Sunday, April 07, 2013

Damned Lies and Statistics

"There are lies, damned lies and statistics," Sam Clemans said. The Harper government has done its best to undermine Canada's statistical database. But, occasionally, it still likes to use them. The devil, however, is always in the way they are used. In a recent article in the Literary Review of Canada, George Fallis wrote:

It is said that Canada has a severe and growing problem of income inequality — the rich get richer while the poor get poorer and the middle class struggles to stay even. The picture is not accurate.”

In response, Carol Goar wrote in the Toronto Star:

There is an imbalance, Fallis admits. The average chief executive earns 220 times as much as the average worker. And trouble signals are flashing: swelling food bank use, chronic homelessness, increasing inequality of incomes. But overall, he insists, “the steady reduction in poverty is one of Canada’s great accomplishments of the last 30 years.”

By the same logic, the swelling food bank population must also be one of Canada's greatest accomplishments over the last thirty years. Then take the Globe and Mail's praise for Harper's decision to fold CIDA into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "In today's world," Canada's newspaper of record gushed:

aid is  just a trickle outstripped 10-to-one by foreign investment . . .  Moreover, handouts had little to do with the remarkable progress in China, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Nigeria. Trade liberalization, technology, productivity gains and domestic policies turned them into economic tigers.


What the editorial didn’t establish was any link between foreign investment and potable water, health clinics, schools or community markets. What it didn’t mention was the social and environmental damage western capital can do to developing countries. Nor did it offer any proof that the benefits of North American commerce filter down to the poorest people.

And, finally, there is Mr. Flaherty's surprisingly fact free budget:

Flaherty highlighted Canada’s job creation record to counter the impression that this is a jobless recovery and refute claims that those laid off in the recession haven’t found work. “As job creators, we have an enviable record,” he maintained.

What he didn’t address was the number of highly educated young people trapped in entry-level jobs; the number of blue-collar workers whose jobs will never return; the number of part-time, contract and temporary workers who don’t earn enough to lift themselves out of poverty; and the number of job applicants who send out hundreds of resum├ęs without a bite.

The problem is that those who rely on statistics to bolster their arguments can be -- and usually are -- highly selective in the statistics they choose to use. The real story is contained in the statistics they choose to bury.


Lorne said...

More and more, Owen, it is clear that the world needs a new breed of people capable of making the kinds of trenchant and perceptive observations that Twain and Orwell did. While we have the Jon Stewarts and the Michael Moores and Bill Mahers of the world, none seem equal to the cutting pithiness of Twain.

Owen Gray said...

Twain wasn't a "comic," Lorne. He was a humourist. But, more than that, he was -- like Orwell -- a serious writer.

It was funny to see the Shepardsons and the Grangerfords on either side of the church aisle with their guns, praising the minister for his sermon on brotherly love.

But underneath the humour there was anger -- and a burning sense of injustice.

thwap said...

Mexico isn't a success. It's a fucking basket-case thanks to neo-liberalism. If not for out-migration and the drug-trade, MILLIONS would have starved to death.

South Africa is another nightmare, created by neo-libealism.

And yeah, Owen, ... people who talk about the lowering of poverty amidst a rise in food bank use and homelessness, apparently need to be told that their heads must be up their fucking asses.

Owen Gray said...

It' all about selling an illusion, thwap.

One set of statistics creates a diversion, which distracts from the other statistics -- the ones that tell the whole story.