Why is it that so many people are good at math as children, but by the time they are adults, their ability to work with numbers has disappeared, though not their love of playing with figures?
What else are we to think when politicians trot out pledges and programs with numbers attached, yet can’t quite get those digits to actually work? Or when an institution that does do well with numbers suddenly announces it is getting out of the political statistics business, apparently because someone didn’t like the way those numbers were adding up?
First, there is President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) “6-3-3” campaign pledge from 2008 — annual GDP growth of 6 percent, unemployment of less than 3 percent and a per capita income of US$30,000. It sounded too good to be true three years ago and so it has proven to be. Ma later said he didn’t actually plan to achieve 6-3-3 in four years — that it was based on an eight-year timetable all along. Plus he now has a “golden decade” prospectus, which he swears is a practical blueprint, not another empty slogan.
Then there are all the numbers Ma has proclaimed in connection with his cross-strait policies, although we’ll mention just two: that businesses would save NT$300 billion (US$9.87 billion) in tariffs once the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement with China was signed and that 500 free independent Chinese tourists (FITs) a day would be pouring into Taiwan after the program was launched in June.
In reality, experts say the actual amount of money saved by not having to pay Chinese tariffs this year could be as low as NT$3 billion, while National Immigration Agency statistics show that instead of 50,000 FITs in the first 100 days of the program, just 18 percent of that figure turned up.
However, Ma is not the only one playing loose with numbers. People First Party (PFP) Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) on Thursday announced an “8-6-4” program for education as part of his “Yes, I’m really running” presidential campaign platform. The odds of Soong actually having to implement his scheme: probably 100 to 1.
The National Police Agency also threw its hat into the numbers ring this week by ordering a 79 percent monthly clearance rate for major crimes. It said it came up with that number after it looked at the total number of cases solved last year and the number of cases reported. No mention was made about the number of convictions that actually resulted from those cases or the fact that such arbitrary goals do not actually make for good police work. However, the rationale for the program was clear — though left unsaid — it turns out the agency is only concerned that police precincts reach that goal between last month and December, just in time for the Jan. 14 elections.
Packaging results for the elections obviously has many people across the political spectrum concerned. However, the public should be more worried by Tuesday’s announcement that the Global Views Survey Research Center would no longer conduct surveys on elections or political issues because of a “shift in corporate policy.” The decision led to the center’s director to resign.
The center’s last survey on Sept. 21 found that Ma had 39.2 percent voter support in a contest against Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), with 38.3 percent, but if Soong was added, Tsai would lead Ma by 36 percent to 35.8 percent and Soong would have 10 percent. Guess someone wasn’t too happy with those figures.
The law already bans publishing election-related opinion polls 10 days before an election. It is too bad that 95 days before the Jan. 14 elections, the nation lost one of its more respected polling centers.
The lesson we should take from all this is that the numbers politicians spout are not meant to be either real or achievable, and that the only percentages the political establishment likes best are the ones they can fiddle themselves.
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