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Friday, May 8, 2009

X-Axis of Evil? No, Just Minor Mathematical Deception

Conservatives do have trouble with numbers, don't they?

Constant Conservative Michael Woodring engages in some enjoyable numerical investigation of federal and corporate employment. His diligent research produces the following graphs of the number of workers beholden to (a) the 15 federal Cabinet-level departments and (b) the 15 companies at the top of the current Fortune 500. That took some work! Here are his graphs... (click image for larger view):
I copied the images straight from Mr. Woodring's website and attempted to present them at exactly the scale he presented. The only thing I've added is the red line showing how the bar representing the second-largest Fortune 500 employer (not counting Wal-Mart, which "does rather kill the curve"... as well as Main Street) lines up with those big, menacing federal agencies.

Mr. Woodring's conclusion is that these graphs (and the number of Fortune 15 companies surviving on the federal dole) demonstrate "the massive and increasing influence of the federal government." Indeed, the federal government is both massive and increasing. But then, so is Wal-Mart, whose payroll exceeds that of the whole federal government.

My admiration for Mr. Woodring's effort notwithstanding, I must point out an error in his visual representation of the data. Did you notice the horizontal scale of each graph? The x-axis of the corporate graph is about five times narrower than the x-axis of the federal graph, making the Fortune 15 payrolls look much smaller relative to the Cabinet payrolls. I won't accuse Mr. Woodring of deliberate deception; it looks like he was just trying to accommodate Wal-Mart's curve-wrecking figure and a wider legend.
Still, this discrepancy in scale creates an inaccurate visual impression. Let's stretch and crunch the two graphs to make their x-axes the same scale:

These rectified graphs better reflect the point that Mr. Woodring acknolwedges but buries in his text: Corporate America is still a lot bigger than the federal government.

Given Mr. Woodring's implicit suggestion that conservatives shouldn't stand for a federal government even this big, we shold also note that Mr. Woodring's graph shows that the biggest federal employers—Defense, Veterans, and Homeland Security—might be more associated with conservative priorities. (Taking care of veterans is everyone's priority... but do we have more veterans to take care of thanks to conservative policies?) Mr. Woodring's graphs show that all that liberal stuff—Education, Housing, Labor, Health—are down toward the bottom half.

But hey, at least Mr. Woodring gives us real numbers to think about. And he doesn't waste neurons or electrons making up silly names like LibDonks.


  1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my post. If I may, a few clarifications do seem in order.

    1. Yes, the scale is skewed (as I have noted on the original post with an update). I was simply going with the default that my spreadsheet provided for the charts, with no malice aforethought.

    2. WalMart's employee count does not (by any stretch) exceed the whole federal government's number of employees--just the employees of the listed departments. As my post also said, these numbers do not include the military, court systems, Amtrak, and others. Including our military, the numbers I've seen put the total payroll for the federal government at about 4.5 million people.

    3. Agreed that corporate America is still larger than the federal government. I was in no way attempting to bury such data. However, with moves made by the government over the last year, we are definitely seeing a growing number of employees who may be technically corporate, but practically under the federal government.

    4. Please do keep in mind that I'm only working with gross employment numbers--not budgets/spending/earnings, which would give us much more information with which to work.

    Thank you.

  2. No malice assumed, Mr. Woodring.

    So I'm wondering: will any of the folks calling for smaller government agree to cuts where government is biggest: in the military?

  3. Oh! Any my apologies for not giving you a link in the original, Michael! I've fixed that now. Whew!


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