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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Anyone with a Facebook account knows that it's election season.  'Friends' are posting links supporting their favorite candidates, bashing their favorite candidate's opponents, and frequently offending some number of their 'friends' in the process.

That's all fine.  It's part of the democratic process, freedom of speech, etc., and if you don't want to be offended by anyone, you should go hide in a cave somewhere (something which I'm very tempted to do more and more often lately).  But there are two things that I find particularly problematic with many of the posts, links, and the inevitable attached comments.

First is the total lack of awareness that the poster's opinion isn't the only 'correct' one.  People who disagree aren't automatically ignorant, un-American, bigoted, or in any other way mentally deficient.  The lack of civil discourse on both sides is appalling, and is part of the reason why I want to go hide in that cave.

The other problem with many of those posts is the wrong or misleading information that's being put out there.  Everyone wants to look their best, especially if they're running for President, but repeating a lie or half-truth over and over again doesn't make it true, and it's not helpful.

Again, both parties are guilty of this, but a post from a 'friend' just hit my Facebook newsfeed yesterday afternoon, and it's the one that happened to inspire me to write.  It was a graphic from the Facebook page 'Being Conservative' which, according to their 'About' page is a South Carolina LLC.  Their stated mission is to find "5 million fans to stand in opposition to Obama's liberal policies."  (Current fan count is around 2.6 million.)  Their website (www.BeingConservative.com) identifies them as a consulting firm specializing in "us[ing] [their] knowledge and media buying expertise to ... leverage our sophisticated geo-targeting engine built for our larger corporate clients to help our candidates dominate their opponents on Facebook."

So let's not confuse them with some grassroots organization of like-minded citizens earnestly trying to get a conservative candidate more to their liking into the White House; they're a professional consulting firm who is putting this stuff up on Facebook because someone is paying them a lot of money to do so.

Now, on to the graphic in question. Sadly, I can't reproduce it here without the formatting getting all messed up, so here's the pertinent information.  It's a graph entitled "President Obama's Record" and shows the unemployment rate, median income, price of gas per gallon, and national debt as they were when Obama took office compared to 'Now.'  At the bottom it indicates that the sources were BLS, Sentier Research, Dept. of Energy, and Dept. of Treasury.  Here's how those numbers compare:

UNEMPLOYMENT
Jan 2009:  7.8%
Now:  8.3%

MEDIAN INCOME
Jan 2009:  $54,983
Now:  $50,964

GASOLINE / GALLON
Jan 2009:  $1.84
Now:  $3.82

NATIONAL DEBT
Jan 2009:  $10.6T
Now:  $16T

First off, let me state my appreciation for the fact that Being Conservative reported accurate numbers provided by reputable sources.  Too often people will just pull numbers out of the air (we've all heard the one about 98.9% of all statistics being made up on the spot), or they'll see it on some blog somewhere and, since it's online it must be true.  So the numbers as presented by Being Conservative are true and accurate.  Kudos.

But the kudos stop there, because those numbers are also highly misleading.  How are they misleading?  I'm glad you asked.  They're misleading because the whole premise of Being Conservative is that a conservative-leaning President would have better numbers, and that it's Obama's liberal policies that resulted in these admittedly disappointing figures.

Let's compare with George W. Bush's years in the White House to see if that holds true, shall we?  I'm pretty sure he counts as a conservative.

UNEMPLOYMENT
Jan 2001:  4.2%
Jan 2009:  7.8%

Right out of the gate we have a problem.  The liberal President had a .5% increase in unemployment during his time in office, while the conservative President had a 3.5% increase during his tenure.  Don't like that we're comparing Obama's four years with Bush's eight?  OK, we'll assume the unemployment rate would continue on its current trajectory and double the increase to 1% to account for a second term.  That's still less than 1/3 the increase under the last conservative's policies.

MEDIAN INCOME
Jan 2001:  $40,148
Jan 2009:  $47,361

My number for 2009 came from the US Census Bureau, a source not used by Being Conservative.  If the Census Bureau is correct, then median income actually increased during Obama's time in office.  But there's another consideration to be made here, and that's inflation.  The experience of myself and many others I've spoken with is that wages are going down while costs are going up.  This has been happening during the last four years, but it started long before Obama landed in the White House.  Here are the same numbers adjusted for inflation (same source as above):

Jan 2001:  $52,005
Jan 2009:  $50,599

It doesn't look very good for our current liberal President, but it wasn't much better with our previous conservative President, either.

GASOLINE / GALLON
Jan 2001:  $1.51
Jan 2009:  $1.84

Again, things are not always as they seem.  Gas prices are anything but stable, and snapshots of a given day do not give an accurate picture.  For example, have we already forgotten the energy crisis of 2008 that had gas averaging over $4 per gallon and that inspired 'Drill, baby, drill" to become a popular conservative slogan?  Let's look at gas prices averaged over each year.

2001:  $1.46
2002:  $1.38
2003:  $1.60
2004:  $1.90
2005:  $2.31
2006:  $2.61
2007:  $2.84
2008:  $3.30

And then Obama:
2009:  $2.41
2010:  $2.84
2011:  $3.58

Again, the liberal policies aren't great, but the conservative record isn't any better.

And now for the National Debt.  I think we all know how this one's going to look, but let's go there anyway.

NATIONAL DEBT
Jan 2001:  $5.7T
Jan 2009:  $10T

Yup, conservative fiscal policies nearly doubled the national debt.  And turning around the debt is like turning the Titanic; the momentum carries you forward no matter how hard you try to turn the wheel.  But didn't Bush have to contend with momentum in the debt, too?  Let's look at his (liberal) predecessor's record.

Jan 1993:  $4.2T
Jan 2001:  $5.7T

There was a little momentum there, but not nearly enough to account for the increased spending we saw under our last conservative President.

I'm not trying to claim that Obama's a great President.  Personally, I don't think he is.  But Being Conservative is trying to claim that Obama's liberal policies are sending the country in the wrong direction, and implying that a conservative candidate would do better.  When I look at the full story behind their numbers, I don't see a convincing argument.  Could a conservative do a better job?  Quite possibly.  But simply being a conservative isn't enough.  I already know why I shouldn't vote for this particular liberal.  Why should I vote conservative?

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