Another reminder that aggregate trends hide information

The last time I looked at the U.S. employment situation, it was during the pandemic. The data revealed the deep flaws of the so-called "not in labor force" classification. This classification is used to dehumanize unemployed people who are declared "not in labor force," in which case they are neither employed nor unemployed -- just not counted at all in the official unemployment (or employment) statistics.

The reason given for such a designation was that some people just have no interest in working, or even looking for a job. Now they are not merely discouraged - as there is a category of those people. In theory, these people haven't been looking for a job for so long that they are no longer visible to the bean counters at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What happened when the pandemic precipitated a shutdown in many major cities across America? The number of "not in labor force" shot up instantly, literally within a few weeks. That makes a mockery of the reason for such a designation. See this post for more.

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The data we saw last time was up to April, 2020. That's more than two years old.

So I have updated the charts to show what has happened in the last couple of years.

Here is the overall picture.

Junkcharts_unemploymentrate_notinLF_parttime_july2022_all

In this new version, I centered the chart at the 1990 data. The chart features two key drivers of the headline unemployment rate - the proportion of people designated "invisible", and the proportion of those who are considered "employed" who are "part-time" workers.

The last two recessions have caused structural changes to the labor market. From 1990 to late 2000s, which included the dot-com bust, these two metrics circulated within a small area of the chart. The Great Recession of late 2000s led to a huge jump in the proportion called "invisible". It also pushed the proportion of part-timers to all0time highs. The proportion of part-timers has fallen although it is hard to interpret from this chart alone - because if the newly invisible were previously part-time employed, then the same cause can be responsible for either trend.

_numbersense_bookcoverReaders of Numbersense (link) might be reminded of a trick used by school deans to pump up their US News rankings. Some schools accept lots of transfer students. This subpopulation is invisible to the US News statisticians since they do not factor into the rankings. The recent scandal at Columbia University also involves reclassifying students (see this post).

Zooming in on the last two years. It appears that the pandemic-related unemployment situation has reversed.

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Let's split the data by gender.

American men have been stuck in a negative spiral since the 1990s. With each recession, a higher proportion of men are designated BLS invisibles.

Junkcharts_unemploymentrate_notinLF_parttime_july2022_men

In the grid system set up in this scatter plot, the top right corner is the worse of all worlds - the work force has shrunken and there are more part-timers among those counted as employed. The U.S. men are not exiting this quadrant any time soon.

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What about the women?

Junkcharts_unemploymentrate_notinLF_parttime_july2022_women

If we compare 1990 with 2022, the story is not bad. The female work force is gradually reaching the same scale as in 1990 while the proportion of part-time workers have declined.

However, celebrating the above is to ignore the tremendous gains American women made in the 1990s and 2000s. In 1990, only 58% of women are considered part of the work force - the other 42% are not working but they are not counted as unemployed. By 2000, the female work force has expanded to include about 60% with similar proportions counted as part-time employed as in 1990. That's great news.

The Great Recession of the late 2000s changed that picture. Just like men, many women became invisible to BLS. The invisible proportion reached 44% in 2015 and have not returned to anywhere near the 2000 level. Fewer women are counted as part-time employed; as I said above, it's hard to tell whether this is because the women exiting the work force previously worked part-time.

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The color of the dots in all charts are determined by the headline unemployment number. Blue represents low unemployment. During the 1990-2022 period, there are three moments in which unemployment is reported as 4 percent or lower. These charts are intended to show that an aggregate statistic hides a lot of information. The three times at which unemployment rate reached historic lows represent three very different situations, if one were to consider the sizes of the work force and the number of part-time workers.

 

P.S. [8-15-2022] Some more background about the visualization can be found in prior posts on the blog: here is the introduction, and here's one that breaks it down by race. Chapter 6 of Numbersense (link) gets into the details of how unemployment rate is computed, and the implications of the choices BLS made.

 


Four numbers, not as easy as it seems

Longtime reader Aleksander B. wasn't convinced by the following chart shown at the bottom of AFP's infographic about gun control.

Afp_guns_bottom

He said:

Finally I was able to figure who got some support from NRA. But as a non-US citizen it was hard to get why 86% of republican tag points to huge red part. Then I figured out that smaller value of alpha channel codes the rest of republicans. I think this could be presented in some better way (pie charts are bad in presenting percentages of some subparts of the same pie chart - but adding a tag for 86% while skipping the tag for remaining 14% is cruel).

It's an example of how a simple chart with just four numbers is so hard to understand.

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Here is a different view of the same data, using a similar structure as the form I chose for this recent chart on Swedish trade balance (link).

Redo_junkcharts_afpguns


Funnels and scatters

I took a peek at some of the work submitted by Ray Vella's students in his NYU dataviz class recently.

The following chart by Hosanah Bryan caught my eye:

Rich Get Richer_Hosanah Bryan (v2)

The data concern the GDP gap between rich and poor regions in various countries. In some countries, especially in the U.K., the gap is gigantic. In other countries, like Spain and Sweden, the gap is much smaller.

The above chart uses a funnel metaphor to organize the data, although the funnel does not add more meaning (not that it has to). Between that, the color scheme and the placement of text, it's visually clean and pleasant to look at.

The data being plotted are messy. They are not actual currency values of GDP. Each number is an index, and represents the relative level of the GDP gap in a given year and country. The gap being shown by the colored bars are differences in these indices 15 years apart. (The students were given this dataset to work with.)

So the chart is very hard to understand if one focuses on the underlying data. Nevertheless, the same visual form can hold other datasets which are less complicated.

One can nitpick about the slight misrepresentation of the values due to the slanted edges on both sides of the bars. This is yet another instance of the tradeoff between beauty and precision.

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The next chart by Liz Delessert engages my mind for a different reason.

The Rich Get Richerv2

The scatter plot sets up four quadrants. The top right is "everyone gets richer". The top left, where most of the dots lie, is where "the rich get richer, the poor get poorer".  This chart shows a thoughtfulness about organizing the data, and the story-telling.

The grid setup cues readers toward a particular way of looking at the data.

But power comes with responsibility. Such scatter plots are particularly susceptible to the choice of data, in this case, countries. It is tempting to conclude that there are no countries in which everyone gets poorer. But that statement more likely tells us more about which countries were chosen than the real story.

I like to see the chart applied to other data transformations that are easier. For example, we can start with the % change in GDP computed separately for rich and for poor. Then we can form a ratio of these two percent changes.

 

 


Dataviz is good at comparisons if we make the right comparisons

In an article about gas prices around the world, the Washington Post uses the following bar chart (link):

Wpost_gasprices_highincome

There are a few wrinkles in this one compared to the most generic bar chart one can produce:

Redo_wpost_gasprices_0

(The numbers on my chart are not the same as Washington Post's. That's because the data vendor charges for data, except for the most recent week. So, my data is from a different week.)

_trifectacheckup_imageThe gas prices are not expressed in dollars but a transformation turns prices into a cost-effectiveness metric: miles per dollar, or more precisely, miles per $40 dollars of gas. The metric has a reverse direction - the higher the price, the lower the miles. The data transformation belongs to the D corner of the Trifecta Checkup framework (link). Depending on how one poses the Q(uestion) of the chart, the shift from dollars to miles can bring the Q and the D in sync.

In the V(isual) corner, the designer embellishes the bars. A car icon is placed at the tip of each bar while the bar itself is turned into a wavy path, symbolizing a dirt path. The driving metaphor is in full play. In fact, the video makes the most out of it. There is no doubt that the embellishment has turned a mere scientific presentation into a form of entertainment.

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Did the embellishment harm visual clarity? For the most part, no.

The worst it can get is when they compared U.S. and India/South Africa:

Redo_wpost_gasprices_indiasouthafrica

The left column shows the original charts from the article. In  both charts, the two cars are so close together that it is impossible to learn the scale of the difference. The amount of difference is a fraction of the width of a car icon.

The right column shows the "self-sufficiency test". Imagine the data labels are not on the chart. What we learn is that if we wanted to know how big of a gap is between the two countries, when reading the charts on the left, we are relying on the data labels, not the visual elements. On the right side, if we really want to learn the gaps, we have to look through the car icons to find the tips of the bars!

This discussion does not necessarily doom the appealing chart. If the message one wants to send with the India/South Afrcia charts is that there is negligible difference between them, then it is not crucial to present the precise differences in prices.

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The real problem with this dataviz is in the D corner. Comparing countries is hard.

As shown above, by the miles per $40 spend metric, U.S. and India are rated essentially the same. So is the average American and the average Indian suffering equally?

Far from it. The clue comes from the aggregate chart, in which countries are divided into three tiers: high income, upper middle income and lower middle income. The U.S. belongs to the high-income tier while India falls into the lower-middle-income tier.

The cost of living in India is much lower than in the US. Forty dollars is a much bigger chunk of an Indian paycheck than an American one.

To adjust for cost of living, economists use a PPP (purchasing power parity) value. The following chart shows the difference:

Redo_wpost_gasprices_1

The right graph contains cost-of-living adjustments. It shows a completely different picture. Nominally (left chart), the price of gas in about the same in dollar terms between U.S. and India. In terms of cost of living, gas is actually 5 times more expensive in India. Thus, the adjusted miles per $40 gas number is much smaller for India than the unadjusted. (Because PPP is relative to U.S. prices, the U.S. numbers are not affected.)

PPP is not the end-all here. According to the Economic Times (India), only 22 out of 1,000 Indians own cars, compared to 980 out of 1,000 Americans. Think about the implication of using any statistic that averages the entire population!

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Why is gas more expensive in California than the U.S. average? The talking point I keep hearing is environmental regulations. Gas prices may be higher in Europe for a similar reason. Residents in those places may be willing to pay higher prices because they get satisfaction from playing their part in preserving the planet for future generations.

The footnote discloses this not-trivial issue.

Wpost_gasprices_footnote

When converting from dollars per gallon/liter into miles per $40, we need data on miles per gallon/liter. Americans notoriously drive cars (trucks, SUVs, etc.) that have much lower mileage than those driven by other countries. However, this factor is artificially removed by assuming the same car with 32 mpg on all countries. A quick hop to the BTS website tells us that the average mpg of American cars is a third of that assumption. [See note below.]

Ignoring cross-country comparisons for the time being, the true number for U.S. is not 247 miles per $40 spent on gas as claimed. It is a third of that value: 82 miles per $40 spent.

It's tough to find data on fuel economy of all passenger cars, not just new passenger cars. I found Australia's number, which is 21 mpg. So this brings the miles per $40 number down from about 230 to 115. These are not small adjustments.

Washington Post's analysis paints a simplistic picture that presupposes that price is the only thing people care about. I call this issue xyopia. It's when the analyst frames the problem as factor x explaining outcome y, and when factor x is not the only, and frequently not even the most important, factor affecting y.

More on xyopia.

More discussion of Washington Post graphics.

 

[P.S. 7-25-2022. Reader Cody Curtis pointed out in the comments that the Bureau of Transportation Statistics report was using km/liter as units, not miles per gallon. The 10 km/liter number for average cars is roughly 23 mpg. I'll leave the text as is in the post as the larger point is valid: that there is variation in average fuel economy between nations - partly due to environemental regulation and consumer behavior - and thus, a proper comparison requires adjusting for this factor.]