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Jason Holliston
 
Tuesday, October 28, 2003  
"Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics"

The title quote was by the former British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, and is an apt title for what was bothering me today. I was hearing a person on the radio rant about the Federal deficit, and how it's, "the largest in American history!" Now, I've been hearing this meme for months now, and annoying for one simple reason: it's not true in any meaningful way. By pure dollar terms, it is, but this is probably the singular worst way to measure budget deficits from year to year, and the Opposition parroting these numbers knows it. The best way to measure the real deficit is the percentage of the gross national product, or GNP. In this measurement, the 2004 shortfall ranks as 15th highest -- not even close to the "largest". See the article on National Review Online by Jerry Bowyer for the exact numbers (he even puts in what party was controlling Congress at the time, which is interesting, to say the least). Note that number one is 1943 under FDR, under pressure from WWII and the New Deal's effects. Not surprising, really, if you think about it.

It shouldn't be surprising, but marketing types and their attached press play the same numbers game that politicians do, and it's always annoyed me. While not as serious, it does highlight again how statistics, even when they are fatally and obviously flawed, can be used to mislead. How often do you hear that, "Movie X is the highest grossing movie of all time!"? Every few years, it seems another movie has knocked off the champion, and taken the receipt crown. The problem is, when you hear these claims, they're not accounting for inflation. What do you think is the number one all-time champ? Titanic? Jurassic Park? Maybe even Star Wars? Nope, Gone With The Wind ranks in at number one, with over 1.2 billion dollars of inflation-adjusted receipts.

Gone With The Wind is still the champ of the celluloid cash cows, and FDR is still the champ of the deficit, no matter what you hear otherwise.

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