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Ross Douthat in the NYT this afternoon, linked approvingly by Chris Hayes on Twitter:

“If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more.”

I don’t get this. At all.

An odious piece of writing doesn’t become not-odious because it offends someone odious. A pointlessly crappy cartoon remains a pointlessly crappy cartoon even if the cartoonist is targeted for murder.

It’s true (and important) that the murder of people who express stupid ideas stupidly is a threat to free expression more generally. Violence against bad speech can chill good speech, and even bad speech should not be greeted with lethal violence.

But the cure for violence against bad speech isn’t more bad speech.

There’s a conspiracy theory going around the right-wing blogosphere that says that Obama “stole” votes in heavily Democratic precincts in heavily Democratic cities in heavily Democratic states. Why he’d do this isn’t clear — the electoral college chooses the president, so a few extra votes in states that are in the bag aren’t going to change the outcome — but the drum is being beaten louder and louder. It’s “evidence of massive voter fraud” that “could have impacted the election.” It’s “statistically impossible.” It’s proof that he stole the presidency.

And what’s this evidence? That in certain precincts in certain cities, Mitt Romney received no votes.

Now, let’s note at the outset that we’re talking about overwhelmingly Democratic neighborhoods populated overwhelmingly by people of color here. With Obama winning upwards of 95% of the black vote nationally, you’d expect his support in black areas of Democratic cities to be even higher. So the broad trends aren’t cause for alarm.

What’s curious, the conspiracists say, isn’t the landslide. It’s the unanimity — the fact that in 37 precincts in Chicago, 59 in Philadelphia, and about a hundred in Cleveland, Obama won every single vote cast. Here’s Mark Steyn of the National Review, quoting a commenter at a Chicago news station’s website:

Statistically, even if among 10′s of thousands of voters all wanted to vote for Obama, it would not be possible to receive 100% of the vote because at least a few would make a mistake and vote incorrectly for Romney.

A commenter at National Review picks up that ball and runs with it:

It’s not statistically probable that hundreds of thousands of voters in a single sample, would cast votes in such a homogeneous way, particularly when you account for the fact that voters aren’t infallible.

One of two things happened: Either there is some yet undiscovered process error that “accidentally” cast all votes for Obama, or there was intentional fraud or deceit Now, I know what direction I lean, but whatever the case is, there needs to be a robust and thorough investigation to determine if the failure was accidental or intentional.

But, to pretend there wasn’t some kind of failure, is anti-science.

So what’s the deal here? Was there a pool of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of urban voters in which not a single vote was cast for anyone but Obama?

Simply put, no.

Let’s take Chicago’s 6th Ward as an example.

Ward 6 went for Obama by an overwhelming margin this year. He received more than 99% of the votes cast, holding Romney to just 0.53% of the total. (Jill Stein and Gary Johnson did even worse.) But even in the 6th, Romney managed to get on the board in nearly every precinct.

There are 48 precincts in Ward 6, and Obama took the whole vote in just three of them. Romney managed to pull a single vote in another eight, and multiple votes in the remainder.

The thirty-seven Chicago precincts in which Obama won unanimous victories are scattered across thirteen wards, and the amount to less than 1.5% of the city’s more than 2,000 precincts. And if you have a guy regularly taking 99% of the vote in big swaths of a big city, there are going to be a few places where he hits 100%.

That’s it. That’s the whole story.

Sorry, guys.

The student government at the University of California at Irvine last night voted unanimously to divest itself of investments in companies that support the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and to urge the UC Irvine administration to do the same.

The resolution, titled “Divestment from Companies that Profit from Apartheid,” is the second such policy to be adopted by a UC student government in recent years. (A similar resolution at Berkeley was passed, and then rescinded, amid intense media attention in 2010.) It passed by a vote of 16-0, with no abstentions.

The student government’s vote is unlikely to have any immediate practical effect. There is no indication that the UCI student government has any investments in corporations supporting the Israeli occupation, and UC administrators have stated that they have no intention of considering any such divestment on an institutional scale. But it is likely to revive discussion of Israel divestment on American campuses.

Irvine’s resolution draws explicit parallels not only between Israeli policies and South African apartheid, but also between the current campaign and American students’ past organizing for South African divestment. “As the example of South Africa shows,” the resolution declares, “it is imperative for students to stand unequivocally against all forms of racism and bigotry globally and on campus, including but not limited to Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, patriarchy, and Israel’s system of apartheid.”

Unlike anti-apartheid campaigns, which targeted any companies doing business in South Africa, last night’s resolution does not call for full divestment from Israel. Instead it calls on UCI to end ties with companies that “provide military support for, or weaponry to support the occupation of the Palestinian territory,” those which are involved in “the building or maintenance of the illegal wall or the demolition of Palestinian homes,” and those which “facilitate the building, maintenance, or economic development of illegal Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory.”

The resolution names eight companies meeting one or more of those criteria in which it claims UCI invests — Caterpillar, Cement Roadstones Holding, Cemex, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Raytheon, Sodastream, and L-3 Communications.

In 2010 UC Irvine suspended its Muslim Student Union in the wake of the disruption of a campus speech by the Israeli Ambassador. Ten Muslim students were subsequently convicted of misdemeanor charges in connection with that incident.

Just last week an Israeli news website described UC Irvine as “a hotbed of pro-Israel activity,” by the way.

In April the Associated Press published a story that’s gotten a lot of attention from education activists. According to the AP, a quarter of all recent college graduates are unemployed, and another quarter are “underemployed” — working part-time jobs, or jobs that don’t require a college degree. Mitt Romney has incorporated this talking point into his campaign speeches, in a highly distorted version that claims — as he did in Wednesday’s debate — that “fifty percent of college graduates this year can’t find work.”

It’s a huge leap from 25% to 50%, of course, but the claim hasn’t gotten a lot of pushback — in part because a few weeks ago the Politifact website rated Romney’s version of the stat “Mostly True.” I wrote all this up yesterday, and concluded that while Romney was misstating the facts, the AP had screwed up too and Politifact had made a bad call.

Yesterday afternoon I reached out to the AP’s main source, a Northeastern University economist named Andrew Sum who Politifact had also cited in their coverage of the issue.

He wrote back a few hours later, and said that both the AP and Politifact had bungled the story. Here’s how:

The total adult population of the United States is about 250 million, and the total employed population of the country is about 60% of that. But we don’t go around saying that 40% of the population is unemployed, because that wouldn’t make sense. Some people are retired, others are in school, and others are raising kids or hitchhiking cross-country or choosing not to work for any of a hundred other reasons.

And in compiling at their unemployment statistics for young college-educated Americans, the AP apparently made exactly that error.

According to Professor Sum, the employment rate for young college graduates is “in the high 70s,” within striking distance of the AP’s 75% estimate. But as he points out, that figure includes people who are out of the workforce voluntarily — if you add those who have chosen to go to grad school, for instance, the figure rises above 80%.

I haven’t seen Professor Sum’s data yet (I asked late last night, and haven’t yet heard back), so I can’t say for sure what his figures on college-educated youth unemployment are. But they’re clearly more in line with the 6.8% to 9.4% range that I reported yesterday than the 25% the AP implied (and Politifact endorsed), never mind the 50% in Romney’s attack.

And this stuff matters. It matters because for all the flaws in the American university system, higher education is still a tool for social mobility in this country. Unemployment rates are lower in every age and gender and race category for who have college degrees than for those who don’t, and income averages are far higher. If wildly exaggerated claims of college-grad unemployment have the effect of pushing students out of higher ed, most of those students will suffer. It’s just not right.

And that brings us back to the AP, and to Politifact. Professor Sum says the Associated Press “misrepresented” his findings, and that Politifact “ignored” the corrections he presented to them. In so doing, both news organizations have disseminated false information, provided ammunition to wrongheaded attacks on higher education, misled the nation’s students and policymakers, and given cover to repeated blatantly false statements made by the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States.

Like I say, it’s just not right.

October 7 Update | Still no correction from Politifact, and I’ve noticed another, more egregious version of the error elsewhere on their site.

Back in August, a few weeks before they took on Mitt Romney’s version of the 50% unemployment rate claim, Politifact devoted an article to addressing a near-identical assertion in a presidential election ad put together by a group called the Republican Jewish Coalition. Like Romney, the RJC made the false claim that “one out of every two kids who are graduating college right now can’t find a job.”

Unfortunately, Politifact took the same “not having an ideal job is pretty much the same as not having any job at all” tack here that it would later take with Romney’s claim, and judged the assertion “Mostly True.” Even worse, they misrepresent Professor Sum’s findings even more baldly in this piece than in the September one, claiming — in flat contradiction with what Professor Sum told me about his conclusions — that “according to Sum’s research, about a quarter of recent college grads literally can’t find a job.”

October 16 Update | Still no correction, update, or acknowledgment from Politifact, though I reached out individually to each of the writers, researchers, and editors on the story a week ago today. I sent them all a link to this post via Twitter just now — we’ll see if that helps.

Update |Professor Andrew Sum, the original source for Romney’s claim, says the candidate and the news media have “misrepresented” his findings, and that fact-check site Politifact has “ignored” his corrections to their misleading report. Details here.

•          •          •

In last night’s presidential debate, Mitt Romney made a claim that was specific, shocking, and false. “Fifty percent of college graduates this year,” he said, “can’t find work.”

There are a few ways of interpreting this statement, but none of them add up.

A study published this summer found that for college graduates under the age of 24, the unemployment rate for the twelve months ending in March of this year was 9.4%. More recent data for college grads aged 21-25 put the number at 6.8%.

So where did Romney’s 50% figure come from? An Associated Press article about a study of “underemployment” among college grads. This is going to take a little unpacking, so bear with me.

For the purposes of this AP story, a person was defined as “underemployed” if they were working in a job that required less education or fewer skills than they possess, were working part-time other than by choice, were working outside their field of expertise, or were working for less money than their similarly situated peers.

Even in good times, underemployment is common, and it’s particularly common among young college graduates — a job that doesn’t require a college degree may be a stepping-stone to one in the same field that does, for instance, or an internship or a part-time gig may get your foot in the door.

Among all employed young college graduates in 2007, before the current recession began, more than a third — 34.7% — were considered underemployed. In fact 26.8% of all working college grads, regardless of age, were underemployed that year, up from 25.2% in 2000. Underemployment is hardly ideal, in other words, but it’s not an acute crisis, it’s a long-term reality of our economy.

So what happened to underemployment rates in the current recession?

They went up, as you’d expect. In 2010, the most recent year for which data have been published, the underemployment rate for employed college grads under 25 was 39.1%. Unemployment for the same cohort stood at about 10%, which means the total for unemployment and underemployment combined was about 45%. According to the AP, that figure has risen to a bit over 53% in the last two years.

But there’s something very strange about the AP’s numbers. Take a look at this, from the AP story:

“About 1.5 million, or 53.6 percent, of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 last year were jobless or underemployed. … Out of the 1.5 million who languished in the job market, about half were underemployed, an increase from the previous year.”

According to that passage, which has been repeated in a Politifact article on the Romney claim, underemployment among recent college grads stands at about 25% of the total group, as does unemployment. And from what I can see that doesn’t fit with the published data at all.

According to official government statistics, the unemployment rate for all Americans aged 20-24 currently stands at 13.9%, and hasn’t crossed the 15% threshold at any time in the last year. Unemployment among Americans aged 16-24 who have college degrees is, as you’d expect, considerably lower.

Unless I’m missing something huge, then, the government’s figures don’t back up the AP’s claim of 25% unemployment among recent college grads. Not even close.

So what’s the reality? As far as I can make out, among recent college graduates something like seven to ten percent — not fifty percent — “can’t find work.” A little less than half of the rest are “underemployed,” which means they’re doing jobs which aren’t a particularly good fit for their preferences and their degree. Most of those would be in a similar predicament if the economy was booming, but a significant minority, maybe ten or twenty percent of the total, have been dumped in that category by the downturn.

So there you go.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

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