Posted tagged ‘data’

Real Americans Don’t Slop Hogs

October 25, 2011

Apropos of Doug’s post over at Balloon-Juice — on Fox’s latest defense of addiction, lung cancer and related afflictions as badges of Real ‘Murkin-ness — here’s a completely pointless appeal to actual data.  I know that this won’t make a dent in the public discourse, but I get so damn sick of being told that my 53 years of coastal life are somehow hopelessly out of the common run.

To recap: the Fox News (sic!–ed.) personage defending the Cain guy’s on-air nicotine jones argued that those living “real lives” (as opposed to my own transparently fake one) embrace the death and destruction that follow the trail of discarded butts.  First on her list of such real Americans were farmers, as opposed to that terrifying scourge, the coastal elites.

I’m a farmer’s nephew.  I have [ineptly] driven a tractor as a summer hand, when that aforesaid uncle sucked it up, made nice to my mum, and allowed me to “help” him during the harvest.  I’ve shoveled grass seed into sacks (equipped with just about the only farm implement I’m actually qualified to wield, a shovel). I got nothing but admiration for those with the gift or the capacity or the sheer stamina to farm for a living.  For myself I’m desperately glad that after my teens, I never had to work that hard with my back and hands.

In which expression of gratitude I am not alone.  The actual farm population — working farmers, not folks who live on (relatively) big patches of ground — amount to a rounding error within the total US tally: one percent or less of American workers are farmers.  Combining wheat or running cattle may be iconic.  It just doesn’t occupy very many people anymore — at least not in any industrialized society.

It’s been that way for a while.  Rural life last claimed half of the US population more than ninety years ago.  By the late 1990s, fewer than one million Americans claimed farming as their principal job.  As of 1997, just 46,000 farms out of over 2 million listed accounted for 50% of all agricultural sales.

That translates into the fact that no one — defined here as very few — actually fits the romantic image of the American family farmer anymore.  That image of a spread large enough to support a family and small enough to be run by one has not entirely vanished into myth.  But assuming, (generously) a 20% margin on sales, farm income at or above the $50,000 level flowed to fewer 10 percent of all farms, again in data from the end of the last century..

All of which is to say, as I did through all that 2008 blather about Sarah Palin’s ability to channel the experience of what was in fact a distinct minority of Americans, that Real Americans live in cities and suburbs. In fact, contra that Foxbot, half of all Americans live in coastal watershed counties.*  We may not all be elite** — but there are a whole lot of us.

Yup:  I am that guy muttering obsessively, “quantum leaps are really small.“***

*To be sure, for the purposes of that calculation, Detroit is a waterfront community.  Remember: Duluth is America’s westernmost Atlantic port.

**Though we are, of course, all above average.

***Don’t even get me started on “decimate.”

Image:  Jan van Goyen, Peasant Huts with a Sweep Well, 1633.

Why a Little Empiricism Helps: Palin, Brooks, Noonan edition

September 4, 2008

OK folks.  Enough with the venting.  We all know that the McCain and Palin have been reduced (and I mean that word sincerely) to using Governor Palin’s kids as props.

We know —  or at least I believe — that as a matter of the moral duty a parent owes to one’s children, that in itself should disqualify this ticket from the offices they seek.

We all know that virtually everything coming out of her own and GOP talking head mouths about Palin’s accomplishments qualifications as an administrator, a reformer, a non-abuser of power is false.

But what we have not yet done is debunk the myth that her experience as a small town Alaskan is in any sense typical of America — and hence would serve as a kind of empathy-qualification that could, if the GOP were to be believed, trump all other deficits of knowledge, judgment and values that her selection represents.

(Alright — so I had a little vent left in me.  Sue me.)

We also understand the right wing pundit class has been straining to carry water on this theme.  Readers of this blog know that I defer to no one in my disdain for the work of David Brooks, and so it will come as no surprise that he’s the guilty party I will target most directly here.  Peggy Noonan gets an honorable mention too.

So, where’s Brooks in all this?

Here’s what he had to say on Tuesday:

And she has experienced more of typical American life than either McCain or his opponent.

Here’s Noonan, yesterday in the Wall St. Journal in an op-ed. that is the more remarkable because, as Andrew Sullivan noted incredulously, she went accidentally went public with views that directly contradict what she writes here for the rubes.  Amidst a lot of notes in what was (to be fair) offered as a kind of convention brain-dump column, Noonan wrote:

I’m bumping into a lot of critics who do not buy the legitimacy of small town mayorship (Palin had two terms in Wasilla, Alaska, population 9,000 or so) and executive as opposed to legislative experience. But executives, even of small towns, run something. There are 262 cities in this country with a population of 100,000 or more. But there are close to a hundred thousand small towns with ten thousand people or less. “You do the math,” the conservative pollster Kellyanne Conway told me. “We are a nation of Wasillas, not Chicagos.”

Give Noonan credit here, a little.  At least she acknowledges, elsewhere in the column, that she lives and works in an elite bubble — which means, as she also says, that she don’t know jack about the America beyond that part of the Bos-Wash corridor inhabited by the rich and powerful.

Brooks, of course, is a charter member of that same elite.  However, he claims more knowledge than the feckless Noonan, in that his career has been built on the interpretation of pop sociology.  Scrivening hack though he is (just like many others, including yours truly), he has built a great part of his reputation on his claims to have come to his views through the analysis of social statistics, and more recently, neuroscience.

In that context, you’d expect him to actually think about the words he uses to describe the social reality that Governor Palin inhabits.  He tells us she is typical, that her experience day to day is more like that of an ordinary American than that of McCain or Obama.  Is this true?

Well, Noonan gives us the opening to test that claim with her apparantly data-based claim that growing up and raising a family in a town like Wasilla is in fact the norm for our nation, unlike that experienced by Obama who grew up in atypical Chicago.

There is no surprise to come.  Brooks once again demonstrates his mental sloth and reflex-driven sloppiness; Noonan does not understand the numerical hooey being shoved at her by her conservative source.

Topline:  the American population was estimated to have topped 301 million in July, 2007.  (The CIA estimates that it is now 303 million, but as the rest of my data is 2007 or before, I’m using their estimate for that date).  Overall, as of the 2000 census, 79.01 percent of the US population were classified as urban, and only 21 percent of Americans could still be considered rural.  So we know that city, or at least town life, is by far the “typical” experience for an American — and that with one Google search and two clicks.  Estimated time for the effort?  Perhaps 2 minutes.

But what about the point Noonan thought she was making:  that while most Americans may live in areas formally classified as urban, by far the most typical kinds of cities and towns we inhabit are small — 10,000 folks or less.  After all, do the numbers as her source said:  10,000 times 100,000 is ten to the ninth power, or one billion people — more than three times the actual population of the country.  That must have impressed Noonan a ton, because she seems to have taken this bollocks at face value. (I know, I know — but I don’t need to construct a distribution of town sizes here; I’ve already looked at the actual data…read on).

Well, it turns out that there is this government agency called the US Census Bureau.  They research this kind of thing.  They have a definition of what constitutes an urban area:  They then refine their data further, and distinguishes between urbanized areas of 50,000 people or more, and urban clusters that house fewer people.

So, who lives where?  Again here are some summary statistics.  Americans living in urban clusters — the little cities and their micropolitan surroundings — account for a grand total of just ten percent of the United States population — or around thirty million people.  By contrast, those living in the just the twenty five largest metropolitan areas, places with population in excess of two million, amounted to more than three times those inhabiting small cities:  111 million and change, or more than one third of the total.

Total time to find this — a quick tour through the links offered up by Wikipedia’s list of US urban areas, maybe a couple of minutes, followed by ten minutes with the calculator.

Now dig just a little deeper, and it turns out that the Census folks very kindly have come up with a list of all US urbanized areas — these are the cores of 50,000 folks at a minimum, around which many more people may be living what is classified as a metro area.  Now these are the places that are ten times the size, more or less, of Governor Palin’s Wasilla, pop. five thousand seven hundred and change as of her last year as mayor.

I actually went into the list and added the whole damn thing up, rounding off the hundreds.  The total:  195,177,500…or two thirds of the US population.  I haven’t got that last piece of the data to round it out, but the figures so far are pretty clear:  more than two out of three, and approaching nine out of ten Americans live in settings that are very different, qualitatively so, from the little town that elite bubbleheads assert are typical.

In fact, it turns out that Governor Palin’s small town experience isn’t even typical of her own, sparsely populated, hamlet dotted state of Alaska.  Alaska’s total population is about 670,000.  Of those, 385,240, or slightly over half, live in what passes for the larger cities there — places with population over 6,000. Of that total, about 330,000 — or half the state total, live in the three cities with more than 30,000 population, and 260,000, or just under 40% of the state total live in just one city, Anchorage.  By contrast, just about  90,000 live in the smaller places with one thousand to six thousand folks — including the good citizens of Wasilla.  You can play with the numbers a bit — but even in Alaska it looks like at most about 20 percent of the people grew up in similar surroundings to those of their governor.

[Update: Via the inimitable Jon Stewart, Karl Rove commits an untruth in an attempt to make Governor Palin both more consequential.  Wasila, pop. just under 6,000 is, according to Rove, the “second largest city in Alaska.”  Except, of course, it’s not.  Last time I checked, (14 seconds ago), it was the twelfth largest, coming just behing Kalifornsky.  No, I’m not making that up.]

None of this, of course, goes to directly to Palin’s actual judgment, views, policy ambitions, managerial skill or what have you — that’s on display, and folks can judge on their own.

But what this overlong tour through the joys of finding out a few actual facts does show, is that there is a deep, vapid, willed ignorance at the heart of the punditocracy, especially in its elite-right version.

There is also the point I keep trying to make:  that the purpose of understanding science is to give one the tools with which to make sense of the world.  One of the chief of those tools is empiricism, grasping the importance of gathering, weighing and interpreting data.

Noonan’s wide – eyed retelling of the fatuous pollster’s claim “do the math” is an illustration of the embarassing stupidities you can commit when you don’t bother with the data.  Brooks, I feel, has simply made a very lucrative career out of simply not caring about contrary facts.

And it might just matter to the election after all:  Peggy and David and the GOP true believers may have convinced themselves that the US is still a small-town country, but we are not.  It is just possible, you know — I’m just saying — that the men from Chicago and Wilmington, a big city and a smaller one, might actually have the genuine experience of life as well as work that connects with the typical American.  You know — the kind of stuff that produces speeches like this:

As always, along this theme, this has been another nod to Brad DeLong‘s never more appropriate keening:  why oh why can’t we have a better press corps>

To Quote Bullwinkle

July 17, 2008

This is a family blog…*

…But parody just can’t keep up with reality. (h/t Talking Points Memo).

What gravels me (as long as we are making fun of senators) is, of course, the banal stupidity of the statement in question as well as the howlingly inappropriate inference one is forced to draw.

Again — just a little bit of empirical effort please. Drilling for oil offshore or in ANWR will not affect prices at the pump, the mood of the collective American Family ™ nor our national security for years/decades to come.

When and if such sources come on line, the signal of such new sources would be trivial witihin the world market. See this for a quickie overview of the numbers. Money quote:

EIA said its projection is that ANWR oil production would amount to 0.4 percent to 1.2 percent of total world oil consumption in 2030. The figure is low enough that OPEC could neutralize any price impact by decreasing supplies to match the additional production from Alaska, EIA noted.

(And yes — I know that this study does not reference new offshore drilling. Same result, though. Money quote here: “The projections in the OCS access case indicate that access to the Pacific, Atlantic, and eastern Gulf regions would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030.”)

That is: the oil addicts do not wish to confront knowledge fully in the public domain, data produced by one of the most pro-oil administrations in memory.

This is why it matters whether or not our elected officials are held accountable for being able to count. And yes, I mean you too, John McCain, with increased domestic production as the first priority listed in your energy agenda

*I can’t find a Youtube post to back me up on this — but I still remember with delight the Rocky and Bullwinkle show episode in which the marvelous moose is asked if he will accept a package from Paris, France, and he replies “Noooo. This is a family show.” One of many truly wonderful “I’ll explain it later, kid” lines from that program.

Image: With apologies for any likeness to PZ Myers, it’s the Standard Oil Octopus. Cartoon by Udo J Keppler for Puck, v. 56, no. 1436 (1904 Sept. 7). In the Library of Congress collection: (b&w film copy neg.) cph 3a27007 Source: Wikimedia Commons.