Saturday 3 December 2011

Massaging the picture

Peter Black shows a neat little graphic on his blog comparing the actual level of spending cuts being made by the coalition government with the level of cuts pledged by the various parties in advance.  It is, like so many Lib Dem graphics, simple, clear, effective - and utterly misleading.

The first way in which it misleads is by starting the scale at around £75billion.  Shortening the scale in this way gives the impression that the difference between the figures is much larger than is actually the case.  A scale which started at zero would give quite a different impression - it would show all the figures tightly bunched together around one point on the scale.

And if the figures being compared were those for total expenditure rather than simply the extent to which that expenditure is being reduced, then the bunching effect would be even more pronounced.

The second way in which it misleads is that it gives the impression - without actually saying so - that because the actual total is closer to the Lib Dems pledges than to the Tories' pledges, then the Lib Dems can take the credit.  That would be a wrong conclusion on two counts.  

The first count is that the actual figure isn't what the government was actually aiming it - it's come out lower than planned because the government has got its figures wrong, not because the Lib Dems have been clever and influential.  And the second count is that the reason that the government has got it wrong is because their underlying assumption - that the private sector would take up any slack - has been proved to be utterly wrong.  In effect, the government is simply switching public expenditure from productive - paying people to do things - to unproductive - paying the same people to do nothing.

There are two lessons which can be drawn, however.  The first is that the debate about different levels of public expenditure is concentrated - in London, just like in Cardiff - on a very narrow range, with very small differences being greatly exaggerated.

And the second is that government can't really control either the economy or the total level of public expenditure to the extent that they claim.  (Chris Dillow had a good piece yesterday about some of the reasons that they claim more influence than they actually have.)

Spin and fancy graphics are no substitute for substance.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

You can't blame them for trying - but this is a clear example of why the lib-dems deserve our trust even less than the tories - at least with the Tories you know exactly what a nasty bunch of dogma you are getting.

Could I just add that it must have brought a tear into every Welsh eye today to see the great Welshman Shane Williams going out in such magnificent style!