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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Numbers, statistics and dollars 

There are two kinds of statistics, the kind you look up and the kind you make up.
Rex Stout, Author

As we start a new year, many of us are worried about numbers; the numbers in our paycheck, the numbers in our bills, and even the numbers in Costa Mesa’s budget. Do we have enough money to add to savings and pay off MasterCard -- and to fill the pot holes?

For City money questions we need the kind of numbers we can look up. One danger in using “made up” statistics is that is we might fool ourselves, as well as our opponents. So, we’ll try to discuss numbers, or statistics, that are supported by solid data. Remember, “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics” according to Mark Twain. We want, “Just the facts.”

Statistics in the news

One current example of statistics in the news is the “Guns=Violence” debates:

According to FBI statistics (the kind based on research and hard data), 12,664 homicides were reported in 2011, 8,583 committed with a firearm. Of those firearm homicides 323 were committed with rifles, and some part of those would be “assault rifles” as defined by Diane Feinstein and the other anti-gun folks. We know, then, that Senator Feinstein wants draconian measures to prohibit the legal purchase of a type of firearm used in less than 2.6% of all homicides.

Irrational but they say it anyway

Somehow forbidding ownership of rifles that have a bayonet stud is thought to make our children, who are already being schooled in “gun free” zones, safer. (We could find no recorded instances of a criminal attacking children, police, or law-abiding citizens with a bayonet affixed to a rifle. We don’t have any hard statistics, either, about how many insane people were deterred by “gun free” zones.)

And, the FBI report demonstrates that most firearms homicides occur in neighborhoods that have strict gun control –that is, that have low legal firearm ownership rates. According to census data, these neighborhoods are both poor and filled with crime.  

More productive

Perhaps Senator Feinstein has some “made up” stories – or statistics – that justify her efforts. Instead, we believe that the senator should focus on encouraging legal gun ownership in poor and crime-filled areas. Most of these areas vote Democratic, so she would be making her constituents safer.

Another statistical example 

A related example of statistics in current news: Some of the commenters writing in our two local newspapers throw out statistics about how safe the “gun prohibited” countries are in comparison to the “gun laden” US. The reality is somewhat different.

According to the Home Office Statistical Bulletin: Crimes Detected in England and Wales 2011/12, 762,515 violent crimes were reported in a population of 56,019,400. That’s a rate of 1362 violent crimes per 100,000 persons.

The violent crimes per 100,000 persons in the US dropped from 758 in 1972 to 386 in 2011 (as gun ownership increased), according to the FBI crime reports. That is England and Wales have a violent crime rate 3.5 times greater than the US at this time. And they “enjoy” a nearly-disarmed law-abiding citizenry.

Just as in the US, British criminals have fully-automatic weapons, and firearms of all sorts. In the US, presently, law-abiding citizens cannot own fully-automatic weapons (with a few exceptions), but can own, and keep in their homes, semi-automatic rifles and pistols. In Britain, they generally cannot, unless, of course, they are criminals or terrorists.

So, statistics you can look up point to dismal results in reducing crime by disarming the law-abiding citizens. Numbers just don’t support the value of banning guns. Statistics of the type that you make up support all kinds of comments in our daily papers, though.

Now about Costa Mesa dollars   

Closer to home, we hear that Costa Mesa is on the verge of bankruptcy, and that the City is doing fine and will be able to pay all its bills on an ongoing basis. Which is correct? Does either viewpoint have statistics we can look up? Are there any facts here, or just opinions, just political diatribe?

To get ready for our discussion, please take a brief look at a few documents. They are available on the City of Costa Mesa’s web site. (Other cities don’t have the same transparency, so getting their figures requires a lot of legwork, and maybe even filing a “freedom of information” suit.)

A brief look is fine, just enough to become familiar with what numbers are available. We’ll look at the numbers in more detail later. And, we’ll discuss the facts in everyday English, not in Accountant-ese.

Everyday English will help us recognize -- and discount -- the numbers that Council members, columnists, and commenters make up. That’s only fair, since we’re the ones who pay the bills. And we want, “just the facts,” the kind we can look up.

First of all, there’s the City’s Financial Reporthere

We’ll also be looking at her Operating and Capital Improvement Budget here

And we may glance through the Costa Mesa Compensation Report here

And the Pension information here

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