Mark Twain was right about lies and statisticsBy WYATT EMMERICH,
By the time you read this in print, we’ll know the election runoff results. It will be a shocker if Bill Waller Jr. wins and does a like-father-like-son upset over a heavily favored and well funded sitting lieutenant governor.
The final 30-minute debate was broadcast throughout Mississippi and portions of surrounding states by Jackson’s WJTV Channel 12 and five affiliated stations.
It was a good debate based on the most important issues. The candidates clearly distinguished the differences in their policies on the major issues.
What intrigued me about the debate is that Tate Reeves and Bill Waller put forth widely diverging facts about two of the most important issues: the highway tax and employment numbers.
In terms of employment numbers, Reeves said there were 88,000 more people working in Mississippi than in 2010. Waller said there were 50,000 fewer people working since then. That’s a difference of 138,000 jobs.
Mark Twain said there were “lies, damn lies and statistics,” but it is amazing that in this day and age of instant facts two candidates can diverge so widely in front of a forum of hundreds of thousands of viewers.
So just out of curiosity, I decided to try to find out who was right and who was wrong. This is important to know both for our understanding of our state leaders and our understanding of the underlying issues. Let’s start with the employment numbers.
Employment numbers should be very straightforward. They are produced by the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which has a public website.
The website shows that for July, 2019 the civilian labor workforce in Mississippi is 1,276,286. But it gets tricky right away. This is a “seasonally adjusted” number. The unadjusted number is 1,307,532
Even more tricky, these numbers are from a survey of the labor force. The bureau looks at another employment number based on “non-farm payrolls.” These are numbers provided by employers. Those July 2019 numbers are 1,171,700 seasonally adjusted and 1,161,500 unadjusted. You can see what Mark Twain was saying.
Now let’s try to find the 2010 numbers. As it turns out, the Bureau of Labor Statistics archives all of its old press releases so I was able to pull up their July 2010 employment report.
The adjusted labor force survey number for July 2010 was 1,298,800 Mississippians employed. This compares to the July 2019 figure of 1,276,286. That would be a decrease of 18,727 employees since 2010.
The unadjusted labor force survey number for 2010 was 1,326,300 compared to 1,307,532 in July 2019. That’s a decline of 18,768 since 2010.
The seasonally adjusted non-farm payroll number in July 2010 was 1,080,300 compared to 1,171,700 in July 2019. That’s an increase of 91,400 jobs since 2010.
The unadjusted non-farm payroll number in July 2010 was 1,070,300 compared to 1,161,500 in July 2019. That’s an increase of 91,200 jobs since 2010.
So the labor force survey indicates the workforce is down about 19,000 since 2010 while the employer payroll survey indicates the workforce is up about 90,000.
In general terms, Reeves and Waller were both right. They were just using different measuring methodologies to back up their claims. However, Reeves’ claim of an 88,000 increase is closer to being accurate than Waller’s claim of 50,000 fewer jobs. Neither one of them nailed the number. The debate was in August and the July figures were readily available. You would think both candidates could have gotten this very important figure right.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics “State Employment and Unemployment Technical Note” states: “The estimates presented in this release are based on sample surveys, administrative data, and modeling and, thus, are subject to sampling and other types of errors.”
Regarding the highway tax, Reeves said Waller’s plan would cost Mississippi families $500 a year. Waller said his plan would cost $6.67 per driver per month. That’s a huge discrepancy.
Waller backed a plan to raise the gas tax 3 cents a year over four years – a total of 12 cents per gallon.
According to the U. S. Department of Transportation, as presented on Wikipedia, Mississippi has 692 vehicles per 1,000 people. With a population of 2.98 million, that’s 2,062,160 cars. The average car is driven 15,000 miles a year and the average miles per gallon is 25. That means the average car uses 600 gallons a year.
If you raise the gas tax 12 cents and buy 600 gallons, that’s $72 per car per year, about $6 per month. So, Waller’s number was dead on.
Reeves was actually talking about a different number. Reeves referred to the average annual cost to an entire household caused by an increase in the gas tax.
The Census Bureau says Mississippi has 1,103,514 households. That would mean an average of 1.87 cars per household. If the per car increase caused by Waller’s proposed gas tax is $72 per car, then the cost per household would be $134 per year. That’s a far cry from Reeves’ claim of $500 per household.
So, regarding the gas tax numbers, Waller was right and Reeves was exaggerating by a factor of four.
So, what does this mean? It means the candidates for our state’s highest office are either deliberatedly distorting vital statistics or don’t know what the real vital statistics are. Either thought is disturbing. Or it could be some staffer was lazy and gave the boss bad numbers.
My takeaway is quite simple: It means Mark Twain was a great American philosopher.