End Of The Year Move

December 29, 2009

First of all, thanks to everyone for a fantastic year. This blog and its readers really are a tremendous blessing to me.

Second, my stimulus jobs video made John Hawkin’s top 25 videos of the year list. And if you take out the videos that involve animals, people dressed as animals and blowing things up, I think I’m in the top 10.

And, lastly, I’ve moved my blog over to http://www.politicalmathblog.com where I’ll be posting from now on. I’ve been chaffing against the restrictions of wordpress hosting for a while, so I’ve hosting the site myself over there. I’ve also updated my “About” page to include contact information if you’d like to get a hold of me for some reason or another.

Well, this makes me sad.

David McCandless runs the fantastic information visualization blog Information is Beautiful. Nearly all of his work is fantastic information visualization (his piece on drug deaths in England is really cool.

He recently created a visual about troops and troop deaths in Afghanistan. One part of the visualization got picked up by Andrew Sullivan. It was a graph on troop levels in Afghanistan and who has contributed the most troops. Mr. McCandless accompanies the chart with the words “That’s a huge amount of hired guns.”

The problem is that McCandless doesn’t source that number. I said to myself “71,700 hired guns? That seems high.” It didn’t pass the smell test.

I looked into the number. Near as I can tell, its basically a huge mistake on McCandless’ part. He didn’t source where he got the “71,700 private security contractors” stat and he didn’t say anything when I tweeted to him to ask where he got it. And he didn’t respond in the comments section of his blog when I asked. So I had to go searching for it.

It looks like the number comes from this Washington Times piece which mentions that there are 71,700 contractors, not all of whom are private security contractors. And yet McCandless not only changes this important data point (HUGE no-no in my book), he goes on to push the point with his “hired guns” comment.

Why would he do such a thing? My guess is that he doesn’t like the war in Afghanistan, so that kind of makes it OK to push a “mercenaries” point of view by lumping all contractors into the “private security” category.

Are you teaching in Kabul? You’re a “hired gun”.

Building a bridge? You’re a “hired gun”.

Flying supplies in? “Hired gun.”

Maintaining a network for the government? “Hired gun.”

Working as a translator? “Hired gun.”

It’s basically a data labeling mistake made worse by an wildly inaccurate (and, frankly, quite stupid) comment.

The reason it’s taken me so long to get to this is because I didn’t want to say anything bad about Mr. McCandless without giving him a chance to explain. It’s obvious to me that he’s not going to. If he does, I’ll post his explanation at the top of this post. But it’s given me new insight into the old saw that a lie is half-way around the world before the truth can get its pants on. Being right and being generous to others is something that takes caution and time.

(By the way, I proceeded to contact Andrew Sullivan and tell him that I thought the information was bogus. He hasn’t responded, but I figure that’s because he’s completely consumed with other correspondence. I optimistically maintain he would correct his post if he had read my note.)

After nearly two months of nothing, I figured I had to put something up. I’ve been tossing this idea around for a while looking for a metaphor that worked appropriately. I didn’t really push the metaphor of a household budget too far in the video because:

  • No one runs a household budget on $100 per month
  • Government does a lot of things that don’t correspond very well to household budgets
  • There is no good correspondence between mandatory spending and anything we budget for in real life.

But it is likely that you simply don’t care about the artistic matter of finding an appropriate metaphor and you only care about where the data came from.

Fair enough.

The data came from a couple of different places. First of all, the first data I’m using is a rough budget projection for 2017. This came from the CBO projection of President Obama’s budget extended to 2017. This is also where I got the federal reciept estimates I used to calculate how much we would have to decrease spending in order to balance the budget as well as the estimates for mandatory spending and interest.

For the purposes of the video, I combined what the CBO calls “mandatory spending” (which is mostly entitlement spending like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) and interest payments on the national debt into a single “mandatory spending” amount because both these parts of the budget are automatic and neither of them can be changed through the normal budget channels.

The next piece of data is the distribution of spending according to agency. In order to estimate how much we would spend on various departments and agencies, I took the latest projected data from President Obama’s budget, which is for 2014. I then calculated that, if we split up spending proportionally the same way in 2017 as we do in 2014 we would end up with the money distribution you see in the video (give or take a few cents).

Then, for the part where I take away the money until the budget is balanced, I simply looked at the amount of money we would have left over after we take care of all the mandatory spending with the receipts we expect to have.

That number was:

Federal Receipts – Mandatory Spending = Money Left To Spend

The “Money Left To Spend” number came out to $427 billion in 2017. The Defense spending in 2017 is anticipated to be about $662 billion, so I got rid of everything except defense spending. Then I started shaving off parts of the defense department until I got to a number small enough to roughly equal $427 billion.

Using this web site as a guide and calculating the proportional spending between the 2010 budget and the 2017 one, I subtracted the entire intelligence budget and the Navy. Then I reduced “Defense Wide” spending by half (I figure with the Navy gone, we don’t need quite as much military support bureaucracy) and I added up the Army, Air Force and the reduced bureaucracy.

That number came to $447 billion. Which means that we’re technically still running a deficit, but it’s a really small one.

One thing I did not do was calculate out how much more we would have to cut if we pass health care reform. This is because the legislation is so fluid and malleable at this point, it seemed pointless to put it into a number that would just change in a couple weeks.

But, I can say this one thing with an enormous level of certainty (and I’ll even put it into bold so you know I’m really serious):

President Obama, despite his best intentions, will not sign a “deficit neutral” bill.

This is because entitlement programs always start out with the best intentions and with rosy predictions. They almost always fail to meet those predictions, costing far more than was originally estimated. The problem is that the programs go on auto-pilot and neither the president nor Congress can do a damn thing to pull back on the costs.

What can be done about this? My suggestion is one that would satisfy no one.

I think President Obama should refuse to sign any legislation that doesn’t have an expiration date on it. If health care reform is really as wonderful as he says it will be, this shouldn’t be a problem. People will adore it, burn incense to it, throw ticker tape parades for it. Voting it back into law would be like raising Abraham Lincoln from the dead and having him run for another term.

But the fact of the matter is that it will never as wonderful as President Obama claims, which is why it can’t have an expiration date. Once people have a benefit, changing the status quo away from that benefit is often politically impossible. Just ask George W. Bush when he tried to change the clearly broken Social Security system. Everyone agreed that it was broken, but no one could muster the political wherewithal to fix it. So they just left it broken.

This is, I believe, exactly what will happen with health care reform. But that part is just my opinion.

New York Times has a short group of blurbs on college advice from educators. Some of it is good, but some of it is shockingly bad.

Rabbit Trail: One professor tells students to read a good newspaper every day. He might as well tell students to check the typeset on their printing presses. If you want to make a point for someone to expand their horizons, tell them to actively seek out the opinions of those with whom they disagree and discover why they disagree or tell them to independently verify facts that they read in a news article once a week. Both these activities will expand your horizons far more than burying your face in a dead tree containing the collected daily writings of 400 people who voted for the same person in the last election.

Back to the point:

I thought the make-up of professors polled was fascinating. Out of 9 total professors, two of them were technical professors (biology and physics), and their advice is shoved down to the bottom of the page. If you considered “science” to be a single subject, it would have been as well represented as English, history or law. No engineering professors. No math professors either.

Here is the reason this kind of irks me: I got tons of terrible college advice from people who gave me some permutation of “expand your horizons”, “do what you like” or “follow your dream”. This led perfectly intelligent individuals I knew to spend $60,000 on an education so they could get perfectly hideous careers taking customer complaints for American Express.

Most of my college classes were fairly technical (mathematics, chemistry, computer science, physics, statistics). But I always kind of bristled at the fact that so many universities basically discriminate against students technical degrees. If you have a degree in something technical, the chances are you were forced to take a ton of humanities.

And I’m not talking English composition or public speaking classes, which every single person should take (or test out of) in order to be a functioning college degree holder. Every degree holder should be able to write in a manner appropriate for educated communication and everyone should be able to stand up in front of people and make some kind of speaking presentation. When I say “humanities”, I’m talking the often endless humanities, literature, history, and “society” classes that go far beyond basic proficiency.

Universities make technical students take all these humanities on the laughable premise that it will make them “rounded” individuals. On an informal survey of core curriculum at a half dozen major universities, a rounded individual takes twice as many classes in the humanities as he or she does in math and science.

What I am NOT saying is “humanities are worthless”. I’m an avid literature fanatic with enough books to take over one of the rooms in my house. What I AM saying is that a college education should be cost-effective. It is my opinion (and my advice to new college students) that students should make every effort to spend their time (and money) learning things that they can’t learn on their own.

If this survey is correct, students are paying $35,000 dollars for a private university (and ) on classes and fees this year. It is my understanding that out-of-state students to public universities are similarly priced. If a student takes a 15 hour workload (five 3-hour classes), they’re looking at about $3200 per class.

My guess is that most places have a core humanities curriculum that takes about 30-40 hours to complete. So, if you’re getting a science or engineering degree, you’re looking at about $30,000 – $40,000 to pay for classes that have nothing to do with your profession and (here’s the key part) are filled with things you could have figured out on your own.

Example: I took a survey of western literature and thought from the Reformation to the modern era. The key take away from that class on my side of things was the fact that the book we used had a wretched translation of “The Grand Inquisitor”, a portion of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s opus “The Brothers Karamazov“. I knew it was a wretched translation because I had read “The Brothers Karamazov” the previous summer (it remains to this day my favorite novel) and vital imagery was toned down because the translators had no respect for the intelligence of their readers. Of all of the authors assigned in that class, I’ve re-discovered all but one in my own leisure time.

In fact, most of the stuff we learned in order to secure the calligraphic document that got us jobs were things quickly forgotten after the final exam. I have since re-learned far more than I was taught because of:

As a contrast, how many people in the audience figured out fluid dynamics all by themselves because they were curious? Calculus? Organic chemistry? These are topics that are very difficult to get into simply by hitting up Wikipedia for some info.

Don’t even get me started on Social Science classes. I was lucky enough to take a gender class my final semester in undergrad. We had several biology students in the class who tried to patiently argue with the professor that men were more aggressive than women not because society taught them to be aggressive but because men have more testosterone. Our professor refused to believe them. One of them suggested that the professor should investigate societies of lab rats. He did not get a good grade.

Every gender class should be taught with an evolutionary biologist and a neuroscientist sitting in the back row trying not to laugh.

Maybe if I wasn’t still paying off tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, I wouldn’t feel this enormous resentment to the months I spent reading stuff I’d already read (or would read again when I wanted to) and talking about it in classes with 3 students who cared and 40 who didn’t. But the fact of the matter is that many students are going to college to get degrees to get jobs. For technical students, their progress is being slowed by humanities classes filled with readings they can do on their own time if they are so inclined.

Is despair deflating the unemployment numbers?

Spoiler Alert: The answer is not much.

In my previous post, I talked about how the unemployment for July decreased from 9.5% to 9.4% mainly on the merits of people leaving the labor force altogether. Basically, the number of people employed dropped, but the number of people who are unemployed dropped too (and dropped faster). So… if the unemployed people didn’t move into the “employed” column, where did they go?

Some people have suggested they are giving up in despair. Let me explain:

A person is “unemployed” for the purpose of labor statistics only if they have looked for work in the last four weeks. If they stop looking, they’re simply not in the labor force anymore. So, in theory, if people are at home sobbing uncontrollably because they can’t find a job, they’re not unemployed, they’re just not in the labor force.

Fortunately, I discovered that the Bureau or Labor Statistics has been gathering a very useful statistic for the last 15 years called “Persons Who Currently Want a Job”. This is basically a count of people who have given up looking, but would still like to have a job. I suppose you could call this either the “despair index” or the “laziness index” depending on how cynical you are.

Here’s  a graph of the “Want a Job” number over the last 5 years.


So the number of people who wish they had a job but have stopped looking has increased dramatically this year, which is somewhat reducing the unemployment rate.

The number of people who aren’t looking for a job but still want one has increased about 1,000,000 in the last year, representing by far the largest increase in since we started tracking the data.


If you look at the unemployment rate with and without the “Wants a Job” crowd, they look pretty much the same. In other words, there’s not really that much hiding in the numbers here. There’s maybe a .3-.4% increase in the unemployment rate that can be attributed to despair. Or at least, attributed to new found despair, since we normally have between 4.5 million and 5.0 million people in this category anyway.

What is really weird is that it looks like a lot of people are just up and leaving the work force, either through retirement or due to going back to school. Only a quarter of the decrease in the work force over the last couple months is attributable to an increase in the “Wants a Job” demographic. Even if you added them back into the labor force… the labor force is STILL decreasing.

So… while there is a case to be made for the “despair thesis” (as I’m now calling it), it looks like we’re also just seeing a good number of people who don’t much care for work anymore, thank you.

I’ve been working on some videos concerning the healthcare reform issue over the last couple weeks and I’ve come to the conclusion that I hate this topic.

The reason I hate it is because it is so hard to find solid data on almost anything. Identifying the problem is nice and easy:

The US spends more per capita on healthcare than almost any other country, but we don’t necessarily get better results.

That statement is easy to prove with numbers.

Actually, I take that back, the first part is easy to prove with numbers. The second part of that is extremely difficult because judging the efficacy of health care is not an easy thing to do. Some metrics are easy to make judgements on. Wait times for CT Scans and MRIs are not dependent on whether or not the patient is skinny or fat, sick or healthy. How many people you can shove through a machine is far more dependent of scheduling efficiency, the availablility of personel and equipment, etc. In other words, there are few outside variables that are going to screw with your results.

But other metrics like life expectancy are heavily dependent on variables outside the health care system. Life expecancy for latinos, blacks, asians, whites, jews, arabs… near as I can tell they are different for all these groups even when other variables are controlled for. This makes it a very messy metric to use when trying to determine the efficacy of only one of those variables like health care.

As for controlling the cost of healthcare, there is one surefire way to do it: stop paying so much money. But this will result in less care and almost certainly lead some level of health care rationing.

The other ideas that have been thrown out there are not surefire ones, they are either educated guesses or “if I believe in it enough it will happen” wishes. Some of these ideas may work… but we’re not entirely sure which ones.

Which brings me to my preferred solution, which isn’t really a solution so much as it is a suggestion for identifying good policies a little more accurately: I think we should take the ideas that the Obama administration has and separate them out into a) ideas that can be applied to Medicare and Medicaid immediately and b) ideas that require a larger scale implementation.

Medicare and Medicaid are enormous programs with more than 70 million beneficiaries. It is absurd to say that they aren’t big enough to introduce some cost reduction programs without adding another 39 million people to government insurance programs (which is essentially what the Obama administration is saying).

Second, I think the government should set up some kind of public health care metrics program to gather the data that is currently so difficult to gather. Imagine if you could go online and look at hospitals around your city to see which ones deliver better outcomes and how much different procedures cost at different hospitals. This would go a long way toward inspiring competitive pricing in health care.

Third, I think we need to do away with the tax exemption for employer provided health insurance. Not a popular position, but it seems obvious to me that this policy has led to a large part of our health care overconsumption.

So… that’s all I’ve got for now.

I’m still working on some concepts that can be boiled down into something that is both accurate and striking. But the fact of the matter is that in healthcare we can trust very few of the numbers being tossed around right now. They are educated guesses at best and the Obama administration has a pretty bad track record at being able to predict the future.

I’m pretty excited, it should be fun.

I’ll keep as much as possible updated via Twitter (@PoliticalMath) and the blog.