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Politics, journalism and the infinitesimal calculus

6 April 2013

There is a worrying numerical error that I encounter more and more frequently in the media. It indicates just how innumerate are most of the population, and a distressing proportion of journalists who should know better. It is quite simply to confuse what in mathematical terms we would call a function with its derivative. Today we have the Labour party Tweeting quite a carefully worded claim that “13,000 millionaires got an average tax cut of £100,000 today”. Technically that may (possibly) be correct (it depends on some quite difficult extrapolations from HMRC estimates), but what they are trying to do is trade off the public’s inability to tell the difference between a “millionaire” (i.e. “a person whose assets are worth at least one million pounds” according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary) and someone who has taxable income of over £1 million – a very different thing. There may be some 13,000 of these “income millionaires” (and as it happens I agree that it was both morally wrong and politically inept for the Government to reduce their tax rate), but there are a great many more people (an estimated 322,000) with assets over £1 million who are millionaires in the traditional sense. Remember at today’s interest rates their income (assuming it is all deposited in the bank) might be as low as £10,000 – on which they will in fact pay virtually no tax as they may actually be a great deal poorer than the average worker.

The same confusion arises between the “deficit” and the total UK “debt”, and again between the “rate of inflation” and actual prices (so that broadcasts announce a “fall in inflation” as though prices are coming down – or at least they used to: there’s not so much opportunity these days): an innumerate public encouraged by sloppy journalism now can’t tell the difference between the balance sheet/capital value/function and the income/revenue/differential coefficient.

The Labour Party’s defence that the Tweet referred only to a specific 13,000 millionaires, not all of them, won’t do. Firstly, there may be high earners who have just commenced their accumulation of wealth, and aren’t yet millionaires even though they fall into the tax bracket. Secondly, the poster itself, as opposed to the tweet (and after all it is the real world of posters that matter to voters: Twitter is for people like those reading this blog), actually says: “Who wants to bung a millionaire? Dave does. Families are now losing £891 a year while the Tories give an average tax cut of £100,000 to millionaires.” There is no qualification here: the average tax cut to all UK millionaires is closer to £4000.

The poster carries the slogan “One Nation.” How I wish it were.


The omission of “rate of” before “inflation” is an almost inevitable consquence of space-limited social media such as Twitter; it is however a good example of Twitter-think, the limiting of content with space.


From → Ideas, Politics

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  1. The obliquity of the elliptic | Neil Jeffares

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