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Posted by on Oct 7, 2012 in Featured, Politics | 0 comments

How to Lie With Statistics: Fact-Checking The Soundbites

There are lies, damn lies and statistics, and the political season means that the lines between them are frayed and worn, like an electrical cord that is almost ready to short out.

Three memes beloved of the conservative right were front-and-center this week, either during the presidential debates, the rumble between Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly, or both. Health care (Sandra Fluke’s birth control pills plea); gasoline prices; and average household income.

There has also been a lot of chatter about the debt.

I challenge you to look at these two charts — historical debt (data from the Treasury Department) as per capita and historical debt in deflated dollars — and then think long-and-hard about what you think you know about the debt. Remember, whenever you’re thinking about dollars across time — whether it’s movie box office receipts or taxes — it’s important to index them or deflate them. If we lived where inflation was 0 percent, we would not have to worry about this. But we don’t!

Historical debt per capita

U.S. Historical debt per capita, 1913-2011. Data from U.S. Treasury.

us debt - 1982 dollars

U.S. Historical debt, 1982 dollars

Oh. Know how much interest we are paying on the debt? It was $360 billion for fiscal 2012. And you wonder why the Fed is keeping interest rates low?

OK, let’s take those three memes, one-at-a-time.

Fact-checking the soundbites

Both left and right have soundbites designed to elicit a visceral reaction from the base. Some of those were on parade in the debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. A few were reprised in the O’Reilly/Stewart "Rumble" three days later.

Storified by Kathy E Gill · Sun, Oct 07 2012 18:02:42

Let’s first look at health care. 

The boogeyman – or woman, as it were – to the pundits on the right is Sandra Fluke.
#Rumble2012 O’Reilly: Sandra Fluke wants govt-paid birth control. Stewart: No, she wants insurers to cover it – as they do Viagra for men.Diana B. Henriques
They are both wrong.
O’Reilly (and Rush Limbaugh, who triggered this conservative meme) misrepresents Fluke’s argument. Fluke’s Congressional testimony centered around having birth control pills covered by insurance — not paid for by American taxpayers. She reminded everyone that birth control pills are often prescribed to treat medical conditions such as ovarian cysts — they aren’t “just” for managing procreation. Better yet, have the 50-year-old BCP available over-the-counter; that should bring the prices down.
#Rumble2012 recap with YouTube link E Gill
Stewart misrepresents her case by equating it with Viagra. Treatment for “lifestyle enhancement or performance” (e.g., Viagra) is not covered by many health insurance plans. And most states have laws on the books that require insurance companies to cover prescription contraceptive drugs and devices but no state requires coverage for erectile dysfunction. However, vacuum erection devices are covered by Medicare. (No complaints from O’Reilly or Limbaugh on that one.) Finally, in Fluke’s case, it wasn’t the insurance company that was failing to cover BCPs; it was the institution that wrote the contact with the insurance company.

Next, gasoline prices.

This is a textbook case of being able to lie (that is, misrepresent reality) with statistics. Both Romney and O’Reilly claimed that gasoline prices have doubled since Obama was sworn in. The talking point is straight from the Republican Study Committee.
Why are gas prices Obama’s fault? I don’t get this. #Rumble2012Sam Beckett
Technically, they are right. Contextually, it’s a whopper that infringes on BurgerKing’s trademark.
In third quarter 2008 — while Obama was running for president against Republican John McCain — gasoline prices almost hit $4.00 a gallon and diesel, $4.50. Then there was a dramatic plunge — one that had nothing to do with which guy was in the Oval Office and everything to do with the collapse of the world’s economy. 
On January 19, 2009, the average gasoline price in the U.S. was $1.85 — a full $1.17 below the same day one year earlier. 
On October 1, 2012, the average price for regular gasoline was $3.80, 37-cents above the same price a year ago. The average price for October will skyrocket because of the gasoline shortage in California, a shortage that the White House has little or no power to influence. Sacramento, on the other hand, could act to alleviate those prices.
Moreover, drill-baby-drill isn’t the answer although it’s touted by the right. The domestic price of gas — which is a function of the world market for oil, a non-renewable resource — continues to rise even though the number of domestic oil rigs operating since December 2008 has almost tripled.

What about household income? 

Under the president’s policies, middle-income Americans have been buried. They’re just being crushed. Middle-income Americans have seen their income come down by $4,300. 
And just before the debate, he said: “Income is down some $ 4,300 dollars a family and with a median income of about $50,000 dollars that means things are really tough for the American people.”
Let’s look at household income data from the U.S. Census, both in current dollars and in 2011 (inflation-adjusted) dollars. That $50K median income has been pretty constant since 2007. From listening to Romney, you would have thought it had dropped almost 10%. But according to BLS data, it was $50,054 in 2011.
Romney & O’Reilly talked about drop in median HH income under Obama. Census data from 2000-2011: #Rumble2012 #Facts E Gill
Here are the absolute numbers in this chart: 2000: 41,990 – 2001: 42,228 – 2002: 42,409 2003: 43,318 2004: 44,334 2005: 46,326 2006: 48,201 2007: 50,233 2008: 50,303 2009: 49,777 2010: 49,277 2011: 50,054
Notice when the unadjusted dollars flattened? 2007. That’s the same point when adjusted dollars began to dip. What else happened in 2007? The world’s economy began to implode.
O’Reilly claimed (at approximately the 17 minute mark) that the average worker has lost $5,000 in pay since Obama took office.  
Median weekly income (BLS data) from 2000-2012. Has it gone down (per O’Reilly, Romney) or up? #Rumble2012 E Gill
Clearly the median (not average) wage has not gone south, per BLS data, although it has according to Sentier Research (pdf). The report that median (not average) household income has declined under Obama came from extrapolations from the monthly Current Population Survey. That data is a self-reported number: “what did your household make last year.” The BLS weekly earnings also come from the CPS, a joint project of the BLS and the U.S. Census
How can the two reports differ so dramatically? 
Sentier Research is run by former Census staff. But they don’t explain how their conclusions differ so widely from official reports. And no one from Bloomberg or FOX or the WSJ seems to find that curious.
Moreover, for the claim for Romney and O’Reilly to be true, we need to know what they mean by “average worker.”  Average = mean, not median.
The flip side of household income, of course, is how well the nation’s corporations are performing. That line — profits after taxes — has moved north, highlighting the state of wage stagnation. 
Then we have corporate profits after tax – that chart moves north, unlike the wage chart: #Rumble2012 E Gill

Wrapping up

In the case of Sandra Fluke and birth control, both sides engage in rhetorical excess. However, I judge that the greater excess comes from O’Reilly, Limbaugh et al who continue to deliberately misrepresent (aka a lie) her testimony to create a strawman.
On gasoline prices, this week’s award for misinformation goes to the Republican camp.
Regarding what’s going on with household income, I’m stumped. There are two very different reports coming from, ostensibly, the same dataset. I’ve seen no criticism of the Sentier Research reports. In fact, I’ve seen no analysis of their reports, just he-said stenography. But I don’t see how Sentier reaches their conclusions.
Both sides are remiss in ignoring the elephant in the room: the fact that corporate profits rebounded so quickly and rebounded to record levels. How much of that “profit after taxes” is because of Congressional loopholes? Given how rapidly profits rose in the Bush years, it does give one pause.
The truth: in the political season, it’s better hidden than a needle in a haystack.
Also, see this Storify on the Rumble itself.
Stewart and O’Reilly #Rumble2012The event had its comic moments but the two also tackled serious issues, from social security and entitlements to spreading democracy thr…