Gov Career

By Phil Piemonte

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Ah, yes—statistics!

We all know the maxim (variously attributed to about six different people) that “there are lies, damned lies and statistics.”

Well, we’re all going to be hearing plenty of statistics as this Congress winds to a close and the next one fires up. Both parties cite a lot of them—very often out of context—to support their arguments. A lot of the statistics bouncing around lately have been related to the cost of keeping you on the payroll.

Some people might be surprised to learn that decent journalism schools (they have vanished in favor of “communications” programs) used to require students to take statistics courses with names like “Survey and Experimental Design.” The rationale was that if students had a basic understanding of how this stuff worked, they would resist the impulse to take statistics at face value. They would look behind the numbers.

Or, as one professor in our acquaintance—a former newsman with the Australian Broadcasting Corp.—used to say: “Any mug can come up with a number. The question is: What does it mean?

Here’s a sample exercise he would have liked:

In recent days, one of the parties made this compelling statement: “Today, Washington spends $7 million every minute of every hour of every day. That is twice as much as was spent per minute in 1980.”

That set off our “mug” sensors. So we did a quick Web search and found a cool site created by some college professors—it’s called

The site says that measuring worth is a complicated question, and that comparisons over time depend on many variables, including context. Having provided those caveats, the site offers a lot of calculators, including one that will figure out the relative purchasing power of a U.S. dollar for any stretch of years from 1774 to 2009.

So we entered the range 1980 to 2009 (the last year covered by the calculator). According to the calculator—in constant dollars—it took $2.60 in 2009 to buy what $1.00 bought in 1980.

If this is correct (and we suspect it is pretty close, if only judging from our own memories of what various things cost in 1980)—this means that if the government is now spending only $2.00—not $2.60—for every $1.00 it spent in 1980, it’s actually spending less today in constant dollars.

Is it true? Who knows? As we have noted, any mug can come up with a number.

Moral: As the parties feud—over federal jobs, and everything else under the sun—and the statistics continue to fly, take a deep breath. And try to look behind the numbers.

Posted by Phil Piemonte on Sep 24, 2010 at 4:02 PM

Reader comments

Mon, Sep 27, 2010 Editor

To temper this conversation a bit, we'd like to remind everyone that there are plenty of contorted claims -- statistical and otherwise -- from all across the political spectrum. If you'd like some samples, there are two fact-checking groups that do a pretty decent job of holding everyone's feet to the fire. The first is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Web site, which is run by the St. Petersburg Times. Among other things, the site has a "Truth-o-meter" that ranks political claims from "True" to "Pants on Fire." The second is, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mon, Sep 27, 2010 Ginny

It's very frustrating that Republican organizations tend to lie so much and that people continue to believe them. It makes me really wonder why they need to lie - certainly the Democrats are far from perfect. Couldn't the Republicans come up with honest objections or better yet, improvements over the Democrats to give us a real choice? Why lie? The obvious answer is that they are trying to cover up personal greed, and don't care about positive change. Is the answer that simple? I doubt it. Even Republicans represent a lot of good people. It's frustrating. But it makes it easy to know who to vote for.

Mon, Sep 27, 2010 Jeff Washington

Has anyone ever done a study of what people are paid in the Heritage Foundation or the Cato Institute? It would be interesting to compare years of professional experience and graduate degree with take-home pay for these groups vis-a-vis the Federal government.

Sun, Sep 26, 2010 Steven Michigan

One thing you really need to watch for when someone quotes a study or some statistics is the political agenda of the source. There is really no surprise in the recent claims by the Heritage Foundation that their studies have "proven" that federal workers are overpaid. This was the result they had in mind before they ever started working the numbers. They made certain to massage the numbers in a manner best suited for their political agenda. Any data that ran counter to their predetermined conclusion was simply ignored.

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