Quickie math (arithmetic)/journalism peeve: I don’t think “party lines” means what you think it means/NY Times edition.
Update: a couple of changes below to try to make the point I thought I was making.
From today’s NY Times article on the Senate vote to extend the Cash for Clunkers program:
In the end, the bill passed largely along party lines, with 51 Democrats, 2 independents and 7 Republicans voting for it.
What’s wrong with that?
This phrase: “largely along party lines.”
Let’s do the math, shall we?
7 Republican senators voted with the majority to pass the bill. 4 Democrats joined the minority opposing the bill. So the Democrats did come close to holding party lines on the bill; only 6.7 % of the Democratic caucus defected.
But 7 Republicans? That’s 17.5% of the rump opposition party. That’s a substantial defection, a significant breach in party discipline, especially given the record of GOP monolithic “no-ness” on most major votes this year. Even more so when you consider that this is in essence a small supplement to the economic stimulus bill, and as such would naturally be a target for a Republican party that has pushed a lot of chips onto the table betting against the success of Obama’s economic policies.
Numeracy matters — and it does so not just at the level in which an understanding of statistics in any kind of deep way might be helpful, but even at this simplest level of fifth grade math.
I’ve written before on the importance of distinguishing between raw numbers and some representation of the data that permits comparisons to be made across different circumstances or events. See this post for a much sadder example. But the point keeps getting made by the way journalists handle numbers. Simply the act of deriving a percentage from the tally sheets is way too often a bridge too far.
Why the failure to count on one’s fingers at such an elevated institution as the Times?
I don’t know for sure, certainly — I wasn’t in Matthew Wald’s head when he wrote the piece, nor the room in which his editors ran their eyes ove rhis copy. But I do note that the running journalistic line for weeks now, significant especially in the context of the health care debate, has been that the Democrats have failed to meet promises of bipartisanship, and that hence, their legislative agenda and even their (our) legitimacy is in doubt.
If that’s the story line, then clearly each significant vote must be characterized as evidence of the ongoing division between the parties, and the inability of the Democrats to construct legislation attractive to a rumored center and the mostly mythical moderate wing of a party dominated by Limbaugh dead-enders.
And so, even in this case, when Democratic legislation on a high profile economic and environmental* program attracts a significant number of Republican votes, enough to release some Democratic senators to cast what may be either or both politically useful and or principled nay votes, the Times still feels compelled to assert, in essence, that this Democratic — and partly Republican — legislative victory was in fact yet another blow to bipartisanship.
The moral of this story: this is how destructive tropes get made. In the construction of myths epithets matter. Little phrases, rote characterizations — “the wily Oddysseus,” “loose-tongued Thersites” — they frame the reader’s interpretation of all the action surrounding the thus-labeled person or event. They serve as received wisdom, a collectively agreed value judgment, to speed the plot.
And here, the phrase approximating an epithet, “party lines,” is the tell that the writer has substituted such prior qualitative interpretation for thought. The cash for clunkers bill saw close to one fifth of the opposition party break ranks.
But to say so, to recognize that a Democratic policy initiative was sufficiently successful/popular that a significant subset of the GOP senate caucus chose to embrace it would have forced the writer (and editors) of the Times’ story to break out of that sweet sleep in which there is no need to actually do the simplest bit of arithmetic.
Image: Jan Breugel the Elder, “A Fantastic cave with Odysseus and Calypso,” c. 1616.Arithmetic, Journalism and its discontents, Mathematics, Politics