A numbers game

Two minions plus two minions equals a lot of weird chatter and jokes to make 12-year-old boys snort.  Image from Instructables.com.

Two minions plus two minions equals a lot of weird chatter and jokes to make 12-year-old boys snort.
Image from Instructables.com.

Math is a wondrous thing—inherently logical and nonpartisan. Adding 2 + 2 will result in 4, not 57.

So why would someone think that raw numbers were biased to the left? Are they? Is it something Stephen Colbert said? Is it confirmation bias gone a bit wacky?

No, maybe, and sure looks that way.

I’ve talked before about bias, and where it generally enters an equation such as the percentage of partisan votes is in the interpretation, or in the votes chosen to include in the sample.

That is one reason I chose in my column last week to use the calculations from OpenCongress to state, matter-of-factly, the percentage of votes cast with the majority of their party by each member of Arkansas’ congressional delegation. To eliminate questions of bias, OpenCongress includes all votes, even procedural ones and resolutions, rather than selecting “major” votes (major to whom?).

This method tends to lead to a higher partisanship rating for those representatives considered more “independent-minded,” and is, I believe, a more accurate picture of voting inclinations.

The contenders in Arkansas' U.S. Senate race. Image by Danny Johnston, Associated Press.

The contenders in Arkansas’ U.S. Senate race. Image by Danny Johnston, Associated Press.

Pointing out that Mark Pryor’s percentage of voting with fellow Democrats (in the low 80s) is lower than his challenger Tom Cotton’s votes with fellow Republicans (mid-90s) and therefore indicative of a more moderate stance comparatively … well, that’s just stating what the numbers tell us. I can’t help it if reporting those numbers prompts someone to yell “far-left bias.”

I asked fellow bloggers if I had been misinformed all that time that choice and interpretation introduce bias, not the numbers themselves. Thankfully, they assured me that I wasn’t completely crazy.

Susan Richards of Pied Type noted:

These are just raw vote counts. Don’t see how that can be called biased, unless the reader thinks reporting the numbers at all is an act of bias. Sometimes the truth hurts.

Alan G of Some Final Thoughts concurred, adding:

I suspect the reader got his feathers ruffled when you made the specific comparison between Pryor and Cottonat least that’s my guess. The fact that you were quoting facts was irrelevant.

Whew! So I don’t need to get the tinfoil hat ready just yet.

Former Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln was the youngest woman elected to the U.S. Senate, and first woman to head the Agriculture Committee, but took a hit over her vote on the Affordable Care Act, and lost her seat. Image from Associated Press.

Former Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln was the youngest woman elected to the U.S. Senate, and first woman to head the Agriculture Committee, but took a hit over her vote on the Affordable Care Act, and lost her seat.
Image from Associated Press.

Looking back at a former senator from Arkansas, we find that Blanche Lincoln was slightly more moderate than Pryor, with whom she often voted, at 80 percent of her votes with her fellow Democrats. Considering the dozens of party members with voting records with significantly higher party-line percentages, calling either Lincoln or Pryor extreme left, then, seems illogical, at least on the basis of the math.

And that “most liberal” president characterized as the most moderate of the Democrats charted by a group of political scientists? Apparently noting multiple times that the chart  is virtually meaningless because of the methodology and constraints behind it still gives credence to the characterization.

Perchance if I’d said that Barack Obama is a rabid socialist and Muslim bent on world domination, the reader would have been happy. I, though, wouldn’t be because that’s not factual.

GIF from comicvine.com.

GIF from comicvine.com.

But numbers and facts are inconvenient in politics, which is why so many political ads use cherry-picked “facts.” I use the air quotes here because many of the claims (in ads from both sides) are factual only in very specific instances … on Tuesdays … when it’s raining in Perth, Australia … and Taylor Swift isn’t in a relationship.

Use numbers that show more of a willingness on the part of one person to compromise, and it’s apparently evidence of socialistic tendencies, both on the part of the compromiser and the person who used the example.

Both Cotton and Pryor have stretched the truth or outright lied in their campaign ads. Image from KATV, Channel 7, Little Rock.

Both Cotton and Pryor have stretched the truth or outright lied in their campaign ads. Image from KATV, Channel 7, Little Rock.

Campaigns do use numbers in a variety of misleading ways, including using fabricated or meaningless numbers, making claims not supported by the numbers, cherry-picking data and misleading comparisons. This is why voters need to seek out original sources of information (such as full voting records available at OpenCongress, the Senate or House clerk’s sites and others) rather than take as unvarnished truth what we’ve been told in commercials, on TV or radio or the print media, and certainly what we’ve seen on the Internet.

The news media’s job is not to tell you what to think, but to give you information with which you can make an informed choice. So yeah, you have to do a little of the work yourself. Sorry about that.

****

I admire beyond words those who stand up for their principles. However, as I said last week, that’s entirely different from much of what has gone on in Congress over the past several years.

Something that doesn't happen enough: compromise. Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, left, reaches across the table to shake hands with Rep. Fred Upton (R) of Michigan after bipartisan House and Senate conferees signed a compromise agreement on the payroll tax cut extension. Image by  J. Scott Applewhite/AP.

Something that doesn’t happen enough: compromise. Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, left, reaches across the table to shake hands with Rep. Fred Upton (R) of Michigan after bipartisan House and Senate conferees signed a compromise agreement on the payroll tax cut extension.
Image by
J. Scott Applewhite/AP.

Obstruction, which seems at times to be the only offering, is not a principle to be admired; but being willing to work with others to construct a compromise that works for the majority of constituents, that’s public service. Government has a hard enough time trying to do anything, so why spend all your time trying to keep it from doing even the simplest things it’s tasked with doing … unless the purpose is to overthrow it … surely that wouldn’t be it, though.

I’m far from the only person who thinks this way. Numerous polls, such as several from Pew Research, have shown that Americans on the whole (no matter the party) want Congress to compromise when needed. Yes, fewer Republicans than Democrats polled wanted compromise, but in this atmosphere, that’s to be expected. What’s important is that even when constituents ask representatives specifically to do something, many are ignoring what has been requested, and not necessarily because it’s a bad deal. Bad politics, maybe …

****

Former U.S. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt of Arkansas is from the era when serving constituents, not oneself, was the rule.  Image from Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.

Former U.S. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt of Arkansas is from the era when serving constituents, not oneself, was the rule.
Image from Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.

I grew up in western Arkansas with Republican John Paul Hammerschmidt as my congressman, and was always in awe that he managed to keep an even keel and be fair in his service to constituents over 13 terms in the U.S. House. Among his many accomplishments was spearheading the bill to name the Buffalo River the first national river in the U.S. Not to be forgotten, though, is his service to veterans, which included the initial introduction of the bill to create the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

In 2006, when naming a post-office building for Hammerschmidt was being considered, then-Rep. Vic Snyder had this to say about the former congressman, who more than once crossed party lines to vote his conscience:

He is a kind, intelligent man with good judgment, always very professional throughout his career in his dealings with everyone, regardless of party or class or financial status. He certainly had strong opinions and had his own sense of what was right and wrong, but he always worked in a bipartisan manner.

I doubt we could say that about many of those in Congress now. And what we could say probably shouldn’t be repeated in polite company.

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3 thoughts on “A numbers game

  1. Memory can be tricky, but I’d swear there was a time when campaign advertising sought to inform us honestly about the candidates and their positions on the issues. And I know there was a time when journalists tried to be objective and report the facts. Now the candidates cherry pick, distort, and attack, and journalists have opted for advocacy journalism. It leaves the serious voter having to dig for the truth and the casual voter ill-informed. Little wonder we have what we have in Washington. The John Paul Hammerschmidts of this world are going to get steam-rolled by the party machines (which, thanks to the Supreme Court, are now so well funded as to be virtually unbeatable).

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    • I know, which is one of the reasons I get so angry when I see campaigns trying to tie votes to some hated individual when the truth is far from what they’ve said. I wish I could say it’s just one party doing it, but it definitely isn’t, and that makes me sad for the future of politics, journalism and the country in general.

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