Archive for President Obama

How President Obama Is Using Your Address

I’m a very pro-transparency type of guy in most respects. However, I’m also practical. For example, I’m very nervous about publicly available donation tracking information because it means I can’t quietly support any candidate. There is always a chance that someone will find out who I supported and yell at me / egg my house / key my car.

With great power comes great responsibility and all that jazz.

Which is why I’m writing this post. I mostly like Mitt Romney for president (it’s a long story, buy me a beer and maybe I’ll tell you). But if I gave him my address for volunteer purposes or with any kind of donation and he turned around and broadcast my address to the world, I’m be pretty angry.

And that is exactly that President Obama has apparently done. With the new Obama campaign iPhone app, I can see who exactly in my neighborhood has their address (for whatever reason) registered with the Obama campaign. And I think it is important to let these people know exactly what has happened to this information. Call it “transparency”.

Note: DO NOT harass these people. We don’t know exactly where these addresses came from, but I am 90% sure that it did not come from public donation data. Even if it did, that doesn’t matter. This is about letting people know that their information is public for the world to see, not about giving them crap for their political views (which, let me say again, we don’t know).

Step 1

Download President Obama’s campaign iPhone app.

Step 2

Open app

Step 3

Tap the “Action” tab.

Step 4

Tap “Canvass”

Step 5

Log in or sign up for a new account (this will not place your address on the map, the sign up requires only a valid email address).

Step 6

Find all the people in your area that the Obama team wants you to visit.

Step 7

Take a picture of the map with their address on it (press the power button and the square button at the same time on your iPhone).

Step 8

Drop that image into this file. The text reads:

Hi!

I’m a concerned neighbor.

I got this address from the Obama campaign’s iPhone app. If you’ve ever given money or volunteer information to President Obama, he probably has your name and address. And he has made it publically available for anyone with an iPhone.

If this bothers you, you might want to contact his campaign and ask them to not share your information with people like me (even though I’m super nice).

Step 9

Print file (10-25 copies should do it).

Step 10

Tape fliers to all the doors on that list.

My goal here is not to bash President Obama. Rest assured if the Romney campaign did something similar I would be beating the hell out of them on this issue too.

This information may seem very public and therefore very harmless to political wonk programmers, but I can assure you that the people who gave their addresses


NEVER
expected that information to be used this way.

UPDATE:

Some have complained that the Obama is only using publically available data, so my problem shouldn’t be with him, it should be with campaign finance laws. May I therefore submit the following into evidence: Here is a map of who contributed to Democratic campaigns in 2008 (blue dots indicate financial contributions during the 2008 campaign):

And here is the exact same area map pulled from the Obama app

With this, I would suggest the Obama app is not using public contribution data, but instead using data from their own supporter database.

Romney, Obama, and Executive Job Records

This is one of the Goose/Gander Visualization Series.

Recently President Obama’s team has felt that attacking Romney’s jobs record in Massachusetts tests well in the sample group.

These attacks got me thinking about executive job records.  “Where” I asked myself  “would President Obama place in a ranking of US Presidents in terms of job creation?”

Job Gains By Presidential Tenure Medium

You can also download a larger version of the chart. I find it difficult to create visualizations that work well in both blog form and Facebook-sharing form. This was my attempt at a compromise.

Is this a fair comparison? Yes and no. Part of the Goose/Gander series is that I create a provocative visual and then explain in more details what is fair and isn’t fair about it.

This Isn’t Fair

President Obama hasn’t had a full term yet

This puts him at a distinct disadvantage to everyone else (except John F Kennedy) because he hasn’t had the same amount of time to grow jobs. However it also seems pretty obvious that he’s not going to get out of last place before January 2013. That would require 300K new jobs per month every month from now until then.

President Obama came into office in the middle of a recession

In fact, he came in the middle of a recession that was worse in terms of job loss than anything any other president in this chart had to deal with. Now, he did split those job losses about half-and-half with George W Bush, so it’s not as bad as it could have been for him.

Presidents only have a certain amount of control over job growth

Actually presidents (and executives in general) only have a certain amount of control over the economy, so this entire exercise is kind of tainted by that fact. But this is the part where we point out that Obama did start this by attacking Mitt Romney’s job record in a similar way.

This Is Fair

The data Is Unassailable

I’m using the Employment table from the BLS A Tables. This is not the one that most Obama proponents prefer to use. They prefer using the BLS B Tables because they give numbers that are kinder to Obama. But the B Tables undercount employment (they only count payrolls) and everyone knows this.

I counted January-January (or whenever the president left office) for each president. I did this not because it was particularly fair but because I wanted to match how Obama has assigned himself and Romney jobs responsibility. I’m following his lead to show that, if we take him at his word, he doesn’t stand up to his own standard.

If we’re going to play the presidential job visuals game…

… this is a totally fair visual to keep in mind. Depending on the metric, Obama talks about jobs in different ways. When talking raw numbers, he likes to talk about the “last 22 months” or however gets us to the low point in the recession. When talking about month-to-month change, he likes to talk about when he came into office which was the worst point of job loss in the recession, so everything else looks good in comparison.

Fairly or unfairly, Presidents and jobs are commonly linked. It’s only fair to give a proper representation of that information.

The Goose/Gander Visualization Series

I’ve been inspired by the Obama administration to start a new series of visualizations. It was this tweet that inspired me:

“See how well Mitt Romney’s promise to create jobs in Massachusetts worked out:”

First of all, that’s not a “see” sort of thing. It’s just a number on a background.

But second of all, it has become increasingly clear that the Obama administration doesn’t care too much about context in their use of data. They will use any data that is “technically true” to make their case.

I try to play nice in my infographics. I try to provide context and improve understanding. Because of this, there are several visualizations that I’ve abandoned because, although the visualization was compelling, it didn’t increase understanding of the reality surrounding the data.

So I’m going to start a series I’m calling the “Goose/Gander Visualization Series”. If I see something particularly egregious data or visualization usage, I’m going to create something that responds in kind. The difference is that I will call out what I think is wrong with my data.

If someone decides to try to correct me, I will point to original example, insist that they call that one out and then point out that I’m not only aware of the context, I’m giving it to anyone with the desire to find it.

I will only use accurate data, no fudging the stats. But I’ll use all the tricks that the original data used. It should be fun.

MarketWatch’s Rex Nutting On Obama Spending (Infographic)

It’s been going around Facebook and the Twitters.

It’s been rated “mostly true” by Politifact.

It is the MarketWatch piece on how Obama hasn’t really increased spending all that much.

And I’m damn tired of picking it apart 140 characters at a time, so I put together this sarcastic infographic showing exactly how sloppy this piece really is.

(Correction: An earlier version of this infographic incorrectly identified the $3.8 Trillion 2013 as a CBO projection. That is the spending request from President Obama 2013 budget.)

UPDATED (05/24/12, 3PM):

There are three things in this infographic that should be called out more explicitly.

First, much of the debate here centers around who exactly should catch the blame for FY 2009 spending. This is actually a very tricky question and I think compelling cases can be made for both sides of this debate.

My personal position is that it’s really complicated. But one thing is for certain: in hindsight the CBO January 2009 estimate is so obviously wrong that using it should be called out and mocked.

The January 2009 CBO estimate might have been a “best estimate of what Obama inherited”, but only in January 2009 when spending data was *very* hard to predict. January 2009 marked the worst part of the recession and the uncertainty was very high. Only a few months later, Obama’s budget estimated 2009 spending would be $400 billion higher than the CBO estimate.

But now we can look at the data, not the estimates. And we should. The spending data ended up $20 billion lower than the CBO estimate… and that included the stimulus spending (which Nutting says was $140 billion, but I’m still trying to track that number down). If that is the case, the high-end estimate for Bush’s fiscal year is  $3.38 trillion. If we compare that to Obama’s 2013 budget proposal ($3.80 trillion), that’s an increase of 12.5% (3.1% annualized). Which isn’t that high, but it’s also using a baseline that is still filled with a lot of what were supposed to be 1 time expenses (TARP, Cash for Clunkers, the auto bailout, the housing credit, etc).

Second, Nutting uses the CBO baseline in place of Obama’s spending. This is easily verified and I can’t think of a serious economic pundit who would say this is OK. I can think of two reasons for doing this: Either a) Nutting is a monstrously biased ass who (rightly) figured no one in the liberal world would fact check him so he could use whatever the hell number he wanted to use or b) Nutting had no idea that the CBO baseline isn’t a budget proposal. I’m actually leaning toward the second explanation. Nutting uses so many disparate sources it seems clear he doesn’t know his way around federal finance.

Congrats, Mr. Nutting. I don’t think you’re a huge jerk, only that you’re hilariously unqualified for your job.

Finally, my biggest goal here was to point out the inconsistencies in the analysis. Nutting wants to use the 2009 CBO estimates, but only one column (only for attacking Bush on spending). He wants to compare estimates from one year to actual spending from other years to the CBO baseline from this year. And, as if he is a magical cherry-picking elf, he manages to pick just the right numbers to give him just the right data. This could be an accident. Stranger things have happened. But it seems more likely that he intended to squash a talking point by any means necessary and he went looking for the best data to do that.

I will be accused of massaging the data by people who don’t understand what I’m doing here. I’m pointing out the data massaging on Nutting’s side and calling him on it. I’m saying “If you’re going to use the CBO estimate, use the f***ing CBO estimate!” Don’t use just the part you want and then pretend like the rest of it doesn’t exist. Commit yourself to the data you’re using and follow it, even if it doesn’t go where you want it to go.

OK… references:

Bush requested $3.107 trillion, but the final budget of $3.52 trillion was passed by the Democratic Congress and signed by President Obama on March 12, 2009.

For actual spending, I used the monthly Treasury Reports, which have spending and revenue for every month since 1981 in an Excel file.

For the CBO fiscal year 2009 estimates.

The CBO baseline (which was referenced by Nutting for the $3.58 trillion number) is found here.

President Obama’s actual 2013 budget

And just for kicks, here is the CBO analysis of the President’s Budget which pegs Obama’s 2013 spending at $3.717 trillion.

The 2012 National Debt Road Trip

Back in 2009 I made a visualization about the deficits we were expecting under President Barack Obama. I called it the “National Debt Road Trip” and it was moderately popular.

Today, after nearly 3 years, I have updated it with a new video:

The video itself is just an overview of data that I’ve been toying around with for a month or so. I’ll do an in depth look at the data first and then answer some questions close observers might have about the data.

The National Debt Road Trip Details

The debt data has been collected from Treasury Direct website and adjusted for inflation using the Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI data. For the future debt, I used the debt projection for 2016 from President Obama’s 2013 budget (Historical Tables, Table 7.1 – Federal Debt at the End of the Year).

For the presidents where I had daily debt data (from 1993 – present), I used “inauguration-to-inauguration” debt numbers.

When I didn’t have those (for Ronald Reagan & George H W Bush) I used the yearly debt numbers including the fiscal year for which they were responsible. So for Reagan I used October 1981-October 1989 and for HW Bush I used October 1989 to Jan 20, 1993 (when daily data became available).

With all this information, I came up w/ the following data points (adjusted for inflation)

Ronald Reagan debt
from $2.29 trillion  to $4.82 trillion
$2.53 trillion increase over 8 years
$316 billion / year

George H W Bush debt
from $4.82 trillion to $6.54 trillion
$1.72 trillion increase over 4 years
$430 billion / year

Bill Clinton debt
from $6.54 trillion to $7.38 trillion
$0.84 trillion increase over 8 years
$105 billion / year

George W Bush debt
from $7.38 trillion to $11.17 trillion
$3.79 trillion increase over 8 years
$474 billion / year

Barack Obama (measured) debt
from $11.17 trillion to $15.57 trillion (March 21)
$4.40 trillion increase over 3 years, 2 months
$1,390 billion / year

Barack Obama (future projection) debt
from $15.57 trillion to $20.39 trillion
$4.7 trillion increase over 4 years, 10 months
$995 billion / year

It was then a simple matter to apply the $5.8 billion-per-mile, 1 hour-per-year calculation to get what you see in the video.

What I Assume Will Be Frequently Asked Questions

Q: I ran your numbers and you’re wrong! Bush increased the debt by $4.9 trillion, not $3.8 trillion.

A: Did you adjust for inflation? (Hint: No, you did not.)

Q: Why are your numbers different here than they were in your original video?

A: Back in 2009, I was new to researching federal financial data. I used a different, less accurate method of inflation calculation for my first video. Additionally, the inflation data of the last 3 years ended up altering where George W. Bush “stopped” in debt accrual. Finally, I tried to be all fancy in my calculations last time, making estimations to calculate debt between fiscal years. I didn’t do that this time so, while the numbers are in the same ballpark as the first video, I believe them to be a more accurate representation.

Q: You said “during the first 38 months of his presidency” but you crossed out 39 months. Why?

A: Good eye. At that point in the video I was disregarding debt accrued from January 20, 2009 to March 21, 2012. That is almost exactly a 38 month period, but I crossed out two partial months (January 2009 and March 2012) for the sake of simplicity.

Q: Why use “inauguration-to-inauguration” data instead of “fiscal-year-to-fiscal-year”? In short, why did you assign President Obama the debt from 2009? That was a budget Bush signed, he should be blamed for the debt.

A: Normally, I would agree on this count. However, President Obama’s stimulus deeply complicates the matter. Federal spending for 2009 was drastically higher than the budget that was passed due to the Obama stimulus. Add to that the sizable tax credits from the stimulus and we see President Obama’s policies have significant effect on both the revenue and the spending side. I felt that doing calculations based on assumptions of what could have happened would be presumptuous and call the data into question. So instead I tried to use numbers that could be easily fact-checked.

Q: I have a chart here that *proves* George W. Bush is responsible for all this debt. Why do you hate the truth?

A: That’s less of a question and more of a pout, but here is my position: I’ve seen that chart and I’m of two minds about it. On the one hand, yes, Bush implemented a lot of policies that racked up a lot of debt. On the other hand, Obama has been in office an awful long time to not be held accountable for the state of federal finances. That is why I separated out “before” and “after” into two different speeds.

I think it is a totally valid question to ask “Now that the economy has turned around why haven’t federal finances?” Is Barack Obama the only president in the history of ever to not be held responsible for anything that happened during his presidency? It seems rather insulting to President Obama to imply he is so ineffectual that, even after 3+ years in office, he is merely a figurehead doll swept along the current of a river he cannot control. (Worst. Metaphor. Ever.)

Q: Why didn’t you use debt as a % of GDP?

A: A couple reasons. The first is that doing so really complicates the metaphor I’m using. Secondly, it would actually put President Obama at a disadvantage because debt as a % of GDP spiked drastically in his first year since not only did the debt increase, but the GDP decreased increasing the number from the numerator and the denominator side of the ratio. Thirdly, while the president doesn’t have total control over the deficit, he has far more control over it than over GDP increases or decreases. Using “debt as a % of GDP” is a less direct measurement of presidential responsibility.

Q: What do you mean by “optimistic revenue estimates”?

A: According to President Obama’s own budget, he expects 2014 revenue to be 43% higher than 2011 revenue. The only time in modern fiscal history that this has happened was when inflation was in the double digits, so the increase in revenue wasn’t a real increase. He’s already way off target for his 2012 revenue estimates, so I don’t think it’s a stretch to say these are “optimistic revenue estimates”.

In my video I wanted to give President Obama the benefit of the doubt. I wanted to say “Even though I think you’re being overly optimistic, we will use your numbers as an act of good faith.” The horrifying thing is that, even with President Obama’s extreme optimism on the revenue side of the equation, he still projects monster deficits long into the future.

The big point here is that President Obama has no plan to deal with deficits or debt. He’s kinda-sorta hoping that we’ll start making enough revenue to catch up to the spending increases, but he kinda-sorta knows that isn’t going to happen. Yet he has made no moves to reduce spending to match (or even come within screaming distance of) federal revenues.

And I think that is a problem.

A More Serious Discussion On Bipartisanship

In my last post, I offered an infographic positing that the recent health care reform bill was one of the most partisan pieces of major social legislation we’ve ever seen, comparing it to votes for civil rights (1964), medicare/medicaid (1965), and welfare reform (1996). The infographic was actually originally designed not to indicate partisanship per se, but to rebut the very specific complaint popular among many progressives that Republicans have always opposed major social legislation at the beginning and then come to accept it later on. They then claim that health care reform is no different than those other legislative acts.

As for that latter charge, which was the driving force behind the creation of the infographic, there’s no way around it: looking at the data and maintaining that Republicans have a history of reflexive unthinking opposition to social legislation is simply a denial of reality. Some more thoughtful individuals have tried to maintain the heart of that argument by asserting that ideology was previously spread across party lines in such a way that the ideological equivalent of Republicans in the 1960’s (and, I presume, the 1990s) were opposed to social legislation in a very partisan way.

It is true, my infographic is simplistic and that kind of a story could be lurking in the data. It was designed to debunk the original claim (mission accomplished) and to suggest that, in a “by the numbers” approach, the health care reform bill was not exactly a bipartisan triumph.

The funniest thing to me is that there is absolutely no way to argue that this vote was bipartisan in the strict sense. Disect the word itself. Bi – Two. Partisan – relating to parties (usually political). In order for the bill to be bipartisan, two parties had to vote for it. There was only one party that voted for this bill. It is de facto not bipartisan.

But most of the people who were arguing with me didn’t mean “bipartisan” in a literal sense, they mean it in a “Democrats tried to work with Republicans, but Republicans are jerks who hate President Obama so much that they wouldn’t vote for health care reform no matter what” sort of way.

The way I see it, Republicans who voted against the bill could have had three major reasons for doing so:

  1. They’re jerks who want President Obama to fail (the “Party of No” theory)
  2. They have principled reasons for opposing the legislation (deficits, scope of the federal government, constitutional concerns, etc)
  3. They watched the polls and decided it wasn’t in their best interest

Now, it’s possible that the Party of No theory is correct and that all Republicans simply hate President Obama in an irrational way. However, in order to believe it whole heartedly, one would have to come to come to the conclusion that Republican congressmen are willing to lose their seats for the chance to stick out their tongues at President Obama. Assuming the villainy of one’s political opponents is a game for the young and angry; I’ve no taste for it. And anyone who thinks that politicians are constantly in a “f*** you, even if I lose my seat” mode hasn’t been following politics for very long. Congressmen like their jobs. Even the Republican ones.

In order for the Party of No theory to hold together, its adherents would also need to conclude that there are dozens of Democrats out there who also hate President Obama. While this is also a possibility, I’m starting to say “this is a possibility” in the sense that it is technically possible rather than in any way realistic. It seems far more likely that a number of Democrats were also watching the polls and decided that voting against this bill was in their best electoral interest.

Finally, much noise was made in 2008 by those in favor of a progressive Congress that we just voted in the most progressive congress of the last 30 years. With that in mind, let’s look carefully at the situation: The most progressive (liberal) Congress in the last 30 years passes a piece of legislation by a tiny margin without a single vote from the minority party and with dozens of Democrats voting against it and we are meant to believe that it was as bipartisan as it could have possibly been.

This kind of logic was laughable when Republicans tried it 6 years ago. It was perhaps optimistic of me to assume that Democrats and liberals would rise above such nonsense.

Debunking the “Republican Congress Creates Jobs” Chart Or “How To Make Numbers Say Anything You Want”

This is a companion piece to the previous post, so please read both of them. Here I’m going to lay out the script I had written for debunking the chart I created that asked the question “Does a Republican Congress Create More Jobs?” and then implied with a chart that this was indeed the case. I’ll walk through some process for creating charts and then talk about why I would create a chart that I was just going to debunk.

I apologize for the similarity to the post where I debunk the Obama stimulus chart. These two scripts were meant to be together.

<Start Script>

How to Make Number Say Anything You Want

Do you want to convince people that your side is right with only the flimsiest proof? Does the idea of tricking people with numbers make you all happy inside? Then come join us as we walk through “How To Use Charts To Say Anything”

Step 1: Massaging the Data

The first step is to grab the data that makes your point the best. Let’s use it to prove that a Democratic Congress is bad for jobs.

“How can we do such a thing” you ask?

In the first case, the raw jobs data looks like this

but the final chart looks like this.

How did they do that? Was it magic?

Nope, we simply smoothed the data. The raw data is a little too chaotic and has too many data point to tell the straightforward story that we want. So instead, we’ll average the monthly data so that we have quarterly data. There… now we have some nice smooth straightforward data

Step 2: Pick colors that make you look good

Next, we pick some colors. Let’s make the Democrats blue dark and bold, give it a bit of an angry feel to it. This is our way of getting the audience to look at the democrats in a harsh way. We could try to soften up on the Republicans more, but too soft of a red would look pink and we don’t want that.

Let’s compare our colors to the Excel defaults:

Step 3: Do NOT give any context!

Finally, and this is the most important part, only give information that is helpful.

Let everyone know that we saw 8 million jobs added to the economy while the Republicans were in charge and make a point to show that we lost 8 million jobs while the Democrats were in charge. But don’t mention that the Republicans took Congress only a year after 9/11 at a time when the job market was particularly low. Otherwise people will think it’s a “Well, they can’t fall off the floor” thing.

And make sure you don’t mention anything about the real estate market and how the bubble drove the labor market in a way that was clearly unsustainable. We don’t want the viewers to be confused with all these relevant details. We want them to say “Republicans good, Democrats bad”.

<End Script>

Everyone here was incredibly kind to put up with my bullshit chart for as long as I left it up without explanation. I’d like to say unequivocally: My chart is propaganda… just like the Obama administration’s chart. I was trying to use my chart as a visual talking point that said:

If you have no ethical qualms, data visualizations can be manipulated to say exactly what you want them to say.

My chart implies that the Republicans were responsible for the jobs growth between 2003 and 2007 and that Democrats were responsible for the drastic decline from 2007 to the present. Let me state plainly, I do not think that is the case.

But if we just play around with the data the right way, we get what seems to be a clear picture that portrays a correlation and gets on its hands and knees and begs us to draw causation from it. Most people will do exactly that.

I can spend hours walking patiently through what is wrong with the Obama administration’s chart. Let me recap the high points here:

  • If you look at the data with the context of what President Obama’s team was hoping the stimulus would do, the power of the chart disappears.
  • If you look at the data with the understanding that they’re charting a first derivative, you realize that we haven’t gained jobs, we’re just losing them more slowly and the power of the chart disappears.
  • If you look at the data with the understanding that they didn’t even start spending the stimulus until the job loss had started slowing down, the power of the chart disappears.
  • If you look at the data in the context of other recessions, you’ll realize that, far from showing a drastic improvement, the numbers represent a devastatingly slow jobs recovery compared to other recoveries and the power of the chart disappears.

But this kind of explanatory rebuttal would interest those already convinced. The chart I made had a power that an calm explanatory video wouldn’t have. Quite frankly, I hate that this is the case. Like President Obama’s chart, my chart doesn’t teach people anything about economics or lead people to learn important things about unemployment.

The only valuable thing my chart teaches is that charts can portray accurate data and still be manipulated to coach people along to poor conclusions. The only reason I even put my chart up is because it is the graphical equivalent of drawing out the Obama administration’s argument to its logical conclusion. My chart works with the same data, the same assumptions, and the same implications. And it leads to a completely different conclusion.

I’ve heard people describe President Obama’s chart as “powerful” and “brilliant”. The popular information visualization blog Flowing Data even tossed it up for public discussion among info viz professionals.

My point here is that it isn’t brilliant. It’s juvenile. It’s the chart equivalent of a crass political cartoon with a Snidely Whiplash mustache drawn on the bad guys. It’s a design trick imagined by cynical, self-congratulatory children fresh out of graduate school who pat themselves on the back for their ability to fool people who they think are too stupid to know the difference. They think they are special because they can get powerful people to flatter them for their ability to lie.

But they aren’t special. I can play that same childish game in my free time. The difference if that I want people to know that it’s a trick. They would rather see people fooled.

President Obama, I Fixed Your Chart For You

You may have recently seen the new chart put out by the Obama administration pushing the idea that the President’s policies are responsible for the decrease in newly unemployed. It looks something exactly like this:

Now… as a piece of visual political propaganda, this is brilliant. The colors draw sharp contrast, the symmetry is appealing. And the numbers are right.

But keep in mind how carefully I phrased the units being used “decrease in newly unemployed”. This isn’t an increase in jobs or a decrease in unemployment. It just means that we’re losing jobs slower that we were before.

Make no mistake… this is good news. And we can bicker back and forth as to whether President Obama’s policies are responsible for this slowdown in newly lost jobs. He would say yes and point to the stimulus.

But in order to point effectively to the stimulus, we would have to take a look at the expectations of the stimulus. Everyone expected that we would come out of the recession eventually and that job loss would slow. The question was how quickly that would happen.

To help us visualize the expectations of the stimulus against the reality of it, I’ve added that piece of context to the graph. See if you can spot it.

I got these numbers by multiplying the labor force by the expected unemployment rate with the stimulus (per this chart) and then subtracting that number from the labor force times the actual unemployment rate.

One may say that this is unfair. I would actually kind of agree. Economic predictions are pretty hard to make. But the original chart is similarly unfair. Keep in mind that it took a few months to get the stimulus money out the door. In fact, they didn’t even release any data on the stimulus funds for second quarter 2009 (the first stimulus report was for third quarter 2009).

Side Note: This data has actually been scrubbed from the website. They’ve re-compiled the data into new categories. But I’m wary about trusting the data since it looks like, according to the official data, about $12 billion of the stimulus was spent before the stimulus was signed with projects being approved as early as 2000.

So the first several months of decline don’t even reflect the impact of the stimulus. The decline in new job losses seems to be just a happy coincidence that looks good on a chart.

What Does the Federal Budget Freeze Look Like?

The first part of this post is just an overview of the data I used to make this video, so if you don’t care about that, you can skip over it to the part where I talk about what the budget freeze means.

First, I’ve got a new video up called “What Does The Federal Budget Freeze Look Like?”

Here is the data summary of this video:

I got the budget numbers (budget, discretionary, mandatory) from the overview of the 2010 budget which includes projections for 2011. I did this because the 2011 budget is not available yet (although I understand that those projections are a bit low and the real budget will be bigger than the projection).

That gives us the following numbers:

  • 2011 Federal Budget – $3.7 trillion
  • Mandatory portion of federal budget – $2.322 trillion
  • Discretionary portion of federal budget – $1,380 trillion

I’ve seen it consistently reported that the freeze will affect $447 billion of the budget, although I imagine that number is subject to change. The amount saved from this freeze has been consistently reported as $15 billion in the first year and $250 billion over 10 years.

The stimulus funds as reported by recovery.gov at the time of this post are:

That leaves:

  • $195 billion in tax cuts that have not been applied
  • $202 billion in contracts, grants and loans that haven’t been spent
  • $121 billion in entitlements (what a creepy name) that haven’t been spent

If we left the tax cuts in place, but canceled the rest of the spending, we’d save $323 billion… which is a shade less than what I said in the video. Apparently, that is the result of some rounding errors in my spreadsheet, but the $4 billion comes out to about one and a half teaspoons, which isn’t enough to make a difference in the visualization.

As for the water part of it… If we assume that the budget is 192 ounces of water that we’ve split into 4 oz cups, then all the math in the video works out. I actually under-counted the unspent stimulus (it would be 17 ounces instead of 16). I measured my ice cube tray and found that each ice cube was 1.5 ounces and I used 1 and a half tablespoons of water to measure out the .75 ounces that would be equivalent to $15 billion.

<End of Boring Math Things>

OK… now to comment on what I think about the budget freeze to anyone who cares what I actually think.

First of all, I hate the “we’re saving $250 billion over 10 years” line. It is a piece of crass political rhetoric and I’m disappointed that the administration would use it. If they actually implement a three year freeze on the portion of the budget they’re talking about (which is a big if, but let’s assume the best), why measure the effects in the space of 10 years?

The answer is “To make the freeze look bigger”. They’re basically just basing the extended savings off of projected interest payments and “savings” due to the fact that the baseline on that portion of the budget hasn’t moved. It is setting a dangerous data precedent where politicians realize that all they have to do is calculate a projection out as far as they need in order to get the numbers they want. It would be like giving an employee a $5,000 bonus, but saying that you gave them a $8,000 bonus based on a 5% return of that investment over the course of 10 years.  They might as well say that they’re saving a trillion dollars over the next 25 years or a hundred trillion over the next 300 years. It is a data statement designed to trick people.

Second, I hate the “We’re saving all this money by not spending it” line because it is similarly political. If a future politician wants to play this stupid numbers game, all they have to do is “project” that they will spend like a crazy person next year and when the next year comes, they decided to spend like a half crazy person. Then they can claim that they have “saved” all this money because they “reduced” their projected spending.

As a slapdash example, a politician could project that they will increase spending by 5% next year and then decide at the last moment to increase it by 3%. They could then spin that decision to increase by a smaller amount as a decision to “cut” their spending (which wasn’t real spending, only projected spending) by 2%.

Last, my attempt to visualize the scale of the budget freeze does not mean I don’t support it. I really like to see cuts to the budget and I personally think this is not an insignificant one.I think it is worth our energy to do exactly what the Obama administration seems to be doing…freezing increases and looking around for crappy programs to cut.

Keep in mind the hypocrisy on both sides of the aisle. The Republicans are hypocrites for claiming that this is a totally inconsequential budget cut. In 2005, George W. Bush proposed a 1% cut (not a freeze, a cut) in discretionary spending that wasn’t Department of Defense or Homeland Security. Translated to today, Bush’s cuts would have “saved” $33 billion using the calculation metric for the current freeze; more than twice the amount that this freeze would save us. At the time, John McCain called it a “very austere budget” and Dick Cheney went out pushing their credentials as cost cutters. I find it strange that they were ecstatic about saving the equivalent of $33 billion but think that $15 billion is a drop in a bucket.

Of course the Democrats blasted Bush’s cuts as a gimmick too small to make a difference, but seem to have lost much of their skepticism over these new, smaller “cuts”.

Overall, it looks like both sides are more interested in political gain than in having a frank discussion about the numbers and what they mean. This should surprise no one, but I confess to finding myself somewhat dismayed that the Obama administration, for all their hype about being pro-science and pro-data, has no problem spinning the numbers in a way that decreases clear comprehension in order to increase message potency.

How Big is $9 Trillion? – Willful Omissions From Paul Krugman

You may have seen the Paul Krugman post “How Big is $9 Trillion” in which he attempts to defend the Obama administration’s recent announcement that they expect that their policies will increase the national debt by $9 trillion. His tack is to “explain” that $9 trillion isn’t really all that much when you understand it in context.

it’s being treated as an inconceivable sum, far beyond anything that could possibly be handled. And it isn’t.

What you have to bear in mind is that the economy — and hence the federal tax base — is enormous, too. Right now GDP is around $14 trillion. If economic growth averages 2.5% a year, which has been the norm, and inflation is 2% a year, which is the target (and which the bond market seems to believe), GDP will be around $22 trillion a decade from now. So we’re talking about adding debt that’s equal to around 40% of GDP.

Right now, federal debt is about 50% of GDP. So even if we do run these deficits, federal debt as a share of GDP will be substantially less than it was at the end of World War II.

I defer to Paul Krugman on a lot of things because he is transparently smarter than I am. But it is precisely because of this fact that I know he is conscious of the obvious reasons his analysis is hogwash.

First of all, the national debt in WWII was initiated by an existential threat to the very continuation of our country. Mr. Krugman does not make even attempt to make the case that we have a similar crisis that justifies this kind of debt.

Second, implicit in his observation is the concept that since we did fine after WWII, we’ll do fine now. But the years after WWII saw drastic reductions in the inflation-adjusted debt driven by drastic reductions in spending. Mr. Krugman points to no similar possibility in the post-Obama world.

Third, we have something now that we didn’t have in the 1940’s. Back in the 1945, at the height of the spending that saw our national debt rise so dramatically, entitlement spending and interest on the national debt made up a meager 5% of our total budget.

By the end of President Obama’s term (if he runs two terms) we’ll be looking at a federal budget that is 70% mandatory spending. (I assume for the purposes of consistency that mandatory spending includes interest on the national debt because we don’t really have a choice in not paying it.)

Here’s a quick visual of the difference in the budgets in 1945 and 2016. (Ugly, because I did it fast… I’m on vacation.)

1945 vs 2016

If you look at the 1945 budget with the single question “How are we going to reduce our debt?” you can identify the major problem. It’s the defense budget, which is almost 90% of the budget. Interestingly, reducing the defense budget is exactly what we did in order to reduce the debt, cutting it over 80% in 3 years (it helped that we won the war).

As a contrast, President Obama’s solution to reducing overall spending is… well, I don’t think he really has a plan. His projected budget in 2016 has reduced the defense budget as a percentage of the overall budget from 20% to 14%, but military spending isn’t what is killing us. The president has no plans to reduce mandatory spending whatsoever. In fact, his only change to entitlement spending is to increase it.

My problem with Mr. Krugman’s “How big is $9 trillion?” is that he is aware of all the problems I pointed out. He didn’t explain how much $9 trillion is; he obfuscated it. By comparing the debt load in the heart of a world-shaking war to a debt load that was accumulated in (relative) peacetime, he has misled his readers to the real significance of the data.

(By the way… if you would like to blame the debt load on the Iraq war, you should know that those costs have raised our debt by 5% of the GDP. Comparing this to WWII, which raised our debt by 70% of the GDP, is a pretty weak argument.)