Archive for the ‘numbers’ category

Pink Himalayan Calculator Problems, Part (n)

January 10, 2013

Further to DougJ’s catch over at Balloon Juice this morning:  last night I actually found myself reading (why, oh why, dear FSM?) the McArdle post in question, a bit of fappery in which she paraded her above-the-fray disdain for the idea that the Obama administration might take action to clean up a mess the Republican rump plans to deposit on his lawn.  (No linky ’cause I’m not in the business of giving any hint of value to McArdle’s employers/enablers.)

It’s really a sad effort, in which McArdle attempts to complete a ~1,600 word piece on the failure of governance implied by a discussion of a platinum coin on the US balance sheet without implicating anyone other than President Obama.  She does make a couple of nods in the direction of “both sides do it” faux-balance, chiding the Republicans for their role in the last debt-ceiling debacle and noting that the GOP side of the aisle seems even less prepared for the consequences of actually blocking the measure this time around.

But those are head fakes.  She reserves the full blast of McArdle scorn (as always, queue Denis Healey’s “savaged by a dead sheep” line here) for Obama in particular and the Democrats in general (whodathunkit!).  Her chief complaint: Obama’s election campaign went pitiably small (an argument that relies on ignoring most of what Obama discussed on the trail), and that he and his party simply ignore the “fact” of federal over-spending.

I’m not going to do my usual obsessive 4,000 word fisk on all the failings of fact and logic that permeate this, as so many of McArdle’s effusions.  Life is too short; I’m on (self-imposed) deadline; and frankly, the slow erosion of McArdle’s career makes the task less pressing, at least to me.  The Daily Beast ain’t The Atlantic, and while the site itself may still command more traffic her old home (I’m not sure of that, but it was true a while back) you can see the impact the difference in audience makes.  I actually waded into the comment thread on the post in question (the shallow end — didn’t have the stomach or the time for the deep dive) and there were plenty there heading for Red State territory.

Agostino_Carracci_-_Hairy_Harry,_Mad_Peter_and_Tiny_Amon_-_WGA4398

There’s no doubt in my mind that McArdle is unlikely ever to want for a reasonably well-paying gig; she’s pretty well situated on the Wingnut Welfare railroad.  But there is a big difference between those who intone their harmonies inside the Wurlitzer and those who play out a bit, and it seems to me that she’s heading the wrong way on that particular arc.  Could be wrong, of course, and constant vigilance and all that.  But really, there are bigger fish to fry (looking at you, BoBo, et al.).

So, in the interest of everyone’s time, let me here just take note of the fact that McArdle’s calculator is performing as well as ever.  Her post’s coffee-spray-on-the-screen moment came on reading this gem:

For a while, Democrats could pride themselves on being the reasonable ones. Now they, too, are choosing words over math.  “We don’t have a spending problem,” President Obama apparently blithely told the Speaker of the House.  Which is technically true . . . if we’re willing to raise the government’s tax take to north of 50% of Gross Domestic Product. [ellipsis in the original]

Err.

Just to dot the “i”s: 2011 GDP?

$14,991,300,000,000.  Call it $15 trillion. (via the World Bank.)

2011 federal spending?

$3,598,000,000,000.  Call it $3.6 trillion. (Via the CBO.)

Now, I don’t know about y’all, but I’m not sure I even need to pull out my slide rule to see that 50% of $15 trillion is $7.5 trillion.  And I can probably get by without digging up a working model of a Curta to confirm that $3.6<$7.5.

But perhaps I should do the calculation anyway.  Using the rounded numbers, it seems that federal spending in fiscal 2011 amounted to ~ 24% of GDP.  Or, for those of you keeping score, right in the range  Bernard discussed yesterday.

All of which is to speak the obvious; McArdle’s number is simply bullshit.

I actually have no idea what she was thinking there; it really is one of the least well hidden secrets in US budget discussions that the feds spend a bit under one quarter of GDP.  That’s a number that’s been out there a lot, not least in the context of not-exactly-obscure proposals like the Ryan “Path to Prosperity”* budget plan, which called for long-term government spending to fall to 19% of GDP.

Just to belabor the point:  getting this proportion scaled right is not rocket science — it’s just part of the assumed knowledge of anyone talking US fiscal stuff.  Which is to say that anyone can, of course, screw up and type a number in error.  But then, if you’re numerate at all, you get that tingle that tells you there’s something just off — and you fix it.

Which leaves me with the usual McArdle conundrum:  is she simply so tone-deaf quantitatively that she really didn’t catch the absurdity of the claim?  Or is she so reckless a polemicist that she did, and didn’t care?

One last thought.  Back when McArdle was securely perched at The Atlantic, I often ended these rants by pointing out that her work colored the output of the whole site.  Sometimes I called out the writers I did (and do) admire there to make that criticism more pointed.  The same obtains today:  McArdle’s work is a measure of The Daily Beast.  If they choose to publish her, they own whatever good she may produce — and all the bad, with every bit of reputational and credibility damage that may result. In which context, whatever your feelings about Andrew Sullivan, I’ll say this:  he’s not stupid about his career.  It’s not (or not just) the manner of his leaving Tina’s playpen; it’s the fact of that abandon-ship that, to me, speaks volumes.

*Doublespeak alert

Image:  Agostino Carracci, Hairy Harry, Mad Peter and Tiny Amon, between 1598 and 1600.  I have used this before, but it really seems to fit here.

Attack of the Mutant Ninja Fiscal Conservatives

May 16, 2011

Oh Noes!

Via TPM:  the GOP-led budget insurrection over the six-month spending bill in March actually boosted spending over that period by $3 billion, according to the latest CBO analysis:

“Total discretionary outlays in 2011 will be $3.2 billion higher as a result of the legislation, CBO estimates–an increase of $7.5 billion for defense programs, partially offset by a net reduction of $4.4 billion in other spending,” reads a just-released report from the Congressional Budget Office — Congress’ non-partisan scorekeeper. Analysts there conclude that increase is due in large part to the fact that the six month spending bill shifted defense spending to more immediate activities, which means the bills will come due sooner than later.

It is true that the bill will, if unchanged in any future budget, lead to about $122 billion in spending reductions…(wait for it)….over the next ten years.

That’s barely more than what the Republicans road into office swearing they’d cut this year alone…not to mention that $122 billion out of a truly unrealistically conservative estimate* of ten year expenditure of $25.4 trillion dollars amounts to a rounding error — a reduction of on the order .5% over a decade.

Way to go!

The initial reports of $38 billion in cuts, by the way, were Teabagger bait, which means that the Republican party has some ‘splainin to do to its base, and the rest of us should help tell that story as much as we can.

Here’s how the scam worked:

the approximately $38 billion in advertised cuts spanned the entire federal budget, including locked-in “mandatory” spending programs, and it reflected reductions in “budget authority” — how much the government is allowed to spend — as opposed to projected “outlays” — how much the government truly will spend.

Ah, that old problem for the GOP and its voters — the difference between what the tooth fairy promises, and what actually happens in the real world:

When viewed more narrowly — how many fewer dollars will the government spend this year as a result of this bill — the results flip.

Which is to say, the GOP rookie congresscritturs and the Tea Party electorate were promised one thing, and got…played.

The moral, dear faux Minutemen:  the GOP’s central command has exactly no interest in actual lower-case “c” conservatism.  They serve different masters…or to put it another way:

If you can’t tell who the patsy is at the table, it’s you.

*That number comes from the simple-minded multiplying the (pre-stimulus) 2008 numbers — an arithmetical gesture of maximal kindness to our GOP arithmetic-challenge friends.

Image:  Follower of Hieronymous Bosch,  The Battle Between Carnival and Lent, (A subject sometimes titled The Dance of Fools, Carnival.), c 1600-1620.

Ross Douthat has Problems with Women, Babies, Numbers, and More

January 5, 2011

Plenty of folks on the blogs,  have had their way with the recent essay in defense of the use of poor white women as baby farms for discerning elites, written by the lesser half of The New York Times’ current conservative op-ed. embarrassment, Mr. Ross Douthat.

I’m not going to repeat what others have said better.  Read our own Anne Laurie’s take (and her next verbal RPG); check out Amanda Marcotte, who ropes, ties, brands and clips young Ross in a thousand words or so; see AsiangrrlMN’s riff on the apparently foreign (to Douthat) notion that some women might actually, sincerely, decline to accept motherhood as a necessary fulfillment of their personhood;  delight to Tintin’s allusive stylings over at Sadly No; and with TBogg, always trust the shorter.

With all that out there, in this post I just want to poke a few more holes in Douthat’s reputation for intellectual honesty/fun with numbers, and then, in a hopefully more concise item to follow in a few hours, to use a lovely piece by a former student to shine  a little historical sidelight on the monstrosity that Douthat seeks to gussie up with a bucket load of nostalgic fantasy.

On the numbers:  Douthat in his column states that before 1973 there was a comparative abundance of babies available for adoption — one out of five single white women making babies gave their kids up.

Now, he writes, only one percent of such pregnancies lead to adoptions, and “would-be adoptive parents face a waiting list that has lengthened beyond reason…,” basing that assertion, apparently, on the word of Melanie Thernstrom writing in the the Times Sunday Magazine* who claimed that she chose surrogacy because adoption was just too hard.

Well, there are actual data on this point, and while there has unquestionably been a drop in adoptions in the US since 1970, the scale of that shift is (surprise!) much less than Douthat implies.

According to the Adoption History Project, adoptions in the US peaked at about 170,000 per year in 1970, declining over the next several years to about 125,000 per year by the 1990s, a number that has remained pretty much at that level since.  (Note, for those of you keeping tabs on Douthat’s insistence on white babies as the gold standard, as it were, that foreign adoptions accounted for about 10% of that total in FY 2009, with the numbers of babies coming from abroad declining since 2004.)

All of which means that while Douthat seeks to argue that women’s autonomy over their own bodies has made it virtually impossible for wealthy white couples to gain access to the children of their dreams– it ain’t so.  We do not see the implied outcome that adoption rates/availability  have dropped by 95% in the last four decades.  Instead, actual adoptions are down by a little more than 25%.

That still leaves his qualitative claim, of course.  So, let’s check that too:  have adoption waiting lists extended “beyond reason?”

No.  With just a quantum of actual reporting you find a very different picture of domestic adoption as a couple might experience it in 2011.

Which is what I did, calling a local Massachusetts agency, Jewish Family Service of the North Shore, to speak to their adoption specialist, Ann Wordfork, about the facts on the ground.

According to Woodfork, the landscape for domestic adoptions has remained pretty constant over the last several years.  Every couple she sees that sticks with it, she says, gets a child.  The adoption process, especially if it comes in the wake of years of infertility medicine, is an emotionally demanding experience, so people do drop out, of course.  But, Woodfork says, once a  couple completes its adoption “book” — the collection of photos and personal statements with which prospective adopters present themselves to birth mothers seeking a home for their children-to-be — you can take about one year as the rule of thumb as the time it will takes for you to bring home your child.    Compared to the time that couples seeking a baby through the old fashioned channels “try” and then gestate….well there’s not much in it, is there?

So, when Douthat claims that allowing women to make their own decisions about their bodies has left adoptive parents out of luck, he is simply wrong.  And he is so because he either deliberately chose to deceive his readers, or more likely IMHO, he is so wedded to his assumption/conclusion that it never occurred to him to check.**

One last point on Douthat’s intellectual dishonesty/ineptitude.  One of the striking failures in this column and his mode of thought more generally is his touching faith in the simplest of causal explanations.  Abortions up and adoptions down since 1970?  Well then that’s the whole story.

Except it’s not, of course, and Douthat even presents one of the ways his logic fails without noticing that he’s blowing his punchline.

Recall that he suggests that Thernstrom and her husband were driven to acquire their children through the use of an egg donor and two gestational surrogates because adoption was effectively unavailable to them.

Not so.  Rather, both in the immediate case and in the spread of this response to infertility, what you see is an alternative to conventional adoption, not a sequel to its failure.  More broadly, there are a lot of factors that shape people’s decisions about whether or not to seek an adoption.  Advances in fertility medicine means that some couples who couldn’t have conceived do.  Gamete donation changes the landscape.  Surrogacy certainly does — especially if you are rich.  All of which adds up to a changing family landscape in which some couples, mostly in the overclass, who would once have been adoptive parents now acquire children by other means.***

The shorter to all of the above:  Once again, Douthat tries to find a deep social reason to deny women’s autonomy, and to advance that goal he gets just about everything wrong.

Last, just to go a bit bigger than the relatively inconsequential Douthat:  if this is what passes for elite public intellection on the Right, (and it is) then take this as yet one more overlong reminder why these clowns shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near power.

Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est.

*Warning:  pretty ghastly piece at that link IMHO; I may yet blog on one aspect of it, in which the author happily glosses over the critical difference in power relations in surrogacy vs. adoption.  Or I might not, as the internal clues to the author’s unreliable narration seem sufficiently obvious, and life is short.

**I’m not claiming that I’ve committed a proper act of journalism here myself, by the way.   One interview with one social worker at one of Massachusetts 50 or so adoption agencies does not a comprehensive account make.  The point is not that I’ve proven adoption is easy; rather, I’m just trying to show that Douthat’s account of the state of adoption in this country doesn’t stand up to a minimal investigation of either the historical statistics or informed anecdotal experience on the ground.

***Again — I’m not making a broad claim here.  I haven’t gathered the statistics that could tell me how deep a bite surrogacy and fertility technology and the rest are taking out of conventional adoption.  Woodfork did tell me that in the professional meetings that discuss such issues, these alternatives to adoption are taking on a much larger share of the discussion, while adoption’s percentage of mindshare at such meetings is shrinking.  But that’s just one more anecdote, and I’m not going to plant a standard on this hill.  Instead, what I’m trying to do is to point out the flaws in Douthat’s approach  — the notion that all it takes is one correlation to explain any amount of social life.  Never forget:  milk drinking leads to heroin addiction!

Images:  Rembrandt van Rijn, Hannah in the Temple; Samuel’s Prayer Testing, 17c.

Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun The Marquise de Pezay (or Pezé), and the Marquise de Rougé with Her Sons Alexis and Adrien. 1787.

How Hard Are Fractions, Really: Elizabeth Warren Scares Her/Megan McArdle Is Always Wrong Chronicles, Cont’d.

July 28, 2010

Update: some edits to make the post read like someone without a grudge against English syntax wrote this post. Nothing substantive — a couple of cuts, a couple of verbs supplied to verbless “sentences.”

I guess I just can’t quit that Ms. McArdle.

I vowed to give myself a break from looking at the work of someone who seems to me to be trying to live up to fitness report number 12 on this list (or perhaps, better, number 4…oh hell, actually, a whole bunch of them).*

But then I read on, and I can’t help myself.

In my last post on this subject, I compared elements of her hatchet job on Warren to the techniques Andrew Breitbart uses in his war on progressives, Obama, and random African Americans who drift into his sights.

This time, it’s a little different:  McArdle is here simply trying to confuse the issue, apparently in the hopes that each bit of noise and nonsense that she can generate around Elizabeth Warren will damage her chances to become the first director of the he new Consumer Financial Protection Agency.  It’s an example of what I’ve called in the past McArdle’s monkey-in-the-zoo approach, in which she flings anything that comes to hand against the wall and hopes some fraction of it will stick..

To recap McArdle has promised the world a second part to that first post that attracted much uncomplimentary attention, but, as Susan of Texas notes it’s been a while.  In the meantime, she has outsourced the task, excerpting a Wall St. Journal op-ed of some years ago, which she presents under the title, “More Weird Metrics for Elizabeth Warren.”

What is so weird to McArdle?

Expressing tax liabilities as percentages of income.

No, really.

As in:  a single-earner family with an income of $38,700 facing a tax burden that claims 24% of that total.

As in: a two-earner family with earnings of $67,800 facing a tax burden of 33%.

Stating tax bills in this manner is apparently a dreadful sin, a willingness to mislead or a confusion about the underlying data.

Or so says the WSJ item’s author, Todd Zywicki, who in the passage quoted by McArdle complains that Elizabeth Warren and her co-author Amelia Warren Tyagi express certain items in raw dollar terms — $5,140 on car expenses for the single earner example, for example, vs. $8,000 in the two income family — but state tax liabilities only as percentages.

To Zywicki, this amounts to an obvious attempt to confound “an “apples to apples” comparison of all expenses.”

He corrects this, in his mind, by performing what he seems to regard as the utterly impenetrable magic act of performing two calculations:  .24*38,700 and .33*67,800, to yield dollar figures for the tax bills the two families in these examples owed.**

But beyond this en passant swipe at the eternal mystery that is the Wall St. Journal op-ed operation, our real concern here is McArdle.

She too, apparently, finds expressing a quantity as percentage of another, specified quantity, somehow suspect, a “weird metric.”

More, she regards this example as somehow dispositive of a systematic misuse of data, a demonstration of either Warren’s incompetence or her dishonesty.  McArdle writes,

Does it matter if we have a regulator who can use data consistently?  A lot of commenters seem angry that I would suggest it might.  As for me, I don’t know which is worse:  the notion that Elizabeth Warren understood what she was doing, or the notion that she didn’t.

My question would be, were I the publisher of The Atlantic, does it matter if we have an economics writer who can, apparently, neither read nor count?

Now that’s harsh, and I know it, but look at what happens if you read Warren’s and Tyagi’s examples in good faith, with a view to understanding what they are actually trying to say.

Well, long ago I wrote about the importance of such simple calculations as percentages to raw data in the context of Iraq War casualties.

The point there was that doing so allowed one to make comparisons across disparate bodies of data or historical examples.  If you want to understand the implications of  600,000 casualties among Iraqis, it helps to express that as a percentage of the population affected, which then allows you to compare it to, say, the deaths suffered by combatant nations in World War I or the American Civil War.  Thinking about the comparisons those enabled provided the frame for the moral of that post:  that the application of even veryy simple arithmetical/mathematical ideas to the raw experience of the world can prove enormously useful.

So, what might persuade Warren and Tyagi to present housing expenses or car costs as dollar numbers but  tax burdens as percentages?

Well, if I were to guess, it would be to make a point central to their larger argument:  that there are systematic increases in costs that accompany the increase in earnings in as you move from one income to two — but that different kinds of cost increases behave differently, have different scales of impact on the outcome for a two-earner family.

That is — increase in car costs like most family expenditures are basically linear:  if you go from one car to two, you pay a bit more in payments, insurance, and maintence, and that’s it.  If you take on a larger mortgage, the same applies and so on.  As Zywicki notes, apparently with some sense of being deceived, this results in such costs consuming a smaller percentage of the gross family income for two-earner households compared with single earner ones.***

Update:   note commenter Jim Bales analysis below.  Zwicki’s sins are worse than what I, in my haste to get this up, fully recognized; Jim does the due diligence.

But I think every sentient American knows that taxes don’t behave like housing or car payments.

In fact, I find it hard to believe –absurd, in fact — that McArdle, of all people, a self proclaimed libertarian, doesn’t grok the point Warren and Tyagi are trying to make as clearly as possible by using an expression for the tax burden faced by their two families in percentages.

After all, the book is about the two income trap.  And one of critical elements of that trap, as we all know, is that marginal tax rates go up at higher income levels.  This is, of course, something that McArdle has written about –notoriously quite recently, in her “calculatorgate” post.

In fact, in every context but the one in which she attacks Warren, McArdle grasps the implications of a progressive income tax, and she should, of course, given the fact, noted above, that every American who has ever looked at a tax table recognizes that the last dollar of income above minimum thresholds is taxed at a higher rate, a higher percentage than is the first.

So, quite the contrary to the charges leveled against them by Zwicki and McArdle:  Warren and Tyagi weren’t obscuring a fact that anyone — probably even McArdle’s calculator! — could obtain in seconds from the raw data they povided in full.  Rather, they were making the point that their own argument required in the best form they could — which, I meekly say, as the writer of this and that myself, is the essential core of an author’s job.

And that argument, the one that Warren and Tyagi developed across a couple of hundred pages, turned on explicating the fact that two incomes do not bring wealth proportional to the effort expended to acquire them.

Which is what would be understood, pretty clearly, I believe, by any reader unburdened by a willed desire not to get it.  How hard is to grasp that marginal tax rates in progressive taxation systems — which are generally pretty well expressed as percentages — act as a drag on the aspirations of two earner families?

This is not a raving radical position.

I believe I’ve heard some conservatives lament this very fact.

All of which is to say that there was nothing “weird’ about Warren and Tyagi’s metrics– unless asking a reader to do a quick bit of mental arithmetic (what’s one quarter of 39K vs. one third of 68) is somehow a malicious act by authors bent on deceit.

That McArdle might find that task daunting I find plausible, barely, given her recent trouble with long division.

But really, I know that she’s perfectly capable of handling fractions.  This is pretty clearly a case of willful misreading to a malicious end,  a baffle with bullsh*t moment.

So, with that,  I’m left here with is her own question, again rephrased for those in charge at The Atlantic. Does it matter if your “Business and Economics Editor” cannot consistently grasp the simplest of calculations, the most elementary of analyses?  Is it worse that McArdle understands what she is doing, or that she doesn’t?

*My personal favorite has always been number 2, but that’s just me.

**…Then, seemingly oblivious of the hilarity that thus ensues, Zywicki converts a number of the other quantities into percentages to make comparisons of the relative weight of different expenses possess in the two family’s budgets.  Seriously.  Oh well.  That was long ago, in a country far, far away, and besides, the kvetch is dead.

***He seems to think Warren and Tyagi are concealing this fact, as if it is beyond the ken for someone to notice that $8,000 is a smaller chunk of around 68K than roughly $5,200 is of $39,000. Truly, this just isn’t that hard.

Images:  Jan Massys, “At the Tax Collector,” 1539

The title pages to two arithmetic texts published in Germany in 1514

Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics: Andrew Sullivan, Brit Election edition

May 6, 2010

Update:  The original of this post mischaracterized the Treasury figures for government spending as a percentage of GDP; I repeatedly referred to them as the percentage of GDP due to the deficit year over year.  It’s been corrected below, and thus, in fact, tracks the figures Sullivan was citing.  The argument remains the same, though in a post piously demanding attention to what numbers tell you, I can’t say I’m not embarassed.  Do not blog after too effusive a dinner party the night before; that’s my motto.

Thanks to friend-of-the-blog Lovable Liberal for the catch.

Andrew Sullivan has been blogging the Brit election extensively, and his reflexive loathing for Labour has come through on a number of occasions.

He has some considered loathing too, I’ll grant you, but he admits that “in my native land, unlike America, I have residual partisan loyalty…” to the party of his youth.

That means its just a bit hard to assign a root cause for his rote repetition of a favorite anti-Labour meme, that the party is a bunch of big government spendthrifts.

It could be Sullivan’s difficulty in dealing with facts presented in the form of quantified data (see for example, this old chestnut). Or it could be a leap to unexamined conclusions propelled by his self- acknowledged Tory partisanship. Or, perhaps most likely, both.

In any event, he parrots the charge that the 13 years of Labour government produced a spending regime that has dramatically changed the size and cost of British government.  He writes:

Britain’s debt piles higher – because 13 years of Labour’s reckless spending has neither solved the country’s social problems nor stabilized the country’s economy….

…And then he attempts to put meat on the bones of that “reckless spending” cliche by borrowing from The Wall St. Journal vie The Corner:

Since 2000, public spending in Britain has grown faster as a share of GDP than any other country in the 28-member OECD — up 17 percentage points to 53% of GDP, compared to 15 points for Ireland and 10 points for Iceland

Sullivan might have wanted to consider his sources.  Doesn’t he know that any statistic with political consequence that emerges from The Wall St. Journal has to be considered guilty until proven innocent — that is, checked for oneself?  And by all that the FSM considers holy (semolina, for one), he of all people has had enough experience of The Corner to realize that they are what Ronald Reagan should have been talking about when he said “don’t trust and verify.” (What — RR didn’t say that? Sorry — ed.)

Shoulda, coulda, woulda … but here, he takes on face value a number that should have provoked more scrutiny.

That would be the date for the start of the time line, 2000.  Why 2000?  First because that marked the lowest deficit figure for all thirteen years of Labour governance — and thus choosing that date, rather than the start of Labour rule in 1997, would make any increase since that time loom larger in percentage terms.  This is called gaming your data.

And then there is the question of context and trend.  What should we make of that one number for a deficit in 2000?  Was it much different from other years’ and other governments’ budget work?  Did what come after trace a steady trend, or were there distinct outliers that need particular explanation?

I’m not going to pretend for a moment that I am an expert, or even knowledgeable about British state finances.  But even from a state  of near total lack of information, it just isn’t that hard to find the broad outlines of the history of UK government deficit spending.  A moment with Teh Google, leads one, for example, to this.

So what happened?

Well, from 1997 to 2007-8, the Labour government spent at levels that ranged between a low of 36.6.% to a high of 41.1% of GDP

From 1990-1997, a Tory government led by John Major, ran budgets that ranged from a low of 39.4% of GDP in the year he took over from Maggie Thatcher, to a high of 43.7% in 1993, from which it declined slowly to the number he handed off to Tony Blair.

Go back to the Thatcher years, and you see the same story.  She inherited a budget that accounted for 45.1% of GDP in Fy 1978-9.  She brought in a slightly reduced percentage the next year, her government’s budget spending coming in equal for 44.7% of GDP in FY 1979-80, but that figure rose for the next several years, and only dropped to the level she inherited in 1985-6.  Her high was 48.1 percent of GDP, and her best year was still above that best number achieved by Blair, with Brown as his Chancellorof the Exchequer — right around 39% for the Tories, compared with the Labour best figure of roughly 36 1/2 percent.

In other words:  for most of its time in office, Labour budgets included deficits well within the historical range established over the previous 18 years of Tory rule.  Just not much change in it — and often below that of their Tory predecessors.

Repeat:  for most of Labour rule, budget deficits were in a very familiar range.  You can debate whether Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown were all drunken sailors ashore, but that’s a different question than whether or not Blair/Brown/Labour have a distinctively different record on spending than their friends on the right.  You can argue who will best deal with the situation going forward, Cameron, Brown or Clegg — and that’s a different question.  Nothing I’m writing here bears very much on that question (except, perhaps, to call into question the presumption that Cameron will be more fiscally responsible than his peers — but others have much more directly made that same point).

But hold on to the key point:  Most of the recent Labour record is one of ordinary, familiar approaches to the broad outlines of what British governments have approached spending levels for more than three decades.

Still, there is no doubt that the budget deficit is huge now, and the leap in government spending over Labour’s starting point quite noticeable.   From spending 41.1 percent of GDP of 2006-7, Labour governments produced a budgets amounting to 43 percent of GDP in 2008-9, with spending levels that are projected to rise as high as 48.1% in 2009-10 and 2010-11 — the same level as Thatcher’s high.

So, yes, a leap in government spending under Labour in 2008-10 period, just as there has been a leap in spending and deficits under Obama’s adminstration around the same time.

Now, refresh my memory:  what happened in September of 2008?

Oh yeah. The global financial system went into cardiac arrest, the American real estate bubble burst, and economies around the world shuddered under the impact.  US and UK governments responded in classic Keynesian fashion, perhaps not expansively enough, and spent much more than they had to pump capital into the banking system and cash into the daily economy.

Sullivan, of course, has lauded this on the American side, in grand tones and  little posts.  He does not do so for poor Gordon Brown.

Why he didn’t isn’t really that important.

The fact that he didn’t is, as it is a specimen of a dangerously common failure of modern political reporting.

Here’s my credo:  Numbers matter.  Understanding what they do and don’t tell you in any encounter with them is the crucial task for any would-be serious political journalist — hell of anyone who wants to take him or herself seriously as an observer of contemporary life.

Failure to do so means that you will get lots of your writing wrong — and you won’t know it, you can’t know it — until rude and wordy bastards like myself point it out (and one deigns to notice such gnats gnawing on the body politic).  But it matters, to audiences and to any writer who takes their craft seriously.

And in this story, here’s the bottom line:  it is certainly true that government deficit spending in 2010 in Britain (and the US) is much higher as percentage of GDP than it was in 2000.  But it is so for a reason, and that reason is not the one either Brown’s or Obama’s critics say it is.  Stating that out loud, as often as needed, ought to be the job of someone who aspires to be “of no party or clique.”

That is all.

Image:  Martina Schettina, “Fibonacci’s Traum (Dream)” 2008.

David Brooks is Always Wrong — NPR Edition, Part One.

March 27, 2010

I know, I know.  It should be Megan McArdle up there; in some views, she’s retired that title, and it sits up there above the right field bleachers next to the 1, the 4, the 6 and the rest.  (Sacrilege!  Must this blog stoop so low?)

But the problem is, David Brooks is always wrong.  I keep on not finishing the piece I’ve been trying to get to you about a column he published last December, just because my brain explodes twice a week, and I faff and fiddle trying to figure out how to nail down that slab of jello that is Mr. Brooks’ approach to the task of reasoning.

Seriously.  His picture is next to that entry in the dictionary of quotations that reads ““It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

And so, though McArdle’s body of work remains a uniquely target-rich environment, Brooks, vastly more influential than Mme. Galt, and hence the more dangerous, must needs become the object of our attention with ever greater regularity.

Hence, this. (And this:  part two here.)

The occasion?  His weekly appearance last Friday on NPR’s All Things Considered, opposite E. J. Dionne.  There discussing the politics of the health care bill, he repeated two claims he’s making with increasing frequency as he grapples with the ongoing refusal of Barack Obama to take his advice.

These were that, for all that he applauded Obama and Pelosi for succeeded in the mechanics of passing the bill, he still hated it, because it was (a) a fiscal disaster, and (b) implicated in the projection that the deficit will be 90% of GDP by the end of the decade, which he termed calamitous (not his exact words — but the sense was there — Mr. Brooks sees current policy as driving us over a precipice.

The only problem?  Both of these statements are convenient nonsense. This is what conventional wisdom looks like.  Everyone knows — especially that professional everyman, Mr. Brooks — that spending on social programs is purely optional (and has no society-wide positive effect), that the current federal tax rate is the highest that it is possible to imagine sustaining, and that hence every choice to spend must drive deficits ever upward — and, as well all know, that deficits are the devil.

Now, this isn’t the post in which I’m going to dive deep into the usual — and true — observation, that it’s hard to take deficit hawks seriously who cheerfully swallow unfunded wars while rejecting explicitly budgeted reforms like the recent health care effort.  But it is important to push back on what seems to be the “serious” USDA approved™ meme on the health care issue — nice job, Dems, but you’ve bankrupted the country again.

So here’s the scoop.  Without being a Congressional Budget Office fetishist, it is important at least to acknowledge the data that one can gather.  And, as everyone knows who has paid even a scant bit of attention to the whole HCR farrago, the CBO has scored the bill that finally passed for its impact on the deficit.

It’s conclusion:  that the bill will lower the deficit by 130 billion dollars over the next ten years, and those savings could reach past a trillion over the next decade (though the CBO notes that such long term forecasts are wildlly unreliable).  For further discussion of these points, and some more conservative estimates of the deficit lowering capacity of this bill, see here, here and here.

That is to say, Mr. Brooks had it exactly reversed when he claimed that this bill was fiscally irresponsible.  It saves federal budget dollars.  It doesn’t do enough, IMHO, and I hope the murmurs are true that the public option and other cost-saving and coverage-expanding measures will make their way into the reform over the next few years, but it is better than what we got.  It is, to state it plainly, more fiscally responsible than any of the realistic alternatives, whether the status quo or the GOP death by rationing approach, by any coherent understanding of the term, “responsible.”

But for all of the annoyingly lazy repetition of what has been a false GOP talking point for months, (I heard you were supposed to be the thoughtful one, Mr. Brooks), it’s the second of the genial pundit’s two claims that is truly dangerous.  The campaign, in which Mr. Brooks is really no more than a willing subaltern, to portray the deficit as a kind of domestic policy al Qaeda, is really an effort to lock the current balance of power and social distribution of wealth into more or less it’s status quo.  It’s up and running with a vengeance, and at stake are not merely the spoils of wealth now, but the long term prosperity (and hence power) of the nation.  For details, please turn to part two.

For the second half of Mr. Brooks’ errors of fact and argument, please turn to part two.

Image: Albert Bierstadt, “Falls of Niagara from Below” before 1902.

Sunday Link Fest 2: The Links! (What a radical notion)

May 24, 2009

As promised.

1.  Grand snark about self-aggrandizing musicologists.  My question?  If physicists can figure out arXiv and if PL0S-ONE provides a pre and post-hoc review model for scientific publishing, why can’t those musicologists shut out of the charmed circle come up with  new-era publication model of their own?

2.  Fun you-are-there tale about a curator of a Chinese eco park.  Failed attempts to hack cobra anti-venom, fried snake, and some strategic MIT product placement, all in one place.  (By Phil McKenna, an alumnus of the MIT SciWrite Grad Program.)

3.  Long, interesting text-of-speech by Martin Baron of the Boston Globe on the future of the newsroom/newspapers.  More of a meditation than a prescription.  Worth reading.  I wish I could h/t the blog-denizen who sent me here in the first place, but it was long ago in another country and besides….

4.  Good NYT piece on the importance of basic quant skills — especially that of estimation — for everyday life. This is stuff I think about a lot — and even hope to write about more formally than the odd blog post, but for now, this is a nice intro.  (Meanwhile — I almost didn’t link this because of a pop-in add obscuring the top two lines that ignores its “close” button.  NYT take note:  this is not the way to monetize readers.)

5. The kind of piece that makes me see red.  Lazy-man reporting from the Beeb in response to the announcement of the Templeton Prize.  A reporter asks five scientists for bites about God.  No attempt to engage any of the arguments, just five potted quotes.  Read it and gnash.

6.  Sad story of the Nicholas Hughes’ suicide.  The son of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath suffered from depression over the long haul.  While each person’s response to such an affliction is distinct, it has been an occasional theme of that blog that perhaps single most important outcome of neuroscience in the last few decades is the deepening understanding that mental states are the product of material events….that Hughes suffered and seems to have died of a physical illness whose symptoms are experienced as mental phenomena.  I’ve focused on the consequences of mental trauma for veterans of our wars, but as a general area it is hardly reserved to any one class of experience.

More to come, but that clears off the top layer of my browser.

Enjoy.

Image:  Stanislaw Lenz, Fanfara – Serenada, 1910

Why you should always read Cosma Shalizi

March 27, 2009

Reading Delong reminded me that I had not been to Cosma Shalizi’s Three Toed Sloth lately, so I rectified that error and was reminded again why this is a bad mistake to mix.

Read this post.  It captures quickly and utterly intelligibly what I spend much more time arguing with much less clarity:  you don’t need much math to gain a great deal of insight into our shared world.  What you do need is the habit of using what math you do know as a guide to your thinking.

As Hillel would say at this point:  the rest is commentary….now go and study.

In brief, Shalizi is wondering why there are so few steelworkers these days, compared with a half century ago.  Is it because of foreign competition?  Or is it because the demand for steel in the United States has not kept up gains in productivity per worker?

With nothing more than arithmetic and a little data that can be sucked up from the web in very little time he came up with a pretty persuasive answer:  productivity exceeding demand accounts for most of the loss of the 400,000 or so US steelworking jobs that disappeared over the last fifty years.

It is not, as Shalizi emphasizes, the answer; he performed a back of the envelope calculation and he identified a couple of Rumsfelds* to think about in weighing just how solidly grounded his analysis might be.  But it’s good enough to serve as a working hypothesis, subject to more detailed examination as needed.

For more detail on how this happened, and why Shalizi is very likely right on this, you can turn to a book that I’ve long felt was basically missed by its audience — Richard Preston’s second, called American Steel.  It’s not an analytical work; no math at all.  Rather, it tells the story, in Preston’s familiar deep-inside journalistic style, of a then-young and brash steel company called Nucor as it tried to build the first continuous slab casting steel plant in the world.

In the event, American Steel virtually disappeared in the marketplace, the victim of an earlier wave of publishing dislocation, but it’s worth seeking out.  In the context of Shalizi’s argument it provides an account of the productivity boom as lived.    It still won’t give you the synoptic view of the data Shalizi has said he doesn’t have to hand — but it is both a good read and way to get a qualitative sense of the argument Shalizi makes more abstractly through the numbers.

Put it another way: if you have even a modest willingness to entertain numbers, (more than the Congressional GOP seems to, which is a point to be repeated, I’m sure, lots and lots as we watch that once-respectable organization masticate its own intestines), you have the ability to take tales of the sort that Preston tells and fit them into a larger understanding, some sense of how change in the world happens.

Of all the aims I have for science writing, my own, my students’, anyone’s, it would be to get the pleasure and power of number so deeply intertwined into our culture that nonsenses like yesterday’s GOP budget charade would simply not occur.  I don’t know how to get there, but I care more about that than any number of facts one might lump into a sack called scientific literacy.  But all that’s grist for another day’s post.

*Shorthand for “known unknowns” — a coinage in honor of the only time on record when I feel are former and unmissed Defense Secretary was unfairly ridiculed.

Image:  Soviet airport mural “Steel makers

Andrew Sullivan and Eric Posner are Dangerous Fools: Numbers and Iraq redux edition.

November 26, 2008

Andrew Sullivan is innumerate.

This is, of course, the blog-equivalent of the dog-bites-man story, except that this time his ignorance of matters quantitative does not merely encompass the manipulation of numerical objects, but their rhetoric, the use and abuse of selected quantities to minimize the perception of human suffering.

The occasion for this arrant blindness comes from a blog entry on the University of Chicago Law School faculty blog by Eric Posner, in which Posner argues that the Iraq invasion was a humanitarian and human rights success.

The arguments for human rights advances is based on a number of criteria — freedom of the press, democratic behavior and so on, and I’m not going to quarrel there.

But the claim that the American led invasion has reduced the violence, murder and injury suffered by the people of Iraq over that imposed by Saddam Hussein’s regime is marked by such sleight of hand as to be both (a) deceiving and (b) strongly suggestive of bad faith.

Andrew framed Posner’s claim thusly:

In short: if we never invaded, Iraqi civilian deaths due to sanctions may well have been greater than the wartime deaths.

Andrew’s culpability here is simply that he used his bully pulpit — by some measures the most bulliest in the blogosphere — to promote an argument that turns on a critical weaseling of the data to preserve that very point.  Posner’s commenters on the original post do a very good job of dissecting the numerous, elementary errors in his use of mortality statistics; its the very simple mindedness of Posner’s gaming of the numbers that make me see this as pure propaganda, rather than mere stupidity.

But those critics focus on errors of method, mostly, Posner’s habit of picking useful baselines, his comparing of incomparables and so on.  I just want to bring one more fault up, one that I believe even a completely numerically challenged Andrew Sullivan should have been able to pick up.

That’s this one:

Let’s suppose that the sanctions regime had continued for 10 years, from 2003 to 2013, and further that security flattens out—it doesn’t get worse, but it doesn’t get better. Under these assumptions, 400,000 Iraqi children would have died if the war had not occurred and the sanctions regime continued. Now, almost 100,000 Iraqis died during the war, and so one of the war’s benefits is that it saves the lives of 300,000 Iraqis (over 10 years).

There is a great deal that is wrong with this passage.  The assumption of a continued sanctions regime for a decade is highly questionable, given that one of the stated pretexts for war in the beginning was that the sanctions path was unlikely to hold indefinitely — in part for exactly the same humanitarian concerns that Posner professes here.

But while that error is real, and is of a piece with much else in the post that most charitably can be deemed sloppy thinking (again — check out the comments, the glaring lie-by-citation comes in the 100,000 number.

Posner is right:  there is a reputable project — Iraq Body Count — that states that as of this writing between 89,369 and 97, 568 civilian deaths by violence have been documented since the war began.  Problem number one is that IBC itself acknowledges that its belt-and-suspenders approach to documenting a death, necessary to preserve its credibility as the arbiter of the floor, or minimum number of deaths evoked by the war, produces a substantial undercount.  In 2006, an IBC presentation stated that the total deaths could be as much as double their published number.

That same presentation then took up the then-controversial Lancet/Johns Hopkins study that suggested that between 300,000 and 900,000 civilian deaths had occurred by 2006 as a result of the war, charging that a number of methodological flaws marred the results. The arguments are off point, as the underlying claim in the study is that it is measuring excess deaths rather than deaths by violence.

The distinction is crucial, as Posner’s claim, echoed by Sullivan, is that the number of Iraqi deaths due to the war is less than those from all causes due to the direct or indirect consequences of Saddam Hussein’s continued rule and the continuation of sanctions.  If you want to compare violent deaths — those the IBC counts — with violence imposed by Saddam’s regime, that’s an apples to apples pairing. If you want to count all the suffering of children lacking food or medicine due to the sanctions regime and Saddam’s manipulation of the UN Oil for Food fiasco, then the proper comparison is to all the suffering induced by the social disruption, the lack of services, the failure of governance that flowed in the wake of the invasion — those the Lancet study and others sought to estimate.

Those numbers are huge.  They range from over 300,000 (as of 2007) to over a million.  Most of the estimates run well above Posner’s highly suspect extrapolation of 400,000 deaths. Both totals are grotesque, of course.  It is better to preside over the slaughter of 400,000 than a million only in the most curdled of calculations of moral responsibility. Iraq before and after 2003 offers ample scope for pondering how the international approach to that country and its governance for decades has failed its people.

But it is simply wrong — and dangerous, and morally bankrupt — to defend the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that it saved lives.  No reasonable assessment of the data on hand support that claim, and its making serves to grease the skids for the next, ever hopeful essay in defense of American exceptionalism and the uses of violence for good.

I don’t know much about Posner.  He has the fact of a famous father behind him, but this does not mean that he is merely a self-made son in the manner of such luminaries as Kristol, W. or Goldberg, J.  At the same time, the real accomplishments to be found on his resume beg the question of why he would publish such a clearly false claim about the number of deaths to be considered.  I don’t know the answer.

As for Andrew.  It’s odd.  He’s someone who I think is a sentimental naif a lot of the time.  He is obviously smart, obviously enormously prolific in his reading and his writing, and he has fought the good fight over these last several years on a bunch of issue. He certainly has noted the increasing weight of evidence that the Iraq war was a fiasco, and a bloody one at that.  At the same time he does seem to freeze every time he faces a claim that has numbers in it.  This number, the total of Iraqi dead, is hardly a hidden datum at this point; he should have remembered the controvesies and responses to a number of claims.  And yet he gave the props of his influential blog to Posner’s nonesense.

Again, I don’t know why Sullivan refused to think for a moment about Posner’s claim before posting.  It may be a residual reflex to find some way to defend his initial support for the war: kind of a “hey, it bankrupted this country; devastated that one; brought America into moral jeopardy (see torture, inter alia) and diminished our soft and hard power throughout the world, but at least it saved some kids” thought.  Except it didn’t, and there is still no excuse for the moral and strategic error commited in 2003 and compounded since.

Image:  Francisco de Goya, Los Desatres de la Guerra, plate 30, during and after 1810.

Dog Bites Man (Woman): Palin is Lying Again/Basic Arithmetic edition

October 4, 2008

Amazingly enough, when Sarah Palin got her Couric do-over in the friendly confines of Fox News, all of sudden she remembered some stuff she “forgot” when talking to someone who actually asked follow up questions.

Her court case nonesense is probably better eviscerated by someone who actually knows something of the law, but I want to take a whack at her claim that, oh yes, she does read the newspapers…or as she put it:

CAMERON: Well, what do you read?

PALIN: I read the same things that other people across the country read, including the “New York Times” and the “Wall Street Journal” and “The Economist” and some of these publications that we’ve recently even been interviewed through up there in Alaska.

Oh yeah?

Think Progress has already questioned the probability of Palin reading The Economist.  But the idiocy goes deeper than the mere likelihood that Palin was simply parroting a list of approved elite-friendly titles a leader of the free world would be expected to read.

Think about this with an eye toward real life.  In Palin you have a governor of a state who also happens to have five children still at home.  She is a moderately busy person.

She also has a certain media list she needs to monitor. She has a direct political and governance interest in reading local newspapers, especially that or those of record for her state; she would also, being a skilled thoroughly modern politician, have her eye and ear on local political TV and radio.

She is also a human animal, subject to the same physical constraints that anyone with this basic biology must face.  In this context, that means she is subject to the same limits on reading speed that anyone faces.  The reading speed for comprehension has a range of 200-400 words per minute; skimming can be accomplished at rates as fast as 700 words per minute.

So let’s confront The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.  What follows is a mix of real data and inferences; the idea is to get a broad sense of the scale of the task Palin has set herself without spending half a day on the analysis.  It’s a first order “does this make sense” pass, nothing more.

On average the Journal is 96 pages long. A single broadsheet page of a newspaper, even in its modern, slightly shrunken form, can deliver roughly 3,000 words (actually more — the page used for this number is the Times’ op-ed, which typically runs three – four pieces c. 800 word pieces with some art).   Clearly art (in the newspaper sense) and advertising cut into the news hole available for words — and lets be conservative here too; say only one quarter of the average issue actually contains words to be read.

That would leave someone reading the WSJ cover to cover with something like 24*3000= 72,000 words to take in.  Give it another hair cut to acknowledge the ongoing constraints of print journalism.  So two national newspapers today could offer a dedicated reader 100,000 words (and quite possibly much more).  At 400 words per minute — fast for comprehension, slow for skimming, that many words would occupy someone for 250 minutes, or just over four hours every day.

Give it another haircut.  Throw out half the paper. Sarah Palin does not need to read the company news pages of the Journal or the New York Region report in the Times.  We’re still talking two hours (and we haven’t even touched the drag on the day that The Economist hits her in-tray.

In other words…all this is nonsense.  Palin does not read these papers in any meaningful way. Nor should she, in fact.

She’s the governor of Alaska, not of New York.  She needs to read her local stuff, and her staff should be flagging what she needs to get from the national media; certainly it would make sense if someone in Juneau prepared a digest of stories relevant to state-state issues and those national ones that impinge on her decision-space.

Palin could have said something like this during the Couric interview; she could have made this basic point to Fox — that she stays up on the information most relevant to her job, and relies on her staff to make sure nothing slips through the cracks.  The moment would have passed unnoticed.

Instead, she committed herself to an impossibility; that she as governor and mother still finds the time to read the papers for several hours per day.

Two last points:  First:  Once again we see in Palin someone willing to lie at any moment to reinforce the image she or her handlers think she needs to display.  I know that what you have just read is overkill — but there is something about the contempt in which Palin and her keepers hold their audience that makes me want to stomp each moment of stupidity until its cries “uncle.”

Second:  The running scream of this blog is that simple quantification exercises are essential for making sense of the world around us.  Journalists and everyone need to count.  I know that Fox News is not a journalistic enterprise; it’s Pravda with better graphics.  But as I hope the above back of the envelope exercise suggests, it would help the rest of us a great deal if we turned the niggling feeling, “but-does-it-make-sense,” into a reflex animated by a habit of quantification, approximation and inquiry.  Here the lesson endeth.

Image:  Johnny Automatic Children Reading Newspaper.  Source:  Clker.com.


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