It’s no longer fashionable to get an unrealistically flattering portrait painted, but you can get an economist to do it with numbers.
You’ve no doubt heard the term “hagiography” an unduly flattering biography or other written treatment designed to burnish the public image of some person. The term is derived from the Greek words for “holy” and “writing”, in this combination meaning essentially, “writing that makes something seem holy.” The dictionary definition is:
“A very admiring book about someone or a description of someone that represents the person as perfect or much better than they really are, or the activity of writing about someone in this way.”
Well, today, at City Observatory, we’re adding our own coinage to this realm: hagiometry. So if hagiography is writing that flatters the ego; hagiometry is flattery with numbers. And its the stock in trade of a coterie of consultants who will, for a fee, tell you that your convention center, sport stadium, industry, tourist attraction or highway overpass is quantitatively all kinds of good for the local economy. While there’s little market for long form fawning biographies (you can write your own autobiography and take care of that) and large format portraiture has gone out of style, we’re increasingly a data-driven society, so its little surprise that the largest and most lucrative field for highly compensated ego polishing involves the manipulation of statistics.
So what does hagiometry look like? Well, for starters, if you’ve ever read an economic impact study, then chances are you’ve put your hands on real life hagiometry. We were reminded of just how obvious this is when we read about a recent report designed to show the economic impact of a spring training ballpark in Dunedin, Florida. Let’s turn the microphone over to Deadspin’s Kevin Draper, who wrote a story last week “Florida’s Go-To Stadium Economist is a Hack, A Shill, and also not an Economist.” Draper tells the story of Mark Bonn, a Florida State University professor of recreation who has a small cottage industry of writing economic impact statements for ballparks. He produced a report for the Toronto Blue Jays showing that their spring training site produced $70 million in annual economic impacts, as part of the team’s effort to convince state and local taxpayers to shell out $65 million in subsidies for the stadium. Bonn’s work was so egregiously overstated that even his client couldn’t countenance the exaggerations. The consultant fought to keep the inflated numbers and suggested his client suppress the methodology to avoid any embarrassing questions. (Bonn also produced a report for the New York Yankees showing that their spring training games generated nearly $10 million per game in economic impacts). Even more damning: the whole train of inflated numbers, questionable assumptions and bad math was unearthed by reporters from the local television station WTSP. (Not a medium noted for its interest in or ability to critique any data driven story).
While stadiums are obvious examples of this oeuvre, these charlatans ply their trade in all manner of fields: port impact studies, university impact studies, tourism impact studies, toll revenue forecasts. The concept of an economic multiplier is a Godsend to this group; coupled with generous assumptions and a penchant for double- and triple-counting things, and they can make anything appear of out-sized importance. Archimedes famously said: give me a long enough lever and I can move the earth, To the economic impact study, if you give me a strong enough assumption, I can produce any benefit cost ratio you like.
A field guide to hagiometry
- Its used to sell, not to choose among alternatives or decide “how much” is the right amount to spend on a particular project.
- They never talk about opportunity costs or the negative multiplier associated with moving money from other activities.
- All activity is assumed to be additive, with no displacement. Sporting events like the Super Bowl have been shown to “crowd out” other economic activity, so the net effect is smaller than the activity generated by the event itself.
- Added costs get counted as benefits: if people drive more, they spend more on gasoline, and cars, and even though their total cost of living has risen, it all gets counted as a net gain.
- There’s little or no mention of who loses. Economic impact studies focus exclusively on benefits, and almost never on costs. If these businesses get more money, then won’t consumers spend less at other businesses? That Cabelas might chalk up millions in sales, but it may suck the life out of other local retailers, a negative that’s almost never reflected in impact studies.