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Yesterday our local paper, along with many prominent national publications, ran an article about the cost of state-government corruption. It was based on an academic paper. The paper estimated that in the worst states (including mine, Illinois) corruption was increasing the cost of state government by about 5%. Although there's a certain faux-precision there, given, among other things,  the fuzzy choice of what to include in that category, that doesn't sound like a crazy figure. What is crazy, however, is the sentence picked up by the press:

During that time [1997-2008], the 10 most corrupt states could have reduced their total annual expenditure by an average of $1,308 per capita—5.2 percent of the mean per capita state expenditure—if corruption had been at the average level of the states.
Before heading below the squiggle, try to figure out for yourself what's crazy about that sentence.

Right: If $1,308 = 5.2% of per capita state spending, then per capita state spending is $25,154. With per capita U.S. income running about $43k, that would mean that states are spending about 60% of our total income! And that's not counting the feds, local government, etc. Holy shit, no wonder we're in trouble. (Here in Illinois total state spending runs about 10% of income, not 60%.)

I wrote the authors last night asking them to correct this goof. I'm guessing that they just didn't mean to include the word "annual", and thus ended up off by about a factor of up to 10 on that dollar amount. (Most of the corrupt states spend less per capita than Illinois.) They haven't yet responded (not surprising on a weekend), but the error was so obvious and so prominent that it seemed worth publicizing the correction right away regardless of their response.

Meanwhile, it's not just my local paper that ran the crazy scary error. The $1308/year figures prominently in stories in Fortune, an official Indiana U. publication, various business journals (e.g. Dayton), etc. Google "Indiana Hong Kong state corruption cost" for a huge list of places to read the same nonsense figure.

This little accidental test is a reminder that the media are uniformly unable to handle even the simplest quantitative problems, at least if the errors fit one of their standard story lines.

BTW- Yes, it would be nice to see a reduction in corruption. It would make a difference, but nothing even remotely close to the huge difference suggested here.

Originally posted to Science Matters on Sun Jun 29, 2014 at 08:46 AM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Press is Also InGooglate (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LookingUp, docmidwest, tekno2600

    Per capita state spending FY2011:

    Runs around $5-6,000 .

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sun Jun 29, 2014 at 09:18:07 AM PDT

  •  So it's really only $130 per person per year... (4+ / 0-)

    or about half a percent of spending.

    While it would be nice to think that money might be spent on fixing pot-holes or extending hours in the local public library (or even buying a few new books), I suspect those corrupt politicians could make a much greater impact on the financial life of their constituents by, say, requiring banks to adjust late charges to something closer to the bank's processing cost (next to nothing) rather than what now amounts to a punitive fine levied in an attempt to change behavior (and turn late fees into a profit center.)

    Apparently this article went through a peer review process before publication, designed in part to

    Third, peer review protects the journal from incorrect information, misleading interpretations, and in many cases from publishing old, recycled manuscripts or manuscripts that have been published elsewhere.
    I find it telling, though, that right after assuring authors their mistakes might be caught and corrected, the editors go on to say:
    Fourth, academics get more “credit” for peer-reviewed articles than for non-peer reviewed articles because the standards for peer review are considered more rigorous.
    The 'academics' in question here, the people who write for and review manuscripts for this journal, are public administrators. So the innumeracy problem might go deeper than just the press...

    Just sayin'

    "The problems of incompetent, corrupt, corporatist government are incompetence, corruption and corporatism, not government." Jerome a Paris

    by Orinoco on Sun Jun 29, 2014 at 09:30:12 AM PDT

    •  In Illinois (0+ / 0-)

      it would be a little more, since we have more income and spending per capita (~$4k) than some of the competition. However, the crudeness of the model, the impossibility of inferring causation from multiple regression methods when confounders are present, and the fuzziness of the definition of waste all mean that the 5% number should be taken as a kind of vague figure.

      Michael Weissman UID 197542

      by docmidwest on Sun Jun 29, 2014 at 12:37:18 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  No, not half a percent: (0+ / 0-)

      the figure of about $130 per capita is based on the assumption that it’s 5.2% of spending, and that the figure given in the article was per capita for the entire 12-year period rather than annual per capita waste.

  •  My experience is that most Americans (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ebohlman

    including most administrators, are innumerate. More disturbing - many wear their ignorance as a badge. Meanwhile even our fellow Kossacks sometimes support conspiracy theories. We have an Idiocracy - not a democracy.

  •  It's actually 12 years (0+ / 0-)

    Says so, right on the box: 1997-2008.

    We are all in the same boat on a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty. -- G.K. Chesterton

    by Keith Pickering on Sun Jun 29, 2014 at 01:56:04 PM PDT

  •  ... which is why the press is so (0+ / 0-)

    good at connecting the 'Tea Party' dots, obsessing stenographically over Lois Lerner's missing e-mails but failing to mention that all the self-identified 'Tea Party' groups with 501(c)(4) exemptions directly involved — up to their eyeballs — in numerous primaries and campaigns are guilty of tax fraud.

    The press died quietly on September 12, 2001. There was no published obituary, no graveside ceremony and the burial site remains unmarked.

  •  University publication. (0+ / 0-)

    Being official university publications doesn't prevent them from being written by idiots.

    I can remember once an advertisement that Northwestern, a damned good school with real science departments, posted. It showed a prism breaking light into colors, and the basic idea was that the school dealt with the whole spectrum.

    The problem was that the prism was drawn bending gthe light in the wrong direction.

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