A Political Rant About Numbers

One thing that aggravates me about today’s political landscape is the way in which we choose to look at data, specifically numbers. We live in an era where our capacity to collect data, identify trends, and predict likely outcomes has never been better, yet we often tend to latch onto the figures that aren’t particularly important, while ignoring the stuff that is actually a pretty big deal.

I realize that importance is a subjective term, and that a figure that’s important to one person understandably may not be important to someone else. But I do think, from a societal perspective, that some numbers should be widely recognized as being far more important than others.

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about, in the context of some current events:

On Twitter the other day, Stefan Rahmstorf posted this chart of new, confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany, India, Brazil, and the United States:

Rahmstorf is a German oceanographer and climatologist, and I believe that the data he posted was accurate. But his “Without words” analysis doesn’t do the information justice, nor does it bolster the full narrative I think he was going for (or at least the narrative than many took from it).

Since comparative health data like this is something the American media pays a lot of attention to, it’s good to understand what it means.

A number that matters: new COVID-19 cases

As our country works to balance the mitigation of COVID-19 with the re-opening of our economy, it’s all the more important that we pay close attention to the number of new cases (including hospitalizations and deaths), and where they’re happening. The more data we have, the more effectively states and other communities can identify hot-spots, warn of increased risks, and address medical capacity issues.

Testing is a crucially important part of this process. The more testing of people, the better the data. The better the data, the safer Americans will ultimately be.

Somewhat conversely, President Trump has described the uptick in testing as a “double-edged sword,” because it adds to the number of confirmed U.S. cases, and therefore reflects poorly on him (from a purely political perspective). He has even claimed that he ordered officials to slow down the testing for that very reason. And despite members of his administration insisting he was just joking, Trump later confirmed that he was being serious.

Of course, the president’s rhetoric here is foolish (and let’s hope rhetoric is all it is). What’s important is that our testing capacity has gotten much better in the U.S. And while that accounts for some of the upward trajectory in that chart above, it doesn’t account for most of it. In other words, Houston, we have a problem.

A number that doesn’t matter: U.S. COVID-19 cases compared to other countries

When gauging how successful the United States has been at combating the coronavirus — in comparison to the rest of the world — the important figure is not the raw number of infections, hospitalizations, or even deaths. There are a few reasons for that, the most important (and simple) one being that more people live in the United States than in most of those other countries.

Many people in the U.S. media don’t seem to get this, or perhaps they’re just pretending not to get it for the purpose of handing the Democrats a perceived political advantage over President Trump. Rather than comparing the raw numbers (which are always going to suggest that we have a disproportionately high number of coronavirus cases here in the United States), they should be comparing the per capita numbers.

There’s good reason to be concerned with how many cases we’re seeing here, but this defeatist narrative that we’ve navigated through this crisis far worse than nearly every other nation on the planet is a bit over the top.

A number that matters: election polling numbers

Contrary to popular belief, the 2016 election did not discredit major polling organizations. In fact, as I’ve written in the past, the national polls four years ago ended up being surprisingly accurate. It was some local polling in a couple of key swing-states that got it wrong.

While national polling doesn’t necessarily reflect the nuances of the electoral college, it’s a pretty darned good indicator of national sentiment. And right now, the Real Clear Politics national average of polls shows Joe Biden with a whopping 10-point lead over Donald Trump. Other polls show Biden leading Trump in six out of seven key battleground states (though again, local polling has proven less reliable).

None of this is good news for President Trump. Does it mean the election is over? No.

Polls are still a snapshot of time. Lots of things can happen between now and November. But the polls do matter, because they tell campaigns how their candidates are doing with the American people. They identify areas of strength and weakness, and help the campaigns decide when it’s time to perhaps try a new strategy or promote a new message. And right now, what Trump and his team are doing simply isn’t working.

A number that doesn’t matter: election rally sizes

Many of President Trump’s critics had fun mocking the low turnout for his much-hyped campaign rally last Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I wasn’t among them.

In fact, I was somewhat relieved to see those images of an arena only a third full. It signified that while Trump himself may not care all that much about his most loyal fans potentially spreading a deadly virus during a global pandemic, a lot of Oklahomans do care. They put public safety before politics by staying home.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand where the mockery is coming from. Few things matter more to Trump than being cheered by large crowds, and boasting about the level of support he has. That’s why his campaign followed through with the reckless, indoor event. Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale bragged earlier in the week that more than one million tickets had been requested for the event.

In the end, just 6,200 people showed up. It was a big blow to Trump’s ego, and everyone knew it. But it means nothing in regard to Trump’s popularity with the base, nor his chances of winning in November.

On a related note, it sure would be nice to see some consistency from some of Trump’s critics. While it was absolutely irresponsible for the president and his campaign to put together an event that defied many of the administration’s own health-crisis guidelines, it was also careless for other politicians, media figures, an even some epidemiologists to give their blessing to the massive, sometimes shoulder-to-shoulder, George Floyd protests across the nation.

Simply put, COVID-19 doesn’t care about anyone’s political or cultural views. Righteous indignation is not an inoculant against the virus

A number that matters: the national debt

Our national debt recently surpassed $26 trillion. That’s nearly $80 thousand per American citizen, and well over $200 thousand per U.S. taxpayer. Like the Democratic Party, the GOP has lost all interest in addressing the issue. The party no longer even pretends to care about the most predictable major crisis in our nation’s history, which is particularly disheartening being that Republicans absolutely hammered President Obama and the Democrats on this issue for eight straight years. And they were right to. After all, a whopping $9 trillion was added to the national debt during that time.

But amazingly, almost $8 trillion is projected to be added to the debt by the end of Trump’s first term alone. Yes, the recession caused by the coronavirus spurred a big spike in spending. But even before the health crisis came along, during a time when we were seeing unprecedented economic growth and unprecedented tax revenue, Trump was already on pace to outspend Obama.

Every American should care about this, but next to no one still does. The fiscal burden being placed on our children and grandchildren is not only astronomical. It’s also immoral.

A number that doesn’t matter: ratings, clicks, and social media followers

Performative politics have been part of our news-media culture for some time, but the situation has never been as bad as it is right now. The format of nearly every political commentary show on television (and on the Internet) directly caters to one political tribe or another. The goal is no longer to inform or broaden the horizons of viewers, nor is it to present a contest of ideas. It’s to piggyback off of people’s political passion, in order to generate the largest audience possible. This is done by satisfying people’s partisan hunger with hours of angry, animated, confirmation bias.

The same is true of news websites — the ones that publish mostly commentary, anyway. The endless pursuit of web-clicks has led to an extraordinary number of outrageous headlines and ridiculously slanted “stories.” The type of junk that used to be confined to fringe blog sites is now published at the top of major web-outlets whose writers regularly appear as guests on the television programs described above.

Far too many members of Congress are also in on the act, seemingly spending more time showboating on cable news and social media — peddling sycophantism, partisan angst, and maybe even a new book — than they do engaging in anything that resembles a legislative process. The goal for some of these folks, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Matt Gaetz, seems not to represent their constituents, but rather to be celebrities.

Purely from a business standpoint, ratings, clicks, and social media followers do matter. They also clearly matter to the egos of people like President Trump.

But to regular folks, none of this stuff amounts to a hill of beans. And if it does, it shouldn’t.

Because political thought-leadership has been effectively replaced with performative politics, people’s minds aren’t being changed. There are next to no voices of influence left on these media platforms to persuade individuals (including elected officials) to venture outside of their comfort zones, and look at an issue differently than how the leader of their political tribe wants them to look at.

Without the influence of independent thought, political viewership, listenership, and readership most often amount to little more than fandom. Having lot of fans doesn’t make an individual credible or wise. It doesn’t even make them particularly smart. It just means that they are, to some extent, famous.

So, when one of these “famous” folks suggests that he or she is of particular political or societal importance because of their popularity, the appropriate response is a chuckle and maybe an eye-roll.

That said, if any of you choose to follow me on social media, I will not object.

Thanks for sticking with me through this inordinately long piece. This concludes my political rant about numbers.

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