How do you turn your molehill into a mountain? Ask any activist inside the beltway and they’ll give you the same answer: Statistics. With activists primarily concerned with the data that best serves their end goal, policymakers and the public must be wary of the numerical sleight of hand.
Take drunk driving, for instance. Activists continue to treat this highway scourge as the single greatest public health problem, and the budgets have followed. This year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is slated to spend the better part of $37 million convincing Americans to “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over.”
The preventable crime is certainly a tragedy, but put the effect into perspective: For every one drunk driving death, seven people die from influenza. We wouldn’t tolerate checkpoints where police demand proof that you’ve had your flu shot, but that move would stand to save an outsized number of lives.
Additionally, the drunk driver is frequently the one who pays the ultimate price for their actions. Sixty-one percent of drunk driving fatalities are the driver themselves, and a further 14 percent are passengers who chose to ride with an intoxicated driver. That leaves just 2,764 individuals who lost their lives through no fault of their own. Put a different way, the average American would have to drive 1.16 billion miles in one year before a fatal encounter with a drunk driver. My odometer certainly doesn’t go that high.
The minimum wage debate is another arena where statistics are tortured to reach a conclusion.
For example, proponents of the federal “Raise the Wage Act” believe a national $15 minimum wage would create higher earnings and safer neighborhoods, as workers are lifted from poverty and the job market becomes more attractive for would-be criminals. But reality is far less sunny.
A recent Mercatus Center study found that rising state and local wage floors have been the predominant factor in the decline of teenage job rates. Higher base pay means that employers have to be more selective in their hiring practices, driving businesses to choose those with experience over individuals who are just entering the job market. For the almost 1,500 individuals who drop out of high school every single day, being unable to find a minimum wage job often means they cannot find a job at all.
The repercussions of not finding a summer job are long-lasting. Six to eight years after graduation, high school seniors who held a part-time job can expect to earn 20 percent more than their peers. Four decades after graduation, a 7 percent pay gap persists between those who worked in high school and those who did not.
Costs aren’t limited to mere dollars and cents, either. Data also indicates that minimum wage increases between 1998 and 2016 yielded an increase in property crime arrests among those aged 16 to 24, or the demographic that suffers most from minimum wage hikes.
But perhaps no subject experiences as much statistical activism as the current U.S. health care debate. Recent support for socialized medicine, or “Medicare for All,” has gained traction amongst the public and, notably, the 2020 Democratic primary contenders.
Despite the hubbub, medical costs would not be lower under a single-payer system. Last summer, an analysis from former Bush administration official Charles Blahous found that Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal would run U.S. taxpayers $33 trillion (yes, trillion with a “t”). The government would have to more than double the amount it currently collects from individual and corporate taxes in order to fund the proposal.
But even if there were an easy means to pay for it, universal health coverage is of no value if you cannot access it. The biggest plight of government-sponsored health care is that when care is free, anyone with a sniffle or a headache can access the system. Emergency rooms, hospitals, and general practitioners’ offices are quickly overwhelmed by people who would not have sought medical advice if they were required to pay for it. We can look to the United Kingdom and Canada as examples of how the quality of care would suffer under a government-run system.
Under Britain’s National Health Service, some Emergency Room patients wait more than 12 hours before seeing a doctor. The nation’s health system was short 41,722 nurses and 11,576 doctors last summer, which led to widespread surgery cancellations, appointment cancellations, and dangerous scenarios where ill patients are forced to crowd together in waiting rooms and hallways.
Canadian patients wait an average of 5 months between seeing a doctor and receiving medically necessary treatment. Procedures that take a matter of hours in the United States take weeks in our northern neighbor’s hospitals. A 2018 report from the Fraser Institute revealed that Canadians wait an average of 10.6 weeks for a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, 4.3 weeks for a computed tomography (CT) scan, and 3.9 weeks for an ultrasound.
It is essential for those with something to lose to make their perspectives heard, lest good intentions lead the country to societal, financial or medical ruin. To paraphrase the old adage, if something sounds too good to be true, the numbers have probably been cooked.
• Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Co., a public relations firm in Washington, D.C.
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