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Wednesday, January 09, 2008


True Lies: Schwarzenegger's intentional innumeracy in California

[First posted 1/7/08, 6:46 pm; updated (see below) and bumped]

It's been a while since I turned to one of my pet subjects - innumeracy. Local TV has been running frequent repetitions of ads for an against Propositions 94-97 which authorize a major expansion in Indian "gaming" (a.k.a. "gambling"). The pro ad features Arnold Schwarzenegger, telling voters that these propositions will solve our budget woes because they will contribute $9 billion to California's coffers, an amount at least the same order of magnitude as the current projected budget deficit of $14 billion.

There's just one teensy-weensy, itty-bitty problem with this analysis. The estimated $9 billion is the estimated income over 20 years!!! A fact Arnold and the propositions proponents "conveniently" neglect to mention. The clear implication of the ad is that this agreement will bring in $9 billion a year. The clearly wrong implication.

What I always wonder when this happens, which is not just once in a blue moon, is how someone picked 20 years. Why not 10? Why not 25? Why not 50? One thing for sure - they definitely didn't want to quote the number for one. Because then the number of people voting for the proposition might decrease by, let's say, a factor of 20.

IMPORTANT CORRECTION: I was wrong. I just watched the video online, and Schwarzenegger does say "over the next two decades" during the course of his pitch. But it remains true that he repeats "billions and billions" over and over during the course of the ad (and not "millions and millions") leaving what, for me at least, was a very incorrect impression.

ADDENDUM TO THE ERRATA - Mea not so culpa:

I haven't seen the Schwarzenegger ad since I wrote the correction above, but over breakfast I did just see another "pro" ad, this one featuring police officers and firefighters touting the propositions. And this ad very clearly on the screen says "$9 Billion for California" with nary a mention of 20 years. I presume that's why I got precisely the same message from the Schwarzenegger ad, although it's also possible the version I saw online wasn't the same as the broadcast version. In any case, this other ad is definitely, and in my opinion intentionally, misleading.

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