Column: Context changes everything

May. 31, 2014 @ 11:32 PM

Superlatives are funny things.

Those are the words we use when we describe things that are extremes – the most, best, least, worst, first, last, highest, lowest, only, and on and on and on.

But superlatives are kind of like statistics. You can use them accurately, but without context they can mislead the listener.

For instance, consider the boast last week by Senate leader Phil Berger that “more North Carolinians are going to work today than ever before.” More than ever. It sure sounds impressive.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that Berger’s superlative is true. As of April, nearly 4.4 million North Carolinians were employed, the highest that number has ever been.

But if you go back through the past 10 years of monthly employment data, you notice that by and large, aside from the Great Recession, the number usually goes up in conjunction with population growth. More North Carolinians than ever are employed now because there have never been more North Carolinians than there are now, even if the percentage of them who are employed has often been higher in the past.

From January 2013 to April 2014, the first time in modern history that Republicans controlled both the legislature and the governor’s office, the number of state residents who have jobs has gone up by more than 76,000. Maybe, as Berger claims, that is due to Republican policies. I’m not here to argue that point, particularly.

But from January 2005 to April 2006, the number of people with jobs went up by more than 150,000. There were fewer North Carolinians at the time, so the growth is even greater in comparison. I would not really want to use that to argue in favor of going back to the policies of the day that were advocated by Gov. Mike Easley and the Democratic General Assembly, but some others might.

Similarly, a number of legislators are arguing that the level of education spending they are proposing would be the most North Carolina has ever spent for education. And that is true, in dollar terms, not adjusted for inflation or population growth. But both of those things do exist, so the argument rings hollow – which I suspect the people making it know.

If your boss gives you a $1-a-year raise every year for 20 years, he would be right to argue that he is now paying you more than he ever has. A whole $20 per year more.

That does not mean he wouldn’t be a disingenuous snake who deserved a pop in the nose.

Note that I did not say he would be the worst snake ever.