Social security, illegal immigrants and Iraqi civilians killed -- these are just three of many topical issues giving rise to misleading, dubious or uncertain numbers. Clarifying these numbers is important, because which statistics are quoted and stressed helps frame an issue and often determines people's reactions and positions. Here are three numerical/political short stories.
During and since the election campaign, I've read many news stories and watched many TV snippets dealing with President Bush's proposal to partially privatize Social Security. Usually in print and almost always on television, the proposal is said to call for 2 percent of Social Security taxes to be diverted into private accounts. Usually, few other details are provided and the reader/listener, whatever his attitude on the issue, probably comes away with the impression that even if passed, this change would be a tentative, very slow transition that shouldn't cause too much of a problem.
Looking a little further, however, one can find a few stories noting that the 6.2 percent of the average American's taxable income that goes to Social Security taxes will be cut to 4.2 percent. That's a 2 percentage point cut -- not a 2 percent cut, but a 32 percent cut! This will leave a huge hole in Social Security revenues for present retirees.
Why isn't the proposal fairly described as calling for a 32 percent cut in individuals' contributions? I suspect it's because most reporters don't feel confident enough of their basic arithmetic to so describe it.
Another statistic in the news is the number of illegal immigrants coming across the U.S.-Mexican border. A Time magazine story cited an estimate of 3 million illegal aliens annually crossing into the U.S., and this enormous figure has been uncritically accepted by many news and TV networks.
The origin of this number is interesting. Border agents say they apprehend approximately 1 million people annually, but estimate that three times as many people manage to make it across the border. Since three times 1 million is 3 million, an alarmist statistic is born. Ben Winograd, a freelance journalist in Arizona who has studied the issue, has noted problems with both the numbers 1 million and three.
First, 1 million apprehensions does not mean 1 million distinct individuals. It's well known that many people try over and over again to enter the U.S. and are apprehended over and over again. And the factor of three mentioned by border agents is just conjecture. How does one estimate how many people are not apprehended when these latter are, almost by definition, largely invisible? Whatever the real statistic, the 3 million figure has by now attained a life of its own.