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The Progressive Economics Forum

Tim Hudak’s Troubled Geometry

The Ontario election is in full swing, and the Conservative party’s campaign is guided by a platform booklet called the “changebook.”  It’s an audacious manifesto for significant change in the policy and the philosophy of government in the province, mapping out a long agenda of measures to cut taxes, balance the budget, privatize government assets and agencies, get tough on criminals, change labour laws and arbitration systems to reduce wage increases, end government support for business investments, and many others.  The changebook has drawn criticism from commentators on all points of the political spectrum, most pointedly for its implausible claims to cut taxes, balance the budget faster, yet still increase spending for health and other “priority” services – all funded from very small cuts to non-priority services.

While I disagree with its overall political thrust, of course, when I read the changebook my attention was diverted in a slightly different direction.  I am a self-confessed numbers nerd.  I am never happier than when ensconced in front of a big computer spreadsheet, crunching the numbers, generating correlations, punching out tables and graphs.  And as I examined the numerous charts and graphs that illustrate Mr. Hudak’s platform, niggling concerns began to gnaw away in the statistically-inclined regions of my brain.  The lines were too smooth.  The contrasts too dramatic.  The proportions too extreme.

I got out a ruler to actually measure the bars and circles in the various graphs.  I double-checked the data and the cited sources.  I examined the proportions illustrated in the graphs, comparing them to the numbers contained in the changebook’s text.

There are 13 statistical graphs contained in the changebook.

In fact, not one of the 13 graphs is completely labelled and sourced, consistently scaled, and accurately graphed.  This consistent failure to accurately and completely present the empirical data cannot be ascribed to sloppiness or typographical errors.  The statistical graphs in the changebook have been presented in ways that are clearly unacceptable in normal academic or professional practice.  They consistently mislead the reader about the relative proportions of the variables being discussed.  The changebook’s graphs reflect a consistent willingness to bend the statistical truth, and a disrespect for normal standards of honesty and transparency in written work.  From a group that aims to govern the province, this pattern is deeply concerning.

My complete dissection of the 13 graphs might not be the most thrilling reading (unless, like me, you are a true numbers nerd).  But it casts major questions on the numerical credibility of the Tory platform.   Here’s the link to the full study, called Graphs for Dummies, that was released Tuesday by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative’s Ontario office:

http://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/reports/graphs-dummies

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Comments

Comment from KirbyCairo
Time: September 13, 2011, 6:19 am

I always liked Einstein’s simple approach to politics – summed up in the simple dictum “you don’t have to know anything about economics to know what is right and wrong.” I am sure you are correct about the numbers Jim, but regardless of their numbers, the Tory platform is fundamentally immoral and should always be resisted.

Comment from BobbyB
Time: September 13, 2011, 6:20 am

I have read with great interest the analysis provided about John Hudak and the Ontario Conservative and their “changebook” and am really shocked that a party vying to govern the Ontario electorate can be so downright dishonest in their graphical presentation of the empirical data!

It seems they will stoop low enough to lie to people through their misrepresentations to get elected!

Then if they get elected that would mean they will have assumed the population accepts their lies and they will in all likely hood continue the lies while in office!

Comment from Paul Tulloch
Time: September 13, 2011, 7:15 am

Paul’s highly mathematical Economic Solution – It all starts here- We need more cash to hire Poetry thugs. Have you been beaten to death by a poem lately? You should try it, it feels good to come alive for a second or two. You will know when the death spiral of a poem has you in its grip, cause you won’t feel a thing that you recognize. And that is precisely what the right wingers need to do- start realizing that there is a reality that needs to be embraced, and more of the same 30 years of beating on the working class, like their plans point towards, will only dig a grave for our economy. So if they want to embrace bad number poets, I think the left should embrace poetry and the vision of a better future. There is no space for workers in the tory plan. at least not ones that are alive.

Comment from Bill Bell
Time: September 13, 2011, 8:53 am

This is a great analysis but you need to remember that the average voter is not very bright and can barely read. To be effective it needs to be formatted differently and written more simply. Contrasting graphs should be provided.

For instance, in the case of the ‘overall tax burden’ lie it would be helpful if two graphs could be presented side by side, Hudak’s and a more truthful version. In the more truthful version the bubbles would be sized honestly and the graph would be labelled factually. The commentary would be phrased for people with the usual results of Ontario high schools.

Beautiful job but one should not have to be a nerd to take an interest in this.

Right?

Comment from Frank
Time: September 13, 2011, 11:09 am

This is all well and good, but where is the same analysis done on the Liberal policy book? Premier Dad is just as guilty, if not more so, on stretching the truth

Comment from GC
Time: September 13, 2011, 11:57 am

In response to comments above, I’m not sure Jim’s fantastic analysis is necessarily going to have its biggest impact with the “average voter,” though of course some will read it and be convinced. Instead it will sow some skepticism among journalists, editorial writers, and other influential people who will take further Hudak pronouncements with a bigger grain of salt. And as much as I agree with the moral imperatives that KirbyCairo suggests should guide us, but to say “regardless of the numbers” means that we are willing to concede the definition of empirical reality to the other guys. Nice work, Jim.

Comment from Peter J.
Time: September 13, 2011, 10:07 pm

While the analysis and research are great, I have to nitpick that Note 1 misspells Jeffrey Simpson’s name and provides a date 89 years in the future for another reference. Yes, they’re typos, but when the premise is partly that the changebook’s citations are poor… well, “goes to the witness’s credibility, Your Honour.”

Comment from Purple Library Guy
Time: September 14, 2011, 12:02 pm

This kind of thing is important. We have a political debate in this country which is actually about values and, above all, class interests. But it is represented as a debate about the nature of economic reality, and people normally accept it as such.

The question typically put to us is: Which is correct about how economies work, the right wing “free trade, investment, markets at all costs will grow ‘the economy’ to the ultimate benefit of all”, or the not-right-wing “No it won’t, the economy works better when markets etc are at least restrained some”. But the fact is that the right wing don’t honestly hold the belief they’re peddling, it is merely a useful lie to gain the true objective, which is successful class war. And the way we get to see that is the extreme willingness of the right to lie consistently about the economic facts in order to produce a narrative that supports their story.

(That, by the way, is the fundamental asymmetry between the right and left. Both pursue class war–but because the class the right represents is a small minority, to pursue its gain with broader consent they have to lie about the nature of the general good. Because the class the left represents is the majority, pursuing its good actually does pursue the general good–thus the temptation to lie to gain their ends is much more limited.)

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