Keen Graphs of the Obvious

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.

Yet much of this could have been, and was, predicted.
  • Obama's very own chief of the Council of Economic Advisors, Christina Romer, demonstrated in academic studies that federal spending did not end the Great Depression or any post-war recession and that tax increases have significant and negative impacts on economic growth.
  • Fiscal "stimuli" did not work in Japan and do not seem to work anywhere else, either.
  • The Heritage Foundation has the cross-country data that show that economic freedom leads to prosperity.
  • Arthur Laffer has similar cross-state data that show the same thing.
  • International Monetary Fund data indicate that higher government debt leads to slower growth.
  • An academic study based on data from 44 countries over two centuries concluded the same thing: higher debt leads to slower growth.

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.

  • The enemy combatant population has not come down much at Gitmo.
  • The drawdown in Iraq is about what it would have been under a President Bush.
  • Our military involvement in Afghanistan has exploded under Obama, leading to more troops there, more U.S. fatalities, more Afghan civilian fatalities, and little apparent progress in reducing resistance or winning "hearts and minds."
  • The federal government is authorizing wiretaps and fighting drugs as much as ever. It is even deporting illegal immigrants as much as ever.

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.

  • The U.S. leads the world in recoverable fossil fuel resources, which are enough to last many more decades at least.
  • "Renewable" energy resources, other than hydroelectric dams, supply less than 5% of all energy in the U.S., even after years of government-funded research, incentives, regulations, and subsidies. Fossil fuels, nuclear, and hydroelectric will dominate for decades to come.
  • The most economical source of electricity for some time to come is natural gas. The most expensive is solar panels.
  • Contra Bill Maher, Brazil is not exactly some outstanding example of bio-fuel generation or energy conservation we need to follow.
  • Spain has demonstrated that "green energy" leads to fewer net jobs, green or not.
  • "Clean coal" is no panacea. It costs 27% to 83% more, uses 73% to 100% more water resources, and is technologically immature and uncertain. All that, just to use less of what all animals on earth exhale and all plants on earth inhale.
Not to put too fine a point on it: liberals have been wrong about almost everything, and conservatives have been right about almost everything, at least in my lifetime (half a century). That goes not only for the economy, the role of government, and climate change, but also for many "social issues" as well.
To me, coming up with a new graph every day for a year, this was a steady drumbeat. And always the same tune: things are bad, getting worse, and Obama and the Democrats are doing everything wrong.

Is there any good news?  Maybe.

  • The solutions do not require defying the laws of physics.
  • Other countries, as diverse as Canada, Sweden, and New Zealand, have reduced government debt by large amounts in the recent past and lived to tell the tale.
  • More people identify themselves as conservatives, and they outnumber liberals by more than two to one right now.
  • As bad as we are, much of Europe is in as bad or worse shape. (That might not be good news, but at least misery enjoys company.)
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.

Randall Hoven is the creator of Graph of the Day. He can be contacted at or via his website,
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