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Posted at 2:00 PM ET, 10/11/2007

The Mitt and Rudy Show: Lies, damn lies, and statistics

By Michael Dobbs


Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani following the GOP debate in Dearborn, Mich.(AP).

RUDY GIULIANI

"Under Governor Romney, spending went up in Massachusetts, per capita, by 8 percent. Under me [in New York] spending went down by 7 percent...I brought taxes down by 17 percent. Under him, taxes went up 11 percent per capita."

MITT ROMNEY

"It's baloney. Mayor, you've got to check your facts. No taxes -- I did not increase taxes in Massachusetts. I lowered taxes...My spending grew 2.2 percent a year. Yours grew 2.8 percent a year."

--Republican Debate, Dearborn, Michigan, October 10, 2007. Full transcript here.

It sounds like one of those primitive schoolyard fights. "Yah, boo, you stink. My Play Station is better than yours." "No, you stink. I have a better TV set."

So which, if either of them, is telling the truth? The former mayor of New York or the former governor of Massachusetts?

The Facts

This seems an appropriate time to cite a quote popularized by Mark Twain: "There are three kinds of lies--lies, damn lies, and statistics." They can't both be right, or can they? By playing around with the figures, and choosing data selectively, it is possible to make yourself look good and your opponent look bad without telling an outright lie. That appears to be what is happening in this case.

The volley of statistical charges and counter-charges did little to illuminate the fiscal records of either Romney or Giuliani and left experts scratching their heads. At times, it was difficult to know what the candidates were talking about or where they had got their information. Michael Widmer, executive director of the non-partisan Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, summed up the general bewilderment. "I have watched campaigns for decades and, even by the standards of statistics being misused, [Tuesday] night was excessive."

Let us go through the most significant claims one by one:

GIULIANI'S CLAIMS

  • Giuliani said that spending in Massachusetts went up by "eight percent per capita." Without defining his terms, this is a meaningless statement. Over what period? One year or four years? Adjusted for inflation or unadjusted for inflation? Citing figures from the state comptroller, Widmer says that the state budget for operating expenses rose by 27 per cent between 2003 and 2007, Romney's four-year term. Adjusted for inflation, expenditures rose by about four percent, or just over one percent a year. (The population was static in Massachusetts over this period.)

    UPDATE: The Giuliani campaign now says that the eight percent figure represents the difference between Romney's proposed budgets in 2003 and 2007, adjusted for inflation and population. Leaving aside the fact that proposed budgets are not the same as actual budgets, these figures still seem out of line with those cited by Widmer. Giuliani appears to be including projected expenditures after Romney left office.

  • "Under me, spending went down by 7 percent." A dubious claim, according to Doug Turetsky, chief of staff of the New York City Independent Budget Office, a non-partisan city agency. Excluding 9/11 related expenditures, the New York City operating budget rose from $31.9 billion in 1994 when Giuliani took over as mayor to $42.3 billion in 2002, according to the Independent Budget Office. Adjusted for inflation, and converted to 2007 dollars, spending rose from $48.3 billion in 1994 to $51.5 billion in 2002. The Giuliani campaign argues that expenditures per capita declined because the population of New York rose.

  • "I cut taxes 23 times when I was mayor of New York City." According to our colleagues at Factcheck.org, Giuliani can only take credit for 14 of these tax cuts. The others were proposed by other agencies, including the state legislature. The Independent Budget Office agrees that Giuliani's claim is misleading, and says that the mayor initially opposed the most significant tax cut.

  • ROMNEY'S CLAIMS

  • "I did not increase taxes in Massachusetts." Technically true, if you only consider broad-based taxes, such as sales and income taxes. But according to Widmer of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, Romney did impose additional taxes on corporations, raising around $375 million a year once they were fully phased in. He also increased various state fees and license payments. Total tax revenues rose by about 32 percent in Massachusetts while Romney was governor, or eight percent when adjusted for inflation. (Romney claims that he was merely closing tax loopholes.) See also this analysis by Factcheck.org.

  • "I lowered taxes." "Clearly a stretch," says Widmer. Romney signed three or four very narrow tax cuts introduced by the Democrat-controlled state legislature, but did not lower broad-based taxes.
  • The Pinocchio Test

    By using selective statistics, candidates can make virtually any claim they want about their record, or the records of their opponents. Usually, they get away with it, as reporters are too busy describing the verbal fireworks to check the underlying data.

    On this particular occasion, both Giuliani and Romney have played loose with the facts. Since Romney's sins are mainly those of omission and exaggeration, we award him two Pinocchios.


    Giuliani gets three Pinocchios for constructing a verbal smokescreen that is difficult to penetrate for anyone without a degree in statistics. His assertions depend on complicated definitions of "per capita" spending unintelligible to non-experts, and confusing to non-partisan groups such as the New York Independent Budget Office and the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. If you are a professional statistician, and want chapter and verse on his "I slashed Gotham spending" claim, you are welcome to begin here.

    (About our rating scale.)

    By Michael Dobbs  | October 11, 2007; 2:00 PM ET
    Categories:  2 Pinocchios, 3 Pinocchios, Candidate Record, Candidate Watch, Economy  
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    Comments

    Rediculous.

    Romney closed corporate tax loopholes, he did not institute new corporate taxes. To say that this is equivalent is like saying that sending an escaped convict back to prison is a sentencing.

    And as for Romney raising fees $250 million on various services while Governor, that's fine by me. Why should the state government be subsidizing the cost of bar exams, boat licenses, etc below the true market value? All such a thing does is to shift the burden of the tax onto the citizenry at large in a socialistic fasion, instead of the people actually incuring the cost.

    Dobbs should put a little more intellectual vigor into his arguments, instead of just rehashing MSM lines and muddying the facts.

    Posted by: murphy | October 11, 2007 3:18 PM | Report abuse

    And speaking of intellectual vigor, Murphy, you should learn how to spell. (I believe the word is "ridiculous", and not "rediculous.")

    When I saw that little play between Rudy and Mitt on TV, I understood once again exactly why I would never vote for either one of them. First, it was childish. And second, who gives a hoot? We have so many really serious issues to deal with as a country. Why would I ever waste my time listening to such a pointless bit of finger-pointing? Why do either of those men think that their little barbs against each other cast them in a good light? And how can they lower their intelligences to have such a "rediculous" discussion which serves absolutely no useful purpose whatsoever, nor further the cause of the country?

    What fools.

    Posted by: hilda | October 11, 2007 4:59 PM | Report abuse

    Don't leave out Romney's assertions regarding pension & health care costs at major auto makers GM and Toyota. He referenced a widely abused statistic that Toyota only pays $200 per vehicle in benefit costs whereas GM has to pay nearly $1700. He neglected to mention that the main reason for this is that Japan has a nationalized health care system which he would never support. Cherry picking facts again.

    Posted by: Seaweed | October 12, 2007 10:23 AM | Report abuse

    Mitt the twitt raised fee's in MA by a Billion dollars over his 4 years in office.

    Posted by: Boston | October 12, 2007 11:38 AM | Report abuse

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    http://www.cnn.com/US/9905/27/gun.law.enforcement/index.html >More gun laws Or, more enforcement
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    Posted by: Betsy York | October 18, 2007 6:07 PM | Report abuse

    I've lived in both MA and NY in the past few years. Taxes in MA are *nothing* compared to NY.

    Posted by: Jake Torgia | October 19, 2007 3:40 PM | Report abuse

    Yes, but what do you get for those taxes? For that matter then shouldnt we be comparing Romney, as a state governor, to Pataki a state governor, and not to Guiliani a mayor? I ask purely because the amount of power, particularly over taxation, which a governor has is far greater than a mayor. Of my income NYCtaxes are the least amount taken out, showing their relative unimportance. I would barely notice if my NYC income tax withholdings were doubled. I would certainly notice if my NYS income tax withholdings were however.

    My point is just to point out that neither of their claims means much at all, and to respond to the previous poster claiming NY taxes are higher than MA taxes. This may be true, however, lets place the responsibility for this where it belongs, the statehouse, not city hall for one city of many within one of the two states being discussed.

    Posted by: Greg H | November 8, 2007 3:07 PM | Report abuse

    Sounds to me like Giuliani outright lied, whereas Romney did not. End of story.

    Posted by: Bex | November 27, 2007 6:27 PM | Report abuse

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