Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Mathematical Lie

The rumors of President Barack Obama spending $200 million-per-day on his trip to India, it was another issue that for some reason I immediately responded to. I wrote a viewpoint, but there wasn't room for it on Tuesday's page and it was similar to other columns already published this semester.

So, it gets to be a blog-exclusive piece!


A mathematical lie

‘You don’t have to make stuff up’

By J.J. Despain

There are three kinds of people in this world: those who can count and those who can’t.

When it comes to numbers in the news, they can be pretty intangible sometimes. Gigantic corporations or powerful countries get into numbers and figures that are hard for us to comprehend. A U.S. GDP increase of $151.5 billion, a national energy consumption of 86.4 million BTUs and the nearest star to our planet is 39.9 trillion miles away.

But what does it all mean? Any big number might as well be some other big number. The national debt is up to $13.7 trillion, but do we really feel a difference between 13.7 trillion and 1.37 trillion? Most of us have probably never seen a trillion of anything, except for occupied parking spaces on campus when we’re desperate for an empty one.

Big numbers usually wash over us without any effect. But one big number made a splash last week.

The rumor got rolling that President Barack Obama’s upcoming trip to India was going to cost taxpayers $200 million. Each day. He had 870 hotel rooms reserved and would be accompanied by 2,000 people and a flotilla of 34 navy warships.

Those might be just big numbers. But if you think about them for a second, you will realize they are too ridiculous to be real. Is it even humanly possible to spend $200 million a day on vacation? For anybody? I doubt even P. Diddy and his entourage would be capable of such a feat.

If $200 million still seems likely to you, consider this: the entire war in Afghanistan costs only $190 million a day.

And rightfully so, before too long all these numbers about Obama’s trip were confirmed to be rumors. Wild, senseless rumors.

"We don’t speak to [presidential travel] in detail for security reasons," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said in a press conference. "But I will take the liberty this time of dismissing as absolutely absurd this notion that somehow we were deploying 10 percent of the Navy … in support of the president’s trip to Asia. That’s just comical."

While Morrell and the rest of the Pentagon were laughing, die-hard Obama critics like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity were perpetuating the rumors (and therefore dismantling their credibility even further).

Rush Limbaugh made Obama’s trip part of his daily radio rancor on Nov. 2.

"It’s never been done before!" Limbaugh ranted. "You take this many people, this many airplanes, the question is: are you coming back?"

Rep. Michelle Bachmann went on Anderson Cooper’s CNN show to rail against Obama and his supposedly elaborate trip, but when asked to back up her claims she had no specifics to offer.

"Well, these are the numbers that have been coming out in the press, and of course those are the numbers that I have to believe," Bachmann replied.

What press? Limbaugh’s?

Multiple news sources have traced the $200 million amount back to an unnamed Indian government official quoted in India’s version of the Associated Press. No one knows who the official is, or if his information really is official.

In fact, many of the attacks on Obama have no basis in truth whatsoever. "Birthers" demand Obama to show his birth certificate, forgetting that the State of Hawaii and Obama himself have already released ample evidence of his American birth. And I never understood how enemies of Obama can accuse him of conniving with Christian preacher Rev. Jeremiah Wright and then later condemn him for being a Muslim. Can’t Obama’s opponents at least pick one lie and stick with it?

Cooper couldn’t let Bachmann’s gossip stand.

"Michele Bachmann used up our air time last night, rather than answering questions about Medicare...and she chose to spread a story which is blatantly false," he said. "Now you’d think that if a member of Congress was going to use this figure as a fact, she would want to be pretty darn sure it was accurate, right? … There are plenty of reasons to oppose the president, plenty of things to point to as government waste and overspending. You don’t have to make stuff up."

If you want to give reasons why our president is a bad president, you can cite his takeover of General Motors, or his giving up on the public option in health care reform, or any number of things. So why resort to lies? The truth is weapon enough, and it won’t shoot you in the foot.


  1. Who else was perpetuating the numbers?

  2. Great article! Too bad it didn't make the DU.

  3. On Anderson Cooper's show on Nov. 4, he put together a collection of clips from Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Don Imus, and Michael Savage, plus he had Rep. Michelle Bachmann on his show the day before. You can go here: http://www.cnn.com/services/podcasting/, look for Anderson Cooper 360° Daily and look for Nov. 4's podcast.

    I found out that Sean Hannity was included in the mix here: http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/05/india-on-200-million-a-day-no/ (I think this is where I got it from...for some reason the link wasn't working for me now when I tried to check.)

    To be fair, I will say that if you go here: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,602104,00.html and read the transcript of Glenn Beck's show, he never actually does say that these numbers are true. But he goes on and on about them anyway, and says he's worried if they are true. So to me, even though he says he doesn't know if the numbers are true or not, he's still perpetuating the rumor.

    Also, one thing I didn't fit in my article: Bachmann claims President Obama is buying out 870 hotel rooms from the Taj Mahal Hotel, but the whole hotel has only a little over 500. Another instance of zero fact-checking.

  4. Oh, I see your response. I didn't look at the bottom before! I don't do these much! OK, I had heard briefly about this situation, but just hadn't focused in on it. We gotta keep them all honest!

  5. While $200 mil is an exaggeration, how does revealing the costs compromise security? If they want to debunk the myth, why not give us the real number? That doesn't make sense. Seems like the job of a journalist to ask that question.

  6. To Anonymous - True, that is a legitimate journalistic question, to ask how much the trip does cost. I understand the security concerns, but I don't think a total cost amount is a risk. An itemized budget maybe.

    But my piece wasn't meant to say whether the Pentagon should give the real cost or whether they shouldn't, that's another issue I think.

    If you're curious, go to the same Anderson Cooper podcast I linked above and see how he compares Obama's trip to one President Clinton took to Africa (and for that one, there are some dollar amounts).


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