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Number games

Sort of a trick question: What is the most important thing to come out of Washington, D.C? (Remember, this is a family-friendly publication, so it’s not what you were going to say).

Sort of a trick question: What is the most important thing to come out of Washington, D.C? (Remember, this is a family-friendly publication, so it’s not what you were going to say).

The answer has a $38 billion impact on members of the federal family, both active  and retired.  And the future of your CSRS and FERS retirement programs. What you will pay for them and what you will get back in retirement.  Even if FERS will exist for new hires.

The answer, of course, is numbers.  The jillions of numbers/statistics/estimates the federal government (Pentagon, Labor Department, HUD, Agriculture, you name it) generate every day. Numbers that impact the status of our military. Numbers that determine your pay raise, or inflation-adjustments for federal, military and Social Security retirees. Numbers that fly out of the House and Senate almost all designed to prove that the person or agency that generated the numbers is on the side of the angels while anyone who doubts them is full of it.

It was a trick question because it said nothing about the accuracy of those numbers. It dealt with volume and impact. Not whether the numbers are even close to being correct or meaningful in any way.  Are they important? Yes. Are they accurate? Sometimes. Maybe. Often not. Often they were part of talking points to convince people, from politicians to voters, to do something. Or not do something. Based on numbers that may or may not be even close to the truth.

Numbers depend on lots of things. Where they came from, who generated them, how accurate they are, and were they ‘gathered’ with a certain goal in mind.

Here in Washington, you can find a perfectly reputable think tank (conservative but well respected even by opponents) and even the Congressional Budget Office which will tell you that in many respects federal workers are compensated at a much higher rate than their counterparts in the private sector. Across town, or across Capitol Hill, you will find think tanks, unions and even congressional offices that have the numbers to show that feds are underpaid. Both are right. Up to a point.

Feds in many jobs (like rocket scientists at NASA and analysts at the CIA) could make lots more money, pots of it, in the private sector. Feds at the higher grades are often paid less than their counterparts in the private sector in New York City, San Francisco, Houston and Washington. But if you adopt the total compensation concept (a golden rule from the Jimmy Carter era) and figure the value of things like retirement, vacation time, holidays, 401k plans the government tends to come out ahead. As in better.

Even if statistics are accurate they can be almost meaningless unless you know the goals of the group touting them.

The Labor Department issues a slew of numbers each month on unemployment, inflation, growth in the labor force, and various CPIs (consumer price indexes) that measure inflation on a city-by-city basis.  One, the CPI-W, determines the size of the January cost of living adjustment that retirees—federal, military, Social Security— get each January. Or don’t get. Because it covers Social Security (one in six Americans by some counts) it is arguable the most important number churned out inside the beltway.  Yet many retirees believe it gives a false impression of how inflation impacts older people. Labor’s unemployment numbers—which drive Wall Street—are almost always revised. So why bother?

One set of numbers tells what kind of a raise white collar feds should get each January (under the so-called FEPCA law) while another determines how much they will get instead. The 2018 raise has been set at 1.9 percent by President Trump. Most of it, 1.4 percent, will go to everyone eligible. The rest will go to locality pay. Congressional Democrats say that is too little. Federal unions say it is way too little. Yet the raise, like everything else that is statistics-dependent, will happen although all sides say it is the wrong amount. 

For the past 50 years, at least, politicians have learned that numbers are king because so many Americans (including me) are numbers challenged. And we tend to believe the first set of numbers we hear, or see. They call it confirmation bias and politics is full of it. The numbers jive with our own beliefs, so we accept them. Or twist them to fit into the mold we want to become the model. How many times have you heard a number (11 killed in bar fight) then corrected somebody who heard a different (but equally unverified) number of victims? 

My friend had a different approach to numbers, especially where TV ratings were concerned. Once the newspaper—the Washington Post, where he worked— hailed an upcoming TV series about a social cause close to its heart. It said it would change minds, convinced the uncommitted and make America a better place. The word was out this was going to be good….or else.

When the series ran it got great ratings.  I forget the numbers but something like 10 million people, then a record, watched it. This was proof, it said, that this was the greatest thing since sliced bread. That everybody was talking about it. Etc.

Except my critic friend. He wrote (as I recall) that the ratings proved that most Americans----there was about 220 million of us at the time did not watch the series.

Gulp. Both were right. But I think he was righter than they were.

Footnote: After the series came out (it was supposed to be totally factual) the author was sued by someone  who had written a similar book first. A book of fiction. They settled for an undisclosed amount of money and language to the effect that certain phrases and characters of the fiction story had found their way into the script of the ‘true’ story.

So both sides, I guess, were right. Up to a point. Just like all those numbers coming out of Washington every day.

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