Friday, October 24, 2008

Orders of Magnitude

There’s been a lot of adolescent name calling in this election, even more juvenile than usual. He-said, she-said, he did it first, he’s on my side of the car, he’s touching me he’s touching me. Stuff like that. Neither side has clean hands, despite what both promised would be a lofty and elevated discussion about the relative merits of each candidacy.

Whether both are equally guilty is a question of magnitude. Let’s examine two frequent Republican complaints: who’s running more negative ads, and why Joe Biden’s verbal gaffes don’t get the same attention as Sarah Palin’s.

Negative ads first. Each side quotes statistics to buttress its point. Obama’s overwhelming fundraising advantage allows him to run so many more ads, both sides are correct, regardless of whether they’re arguing his percentage is lower than McCain’s (as Obama does), or there are so many more of them (as McCain does).

As Mark Twain said, there are three kinds of deception: lies, damned lies, and statistics; call it a wash. What’s more important is the content of the negative ads. It’s one thing to say your opponent’s tax and health care policies won’t help the average Joe, plumber or not; it’s something else to say your opponent is un-American and consorts closely with terrorists. Especially when it’s not true.

Then there are Biden’s gaffes versus Palin’s. We’re not even going to discuss the percentage issue here; Joe Biden talks so much his misstatements could fill the Bible and he’d still be 90% accurate. Once again, it’s the quality of the gaffe that matters. Saying FDR spoke on television after the stock market crash of 1929 is dumb, but it reflect on his judgment. His knowledge of media history, sure, but the point he was making is valid: Roosevelt comforted the nation during the worst parts of the Depression. He did, admittedly, get the specifics wrong. All of them.

Compare that to Governor Palin’s oft-repeated assertion that she has foreign policy expertise because she can see Russia from Alaska. To quote a national columnist (I forget which one, sorry) I can see the moon from my front yard; that doesn’t make me an astronaut. Or an astronomer. I don’t “read everything they put in front of me,” but I can tell you what I do read. Biden’s a bit of a goof whose mouth has only a dial-up connection to his brain when it needs broadband; she’s an idiot.

What’s important are what mathematicians and physicists call orders of magnitude. If I say you’re wearing an ugly sweater and you reply that I’m a wife beating, child molesting bastard, we both insulted each other once. The insults are hardly equivalent.

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