09 January 2012

Politics and Numbers #nlpoli

Regular readers of these scribblers will recall that we’ve discussed some problems that people have with math. 

More specifically we’ve talked about numeracy problems, which is a little bit different.  That’s not just the arithmetic functions – add, subtract, multiply, divide – but also with things like logic and reasoning.  According to some sources, as many as two out of every three people in Newfoundland and Labrador lack the basic ability with math and logic to function in a modern society.

That gets to be a pretty scary idea when you realise the importance of numbers, counting, math proportions and all the other number-related ideas that we run into during the course of a day. 
Numbers play a big part in politics just like they do in everyday society.

One of your e-scribblers favourites was the notion of the provincial government being too poor to spend money on this that or the other. It’s a line the current crowd ruling the place used to toss out when ordinary people wanted something, even though the Conservatives always managed to come up with billions of public dollars for their own projects.

We are talking before 2008, mind you. Back then, Danny Williams got a lot of political mileage by making all sorts of wild and in some instances completely false claims about the state of the province’s finances.  When it came to federal transfer payments,  the level of false information was truly astounding.

Somewhere in the midst of all that your humble e-scribbler called one of the radio talk shows and threw some numbers on the table.  The regular callers, some of them fairly obvious government plants were spouting off all sorts of thoughts and ideas.  Around the same time, the guy who is currently the Bloc NDP member of parliament for St. John’s South-Mount Pearl ran a newspaper.  His “balance sheet” on Confederation contained a raft of information carefully selected to “prove” his predetermined conclusion.

Anyway, what your e-scribbler tossed out were then- current figures on what each government spent each year in total on public services.  The figures also came for different sectors.  They were delivered on a per capita basis.  That means the numbers showed how much the government spent for each person within the province.

Newfoundland and Labrador spent more person than any other province in the country in total and definitely in some sectors like health.  Total spending.  Divide by population.  There’s the answer.  To make it even more difficult, your faithful scribe took numbers produced by the dominion statistics bureau.

The first response by the callers who followed was total rejection.  Not true.  Must be lies by that evil federal agent, the notorious “blogster”.

Go back to March 2007 and you can find another, related example.  Danny Williams complaining about the federal government and Equalization.  A simple demonstration by your humble e-scribbler – using some basic math – that Williams’ claims were, if not unfounded, pretty much irrelevant.  The provincial government would get four times as much per capita in oil revenues as the supposed loss from federal transfers.

A post by John Sides at The Monkey Cage prompted this post at SRBP. “Americans and Innumeracy” discusses not only the same sort of problem with numbers but also the idea of whether or not being bad at math is normal for humans.  Note that the problem Sides discusses is similar to the one in this province:  people believe things that are not true.  That’s the root of the problem with people estimating immigration figures wrongly:  they don’t know the facts so their beliefs lead them to miscalculate the figures when they are asked to do so.

That’s a bit of a different problem that not being able to do the math in the first place.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the basic political problem with numbers hasn’t gone away. 

The most obvious issue is polling.  Those links cover the whole thing and since the issue is full of problems with math and understanding what the numbers mean, there’s no easy way to summarise it.  Let’s just say that the consistent misreporting of poll information has served as the basis for a huge political myth in this province that’s driven a raft of other things along.

You can see it in the fishery crisis, too.  Plenty of people, including those arguing most strenuously against any change at all, don’t seem to know any of the numbers involved.  If they did, they wouldn’t be seriously suggesting that keeping people chained to a splitting table for poverty wages is a good idea.  Some others quite clearly do know the numbers and they argue against change anyway.

One of the numbers they should be looking at ties back to  this post from four years ago on local dependence on federal income support.  The gross provincial numbers may have changed but their ideal fishery still works on the idea that people make some money from their labour and the taxpayers cover the rest. 

You can see the numbers problem in the Muskrat Falls project, although there it’s a bit different.  The more people learn, the less they like the idea.  And a lot of that has to do with a detailed analysis of the numbers on demand, supply and export potential.  The numbers don’t add up to support the project. People actually get those numbers.

Meanwhile, the Equalization and federal transfer thing just came back in a rather curious way.  Old Tory warhorse Norm Doyle just got a sweet plum appointment to the Antechamber to the Kingdom of Heaven. After a stint in provincial politics (first elected 1979, retired 1993), Doyle took off for Ottawa as a member of parliament (elected 1997 election, and retired in 2008). Now he’s back as a senator (another fat salary, a light workload and pensionable time). 

Doyle claims he just couldn’t handle retirement so he looked for a way back into politics.  Apparently volunteering on a party committee wasn’t enough.  And if he couldn’t handle retirement, counselling would have been cheaper for taxpayers for his personal (couldn’t volunteer or find a job or hobby) or psychological dysfunction but that’s another issue.

Doyle, you see, was a federal Tory who used the Equalization myths pushed by the provincial Conservatives to his own federal political advantage.  And then, when the political winds shifted, Doyle went with them federally.

The provincial myth mongers used that against Doyle, now rebranded as a traitor.  One e-mail correspondent to SRBP raised that issue after news broke of Doyle’s latest political gig.  The same issue is now starting to circulate on the Internet, not surprisingly from some of the most persistent purveyors of false and misleading political information. 

Funny how those numbers came back to bite Doyle on his political ass.

- srbp -