missing the numbers

Monday, April 12th, 2004

This post at Crooked Timber examines issues with reporting figures in the news:

To put this in some perspective, the budget deficit last year was approximately $4000 per household. If you assign that debt to each household, the median income has fallen by something like 10% since Clintons time. Now that is obviously unfair because that cant be exactly how the deficit is made up, but its clear that on any reasonable assignment of the costs of deficit financing the overall performance is much worse than the 0.6% fall that CNN/Money is prepared to run with.

Also, Kash at Angry Bear cites a more troubling set of disclosures, troubling in the sense of a pattern that insinuates back into the post at CT:

The article [sic, refers to a subscription Economist article] does not address the obvious question, however: if there has been a sudden decrease in the quality of data on imports of intermediate goods and services (and I havent seen any direct evidence to support this theory, yet), then why did this just start happening 3 years ago? And why are the errors all in one direction, so that they understate US imports (rather than overstate imports or, as we would typically expect, have errors in both directions cancel each other out)? I don’t know the answers to these questions, though I think we can probably rule out one possibility right away: if it’s a tax avoidance story one would expect US firms to overstate imports, to make their US profits look lower so that they owe fewer US taxes.

Sometimes even source-checking can fail in terms of establishing statistical veracity. If the numbers are off, then what?

One response to “missing the numbers”

  1. gibb says:

    Even I, who would like to believe that numbers are something we can trust, something we can depend upon in a creative world of words, have come to understand how innocent statistics can be twisted in portrayal by their own manipulation of addition and subtraction.

    Human nature can overcome any data.