I’m pretty wary of letting facts and figures, alone without context, interpret themselves. Whenever a person presents me with an impressive statistic about an issue I don’t understand very well, I feel pretty weird about responding back with an affirmative value judgment, even though the person is usually expecting one. (When somebody tells me about the astounding jolt in the price of stocks for today, or the White House’s latest multi-million dollar expenditure, I’d say flatly and kind of sarcastically,” Wow! That sure is a big (or tiny) number!”) Say you decide to report to me that the unemployment rate in the United states is at roughly 5%. Depending on the tone and the way you present the fact, you could be using it to push for basically any political or ideological persuasion you choose. “5% of the population?” you might say, “That’s 16 MILLION victims of an unfair system, in distress, unable to provide for their families. And for your information, 16 million is a really big number.” Or, instead, you could pull up all the long-term trends of unemployment in the US since the 1920′s, and say, “Wow! It hasn’t been as low as 5% in decades, and at this current rate of improvement, it seems to be outpacing the societal progress we’re seeing in a lot of other fronts.” Both narratives dress the same statistics in different clothes, and try to sway people in very different directions, and sway their favor for many different policies.
But lately, the subject of discussion in the more recent economics lectures I’ve attended this semester is about income inequality. Slide after slide of different ways to show our country’s distribution of wealth…whoa. Coming into class, I was worried that this was going to be a pretty politicized lecture and that the overhanging cloud of everybody’s (reliably left-leaning) opinions would obscure the multi-faceted truth about what’s happening in the economy. But yo. Seeing the abysmally low portion of income allocated to the lowest quartiles of the US, I find it pretty tough to find reasons to justify another side to this data, to justify that this current state we’re in is acceptable. I think in uncommon cases like this, for me, the numbers sorta do explain themselves, and graphs I see are pretty darn compelling. The inequality of wealth situation is sucky, and it should change. Is this me, falling prey to the same bias and careless thinking I was trying to avoid in the first paragraph? Perhaps. But still. THE NUMBERS SAY IT ALL!!!