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Budget Spin and Jounalists: Wisconsin


As experienced as I might be I always seem to fall for the old trick of anchoring. Someone throws out a number and at worst I believe it and at best I cannot forget it. Anchoring is used to bias or predispose your audience to believe you when you draw a conclusion based on your statement of the facts. A simple example might be an estimate of the population of China as 10 billion. You introduce it in conversation and then somewhat later in your argument you ask what the audience thinks is the population of China. If you compare a control group to your audience you find the control has a better, more correct sense of the population of China but your audience will consistently be shifted toward your number.

When Governor Walker says we in Wisconsin are going to have a budget deficit of $3.6 billion dollars (2011-2013) he is practicing anchoring. It takes on a life of its own and is repeated over and over again in all forms or media, but especially the printed press. It becomes the all consuming call to action! In the last several weeks as I have read the Wisconsin State Journal I must have seen that number repeated hundreds of times. Some interpretation is starting to be spun out finally!

The first point I would make is that it is at best a worst case estimate to rally the Governor's supporters. When I worked for the Legislative Fiscal Bureau over two decades ago supporting the "Tax Fiscal Team" I created the programs to estimate the implications of tax law changes. The results were estimates based on sample data of Wisconsin taxpayers. The keyword is estimate! Even polls today are always put out with estimates of error and their estimates of error are a great deal more simple than using "sampled and old (not fresh or current) taxpayer data" projected into the future where we know events external to Wisconsin can greatly impact the estimate.

On that issue the Medicaid portion of the projected deficit accounts for a third to one-half of the deficit (depending how you estimate). Why such a large number? I think the answer is withdrawal of stimulus money provided by the Federal government. We know given the current national political narrative that there is going to be limited additional support to assist states. The local political narrative seems to be well coordinated with the national narrative to reinforce a crisis mentality! There are other solutions and there are events which can drastically impact estimates, making them plus or minus huge amounts of dollars and/or percentages.

I will end on a personal recollection of my experience in the Legislative Fiscal Bureau! As a "programmer" I was involved in the local chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM – somewhat anachronistic name). We frequently had national speakers in from the likes of companies such as IBM. We were encouraged to bring our bosses to one of these events so I invited Bob Lang, Director of the LFB, and other staff. The speaker was from IBM and about the only thing I recall about the presentation is a remark Bob made to me about the research budget of IBM being larger than the budget of the State of Wisconsin (forgive me Bob if I have recollected in error). In my two years at LFB, Bob made one other remark to me that I recall and it had to do with the difficulty of making estimates about budget shortfalls or having budget surpluses. And I must say at this point that my recollection is not precise so rather than "anchoring" I would rather leave it unsaid or as a future question for someone else to ask!

Update: Egregious example of anchoring - I won't repeat the number but if the State Capitol needs restoration I am confident it will not cost anything like the numbers put forward by the Governor's representatives.  I was certainly glad to see the outside of building, which had been left to blacken, cleaned and repaired several years ago.  I was glad to watch the scaffolding  as the dome was repaired to control for moisture problems and glad I was not hanging from ropes on the outside dome surface.

Update: 3/6/2011 - Just back from being in the State Capitol - all signs of democracy have been removed - except for our "safety" it is still tedious to get in - empty your pockets, wand, turn, wand again!  The marble and granite looks all shiny!

WI 1848 Forward: #Budget #Spin and #Jounalists :  Wisconsin : #47% #99%  #Dems vs us #Walker #Koch #Lobbyists