The Drop in the Unemployment Rate and How to Spin It

On Friday we received the monthly jobs report. And the furore that arose with it. Principally the anger stemmed from right-leaning commentators who believed that the non-partisan Bureau of Labor Statistics, a government agency tasked with collecting data on employment among other metrics, “cooked the books”/ “massaged the figures”/ flat-out lied to show a significant drop in the unemployment rate that could not be attributed to people who had stopped looking for work—a cause of some earlier drops over the last few years. As someone who works with data originally collected from national statistics offices across the world on a daily basis, those claims touched a nerve. But I shall leave that rant for another time.

Instead let’s look at the New York Times piece that quickly followed on the outrage of fools. We can look at and analyse the data in different ways—the origin of the phrase lies, damned lies, and statistics—and surely the Republican and Democratic parties would do just that. They did. This New York Times piece shows how that can be—and was—done. It involves points of reference and context.

First the facts:

The Facts
The Facts

Then how the Democrats spin them:

Spin it from the left…
Spin it from the left…

Finally how the Republicans spin them:

Then spin it from the right.
Then spin it from the right.

But the facts themselves do not lie. 114,000 non-farm jobs were added to payrolls. The unemployment rate fell to 7.8%, the lowest rate since January 2009.

Credit for the piece goes to Mike Bostock, Shan Carter, Amanda Cox and Kevin Quealy.

The Hispanic Vote

People make a great deal about the Hispanic vote and how it will affect the election. In every election I can recall. Granted, that’s only  a few presidential elections and a couple more Congressional mid-terms. But the problem is that Hispanics do not vote. In scientific-ish terms, the Hispanic vote is wasted potential energy—they could make quite the impact, particularly in the south and southwest, arguably too in the larger cities. But to look at where to focus energies at higher efficiencies, i.e. turnout, the New York Times has this graphic looking at the potential for Hispanic votes.

Hispanic Voters
Hispanic Voters

Credit for the piece goes to Kevin Quealy.

This Infographic Is Da Bomb

For your Friday comic relief comes the infographic of the week.

The content is serious. But the graphic is laughable at best. And undercuts the message in my opinion. Seriously, it’s like the mobile weapons labs, but worse. All over again.

Isn't the bomb already lit? How does the red line stop it from going off?
Isn't the bomb already lit? How does the red line stop it from going off?

Photo credit goes to Mario Tama at Getty Images, via the Los Angeles Times.

Average Household Spending

This tree map from the Wall Street Journal looks at an interesting subject: average household spending. How much are we spending on housing, on food, on transportation, &c.?

Household spending
Household spending

But I’m not so sure that the main visualisation is necessary. I appreciate the big colour and splashiness, but the space use seems inefficient. Perhaps if the colours had been tied, as is commonly seen, to another variable, the tree map would be more useful. Imagine if the chart looked at the spending value and the average growth over the last ten years, with the year-by-year value still plotted below.

 

Life Expectancy Decline for Under-educated Whites

The New York Times published a chart looking at the decline in life expectancy for under-educated whites, i.e. whites who have not finished high school. The life expectancies of blacks and Hispanics offer a stark contrast, for while starting at a lower base, their respective expectancies are increasing.

Decline
Decline

The Enemy Amongst Us

Perhaps the greatest danger now facing NATO and US troops in Afghanistan is the age-old wolf in sheep’s clothing, the insurgent dressed in Afghan Army fatigues. As the graphic below shows, the number of fatalities has been increasing along with the number of attacks. The silver lining in the cloud (to mix metaphors) is that the average lethality of the attacks is on the decline as fewer ISAF soldiers are killed per attack.

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.

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.