Friday, January 19, 2007

Poverty and flagrant dishonesty.

The worst newspaper in Canada recently published this editorial, "critiquing" the Toronto Star's recent series on poverty in Canada. I felt it deserved to be rather fully picked apart.

Let's begin:
On Saturday, the Toronto Star devoted the whole of its front page to "A State of Constant Dread: Poverty Today," a breathless piece of advocacy that ranks as one of the sloppiest pieces of Canadian journalism we've ever seen.
This from the National Post?
The newspaper's evident goal is to promote a "national strategy" for combating poverty. But if an argument for such a campaign can be cobbled together only by nakedly misrepresenting the available data, as the Star has done, it doesn't say much for the cause. Whatever one's view of poverty in Canada, the Star's journalistic methods are an insult to its readers.
This from the National Post?
The central theme of "Constant dread" is that Canada is suffering a poverty epidemic. According to author David Olive, "one in six Canadians [is] trapped in poverty." Later, he tells us there are "five million Canadians living in poverty, more than one million of them children." Then he serves up the same statistic in a third form, lamenting the "15.5% of us mired in poverty." Having thus established the extraordinary prevalence of poverty in Canada, Mr. Olive proceeds with a stream of leftwing policy recommendations.
And, clearly, if the policy recommendations are leftwing, that's enough to discredit them.
But astute Star readers might have noticed something odd: The statistic at the heart of the article, without which the whole argument falls apart -- the claim that 15.5% of Canadians are "mired in poverty" -- is never sourced. Why?
Well, lessee: population of the country is about 33 million; 5 million divided by 33 million equals about 15.2%. Perhaps Mr. Olive erred in assuming the Post's editors could perform simple arithmetic?
The reason is simple: The statistic is total nonsense. As Statistics Canada itself attests, Canada doesn't have an official poverty rate or an official poverty line -- something Mr. Olive and his editors somehow failed to mention in a lengthy article that purports to comprehensively describe the problem of poverty in this country. And so the number Mr. Olive draws upon might as well have been plucked out of thin air.
There's no official poverty line: well, so what? As long as there's some measure of what counts as "poverty", who cares if it's official? This is basically a covert appeal to authority: unless the stat is an official one, then what it describes does not exist. Pure bullshit.
What, then, is the origin of the 15.5% figure? It has popped up in a number of other media publications, where it typically is sourced to the 2004 value of an official Canadian statistical indicator called the "low-income cut-off" (LICO). But LICO has nothing to do with poverty. Rather, it measures differences in relative wealth among Canadians.
I have to stop and catch my breath at this point. Measuring differences in relative wealth has nothing to do with poverty? What, exactly, does the Post think poverty is if not that some people have less money than others, i.e., they are relatively less wealthy?
To calculate LICO, statisticians measure what proportion of income the average Canadian family spends on food, shelter and clothing. The LICO is pegged at that number, whatever it may be, plus 20 percentage points.
Sounds like a good measure. Take some standard basket of goods, figure out how much most people pay for it, and peg that as the standard amount everyone should be able to obtain.
To understand how baseless it is to rely on LICO as a measure of poverty, consider this: If every single Canadian instantly had his or her income doubled, or tripled ... or multiplied by 100 -- if every one of us became millionaires overnight, and upgraded every aspect of our lifestyles in proportion to our newfound income -- the LICO would remain completely unchanged. (An outdated but widely cited 2000 UNICEF report about child poverty in Canada also yielded a 15.5% statistic -- though it, too, relied on a bogus measure of what its authors call "relative poverty.")
I love how we've gone from "misrepresenting data" to "bogus measures". It's a neat little rhetorical trick which flies under the radar -- unless you're expecting it.

Anyway. I'm not quite sure what the Post believes this little fantasy is proving. It's no big secret that, right now, the worst-off Canadian is better off than the most destitute in another part of the world -- say, Ethiopia -- in the sense that the Canadian has more money than the Ethiopian. So what? That doesn't make the Canadian any less poor, because the Canadian has to live in Canada, and so must deal with Canadian prices for Canadian goods in order to live a Canadian life. Indeed, what the Post's bizarre fairytale (see, now I'm using the same trick they did) omits is that if all Canadians suddenly gained all that wealth, they wouldn't be able to "upgrade" their lifestyles. Seeing as how everyone has so much money now, any merchant with a brain in his or her head would jack up prices proportional to the change in wealth, as would their suppliers, etc. So, all we'd really end up doing is massively debasing the currency. Therefore, the Canadians who are currently below the LICO line would still be below it and would still be poor.
Even if one accepts the false conflation of poverty and LICO,
I really start to wonder what they think poverty is if it's not measured by LICO and it's not relative wealth. We're supposed to believe the conflation is false, but no reason is given whatsoever.
the Star article is still botched. As Statistics Canada reported last year (citing after-tax data), "In 2004 [the last year comprehensively measured], about 3.5-million people were [under the LICO line]. They accounted for 11.2% of all Canadians in 2004, well below the peak of 15.7% in 1996. Among families, the proportion living in low income after taxes declined to 7.8% in 2004 from 8.5% the year before and a high of 12.1% in 1996." In other words, Mr. Olive's own distorted statistical methodology demonstrates that Canada is a country where poverty is a diminishing problem affecting less than 10% of families.
Now who's pulling numbers out of their ass? This "less than 10%" business is completely bogus, given that the Star series talks about people in poverty, not families. A "family" could contain as many people as one likes -- my step-father, for example, is one of seven kids, so his immediate family when he was growing up consisted of nine people. Which is why one should look at the number of people below the LICO line, which is 3.5 million, or 11.2% -- i.e., more than 10%. It's certainly down from 1996, but so what? It's still 3.5 million people, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. The Post thinks this is supposed to make us happy? Why? Because in another 8 years it might go down to 9% of the population?

Let's crunch some numbers to show how bad this "trend" really is. According to Wikipedia, in 1996 the population was 29,610,757. 15.7% of that is about 4,648,889. In 2004, the population was 32,299,496. 11.2% of that is about 3,617,544. So, the percentage increase in population is about 0.1%, while the percentage decrease in people below the LICO line is about 0.3%. So, in 8 years, we can expect, all things being equal (which they aren't, but never mind), the population to increase by 0.1% and the poverty-stricken to decrease by 0.3%. Assuming these trends are steady (for all the Post has told us, they are), what does that look like over time? Well, crunching the numbers, Canada's population should hit 101,369,655 by 2100, and the number of people in poverty is 2,510,005. By 2204, the population is up to a whopping 349,955,541, and the poverty-stricken total 1,689,302. You get the idea. Of course, what I'm doing here is pure rhetorical bullshit. These numbers don't really mean anything, but that's exactly the problem with the Post's "argument". The numbers they're using don't mean anything. what is meaningful -- what matters -- is that there are 3.5 million people who cannot afford what the average family spends on a standard bundle of goods: housing, food, clothing, and the like. This is pathetic. And the Post doesn't care.
And what should Ottawa do to redress this imaginary poverty crisis? Why, implement the same laundry list of discredited left-wing policies the Star has been flogging for years, naturally -- including an increased minimum wage, universal day care and expanded welfare programs. None of these policies would do much to alleviate poverty, of course. As Andrew Coyne pointed out on this page last week, increasing the minimum wage -- Mr. Olive's peculiar obsession -- would actually hurt Canada's poorest workers. Any competent economist might have pointed this out to the Star reader -- if Mr. Olive had deigned to quote any. But instead, the Star writer confined his sound-bites to a cabal of hand-wringing anti-poverty activists and shrill leftwing politicians who are on-message with his "anti-poverty" agenda.
"Competent economist"? lol. I like how they don't actually quote one either, while castigating Olive for failing to do so. Economists are, as far as I can tell, actually somewhat divided on this issue. A slight bump in the minimum wage shouldn't do serious harm to the poorest.

Notice, however, the Post's new rhetorical trick here: they cite three policies, but only "criticize" one. The conclusion they want to force into the reader's mind, of course, is that the other two are just as bad. But universal daycare and expanded welfare are much harder ideas to knock down, and are controversial to a greater extent than minimum wage increases. So, the Post sets up a strawman, knocks it down, and claims to have taken care of a platoon. Absurd.
Interestingly, the piggyback editorial appearing on the Star's Saturday opinion pages makes no mention of the front page story's one-in-six hoax, but rather forthrightly declares that the objective of the newspaper's campaign (of which this is apparently the opening salvo) is to reduce "the gap between richest and poorest."
And this is bad because?
This formulation at least has the benefit of honesty: What bothers Canadian socialists about our prosperous knowledge economy isn't so much absolute poverty, but the broader phenomenon of income stratification, by which hard-working, well-educated, entrepreneurial Canadians exhibit that nasty habit of generating wealth and raising their lot above the national average.
Since the Post likes to sling partisan mud, here's some in their eye: the idea that everyone who has money is hard-working, well-educated and entrepreneurial is dubious, but within the bounds of possibility; the idea that everyone who is hard-working, well-educated and entrepreneurial has money is an absolute farce. It's another tired right-wing cliche that self-improvement will miraculously be rewarded by the wonders of the free market. (I wonder: do the Post's editors know anything about how markets really work?)

There's more than a hint of a drive-by smearing in this passage, as the Post fails to actually consider whether what "socialists" object to is not some people working hard and improving their lives, but people being unjustly rewarded, unfairly punished, and increasing their lot too far. In other words, there should be boundaries in order to make the system fair. "Fair" being a dirty word in the standard right-wing polemicist's vocabulary, there is, of course, no mention of it in this editorial.
The only antidote to such an evil, the Star and others have concluded, is socialism, which reduces income disparities by impoverishing everyone.
More right-wing bullshit. Don't they ever get tired of beating the corpse of the Soviet Union? (Which was not necessarily socialist, nor necessarily doing better now than under socialism. But the facts never stopped the Post from rambling on about nothing, now did they?)
The Star is free to champion a program of national economic suicide -- it's a free country, after all. But we'd appreciate it if they didn't pretend that this campaign was about "poverty."
I suspect the Star's editors, writers and readers would appreciate if the Post didn't pretend that they cared about the poor, while trashing any attempt to improve their situation. I mean, seriously, what's wrong with these people? While it's a nice dream, I suppose, to think that hard work and education will get everyone to succeed, the fact is that it doesn't work that way, and probably never has. The Star draws attention to people who are suffering and, rather than offering a simply critique of the policies, the Post has to go on and on about socialists and economic suicide and the same tired old talking-points everyone has read a thousand times before. Do they just not care? Or are they actually evil?
More importantly, we suspect their readers would appreciate if the Star's editors and authors didn't mangle the evidence to suit their dated, socialist agenda.

It's more than just bad journalism: It's dishonest.

*ring*ring*

"Hey, pot. It's the kettle. Man, I got somethin' to tell you..."

No comments: