Numbers, Statistics, and Damn Lies

04 Feb

San Diego — Let me start with a story from the late 1950s appearing in Pravda, the Soviet state-run “news” paper whose name means “truth” in Russian.  In the midst of the propaganda wars being conducted as part of a so-called “cold” war, the USA and the USSR both put forth some extreme claims to demonstrate to the world and their own people the superiority of their own systems.

In 1953 the Americans had introduced the Corvette; a cute little sports car that, within a couple of years had evolved into a car now appearing on the worlds’ race tracks and doing quite well.  The Soviets were beside themselves since their only cars looked like a Yugo that had been hit by several tractor-trailer rigs and a large black beast that looked like a Packard after an explosion in a chrome factory.  But they had statistics on their side.  Huh??? Wait and learn, young grasshopper.

The Soviets got an American Corvette and a Soviet Zug, and held a wheel-to-wheel race around the Nurburgring, the famous sports car “road” racetrack in (then) East Germany.  Now you might think the outcome was obvious, but if so, you did not read Pravda.

According to the article in Pravda (“Truth” remember) there was in international automobile race.  (True)  Among the entrants were an American Corvette made by evil capitalist burgeoisie and a Soviet automobile made by the blessed proletariat (sort-of true minus the value judgements).  The race resulted, they went on, in the Soviet car coming in second (which is true) and the much ballyhooed American Corvette doing no better than finishing the race next to last.(which technically is also true).

With a little “selective documentation” they wrote a factual story that was completely misleading. When I was in spook school we were taught that the best way to sell a lie was to wrap it in the truth. By simply leaving out one fact – that there were only two cars in the race – the Soviets told the truth but in how they went about doing so, told a lie.

Unfortunately, given a lot of years to practice it, neither the Russians nor the spy community has ever mastered that technique to the same level as current American politicians.   A Few years ago a citizen doing ancestral research discovered they were related to a current federal politician through a common ancestor and in fact they both had an ancestor that after a well-known career as a rustler, train robber and bank robber was hung in a public hanging in Wyoming.  Thinking that was an interesting historical anecdote they passed it on to the Senator.

His spin team thought it was great too and so put it in his bio with only a slight re-wording.  In the new version that politician came from famous frontier stock.  One of his forebears was well known in the cattle industry.  At some point in his career he was able to move into the growing transportation industry so important to western expansion and finally ended up being a major force in the regional financial industry.  He died during a well-attended public ceremony when scaffolding erected in his honor collapsed out from under him.

All true… but…

Well today our crop of public officials have absolutely mastered the art of statistical spin.  They know exactly when to give objective numbers and when to give percentages so that the numbers, even though factually correct, paint the picture they want in opposition to the other side.   But sometimes, the best ploy is simply to do as the Russian paper did and leave out a number or two while telling the truth about the remaining numbers you actually do use.

Two major economic issues represent a chance to practice this time-honored game of statistical spin using the “selective documentation” approach.  Those issues are the debt and the unemployment figures.

The claim is that the debt is about $15 Trillion dollars but along with that admission comes the claim that we could actually pay that off and it is no big deal.  But if that were true, why do we need to keep raising the debt ceiling?  It makes no sense.  And the reason it makes no sense is that a few details are being left out of the claim.

Our actual total national debt is actually made up of several types of indebtedness and economic liabilities.  The first part is the obvious ‘debt’ where some entity, often another country, has loaned us money in exchange for some for of promissory note, often in the form of a redeemable bond or certificate, to get repaid over time.  And that is the form of debt that is now at about $15 Trillion.  However, it is not only not all of the indebtedness of the country, it is not even the biggest part.   There are several other types of debt for which the country’s bank account is on the hook.

One of those is called “Agency” debt which is when a legal “agent” of the country such as a minister or ambassador or congress person creates indebtedness when he or she agrees to provide funding for something or another either locally or elsewhere or where their department/agency creates a cost that is not reflected on the normal bookkeeping.

Another is intra-departmental debt when one department “borrows” allocated funds from another leaving the former short and having to have more funds allocated. Think Social Security here where to so-called “trust fund” was emptied long ago by a voracious congress with promises to repay it or to keep up paying its liabilities.  Al Gore out and out lied about some Social Security “lock box” to be kept secure; it is a box on paper only and has nothing in it to protect.

And another form of debt, the big one, is for “unfunded liabilities.”  This is where commitments are made via laws or just promises to do some project or undertake some procedure but for which no funds were specifically available or allocated for it.  This is a VERY big portion of the total indebtedness and is much loved because it is essentially hidden from public view.  It is this practice that requires the debt ceiling to be raised as politicians pass laws that will require funding that we do not have.

When you add all of those methods of debt creation together the total debt raises to nearly $120 Trillion.  The least of our problems are the paltry $15 Trillion the administration will admit to.

Unemployment figures enjoy equal time being the target of selective documentation.  It is now measured in a way that is new to the country and is done precisely to lower the numbers. it was changed to protect the administration during the Carter years. it was not very successful because people noticed the sudden change in numbers and were suspicious of them.  But we’ve had time to let that approach become a new baseline.  However, real unemployment is only to be found by looking at several measures.

The first and easiest is to see how many people are collecting unemployment checks.  It is that number that forms the basis for the current administration’s calculations that we are just below 9% unemployment.  But it does not look at the complete picture of those who fell off the rolls but still do not have a job; how many people, in essence, are out there that can work, want to work, but for whom there is no viable job available.  Now that unemployment number is different, it is hovering between 15% and 20%.

And that horrid number, bad as it is, does not account for the so-called “underemployed” who have taken a job far beneath their skill set and are looking for something better but are no longer on the rolls of the unemployed.

Since no incumbent president in history has survived re-election when the unemployment rate is over 8%, the real numbers would be devastating and I’ll bet nearly any amount of money that a statistical view will be put forth that indicates, by ignoring some data, that come election time the unemployement number is below 8%.

The problem is that would be mathematically impossible to achieve since it would mean adding ¼ to ½ million new jobs every month from now until then.  And that cannot happen since we are actually loosing jobs.  In the last three years (Bureau of Labor numbers) approximately 2.5 million jobs were lost and approximately 1.2 million positions are no longer available.  But somehow, magically, I’ll bet the numbers get ‘cooked’ to claim something below 8% towards the end of this year.

So where does that leave us?  It leaves us with a clear choice of philosophies.  Let’s take the overt value judgments out of this and simply call things as they are then let the people, both sides claim to represent, decide what they want.  And the choice has never, in our history, been so cleanly presented.

Do you, a citizen of the US want…

  • A more powerful government capable of intruding anywhere into your life or do you want a less powerful one limited to simply those powers listed in the Constitution?
  • Do you want to have the government provide you with all manner of goodies and safety nets that will be paid for by future generations or do you want the government to live within its means as you have to so that future generations can grow and prosper?
  • Do you want the government to define for you how your faith can be practiced or do you believe that is none of their business?
  • Do you think the government knows best how you should allocate the money you earn or do you believe that is your prerogative?
  • Do you believe in private ownership of property or do you believe that the government actually owns all property no matter how earned or acquired and is best able to allocate it as it sees fit?

Those questions, and the answers to them, are the cornerstones of two very different views of how a nation state can be governed and how the government itself relates to the citizens.  We have never before faced such a clearly defined choice leading to those two but opposing views.

Certainly there are lots of people who honestly believe that the government’s role is to take care of its citizens and create not just a level field to play on but also a level score on the board regardless of the team’s performance.  Do you really believe this too?

if so, then when you watch the Super Bowl this weekend, think about how comfortable would you be if one team clearly outplays the other, scores more touchdowns, intercepts more passes, but in order to keep it fair, whenever one sores points, equal points are also placed on the board for the other team and in the end both are declared equal winners?

No?  Then why do you want a government and society to be run that way?

By the way, just to leave you with another bit of selective documentation to ponder.  Did you know that the Constitution recognizes and the Supreme Court has defined in interpreting relevant cases, several categories of citizen?

  • A “Naturalized” citizen, for example, is one that was foreign born or a citizen of a foreign state who has entered the country legally and has then gone through the naturalization process, passed the test of citizenship, sworn an oath of allegiance, and is now granted citizenship.
  • A normal, plain ol’ citizen is anyone born on U.S. territory regardless of the status of the parents’ citizenship.  This category includes the “anchor baby” issues now rippling through various discussions on immigration.
  • And then there is the “Natural Born” Citizen.  This is a person born to parents, BOTH of whom are, at the time of the birth, citizens of the United States.

Only a natural born citizen is eligible, under the Constitution, to become president no matter where they were born.

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Posted by on February 4, 2012 in Uncategorized


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