I saw a link the other day to Nate Silvers 538 Blog, the Title was “What Is Driving Growth in Government Spending?” Being a numbers guy who is pretty familiar with Govt Budgets, and halfway through Nate’s book The Signal and the Noise, I meandered over to take a look.
Let me say after reading the post, his conclusions, and looking at his sources, I was in shock. Let me re-state that, total shock! Here is Nate Silver --whose book says over and over again “to always check your data sources” -- using a site that quite frankly seems to have pretty shifty data. As I was looking through the source site usgovernmentspending.com I stumbled on a link specifically for Tea Party people, probably to reload the old data cannon.
I see on the Daily Kos site that bobswern did a great write up the day after Nate posted. Everyone should read it. And hounddog had some great adds in the comments (as always). As the diary correctly noted, Nate’s conclusions were sloppy and really uncharacteristic of his image (to put it nicely). Maybe some New York Times interns got a hold of the 538 site and posted, or are those rumors of drunken Nate true?
Given that bobswern covers Nate’s post, I wanted to focus more on the articles data source usgovernmentspending.com , run by Christopher Chantrill. Because anyone can make data meet their narrative with just a few simple techniques. I found some disturbing things on the site and wanted to share them with everyone.
First the site really is set up to LOOK like a government site, but it’s not. Anytime you think you’re getting info from a government site you should make sure the web address has a dot.gov, not a dot.com. This little tip goes a long way to confirming you get real data from a government source.
So I headed straight for the Tea Party page and the following chart;
Looks pretty damn scary doesn’t it? The text blurb makes such an inflammatory statement with no supporting analysis. Click on the link and there is no analysis backing up those RWNJ statements. It implies we’re giving all our money to the poor, right?
The first thing you should notice about the chart is the vertical scale; it only goes up to six. That’s a very small scale and any tiny change would look very large. Also, look at the horizontal scale or time frame, it is showing over a hundred years. That’s a long time and only meant to show a huge growth in spending towards the end.
In fact most of the data before 1950 is interpolated. Meaning some is actual spending and some is estimated. Did we have any real social programs back in the early part of the century? Not really, that’s why you saw all those people lined up at soup kitchens, bread lines, and living in poor houses. Thankfully, we have some safety nets to help people in today’s era. We should be doing more, much more.
Right away I noticed his use of categories, Welfare, Health, Education, Pension, etc... The Federal Budget is displayed in many different ways in the historical tables, but these categories don’t exist outright. There is a judgment call when dividing up the existing accounts into user defined buckets. Did Mr. Chantrell do a good job here? Let’s find out.
I wanted to match these numbers up with actual budget lines, but as I said there is no “federal welfare” category (the blue chart color). Also, his total of 500 billion in federal spending seemed high per my memory. He does have his reference tables on the site, so I dug into those numbers. I listed his welfare sub-categories below along with 2011 FY budget actuals;
• 601 General retirement and disability insurance (excluding social security) (7.0B)
• 603 Unemployment compensation (120.5B)
• 604 Housing assistance (55.5B)
• 605 Food and nutrition assistance (103.2B)
• 609 Other income security (187.0B)
Do you see it? He put unemployment compensation in the welfare total. I have never seen it categorized that way before. In this grouping, unemployment insurance makes up 25% of his welfare figure. That just seems kind of slimy to me.
Another item that bothers me about this chart is it’s scaled as a percentage of GDP (PCT). Social safety programs have an inverse relationship with the nations GDP. When the economy goes in the crapper (like twice under Bush II) then social spending naturally goes up. Why, because you have more Americans hurting and in need of help, especially if you include unemployment insurance in the total. So if you compare any social assistance program to GDP you get double whacked because both the numerator and denominator are going the opposite way. Let’s look at that closer.
I made up my own chart leaving out the unemployment insurance amounts. I also adjusted the dollar amounts for inflation, and shortened up the time line to reflect modern times. Makes quite a difference don’t you think? The blue area is my defined "social safety net programs" but I used real dollars scaled on the left. The red line is from Mr Chandrells “welfare” as a PCT of GDP, scale is on the right side. See how manipulating data can present an accommodating picture to match your narrative.
The spending has increased significantly since 2007, but I seem to recall we went through a devastating economic downturn then. The social programs did exactly what they are designed to do, help the needy through rough economic patches. You can see they are projected to begin easing as are economy slowly recovers.
Quickly scanning some of his other figures, he includes the entire General Science, Space and Technology budget in his Education totals. Notice the chart below has the larger State Spending in bright red and Federal spending in blue. The web site comment section has a person voicing the “Get rid of that damn Department of Education” not fully understanding that the little tiny blue field on the chart is the actual federal spending by the Dept. of Ed. Oh yeah, and the Research and Science Budget was thrown in for an extra 30% of that blue field. Probably to make it register better on the chart.
You see the same inflammatory little blubs on the side of the chart with links leading only to bigger charts.
There are so many other things wrong on this site it would just take too much time to prove and list out. And it would be even more boring than the above for all of you.
Nate disappointed me, I will still finish his book, because I’m a numbers guy and I already paid for it. It’s difficult for me to see the “Signal” in his analysis, especially when the data source contains so much “Noise”.
Thanx Rescue Rangers
I wanted to add a little note here. I noticed in the comments many folks are saying that the data on the usgovernmentspending.com is incorrect, that is not what I am saying. The data is arraigned in a way that I do not believe represents a common view of what does or what does not make up "welfare". Anyone can say what they believe goes into a welfare bucket, I am of the opinion that unemployment insurance does not belong there.
As far as Nate's data, he clearly stated he put everything into his "entitlement" category.
1. Entitlement programs, under which I classify government expenditures on health care programs; pensions and retirement programs like Social Security; and welfare or social insurance programs like food stamps and unemployment compensation.That's his definition of entitlement, its up to all of you to decide if that is the right definition.