Mark Twain wrote that there are "lies, damned lies and statistics." The truth of that aphorism was proved once again this week after the New York Times reported that the Canadian middle class was in better shape than the American middle class. Jason Kenny went all a twitter. Justin Trudeau had it all wrong, he tweeted. His claim about middle class angst was not "evidence based." Tom Walkom responded:
Given that his government has eliminated the long-form census, cancelled Statistics Canada studies and squashed straightforward scientific research, it’s a bit rich for Kenney to call for evidence-based anything).
More importantly, Walkom wrote that statistics only make sense in context -- and part of context is history:
In fact, the Times report merely confirms what was widely known.
First, the U.S. has been whacked hard by the post-2008 slump. Canada’s resource-based economy has been whacked less.
Second, between 1980 and 2010, Canadian and European income-redistribution programs helped middle-income citizens
In the U.S., by contrast, tax and subsidy programs are more favourable to the wealthy.Presto: The poorest in America saw their incomes fall; the middle class stagnated and the wealthy forged ahead.
In European counties like Norway, the poor fared better. Canada, as usual, tended to be in the middle.
The Harper neo-conservatives have not had as much time to destroy the welfare state as their American cousins have had. The numbers in both countries are headed south. What has made the difference is when those numbers began tracking down.
Another part of context is geography. And, Michael den Tandt writes, things are worse for Ontarians than they are for Albertans -- who are Kenny's chief focus:
Perhaps most important, the flutter in the aftermath of the NYT’s study misses the prolonged economic malaise in Ontario, in contrast with the resource-based boom in the far North and West. Ontario is a waning power economically, having joined the ranks of the “have-not” provinces under the federal equalization formula. It may not be coincidental that Kenney, a Calgary MP, saw fit to enthuse about the economic status quo; a minister from Southwestern Ontario, whose manufacturing economy has been hammered by factory closings, might have taken a different tack. Economists from Don Drummond to, most recently, the Fraser Institute’s Livio Di Matteo, have chronicled in detail the causes of Ontario’s prolonged slump — including limp exports, un-competitively high energy prices and runaway debt. All good? Um, no.
Den Tandt suggests there are some other numbers Kenny should focus on:
But here’s the rub; politically, [Ontario's] clout is still growing – from 106 of 308 MPs in the House of Commons in 2011, to 121 of 338 in 2015. Of the 30 new seats now in play, 15 are in Ontario. So, this is the question for the Tory caucus: Do you really want to be telling Ontarians, who comprise nearly 40 per cent of this country’s 35 million people, that they should buck up, while your principal rival is telling them he feels their pain?
Kenny would be well advised to consider another of Twain's aphorisms: "Better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt."