Archive for visualization summary

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.

What Happens to Unemployment Tomorrow?

Just thought I’d post this. I’ve always been a little fascinated by the number of people needed to pull off something as huge as a the census. And next month we should see the peak of the census employment burst. Observe:

This was done in about 20 minutes, so it might need some explanation.

Basically, I start with with the June before the census and mark that number (somewhat arbitrarily) as my base federal employment point. Then I checked the employment numbers moving forward from that point as a percentage of that number.

As you can see, if this census year follows the path of the last census year (which it seems to be doing so far) the May employment number coming out tomorrow should add around 300-350 thousand jobs due to the census alone.

How big is a 300-350 thousand job increase? Well, the increase in employment as a whole between March and April was about 250 thousand. So, if the recovery continues as it has been, we should see an increase of something along the lines of 500-600 thousand jobs tomorrow.

Take note, I’m doing really simple guesswork here. I’m pretty sure that geoff over at Innocent Bystanders will have more intelligent things to say on the matter tomorrow.

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

Can You Spot The Partisan Legislation?

UPDATE: I discuss the issue of partisanship and health care reform more here.

You may or may not know that one of the more entertaining themes running around the media these days is that the almost entirely Democratic passage of the health care reform bill is pretty standard issue for major social legislation. After all, the theory goes, Republicans never really supported any major social legislation and this bill was about as bi-partisan as it could get under the circumstances.

I try so very hard to stay out of name calling on this blog. But hearing people repeat this line is like hearing people talk about that alien they saw. Or, rather, they know this one guy who saw one and he was totally trustworthy. OK, maybe they didn’t so much know that guy, but a guy they know knew that guy and could get you in contact with him if they hadn’t lost his number. Perhaps the aliens stole it off his phone.

Back to the point.

We live in a world of accessible information. Quite frankly, if you’re too lazy to go look up the damn facts your own damn self you should probably make it a practice of just keeping your mouth shut. So when I hear people saying that this kind of narrow, one-party passage of major social legislation is par for the course, I look it up for myself. Guess what I found? Hint: Those people don’t check Wikipedia.

Download the large version, the medium version (seen above) or the small version.

By request I also have a version with the Yay and Nay votes together.

Download the large version, the medium version or the small version (seen above).

The point I’m trying to make here is that this level of partisanship for such huge legislation is, based on my quick sampling, pretty rare. Look at the Iraq war, Social Security, No Child Left Behind, even the 1994 assault weapons ban saw pretty massive aisle crossing.

The funniest thing about health care reform is this: Not only was the the “yes” vote highly partisan, the “no” vote was actually somewhat bi-partisan. Nearly a fifth of the people who voted against health care reform were Democrats. So the “Republican” side of the issue managed to convince a number on the “Democrat” side, but the Democrats convinced exactly zero Republicans.

(Exception to the rule: Medicare Part D had a very close, party-line vote. But you still saw some Democrats crossing the line to vote with the Republicans.)

The reason I’m so riled up about this is because Jim Lehrer, whom I like and respect, basically accused the Republicans of having a history of short term opposition on social legislation.

For those who had not heard, Jim Lehrer, in an interview with Senator Jon Kyl, stated that:

Republicans have opposed things like Social Security, Medicare, even civil rights legislation, but then, once they lost, they took some deep breaths and moved on, and then finally ended up embracing many of these major changes…

Is that going to happen with health care reform?

UPDATE: A commenter below has graciously provided a link to the full transcript here.

Thankfully, Senator Kyl took him to task over that statement, but what would posses a journalist to make such an inaccurate statement? I’m going to go ahead and chalk it up to Lehrer simply not having the facts and not bothering to find out about them. He assumed that Republicans opposed that legislation because… um… I guess because Republicans are poopy doo-doo head who poo in their pants. Or something.

I would love to educate Mr. Lehrer and help him educate his viewers. If you’d like to help me with this, you can download one of the images above or use a link to this post and send it to the complaints department at PBS NewsHour.

Here’s their e-mail: onlineda@newshour.org

Please be polite. I’d rather not be represented by rude people.

Visualizing Unemployment By State

I worked on this for a talk on visualization that I gave last week and I thought it was something that would be enjoyed here.

This is basically just a visualization of unemployment by state since we started collecting the data. With the play button, you can watch the whole thing from 1976 to 2009 in about a minute or you can drag along the timeline to a specific month. The size of the circle indicates the number of people unemployed in a given state and the color of the circle indicates the rate of unemployment in the state. Move you mouse over one of the circles to see the raw data.


Get Microsoft Silverlight

If you’re interested in looking at this project in more detail, I talk about it at my professional site, Designer Silverlight.

You can copy the code to embed this with the text below:

Does a Republican Congress Create More Jobs?

UPDATE: I discuss this chart in detail in my new posts, “How To Make Numbers Say Anything You Want” Part 1 and Part 2

For your consideration.

Download the large version
Download the small version

Data gathered from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment numbers are averaged by quarter and charted from 2003 to the present. (2010 Q1 is just January, 2010) Republicans took control of both houses of Congress in January 2003. Democrats took control of both houses of Congress in January 2007.

I’ve more to say, but it can wait till later.

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.

Blatant Self-Promotion

Someone had suggested that I shared this on this blog so, even though it’s over 2 months old, I’m posting it. It’s apt, seeing as how job numbers came out today.

“Cash for Clunkers” – Clunker by Country Vizualization

I’m currently working on a chapter for the upcoming O’Reilly book “Beautiful Visualization” (a new book in the “Beautiful” series) and one of the things that I do is walk readers step by step through gathering data and sifting through it in order to create a visualization from the Cash for Clunkers data.

As I was looking through the Cash for Clunkers data, I was fascinated by the extent to which it seemed that the clunkers being turned in were disproportionally from companies based in the US. So I dug into the data and found out that it didn’t just seem that way… 85% of the cars “clunked” came from US based manufacturers.

So I decided to create a visualization to identify which countries gained market share due to the Cash for Clunkers program. So… here it is. Click for a larger view. (caveats below).

You can access the raw data here.

Caveats:

  1. Yes, nearly all Toyota and Honda and Hyundai vehicles are built in the US. I used the “where is the parent company headquartered” as my way of determining country size. That made for a more compelling image.
  2. It makes a certain kind of sense that people would dump a lot of old US-made vehicles because US manufacturers were at the forefront of the SUV boom in the early-mid 2000′s (aughts? oughts? naughts? This next decade will be so much easier), so it seems to make sense that people who bought SUV’s would be most eligible for a Cash for Clunkers rebate. If you bought a fuel efficient Toyota Camry in 2002, you’re not going to be eligible to trade your vehicle in, so it seem unlikely that you would do so.

With all that being said, I think it’s obvious that US manufacturers have lost market share on these transactions. I’d need to do a shade more research, but my understanding is that Ford (which didn’t take any bailout cash) didn’t do too badly while Chrysler and GM saw a large number of their vehicles turned in and comparatively very little purchasing.

What does this mean for the future? I don’t know. This was more for fun and for my book chapter than for anything else. And if you want to learn how to do something like this, just buy “Beautiful Visualization” when it comes out.

Obama Health Care Reform and Wait Times Visualization (In Lego!)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqD-nMpsYAY&hl=en&fs=1&]

The next couple weeks are insane for me, but I’ve been sitting on this idea for some time and I figure its time to let it loose into the wild, spelling errors and all.

First, my sources.

Now for the caveats.

Wait times data are for routine checkups and does not count emergency care or diagnostic testing.

Phyllis Shlafly repeated the line that “The average wait is… the second trimester of pregnancy to see an obstetrician-gynecologist.” It looks like she is using the same documents that I’m using and if that is the case, that statements is absolutely false.

First of all, these wait times apply only to routine checkups (as stated above) and the OB/GYN checkups are “well woman” check-ups. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think that a pregnant woman falls into that category.

Second, the average wait time in that category is 70 days, which is really only the second trimester if you count the “Wait a second, I’m pregnant!” realiziation time, which might be OK if she mentioned that to he readers.

Now for the insurance cost data. This was a statistic I struggled with for quite some time. The reason is because the latest comprehensive data available was collected at the end of 2006 and beginning of 2007. This was so soon after the passage of the Massachusetts health care reform that it is very unlikely that it accurately reflects the results of that reform (which is something the study authors freely admit).

However, I’ve search high and low and cannot find any indication that the premiums have decreased at all. To the best of my knowledge, they have increased faster than the country average.

If this is true,  then the average individual health insurance premium in Massachusetts is somewhere around $830 per month.

But I figured I might as well underestimate in order to flush out people who might complain, so I used the non-specific and drastically reduced number of $600+ per month.

Finally, the most important question:

How close to the Massachusetts health reform is the Obama health reform plan?

Because, honestly, if they weren’t anything like each other, there would be no point in comparing them, would there?

The sad fact of the matter is that the Massachusetts model provides the closest real life approximation to the Obama plan that there is available.

They both have a government agency for providing health care exchanges. They both require business over a certain size to provide insurance for their employees or face penalties. They both require individuals to purchase insurance or face tax penalties.

Like it or not, I think we can look to Massachusetts as a miniature crystal ball to provide a glimpse into the future of health care in the US if the Obama health care plan is passed.