The email challenge came like a squirrel defiantly placing an acorn on its shoulder and daring me to knock it off: “respond to this damn article.”
The damn article was from Forbes, and I’ll be damned if the headline didn’t claim that Barack Obama was the “Smallest Government Spender Since Eisenhower.” The damn article came with a damn chart, which, at a second’s glance and with zero understanding of statistics, would seem to support the headline’s contention. Obama’s bar on the chart was far punier than the others, which, if you were born without a brain, would seem to suggest that he was, mais certainement, the “Smallest” spender.
But assuming the chart’s statistics are accurate—which is always wrong to assume—the graph actually means the opposite of what the headline implies. It means that Obama “spent” slightly more than Bush II, who spent more than Clinton, who spent more than Bush I, who spent more than Reagan. Even though Obama may not have increased spending at the rate of his predecessors, the chart still implies he’s the biggest spender of the bunch. When you examine government spending in raw dollars, a different chart illustrates this point.
Since Obama assumed the presidency on 1/20/09, government numbers (you have to manually enter the date there) say the Total Public Debt Outstanding has increased by more than $5 trillion clams—or roughly $17,000 for every man, woman, and child in the USA.
Technically, Obama didn’t “spend” anything; Congress did. And technically, it wasn’t their money to spend. Statistics always get bogged down in such technicalities.
About a year ago, another defiant e-squirrel sent me another email claiming that the debt was not Obama’s fault—the hapless Bush II was strictly to blame because Clinton had left the country with a “surplus.” This is an exasperatingly prominent myth among progressives. It hinges on the notion that during the end of his presidency, Clinton may have balanced a specific year’s budget once or twice. Some say that even this is a myth, and that any “balancing” was done because he looted Social Security and other public piggy banks. Either way, government numbers yet again reveal that during Clinton’s presidency, over $1.5 trillion was added to the Total Public Debt Outstanding—which hardly constitutes “balancing,” much less a “surplus”—and he left office with said debt at over $5.7 trillion.
This assumes the government numbers are correct—and again, it’s a mistake to accept anyone’s numbers on blind faith. But the progs’ avid use of contorted stats to deny the whale-sized debt that both Obama and Clinton bequeathed to us, our posterity, and even our posteriors serve as sparkling, splendid, and effervescent examples of what I’m calling “Statistical Fallacio”—the act of mangling stats in the service of orally pleasuring one’s political self-esteem.
Such mangling is floridly evident in the brain-damaged simplicity of dividing society between the “1%” and the “99%.” We are led to believe that wealth is a zero-sum game, and since it has increased among the “1%” at rates far outpacing the rest, the “99%” must be losing all that money.
Sorry, ye squirrels and lemmings, but that’s not what the stats I’ve seen suggest. In constant dollars, it appears that Americans’ Median Household Income rose steadily from 1950-2000, with a slight dip around 1995. This federal Excel file suggests that Median Household Income peaked in 1999. In 2009, well after the Great Recession commenced, the median had plummeted by a catastrophic—hold onto your britches—FIVE PERCENT in constant dollars since its high-water mark a decade earlier. Yep. Only five percent. That’s not good, but neither is it the Financial Armageddon that many are insisting it is. And yes, there are many unconsidered variables here, any of which could alter the picture.
Radical feminists’ loins burn with the need to believe that women are constantly being financially raped in the workplace. Through artful stat-juggling, they screech that women make only 80 cents for every dollar that men make. But this ignores crucial variables such as education, hours worked, and whether they make 80 cents for doing the SAME JOB for which men get a buck. (If that were true, employers would be foolish to hire anyone but women.) But a 2009 study concluded that all other things being equal, women make 96.4 cents for every dollar that men make. An oft-cited 2007 study called “Behind the Pay Gap” ominously declares that “One year out of college, women working full time earn only 80 percent as much as their male colleagues earn,” but once you sift through all the pesky variables, the authors concede that a far more modest “5 percent pay gap between women and men remains.”
The US Government is a flagrant practitioner of Statistical Fallacio with unemployment stats. It refuses to count those who’ve grown so weary of their job search that they’ve given up looking, who by any sane definition would count as the most abjectly unemployed of all. Through deft and shameless number-crunching, fact-discarding, and human-erasing, the government claims that the unemployment rate is only half or even a thirdof the real unemployment rate—with the word “real,” like everything, being open to dispute.
Police departments both here and abroad are known to mangle crime statistics, either exaggerating them to receive more funding or downplaying them to demonstrate crime-fighting success. The multiple urban legends regarding crime include the idea that all serial killers are white, which even the FBI calls a myth. In fact, some stats suggest that blacks are actually overrepresentedin serial killing relative to their quotient of the general population.
And though it tends to be leftists who contact me out of the blue to toss faulty stats in my face, it’s not as if fact-mangling is confined to any end of the political spectrum. Bill O’Reilly cherry-picked dates to falsely allege that George W. Bush lowered America’s poverty rate relative to Bill Clinton. Mike Huckabee’s pollsters were caught on film asking leading questions. And Mitt Romney’s campaign practiced statistical sleight-of-handto claim that women lost 92% of the jobs that vanished during the Great Recession.
We currently live in a pop-culture-addled world that can’t even tell the difference between critical thinking and Critical Theory, which in my book are nearly polar opposites. Slimy marketing slugs in both the public and private sectors depend on the public’s ineptitude, and the public never seems to disappoint.
The problem with ideologues of all stripes is that they put the cart before the horse, starting with conclusions and then working backward. It’s best to start with facts and then inch toward a conclusion, always keeping in mind that the facts may be skewed or may change.
We’d have a healthier society if all American students were required to take a Logic & Statistics class every year from grades 1-12. In case such schooling escaped you, here’s a good basic primer in logical fallacies. And here’s one on understanding the misuse of statistics. And another. And here’s a 1954 classic called How to Lie With Statistics.
I was once sternly reprimanded for citing that list of logical fallacies because the website that hosts it defends the official TV-movie version of the Holocaust. But you can’t magically “discredit” something because you don’t like who’s saying it. For example, if Hitler said it was sunny and 72 degrees today and it was actually sunny and 72 degrees, this would not be untrue merely because Hitler was your weatherman. Yes, government and corporate statistics are often skewed to favor their sponsor, but a common logical error is to completely dismiss someone’s facts because you don’t like who’s spewing them. If you can’t wrap your cerebrum around why this is a mistake, I’d suggest you brush up on argumentum ad hominem and tu quoque. So yes, sure, by all means, knock yourself out, go bonkers, and ALWAYS consider the source when weighing statistics—that’s wise. But NEVER dismiss the facts based merely on the source—that’s dumb.
These are the only irrefutable statistics I’ve ever encountered:
100% of what politicians say consists of lies.
100% of those who demand you trust them unquestioningly should not be trusted.
100% of people believe only the statistics they want to believe.