Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

I know I’m swamped with this whole Greenlight contest, but I am trying to at least skim the headlines, the opinion columns, and such. And this past weekend, I saw something that made my blood boil. George Will, in his weekly column entitled “The 1st 28 Questions for Kerry,” said the following: “You say the rich do not pay enough taxes. In 1979 the top 1 percent of earners paid 19.75 percent of income taxes. Today they pay 36.3 percent. How much is enough?”

Anyone who knows the first thing about statistics could see that this was a flagrantly misleading statement. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans don’t know anything about statistics. The flaw in Will’s assertion was immediately obvious to me: With the radical reconcentration of weath in that top one percent since 1979, the numbers are meaningless. I pointed it out to Pam right away, and she nodded agreeably (she tolerates my occasional rant that way). I swore I’d track down the actual numbers, but having neither the time nor a starting point for my investigation, I had to let it slide.

Fortunately, someone else was paying attention. Specifically, two someones. In yesterday’s Post, there were two letters raising exactly the same point that I wanted to make, only they’d actually gone out and gotten the numbers.

Michael Kornspun, of North Salem, New York, points out that in 1980, the “top 1 percent” Will mentions had an 8.5-percent share of national income, whereas in 2001, that amount was more than double that, a whopping 17.5-percent share. Of course the top one percent is paying more (84 percent more, to be precise) — they’ve got more of the money.

Leroy Hall, of Ridgefield, Connecticut, adds that the individual tax rate paid by that one percent actually decreased — from 22 percent to 20 percent — while that of the remainder of the population increased from 13 to 15 percent (I have to assume Hall is referring to averages for the group, as the letter doesn’t go into greater detail about the numbers).

Of course, both of these letters received a small portion of newspaper space, as compared with the space allotted to Will’s column; the likelihood that anyone swayed by Will’s argument will ever read them is exceedingly small. All the more reason to trumpet them at every available opportunity; rarely are we presented with an example of deception that is so easily seen for what it is.

If anyone can find a more widely-read debunking of Will’s flagrant misuse of statistics, let me know as soon as possible. We’ve got to use every weapon at our disposal to counter these damn lies.

I’m sorry, “statistics.”


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