Friday, September 2, 2011

Inconceivable! [Updated]

One thing that never ceases to both amuse and depress me is the way that many individuals react to numbers that their preexisting biases just can't accept.  The other day, your favorite blogger was wasting time talking politics:  an acquaintance of mine claimed that America was suffering from a decline in moral values, and pointed to the fact that the average American household carries a high amount of credit card debt as proof of this assertion.  Obviously, moral judgements aren't really part of a statistician's job description, but I still felt the need to weigh in on this one.

I pointed out that while the high level of debt carried by American households is usually seen as a sign that we're all spoiled, decadent slobs who spend too much on consumer goods, the largest drivers of household debt (and personal bankruptcy) are often threefold: housing, education and health care.  Moreover, families that carry unsustainable amounts of housing debt are rarely yuppies who bought overly luxurious McMansions (though these people certainly exist); rather, they tend to be couples with school-age children and incomes somewhere near the national median.  Rarely are these people trying to buy excessively large houses, but rather homes with access to a good public school; various studies have shown that even a small discrepancy in standardized test scores between two school districts is enough to start a bidding war for houses in the higher-scoring district.  Given the stark reality that children who are stuck in poor public schools often have few opportunities in life, one can hardly blame parents who want to try sparing their kids that sort of fate.  So, again, we're left with health care costs (and I think everyone is familiar with just how appallingly expensive basic health care can be in the US), education costs (college tuition has been consistently rising faster than the rate of inflation for decades now), and the cost of living in a good school district as the primary causes of middle class debt.  Clearly, rescuing middle class life in America may be more complicated than just telling people not to buy a Wii or another set of expensive sneakers.  I received a response along the lines of:
You bring up some very important points about the expensive lifestyles that Americans pursue. The truth is, we have gotten used to a standard of living that is beyond our means.
My interlocutor had already decided that Americans are spoiled and spend too much on inessentials.  When I pointed out that most household debt is caused by items that most of us probably consider essential (education and medical care), he/she had three choices:
1) Change his/her view on the moral implications of household debt, and possibly his/her views on how to solve the problem of household debt.
2) Change the definition of essential household expenses so that sending your kids to a decent public school is now a luxury, as is not dying due to lack of medical care.
3) Claim that I must be making up the numbers, because everyone knows that Americans buy too much junk.  (We probably do, but this sort of consumption actually accounts for a smaller percentage of household income than it did 30 years ago)
That my interlocutor chose to go with option 2 is not encouraging.  That other participants in the conversation chose to go with option 3 is even less so.
I wish I could say that this was an isolated incident, but we don't always get what we wish for.  I've had far too many conversations that look like this:
Student: Well, one possible solution to the problems we were discussing is for the US to consider implementing some kind of single-payer health care system.
Student's libertarian friend: Terrible idea.  Government can't do anything right, and such a system would be needlessly expensive and inefficient while stifling access to needed medical care and lowering quality.
Student: There's no evidence for that claim.  The single payer systems in other Western countries consume a much smaller percentage of GDP than our system does while providing a much higher quality of care by many accepted metrics.
Friend: Socialism doesn't work, therefore what you say can't be true.  The European social-democratic model is fiscally unsustainable.
Student: Okay, again, European countries spend much less per person than we do for medical care while getting better results.  How exactly is that unsustainable?
Friend: Socialism doesn't work!
Obviously, an evidence-proof worldview isn't limited to one side of the political aisle.  I've also had conversations like this one:
Student's feminist friend: Women earn 77 cents on the dollar compared to men.  This is clear evidence of pervasive discrimination in our society.
Student: It's not that simple.  The actual meaning of that statistic is very complicated, and doesn't lend itself to easy policy solutions.
Friend: Women earn 77 cents on the dollar compared to men.  This is clear evidence of pervasive discrimination in our society.
My libertarian friends, of course, could admit what I suspect many of them really think: it's wrong to tax the healthy to provide health insurance to the sick, and it's wrong to tax the wealthy to provide health care for the poor.  That would be a discussion of values, where I can't claim any kind of special qualifications to comment (I've read some John Stuart Mill and some Kant, but I don't think that makes me any kind of expert on ethics by any means).  But instead, we get into arguments about facts, and the facts that I cite simply don't agree with what my friends' worldviews tell them should be true, so they get pushed aside.  Ditto for my conversations about women in the workplace: trying to point out that this issue simply can't be reduced to the oft heard "77 cents on the dollar" soundbite has gotten me branded a misogynist, or worse.
I want to note that I'm not trying to make a case for arguments from authority.  I certainly don't think that if I were to say "I'm a statistician, you're not, and this is how I say the world works" that the conversation should automatically end (though such an outcome would certainly flatter my ego).  I just think that people who think of themselves as intelligent, educated individuals should be willing to entertain the idea of modifying their views when said views are flatly contradicted by numerical reality.

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