Thursday, December 12, 2013

Margaret Wente on facts, figures and The Toronto Star

It would be nice if Margaret Wente did what she's obliged to do – that is, inform readers of the source of statistics used to reach her conclusions.   It seems particularly relevant to uphold accepted standards when you’re slagging other media outlets (like the Toronto Star) for claims “not supported by the facts”.

What facts support Ms. Wente when she writes, Since 1981, Canadians’ real personal disposable income, per capita, has gone up nearly 50 per cent”?

In contrast, The Living Standards Report of the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (2011) states:

“Between 1981 and 2010… real personal disposable income per capita rose 31.4 per cent”.  

Any growth has been unequally shared.  “Median market income per household declined 7.6 per cent, while median total income saw a moderate increase of 1.7 per cent…”

The report adds, “Since 1981, many dimensions of living standards have not improved, in spite of a 52.6 % surge in gross domestic product per capita….”

And since Ms. Wente’s overall argument is that compassion and income equality are doing well specifically under Mr. Harper’s watch, it would make more sense to look at figures since he came to office – rather than since 1981.   Table 9B here shows real disposable income in 1981 at $19,421.  In 2006, when the Conservatives formed a minority government, the number already stood at $24,006, so most of that increase occurred under previous administrations.  The figures stop at 2010, before the majority Conservative government began implementing expansive changes in legislation. 

What does appear to have risen since Conservatives achieved majority is household debt.  Given the barrage of reports (noting, for example, that Canadians owe just over $1.63 for every $1 in disposable income they earn in a year”), it seems a bit unlikely that Canadians’ disposable income has increased as radically as Ms. Wente states - especially recently.  Even for one cherry-picked marker, 30 percent would be nowhere near the 50 at which she pegs it (and little to no increase would seem to be attributable to Mr. Harper’s “compassionate” governance)  Perhaps Ms. Wente has a different source of statistics for her "nearly 50 per cent" claim.  A polite request for supporting figures was sent to The Globe.  No response so far.

Update:  I’m glad to see that The Globe has now updated the claim with a link in the online version (though no source in the print version) to a graph by Stephen Gordon, showing figures to 2013 (though it doesn’t indicate the source of the original data).  Better, though questions remain.

In any case, it should be noted that a woman who, among other things, falsely  turned an unsuspecting student loan recipient (borrowed, without acknowledging her source, from an American blogger) into the “face” of the Occupy protests, presumes to lecture other media outlets about proper ethical practices.


  1. Hi:

    The data for real disposible income are from Cansim Table 380-0065

    I divided this series by population (Cansim series V1) and re-scaled so that the average over 1981 = 100.

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