I don’t like to define myself as liberal or conservative. On some issues I’m very liberal: social issues like gay marriage and abortion. On some issues I’m conservative: simplifying the tax code, cutting corporate tax rates, eliminating foreign earnings taxes. On some issues I’m libertarian: legalize marijuana (and other drugs, for that matter). And on health care I’m kind of bifurcated: either the government should step in and set reasonable prices or the government should let the market set reasonable prices without forcing companies to cover individuals’ insurance costs (here the middle ground is the worst case scenario).
Because I’ll likely vote for a Democrat for President (there’s something a bit too medieval about not giving equal rights based on sexual preference), I find myself getting more annoyed with liberals when they make stupid arguments. Add in some terrible data visualization, and simple bad logic, and this article at Salon has annoyed me in about five different ways.
First, let’s ignore all the spurious arguments and start with simple data presentation. The article cites a bunch of big numbers at the top of each paragraph, then tries to make us compare those numbers in our heads. How about we use a table instead? After all, if you’re going to make silly arguments, at least make it easy for us to digest.
Want a little more visual comparison for your table? Some out there might suggest a pie chart, but please don’t. If you want to allow your reader to compare a specific set of numbers, even if they are percentages (which these are not), then you’d go with a nice, clean bar chart.
Now, just because we’ve gotten our numbers looking good doesn’t mean we’re telling our readers the truth. In this case, we’re presenting data points that really have nothing to do with each other. The fact that a pensioner receives $27,333 isn’t really comparable to a teacher receiving a salary of $54,740. Nor is a rich investor’s $500,000 gain comparable to a safety net recipient’s $8,600. Let’s talk through each “recipient”, one by one.
The investor who gained $500,000 probably also lost a great deal before the crash. Some of that money is making up for lost ground. Of course markets have reached new highs, but a rich investor should seek out the best investments. We shouldn’t accuse them of perverting social justice just because they respond to the proper incentives in an honest way. If there’s insider trading, sure, maybe then we can bring the hammer down. But just pointing out that rich people have a lot of investments, and those investments appreciate a lot during a stock market recovery and boom seems like a silly piece of information.
The “tax break recipient” is also asinine. After all, the richest 1% pay a lot in taxes, thus they will get a lot of tax breaks. You could argue as to the veracity of certain tax breaks. The mortgage interest and heath insurance deductions come to mind as particularly inefficient. But the author seems to suggest that getting a tax break is like receiving welfare. So if I make $100,000, would pay $30,000 in taxes (but was able to claim enough deductions to get my tax bill down to $25,000), is that really a form of “receiving” money from the federal government or simply paying less?
Maybe we should pay our teachers more, but teachers have chosen a non-market job for the chance to make the world a better place, increased job security, health/pension benefits and more time off. And we all pay taxes for teachers, from rich investors to minimum-wage workers. If teachers were willing to put up with more market discipline for performance standards and on pay, we’d have the same divergence in teachers’ salaries that we see in private sector businesses. Some teachers would do really well (in South Korea some are rock stars making millions of dollars). Others would struggle. Regardless, society and teachers have made a compact to shield them from the market in order to give our children [more?] equal opportunity.
How about pensioners, social security recipients and safety net recipients? I’m certainly not Ayn Rand railing against the “moochers”. I do believe in a system of social insurance for people whose lives go a little off the rails. But again we can’t rightly compare a tax break for someone paying a lot in taxes against social security payments going to someone who may also be relatively well off.
The Salon article is disingenuous, bringing up a lot of numbers to compare, but failing to visualize them in such a way as we can simply see the comparison being made. It’s almost as if the author knew his argument was bunk and tried to hide it. After all, if you want to do great data narration, you first need data points that make sense together.