Archive for bad visualization

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.

[FIXED] Three Charts To E-Mail Your Right Wing Brother-In-Law

Dear goodness, not again.

I had a nice healthy rant all written for this because people who use charts and data to lie piss me off and the self-righteous ones are the worst. But it detracted from this post, so if you want to, you can read it here. Not work that I’m proud of, but it’s fun to write every once in a while.

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 don’t know too much about the underlying data. Which is almost everyone.

So lets dig into these charts and how we can fix them.

The first one is about Federal Spending and claims that “Bush Spending” saw an 88% increase while Obama spending has seen only a 7.2% increase.

Bush-Obama Spending Chart

The problems with this chart in no particular order:

Bush was not responsible for all of 2009 spending

These two charts assume that the entirety of the 2009 fiscal situation lies squarely on George W. Bush’s shoulders. I would like to posit that this is unfair. There was a bill that got passed (you may have heard of it) that goes by the popular name “the stimulus”. It started immediately spending vast sums of money starting in the fiscal year 2009. George W. Bush had nothing to do with this bill.

I did a little digging and found that the budget Bush proposed for 2009 was for $3.09 trillion while the amount spent during that fiscal year was $3.52 trillion. Now, this might not matter if these kinds of variations were common. But here is a graph of the difference between the proposed spending and the actual spending for the past 10 years. We’re going to play a game called “one of these things is not like the others”.

We can see that 2009 is a huge outlier… the difference between what was proposed and what was spent is 5 times more than any other year ( $429.1 billion).

Yep… that’s what happens when you propose vast amounts of immediate spending in the middle of a fiscal year. Given that Bush had to sign the budget he was given by a Democratic Congress, I think it’s charitable to say that he is “responsible” for what he proposed: the original $3.09 trillion.

Data is not adjusted for inflation

This is a minor quibble, but it matters because it’s a sign that the person who created the chart doesn’t care about accuracy. Ignoring inflation will always make spending increases look drastic because we’re compounding real increases with inflation increases. It also matters because, if we adjust for inflation and use Bush’s last spending proposal, he increased spending by 39% or about 5% a year.

The chart stops tracking data at a very convenient place

President Obama’s budget proposal basically has us maintaining a stable level of spending until 2014, when it starts increasing drastically. The author chose not to chart this data, even though it was right there in front of him. Why? I assume it’s because he’s a partisan hack, but I’m not altogether prepared to rule out that he is, in fact, just an idiot.

By including these spending targets, we get a much more “apples to apples” comparison where we’re comparing 8 years of “Bush spending” to 7 years of “Obama spending”.

If we take all these problems and put them together, we end up with another chart altogether.

Chart 2

The second chart says that Bush increased the deficit and Obama is decreasing it.

Bush-Obama Deficit Chart

First of all, the same “Bush is responsible for everything in FY2009″ thing above applies here too. In addition to that:

The stimulus was front-loaded with tax cuts

I know that right wingers will maintain till their dying breath that tax cuts don’t reduce revenue, they increase revenue. I’m not really in that camp and this is my blog, so I get to do things my way. So there.

According to CNN at the time, the stimulus was going to save the average household $1,179. Using the 2009 Census estimate of 112.6 million households, that comes out to $132.7 billion. If we add that to the $429 billion difference between Bush’s spending proposal and the spending reality and then subtract that from the final deficit, we get a deficit of $894.4 billion.

$132.7 billion in stimulus tax cuts
+ $429.1 billion in un-planned spending
- $1,415.7 billion actual deficit
======================
$836.2 billion of the 2009 deficit that is “Bush’s fault”

All of the reductions are in the future

Notice how the chart goes down in 2012 and 2013? Notice how neither of those years have happened? This is because President Obama’s 2012 budget has made some pretty incredible claims.

To look at these claims with our feet on the ground, let’s first look at a revenue chart.

This is a chart that shows the increase and decrease of federal revenue changes over a 12 month collection period. We can see that recessions mean revenues decrease by as much as 15% year-to-year and that in boom times they can increase by a little over 10% year-to-year. The biggest increase we’ve ever seen was 12% year-to-year increase (from the 2004 fiscal year to the 2005 fiscal year).

Now this is the same chart including the revenue increases that the Obama budget proposal assumes will happen.

Now that is some f***ing audacious hope right there.

The Obama budget assumes for the sake of future budget planning that we will blow 30 years of revenue data out of the water by clocking in a 21% revenue increase in 2012 and a 14% revenue increase in 2013. Then they assume things will “calm down” to a stable 7-8% annual increase, which is merely massive (as opposed to completely insane).

This is a particularly important point because the estimates that the Obama team made were not just optimistic. They assume we are on some kind of federal revenue breakthrough unheard in this generation.

The revenue assumptions in this budget proposal have sped right past optimism and into delusion.

For the sake of fixing this second chart, I am going to be incredibly generous and assume that we see 9% revenue growth over the next 4 years. This would be very good news for our deficit situation and is extremely unlikely. It is not, however, technically impossible, so we’ll give some benefit of the doubt there.

Fixing Chart 2

Accounting for these issues, assuming that we hit the spending targets we’re aiming for (a big if but one I’m willing to let it slide) here is the second chart updated.

Chart 3:

Bush-Obama-Jobs-Chart

Permutations of this chart have been around for some time. President Obama’s team first started using it in mid 2009 to promote the idea that the stimulus was working. It’s actually the most honest of the charts here, but there are still some problems with it.

Using Only Establishment Private Jobs Data

This makes things look a little better because we’ve been losing public sector jobs over the last year or two. I’m not saying “counting only private sector jobs is an invalid measurement”. What I am saying is that it is a red flag that the person may be cherry-picking data to get the best result.

As for using establishment data instead of household survey data, there’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but it is good to note that the household survey counts about 10 million more jobs and  covers people who are employed but not on a payroll, so it will give a somewhat more complete picture of the employment situation. And, unsurprisingly, the data doesn’t look quite as good for Obama. It’s not particularly bad… it’s just “meh”.

It’s Bush’s Fault Only When It’s Bad

But the funniest thing about this chart? The author has spent the last 2 charts convincing us that EVERYTHING that happened in the 2009 fiscal year was Bush’s fault. In this chart, the tune has changed entirely because, if the author gave Bush credit to the end of the 2009 fiscal year, it would look like Bush saved the day. The most drastic reductions in job loss would then fall under the “Bush’s fault” umbrella.

And we can’t have that. When it comes to a choice between honest consistency and making George W. Bush look bad, the author didn’t even blink. So, in a move that is so dishonest is is actually funny, the chart author basically says, “All jobs saved are due to President Obama and his courageous stimulus, but I blame George W. Bush for all the stimulus spending and stimulus tax cuts that created those jobs.”

I created a alternate version of this chart that represents my complaints listed above, but I want to make note that, while I feel the previous “fixes” are a better representation of reality, this chart is not nearly as fair as those were. I personally prefer the BLS household data (which I used in this chart) over the payroll data (which the original chart author used), but I’m not comfortable giving Bush credit for stopping job losses 9 months after he left office. I’m representing it this way only because I want to give an indication of how the author would have done it if he or she maintained an internal consistency.

Religious Outliers Nonsense (or “Atheists Are Richer Than Religious People If You Take All Poor Atheists Out Of Your Sample”)

Charles Blow’s most recent New York Times op-ed is something of a boon for visualization enthusiasts. He replaces almost his entire article with a visualization. This illustrates that he recognizes power of visual communication to make and reinforce a point in a way that is self-obvious and can stick with the reader better than words.

Unfortunately, he has decided to use data that misleads his audience to such an extent that I can only conclude that he is unconcerned with the truth insofar as it undermines his desired objective.

Blow’s main point is that the US is an outlier in the world because we’re religious but also rich while “religiosity was highly correlated to poverty”.

I’ve reproduced the chart in question below. (Click to enlarge)

image

Now, keep in mind that this is not charting religion as it is listed in the CIA World Factbook, but according to the specific question: “Is religion an important part of your daily life?” That will be important in a little bit.

This chart seems to prove his point. Until you realize what isn’t on the map.

Here is a list of the countries that didn’t manage to make their way onto the map due to the fact that Gallup didn’t poll them:

China – 1.33 billion people, heavily non-religious, poor

North Korea – 22 million people, heavily non-religious, unbelievably poor

Cuba – 11 million people, presumed non-religious, poor

Taiwan – 23 million people, 93% Buddist*, rich (comparable to Japan)

Problem number one – Charles Blow has a duty to inform his audience of these omissions. The countries without data represent nearly 25% of the world population and skew heavily toward non-religious. They are too large and too important to the data set and visual reference to simply ignore. Yet Mr. Blow doesn’t seem interested in mentioning them.

Problem number two – Mr. Blow heavily implies that there is a causal relationship between religiosity and wealth. But (as we all know) correlation doesn’t imply causation. Western European countries (and countries filled with people from Western Europe) are richer, as are developed Asian countries. Eastern European and South American countries are less rich. Middle eastern, and African countries tend to be much poorer. There’s a correlation in geo-political histories here that is stronger than religion.

Of course Mr. Blow could always go to rural India and inform them that their poverty is related to their devotion to Hindu and has nothing to do with British imperialism. Or perhaps to the deep south where he can proclaim to the +90% Christian black population that their economic woes are related to their religious tendencies.

Problem number 3 – But the final problem is the worst one because it involves an outright lie:

Singapore is more religious and richer than the United States. And Mr. Blow didn’t map it. At all.

It’s possible that Mr. Blow is actually so numerically illiterate that he didn’t know he was supposed to tell people about key missing data points. But taking out data that doesn’t align with his point is disgusting manipulation. The end result of his deception (conscious or otherwise) is “If you take out all the poor atheists and take out all the rich religious people, then this pattern emerges…”

Mr. Blow should put Singapore back in to the data set and add a correction to his article that announces how his data set has enormous gaping holes. And he should probably never be allowed to touch charting software again.

* The CIA Factbook has Taiwan listed at 93% Buddhist, but I’m not sure how they would answer the specific question that Gallup asked. I’ve heard some atheists claim Buddhism as an “atheistic religion” (no personal god) so it could be that the citizens of Taiwan wouldn’t say that religion plays a big role. I simply don’t know.

Government Spending Visualization Misses The Mark

UPDATE: Wes at Pitch Interactive has left some comments with additional information on the data and visualization. I don’t agree with his opinion on the issue of contract spending (Does the federal government spend a disproportionate amount of defense? I don’t think the data supports that, but it depends on what your opinion of  “proportionate” and “appropriate” is.) , but you should definitely read his comments for a more complete understanding. He’s an excellent example of the government data transparency that we both endorse.

In the recent Design For America competition, a tie for first place was this very attractive visualization of Federal Spending.

image

When the image won the contest, it was listed as a visualization of all federal spending. After a back and forth, the author at Pitch Interactive changed the title to “Federal Contract Spending” and has stated that he will revisit the visualization so that it shows all federal spending as it is reported at USSpending.gov. Pitch Interactive has gotten beaten up a great deal over this visualization and they have been nothing but gracious throughout. So I just want to take a moment to say that I think their work is remarkable and that the problems with this graph are a series of very honest mistakes.

But one of the things my blog does is point out mistakes to increase understanding.

My biggest problem with the image is that it still perpetuates the stereotype that the federal government spends most of its money on defense. This image in particular drives that point home by ranking the spending areas according to their “media coverage” ranking where we can see the extent of media coverage each department saw (based on the New York Times API). “Defense” reporting is clearly out of proportion to Defense spending.

The first problem has been addressed elsewhere… it’s the issue of scaling the radius instead of the area of the circles. If the numbers were a correct representation of federal spending (more on that later), the circle visualization commits this “radius is not equal to area” visual error that really bugs me. I even gave it a couple pages in my book chapter (now available online for the low, low price of free) and mentioned it in my Microsoft talk on visualization because it is such a common mistake.

The other problem lies in the fact that, rather than being a visualization of federal spending, it is a visualization of federal contracts. If we use the graph below as a visual of government spending (taken from usaspending.gov) the graph above tracks only the dark green parts of the spending line.

image

As you can see, this kind of visualization gives a very false impression of spending because Department of Defense spending is run almost exclusively off of contracts while Health and Human Services (which actually spent MORE money than the DoD due to the fact that it distributes Medicare and Medicaid) looks like a tiny fraction. The most expensive department, the Social Security Administration, doesn’t even show up in the visualization due to the fact that the money is all direct payments.

The reason this bothers me as much as it does is because the point of a visualization is to clarify and inform. One of the biggest pieces of MIS-information surrounding the federal budget is the idea that Department of Defense spending accounts for the majority of all spending. The reality is that Defense spending is about 17% of all federal spending (42%, if you only count discretionary spending and completely ignore Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest on the national debt).

The original visual does the opposite of clarify and inform… it reinforces the misconception. The area that represents Defense spending is no less than 84% of total visual area! This isn’t just inaccurate, it’s exceedingly, painfully inaccurate. And, worst of all, it is inaccurate in a way that people will see it, allow it to reinforce their wrong perceptions and think that they know the truth.

But I’m a little bit shocked that the Sunlight Foundation didn’t catch these errors. It is clear to me that when Pitch Interactive gathered the data, they thought they were pulling ALL the federal spending and built the visualization off of that understanding. But Sunlight is supposed to be all about federal data. Anyone with even the most casual familiarity with the government spending data would immediately see that this visualization was in error.

Finally, it’s only fair that, after this criticism of this piece, I offer what I think is an accurate representation of the data. So I’ve re-built this visual with all the spending data and taking into account all the issues I’ve noted. Here is the fixed version of the graph (click for the large version).

SpendingVisualUpdate

The CBPP Economic Downturn Chart is Deeply Dishonest

I was reading Jonathan Chait (who is really smart) the other day and I came across The Stigmatization Of Bush-Blaming.

A quick summary of the post: It’s right and proper to blame Bush for all the economic and federal deficit unhappiness because it’s really and for true all his fault. But if liberals continue to do it, it sounds whiny petty. So liberals can’t say the truth because it is politically non-viable.

An compelling thesis to be sure, especially when it is supported with this chart that Chait pulled up.

And so, as I am wont to do (and apparently Chait is not wont), I looked for the origin of that chart and found this page from the CBPP (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities) that explains the chart.

<TANGENT>

I would like to decry the practice that I’m am hereby dubbing “source masturbation”. It is when you link to yourself to support your thesis and bury the actual source 2-3 links deep. For example, writing a blog post where you link to a post you wrote that links to a report you put out and the original source is in the footnotes. Media Matters does this kind of thing constantly and I find myself just doing a Google search of what they’re talking about rather than try to follow the links.

This post from the CBPP is actually worse… they link to the footnotes at the bottom of the page which then link to the footnotes inside the report… the ones you just clicked on to get to the bottom of the page! Do they link at any point to anything outside their own website? No. No they do not.

This is the internet, people. Use it.

<End TANGENT>

Moving along.

The problem with this chart is that it implies that:

  • the economic downturn is Bush’s fault and will continue to be Bush’s fault
  • the tax cuts will extent into 2019 and they will be Bush’s fault
  • the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are Bush’s fault.

Let’s start with the last one first. I don’t want to argue the Iraq and Afghanistan wars because it will run something like this. “You’re stupid and a jerk.” “No, you’re the stupid jerk.” “You want to murder babies.” “No, you want to let other people murder babies.” “Why didn’t you go into the Army, you chickenhawk?” “You don’t know anything about me. My sibling/friend is over there right now.” “I hope your sibling/friend is happy killing babies.” (I actually had someone say that last one to me. Dear anti-war people: you may have some valid points, but a lot of the guys on your side are complete a**holes. A**holes don’t persuade very well.)

See how much helpful ground we covered? Let’s just say for the sake of argument that Iraq and Afghanistan is all Bush’s fault and President Obama would get out of there if he could, but he’s trying to be responsible given the situation he found himself in. OK? So 10% of the deficit is due to the wars. What about the remaining 90%?

In this chart, the big item here is the Bush tax cuts. The problem with this analysis is that these tax cuts expire this year. That means President Obama will have to sign them back into law if they are going to continue to be a major factor in the budget deficit. After this year, if they are still in effect, they will be the Obama tax cuts, not the Bush tax cuts.

Furthermore, by the estimates that President Obama’s economic team have come up with, letting these cuts expire will bring in $700 $850 billion over 10 years. (Thanks to John below for pointing out my discrepancy.) Which is like saying that letting these tax cuts expire will pay for the stimulus last year.  By the CBPP analysis, getting rid of the Bush tax cuts would bring in… wait for it… $4.4 trillion over the next 9 years. Which is like paying for the stimulus 6 times over.

But if you look at President Obama’s budget, you see that they assume (with the typical optimism associated with any given administration’s budget report) that, with the tax cuts having expired, we will have a $900 billion deficit in 2019. By contrast, the CBPP assumes that, if we let the tax cuts expire, we would have a deficit of $630 billion.

So, putting aside the tax cuts issue, let’s address the economic downturn issue. CBPP assumes that the downturn is Bush’s fault (naturally) and that President Obama can’t do anything about it. They basically say that the “lingering effects” of the downturn (like interest on the debt we accumulated during that period) should also be blamed on Bush.

This strikes me as uncompelling. This is basically a blame shift game that isn’t appropriate for adults. Imagine if a conservative think-tank created a chart in 2008 which we could see how much of the deficit was due to Medicare/Medicaid/Social Security/Other welfare programs. Or what if we assumed that, if Jimmy Carter had never been president, we would have avoided double digit inflation and the following recession and we extrapolated out those benefits to today?

First, those issues are counter-factual. We can’t know the present based on a theoretical past. (This is the first thing that Chait should have noticed. He’s an editor, not an economist, but he should have seen this very plain logical fallacy for what it is.) The President doesn’t get to pretend that he is dealing with part of the fiscal mess and ignore the rest of it because it’s “not his fault”. The President deals with the reality placed before him. Anything less is juvenile posturing.

Imagine that someone inherits a house. The house is seriously messed up due to the poor management of the previous owner. Cracked walls, rotting floorboards, leaky roof. The new owner comes in and promises to fix it up. It is probably unfair to complain a year later that everything isn’t perfect. But it is childish for the owner to ignore the problems by saying “That was there when I got here.”

Everyone knows there were problems. But by inheriting the house, the problems belong to the owner. The CBPP report is a way of posing a counter-factual scenario and saying “These problems don’t belong to President Obama.” I find the whole process absurd.

But the most egregious error (in my view) is the chart. It seems clear to me that the CBPP would rather build a chart to rest the blame as squarely as possible on Bush’s shoulders instead of building a chart that will increase understanding of the issue. They’ve sadly suckered Chait into this nonsense with a chart that tells him something that he might really like to be true, but that doesn’t very closely tack to fiscal reality.

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.

Debunking the Obama Stimulus Chart Or “How To Make Numbers Say Anything You Want”

I’ve been trying to find the time to make a video for this, but the fact of the matter is that I’m simply too slammed with all my work (I have a huge conference in two days). And I’m really kind of sick of my chart that I put up with basically no explanation. I basically created my chart as a rebuttal to this chart put out by the Obama administration. In this post, I debunk the Obama chart. In the next one, I debunk my own.

I’m basically just going to dump the script that I had written. Imagine my voice with some happy visuals that I don’t have time to make. I’ll add some additional comments at the end. Imagine a sing-song snake-oil salesman. That was what I was going for.

<Start Script>

How To Use Charts To Say Anything

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 president is good for jobs.

“How can we do such a thing” you ask?

Let’s grab some raw jobs data. We’re going to take this data

and make it look like this:

How did we do that? Was it magic?

Nope, it’s called the first derivative. It works like this. Instead of worrying about how high the line is, we’re only going to worry about how steep the line is. That way, the number will look good even if we keep losing jobs. Instead of charting how many jobs there are, we’re charting how many jobs we’re still losing.

That turns the first chart (which looks bad) into the second chart (which looks good).

Step 2: Pick colors that make you look good

Next, we pick some colors. We could pick the default colors that Excel gives us when we chart two different kinds of numbers. But that’s too neutral. By way of comparison:

As you can see, we’ve taken the default red (for George Bush) and made it darker and richer. This is like drawing a Snidely Whiplash mustache on him so that we know he’s the bad guy. Then, we’ll make the President Obama blue lighter and softer so we know he’s the good guy.

Step 3: Do NOT give any context!

Finally, and this is the most important part, only give information that is helpful. And by helpful, I mean favorable to your side.

It’s OK to mention that President Obama signed the stimulus bill into law in the first quarter of 2009.

It’s not OK to mention that the initial stimulus reports from the first and second quarter were totally blank, which means that they didn’t really start spending the money until July.

Also, you should forget to mention that as of December, we’ve only spent 10% of the stimulus money.

If you give all of this unhelpful information, people might draw the conclusion that the stimulus didn’t really help very much.

And that would be bad.

Remember, we’re not interested in helping people understand the complexities of the economy. We just want them to look at the chart and say, “Bush bad. Obama good.”

<End Script>

I got my numbers for the last part of this from the stimulus reports on recovery.gov. Since I started looking at the data back in late 2009, they’ve changed the way they organize the data. Until a little over a month ago, the reports for 2009, Q1 and 2009, Q2 were blank. Zero data. Nothing. In the 2009 Q3 data they reported giving out about 4% of the stimulus money. By the end of 2009 Q4, they had reported giving out 10% of the simulus money.

Since then, they took the empty Q1, Q2 and the actual Q3 data and relabeled the file so that the Q3 data now says “February 17 – September 30, 2009″. There is no way to tell for certain when the money was sent out, but the amount of money marked as “recieved” ran on a curve that was about 4 months off. (Example: Most of the money that was marked as “recieved” was applied for in March, April and May. Very few places that applied for money after May marked it as recieved by the end of September. So…we see job losses slowing even before the money was making it out the door.

OK. Now to talk about my rebuttal chart and a well deserved explanation. I have the greatest readers of all time and many of you have pointed out that my rebuttal chart (seen here) commits many of the same fallacies that the Obama chart has.

My response to that would be “Yes it does. It was meant to.” I created that chart as the visual equivalent of saying “If your logic is correct, than you would be forced to accept this other conclusion as well since it uses the same logic.”

Both charts use jobs data taken from the same place, displayed the same way, stripped of context and used to push an ideological point using an implicit “correlation mean causation” line of argumentation.

Let me be clear: I do not think that a Republican Congress is the driving factor behind 8 million jobs created and I would NEVER say that. But I would say “Your chart implies that Obama is responsible for the slowing of job loss. If that is your argument, I would like to use the same chart logic to say that we need a Republican Congress to regain those jobs. By your own argument, you should be voting Republican this November.” I meant my chart to be a sort of visual rhetorical trick to be played in the context of the Obama stimulus chart to show that the numbers can be spun in either direction.

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.

Glenn Beck Tries to Duplicate My Visual, Messes Up The Math

Last week, I posted a new video on the recent budget freeze using colored cups of water (seen here).

The following Wednesday, during the morning Glenn Beck radio show, Glenn was introduced to my work. Apparently he liked it so much that he had his own version by the evening.

I made a lot of noise on Twitter about him taking my video, but that was because I thought he actually took my video as opposed to translating it into a similar idea. Taking my idea… who cares? I’m hardly in this for the money; if people understand something better than they did before and they were true to the data, I’m happy.

But that was the problem: I don’t know who was doing the math for the demonstration, but it was way off.

Let’s assume that the 100 gallons of water represented the spending over the next 10 years.

The reason we’re making this assumption is not because it makes sense but because we’re giving Glenn the benefit of the doubt. (Glenn implies that we’re looking at the budget for 2011, but he never says that so I don’t want to lock his meaning into something he might not have meant.) According to President Obama’s 2011 budget, we expect to spend $45.9 trillion from 2011 to 2020.

Let’s also assume that Glenn is using the “$250 billion saved over 10 years” number to represent the amount of money saved. I assume this because that’s the only number that I’ve seen that is “over the next 10 years”. If this is the case, then Glenn says that what looks like a shot glass (about 2 ounces of water) represents $250 billion.

I don’t know who did the calculations, but they got it pretty far off. If $45.9 Trillion is equal to 100 gallons, then $250 billion is equal to a 2 liter bottle of water.

That’s a lot of water to chug and not nearly as impressive a visual as the little shot glass. But it is accurate.

Like I said before, taking my idea is fine if you think it helps other people understand something better. But maybe next time someone should drop me a line to make sure you get your numbers right.

Jumping Into Visualization Without the Math

I found this link from Instapundit, so credit where it is due.

You may have seen this visual of job loss across the country. It maps the job gains and losses in major metro areas across the country and, on the surface it seems pretty cool. Here’s October 2008.

JobLossOctober2008

As someone who really loves information visualization, I applaud the effort. But it’s wrong.

Let’s take a quick look at the legend. See if you can spot the problem.

JobLossScale

Keen readers will notice the problem… whoever created this visual scaled only the diameter of the circle. The problem with this is what we can see below.

JobLossScaleProblem

Here I took the “10,000″ circle and duplicated it over 50 times within the “100,000″ circle. If this visual were an accurate one, we would multiply the 10,000 circle ten times to get 100,000. That’s just the way these things should work.

Math Time! (skip if you don’t care)

The area of a circle is calculated with the equation:

AreaText

Which means that when they increase the height of the circle by 10, they increase it’s area by 100. This means that instead of the numbers increasing the way they should, the small numbers end up looking REALLY small and the big ones look absurdly huge.

End of Math Time

I’m not trying to be an a**hole here. The idea behind the visual was a good one. But these things really do need to be accurate. Most people don’t know how to tell when a visual is in error and they end up with an incorrect impression from a poorly built infographic.