Where to Live for the Highest Income

So perhaps the title is a bit of a non-sequitor, but the Washington Post released a table of the Top-100 counties by average income. As a Washington paper their focus was on that city’s suburbs, three counties of which are Numbers 1, 2, and 3. But I wanted to get a sense of where other counties were, including that of my hometown.

Where the Rich Live
Where the Rich Live

Better, Safer Driving

Hannah Fairfield at the New York Times created a great infographic a few years ago that looked at the history of the price of gasoline and how many miles, on average, an American drove in a car per year. The piece told some rather interesting stories starting in the 1950s with the explosion of the suburb, interstate highways, and car ownership. The energy crises of the late 1970s and early 1980s provided a spike that eventually subsided for the 1990s and early 2000s when the United States was the dominant economic power and the only country that really consumed that much gasoline. (I remember those days well for that was when I first started filling my own car’s gas tank. How great $1.xx/gal gas was.)

Earlier this week she returned in a similar fashion to look at driver safety over time. The metrics were average annual miles driven and the number of auto fatalities per 100,000 people. Segments of time characterised by a common theme, story, or technology are highlighted and the annotated to explain the change from the previous time period. It’s a rich story that walks the reader through the history of the American auto experience since World War II.

Driving safety
Driving safety

Credit for the piece goes to Hannah Fairfield.

The Growth of the Non-payers of Federal Income Tax

Today will be an unusual day in that it shall have two posts. This first post is following up on yesterday’s about the 47% of Americans who do not pay federal income tax. The Earned Income Tax Credit was created to incentivise people to work. A tax on your income, after all, does the opposite. Why make more money when you pay more of it to the government? By not taxing the poorest Americans, you remove that pressure and instead push the poor towards working for the things they can now purchase. And in so doing, one reduces the level of poverty as those who were poor slowly pull themselves up by their cliched bootstraps.

This is not a liberal idea. One of the earliest proponents of the idea behind the Earned Income Tax Credit programme was none other than Milton Friedman whose laissez-faire economic policies can hardly be called in line with the Democratic platform. And as the following timeline from the New York Times illustrates, the expansion of tax credits like the EITC have generally been largest under Republican administrations.

How the EITC increased the rolls of those who pay no federal income tax
How the EITC increased the rolls of those who pay no federal income tax

Consequently, the implication in Governor Romney’s dinner that the growth has been Democratic is incorrect. In fact, much of the growth behind this “taker” society can be attributed to Republican policies in previous administrations. We should debate whether Friedman-like policies, but we shouldn’t accept candidates’ placement of blame when it is so broadly applied.

Tax policy is an important part of a nation’s fiscal and economic health. We should have these debates. But we should have these debates understanding the facts. Not false “facts”. Not opinionated “facts”. Not invented “facts”. We should hold our candidates to arguing with the facts. Campaigns need not be driven by facts. Campaigns can be driven by broader narratives. But when policies and platforms are scrutinised, they should hold up to the facts.

The 47%

This is the year of the percentages. From 99 to 47. Earlier this week, Mother Jones revealed via a secretly recorded dinner Mitt Romney as claiming that he doesn’t care about the 47% of people who do not pay income tax. He probably meant that he doesn’t care about getting their vote rather than caring for them as people, but regardless of his intention his statement did not sound good. This 47% are people who are dependent on government, or as Romney’s vice presidential candidate would say, they are “takers”. But is this true?

The great thing about news stories and infographics is that as time progresses, one has more opportunities to find data to back stories and arguments. The day of the breaking news, CNN published this simple pie donut chart. Crude, but given the breaking news it is effective.

Federal Income Tax Payers
Federal Income Tax Payers

It proves that Romney was correct, that 47% of people do not pay income taxes. But, it also proves that Romney was at best glossing over the details or at worst manipulating the people listening into thinking that 47% of people do not pay taxes. It may be only 0.9% of Americans who do not pay any taxes. Furthermore, retirees and young people often do not earn income with which to pay taxes. If retired senior citizens are “takers”, I suppose Romney does not want the elderly vote so often important to the Republican base.

But news stories evolve and more statistics become available. A few days later, the New York Times published a longer infographic piece, with below a cropping of the overall.

The Tax Burden by Income Group
The Tax Burden by Income Group

It expands upon the nature of the story and breaks down the actual tax burden of the American public. It is far more nuanced that Romney stated back in May (the original recording of the video). The poorest Americans do not pay federal income taxes, they have the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) that is designed to deal with poverty, especially amongst families with children. It is, very simply, what one would call a tax credit incentivising work. The poorest Americans, however, still must pay payroll taxes and then state and local taxes. In percentage terms, the poorest Americans pay more to their states and local governments than do the wealthiest Americans, who in turn have the greater burden at the federal level. It is worth noting that many government programmes, local schools for example, are often funded at the state and local level.

The problem with Mitt Romney’s argument on taxes is that he wants to cut taxes at the highest income brackets and cut the social safety net programmes for the lowest brackets. We already have evidence that such policies do not correlate with economic growth. They instead correlate to a worsening gap between the wealthy and the poor. Think the 1920s rather than the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

Tax policy is worth discussing. It is worth debating. But we should do so on the facts. I cannot recall the politician who spoke these words, but as someone once said, “you are entitled to your own opinion. You are not entitled to your own facts.”

Credit for the pieces go to Susie Poppick (CNN) and the New York Times.

A Week of Unrest Across the Middle East

Over the last week a video clip on YouTube that mocked the Muslim prophet Mohammad sparked unrest across the Muslim world, from Morocco to Bangladesh and from Turkey to Kenya. While most of the protests were peaceful, a few were not. In Libya, the US consulate in Benghazi was attacked—in circumstances still not entirely clear—and four Americans were killed, including the US ambassador, Christopher Stevens. In Khartoum, Sudan, the embassies of the US, the United Kingdom, and Germany were all attacked. While in Afghanistan, the Taliban successfully attacked the UK’s heavily fortified base of Camp Bastion, nearest to Kandahar, killing two US Marines and destroying six Harrier jets.

Combing through several news sites, including the BBC, AP, and Reuters among others, I mapped where protests occurred and sought to show how much of that country’s population identifies as Muslim. Most nations were, not surprisingly, heavily Muslim. But several countries with rather small Muslim populations such as Kenya, Sri Lanka, and India also hosted protests, some violent. Not included, because of the difficulty in changing the map, is Australia. Sydney experienced protests nearing rioting as protestors marched.

Click the map for the full-sized view.

Map of Muslim Unrest; click for the full-size view
Map of Muslim Unrest; click for the full-size view

How About Those [Insert Team Here]?

It’s Friday. And it might almost be time for sports conversations. Thanks to xkcd I know that as an American, in the month of September, I should be discussing football (with the pointy-ended ball). But don’t worry, I’ll leave my support for the Red Sox at the front door.

Sports Cheat Sheet
Sports Cheat Sheet

Canadian Tradin’

The Globe and Mail of Canada published an infographic that where I work would probably be called a datagraphic. It presents data in a graphic fashion without a lot of context or conclusions that turn data into information. The piece in question looks at Canada’s balance of trade, i.e. how much it imports from other countries vs how much it exports to other countries.

Canadian trade
Canadian trade

While I appreciate the goal of the overall piece and fully understand that it may have in fact first lived in the print edition, the version shown on their website feels too large for the few data points contained within the graphic. The bars on the right and beneath the timeline are far too wide. The sections could likely have been condensed into a smaller, more compact space that would have given more visual weight to the timeline that clearly tells the story of a more volatile trading period for Canada since the global recession of 2008.

I also would probably change the chart type or simply look at a different data set for the trade balance with principal partners because the data for Japan barely registers. And while the other data can be seen, the minor differences are difficult to read. I would probably shift the emphasis from the actual dollar value of exports and imports to the percentage growth (or decline) of each over the last year.

Ivory Trade

This graphic from the New York Times looks at the illegal ivory trade out of Africa and into, primarily, the markets of Asia. I think the map works fairly well in showing why certain countries are centres for the illicit industry. But the two donut charts integrated into the graphic as part of the Indian Ocean are a bit weaker.

Ivory trade
Ivory trade

My main problem is that the shares are a bit difficult to distinguish as arcs, especially when looking at the export countries. But the second chart with the import markets does work a little bit better. In this case there are really only three markets: China, Thailand, and Others. But the chart contains the ambiguous China or Thailand. So in theory, that demarcation could fall anywhere between China and Thailand—a point harder made if comparing simply by bars. This means that the chart really is looking at China vs Thailand that combine to 87% vs. Others. The trick is finding the break between China and Thailand. Is this chart perfect? No, but in this case I think it an acceptable use of the donut—though I likely would have treated it a little bit differently to emphasise that point.

Made in the USA. Exported to Mexico.

We trade a lot with China. Everyone knows that. But people might not realise that both Canada and Mexico are also among our largest trading partners. (I suppose it helps that they are both right next door.) Mexico is the second-largest importer of US goods after Canada. (China is third.) The Washington Post looked at which states are exporting the most to Mexico and what their largest exports happen to be.

Exporting to Mexico
Exporting to Mexico

Credit for the piece goes to Wilson Andrews, Emily Chow, and Bill Webster.