Archive for April 21, 2012

BlogCon CLT Slide Deck

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

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

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

Romney Tax Day Infographic

The Romney team just released an infographic comparing the federal budget to a household budget. Replicated below:

image

I wanted to give an informal critique of this infographic. I honestly believe creating infographics is a form of art and that we need to give deep and careful consideration to all aspects of this art.

who is the target audience?

What they should want out of this infographic is to have the viewer see themselves in the family budget. They should be targeting a) people who are independents and b) people who might care about the federal budget.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the average family of four making under $25K a year doesn’t give a crap about the federal deficit. And complaining about it to them is probably not the best tactic to win their vote.

make the numbers mean something to the audience

On a quick look, the median income for a family of four in the US is about $67K. This is going to be a number people are a little more familiar with. People who do care about the deficit are going to look at the numbers in the infographic and feel a certain disconnect because the income is so far away from what they are familiar with.

When a typical man or woman supporting a family of four sees this infographic, they will start this train of thought:

“Well, if I had an income of $24,686, we’d have to move to another house. Gosh, where would we go? Probably rent somewhere, it would have to be under $700 a month. We’d have to sell a car and the kids… wow, we’d have to cancel most of their activities. Would I even be able to afford my iPhone? I’m under contract for another year, so I’d have to wait that out but I don’t think I can function properly without a smartphone…”

Can you see what they’re not thinking about?

THE FEDERAL BUDGET!

Instead, they should have realized that you want the audience to slip easily into the role of the family. To this end, recalculate all the numbers for a median family of 4. I’ve done it here:

Family income – $65,500

Family spending – $100,708

New Debt – $35,208

Total Debt – $434,081

Note: My first calculation was for $65,000, but I saw that this number brought the “spending” number to just  to just under $100,000, which is an psychologically important hump. So I bumped the income up another $500 to hit that psychological mark. These kinds of details should be in the mind of every infographic creator.

These numbers are going to target an audience that cares about the topic at hand, and ultimately make more of the impact we want.

the graphic is not “share-sized”

What you see above is only 25% the size of the original. The original version of this thing is a half megabyte and comes in at 2112 x 3731 resolution. Holy cow.

Everyone knows the new iPad has a monster resolution, right? Here’s how this graphic would look at full resolution on a new retina-display iPad.

image

And on an iPad 2

image

A lot of viewing these days is done on mobile devices with screen sizes much smaller than an iPad 2. By having such a monster infographic, we’ve cut our potential viewing audience way down.

And they have no options for sharing it at a smaller size. There is a link to “download and print” it, but who is going to do that? Infographics are seen online. If you’re going to print them, fit them onto an 8 x 11 piece of paper. This infographic does neither.

I’m glad the Romney team has made infographics a part of their media platform. But they have a long way to go to create infographics that make the kind of impact that they potentially can make.

Federal Tax Rates & A Fair Share

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

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

(click to enlarge)

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

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

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

Technical information from the CBO on this data:

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

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

What Difference Does Obama’s “Buffett Rule” Make?

President Obama and Democrats have been talking up the Buffett Rule (a minimum 30% tax on people making over $1 million per year) for some time now. So what kind of difference does the Buffett Rule make?

I’ve seen revenue estimates between $30 billion and $40 billion over 10 years, but what kind of difference would that make in the scope of government finances?

Not too much.

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.