September 16, 2010
Keen Graphs of the ObviousBy Randall Hoven
Today, September 16, 2010, we have had 365 graphs of the day published in American Thinker. Each day for the last year, our Graph of the Day included one or more short quotes, a graph of some kind, and some statistics, usually related in some manner. We let the quotes, graphs, and statistics speak for themselves -- no added commentary. After a year of that, allow me to add some commentary.
I did pick the subject material myself, so there is no denying the graphs were "biased" in that sense -- in the same sense that any publication is biased: somebody decides what is newsworthy. I decided what was graph-worthy.
But the vast majority of the graphs and statistics were from sources considered reliable even by skeptics, such as the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accountability Office, the U.S. Statistical Abstract or other government sources, or mainstream newspapers and magazines. Most graphs were direct from a source. On some occasions I did the graph myself, but usually by graphing numbers directly from a source. If I did calculations at all, they were typically no more than taking percentages.
Every quote, every graph, and every piece of data had a source cited, with an embedded link. You never had to take my word for anything.
As for how numbers were represented, I think I did that fairly. I know some tricks about how to use graphs to exaggerate and mislead, and I avoided such tricks. (Some might disagree.) On things liked budgets and debt, I almost always expressed values as a percent of GDP or some other meaningful measure. I was pretty meticulous about presenting apples-to-apples. (Using nominal dollars or even inflation-adjusted dollars, for example, often leads to exponential curves showing "alarming" growth over time even when the growth is not alarming, just the effect of ordinary compound interest.)
I also avoided cherry-picking. For one thing, the data almost always conformed to, for lack of a better word, the "conservative" agenda -- no need to cherry-pick. As Maggie Thatcher said, "The facts of life are conservative." On rare occasions where the data could be construed to support the progressive agenda, I thought I'd let progressives like Ezra Klein do the construing. There's one of me and a million of them (or at least a JournoList of them).
One last thing on my style: I seek simply a keen grasp of the obvious. I therefore chose data like real GDP and the total number jobs, for examples, rather than factory orders or the price of pork bellies, to make points about the economy. (Paul Krugman once used the number of households with internet access, over years when internet growth exploded, to demonstrate how much Europe had grown over some time period. That is nonsense, to put it politely.) I believe you measure an economy by things like real GDP and jobs; you measure student achievement by things like test scores; you measure temperatures with thermometers. I'm old-fashioned that way.
Now that I've explained how fair and objective I've been, what can we learn from a year's worth of graphs and data?
Then came Obama.
He asked for the second half ($350B) of TARP bailout money even before he was inaugurated. (He also voted for the TARP bailout while in the Senate.) Then, as president, he went on to buy car companies with it.
"Pay as you go" went out the window, as Obama's plans would explode the deficits, even in the years after the current recession was assumed over. He signed a "stimulus" bill within one month of being sworn into office, adding $814B to the 2009-2019 deficit in one fell swoop.
His crowning achievement was the trillion-dollar overhaul of all health care in the nation under a byzantine system of additional costs, additional taxes, and additional bureaucracy. The legislators who "wrote" the bill did not even read it. Estimates of its cost cannot be trusted.
All of his plans to end the recession and spur growth failed.
For those who thought President Obama would overturn all the Bush policies on Iraq, Afghanistan, the War on Terror, "civil rights," etc., sorry to disappoint you.
Instead of fixing anything real, President Obama spent our money chasing dreams. His stimulus caused an explosion in spending on climate change research. Yet man-caused, catastrophic global warming, which Obama wants to address with an expensive Cap & Trade program, is becoming ever less credible.
Obama's dreams of "green energy" and "green jobs" are equally empty.
Is there any good news? Maybe.
I don't plan to do a daily Graph of the Day after September 16. It was getting to be too much like work. And how many ways are there to say "government spends too much" and "government is mostly ineffective and counterproductive"? I felt I was beginning to kick a dead horse after about eight months of this. Keeping fresh was becoming more and more time-consuming.
That is not to say there will never be another Graph. Just not every day.
And in the meantime, the internet has allowed better, quicker access to raw data and graphs. You don't need to read about the latest unemployment update in the AP or Reuters, for example. Go to the source: the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
(All AP or Reuters does is get the BLS press release, sum up what they think is newsworthy, put their own spin on it, and get a quote from someone whose guess about things is probably no better than yours. Now the BLS press release itself is a few mouse-clicks away. This might explain the plight of newspapers nowadays.)
One wonderful source for charts is the Heritage Foundation, especially its charts on the federal budget. A source for almost any economics-related time-series is the St. Louis Federal Reserve's FRED series. I have some other useful links listed on my website.
One pet peeve of mine, and something that makes me go "hmmm," is how poor the Centers for Disease Control is for making health data available to the public. The CDC has two information paths for the public: (1) just do what we say, trust us (this path often comes with pictures of smiling, happy, and diverse people), and (2) here is an ftp of tons of raw data in a format you'll never be able to make sense of.
In short, the CDC operates suspiciously like the Climate Research Unit under Phil Jones. If you don't believe me, here's a challenge: come up with a plot over time of deaths due to Hep B in the U.S. (or just about any disease). Or try to find both mortality statistics and adverse-effects statistics on any disease/vaccine pair you can name.
I also found it suspicious that the BLS at one time put out a list of all their occupations' median hourly wages, but then they stopped doing that for teachers. Now, the BLS gives only annual salaries for teachers. This conveniently ignores the three best perks of teaching: June, July, and August.
I'm not one of those paranoids who think all government data are doctored lies. But once the government realizes that we all have the internet, and that there are guys like me out there on it, I begin to wonder how long that can last. There are too many people who are convinced that the "larger truth" is more important than the truth.
We are at a Gutenberg Press moment in history. I'm betting that more information in the hands of the people will win and that the high priests of the three networks and the "ruling class" will lose. I just hope it happens in my children's lifetimes.