You Go, Colin Powell!

Oct 19, 2008

This morning on Meet the Press, Colin Powell announced his support for Barack Obama. His comments about both Sens. McCain and Obama were balanced and largely positive, but two factors seemed key: the negative tone of the McCain campaign, and the choice of Sarah Palin as running mate – a choice you could argue was motivated in the first place by the tone of the campaign.

Gen. Powell’s Republican credentials run deep. So do mine, and while I’d have to say I’m more firmly on the fence than he is – and, as a private citizen, I see no reason to disclose my preferences anyway – I too am dismayed by the way my party has run its campaign. For that reason, I applaud his speaking out today.

So what does all this have to do with numbers?

Numbers – compiling them, presenting them, understanding them – are central to legislation, elections, policy-making, and all the other moving parts in the political process. And I’ve taken my shots at the Democrats’ tactics this year (see “Type I Errors, Type II Errors, and Slimy Politics,” posted 10/8/08). Like many other ways of lowering the tone of a campaign, numbers – both used and misused – are essential to the half-truths, flawed reasoning, and just plain pandering that are so commonplace.

Work with me through the following points:
  1. Presenting, clearly and succinctly, the numbers behind a policy debate isn’t rocket science. If you can’t understand the “information” (in quotes because often that isn’t what it really is) being presented to you, it isn’t your fault.
  2. If you can’t understand what’s being presented to you and you haven’t spoken up and demanded the information you do want, it is your fault.
  3. Anyone can throw mud at the other side. But if you’re not holding members of your own party to the same information presentation standards, not only is it still your fault, but you’re sanctimonious as well.

In my professional world – corporate financial management – if you misrepresent the numbers you get fired. If you do it on purpose you get sued, and maybe even indicted. All of this might take a year or two to unfold, maybe three years if you’re really slick, but it will happen. You will be held accountable. Does the same thing happen in the political world? Hmmmm?

Next post, we’ll get back to those boring old numbers.

“Painting with Numbers” is my effort to get people talking about financial statements and other numbers in ways that we can all understand. I welcome your interest and your feedback.

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