Politics by the numbers

By on January 7, 2015

Americans are obsessed with numbers. From the price of gas to where the Dow closed to the number of vacation days President Obama has taken so far, we’re counting everything. Of course, the good thing about numbers is they don’t lie. But they can be manipulated. Poll results can be skewed by how questions are phrased and the order they’re asked, and other statistics can be misleading simply through the omission of data to which the statistics can be compared. If I tell you that President Obama has issued over 190 Executive Orders, that sounds like a lot &tstr; but not if I also tell you how many were issued by the four presidents who preceded him.

So let’s start 2015 off right, in two ways. First, let’s shake the Etch-a-Sketch and get rid of the misconceptions based on skewed polls, the memes that flood the Internet with inaccurate statistics, and the numbers people believe simply because they’ve heard them repeated on TV. Second, let’s look at the things that may not be as easy to quantify, but that really matter to our daily lives and our country’s future.

Presidential vacation days &tstr; From FactCheck.org, here are the actual statistics on how many vacation days our last three presidents have taken:

President Obama: 125 (as of August 2014)

President George W. Bush: 407

President Clinton: 174

President Obama has two more years in his second term, so based on the days taken so far, we can assume he’ll take a total of 166 days of vacation. If we include visits to Camp David, President Obama’s total vacation days as of August were 223 (so he may hit 314 by the time he leaves office), and… drumroll, please… George W. Bush took a total of 1,024 days &tstr; nearly 3 years &tstr; of vacation.

Executive Orders issued &tstr; From sources such as the National Archives and the Federal Register, compiled by the University of Santa Barbara’s presidency website (presidency.ucsb.edu), here are the stats on our last five presidents’ use of the Executive Order:

President Obama: 193

President George W. Bush: 291

President Clinton: 364

President George H.W. Bush: 166

President Reagan: 381

So President Obama’s total only bests a one-term president (George H.W. Bush), but he doesn’t come close to Clinton or George W. Bush. Reagan puts the other four to shame.

Presidential church-going &tstr; Bizarrely, President Obama’s attendance at church has also been monitored, and according to Mark Knoller of CBS News, he’s attended church only 18 times so far in his presidency. By comparison, George W. Bush attended 120 times during his eight years in the White House. President Obama’s low attendance is actually more consistent with America in general, as it turns out fewer and fewer Americans attend church regularly, and just over half of us attend on major religious holidays.

So now that we’ve tackled the numbers that don’t matter, let’s look at the ones that do:

Corporations that (not ‘who’) pay taxes &tstr; According to Citizens for Tax Justice and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, 30 U.S. corporations paid little or no corporate income tax from 2008 through 2013. Of the 280 companies studied, an additional 78 of them paid no tax for at least one year during that time. These include companies such as General Electric, Verizon, Mattel, Wells Fargo, DuPont, Boeing, Corning, Duke Energy, and Tenet Healthcare. The corporations that objected to being outed by the study cited reasons that included “We’re just following the rules” (they’re taking advantage of legal loopholes), and “We’re investing in America” (they employ Americans), but so do the corporations that pay taxes, and the Americans working for them pay taxes, too.

Number of billionaires in the world &tstr; In a seven percent increase over 2013, there are 2,325 billionaires in the world. The U.S. contributes more than 1,000 of these billionaires, and we added 57 new billionaires to the list in 2014.

Amount of world’s wealth maintained by billionaires &tstr; Combined, the world’s billionaires’ net worth is $73 trillion dollars (that’s $73,000,000,000,000), which exceeds the market capitalization of all the companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Income disparity &tstr; According to Crédit Suisse, people with a net worth of more than $1 million represent 0.7 percent (less than one percent) of the global population, yet they maintain 41 percent of the world’s wealth. At the other end of the spectrum, those with a net worth of less than $10,000 represent 69 percent of the population, and hold just three percent of global wealth.

Americans currently in prison &tstr; As of 2014, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, 2.4 million Americans are currently in prison. Interestingly, the U.S. represents just five percent of the world’s population, but we have 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Also worth noting, 10 years ago, there were only five private, for-profit prisons in the U.S.. Now there are more than 130 of them, generating $3.3 billion in annual revenue, and housing 8 percent of the U.S. inmate population.

U.S. healthcare quality &tstr; The U.S. is ranked 11th in overall healthcare in the world. The UK, France, Germany, Switzerland, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Canada, and Australia make up the top 10, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). We rank fifth in the quality of care, seventh in healthcare safety, and 11th in efficiency, equal access, and citizens’ health. When it comes to what we spend, however, we’re in first place: our per capita health expenditure is $8,508, while the UK, rated as best for healthcare overall, spends just $3,405 per person.

Drone strikes &tstr; These numbers are harder to nail down, but from declassified data and leaked official information, we know that as of May of 2014, approximately 5,500 people have been killed by U.S. drone strikes. This number includes, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (a UK-based non-profit news organization), approximately 1,255 innocent civilians killed, including 328 children. 2,167 more have been injured. The vast majority of the strikes have occurred under President Obama’s watch, and his attempt to move the drone program from the CIA to the Department of Defense was thwarted by Congress, citing skepticism regarding the military’s ability to keep the innocent casualty counts low.

People killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan &tstr; Like drone strike statistics, casualty data on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars varies between government and non-government sources. The approximate numbers through 2014 that seem to be found most consistently tell us that in Iraq, 4,491 U.S. military personnel and 174,000 Iraqis have been killed. In Afghanistan, 2,356 U.S. military personnel and 21,000 Afghanis have been killed.

So what do all these numbers mean? That’s a conclusion for each of us to draw on our own. It would seem that we see a good deal more press coverage of the numbers that don’t matter, and that alone is an important thing to remember as you evaluate the information fed to you as “news” &tstr; as well the news sources feeding you.

Writer Laurie Ulrich Fuller is cohost with Don LeVasseur of The Making Sense Show, a live radio show produced in Lititz. The recorded podcast and blog can be found at themakingsenseshow.com. Laurie welcomes your comments at comments@themakingsenseshow.com.

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