Sunday, October 16, 2005

Deceptive Truth and the Use of Averages

In reading some text against a referendum on the ballot here in Colorado, I saw an argument that fits in a family that I resolved a few years ago never to use again.

I was using a member of this family of argument against the government’s deficit spending. I said to a co-worker that the government’s deficit for that year was the equivalent of $1,500 worth of additional debt – added on to the debt the government already had -- for each man, woman, and child in the country. That meant $7,500 in debt for each family of five.

Then I thought about it for a while and realized that I was using rhetoric to make my point. I was misleading my co-worker about the actual facts regarding the deficit, and doing so for the purpose of manipulating his sentiments about that deficit. I wanted him to fear the deficit more than reason said he should. It seems that telling the truth was not good enough.

As soon as I realized what I was doing, I resolved to stop doing it. I also saw a reason to distrust any who would use this argument, because they are probably more interested in manipulating people than they are in informing people.

The Flaw with the Argument

The fact is that different people will not all pay back the same portion of the deficit. An individual who earns no money will not be paying back $1,500 worth of debt. His debt will be shifted onto somebody else.

In fact, the bulk of the burden in paying back that debt will be shifted onto those who pay the most taxes. My friend’s “share” of the deficit is equivalent to his “share” of the taxes. If he pays an average amount of taxes each year, then he will be paying an average amount of the proportion of the debt (with tax). If he pays less than average in taxes, he will pay back less than average proportion of the debt. On the other hand, if he pays more in taxes than the average citizen, then he will pay back a higher portion of the debt.

My point here is to show how an argument is deceptive, not to come up with actual numbers. So, let’s assume that the deficit for a particular year is $500 billion. Let’s also assume that the only way that the government makes money is through income taxes.

In 2003, according to the a report from the Congressional Budget Office, the top 10% of all income earners account for a little less than half of the Federal tax liabilities. So, out of this $500 billion deficit for one year, $250 billion will be paid by 10% of the population. My co-worker was not a member of that part of the population. He was, along with the remaining 90% of the population, responsible for the other half.

My friend and his family would actually be responsible for less than $7,500 in debt. Yet, I was telling him that his family was responsible for an equal portion of the deficit. I was doing this because an “equal portion” was higher than the actual portion that will be taken out of his and his children’s future salaries (unless he or one or more of his children became very wealthy).

Because the average portion was higher than his actual portion, I could expect it to summon more anxiety and, thus, summon more opposition against those who are responsible for the deficit.

Do not misunderstand me. I have arguments against a national debt. I think that running up huge deficits represents a moral crime against future generations. However, in arguing against the deficit, I have resolved not to use arguments that are fundamentally deceptive. I will use arguments that I actually think have merit (and I will not judge merit according to ability to manipulate others).

The “average” argument is deceptive.

Truth, Fiction, and Deception

An interesting fact about my attempt to manipulate my co-worker is that I did not lie. I told him the truth – the government deficit for that year was, in fact, equivalent to $1,500 for each man, woman, and child in the country.

Yet, my intention in reporting that fact was to deceive. I knew how he would likely take this fact. He would imagine an additional $7,500 attached to his family’s debt. He would think about the trouble that he is having with the debt he already owns, and feel a sense of desperation at having another $7,500 added to it. He would react as if I had told him that he, as the provider for his family, would have to come up with the money.

I define a lie in such a way that it covers more than making a false claim. A deceptive truth -- a truth that invites somebody to draw a false conclusion -- is just as deceptive.

This the deceptive truth is the bread and butter for many political consultants. In that business, an individual who is skilled at coming up with the best deceptive truth is somebody who can make a great deal of money.

In fact, there are solid scientific methods for evaluating the effectiveness of deceptive truth. Through focus groups and other techniques, a company in charge of marketing a political idea can test a number of deceptive truths, identify the most effective ones, and give them to the client, who uses the resources at their disposal to spread the deceptive truth as far as possible.

Colorado's Referrendum C

I don't want to discuss the Colorado Referrendum per say, but to use the argument I found as another example of deceptive truth.

In this case, the discussion concerned a change in the tax law that would allow the state to keep, rather than refund, a substantial increase in tax revenue. Regardless of the merit of the tax cut. Those who are arguing against the referendum (thus, arguing for the tax refund) say that, “The estimated five-year total for all refund methods, including the sales tax refund, averages $1,106 per taxpayer.”

This message suggests that the average Colorado voter can expect to be over $1,100 wealthier if he votes against this measure. A reader, thinking of himself as an average taxpayer, thinks that voting against the referrendum will bring him over $1,100.

However, the amount of money that an individual taxpayer will get depends on how that individual squares off against the different types of refunds. Most of the refund will come through a sales tax, where the more one spends, the more one saves. Other savings come through fifteen other refund categories which include reductions in capital gains for Colorado assets.

The way averages work, one person who gets $10,000 in refunds, balancing against nine people getting $118 in refunds, will generate an average refund of $1,106.20. Yet, in this hypothetical case, 90% of the people will get significantly less than the average amount, and one person gets substantially more.

These are hypothetical examples, and it remains open to question as to how the Colorado distributions will actually stack up. The point is not to make a specific case regarding either the national debt or Colorado’s Referrendum C. The point is to make a case against a certain line of reasoning, and the problems with it.


The main point is that, if you hear somebody starting to talk about “averages” in terms of cost or benefit for a government program, be careful. Because of the distribution in income levels in this country, it is quite likely that that the “average” is a deceptive truth. It leads the reader to thing that he or she can expect whatever the “average” is reported to be, in terms of costs or benefits.

In fact, those costs and benefits will be distributed in such a way that the “average” (or median) American can expect something quite different from the “average” being reported.

I began writing this blog in part because I saw deceptive truth to be too widely accepted and, as such, doing a great deal of harm. I not only resolved not to use those arguments myself, I wanted to expose them so that those who do use them can find themselves condemned, rather than rewarded with pay raises and bonuses for their skilled use of deceptive truth. We are made worse off by this practice, and it is in our interests to condemn that which makes us worse off.

We would be better off to the degree that society learned to recognize and to treat the deceptive truth like any other lie.

The instant that somebody starts speaking about “averages”, the way that I divided the national deficit equally among all taxpayers, or the opponents of Referendum C in Colorado are speaking about distributing the tax benefits of rejecting the Referendum, take this as a clue to ignore everything else that individual has to say. He obviously sees nothing wrong with deceiving you into accepting his position, and is not to be trusted, until he repents and rejects the use of those types of arguments.

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