Data donít lie but can be misleading
By Jonathan Schechter, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: October 3, 2012
Today, a mash-up of two items recently in the news.
Item No. 1: Teton County is not listed among America’s wealthiest counties.
On Sept. 20, the Census Bureau released its 2011 American Community Survey data.
Several years ago, recognizing how rapidly the nation was changing, the Census Bureau began supplementing its decennial census with the American Community Survey, an annual estimate of a variety of socioeconomic and demographic phenomena.
Among the items measured is median household income. Reporting on the 2011 findings, the Washington Post ran a big story under the headline “Seven of nation’s 10 most affluent counties are in Washington region.”
Well, no. Not really.
The Post’s headline was a way for it to catch eyeballs by stroking its readers’ egos. If it had wanted to be accurate, the headline would have read “Seven of nation’s 10 most affluent larger counties are in Washington region.” If it had wanted to be more accurate still, somewhere in the story the Post would have said, “Out of America’s 3,144 counties, 811 have a population of greater than 65,000. Of these, seven of the top 10 with the highest median income are in the Washington region.”
But accuracy wasn’t the Post’s goal. Instead, it opted to pander.
I mention all this because several people have asked me why Teton County wasn’t listed among the nation’s wealthiest counties. It’s not that we’ve suddenly become poorer. It’s a function of the fact that our population is barely 20,000.
Why should this matter? The reason is that the American Community Survey is based on statistical sampling techniques, which are more accurate for areas with larger populations. In the world of the American Community Survey, the nation’s counties fall into three basic categories: those with populations of at least 65,000, those with populations between 20,000 and 65,000 and those with populations of fewer than 20,000.
So while the Census Bureau releases American Community Survey data for every county every year, it treats these categories differently. Specifically, for those counties with a population of at least 65,000, it released data based on one year’s sample. For those counties with populations between 20,000 and 65,000, it released data based on three years of sampling. For those with fewer than 20,000 residents, the data are based on five years of sampling. And since neither the three- nor five-year data have been released yet, we don’t know anything about 21 of Wyoming’s 23 counties (only Laramie and Natrona counties have populations greater than 65,000).
So the fact that we didn’t make the Washington Post’s top 10 or top 100 or top 811 list doesn’t mean that we’ve become poor. It’s just that, because our population is barely 20,000, we’re not measured yet. At least not by the just-released American Community Survey. Which leads into the second item.
Item No. 2: Jackson Hole is home to two of America’s 20 richest individuals.
Last week, Forbes Magazine released its annual list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. Of the top 20, two live in Teton County. A third lives in Big Horn County.
To put that in perspective, of the 20 wealthiest Americans, no more than four reside in any one state, and all 20 are clustered in just 10 states.
Why is this so? No one can say for sure, because every individual is different. That noted, it’s striking that, of the top 20, nine reside in states with no state income tax: Florida, Nevada, Texas, Washington and Wyoming.
But that only explains part of the reason, for 11 of the 20 choose to live in states that do levy income tax. Looking more broadly at the entire Forbes 400, 390 of them live in the United States and, of that number, 74 percent live in states that levy income tax.
Which, of course, runs counter to the classic microeconomics construct of the rational economic man. If that view held water, every last one of the Forbes 400 should be claiming residency in one of the seven no-tax states. For that matter, so should every last American. Yet the vast majority of the Forbes 400 do not. Ditto the vast majority of Americans.
In fact, two of the no-state-income-tax states — Alaska and South Dakota — don’t have a single resident among the Forbes 400. And California, which has one of the highest state income tax rates, is home to nearly as many members of the Forbes 400 as live in all the tax-free states combined.
For me, this seeming paradox produces two takeaways.
The first takeaway is that economics matters. Even if Teton County’s median income had been included in the latest American Community Survey release, it wouldn’t really matter. This is because the more important measure of our wealth is not our median income, but our mean or per capita income.
Why? Because prices are set at the margins, not in the middle. This is particularly true for real estate, the most out-of-whack element of our cost of living and the biggest threat to the continuance of a middle class in Jackson Hole.
When a home comes up for sale, its price is not determined by the local wage scale or median income. Instead, it’s set by whatever someone anywhere else in the world might be willing to pay. And when that person buys that house and moves to Jackson, our per capita income rises much further than it would fall if, say, the construction worker who was outbid for that home is forced to leave town because he couldn’t find a place to live.
The second takeaway is that, as an explanatory tool, economics can be a crock, at least as flawed as every other discipline or creed that tries to fit everyone into neat boxes. We are a wonderfully diverse species, and while some of us are clearly driven by economic considerations, many others are not.
Economists and policymakers alike lose sight of this at their peril, for an oversimplified understanding of the world can lead to profoundly flawed conclusions, decisions and policies.
Jonathan Schechter, whose column appears every other week, is executive director of the Charture Institute, a Jackson-based think tank. Complete versions of his columns, including graphics, are available at Charture.org. Email him at email@example.com.