Saturday, August 11, 2007

Misreading Money

David French
and other conservatives are outraged that professors are giving money to political campaigns. He jokes that Exxon/Mobil is “the financial underdog” compared to academia.

First, French misreads the data, claiming that academia gave more money than the oil and gas industry. Not so: the data ranks the entire education industry at 14th, which includes K-12 employees. (NPR makes a similar error.)

French is also missing the fact that education is a far bigger (but much less profitable) industry than oil and gas. There are 1.2 million college faculty and 3 million K-12 teachers, plus millions more additional employees (it’s not clear if full-time students get counted in the education industry). By contrast, ExxonMobil (which is the biggest oil company), has only 80,000 employees worldwide, and most of them are foreigners ineligible to give money. We really need to know the amount of giving per capita in an industry, and the data doesn’t provide that info.

Finally, the amount of giving in presidential elections by employees at industries is quite unimportant. The oil and gas industry spends vast amounts on lobbying, unlike higher education.

Now, as for the alleged ideological imbalance. 76% of the money this year is going to Democrats (a slight increase in imbalance compared to previous years). However, campaign donors are obviously not a representative sample of teachers (and if they are, this 3:1 ratio is far less than what most conservatives claim about academia). There are perfectly good reasons why teachers might give more money to Democrats: self-interest, for example, since Democrats are perceived to support more funding for education. Of course, plenty of other industries (oil and gas, for one), heavily donate for the Republicans. And Democrats may get more money because they’re more effective at online donations and reaching out to education networks.

The donations story is yet another example of bad data, badly interpreted.

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