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Thursday, January 23, 2003

 
THACKER THACKED, er, SACKED.

on the Jerry Thacker news below -- CNN reports that:

A Christian activist chosen by the White House for a presidential AIDS advisory panel is withdrawing his name under pressure after characterizing the disease as the "gay plague," along with other anti-homosexual statements.

The administration had chosen Jerry Thacker to serve on the Presidential Advisory Commission on HIV and AIDS. He was to be sworn in along with other new commission members next week by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.


Ari Fleischer, as ever, was on the scene with duplicitous damage control:

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, while neither confirming nor denying the withdrawal, issued a stern rebuke of Thacker's statements.

"The views that he holds are far, far removed from what the president believes," Fleischer said. "The president has a total opposite view. ... The president's view is that people with AIDS need to be treated with care, compassion."


"Far, far removed ..." from the president's views. That's why Bush selected him for an advisory panel? This is a pattern with this White House --

1. Nominate someone with a racist/sexist/homophobic paper trail and hope they sneak through.

2. If the press gets wind of it, deny you knew anything about it, recoil in feigned horror, and nominate somebody else with a similar background/worldview.




posted by Fred Clark 3:44 PM

 
MINNER FOR PRESIDENT?

She's less under-qualified than the incumbent.

Al Mascitti, columnist for the lowest-state's Gannet rag notes that while Gov. Ruth Ann Minner's record is a bit underwhelming, it's at least less unimpressive than former Gov. George W. Bush's was:

George W. Bush's modest record as governor of Texas didn't keep voters and the Supreme Court from putting him in the White House.

When you get down to it, what does Bush have that Minner can't match? An image of being tough but compassionate? Check. A soft spot for education initiatives? Check.

A rough-hewn stump style that pains political consultants but charms audiences, who consider it proof they're not listening to some slick, packaged politician? Check.

An inner circle dominated by political graybeards whose ties to industry have prompted questions about some of her policies? Check.

A rich, politically prominent father to pave her way, first in business, then in politics?

No way -- which is why, as the Democratic Party's 2004 candidate, she might be able to give the national GOP fits. It wouldn't be class warfare to note that while the president was drifting through life on his father's connections, Minner was a working single mother making her own way in a good ol' boys' world.




posted by Fred Clark 3:35 PM

 
97 PERCENT FREE OF GROSS MISCONDUCT.

From the Diamond State's paper of record.

The Supreme Court of Delaware recently threw out the drug conviction of a Virginia man because of misconduct by the prosecutors in the case. The court's unanimous ruling cited a "pattern of prosecutorial misconduct."

Now the state's Attorney General, Jane Brady, is asking the court to reconsider it's decision:

"The court noted that Hunter's case 'is the fifth appeal in one year where the court found prosecutorial misconduct,'" wrote Loren C. Meyers, chief of the appeals division for the Attorney General's Office. "Were there only a handful of criminal trials in Superior Court in a year, the court's observation might have force."

But he said a search by the office from 1992 through 2002 found 64 cases in which a claim of improper conduct was made on appeal. The motion did not indicate how many of the appeals were sustained. "The issue might arise with depressing regularity, but five or six cases every year out of an average of 144 trials each year, is hardly evidence of prosecutors out of control," Meyers wrote.


Misconduct? Sure -- but only a little. What's a "handful" of people denied justice every year? So what if five or six people are wrongfully convicted every year -- it's a small price to pay to get those other 138 or 139 creeps off the streets.

Meyers and Brady are actually proud that their office is 97 percent misconduct-free. Let's hope these people are never put in charge of an airline.

The kicker quote from the Attorney General:

Brady said her office has high standards, adding that the Hunter case involved an error by the prosecutor. "People make mistakes," she said.

And apparently the mistake of prosecutors -- unlike the mistakes of the defendants -- should be free of consequence.

posted by Fred Clark 3:26 PM

 
JERRY THACKER SPEAKS.

Excerpts from When AIDS Comes Home.

Atrios writes:

The Bush administration has chosen Jerry Thacker, a Pennsylvania marketing consultant who has characterized AIDS as the "gay plague," to serve on the Presidential Advisory Commission on HIV and AIDS.

He also dug up plenty of background -- including Jerry Thacker's own Web site and cache copies of the pages Bob Jones University eliminated from its site.

The name Jerry Thacker rang a bell. I've got an old copy of his book, When AIDS Comes Home. It was given to me for a possible review in PRISM magazine. The book had been described to me as the story of an ultra-conservative who had a change of heart after he and his wife contracted HIV from a blood transfusion in 1986. That's more or less accurate, except for the change-of-heart part.

We didn't review the book because: 3) it was from a vanity press; 2) it wasn't very well written; and 1) Mr. Thacker had, to put it mildly, issues. (Mr. Thacker notes -- over and over and over -- that unlike most people with the disease, he hadn't done anything to "deserve" it.)

For your fuller appreciation of the kind of people who will be shaping White House policy on AIDS -- people who, like Jerry Thacker, describe themselves as "right-wing, fundamentalist Christians" -- here are some excerpts from Mr. Thacker's self-published book.

Please read these, if you can, with the charity due to those hit hard by this disease. Mr. Thacker's intent, according to the blurb he wrote for the back of his book, was to "challenge all Christians to examine their attitudes toward this disease and to react in a loving, Christlike attitude to those afflicted by it." The book does no such thing, really, but at least he was thinking of it.

= = = = = = = = = = = =

The doctor asked questions one would expect from the man who is in charge of supervising a community blood bank. Any drug use? No. Any blood transfusions? None for me, but yes, my wife had 4 units at the birth of our last child. Any homosexuality? No. Multiple sexual partners? No, just one in my entire life.

How happy I was to be able to tell him that my wife and I had been pure as teens and that there had been no extra-marital sex in our lives together. God had preserved us from these sins through the years, and now that our lifestyle was indeed under microscopic scrutiny, I was glad for his preserving and keeping.


= = = = = = = = = = =

[At a 1986 meeting of his local church's all-male leadership team, the discussion turns to AIDS.]

To understand the heaviness of this topic, you must understand a bit of the mindset of right-wing fundamentalist Christians. The sin of homosexuality has long been one of those considered worthy of death. That was the Old Testament Jewish response to sexual immorality with either an adulterous man or woman or with two men engaged in sex. In our time, many pastors still believe that the only way AIDS can be transmitted is through these heinous activities. In a way, admitting that you have been exposed is admitting that you are a sinner of the worst possible magnitude.

= = = = = = = = = = = = =

I've always been a fighter. I like the challenge of being able to outdo someone else, not for anything like the perverse and prideful feeling of being better than them, but just for the sake of competition and accomplishment.

Knowing that my wife and I both have been exposed to a virus that could result in incurable disease brings out a number of different responses in me at different times. Anger, despair, hope and worry are all part of the emotions of something like this. One of the first reactions is to fight.


= = = = = = = = = = = =

I think one of the most interesting reactions to AIDS has come from right-wing Christians. They are very quick to condemn homosexuality, which is the scripturally right position to take, but they are also quick to decry this disease as God's judgement on the sinner. While that may indeed be the case, it should also be remembered that as a result of sin, many people who have nothing to do with the acts of sin committed by homosexuals may be harmed.

It is important to distinguish between a sexually borne disease and the derivation of the disease itself. While the Scripture condemns sodomy -- it was a crime punishable by death in the Old Testament -- people who have contact with this sexually or blood-transmitted virus will indeed come from all socioeconomic strata and religious persuasions.

Probably the most harmful aspect of the condemnation of the religious right and the equating of AIDS with homosexuality is the pressure placed on the federal government to give AIDS research a low priority.


= = = = = = = = = = = =

When someone you know comes to you and tells you you that he or she is HIV infected, it will probably come as a result of one of two things. Either the person has been involved in sin -- such as promiscuity, homosexuality or drug use, or has been infected through accidental contact with contaminated materials as a part of their job responsibilities. Either way, there will be a need for compassion and caring.

While I do not claim to be a psychologist or psychiatrist, it is my understanding tht homosexual conduct is a learned habit -- an acquired sinful lifestyle. As such, its remedy includes the recognition of it as a sin, the recognition that it is the product of a process of wicked thinking, and something to be repented of. My first response to a person who would come to me and tell me of their homosexuality would be to arrange counseling for them with a qualified Christian nouthetic counselor. Since the patterns of sin that lead to such a lifestyle are not instantly developed, they probably will require time to be reversed. ...


= = = = = = = = = = = =

The above is from Jerry Thacker's book When AIDS Comes Home.

(Just wanted to reiterate that point in between those excerpts and my name below.)

posted by Fred Clark 8:49 AM

 
THE NO-CLASS PRESIDENT (cont'd.)

MoDo weighs the populist posturing of pork-rind patricians.

Go read Maureen Dowd. Ms. Dowd can be annoying when she's over-eagerly "tweaking" some official -- she often seems more concerned with saying something "quotable" rather than something true. But her latest here offers some actual insights, I think, into the president's noblesse sans oblige:

The Bushes see the world through the prism of class, while denying that class matters. They think as long as they don't act "snotty" or swan around with a lot of fancy possessions, that class is irrelevant.

They make themselves happily oblivious to the difference between thinking you are self-made and being self-made, between liking to clear brush and having to clear brush. ...

The Bushes seem to believe that the divisive thing in American society is dwelling on social and economic inequities, rather than the inequities themselves.

When critics of W.'s tax cuts say they favor the wealthy, the president indignantly accuses them of class warfare. That's designed to intimidate critics by making them seem vaguely pinko. Besides, there's nothing more effective than deploring class warfare while ensuring that your class wins. It is the Bush tax cut that is fomenting class warfare.


Yes.


posted by Fred Clark 6:21 AM

 
"CLASS WARFARE": A CLARIFICATION.

1. George W. Bush likes to screw the poor.

2. His doing so is a form of class warfare.

3. If one were to respond or retaliate by saying, "Screw the rich," that might also constitute class warfare.

4. Bush's detractors, myself included, have not responded in this way.

5. The overwhelming response to Mr. Bush's repeated efforts to screw the poor has been people saying things like:
-- "Don't screw the poor, Mr. Bush," or
-- "Stop screwing the poor, Mr. Bush," or
-- "It is immoral and evil the way you screw the poor, Mr. Bush," or
-- "Thou Shalt Not Screw the Poor," or even simply
-- "I would prefer that Mr. Bush did not screw the poor."

6. Statements such as these do not constitute class warfare. They are simply attempts to defend the weak against the powerful and to treat the wounded before the next onslaught.


posted by Fred Clark 1:44 AM

 
I WAS AT&T'S BOY-TOY.

Do us all a favor and switch to Working Assets.

A few years back, mired in the low- and no-cashflow nonprofit world, I found myself perpetually three days short. It wasn't that I was short of money, exactly, just that the month seemed to be about three days too long for the funds I had available. (I was actually on-budget in February, but the double-whammy of July-August hit hard.)

Then one day without warning I received in the mail a check for $100.

This was like one of those George Mueller miracle stories. All I needed to do to cash this check -- this manna, this providential miracle -- was to switch my long distance service to AT&T.

I had qualms, of course, about being Ma Bell's boy-toy, but I needed the money. And it seemed more respectable, actually, than some of the other somewhat ill-conceived schemes I had for supplementing my income. I cashed the check.

That was years ago. I've since moved and I'm no longer AT&T's little plaything. But they want me back.

Last week I got a check in the mail. It's from AT&T, and all I have to do to cash it is switch back to their long distance service.

But the check is for $15.

How insulting. (Me: What kind of customer do you think I am? AT&T: We've already established that, now we're just haggling over price.)

Anyway, the point here is there's no need to sell out. You can get affordable, reliable, no-hassle long distance while also making the world a better place from the good people at Working Assets -- and your phone bill will help support charities like Habitat and Greenpeace.

And if you sign up now, as a thank-you, they'll send you a coupon every month for a free pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream!

(NOTE: Yes, I admit the ice cream did influence my decision. And yes, 12 pints of Ben & Jerry's are actually worth more than $15. But I'm not selling myself. Working Assets bought me dinner. AT&T just wanted to write me a check.)

posted by Fred Clark 1:26 AM


Wednesday, January 22, 2003

 
PRESIDENT JAR JAR.

George W. Bush exposed as CGI creation from Lucasfilms.

Go now and look at the pictures Atrios has up (scroll down to the item labeled BOXGATE).

It seems the president's puppeteers insist on a sloganeering backdrop whenever they stage an event. In this case, the backdrop -- a clumsy, community-theater-ish job that the quality control people at Kinko's would've vetoed -- is a picture of boxes on warehouse shelves.

The drape was hung to cover up actual warehouse shelves filled with actual boxes.

The real boxes read "Made in China." The fake boxes read "Made in the U.S.A."

The fake slogan reads "Strengthening America's Economy."

The real slogan would read something like "Screw the poor."




posted by Fred Clark 11:24 PM


Tuesday, January 21, 2003

 
PRESIDENT BUSH DISSES ROBOCOP.

White House clashes with Rottentomatoes.com.

U.N. weapons inspectors have as yet found no evidence that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction. Faced with this lack of evidence, President Bush points out that, without such weapons -- Iraq can't meet our demand to disarm!

Here's what the president said to reporters:

He's not disarming. As a matter of fact, it appears to be a rerun of a bad movie. ... One thing is for certain, he's not disarming. So the United States of America, in the name of peace, will continue to insist he does disarm, and we will keep the pressure on Saddam Hussein. ... It's clear to me now that he is not disarming. ... this man deceives and delays. He's giving people the run-around. ... And we will lead a coalition of willing nations to disarm him. Make no mistake about that, he will be disarmed. ... our intention is to work with the world for Saddam to disarm. He's been given ample time to disarm. We have had ample time now to see that the tricks of the past -- he's employing the tricks of the past today. He's giving people the run-around. He wants to play hide-and-seek.

This is not about inspectors ... He's not disarming. This business about, you know, more time -- you know, how much time do we need to see clearly that he's not disarming? As I said, this looks like a rerun of a bad movie and I'm not interested in watching it.

Mr. Bush is clearly referring to the movie Robocop -- the 1987 original directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Peter Weller and Karen Allen, with a memorable villain-turn by the Dad from That '70s Show.

The specific scene to which the president clearly is referring occurs high in the offices of the evil Omni Consumer Products (a sort of privatized Department of Homeland Security). They have just unveiled their latest product, the ED-209, a tanklike law-enforcement robot.

To demonstrate the robot's effectiveness in battling crime and maintaining "domestic security," a junior executive is asked to pretend to threaten the ED-209 with a handgun. The young man picks up the gun and gamely points it at the ED-209. The robot's dual-machine guns point menacingly at the man and it intones, "Warning: You have 15 seconds to disarm ..."

Everyone chuckles at the machine's threatening aspect and the man obediently places the handgun on the conference table and steps away.

"You have 10 seconds to disarm ..." the robot says. The man, weaponless and unable to comply with further demands to disarm, attempts to flee as the war-machine continues its inevitable, reflexive count-down. Then it opens fire with both barrels in an impressive display of military might and unnecessary overkill.

By alluding to this scene Mr. Bush was sending a clear signal to the Iraqi people and their leader, Saddam Hussein. This isn't about the U.N. or weapons inspectors. This isn't about law-enforcement or keeping the peace. This is about a hulking, expensive machine that knows only how to kill. This is about an unthinking, violent response which can accept no surrender until after it has unleashed a display of death and devastation. This is simply a lethal, arbitrary demonstration of strength.

President Bush was underscoring what one "senior official" said to CNN's Bob Novak -- "Well, if we don't hit in Iraq, where are we going to hit?"

He was pointing out that the display of imperial force transcends inspections or evidence or anything as tangible as a "clear and present danger." (If it were necessary to limit this fight to our enemies then we'd be going after al-Qaida -- but they're not even on the "radarscreen of evil.") What's important here is that we "hit" something -- anything -- and hit it hard. As Ronald Reagan said about the microphone, we paid for these bombs, and by golly we're gonna use 'em.

But while Mr. Bush's remarks demonstrate his understanding of the role of an emperor, they also demonstrate that our emperor-to-be isn't much of a film critic. Robocop isn't a "bad movie," Mr. President -- it's a cult classic, an excellent example of the sci-fi/action genre. Rottentomatoes.com lists 13 reviews for Robocop -- all positive, for a Tomato-meter rating of 100 percent!

Think again, Mr. President -- any movie that Roger Ebert gives three stars isn't "a bad movie."

(found the Novak quote via Atrios)



posted by Fred Clark 7:58 PM

 
WHO NAMES THEIR KID "JONAH"?

Parents who admire villains leave a legacy of grief.

The post below is critical of a recent article by Jonah Goldberg. I was hesitant to criticize Mr. Goldberg because, well, I feel a bit sorry for him. His parents, after all, named him "Jonah." What kind of sick parents would do that?

Jonah -- for those not familiar with the pithy biblical satire that bears his name -- is one of the most laughably despicable characters in all of literature. He is a petty, spiteful, racist/genocidal clown held up for mockery as an archetype of what we are not to be.

What on earth would provoke parents to choose such a name? Were they hoping their son would grow up to emulate this misanthropic, god-hating prophet-in-exile? Or were poor Jonah Goldberg's parents -- like the original -- still mightily pissed off at God for sparing the Ninevites.

Since there are evidently still parents out there with a warped sense of propriety, here's a list of similar potential baby names:

Cain
Balaam
Ahab
Nebuchadnezzar
Meletus
Brutus
Mordred
Malvolio
Iago
Elmer Gantry
Anakin
Snidely
Fagan
Wile E.
Dimmesdale
Grima
Inquisitor
Lex Luthor
Lee Harvey
Cthulhu

(These are all boys' names. A similar list could be compiled for girls, including : Jezebel, Goneril, Regan, Lucianne, etc.)



posted by Fred Clark 4:36 PM

 
INQUIRY VS. IDEOLOGY.

Jonah Goldberg vs. The Majority of Scientists.

Jonah Goldberg's desperate attempt to rescue the shoddy reputation of ideologue/statistician Bjorn Lomborg falls apart somewhere in the muddle of his strained Moebius-strip of an analogy between Lomborg's anti-scientific anti-environmentalism and the anti-scientific reaction of certain authorities to Galileo in the early 17th century (except Goldberg tries to parallel the scientist Galileo with the anti-scientist Lomborg -- it is, as I said, a muddle).

Goldberg complicates his argument by intoducing the parallel with Galileo, then -- recycling much of this 1999 column -- arguing that Galileo wasn't really suppressed by good Judeo-Christian people but rather by nasty, secular French enlightenment figures1, or something like that.2

Goldberg ultimately doesn't communicate his argument with enough clarity for anyone (including, perhaps, himself) to judge whether or not it contains any validity. But he seems to have missed the overwhelming lesson to be learned from Galileo's condemnation by the authorities of his day -- a lesson on which the mythmakers and the revisionists are all in agreement.

Galileo put scientific inquiry above ideological presuppositions. His reputation is secure as a pursuer and defender of truth.

Activist pseudo-scientists like Lomborg elevate ideology above scientific inquiry. Lomborg's reputation as a dissembling flim-flammer is equally secure.

= = = = = = = = = = = =

1. Note that by placing the blame on the French enlightenment, Goldberg is not blaming Bill Clinton. At least not directly. This is unprecedented.

2. If you're interested in a readable and engaging revisitation of the Galileo affair that gets at what Goldberg seems to be trying to say, see "Galileo and the Powers Above: The convoluted tale of a faithful Catholic caught in a web of theological inflexibility, papal power, and his own political naïveté," by Virginia Stem Owens, courtesy of the folks at Christian History magazine.



posted by Fred Clark 3:54 PM


Monday, January 20, 2003

 
HOW TO LIE WITH STATISTICS LIKE GEORGE W. BUSH.

Darrell Huff warned us about people like this president.

"Ninety-two million Americans will keep an average of $1,083 more of their own money."
-- President George W. Bush, touting his economic stimulus plan Jan. 7, 2003 at the Economic Club of Chicago.

This statement says nothing about the substance of Mr. Bush's tax plan, but it speaks volumes about the substance of Mr. Bush's character. It reveals George W. Bush as a man willing to mislead and deceive the public he claims to represent in order to put $44,500 into his own pocket.

Is there a charitable interpretation here? Some way that such a blatant, phony, hackneyed piece of puffery as a false-average can be seen as anything other than evidence of Mr. Bush's sneering contempt for the intelligence and well-being of the American public?

No. No there isn't. And why bother trying to defend him if he's not even willing to defend himself? He presents pure bunk as pure bunk -- statistical trickery from the second grade.

Mr. Bush thinks you're stupid, and he thinks this gives him license to take your money to line his pockets and the pockets of his wealthy cronies. He doesn't even have the common decency to concoct a semi-convincing cover story -- he doesn't have the energy or the creativity or the sensibility to at least lie persuasively. This lazy, incurious president can't even be bothered to cook the books properly -- he just reheats them in a microwave.

Bush's cheezy false-average has been soundly thrashed by Seeing the Forest, TBogg and Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker -- among many, many others.

But for the definitive response we need to go back to the textus classicus -- Darrell Huff's How to Lie With Statistics.

Huff's breezy little book is devastating to men lie George W. Bush and their ilk.
The post below excerpts most of Chapter 2: "The Well-Chosen Average." The book was originally written in 1954. Thanks to this handy calculator I've included conversions to 2002 dollars for comparison. Enjoy.

(The excerpt likely exceeds "fair use" limits. It is, however, intended as a tribute. Plus it provides free advertising and promotes sales of the book. I've made the excerpt a distinct post so it can be linked to without having to include the above rant over Mr. Bush's deplorable lack of character.)


posted by Fred Clark 9:56 PM

 
HOW TO LIE WITH STATISTICS

Chapter 2: THE WELL-CHOSEN AVERAGE.

(by guest-blogger Darrell Huff)

[The following is an excerpt from How to Lie With Statistics, by Darrell Huff, originally published in 1954 by W.W. Norton & Co. in New York, with illustrations by Irving Geis.

You really ought to own this book. Buy it here. It's an invaluable resource and handbook, and a worthy antidote to the balderdash spewed by FOX News and Ari Fleischer. Plus you need to see Irving Geis' wonderful illustrations. Buy the book.
]

You, I trust, are not a snob, and I certainly am not in the real-estate business. But let's say that you are and I am and that you are looking for property to buy along a road that is not far from the California valley in which I live.

Having sized you up, I take pains to tell you that the average income in this neighborhood is some $15,000 a year [in 1954 dollars, about $102,000 in 2002 dollars]. Maybe that clinches your interest in living here; anyway, you buy and that handsome figure sticks in your mind. More than likely, since we have agreed that for the purposes of the moment you are a bit of a snob, you toss it in casually when telling your friends about where you live.

A year or so later we meet again. As a member of some taxpayers' committee I am circulating a petition to keep the tax rate down or assessments down or bus fare down. My plea is that we cannot afford the increase: After all, the average income in this neighborhood is only $3,500 a year [$23,800 in 2002 dollars]. Perhaps you go along with me and my committee in this -- you're not only a snob, you're stingy too -- but you can't help being surprised to hear about that measly $3,500. Am I lying now, or was I lying last year?

You can't pin it on me either time. That is the essential beauty of doing your lying with statistics. Both those figures are legitimate averages, legally arrived at. Both represent the same data, the same people, the same incomes. All the same it is obvious that at least one of them must be so misleading as to rival an out-and-out lie.

My trick was to use a different kind of average each time, the word "average" having a very loose meaning. It is a trick commonly used, sometimes in innocence but often in guilt, by fellows wishing to influence public opinion or sell advertising space. When you are told that something is an average you still don't know very much about it unless you can find out which of the common kinds of average it is -- mean, median or mode.

The $15,000 figure I used when I wanted a big one is a mean, the arithmetic average of the incomes of all the families in the neighborhood. You get it by adding up all the incomes and dividing by the number there are. The smaller figure is the median, and so it tells you that half the families in question have more than $3,500 a year and half have less. I might also have used the mode, which is the most frequently met-with figure in a series. If in this neighborhood there are more families with incomes of $5,000 [$34,000] a year than with any other amount, $5,000 a year is the modal income.

In this case, as usually is true with income figures, an unqualified "average" is virtually meaningless. One factor that adds to the confusion is that with some kinds of information all the averages fall so close together that, for casual purposes, it may not be vital to distinguish among them.

If you read that the average height of the men of some group of people is only five feet, you get a fairly good idea of the stature of these people. You don't have to ask whether that average is a mean, median or mode; it would come out about the same. (Of course, if you are in the business of manufacturing overalls for these men you would want more information than can be found in any average. This has to do with ranges and deviations, and we'll tackle that one in the next chapter.)

The different averages come out close together when you deal with data, such as those having to do with many human characteristics, that have the grace to fall close to what is called the normal distribution. If you draw a curve to represent it you get something shaped like a bell, and mean, median and mode fall at the same point.

Consequently one kind of average is as good as another for describing the heights of men, but for describing their pocketbooks it is not. If you should list the annual incomes of all the families in a given city you might find that they ranged from not much to perhaps $50,000 [$340,000] or so, and you might find a few very large ones. More than 95 percent of the incomes would be under $10,000 [$68,000], putting them way over toward the left-hand side of the curve. Instead of being symmetrical, like a bell, it would be skewed. Its shape would be a little like that of a child's slide, the ladder rising sharply to a peak, the working part sloping gradually down. the mean would be quite a distance from the median. You can see what this would do to the validity of any comparison made between the "average" (mean) of one year and the "average" (median) of another.

In the neighborhood where I sold you some property the two averages are particularly far apart because the distribution is markedly skewed. It happens that most of your neighbors are small farmers or wage-earners employed in a nearby village or elderly retired people on pensions. But three of the inhabitants are millionaire [$6.8 million -- and back then the title implied total worth, not annual income] week-enders and these three boost the total income, and therefore the arithmetic average, enormously. They boost it to a figure that practically everybody in the neighborhood has a good deal less than. You have in reality the case that sounds like a joke or a figure of speech: Nearly everybody is below average.

That's why when you read an announcement by a corporation executive or a business proprietor that the average pay of the people who work in his establishment is so much, the figure may mean something and it may not. If the average is a median, you can learn something significant from it: Half the employees make more than that; half make less. But if it is a mean (and believe me, it may be that if its nature is unspecified) you may be getting nothing more revealing than the average of one $45,000 [$302,000] income -- the proprietor's -- and the salaries of a crew of underpaid workers. "Average annual pay of $5,700 [$38,255] may conceal both the $2,000 [$13,400] salaries and the owner's profits taken in the form of a whopping salary. ...

[... SNIP ...]

Given a complex corporation with hierarchies of employees ranging all the way from beginning typist to president with a several-hundred-thousand-dollar bonus, all sorts of things can be covered up in this manner.

So when you see an average-pay figure, first ask: Average of what? Who's included? ...

You may have read in the paper that the income of the average American family was $3,100 in 1949 [$20,805 in 2002 dollars]. You should not try to make too much out of that figure unless you also know what "family" has been used to mean, as well as what kind of average this is. (And who says so and how he knows and how accurate the figure is.)


posted by Fred Clark 9:55 PM


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