Reckoning with Statistics

“There are three kinds of lies,” wrote Mark Twain, “lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

But “the worst lies,” said Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, “are the lies we tell ourselves.”

I am brought to these thoughts by the pending retirement of my friend Phil Pepper. Mostly renowned as the “state economist,” our Dr. Phil has been a man of few lies and many statistics. That such a man weathered stormy, dissembling Mississippi politics so long is a worthy legacy.

Phil would argue that we ignore hard statistics at our own peril. Inconstant politicians would choose to believe things would be, eh, different than Phil projected.

So, let’s look at some statistics.

For the last half of the 20th Century, manufacturing served as our major economic engine. From 1969 to 1989, one of every five jobs was in manufacturing. No longer. By 2007, just over one in ten jobs was in manufacturing. Since manufacturing jobs have been falling while non-manufacturing jobs have not, the ratio is likely worse now. (Bureau of Economic Analysis stats lag by two years.)

For the past ten years, state employment statistics show the government and service sectors have been our growth engines, particularly healthcare. From 2001 through April of this year, healthcare and social assistance jobs increased 25% while manufacturing fell 32%. Government jobs grew by 6% and now total more than manufacturing and healthcare jobs combined. In fact, nearly one in every four jobs as measured by the Mississippi Department of Employment Security is now a government job. By the way, retail jobs fell 7% over the decade and remain below manufacturing jobs in number.

Meanwhile, our population is aging. The 2000 Census showed about one in eight persons was age 65 or older. The 2010 Census will likely put that ratio to about one in six.

Other demographics continue to change. The ratio of white-alone (a Census definition) population to total population continues to decline, while black-alone slowly increases and Hispanic population surges. White-alone population was 62% of the population in 2000 and is projected to be below 60% in this Census.

And so?

Reckon rural supervisors and mayors in our mostly rural state should broaden their development efforts beyond manufacturing jobs? Reckon the aging population has any connection to healthcare job increases or growing Medicaid costs? Reckon we should look at hospitals and clinics as economic engines like we have manufacturers and provide them incentives rather than higher taxes? Reckon the growing ratio of government jobs should be of concern? Reckon redistricting will result in any Hispanic majority districts?

“Statistics lie in wait for the birdbrained.” That’s my Pepper twist on Twain’s quote.

Thanks for the decades of service, Phil.

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