Numerical nonsense in the U.S. presidential campaign

The political world is seldom a source of high scholarship, but the current U.S. presidential campaign sets new lows. In addition to the worse-than-normal avoidance of substantive issues, and a very unpleasant level of mudslinging, numerical literacy has hit a new low. Here are some telling examples:

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, during a July 2012 trip to the Middle East, compared the per-capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Israel, which he says is “about $21,000,” to that of Palestinian areas, which is “more like $10,000.” But as the U.K. Guardian notes, Israel’s per-capita GDP was $31,000 in 2011, while that of the West Bank and Gaza was just over $1,500. In other words, Romney underestimated Israel’s GDP per capita by a third, and overestimated the Palestinian GDP per capita by more than a factor of six. Which possibility is more unsettling: that the founder of Bain Capital has no head for numbers, or that he cannot remember his foreign policy briefing papers?

Along this line, in a August 15 Fortune magazine interview, Romney was asked for specifics on his economic proposal. In particular, he was asked “Specifically where will you cut?” After making a passing mention of “Obamacare,” Romney responded, “the Amtrak subsidy, the PBS subsidy, the subsidy for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities.”

But as Sam Stein of the Huffington Post notes, the U.S. government currently allocates only $1.56 billion for Amtrak (including a one-time $1.3 billion stimulus grant), $444 million for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and $146 million for the National Endowment of the Arts. Not mentioned by Stein is the current federal budget request for the National Endowment for Humanities, which is $154 million. The total of these four items is $2.304 billion, which is less than 0.1% of the Fiscal Year 2012 federal budget (approximately $3.8 trillion), and less than 0.2% of the 2012 deficit (approximately $1.3 trillion). It appears that Mr. Romney has some more cutting to do! Similarly, Paul Ryan, when asked by Fox News’ Brit Hume when the Romney plan would balance the budget, explained that he didn’t know, “because we haven’t run the numbers on that specific plan.”

Not to be outdone, U.S. Senate Democrats released a response to the Republicans’  proposal for Medicare that contains some of the most ridiculously over-precise numbers that the present bloggers have ever seen in print. Here is one excerpt:

There are more than 1,368,646 near-elderly North Carolinians who are now ages 47-56 who, instead of getting Medicare as we know it when they retire, would only get a voucher to purchase their insurance. Private insurance plans will aggressively pursue the healthiest, least expensive enrollees, thereby allowing Medicare — currently the lifeline for 1,505,942 North Carolina seniors – to “wither on the vine.”

Are there precisely no fewer than  1,368,646 North Carolinians aged 47-56, and are there precisely 1,505,942 senior citizens there? Are the Senate Democrats certain that these figures aren’t 1,368,647 and 1,505,943, respectively? And more to the point, why on earth do the authors of this press release think that this level of faux-accuracy is compelling?

The Democratic response continues:

The Republican budget would “re-open” the prescription drug donut hole and cost the average senior who falls into the donut hole approximately $11,794 between 2012 and 2020. The “donut hole” forces seniors to pay the full cost of their prescription drugs after their yearly drug expenses exceed $2,840, and full coverage doesn’t resume until total drug spending hits $6,447 for the year. Since health reform was signed into law, 154,884 North Carolina seniors saved $96,980,186.19 on prescription drugs.

So North Carolina seniors have saved precisely $96,980,168.19 on prescription drugs since the health reform act was signed into law. This figure has ten significant digits! We barely know the magnetic dipole moment of the electron (one of the most precisely known fundamental physical constants) to ten significant digits. Lamentably, a relatively accurate Democratic analysis of the Republican plan has been buried in a sea of numerical gibberish.

Just as absurd, if a bit funnier, is the recent U.S. Census report announcing, as covered in this fine news source, that “[s]hortly after 2:29 p.m. on Tuesday, August 14, 2012,” the nation’s population hit precisely 314,159,265. While the present bloggers (both mathematicians by training) are mildly pleased and amused that the Census Bureau chose to feature the decimal digits of Pi = 3.14159265… in their news release, we are saddened that they did so with such an absurdly over-precise statistic. In the real world, where error estimates in U.S. census counts range from hundreds of thousands to several million, such precision is both ridiculous and misleading. Surely, the economics reporter who posted the piece might have noted the patent impossibility of such precision without killing the punch-line?

So does this really matter? Yes, unfortunately. As we argued in an earlier Math Drudge blog and also in an article The Conversation, statistics such as these often drive the news cycle.

For example, as we noted earlier, in January 2009 CNN alarmed U.S. readers with the headline “Bank bailout could cost $4 trillion.” But this accounting did not include expected paybacks. Now, according to a little-publicized April 2012 U.S. Treasury report, all but $60 billion of the original $700 billion has been repaid, and it is expected that eventually all will be repaid, returning a net profit to the taxpayer (see an earlier Math Drudge blog for additional details).

In a similar way, unemployment reports are volatile and are often dramatically revised after initial release. For example, on 1 June 2012, the U.S. Labor Department reported that the U.S. economy added just 69,000 jobs, far fewer than the 165,000 predicted, and the same report slashed the April figure to 77,000, down from 115,000 in an earlier report. Yet employment reports are obviously used by policy makers, investors and political analysts worldwide to make very important decisions. Indeed, recent U.S. employment figures may be a deciding factor in the upcoming election.

A number of other equally absurd examples of mathematical nonsense in news reports are given in our previous blog Bad numbers are bad news and in our Conversation article. In our view, when reporters and columnists make no comment on this type of nonsense, they become complicit in the further dumbing down of policy debate.

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