On September 2nd, 2015, President Peña of Mexico will give his 4th State of the Country address to 120 million Mexicans (who will actually watch is another matter entirely). Given these troublesome times in terms of economy, and our endemic problems as a country, like drug traficking, corruption and violence, it will be a message worth observing and analyzing.
To this end, a few independent news outlets have taken upon themselves to embark on a live ‘fact-checking’ event. Fact-checking is hardly new, but is getting a lot of attention in the light of the recent ‘data hype’, and now there’s even a nascent branch of the journalistic practice called ‘Data Journalism’ (read more here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/wp/2015/08/14/fact-checking-of-political-statements-expands-dramatically-overseas/).
The dynamic of fact-checking is simple: during a public address, a politician asserts a (usually positive) change in one of several vital signs of the country: GDP, unemployment, drug-related arrests, security perception index, etc. On the other side of the TV, a group of academics and journalists take note of this statement and resort to data from NGOs, OECD, WB, FMI, etc, to verify it, and upon closer evaluation, a veredict is emitted, usually in a wide categorical spectrum between true and false (some outlets even use ‘ridiculous’, meaning that the statement is miles away from reality). The aim is also simple: ‘to impose political and reputational costs on lying officials’.
That these events are going mainstream worldwide is a sign that we citizens are no longer willing to put up with BS from our representatives, that we demand they be accountable to us, their bosses, and that they become transparent with their exercise of power. But alas, doubting and distrusting the entire political class just for the sake of it is not productive. It makes citizens look as an ‘angry mob’, torch in hand, ready for the lynching. This hardly helps the democratic exercise, because instead of intelligent political debate, we have anger, and often, violence.
This is where Data Literacy comes to the rescue. It’s not enough to be angry at the political class, or to assume they’re lying. It’s also mandatory to know HOW they are lying so as to get a glimpse into their underlying motives. To this end, we need to understand the basics of odds, ratios and percentages. We need to become familiar with our available data sources (and thank the universe we live in such times where they exist while we’re at it). It would be preferrable if we also knew about basic economic terms, like the difference between structural, cyclical and frictional unemployment. It would be even better if we knew about hypothesis testing. We could then know how President Peña wrongly attributes the fall in prices of basic consumer goods to energy reform instead of a steep fall in the price of tomatoes due production surpluses generated over the heavy rain season.
This might appear counter intuitive to basic economics and its mandate of specialized labor; after all, don’t our taxes pay for politicians to steer clear of the agency problem so that I can play guitar all day? Maybe, but I argue that being a functional citizen equals being a functional agent within the economy. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need these exercises in transparency, and yet, it is precisely because we need to perform them and because politicians need to be kept in check that we can call ourselves citizens. Otherwise we’re not assuming our rightful place in the democratic exercise and we let other people decide for us.
As H.G. Wells puts it: “Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write”. Never has this quote been more true than now.