Tag Archive for information visualization

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:

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.

Not All Money Is Created Equal

I had a thought last night that, what with tax season coming right on up, it would be fun to do a visualization of income and tax distribution. So I wandered down to the CBO and grabbed this document and turned it into a visualization. Sadly, their latest data is pushing 4 years old, so I’ll probably have to update it sometime soon.

(click for the full resolution image)

If you’d like to use a low res version of this chart in your own blog, this one has just the shapes and very little text, so it scales better smaller more better readability. The information here is kind of blunt… I’m sure there are several variables I haven’t accounted for. But this is a pretty accurate portrayal of the data at the CBO (unless I did a calculation wrong).

I wanted to do this because I get really sick of people who say things like “The top 1% of income earners pay 27% of the taxes.” Unless you believe that someone who makes $15K a year should pay $20K in taxes, that is a very silly statement. If the top 1% of income earners make 27% of all the money, it would be perfectly reasonable for them to pay 27% of all the taxes.

That’s why I wanted to make this chart. I want to be able to communicate in a single image how much the top (and bottom) earners make as well as how much they pay in taxes. The thing I think this chart brings out is that we have a progressive taxation system that does not treat all money equally. (Some may bristle that I just called our taxation system progressive, but I’m going to stick by that description. It may not be as progressive as some wish it was, but it is progressive.)

If you earn between the 80th and 90th percentile, you’re the closest we come purely equitable income taxation. That group makes 14% of all the money and pays 14% of all the income taxes.

A tax system that treated all money equally (like a flat tax) would look something like this:

In this system, dollar number ten million and one made by a hedge fund manager would be taxed at the same rate that a dollar made by a single mom earning minimum wage at a fast food restaurant. Every new dollar made would be “created equal” under the tax law. Such a system would probably reduce compliance costs as well, although I imagine it wouldn’t be particularly popular. “Let’s tax the poor more so that we can tax the rich less!” doesn’t sound like a winning campaign.

And, just for fun, I created the “pure socialism” model of this chart as well.

Of course, pure socialism is pretty silly, so this would never happen. Reason one is that, if everyone made the same amount of money, we wouldn’t have quintiles or “the top 1%”. It would just be a blob.

And it wouldn’t make any distinction between people who work hard and people who are lazy. As Penn Jillette has stated (I’m paraphrasing), “laziness is a perfectly valid life choice”. Life gives us all sorts of things to trade off with. Some people trade money (or the potential of earning money) for hanging around the apartment playing video games. Nothing wrong with that. But I don’t mean to get off on a “socialism is really silly” tangent.

I just hope that these charts are helpful and fun. Feel free to steal (with proper attribution).

The Political Power of Data Visualization

It’s funny… I got my start in information visualization with an Ignite presentation on data visualization about a year ago. (For those who don’t know, Ignite is a get together of geeks and artists where people give a 5 minutes presentation on something they love with 20 slides where the slides auto-progress every 15 seconds.) About a month later, I posted my first political infoviz and that started the hoopla that led to this blog.

And I just found another fantastic Ignite presentation on “The Political Power of Data Visualization“. This one is done by Alex Lundry (Twitter: @alexlundry), who actually works in the field with Target Point Consulting. (I don’t work in the field… I’m just a hobbyist.) That means if you want Info Viz done for your company or think tank, you should go to him.

Alex makes the exceptionally important point that visual communication and thinking (especially with info graphics) is THE wave of the future for policy communication. Let me be as clear as possible about this:

If you talk, you lose. If you show, you win.

Period. Showing people something makes them feel like they discovered it. It is THE way to convince people.

Visual thinking. Infographics. Data visualizations. Make them. Use them.

By the way, here’s my original Ignite presentation for anyone interested (skip the first 20 seconds, it’s embarrassing).

A Free Way to Support Political Math

Vote for me!

Over the last few months, a number of people have asked how they can support me. I know that, for most people, times are tough and money is tight, so here is a fantastic way to support what I do.

This is not my “real” job… it’s just a hobby. And a hobby that is not particularly profitable. In my “real” job, I work as a software designer and my big conference of the year is coming up. The cost of going to the conference is fairly steep (in the $2000 range) but I can get nearly all those costs covered by Microsoft if I speak at the conference.

The conference has an “Open Call” for sessions and the winners will be determined by an online vote that is open from now until January 15th. I’ve submitted a session where I’ll talk about creating information visualizations and if my session is voted in the top 10, I get to go. So, please, go and vote for me.

The process is simple. Click on the link, click “Add to Ballot” and then click “Submit Your Ballot”. It’s like donating directly to my bank account at no cost to yourself. You can also vote multiple times from different computers. And your friends can vote.

I don’t like to bleg… I know that my readers are not here so that I can get cool things. But I would appreciate the token, if you can spare a minute of your time.

Thanks.