Politics, Numbers, and Government

I have two British friends who dwell on the conservative side of the political spectrum. One of them lives here in the States and the other over in the UK. Less than two years ago  my US Brit friend ran for local office as a Republican. Since then, he’s become increasingly horrified with his party and has started looking into independent conservative parties.

My UK friend, though, living at a greater distance, still seems (to me) to think it’s business as usual in US conservative politics. I tried to disabuse him of that idea — that today’s GOP is nothing like the GOP of the 90s. Or, rather, it’s only like the fringe elements of the 90s’ GOP that were mainly useful for hating the Clintons within boundaries but were otherwise kept on a leash, the ones who tried to put on a good show at Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings. I tried to explain to him that the things these members of the GOP are saying are completely falsified by all available numbers.

And in our little email exchange he blithely dismissed the numbers: “Don’t trust them.” Our conversation ended shortly after that, but it stuck with me because I think it demonstrates widespread conservative misunderstanding about the US government. For one thing, he seems to think that the Federal government is a single entity. But we need to comprehend scale here. The Federal government employed about 2.7 million civilians and about 4.4 million people overall, if we include the military, as of just a couple of years ago.  As of the beginning of June 2017, Trump had appointed maybe a handful of people to posts: certainly less than 100. The US federal government is a vast complex of different departments largely staffed by people who stay in these positions for years, regardless of who holds the Office of the President or who is in Congress.

That is also true of the entities that gather our data, like the Congressional Budget Office or the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This independence has been painfully illustrated by the recent numbers coming out of the Congressional Budget Office about the GOP’s latest iteration of their attempts at health care reform. According to the CBO’s latest numbers, the current GOP plan would cause 32 million people to lose health insurance over the next ten years.

Now keep in mind that the GOP currently controls all three branches of government. It can’t grease its wheels much more than that. And this control extends to Congress, which oversees the office producing these numbers.

If government numbers weren’t to be trusted, the CBO would be working for the party in charge right now by spitting out falsified numbers that make the GOP healthcare plan look good. But, it’s not.

The fact is, for the most part the federal government, as an entity, carries out business as usual regardless of who is in power. If it didn’t, this country would be in a much bigger mess than it is. The entities that gather our data attempt to do so to the best of their ability, and being who they are, remain the best source of information about the US economy, jobs, education, and a host of other segments of our society. This general distrust of “government numbers” can only proceed from an inattention to the facts or, in other words, ignorance.

Pay attention to the numbers. They mean something.

Reporting this Week on Electric Cars

Here’s the problem with reporting on electric cars: According to the infographic below, there are about 6 million car accidents in the US every year, while 3 million people die in car accidents every year, but if one thing goes wrong with one electric car, it’s national news.

Tesla started collecting data on its users’ driving habits in October of 2014 and in November of 2015 activated its first Autopilot feature on these cars. Tesla has now released its first truly self-driving car. These cars have logged millions of miles of driving time since their release, and the first accident caused by autopilot just occurred April 29th when a Model S started itself up and drove under a trailer. One recent headline introduced the story this way: “Tesla’s first self-driving accident just happened: it’s time to start a serious discussion.”

So, 3 million people die in about 6 million regular car accidents every year, and no one questions that, but when Tesla’s product has one crash, we need to have a serious discussion. Similarly, there are about 152,000 car fires every year resulting in about 200 deaths and tens of millions of dollars of property damage (and never mind that these occur in cars carrying around its own thermal bomb in the form of a gas tank), but the handful of car fires caused by the lithium-ion batteries in electric cars — including about three Tesla cars (three total) — cause some people to question the use of electric cars and lead to demands for a federal investigation.

Tesla and other EV car makers do of course have an obligation to make their products as safe and as mistake-free as possible, even dummy-proof, but reporting on isolated or minimal safety incidents related to electric cars seems to lack a reasonable sense of proportion. Just look at the infographic below. That is what we’re willing to live with every year. We should be questioning that first.

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