When questionable math gets in the way of a promising policy, it’s a reminder that we should pay closer attention to the fine print.
I heard a lot of chatter—and a good deal of laughter, too—late last month when Tim Hudak’s “Million Jobs Plan” turned out to be based on absurdly bad math. Several prominent economists reviewed the numbers and agreed that the Tories had misread their own studies. According to their numbers, the policies seemed likely to create only 75,000 jobs beyond the province’s natural employment growth. And when you consider their plan to eliminate 100,000 public-sector jobs, they suddenly had a “Minus-25,000 Jobs Plan.”
But Hudak stood by his claim: He was right, and basic grade-school math was wrong. If this bold stance against simple addition hurt him at all, it didn’t show in the immediate poll numbers.
By now, that shouldn’t surprise us. I’m sure we all remember Rob Ford’s brazen claim to have saved taxpayers a billion dollars, which was discredited far and wide and yet still boldly repeated by him and his supporters. John Tory’s recently announced scheme to finance his $8-billion transit-building plan through the magic of borrowing against taxes on new development has raised a lot of informed eyebrows, even among his supporters.
Lest anyone start feeling smug about “those lying conservatives,” there’s plenty of convenient innumeracy to go around. The provincial NDP continues to promise to fund spending increases using only corporate taxes and taxes on the very wealthy, even though economists insist that doing so will not produce enough money. The provincial Liberal government has spent more than $100 million a year in corporate job-creation grants tied to specific numbers of employees, but a report by Global News published last month found many cases where the grants didn’t produce the jobs promised. Those same Liberals hired economist Don Drummond to crunch the numbers on provincial finances, and then mostly ignored his conclusions for how to deal with the deficit and Ontario’s changing economy.
The examples go on, and aren’t limited to provincial politics. Global warming, vaccinations, free trade, genetically modified foods—there’s hardly a contentious topic about which expert opinion and hard data changes anyone’s mind. We’re all sticking by our numbers, right or wrong. I’m certainly not immune to this tendency.
A pretty compelling body of research shows that when we’re presented with evidence disproving something we feel strongly about, we tend to see it as proof that the person who’s showing it to us is untrustworthy, rather than as a reason to change our minds. At the very least, we minimize the importance of the facts. We know in our guts that we’re right about the gist of the matter, and therefore evidence to the contrary must be either entirely wrong or simply irrelevant nitpicking.
Hudak must feel that his biggest mistake in the matter of the missing million was sharing too much of his background information. After all, his opponents are largely free from the same kind of persuasive takedowns because the math they’ve used to build their election platforms—where Horwath expects to find the $600 million in waste she’s promised to cut, or how Wynne plans to flatline program spending without cutting any jobs—remains a mystery. Hudak seems to still believe his program of smaller government and lower taxes will create jobs—maybe a million of them. Heck, despite the math, he could even be right: Economist Michael Veall, who debunked the Conservative plan for the Globe and Mail, suggested at the same time
that he expected the Ontario economy to create one million jobs over the next eight years anyway.
This is not to say that it makes no difference—different errors have different effects. But if the lesson politicians could draw from this situation is that it’s safer to be less specific about their numbers, a lesson for the electorate might be the opposite: We need to insist on more details so that we can apply closer scrutiny to all kinds of claims, including our own.