Tag Archive for data visualization

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.

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.