The New Math:
Fudging the Numbers in the Economic Blame Game
By Bryan Keefer (firstname.lastname@example.org)
January 28, 2002
The current debate over economic policy has provided rich opportunities for one of the most disingenuous and confusing aspects of spin: abusing statistics. From misstating facts to spinning half-truths into an allegedly complete story, politicians and pundits of all ideological stripes are making deceptive and inaccurate claims based on numerical data. A close examination of several such claims from political actors and pundits ranging from Bush economic advisor Lawrence Lindsey to the Democratic National Committee shows just how cavalierly statistics are used in efforts to score political points.
Misstating the facts
The most obvious examples of spin in the current debate come in the form of blatant misstatements of facts. A recent syndicated column from Bruce Bartlett of the National Center for Policy Analysis is a classic example. He writes:
[T]he main cause of lower surpluses is not the tax cut, but slower growth caused by the recession and the events of Sept. 11. This accounts for 40 percent of the decline in the surplus between now and 2011. The tax cut accounts for 32 percent, compared to CBO's [Congressional Budget Office's] projections one year ago. The remainder results from higher government spending. Even if one apportions higher interest payments resulting from the tax cut, its share of the total surplus decline only rises to 36 percent.
These statistics are simply wrong. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (a well-regarded liberal Washington think tank), when interest costs are factored in correctly, the tax cut is responsible for 41 percent of the total drop in the projected surplus from 2001 to 2011, while adjustments to the economic forecast and technical reestimates together caused 39 percent of the decline. Even the conservative Washington Times reported that the Congressional Budget Office attributed 40 percent of the projected ten-year decline in the surplus to the tax cut. Bartlett's incorrect statistics (though not his argument based on those statistics) was reportedly corrected, although the Creator's Syndicate web site still features an incorrect version.
The Democratic National Committee provides us with a good example of a second common strategy: fallaciously implying a causal link between a policy or political figure and a particular fact. Democrats have embarked upon a concerted campaign to lay the blame for every aspect of the deteriorating economy at the feet of President Bush. The DNC's "State of the Union 2002" website makes several errors in imputing causation. The site informs us that "[d]uring Bush's first year in office, minority unemployment increased at a faster rate than white unemployment" and that "[u]nemployment among women has increased faster than it has for men during the first year of the Bush administration." Both of these statements are true. Yet they also imply causation (especially read in the context of the heading "Women and Minorities Particularly Hurting Under Bush") to implicate Bush without explaining why his policies are responsible for these circumstances. Moreover, the site attempts to blame Bush for the deteriorating budget outlook in the short term, an accusation that is simply false (more on that below). The DNC's site full of such spurious, associative reasoning, which it attempts to overlay with a thin gloss of objective authority by using statistics.
Apples to oranges
Others are employing the tactic of "comparing apples to oranges," juxtaposing two non-comparable statistics as if they could be fairly compared. As Josh Marshall pointed out on his website, Bush economic advisor Larry Lindsey employed just such a strategy in a recent op-ed defending the tax cut passed last May. Lindsey writes that
Very high personal taxes were clearly one factor that helped choke off the expansion. While personal taxes on average took only 12 percent of personal income in 1993, they consumed almost 24 percent of the growth in personal income between 1999 and 2000.
Lindsey is comparing two different things: tax rates as a percentage of income, and the amount of growth in income that those rates consumed. Both of Lindsey's figures may be true (though he does not provide a source for them). Yet the facts are sequenced to imply to the casual reader that the average tax rate went from 12 percent to 24 percent from 1993 to 2000, and that change helped slow the economy. As Marshall observes, "The point isn't simply that it's misleading... The point is that it looks intentionally misleading. And if that is so, where were the Post editors?" Lindsey's deception is a common one made by pundits: his facts may be correct, but the rhetoric around them implies things that are not true.
Spinning a half truth into the whole story
Perhaps the most confusing technique being used in the current debate is latching on to one number or fact and suggesting that it represents the whole of a larger picture. As my co-editor Brendan Nyhan has demonstrated, this is exactly the technique employed by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to assign blame for short-term budget deficits to the tax cut passed in May. Daschle intentionally confused the short- and long-term causes of the deteriorating federal budget outlook in a speech on January 4:
There are those who say the reason the surplu sdeteriorated so quickly is the attacks on America and the war against terrorism. Clearly, September 11th was a major blow to our economy. And, to some industries, it's been devastating, especially travel and tourism, which is hugely important to my home state. But September 11th and the war aren't the only reasons the surplus is nearly gone. They're not even the biggest reasons. The biggest reason is the tax cut. [emphasis added]
Daschle is taking one fact - that the tax cut is the leading factor in the decline of the surplus over the long term - and then twisting it to imply that the tax cut is also responsible for short-term deficits. In fact, according to the Congressional Budget Office the recession is responsible for most of the fiscal year 2002 budget deficit. Daschle is manipulating the timeframe of his comments to twist the truth.
On the other side of the aisle, Stephen Moore of the Club for Growth claims that
Deficits are back, not because of the tax cutters, but because of the big spenders in Congress - the same crowd whose profligacy created the enormous deficits of the 1970s, '80s and '90s. The Daschles and Kennedys of the world need to be hog tied before a new spending spree creates another trillion of debt for our children to pay off.
While Moore is correct that short-term budget deficits are the result mainly of the recession and not of the tax cut, he intentionally frames his statements as broadly as possible in order to imply that tax cuts are not the cause of long-term declines in the budget surplus. Moore's spin is exactly equivalent to Daschle's; he takes the same numbers and puts an opposite (and equally deceptive) spin on them. Several others have employed the same tactics as Moore (though generally without the same level of vitriol) include Donald Lambro of the Washington Times, talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, Bartlett, and Heritage Foundation President Edwin Fuelner.
The current back-and-forth over economic policy highlights both the power that statistics hold and how easy it is to abuse that power. Unlike most arguments, statistics imply that the users are referring to an objective reality. Pundits and politicians make reference to statistics in order to take advantage of this implication, yet in the same breath they twist the numbers to fit their political agendas. As the machinery for producing and twisting statistics has grown more sophisticated, the press has increasingly refused to pass judgement on their accuracy, leaving the public to sort out confusing counter-claims unaided. Let us hope this trend is reversed and that the statistical deceptions of the current budget debate are exposed for what they are.
Update - 1/28/02 12:55 PM EST: The Bruce Bartlett syndicated column that I criticized
above ran with corrected figures in the Washington Times today.
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-Blurring lines in the surplus debate (Brendan Nyhan, 1/11/02)
-Daschle and Bush spin debate on stimulus (Ben Fritz, 1/8/02)
-More of the economic blame game (Brendan Nyhan, 12/7/01)
-Playing the economic blame game (Ben Fritz, 9/11/01)
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