Do the Numbers Really Tell the Story?

By Raplh Heller

As always at the beginning of a new year, our attention turns to what the "number-crunchers" claim are the indicators of the directions we should take in the coming year. But caution should be exercised, however, since statistics are known to be manipulated at times to suit a particular political agenda. The panoply of pencil heads engaged in the numbers game go by many names: accountants, economists, statisticians and pollsters - but the two which seem to impact our lives the most are statisticians and accountants. The Economist, the widely respected international British journal, defines a statistician as "an individual who likes working with numbers but who finds the field of accounting much too exciting." Perhaps this is why we need to carefully measure statisticians’ findings since they function in the surreal world of the abstract. So where do these "esteemed ones" tell us to focus this year? Asia.

Asia is the huge marketplace that captured Bill Clinton’s attention roughly 30 seconds after he was reelected, although not for reasons of trade. Of course the statisticians are far too pure to be concerned about aberrant campaign contributions. Actually they are quite accommodating, providing us with numerical lexicons consisting of information ranging from the "useful" (Column A) to "useless" (Column B). So what do they have to say about Asia?

Since we’re having a little fun with this topic anyway, let’s proceed to Column B post haste. It seems that citizens of no fewer than four Asian nations or city-states enjoy longer life expectancy than we do in the U.S., and what is especially interesting if you’re into such things is that in all four — Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, and Singapore — per capita cigarette consumption is higher than ours and per capita medical costs are much lower than ours. Could it be that the single biggest factor in life expectancy is genetics, not smoking or quality of health care? Hillary would be apoplectic over that conclusion - much too simple for a believer in the nanny state. Besides, politicians deal with assumptions; statisticians deal with facts.

Turning to the more serious Column A, a statistical compilation provided by the Heritage Foundation points to some alarming numbers where Nevada is concerned. Recently, statisticians compared each state’s level of foreign exports. Nevada appears fourth from the bottom in the number of jobs supported by

exports to Asia in 1995. Only the Dakotas and Montana have fewer such jobs. Should our legislators take notice of these statistics? Absolutely, if they don’t want to be left in the dust in competition for Pacific Rim commerce since tomorrow’s prosperity probably has more to do with Asia than with the more familiar Europe. Prosperity for us in the next few decades will certainly depend on reaching out to this part of the world.

In addition, consider that while exports to Asia support 2,913 jobs in Nevada, such exports support 31, 985 jobs in isolationist Utah, 116,869 jobs in neighboring Oregon and 20,347 jobs in mostly agricultural Idaho. And it is this sort of consideration that makes scrutiny of Nevada’s highly eccentric tax structure imperative in this year’s legislative session. A few issues ago in Online Nevada, a Business Week survey was cited revealing that between 1985 and 1993 job growth in the 10 lowest-tax states exceeded job growth in the 10 highest-tax states by a whopping 65 percent. Nevada, with the 12th highest per capita tax burden in the U.S., has traditionally ignored such comparative statistics but it will be risky to continue down this reckless, high-tax path much longer.

Column A also holds some statistics which are no more encouraging to Nevadans than the ones considered above. We learned last month that U.S. students now rank only 27th among 41 countries when it comes to mathematics despite the highest per pupil educational costs in the world. And in Nevada per pupil costs have soared upward far more quickly than per pupil costs in most states, yet our students rank no higher than students of most states when it comes to academic accomplishment. In other words Nevada students are simply "average" when measured against a larger group which is in turn "below average" worldwide.

While it’s sometimes a mistake to take certain statistics too seriously, it is not nearly as big a mistake as continuing to ignore comparative statistics altogether. Comparative statistics provide us with the plumb line of how we’re doing when held up against the rest of the world. It’s the difference between the "pencil heads" who produce useless information for information’s sake and the statisticians who give the discerning some mental grist to chew on. Ah, the wonder of statistics! Don’t you wish that government took them more seriously?

Ralph Heller is a NPRI Senior Research Fellow and Online Nevada’s Senior Editor

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