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This Is How We Disappear

(Skip to point 5 for my personal post-mortem on the Romney campaign)

I haven’t posted in 6 months and my Twitter presence (where I’ve usually done most of my interaction) has slowed to a crawl. I missed the last #BLSFriday (my monthly data-dig into the BLS employment data) and I haven’t made a decent chart in ages. Several people have asked what happened and I hate to just disappear without any explanation, so I wanted to put something up here.

I love being able to make a contribution to the political discussion. I love digging into data and asking questions that too much of the data community prefers to ignore. I love the people I’ve met and become friends with and my chances to speak and educate. But for a variety of reasons, I’ve had to pull back. I don’t like to just disappear and leave people in the dark (we miss you @Cubachi!) so I wanted to elaborate here.

1) I moved to the west coast

I didn’t think it would make a big difference, but moving into a time zone just 1 hour further from DC has really limited my Twitter engagement. By the time I get on at night, a lot of east-coast people I like to interact with have called it a night. I still try to check in frequently (and @stephenkruiser and @politicsofamy make the evenings pretty awesome) but it’s not the same interactions that I loved.

2) My new job requires my personality

Some of you know what my new job is, but for people who don’t, I’ll just say that it requires my personality. Whereas all my previous work relied on my ability to deliver a good product, this job requires that I put my face on my work in a big way. I’ve never been super-secret about my identity, but the nature of my new job requires that I keep my name and personality squarely in the professional sphere.

3) Baby + 2 year old

We just had our 2nd kid and our 2 year old is a delightful little time suck. As much as I love digging into data, building charts, making videos and arguing with the internet, I like spending time with my kids more.

4) This is a hobby

My political data work was fun, educational, engaging, and some of the best stuff I’ve ever made. I have gotten job offers by the dozen. But I have a career in which I make money. It’s not a huge amount of money but… well, let’s just say this conversation actually happened (although it is paraphrased):

Fox News: ”Hi, this is (so and so) with Fox News. We’ve seen your stuff and we love it. What do you think about doing a regular piece for (show X).”

Me: Sound great. So… compensation… I was thinking [2/3 my going rate as a programmer].

FN: Yeah, that’s never going to happen. How about [1/6 my going rate as a programmer].

Me: Ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha. Ha.

I think I actually laughed at them on the phone. The number was really that low.

We tend to think that people in DC make stupid huge money. But that’s true for very few people (usually corporate lobbyists and maybe some organization directors or higher-ups). Bloggers, media content creators, journalists… all these people get paid crap (with the exception of the very top-tier, let’s call them the 1%).

So, if there is a blogger, writer, video creator, podcaster, Twitter personality, etc who you enjoy, donate something to them. Anything is helpful.

5) Disillusionment

OK… now for the real reasons. In the last election, I was approached by someone in the Romney campaign to do some visualization work, charts, videos, that kind of thing. We agreed upon a reasonable rate for my work and I got started working on some concepts. The first visual I produced for the team was a variation of this visual, showing job growth by presidential terms.

The version I made for them was cleaner, better designed, conceptually a bit firmer, but the point was the same. After a number of iterations, I felt I had a great visual that I’d be glad to see be a point of conversation.

And then the approval process began. We spent weeks trying to get an OK on the visual. They asked for references for my data which I gladly included. (The only time I deny references to data is when people on Twitter refuse to do basic research and I want to know they’re willing to do basic research before I engage them.) The approval process for the most basic inoffensive visual showing how mediocre Obama’s jobs record was required the approval of a vast number of message managers, PR managers, researchers, etc. A single veto would kill the iteration and I’d have to resubmit with changes. Sometimes I knew what those changes should be, sometimes I didn’t.

After enough time it dawned on me: These people didn’t believe me. They didn’t believe my numbers (even though they were the most basic BLS numbers out there). I felt (and this is just my intuition talking here) that they had bought, hook line and sinker, the Obama teams ”I created X million jobs” line (easily shown to be little more than a flimsy propaganda line based on selective data). I believe they were more willing to swallow the line being promoted by the opposition than a friendly voice with a history of dedication to the truthful portrayal of data.

At a certain point I said “screw this” and gave up.

And I never got paid.

I liked Romney. I voted for Romney (which, incidentally, marked the first time the candidate I voted for didn’t win). There are all sorts of reasons we can point to about why Romney lost. But from my perspective, I saw an over-managed campaign untrustful of their own side and unwilling to take the smallest risks for fear of being butchered by the media. Which, of course, happened anyway.

There’s actually one more reason, but it requires it’s own post. Suffice to say I’d love to keep making data beautiful, engaging the issues, digging into charts and making videos, but my life has changed substantially and for the foreseeable future

Hello world!

Welcome to WordPress. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!

BlogCon CLT Slide Deck

Yesterday I spoke at BlogConCLT on telling stories around data. I wanted to put the slide deck up, so attendees could go back and relive the dream. I have all the text for the presentation in the notes, so if you prefer, you can just imagine your favorite speaking giving this presentation instead of me.

BlogCon CLT Dramatic Visualizations Presentation (PowerPoint file, 44ish MB)

It is so large because I embedded videos into the presentation. The video I didn’t embed is the one that I used as an example:

Federal Tax Rates & A Fair Share

There has been so much talk recently about millionaires and billionaires not paying their “fair share” of taxes, I decided to look up exactly how much they end up paying. Tim Carney pointed me to this CBO paper on average effective tax rates for 2007 (published in 2010).

This is unfortunately the latest data I can find, but it is useful to me because it gives data that can be extrapolated. If I know the average  pre-tax income, the average after-tax income and the number of people the top 5% and the top 1%, I can extract the top 1% from the top 5% and calculate that data for people in the top 1.1%-5%. This means I can update my Not All Money Is Created Equal chart.

(click to enlarge)

This is a chart of the effective tax rate, so it includes income, payroll, corporate, and excise taxes. It covers all practical sources of income (see the “technical information” at the bottom, since I’m guessing this will be the first objection raised).

I love this chart because I think it summarizes so many important things very easily. We can immediately get the scope of how much the top 1% makes, (it’s a lot) but also easily see that they pay more as a % of the tax burden than they make as a % of the national income. We can see that the US tax system is actually fairly progressive, with the top 20-10% paying the closest to a “fair share” (if by fair you mean every dollar made is taxed at an equal proportion to all income as a whole).

Warren Buffett is an anecdote, but one that has been repeated so often that many people think that the rich, as a whole, don’t pay very much in taxes. This chart shows that this is entirely untrue. When viewed through the lens of effective taxation (which is a very appropriate lens to use) the top 1% of income earners pay a much higher rate on their income than any other income group.

Technical information from the CBO on this data:

Comprehensive household income equals pretax cash income plus income from other sources. Pretax cash income is the sum of wages, salaries, self-employment income, rents, taxable and nontaxable interest, dividends, realized capital gains, cash transfer payments, and retirement benefits plus taxes paid by businesses (corporate income taxes and the employer’s share of Social Security, Medicare, and federal unemployment insurance payroll taxes) and employees’ contributions to 401(k) retirement plans. Other sources of income include all in-kind benefits (Medicare and Medicaid benefits, employer-paid health insurance premiums, food stamps, school lunches and breakfasts, housing assistance, and energy assistance).

Individual income taxes are allocated directly to households paying those taxes. Social insurance, or payroll, taxes are allocated to households paying those taxes directly or paying them indirectly through their employers. Corporate income taxes are allocated to households according to their share of capital income. Federal excise taxes are allocated to them according to their consumption of the taxed good or service.

March 2012 BLS Employment Data in CSV (Excel) Format

A Table (Employment/Unemployment)

B Tables (Employment By Industry)

BLS Data in Excel Format

If you’ve ever tried to get the data out of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) you know that can be kind of a pain in the butt. You usually have to go through the wizards to get the data and then it only gives you one kind of data per table and you have to do a lot of tedious work to get that data into a format that is actually useful for additional work.

I finally got tired of doing this, so this weekend I put together a little program that takes BLS data and turns it into csv format, which can be opened in Excel.

Finally, I would really appreciate two things. First, please mention me (Matthias Shapiro) if you use the data for professional purposes, link back here to let people know where to get it. Second, if this is actually helpful data, please consider tossing $5 or so into my digital hat. I make maybe $50 per year from this blog, so anything to let me know this is worth doing is helpful to me.





Or you could buy a copy of my book Beautiful Visualization (disclaimer: I only wrote one chapter, but I call it “my book” anyway because that makes me feel important).

Download employment status (A Tables) (BLS link)

  • 1948 – Nov 2011
  • civilian population
  • labor force
  • participation rate
  • employed
  • employment-to-population ratio
  • unemployed
  • unemployment rate
  • not in labor force
  • persons who currently want a job
  • 1939-Nov 2011
  • payroll job counts for 150 industries/sub-industries
  • csv file (headers labeled “[state] – [field]” Example: “Alabama – Unemployed”
  • xlsx file (better headers, grouping states)
  • 1976 – Oct 2011
  • labor force by state
  • employed by state
  • unemployed by state
  • unemployment rate by state
Download state payrolls by industry (BLS Link)

Alternate Intro to the “Three Charts” Post

This was my original intro to the “Three Charts” post that I’ve just put up. Normally my rational brain gets the better of me and I delete this kind of crap before I post it. It is neither charitable nor professional. You’ve been warned.

Once again, the truth rolls its eyes and starts tying it’s laces while the lie is half-way around the world. There is a piece called “The Three Charts to E-Mail Your Right Wing Brother-In-Law” that is making the rounds and impressing many people who didn’t score high on the “critical thinking” portion of the test.

Whoever made this chart is an asshole. Straight up asshole. “Your Right Wing Brother-In-Law”? Really? I mean… I get it because no one who is related to this person by blood could ever be so stupid. Nice little undercurrent enforcing the concept of hereditary intelligence. Yeah… I heard a lot of that kind of shit when I visited the deep South and ran into the local racist assholes. Just enough plausible deniability to claim innocence, but deep down you know that, due to your pedigree, you’re just better than other people.

And someone who disagrees with you could never be your friend. I mean… you? Voluntarily associate with someone who doesn’t agree with you? Actually have friends who might challenge you on something? Heaven forbid. Disagreeing with you is something only the lowly and inferior do and you would never be around them of your own volition, so it has to be someone who is “in the family, but not part of the family”.

No, the right wing brother in law just mouths off without knowing the facts, so it is up to the great brainiac hope of the family to inject reality into the conversation. Is that a banana in your pocket or are you just fantasizing about winning an argument in real life without stuttering and turning red in the face?

And as salty icing on the moldy self-righteous cake why do YOU need to explain this to the “brother-in-law” specifically? It it because your wife or sister is too stupid or too meek to explain it to him herself? The weak-minded damsel will be saved by you, the powerful, witty, urbane, strong, righteous intellectual knight. And everyone will love you for being the big savior of the family conversation.

I find that creepy, dismissive and sexist. Everyone who giggles at it and re-shares it should be ashamed of themselves but won’t be because they aren’t introspective enough to stop stroking their own intellectual egos for the time it takes to feel shame.

See? This is why I usually delete that kind of stuff.

I’m Still Catching Up

I want to send out this apology. Policy analysis is not my job… I just do this for fun. That last post was meant to explain things I couldn’t explain over Twitter (to an audience of about 15 people who already discussing it).

Instead, I got almost as many comments and hits as I’ve gotten on everything else I’ve done here over the past 2 years. I’m trying to digest it all, but it’s crunch time at my “normal job”.

Thank you to everyone who has commented and engaged the topic. I am going to try to do a follow-up in the coming week that addresses more of the data.

Tim Carney’s Awesomeness Theory of Capitalism

I saw this when it came out and, as an aspiring entrepreneur, it really resonated with me on how entrepreneurs see the world.

For the people who really drive technology and push the world forward, it isn’t about the money (or, at least, it isn’t only about the money). The drive to “be awesome” is a powerful one… one that inspires a great deal of innovation.

I personally think that one of the great things about the internet isn’t simply access to data or information. It allows groups of people to show off their stuff to other people who care, to people who will think they are awesome. This force drives a huge amount of cool things like space tourism and genetics businesses like 23andMe . It’s also the driving force behind the DIY revolution that Johnny Chung Lee wrote about. For me, getting accolades from people I respect is bigger than a big payday. (In fact, if I somehow got a big payday in the millions of dollars, I’d probably change the trajectory of my career to a higher quotient of awesome-to-profit.)

Anyway, I keep wanting to refer to this clip, so I figured I should put it on my blog.

Vote For “Matthias” Y-Care Video

After months of not putting anything up, I finally made a new video. Created for the Y-Care National Debt video contest, it’s a fairly radical departure from my previous fare, but I think it’s entertaining. Please vote for me (Matthias Shapiro) at the Know-Y.org Y-Care video vote and help me win the $5,000 prize. (I have a very large scale visualization of the national debt that I’m working on, but I really need some capital to pull it off. This would be an awesome way to help me with that.)

Let me field a couple of questions about the production:

  • Do I really owe $45,000 of the National Debt? – No, you do not. I rounded down. Based on the latest estimate, there are 312 million people in the country and the US National Debt stands at $14.1 trillion, so you owe a shade under $45,200 at the time of writing. But it’s probably more than that by the time you read this.
  • Is that really $45,000 dollars in that bag? – No, it is not. I am not insane enough to carry around $45K in a bag and show it to people. Instead, that is $2,250 worth of one dollar bills with $20 bills on the top and bottom for a total of about $2700. For me, that is still a vast amount of capital. I ended up just taking it out of my savings, shooting the video and then quickly putting it back in.
  • Did you catch the guy who tried to steal the money? – Yes. We had sentries surrounding the area.
  • Wait a second… how can a baby owe $45,000 in debt? – The $45,000 number is a per-person estimate. If we were to do a “pre-household” estimate in which the mother and baby are counted together, it would be almost $123,000 per household. I went with the “per-person” estimate because I don’t have enough free cash to fake $123,000 in cash. If I used $20 bills to fake it, that would require $6,100 in ones and 122 $20 bills on the top and bottom, for a total of $8,540.

Think about that last bit for a second.

Most people don’t even have enough cash to fake the amount of money the federal government owes on their behalf.

The scope of the problem is truly staggering. I hope that my video has communicated it well. If you think that is the case, please vote for me (Matthias Shapiro) at the Know-Y.org Y-Care video contest.