Archive for May, 2014

[Note: this is the article that I wish Nate Silver would write.  He’d be so much better at the number crunching.  Of course, he’s also paid a lot more.]

I’m tired of hearing pundits spew their opinions about this, that, or the other.  Let’s face it, most people don’t know anything.

Of course, that includes me, but hey: this is my blog.

I’m using hyperbole; it’s true.  And yet in a country where 9% of people think that space aliens may have caused the disappearance of Malaysia Air flight 370; in a country where 55.56% of Supreme Court justices are completely ignorant about the First Amendment; in a country where sizable numbers of people believe in a 10,000 year-old Earth, and where numerous people doubt facts like global warming, evolution by natural selection, and the supremacy of Matt Damon…in such a country, how can you really take anyone seriously?

OK; I take Neil deGrasse Tyson seriously.  But he’s earned it.

People (of every political ideology) spew forth talking points without any facts to back them up.  Hell, they spew forth talking points without any justification at all.  I have liberal friends who are against GMO foods…even though there is no reason to think they could ever be harmful, and in fact have already saved millions of lives.  (Trivia question: how did Norman Borlaug save a billion people from starvation and subsequently win the Nobel Peace prize?  Answer: genetically modified wheat.)

On the other side, all kinds of nifty-sounding talking points spew from the conservative font, again without even a shred of justification other than “well, that sounds right”.  For example, people claim that less government is good.  Shrinking government is a goal of Tea Baggers.  “Democrats want more government, Republicans want less government…everyone knows that.”  It’s become a cliche, and people don’t even question it any more.

But this is the information age.  We don’t have to rely on our gut feelings, or even our supposed “knowledge”, to evaluate claims like “less government is good”.  We have data.  Why don’t people look at the data and then make up their minds?

I’ll tell you why: because looking at data is hard work.  Let’s face it; most people just can’t do it.  Most people want to be told what to believe.  But I just got tenure, so I have some time.  Let’s try to get to the bottom of this.

It didn’t take me long to find this website, which has nifty (exportable) data on all kinds of economic indicators.  Hey, look, the USA is ranked 12th in economic freedom out of more than 165 countries.  Yay!  We’re doing OK.

What about the size of government?  This is harder to quantify, since it means different things to different people (for example, many Republicans want to “reduce” the size of the US government without touching our defense budget, which is a little like trying to lower world sea levels by draining the Mediterranean Sea).  However, the indicator “Gov’t Expenditure % of GDP” seems pretty good to me.

How does the USA do here?  Do we have a “bloated, huge, nanny state?”  Our spending is 41.6% of GDP.  This makes us rank 47th in this indicator, so about the 72-percentile.  We have a “bigger” government than about 72% of the countries on the list.

Who’s ahead of us?  The supposed “socialist” states are (Norway, Sweden, Findland, Denmark) of course.  Everyone “knows” they are entirely nanny states.  Also: France, the UK, Germany.  The usual suspects.  Liberal, bloated, big government monstrosities.

But also: Cuba!?  Libya!?  Bosnia!?  Iraq!?  Malta!?

Maybe Cuba fits well into the narrative.  Cuba is a Communist country, so of course the commies have huge governments.  (I personally think Cuba is an outlier, since its GDP is pitifully small).  But what about other Communist states?

Hmm.  The narrative is starting to break down.  China’s government spending is about 23.9% of its GDP, almost half the size of the US.  The commies in red China are spending half of what we spend.  Vietnam spends about 30.9% of its GDP.

The talking point that the USA has become a “bloated nanny state” doesn’t hold water.  We’re in the top one-third of spenders, it’s true; but our defense budget is Brobdingnagian to say the least; if you plotted “non-defense government spending as % of GDP” our rank would be much lower.  (Note: I lack the skills to do this…feel free to do so yourself.)

But all this is distraction.  Ultimately, I don’t even know if big government is inherently bad or good, and more importantly, you don’t either.  Admit it.  You’re just guessing.

But we don’t have to guess.  We can try to understand the data a little bit more.

It didn’t take long for me to stumble on the cute Where-to-be-born index, a kind of “happiness index” which takes multiple factors into account like quality of life, health, economics, and so on, in order to rank countries based on where you’d prefer to be born.  (Admit it: you’d rather be born in Australia than Bangladesh.)  So hey, I know how to use Excel: let’s plot Size of Government vs. Where-to-be-born and see if there’s a correlation!


Firstly: there’s not much of a correlation (the R^2 value is only around 0.17).  This is not surprising; the size of government has little to do with anything.  (It certainly shouldn’t be the entire frakking basis for a political movement.)  But what correlation there is, is positive, meaning that as governments get bigger, people tend to get happier.  All the Viking countries are in the upper right.  And those Scandanavians are doing well, dammit!

Some countries stand out.  Russia and China are lower and to the left of the USA, meaning they have smaller governments (is that surprising?) but are also more miserable.  Cuba, though, is a huge government spender…why is that?  Also, what’s the deal with Singapore?  They’re happy and (apparently) almost an anarchist state.  Tea Baggers take note: emulate Singapore.

The main idea I want you to get out of the graph is this:  there’s a lot of noise there.  You can’t really draw any conclusions.  If you want to say that “Big Government Bad!” in the same way that Tarzan says “Fire Bad!” you’d better have some data to back up your claim.  And finding such data is, well, hard work.  Good luck.

And now I’d better get back to studying something I know about: physics.






Read Full Post »