Archive for March 29, 2010

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.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-03-28

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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:

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-03-21

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Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-03-14

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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.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-03-07

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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.