How to See Spin, and What Effect it Will Have.
(preface: I try to keep my bloggings from poltically favoring one party or the other. I sometimes speak ill of all political parties and I do have a preference, which sometimes shows through. If it does, it does. I would apologize, but this is a blog and it’s expected to have a little personal bias. Still, my efforts are to blog party- neutral.)
By now we all know that politicians “spin” facts and accounts of events to sell themselves to the public. Recently I got into a little debate with one of my cousins, not over the politics, but over the numbers behind a spin by President Obama’s supporters.
The gist is that when Mitt Romney served as governor, with his term ending in January 2007, Massachusetts was 47th in the nation in job creation. This is a true statistic. Whole articles were written slamming Gov. Romney over this abhorrently low number because today job-creation is something both candidates are claiming to be able to do. This is a prime example of political spin. We are only given a small part of the relevant facts.
Another fact to take into account for this particular statistic is that at the time, unemployment in Mass. was 4.7%. Together with the prior statistic, we can derive that Mass. wasn’t creating jobs because there wasn’t a need to create jobs. 4.7% is a low number that economists would put in or close to the ideal rate of unemployment, which is about 5%.
5% is standard for the number of people between jobs at any given point in a strong economy. When the unemployment figure is 5% people who are among those without jobs are typically unemployed for 2-3 months with few exceeding 6 months. Significantly less than 5% means we have a dearth of labor – which is bad. That would mean that companies cannot do the work to meet their demand and it means that the costs of labor start to rise. Good for the worker’s right? Well not necessarily. When people in the middle and lower classes have more money, prices of necessity’s tend to rise if for no other reason than because people can afford to pay for them. (It’s a given that those selling the necessities or anything want more profit.)
So, basically there needs to be a healthy balance between the need for workers and the number of people available to work.
Back to the numbers involved in this particular bit of spin. 4.7% is a good unemployment number. The national average at the time was 4.6%. 4.7% is not statistically significantly better or worse than 4.6%. The unemployment figure at the time of Gov. Romney’s departure is not really fuel for an argument that can establish anything. 47th in job creation is not a good number, but, given the economy at the time, it was not really a bad number either. At any given time in any advancing society, there will be jobs going away (think telegraph operators), and other jobs being created (think networking engineers). If the statistic measuring job creation is a net figure, meaning it’s the number of new jobs minus the number the number of jobs that went away, then the 47th in the nation is a worthless statistic because, as I mentioned, combined with the unemployment figure, there was not only not a need to create more jobs, doing so might have been harmful to the economy.
Now, if that 47th statistic is a gross figure, meaning just the number of new jobs, then 47th is terrible. But, it was a net figure. It was also misleading. 47th was the average over Gov. Romney’s four years. When he left office the number was actually 28th. Analysis of the improvement rate, over Gov. Romney’s term, statistically is nearly identical to the rates of improvement in employment over Pres. Obama’s term.
So the Obama camp basically took a fact that when explored would yield no difference between the candidates and cherry picked a number that would make Gov. Romney look bad. Not an outright lie, just a selective representation of the facts.
But American’s don’t want the details. We love factoids. So most of us are going to take the numbers as presented and not think twice. There is no statistic in the world that stands alone in explaining why or how. For every number we see, there are many factors and caveats taken to arrive at that single number. We should, when presented with a single number, investigate. The vast majority of American’s won’t and that is what the politicians are counting on.
The factoid doesn’t have to be a number. Any simple statement made by a campaign, followed by an explanation of what the factoid means (or not followed with anything) is spin. It’s impossible to accurately explain the effects of a factoid without understanding what factors and caveats went into the factoid.
Most Presidents and Governors have only a small part in the overall direction of the economy over their terms. The economy is not usually a volatile thing and tends to fluctuate up and down. The only time we get to see the true measure of these politicians is when things do get volatile and what they do, to bring things back to the gentle fluctuations. And then we all question whether they did the right thing or if they should have done it differently. When that analysis happens, we’re talking speculation. It really comes down to who you, as a voter, trust.
The bailouts and recovery acts of 2008 and 2009 were not the acts of one man. But, we’ll all see ads that will make us think they were. On the other hand, we can trace the Affordable Healthcare Acts back to one person behind the drive to get it done fast–some would say too fast. Of course, when people point fingers and call “Obamacare” a tyrannical invasion of individual rights, they won’t want us to remember that “Obamacare” was modeled after “Romneycare”.
Every time a statistic becomes a Facebook meme or is embraced by the mass media, there are sites that will do the research to take a deeper look at the numbers and where they come from. Factcheck.org is pretty reliable. Really, no one should be learning anything from Facebook other than what their friends are doing. Facebook infographics are less accurate than fortune cookies. For example, contrary to the extremely popular Facebook infographic, congressmen do not earn their salaries for life. (Seriously, if you think they do, spend five minutes doing actual research. Congressional Pensions on the Senate website)
Four years from now, if we could look at two timelines, one where Pres. Obama is re-elected and one where Gov. Romney is elected, we would be unlikely to see significant differences. Presidents make policies, not laws. Sure there’s the veto power, but, barring an overwhelming majority in both houses of congress, an acceptable compromise between the parties is usually reached long before anything ends up on the president’s desk. Twenty years out, we’d start to see differences because there are people with more power over the laws in the long-term: Supreme Court Justices. Whoever is elected has a good chance of nominating a justice or two.