Numbers don't lie, but liars do

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As budding journalists, we were taught to be as exact as possible in our stories. Nothing appears as exact as numbers, I reasoned, so I often sought numbers to help tell the story.

How much more precise is it to write, for example, “The train carrying the Republican legislators had seven coaches,” than to say, “The train was several cars long?” By the way, not one of the dozen reports I saw online (CBS News, Fox, CNN, etc.) told me how many cars made up the train.

Readers have a pretty sharp idea of what a train of seven cars looks like. Readers have a sharply less sharp idea of what a train of “several” cars looks like.

Mark Twain quoted British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” Many people believe Disraeli was downplaying the importance of numbers. No, he was up-playing the use of numbers by liars.

In the interest of precision, let’s see how the numbers square with what we believe or are being told. We’ll look at federal employees, death by gun and immigration.

Many of us complain that the federal government is too large. And we believe vaguely that Republicans are more likely to reduce the size of government. To do so, though, we have to ignore the numbers.

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In which of the last 49 years was federal civilian employment highest? Richard Nixon’s first year (1969), when it hit 2.301 million. Some of that was left over from Lyndon Johnson’s term. When was it second highest? In Ronald Reagan’s fifth year (1985), 2.252 million. Third highest? George H.W. Bush’s second year (1990), 2.25 million.

When Donald Trump took over from Barack Obama, federal civilian employment was about 2.1 million. Reuters reports that Trump in his first year drained the swamp of about 6,000 federal employees. Actually, Reuters reports, employment in the Defense Department has fallen by 9,500 under Trump, which means that the rest of the swamp has added 3,500 jobs. Don’t get your feet wet, Mr. President.

Under Barack Obama, the previous swamp-tender, federal employment fell by 15,000. So, in reality, it hardly changed. The big shift was in the two presidents before Obama. In 1993, Bill Clinton moved into a swamp that had 2.157 million employees, and in 2001, he moved out, leaving 1.778 million. That’s 379,000 employees drained.

George W. Bush pushed the 1.778 million up to 1.960 million. The total rose under Ford, Reagan, and Bush II. It fell under Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Clinton and Obama. Slick Willie Clinton drained it most (17 percent), Bush II increased it most (10 percent).

Americans own more guns per capita than any other nationality, about 101 per 100 inhabitants, remarkable since barely more than a third of us own guns. The more telling figure is how we use those guns. The United States has far from the highest rate of murder by gun. We kill 3.2 people per 100,000 inhabitants each year. Brazilians kill about 18.1 per 100,000, Paraguayans about 7.35.

If you look at countries that look more like us, you may get better comparisons. We own about twice more guns per capita than the Swiss, yet our killing-by-gun rate is more than four times Switzerland’s (3.2 vs. 0.77). Canada’s gun ownership is less than a third of ours and the death rate (0.51) is less than a sixth. Other western rates: France, about 0.06 per 100,000 people; Germany, 0.19; Finland, 0.45.

There is a clear difference between us and a lot of people who look like us but who either don’t shoot so well or don’t shoot so often. This difference has gotta be cultural. Something tells Swiss and Canadians and Germans and French and Finns to be more careful using their guns. I wish the NRA would devote as much attention to gun safety as it does to raising money to rent politicians who would arm everyone to the teeth.

Herschael York, a conservative Christian leader, says immigration was the major reason that conservative Christians voted for Trump. And, the president has certainly capitalized on that. But — this won’t surprise many people — he’s mostly blowing smoke.

In Obama’s final year in the swamp, America deported about 20,000 illegal aliens a month. In Trump’s first year, America deported about 16,900, reports the Department of Homeland Security. Deportations under Obama peaked in 2013 at 36,000 a month. And, deportations of illegals were higher every year under Obama than any year under Bush II.

Wanna complicate it? In 2014, the number of people who came in illegally was barely half the number who came in legally, then overstayed their visas and disappeared. Enter the U.S. legally at Buffalo or Jackman, then vanish into the urban swells of Bakersfield or Jacksonville. The trend began in 2007, under Bush II, says the Center for Migration Studies. Don’t wade in, fly in and vanish. How you gonna stop an airplane with a wall?

Give Trump his due. Incoming illegal border crossings have declined on his watch. It seems likely that people whose world ends at the Rio Grande River are deciding not to expand their worlds because of the new tough talk from the swamp.

The numbers are there for all to see. We have too many federal employees, but let’s be honest about who was responsible for the ebbs and flows in those numbers . We have way more murders than other countries, but gun ownership doesn’t explain the difference. We have lots of people here illegally, but the trend has been downward for a decade.

Too many people are using statistics to tell damned lies.

Bob Neal isn’t a number cruncher, but he likes what numbers can tell us about who speaks truth and who doesn’t.

Bob Neal

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