Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Trust in Numbers

The policy geek that I am, I try to look at things from a theoretical standpoint. I don't--at first--look at the actual numbers involved in, say, a tax cut, or a proposed government program, or the demographic outlook of a region. I look at the underlying forces involved and distill it through my awkwardly developed sense of economics and draw my conclusions from that--theories that I hold to be true before crunching the numbers. This is terribly satisfying for me, but it has the rather unfortunate side effect of being completely useless for application in the real world.

Part of me could never figure it out--why was I so disinterested in numbers? You would think that I'd like to shovel down in the details and reach the much anticipated "AHA!" moment, but that almost never happens.

I think I may have figured it out this afternoon--I don't trust anyone's numbers.

I don't trust the government's numbers. I don't care if they are "official" or not, there are so many budgetary gimmicks in use by the government that if you take them at face value I have some guy in Oz I want you to meet.

I don't trust the CBO or the OMB. Well, actually, I trust the numbers themselves--these two departments are as close to accurate government auditors as we're ever going to get. The problem is they more or less have to go by the parameters given to them by Congress and the White House--which, of course, are skewed by politics. If Congress tells the CBO to completely ignore the effect of health care on the economy, the CBO will produce a highly accurate report that I trust--that is also completely useless.

I don't trust journalists. They don't know a thing about how the economy works. Hint: If you see someone who is a "Financial Reporter," that just means they were assigned the financial desk. The extent of their financial training most likely came from the exact sources they are reporting about. Also see: bias.

I don't trust pundits. Pundits all have their partisan opinions, and partisan opinions have a tendency to make shit up.

I don't trust universities, but they're better than the sources listed above. Sometimes you'll get someone who puts their academic reputation above partisanship, but not very often. In addition, academics tend to have the same problem I do--they're theoretical by trade, and that's the lens they look through.  

I don't trust think tanks--but I trust them more than most above. Yeah, they're just as partisan as pundits, but at least they're trained. Instead of just making stuff up, they tend to solve the problem first, then nudge everything until it hits their ideological base.

I'm also lumping ideological magazines in that last point, since they are an unholy combination of journalists and think tanks--they are the closest thing to "enlightened reporters" we have, but step one foot out of the ideological spectrum and you either need to be fired or lose a quarter of your subscriber base, so I don't trust them all that much, either.

When it comes down to it, the best I can do is 1) glean the most info I can out of mainstream news sources, since at the very least it's cheap and plentiful; 2) see what the think tanks, pundits, and magazines that I trust the most say; then 3) cross-check it with universities and non-partisan organizations. To be honest, the end result is just going to be some bastard consensus figure that has just about as much chance at being right as rolling dice.

The Pledge: Basically, I'll just bypass all the "research" nonsense and just automatically knee-jerk the answer out of my head with whatever solution it is that reinforces my extreme personal political position. Everyone else does it, so why the hell can't I?

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