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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Using numbers to fake, I mean make, your point

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." - Benjamin Disraeli, as popularized by Mark Twain

I was reading a response in the Dec. 1, 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs "Are Taxes Too Damn High?" by Grover Norquist. I imagine you know what he thinks, and I'm not really planning to debate that one way or another. One paragraph in particular jumped out at me, however. His response essentially castigates Andrea Campbell for her essay entitled "America the Undertaxed" (Here's a linky-link: It was in the September/October 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs).

Anyhow, in this particular paragraph (page 158), Mr. Norquist states: 

 "Still, it is laughable to argue that the present U.S. tax code does not sufficiently take from those who create income and wealth and jobs and give those dollars to those who don’t. The top one percent of income earners in the United States pay 39.6 percent of all federal income taxes. The top five percent pay 61 percent. The top ten percent pay 72.7 percent. The lower half of income earners pay a mere 2.4 percent."

Well, duh! The point that he is not making is that the the top one percent of income earners earn 44% of all the income!!!  So, while his statistics may be correct, they are also misleading (you can tailor and present figures to imply most anything you want). To me, it seems that by coupling these two pieces of information together, the top 1% of income earners are paying a disproportionately small share of the taxes.

Campbell herself makes this point in her reply to his response (phew, so much arguing!), although she is more charitable to Mr. Norquist than I was.  She says that "each income group pays about the same share in taxes as it earns in total income" (top of page 162).

Anyhow, again, my point is not to debate tax policy, just to make the teeny-tiny point that you can't just take a statistic at face value, you have to look at what the numbers say, and often don't say.

Here is something from Todd Snider, one of my favorite musicians:

Now: Who is going to be the next Tennessee football coach?

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