A Misleading Presentation

Back in 2004, one of the Ben & Jerry’s cofounders put up an animation using stacks of cookies to demonstrate that the US spends way too little on education relative to its spending on defense. The page showed $35 billion worth of cookies for K-12 education as opposed to $400 billion for defense.

Actually, the US in that year was spending almost $500 billion in government money for K-12 education. The $35 billion looks about right —for Federal government spending only. Most educational funding in the US occurs, of course, at the county, state, and municpal levels.  The phrase “Federal budget” does occur somewhere in the presentation. But the manner in which the numbers are presented–in the form of a single bar graph–implied that the $35B for education was directly comparable to the $400B for defense. The casual or not-very-knowledgeable reader would be likely to look at this page and draw very incorrect conclusions about the relative levels of defense and educational spending in the United States.

I was reminded of this misleading presentation of data by another bad infographic, this one appearing in the United Airlines in-flight magazine. The piece, titled “Geek Tragedy,” shows the U.S. having a rank of 27th among developed nations in proportion of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) bachelor’s degrees, asserted that the US economy would benefit by $75 trillion (over the next 80 years) if we could match Canada’s math proficiency level…and went on to compare “Annual US Federal Investment in STEM Education Programs” ($3 billion) with “Amount Americans Spent on Beer in 2011” ($96 billion.)


This comparison offers from the same deficiency as the cookie analysis–the state and local spending which makes up the vast bulk of American educational funding is completely ignored.  There is also the question of exactly what a “STEM educational program” might be…does it include 4th grade math, for example?…because high school algebra teachers will tell you that failure to learn the fundamental in the earlier grades commonly cripples a student’s ability to master algebra and more advanced subjects. Indeed, the failure to learn to read well will also cripple a student’s potential future in any STEM field.

The conclusion this infographic seems to want people to draw is that “Americans are a stingy and irresponsible crew, who spend more on BEER than on STEM education.  In reality, there are plenty of problems with American education, including STEM education, but it should be obvious by now that they are not matters of insufficient spending.

There is way too much of this sort of simplistic and misleading analysis going around.


5 thoughts on “A Misleading Presentation”

  1. These comparisons brought to you by the NEA, it’s state level subsidiaries, and the federal educrat complex. The US spends more on education than anyone else in teh world and gets less bang for the buck than everyone else at the same time.

  2. An especially silly comparison appeared in 2007, in an article by John Makin on China’s new Tibetan railway. The article starts with the following comparison: In 2005, Americans spent about $10 billion on women’s intimate apparel. During the period 2001-2006, China spent $4 billion building the 710-mile rail line from Golmud to Lhasa. From this comparison, Makin draws the conclusion that the contrast:

    “…highlights the difference today between the richest country in the world and the country that is gaining wealth at the fastest pace. One is consuming, the other investing.”

    I’d think that if someone wanted to assert that we’re spending too much on luxuries at the expense of infrastructure–railroad infrastructure, in this case–he might want to report on how much the U.S. rail infrastructure spending actually IS. But no such numbers appeared in the article.

    I added up the capex numbers for the four major U.S. railroads: CSX, Norfolk Southern, Burlington Northern, and Union Pacific, which in 2007 were all public companies, and got about $7 billion. This was for a single year, whereas the Tibetan railway capex extended over a period of 5 years. (Rail capital investment was much higher in 2012, around $13 billion for the 4 majors.)

    I see a lot of articles and blog posts which have the general theme “the U.S. is eating its seed corn.” While there is some truth to this, it is not helpful when exaggerated statements…for example, the common assertion that “we don’t make anything in the US anymore” are made.

  3. It’s all about controlling the agenda.

    How about this US versus China comparison: US spending on teacher retirement spending (about 13+ percent of payroll) annually plus annual retiree health care cost (nothing is accrued…paygo model) versus China.

    That will clearly demonstrate US priorities.

  4. Considering the cost of education versus the cost of aircraft carrier, ten to one military over education seems about right. Considering the value and competence of teachers, administrators, et. al., twenty to one seems ideal.

    A YouTube channel documenting the dishonesty of Michael Moore, the Guardian, etc. would produce more video than there are hours in the day.

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