Significant digits: Why happy numbers make sad policy
Significant digits: Why happy numbers make sad policy
“Support for California Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to shut a $27 billion budget gap has eroded since he introduced it in January . . . Democrat Brown wants to close the budget hole with a mix of spending cuts and tax hikes . . .”
But wait, aren’t we hearing here in Ohio that “prefer that Kasich balance the budget with a mix of tax increases and spending cuts“?
Poll reporting is about the worst practice of civic journalism. Our publishers demonstrate they do not know what they are doing in every single story when they print “margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.” It would be just as valid to say, “One plus one equals two.” Only the most incompetent pollster can screw up calculating the MOE. But it takes art and intelligence to write and interpret polls, and the harder you work and the more intelligent you are the more complicated and nuanced the poll becomes, until it becomes useless for headlines. If the news industry were a news industry, it would report polls the way it reports baseball statistics. But it’s not a news industry, it’s a message industry, and guess whose message it’s carrying?
How many stories are done on education and local schools every week? It must be, what, 10 percent of a newspaper’s content? It’s hard to imagine what could compete with it. Stories about the president and congress, maybe. Sports, certainly.
So, my question is, do each of those stories cite critics of public district schools? Of course not. It would be tiresome, argumentative and off point. If you cover a school board meeting you don’t need to go seek out a critic of school boards for the story, any more than covering a meeting of the Church of the Nazarene requires you to seek out a critic from the Catholic church.
Yet, somehow, it seems de rigueur if vouchers or charters are discussed. In an otherwise decent story about a choice rally, which was given proper placement, center front page, it was deemed necessary to give critics their due. So be it. At least it was a minor part of the story, as opposed to about half of it, which is common. Dispatch front page coverage will run 10 to 1 or 20 to 1 on this topic in favor of the status quo, so let’s just be sure to include choice advocates in every one of those stories.
(Plus, what an argument: A student leaves a school, and the school says it has to keep the money. Here’s a very simple insight for editors: There is an important difference between revenue and activity, and your reporting mixes up the two.
Editors are fixated on revenue, always worrying about “how we’re going to pay.” But the best way to not have to pay for something is to not have the cost of it. If the student is not at the district, on net not a dime has been diverted. Yes, revenue has been diverted, but so has the cost. To say choice “would divert $568 million” from monopoly districts is false, because it implies that it would divert $56 million of revenue, when it really would be only activity. It proves the opposite of what they put it forward to prove: It shows that that many students and parents do not want to be there and would rather be somewhere else. The student who isn’t there isn’t costing anything, while the student who is there does cost something. It has nothing to do with “diversion” of funds. It has to do only with whether the schools are too big becauset too many students do not want to be there. Odd that editors are convinced schools are prisons, and think it’s righteous to defend that idea.)
A friend called Sunday about ready to explode at the Big D. He’s a free market guy and what set him off was the story about Gilligan.
I think he was oversensitive. The paper was chock full of pretty good political reporting and the Gilligan story was properly placed, deep inside the paper (if you can still say “deep” when papers are down to six, eight or 10 pages).
All in all, it was a good day. Doubtless it won’t bump the average up much–our news industry still lives in a New York Times world that wasn’t any good in the 1970’s when it settled into place–but there are a lot of good people doing some good work down at the statehouse. When they give it up it will be because the editors lose interest, not because they don’t know what they’re doing.
Kudos to the Dispatch for asking almost the right question: Where’s the $8 billion?
But points off for not answering it. The first sign is a laugher: “I don’t want to . . . say it’s just too complicated. But the fact is, it is really exceedingly complicated to display it in a way that makes sense and ties to what we’ve done.”
Uh huh. There are two ways to interpret this: (1) You’re too stupid and (2) I haven’t done my job. Of course, the third way to interpret it is, “I’ve done my job very well by obscuring what is being done,” in which case refer to interpretation (1).
Even though it’s not possible to explain it to stupid citizens. the paper does put up a graphic with 11 points to explain it.
One of these points is illegitimate off the bat: Delaying debt payments. This is merely a cash flow budget mechanism, not an operating budget. Budgets have to allocate costs to periods. Delaying debt payment to another period has zero to do with budgeting. So there is 5 percent of the $8 billion.
About another 5 percent is also illegitimate: selling assets and revenue streams. Perfectly okay to do, but it’s not budgeting. It’s liquidation, a one time thing.
Three points claim to be cuts, for $1.1 billion. So maybe that’s 15 percent. (But watch out for lying; cuts usually are not cuts. They’re increases. They’re just not as big increases.
Another 1.1 billion is increased tax collections from growing economic activity. This is actually okay. It’s not “safe,” but it’s not unreasonable. So call that 15 percent. We’ve explained about a third so far, about 35 percent.
The largest item, 1.8 billion, call it 25 percent, is “not replacing” federal money spent last cycle. Okay. That just means they cut it last time and the feds stepped in to help out. That’s fine, so long as we can see that actual spending went down somewhere from last budget to this one.
A legitimate item is 1.3 billion in cuts to local government subsidy through stopping reimbursement of another lost revenue stream. Along with the portion of the supposed cuts above having to do with local government, this represents a reduction in subsidy to local government. Altogether this is 25 percent of the supposed gap. Generally this is good. It adds to transparency. If local government needs those services, it should raise local taxes. If it can’t raise local taxes, it should stop providing those services. If the state is to provide the services, then the state should provide those services and the local governments need not enter into it.
Last but not least, $1.4 billion Medicaid. This is the trickiest one. If it represents a reduction in actual Medicaid expenditures, fine. But it doesn’t. It represents a smaller increase than some wish list projection.
But here is the real kicker: Where is the $8 billion from in the first place? They’ve upped the ante, calling it $8.7 billion, which implies they have a source for the figure. So let’s see it. Is it really $8 billion in cuts? Or is it just that you’d like to spend $8 billion more than you have? If the latter, why not $10 billion, or $20 billion? Because that’s just crazy? Yes, it is just crazy. So is the $8 billion. Show us the number, or shut up about it.
Sheesh. Nothing like letting a headline reveal your real thoughts: “Flaw found in proposed pension shift”
The flaw? Every public employee pays into the state pensions and is matched by the public employer. However, not every employee “vests.” Quite a few leave before they vest. When they leave they can withdraw their own payments, but not the employer’s payments. That is kept by the pension to give to those who do vest.
So, yes, there’s a flaw in the public sector pension. The pensions and employers are lying to the employees about what they are offering them and then taking that money to give to someone else. Of course that is the main function of government, to lie and take money from people. Good job identifying a true flaw, and indeed, what is practically a crime.
But needless to say that’s not the flaw they’re worried about. No, the flaw they are worried about is that by reducing the employer contribution and increasing the employee contribution, the victims in this scheme will be less victimized. They get to keep more of their own money, instead of having it stolen to give to someone else. The pensions are saying, “Wait, we don’t get to keep what we stole.”
I can understand why Aristotle takes the position that this is a flaw; he is both a Democrat and the representative of the scheme. But what in the world is wrong with the paper?