript to see how Justices Sotomayor and Breyer dealt with that analogy. But what's the truth about the Volt itself? Nocera could have said in his column: "Critics claim that the Volt is a governmental boondoggle that typifies an administration bent on imposing its do-good agenda on the nation. Administration spokesmen deny the charges." Here is what he actually says:

What is the connection between President Obama and the Volt? There is none. The car was the brainchild of Bob Lutz, a legendary auto executive who is about as liberal as the Koch brothers. The tax credit -- which is part of the reason conservatives hate the car -- became law during the Bush administration.

"It's nuts," said Lutz, when I spoke to him earlier in the week. "This is a significant achievement in the auto industry. There are so many legitimate things to criticize Obama about. It is inexplicable that the right would feel the need to tell lies about the Volt to attack the president."

gm-chevy-volt-bob-lutz.jpgIt helps that Nocera was able to get the highly conservative Lutz -- shown with his Volt, at right -- to go on the record this way. But it is nice to see someone lay it out so plainly.

That is all. Except that if I ever trade up from my current (and still stylish and defect-free) 2000-model-year Audi A4, I will check out one of these.
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Update:  Another NYT columnist gives another example of how it's done, albeit on his blog. This is Paul Krugman, with whom I've had my ups and downs over the years but whose views I wholeheartedly endorse here. He is talking about how journalists conditioned to the idea that they must always remain "balanced" and "objective"-seeming deal with the current imbalance in the nature of the two main political blocs, and in particular how this shows up in respectful treatment of proposals from Rep. Paul Ryan. Emphasis added:

The other type is more interesting: the professional centrist. These are people whose whole pose is one of standing between the extremes of both parties, and calling for a bipartisan solution. The problem they face is how to maintain this pose when the reality is that a quite moderate Democratic party -- one that is content to leave tax rates on the rich far below those that prevailed for most of the past 70 years, that has embraced a Republican health care plan -- faces a radical-reactionary GOP.

What these people need is reasonable Republicans. And if such creatures don't exist, they have to invent them. Hence the elevation of Ryan -- who is, in fact, a garden-variety GOP extremist, but with a mild-mannered style -- to icon of fiscal responsibility and honest argument, despite the reality that his proposals are both fiscally irresponsible and quite dishonest.

At almost exactly this time last year I was weighing in to similar effect.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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