Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Making Statistics Understandable

I love Dean Baker's blog Beat the Press. He tirelessly goes after the media for getting its facts wrong and for misrepresenting data. Here is one of many posts that rail against sloppy reporting that fails to provide meaningful information to newspaper readers:
Congress Considers Giving FEMA an Extra 0.03 Percent of the Budget

In a major page 3 news story the Post told readers that Congress is considering an additional $1 billion appropriation for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in order to allow it to better deal with the range of natural disasters hitting the country. Since almost no one knows the size of the federal budget, and $1 billion is a huge number to most people, it is likely that many people will hugely exaggerate the importance of this spending to the deficit or their tax bill.

Polls regularly show that the public is grossly uninformed about the federal budget. This sort of reporting is the reason. It is very simple to report items as a share of total spending. Since this is the only way that the number is meaningful to readers ($1 billion is not meaningful to 99 percent of Post readers), there is no excuse not to present the information this way.
If the average American family decided to increase their purchase of hamburgers by 0.03%, that means they would be spending an extra $1/month on hamburgers (three ten-thousands of $45,000 is roughly $12/year or $1/month). That isn't enough to rush out and announce to the neighbors. It isn't "news". It is a blip. A tiny adjustment to their spending pattern. But this is what the $1 increase to FEMA represents!

But rabid right wingers who hate government love to bandy about the $1 billion figure as if it were a huge "waste" of taxpayer's money. It isn't. It is tiny. And given the flood and tornado disasters, it is understandable the FEMA may be running low on funds. But right wingers refuse to see it that way. They see "waste" that more profitably could be directed to lowering taxes for billionaires and millionaires, you know, the "deserving" rich.

Here's how the Kansas City Star newspaper feels about the Congressional "debate" over whether to give FEMA more funding:
This brings us to a rather shameful debate now taking place in, of course, Congress.

To its credit, a key House panel has approved an additional $1 billion in federal relief money to respond to a spring of natural disasters. But as soon as cries for help were heard, lawmakers pounced on the chance to make partisan points.

House Republicans are starting to demand that disaster relief funds be balanced with cuts in other areas of federal spending, essentially using human tragedy to advance their political agenda. One suggestion is that we should cut a program encouraging the production of more fuel efficient cars, a program brought about by economic and long-term national security concerns.

Here’s the big picture: If the United States is to the point at which helping disaster victims means cutting other needed programs, it’s time to rethink the way we’re running this country. Today, Americans have the lightest total tax burden they’ve had since 1958. One result of that low tax burden, and the resulting inadequate federal and state revenue, is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency faces a $3 billion shortfall. And that’s before the Joplin bills arrive.

Overly optimistic projections during good times brought us to this point. Pandering politicians agreed to tax cuts that this country could not afford. But that’s the past. Going forward, we must be able to agree it is un-American to scramble and bicker over priorities every time nature strikes.

This country was built on the ethos that we give a hand to those looking to bounce back. Helping Joplin rebuild is a shared responsibility, and adequate disaster response merits shared sacrifice.
They don't say it explicitly, but it was the "red" states that bought the pandering politician's lies about tax cuts to "stimulate" the economy. The Republicans have been on a 40 year political agenda to dismantle America. They've been succeeding for 40 years and the wheels are now coming off. When will the electorate wake up and say "enough!" and reverse the damage?

Oh, and when they talk about the "lightest tax load" that is true, but the one's laughing all the way to the bank are the top 1%. They've pretty well had their tax load eliminated while invisible taxes kept being heaped on the working bottom 80% of the population.

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