“Lying” about Maine’s economy

From now until the November 2014 election, expect to see more of what happened yesterday: A Republican staffer bragging that Maine’s economy has been doing really well since Gov. LePage was elected.

It’s hard to know how that case could credibly be made, since Maine’s economy is growing slower than the nation as a whole and when compared to our region.

In 2012, Maine’s GDP grew by .5%, while the U.S. grew by 2.5% and New England by 1.2%. Maine is tied with New Hampshire for the fifth worst state GDP change.

Was there a real lie? Or was it a case of “How to Lie With Statistics”?

Well, the economic evidence presented was a chart with accurate information about unemployment rates. But the chart reminded me of the classic, “How to Lie With Statistics,” first published in 1954.

I read the book as a college sophomore (a long time ago, but not that long ago) in an Introduction to Psychology course.

The book isn’t about people giving fake data — actually lying — but about how the ways statistics are presented and framed can give readers the wrong impression.

Here’s the chart put out in support of the LePage economy.

It’s put together so you’ll think, “Wow! What a huge drop in unemployment!”

Source: Tweet from Maine People Before Politics – https://twitter.com/MainePeopleBP/status/344171579216904193/photo/1

What really makes the line dramatic is the very narrow range of the data in the graph — from 8% to a little lower than 7%.

Just this sort of thing was discussed in “How to Lie in Statistics,” how playing with the range graphed could make a change look really dramatic.

One more problem with the graph: It’s just Maine.

That matters because there’s no way to know how Maine’s doing compared to other states.

And, it turns out, over the same time period, Maine’s unemployment rate dropped more slowly than it did nationally.

Let’s see this in two charts:

Unemployment rate: Maine and U.S. (December 2010 and April 2013)

Data source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Unemployment went gone down in the U.S. and Maine, for the same period in the chart distributed by LePage supporters, December 2010 to April 2013.

However, the lines narrow, showing that unemployment fell a bit faster in the U.S. versus Maine.

(By the way, the narrowing would have looked far more dramatic if I had made the graph go from 6.5-9.5% unemployment, rather than 0-10.)

The faster drop nationally can also be seen in this graph, which shows the number of percentage points unemployment declined:

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Maine’s unemployment fell by 1.1 percentage points (from 8% to 6.9%), while nationally, unemployment fell by 1.7 percentage points (from 9.3% to 7.6%).

Ah, but some of the more mathematically inclined of you may thinking, perhaps Maine’s unemployment decline is better than the national decline, if only you measure the decline as a percentage.

But that’s not so either.

The national drop of 1.7 percentage points from a high of 9.3% is a decline of 18.27%.

In contrast, Maine’s decline of 1.1 percentage points from a high of 8% is a decline of 13.75%.

It would be reasonable to argue that unemployment fell less and less quickly because it wasn’t as high to begin with. However, that doesn’t make Maine’s improvement all that noteworthy.

No matter how you cut it, Maine’s economy is not doing all that well.

  • Maine’s economy is growing slowly, as seen in the GDP numbers.
  • The unemployment rate has gone down, but less so than nationally.

Now, none of this may stop Gov. LePage’s supporters from saying Maine is quickly rebounding and the governor should get the credit.

It also probably won’t stop them from claiming that when LePage took office Maine was an economic basket case when in fact our unemployment rate was lower than existed in the nation as a whole.

But, truly, Maine’s economic trends since December 2010 are nothing to write home about.

Maine economy’s may do much better a year from now and up to Election Day. But it’s not there now.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.