Department of Awful Statistics

From Mike Munger:

This is from the New York Times.  It was written by Teresa Ghilarducci, the Bernard L. and Irene Schwartz chair of economic policy analysis at the New School for Social Research

Six months ago, I visited North Carolina’s state treasurer, Janet Cowell – the only Democrat in the administration now – and met with citizen advocates.. Our trip had impact, on us at least. On the plane coming home my colleague turned to me shell shocked, “How can it be legal to have so much poverty in such a wealthy state?” 

Ask two questions: How rich is the state? And what percentage of its children live in poverty? That’s a working definition of good fiscal policy…. Let’s look at North Carolina. It is the 39th richest state, and yet it ranks 12th for the percentage of children living in poverty – only 11 states fare worse. 

Um, ma’am….if it is the 39th richest state, that means it’s the 12th poorest state.  That means there are 11 states that are poorer. And if it is the 12th for percentage of children living in poverty….then again there are 11 states that are poorer. It’s exactly the same proportion, not out of line at all.  What’s with this “And yet…” thing you got going?

Theresa Ghilarducci seems to be a veritable fountain of strange metrics.  I didn’t think much of her book because of that; as I recall, she spends a lot of time straining to avoid obvious calculations, in favor of exotic ones that purport to prove that we can and should spend oceans more money on social security.  But this is incredibly weird, even by her standards.

48 thoughts on “Department of Awful Statistics

  1. I think the only possible defense has to do with how the wealth is distributed. I.e. if it was more equally distributed, it could be the 41st poorest state, but only 18th for percentage of children in poverty. However, stating that something is twelfth, which means that there are only 11 worse off, is just head smackingly redundant. But then, what do you expect from the New School?

    • Or that tax and hand out policy could make them the 50th poorest state as anybody in their right mind flees for someplace less likely to screw them over.

  2. I haven’t read her book, and based on this I will make sure I do not. But explain this to me:
    How do you make a case for spending “oceans more money on Social Security” by looking at the number of children in poverty? The central trend of Social Security is a transfer of wealth from younger less-affluent adults (i.e. people who are having babies and rearing them) to older more-affluent mostly retired people (who have in hand whatever savings they accumulated over 4 decades or so of adulthood). How is amping up that transfer going to reduce childhood poverty?

    • I suspect our gracious hostess was referring to “social security” programs, lowercase, meaning social welfare spending generally. You’re absolutely right that the Social Security Program represents a transfer from young to old, but not all social security programs take that form.

    • Your are so 1980. Now there are community activists who get paid by commission for signing children up for SSDI. And its not just low tech Democrat-leaning NGO’s doing this on a person by person basis.. High powered law ./ data firms are hired by the states to get people on state welfare to be switched over to SS Disability. The states pay thousands per head to do this so they can save the state’s money and Uncle Sam can take over.

      SSDI lawyers advertise as well, and can help you get approved – no payment needed – they get paid by the government when they get you approved for depression, obesity, a vague back pain only cured by marijuana, whatever.

      I used to believe the welfare safety net was small, fairly cheap, and a good idea. Now I think its gamed to death, with lots of private companies involved who’s only revenue is from the government.. They donate big time to the party that will keep the party going.

      And the beneficiaries now vote. Before, they would normally be apathetic, but now that NGO and Big Data is making sure they get dragged to the polls. Spread a few rumors that Romney will cancel EBT and you can damn well get people to the polls.

  3. ( 1 4 July 2 0 1 3 , Sunday ) – - TERESA GHILARDUCCI ‘ s stunningly delusional take on RETIREMENT , on 4 0 1 – { K } ‘ s , on SOCIAL SECURITY , on TAXATION and on the precarious fiscal condition of the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT makes her just the kind of demagogue that appeals to buffoons like JIM McDERMOTT and GEORGE MILLER .

    Ghilarducci ‘ s tenure at NOTRE DAME and at the NEW SCHOOL just reinforces the observable trend by which Social Science hacks like herself receive tenure . That is bad enough , but dignifying Ghilarducci ‘ s fantasies by presenting same in magazines like MONEY [ she is one of the reasons I don ' t subscribe any longer ] and the NEW YORK ‘ SLIMES ‘ is abundant testament to one being gullible , the other ideological .

    If Professor Ghilarducci had the same manner of Administration Pulpit , as say , KATHLEEN SEBELIUS , the Administration would likely have attempted to advance certain of Ghilarducci ‘ s most moronic ‘ reforms ‘ , among them LIMITING TAX – DEFERRED 4 0 1 – { K } CONTRIBUTIONS TO SIX – HUNDRED DOLLARS ANNUALLY and establishing a NATIONAL PENSION FUND TO RUN CONCURRENTLY WITH SOCIAL SECURITY , with the latter as a model . O Joy !

    The Professor ‘ s contentions that 4 0 1 – { K } ‘ s and I . R . A . are a failure is the result of cherry – picking data . The statement that Americans should be spared the burden of planning for their own retirements – should have no obligation to make investment decisions for themselves , should instead entrust same to a wise and benevolent Federal Government – is a sick joke .

    That something so idiotic , boring or forgettable as ‘ How To Grade A State ‘ s Finances ‘ should appear in The ‘ Slimes ‘ , or has Teresa Ghilarducci as its author , is in no way surprising . Thanks to Megan McArdle for the link to ‘ KIDS PREFER CHEESE ‘ , whose denunciatory and humorous response to Professor Ghilarducci ‘ s hand – wringing over North Carolina was great fun to read .

  4. Reminds me of when Dilbert’s boss was shocked to learn that 40% of employee sick days were on Monday or Friday…

    • That? You think that’s a problem? Consider that for all our spending, 20% of the population is still in the bottom quintile!

      (For the country. For the world, everyone’s above the 70th percentile. But that hardly counts, does it? If you pull out the World Bank poverty line — $1.25 a day — you discover there are no poor people in the United States. What’s the fun in that?)

    • It gets worse.

      50% of our children score below the median on language and mathematics exams.

      The horror! The horror!

    • The GINI index has the same problem. The implicit idealization of a flat distribution never had much empirical backing.

      Support income diversity!

  5. A quick trip through Wikipedia, and its sources:

    –North Carolina is 39th in Median Household Income, and 34th in Per-Capita income.

    –North Carolina is at position 34 in “Poverty Rate by Household Income” with a value of 13.1 %. Sorting by “Includes Unrelated Children” shows North Carolina at position 43, with a value of 17.0%.

    –For comparison, the State of New York is at position 38, with “Poverty Rate by Household Income” of 14.5%. In the “Includes Unrelated Children”, New York has 15.9%. Fortuitiously, this puts NY at position #38 on both lists.

    –New York is also 15th in Median Income, and 7th in Per-Capita Income

    I think New York is an example of a State which has a worse Poverty Rate than its Per-Capita Income should imply.

    • North Carolina has a low cost of living (driven largely by fairly cheap housing), so I can imagine an income number not taking that into account but a poverty number doing so, if I looked at the statistics closely. But that’s a more complicated argument than made, and the confusing rhetoric of switching the ordering of the state really isn’t justified.

  6. Ghilarducci spent most of her academic career at Notre Dame. ND struggled for years to try to improve its economics department, which was overrun by Marxists. Worse yet, it was controlled by low quality Marxists that couldn’t even publish in the better Marxist journals. It was an embarrassment. Finally ND created a new economics department and renamed the old department (‘economic history’ or something like that). A few select members of the old department were invited to move to the new department. Those with tenure were allowed to stay in the old department, but it won’t ever be allowed to hire and will gradually disappear as the members retire or leave.

    Presumably this is why Ghilarducci moved to the New School. What’s surprising is that they hired her.

    • A few years after it created a new economics department, Notre Dame eliminated the old one. I believe one or two faculty members got picked up by other departments but most of them are gone. No loss.

  7. That is, however, all too typical of the shoddy, sloppy, ideology based hackery that passes for “scholarship” at the New School.

  8. Worse than what may be a transitory math-related brain fart is the unchallenged question, “how can it be legal…..?” What sort of socio-political structure could this bleat possibly imply? To call it Soviet would be to praise with faint damns. Does the unnamed colleague mean for it to be illegal for her to have $10 in her pocket in the company of someone with none? Or even eight? Only totalitarian communism with the philosophical claims of the Khmer Rouge allied with the omniscience of the NSA could possibly support such a regime which, even so, history suggests would be a poor arbiter of fairness and even poorer provider of material improvements. Where would the enumerated power of this Super-Soviet apparatus be in the Constitution?

    • Exactly.

      Doe she think you can just pass a law against poverty, somehow?

      Even ignoring the problems of such a deal under limited government (as she surely would), how does she think that would even work?

  9. To be fair, if you look at this seemingly obvious calculation in context, the author does distinguish between the richness ranking and the children-in-poverty ranking, showing that they are merely factors in adding up to 50.

    “It is the 39th richest state, and yet it ranks 12th for the percentage of children living in poverty – only 11 states fare worse. Which states do the most to reduce child poverty with the money they have? I’d point to West Virginia, the fourth-poorest state but 13th in child poverty.”

    • If every child in every state lived the life of a millionaire — some state would still be 50th.

  10. Theresa Ghilarducci is known for beiing incredibly bad with statistics, and yet here Theresa Ghilarducci has been incredibly bad with statistics.

  11. Ultimately, parents are responsible for their own children.
    If children are in poverty, it is their parents who are responsible for lifting them out of poverty, and/or teaching them the skills to be out of poverty by the time their children are born.
    If, as liberals posit, it is the responsibility of society/government to ensure children don’t live in poverty, then the only way to do that is via wealth transfer from the childless (including empty-nesters) to those with children, and from those with few children to those with more.
    Will DINKs and 43-year-old feminists with newborns accept this? A cornerstone of liberal ideology is using other people’s money to support govt “compassion”. Few people are extremely liberal with their own money…

    • We tried wealth transfer. If anything, it increases child poverty.

      No, the only real solution is to remove children from unfit parents before said parents can do enough damage to render them unadoptable.

  12. Of course poor, healthy able bodied adults of average intelligence are to be held blameless for making the decisions in their lives that lead to poverty and staying in poverty.

  13. Income is NOT wealth. This is a foopah you always see in the MSM. “Lets tax the rich by raising income taxes.” non-sequitor.

  14. “How can it be legal to have so much poverty in such a wealthy state?”

    My mind is boggled by this question. The implication is that, since this is such a wealthy state, the wealth must, by law, be spread around so that everybody gets some. How, in a healthy capitalist economy, can someone ask such a silly question?

    Perhaps the appropriate response would be silliness in kind. “North Carolina is such a wealthy state that it has a surplus of lots of common things — food, clothing, jobs, poverty, and so on.”

    Or maybe we need to have the Anti-Poverty Police. “You! You poor person, hiding in that refrigerator box under the bridge! It’s illegal for you to be poor in such a wealthy state. You’re under arrest for being poor. No, race has nothing to do with your arrest, especially in North Carolina; Teresa Ghilarducci wanted it this way.”

    I expect that, any day now, Ms. Ghilarducci will pen an article with the phrase: “how can it be legal to have so many Republicans?”

    • It’s possible that the speaker is confusing the idea “legal” with the idea of “socially acceptable”.

      Or there is a lack of respect for the distinction between the two.

      Neither is a very comforting thought, though.

  15. How can it be legal to have so much stupidity in such an intelligent place as a university faculty?

    And yet we see it everywhere.

    Clearly, energetic government action is long overdue.

  16. I am from NC. Funny that Ghilarducci thought to mention that Cowell is the only Democrat in office in NC (!) in her piece of surprise about poverty (!) but did not step back and clue the readers in as to why that was important.

    One would extrapolate that this terrible situation was the result of those Other People who have been running NC since the Civil War.

    If Cowell’s party affiliation is significant, why not mention that NC has been controlled by the Democratic Party for well over 100 years? Oh, right,

  17. Well, what I find simply unconscionable is that we spend vast sums of money every year on education AND YET just about half of our students are below average.

    How do we allow this?

  18. Regarding poverty, statistics be they insipidly abused or properly applied don’t really matter anymore – because numbers do not express the root cause of mass poverty we have in America.

    Poverty remains a massive problem in America because politicians and their cronies – the ruling class – benefit from creating and saving poverty.

    Alleviating poverty has not been a desired political goal of most politicians for a long, long time because they have manufactured a ‘government-crony’ complex that manages poverty as a political resource, a tool to redistribute money and power to the ruling class.

    Politicians use the “issue” of poverty to create, save and manipulate reliable votes from the govt-dependent class; to increase the money that can be taken from others, then redistributed and skimmed; and of course to increase their power through expansive bureaucracy.

    Until politicians and their activist cronies are no longer able to benefit from poverty nothing will change.

    The problem of poverty is really the problem of the corrupting nature of power and how it is propagates poverty in our nation.

  19. Ghilarducci has been on a multi-year crusade against 401(k)s and if memory serves has proposed taht the government confiscate them and replace them with special government bonds… because she’s such a genius and the rest of us are such dummies, I suppose.

  20. Happy to live in NC.
    there is a Moral Mondays protest show in Raleigh each week.
    national media can recall lynchings that last occurred in the year of my birth.
    Charlotte’s former mayor is current Transportation Sec.
    There are poor farms, rich suburbs. Hardworking honest folks and fake disabled losers.
    It’s a terrible place to live and no Yankee should come without a factory with jobs giving ten dollars an hour. There are Americans, all colors, happy to work at that rate.

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