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Just When You Thought You Could Believe Those Stats

posted in: Weekly Commentary 0
By Lowell L. Kalapa

     Well, if you haven’t noticed already, the campaign season is underway in full swing as candidates fire off accusations and rebuttals in the war of words and advertisements. What is unfortunate is that many of those advertisements take very loose license with the facts and the statistics.

In fact, they teach a course in how to “lie” with statistics and it seems that many of the script writers in this election year have taken that course. As a result, voters need to be wary of many of the claims being made in campaign advertisements. For example, one ad claims that bankruptcies went up 100% in one part of our state. Well, that sounds terrible until one realizes that percentages are merely measures of what was the prior situation. In this case, there were two filings last year and this year there were four.

 

 

 

The problem is the perception by the voters is vastly different from what actually took place.

       Another way to bend the truth is to talk about “cutting” something, be it expenditures, growth in the size of government, employees, number of programs, etc. You name it, it will probably be part of some political advertisement this year. The problem is defining what is being cut. In the “old” days when the federal deficit was the target of everyone’s attention, politicians used to talk about how much they cut the defense budget or the welfare budget or whatever. That all really sounded encouraging until someone pointed out that the number of actual dollars being spent on this or that program were in fact more than were spent on the same program last year.

What those politicians were talking about was not a cut in the size of the program, but the growth in the program that had previously been anticipated. For example, where it might have been expected that defense expenditures would grow by 8% next year, Congress may have cut the growth rate to 6%. So yes, one could honestly say that there was a cut in defense expenditures and still be telling the truth. The problem is the perception by the voters is vastly different from what actually took place.

One current claim is that the current administration slowed the growth of government to 1.3%. For many listeners or viewers that accomplishment sounds pretty good given all this grousing about how large government has become over the last decade. The problem with that is the same misleading tactic as noted above in the cut in defense expenditures. That 1.3% sounds pretty good, but what does it mean?

It means just that. Government spending continues to grow but at a slower rate. It does not mean that the size of government has been reduced, in fact, it means just the opposite – that the “big” government is being allowed to grow by another 1.3%. Now it becomes a judgmental point. Are you satisfied that government isn’t growing at the same fast clip it was at the beginning of the 1990’s or are you upset that big government continues to grow?

The other claim one is likely to hear is that government leaders have cut the number of jobs in government and therefore government is getting smaller. Well, that may be true if one accepts that one less position or job meets that criteria. What is more critical is the size of the cut relative to what there is to be cut. This is where percentages do count because percentages measure against what was and what is now.

While politicians will claim they cut the number of state jobs, one only has to do a percentage comparison. If one were to use 1990 as the base year or ZERO, state government employment peaked with nearly 14% more jobs in 1994 than there were in 1990. Has the current administration cut that number? On a point to point comparison, there were 12.6% more state government jobs in 1997 than there were in 1990. Thus, it looks that the number of state jobs was cut from the 14% “high.” The real question is whether that was enough. Is 12.6% more state jobs in 1997 than in 1990 appropriate and justifiable? For example, did the number of people to be served, i.e., population, grow by 12.6%, or did the number of tourists coming to our islands grow by 12.6% since 1990, or did the cost of living go up by 12.6%?

Another way to look at that same question is what did private employment look like in the same period. After all, you need those private jobs to make the money that will generate the taxes to pay those public employees. In that same period between 1990 and 1997, the number of private sector jobs declined (were less) by 0.6%. So there were actually fewer private workers in 1997 than there were in 1990. So how does that compare with state worker growth?

The point of the matter is that we will be bombarded with all sorts of “facts and figures” and while they are not outright “lies” at best one might think of these statements as the “bending of the truth.”

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