ELUSIVE THINGS! Facts can be elusive things. Just check Seans clear explanation: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, MARCH 2, 2010
The seven percent description: This morning, we chafed again over a featured statistic. The statistic appears in Jeff Zelenys news report about Obamas prescription for low-performing schools. Describing Obamas speech on the topic, Zeleny included this:
Whos right about this mass dismissal, Obama or Weingarten? That of course is a matter of judgment. In this piece at the Washington Post, we thought Valerie Strauss did a good job arguing against the mass dismissal. Now that 93 teachers are toast, Strauss sketched the school boards next step:
Central Falls is Rhode Islands smallest and poorest city, Strauss wrote. (Many Central Falls students are children of immigrants.) There is no evidence that wholesale changes at schools make a difference at schools, she later wrote, though it has been tried repeatedly in districts around the country. For ourselves, weve never studied that topic.
Strauss called the mass dismissal a grand gesture. Who knows? Sometimes grand gestures may even work, though we ourselves would be major sceptics. But lets return to our starting pointto the statistic we highlighted in Zelenys report: At Central Falls High, [Obama] said, just 7 percent of 11th graders passed state math tests.
Weve seen that statistic in many reports. Heres what we havent seen yet:
We havent seen the passing rate for the states 11th graders as a whole. A seven percent passing rate sounds very badbut to quote Ed McMahon, How bad is it? Some states have very hard proficiency tests, which may produce very low passing rates. Some states have proficiency tests which are very easy.
How bad is the Central Falls passing rate, as compared to the rest of the state? Its a fairly obvious question. For that matter, whats the graduation rate for Rhode Island as a whole? (Zeleny says the Central Falls rate is 48 percent.)
Those statistics should be in every report. So far, we havent seen them.
Coming Friday, we think: Bob Herbert did his latest column about charter schools. For various reasons, the analysts writhed as they read it.
ELUSIVE THINGS (permalink): Facts are often elusive things. They can be quite hard to explain. Consider something Ron Brownstein said on Sundays Meet the Press.
It happened during the panel discussion. David Gregory sought a reality check about rising health costs. Brownsteins answer brought our young analysts right up out of their chairs:
Say what? Everyone knows that the Democratic plan would extend coverage to roughly 30 million more people. But according to Brownstein, total national health spending would increase by less than a penny on the dollar between now and 2019 under terms of the plan. Just to show you what perfect rubes we still are, we actually wondered if that could mean what it seemed to say. Could it be? Could it be that the Democratic plan controls costs so much, our total national health spending would only be one percent higher in 2019? One percent higher than now?
Yes, we actually wondered thatand we raced to look it up. In fact, the Medicare actuary (Richard Foster) said this (in December): Under the Democratic plan, total health spending will be one percent higher in 2019 than it is projected to be under current law. As Brownstein said at the start of his statement, there are two ways to look at that:
You can look at Fosters projection as Brownstein did, seeing the glass half full. Wow, you can say. An additional 33 million people will have health coverage. And yet, the nation will only be spending one percent more on health care than were currently projected to spend.
On the other hand, you can look at that fact with your glass half empty. Ugh, you can say. Were constantly talking about the way our nations health spending will keep sky-rocketing absent reform. According to Foster, our overall spending will keep sky-rocketing even if reform is passedit will even sky-rocket a tiny bit more! Especially since we start this game spending two to three times what the sane countries spend, shouldnt an overhaul of our system do somewhat better than that?
You can look at that fact either way. But how many viewers could have explained the fact Brownstein cited? Even we wondered, until we checked, if total health spending would basically languish under reform, according to the actuarys report.
Just a guess: Almost no one who watched Sundays program could have explained Brownsteins fact. Just a guess: That would even include David Gregory, and the rest of his pundit assembly.
But then, facts can be elusive things. Just consider the clear explanation Sean Hannity offered last Friday night, one day after President Obama debated a fact with Senator Alexander.
The health summit occurred on Thursday. Sean had therefore had a full day to get his facts together. And sure enough! The newsman had put his time to good use! In this passage, he quoted the relevant CBO report, thus showing Fox News viewers that Obama had gotten a basic fact wrong. This was his clear explanation:
In a rather clear explanation, Hannity quoted the relevant CBO reporta report which does in fact say, The average premium per person covered would be about 10 to 13 percent higher in 2016 than the average premium for non-group coverage in that same year under the current law. Uh-oh! As compared to what will happen under current law, the average premium per person covered will go up! And that isnt Hannity making that claim! Thats what the CBO says!
Eureka! The Democrats are obscuring the facts, 2.3 million Fox viewers were told. And that was just the number watching this newsmans 9 PM broadcast! (For fuller data, click here.)
Elsewhere in the newsosphere, voters heard something quite different. That very morning, for example, Paul Krugman had included a few more factsand he said that it was Lamar who delivered a whopper:
The average premium will be higher, Krugman noted. But only because the average policy will be more inclusive. This week, weve noted Lamar tossing in yet another fact as this discussion drags on and broadens. The average policy will be more inclusive because of federal regulations, he has noted. According to Lamar, people will buy more coverage because theyll now have no other choice.
Alas! It actually takes a lot of facts to explain the point which is under dispute. Thats why its hard, in sweeping matters like this, to win sweeping political support by arguing about discrete facts. In the course of last Fridays clear explanation, Hannity did quote the relevant CBO report. As Krugman had already said, we guess you could say that he wasn't technically lying.
Its hard to win wide support for a sweeping measure by arguing about discrete facts. Support will more likely be won by the use of sweeping narrativesincluding sweeping narratives which have stood the test of time. A really good narrative just keeps coming back when solons rise to argue health care. Just consider what Candidate Bush said, way back in 2004.
Tomorrow: Whats our line?