Ah, that’s the thing about numbers. We so rarely analyse them. And when we don’t even read the article, the headline can leave us with a totally wrong impression.
For example, I remember a few years ago, before the election of Tony Abbott a headline blared at us that John Howard was the most popular PM of the previous twenty years. Sounded like Howard had done well, until you stopped and looked at the poll figures. While Howard had scored in the low thirties and the highest of anyone else was twenty-something, the figure was appalling low when you looked at the PMs he was competing against: Hawke, Keating, Rudd, Gillard. Now, in case you haven’t twigged, these were all Labor. While Labor supporters would have been spilt between the four, Howard’s figure meant that not even all the people who normally voted Liberal gave him the tick as the best.
So, when I saw the headline, “President Trump Is The Second-Most Admired Man in America, Gallop Poll Finds”, my initial thought was to wonder if his great success in reducing taxes for the rich and killing Obamcare had given him a sudden boost because Americans hate anything that can be considered socialist. You know, things like saving them when they can’t afford hospital treatment, or forcing the Wall Street traders who were bailed out in the GFC to pay some of it back in tax.
Well, I could have left it at that, but I decided to read the article. Now, it may have been more refelective of what the poll showed if the headline had been, “Obama still the most popular man in America” or even “Hillary not the most popular man in America because she’s a woman”. Hillary was in a different category because like the Oscars, there was a most popular man and most popular woman. Which leads to the obvious question: If Hillary had been elected president, would the headline have been, “President not the most popular man in America for the first time since 2008”, which interestingly enough, could have been the headline anyway.
Trump received fourteen percent of the vote, so not even all those who voted for him in 2016 found him most admirable. Strange then that the article was given a headline with such a positive spin.
But then politics is all about the spin, isn’t it? Take the announcements that we were $23 billion “better off” because the government’s debt wasn’t going to be as high as they predicted. This is the equivalent of announcing that I’m three thousand better off after Christmas because my credit card had a ten thousand dollar limit and I only spent seven thousand. (That is a hypothetical, in case my wife is reading the article.)
And lately we’ve had claims from the Coalition that they’re delivering on jobs and growth. It used to be a slogan, Malcolm told us, but now they’re delivering. A slogan? Didn’t Malcolm promise no slogans? 383,000 jobs in the last twelve months. Not only that, Malcolm told us, but the unemployment rate of 5.4% hasn’t been seen since early 2013. Mm, wasn’t that three or four Prime Ministers ago? You know, when Labor were in office? So after four years of carefully doing nothing but promising us jobs and growth, they’ve managed to get back to where we were just after the GFC. Awesome!
I think that it is worth pointing out that while we’ve have 383,000 new jobs created, we also need to look at a couple of other things. For example, where are these jobs being created? As the car industry shuts its doors and banks start laying people off, it’s not simply a case of creating a new job to replace it. Is the job comparable? If Artificial Intelligence can reduce the number of lawyers we need, does creating a demand for more retail workers really help with the country’s GDP? No, I’m not hostile to retail workers and let’s be real, AI and Amazon will probably reduce the number of retail workers needed too. I’m just saying that it’s not enough to simply say as we’ve created x number of jobs then things are going okay. (Interesting that governments always claim the credit for jobs that are created, but never take the blame when jobs are being lost.)
Now, I’m not about to join PHON here, but it is worth noting that In 2015-16, net overseas migration was 182,165 people. There are a whole lot of good economic arguments that migration can be good for growth and whole lot of good arguments that Australia may need to consider the effects on the environment and infrastructure when considering migration numbers, but let’s just leave all that to one side and just use this number with all the carefree abandon of a politician. 182,165 people! Why that’s more than half of the jobs created? Aren’t these people, simultaneously taking our jobs and going onto to welfare because they can’t get work because of their poor English skills? Something like that. Please see Peter Dutton for clarification… (Now there’s a sentence I’ll bet nobody even used before.)
Anyway, as the abandonment of net neutrality means that more and more, the articles you read will be the ones that big companies who pay, are the ones pushed to the top of your searches, all I can do is suggest that any time people start using numbers you think about them carefully. After all, 90% of all statistics are given a misleading spin; the other half are just made up.