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.”

 In short, it’s an academic’s $20 word for what working journalists would call a puff piece.

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.

Hagiography is a time honored practice, and has, even produced great art.  Take for example the 21 panel life of Marie de Medici by Peter Paul Rubens than hangs (appropriately in Medici Gallery, at the Louvre).  It depicting major events in her life, all larger than life and with the hand of God clearly shown at every step.  The series begins with God smiling approvingly at her birth and ends with Marie ascending to His side in heaven:
Old School Hagiography: The Life of Marie de Medici

A field guide to hagiometry

Hagiometry has a number of obvious hallmarks. Most importantly, hagiometry is all about selling:  one should either generously subsidize some activity or forbear from unduly burdening it with taxes and/or regulations.  It is also almost always the case that public entities with cash to spend (or who might levy taxes or rules) who are the intended audience for these glowing statistical portraits. More specifically, you know its hagiometry if you see these things:
  1. Its used to sell, not to choose among alternatives or decide “how much” is the right amount to spend on a particular project.
  2. They never talk about opportunity costs or the negative multiplier associated with moving money from other activities.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

 Gresham’s Law & the market for economic impact studies

 Just like fawning biographies and larger than life portraits, economic impact studies are invariably commissioned, not by someone with a detached interest in the pursuit of truth (or beauty) but someone with a pretty clear axe to grind. That creates a selection environment which is virtually guaranteed to produce exaggerated results. Artists who produce ugly, if truthful, portraits don’t get many commissions.  The same principle applies to hagiometry: consultants who produce conservative estimates are much less likely to find favor than those who produce generous ones.  The result is that there is a kind of Gresham’s law at work in the industry:  firms that produce generous estimates are in high demand and can earn high fees; those who are less glowing, find they have less work, and either change their methods, or find other lines of business to pursue. This produces an unsurprising race to the bottom that produces the kind of work Mark Bonn did for the BlueJays.

Several years ago, I was part of group opposing something called the “Columbia River Crossing” a multi-billion dollar freeway widening project in Portland.    The State DOT hired a company with a track record of repeatedly over-estimating traffic and toll revenue (they were in part responsible for the SH 135 toll road estimates in Austin, which subsequently went into default).  For a moment, I was puzzled as to why our DOT would choose someone who routinely over-estimates revenue; but then it occurred to me that for the highway advocates excessive optimism was not a bug, but an essential feature.  They didn’t want someone to tell them it would be impractical or risky to build their project.
 The best advice we can offer the public and policy makers in countering hagiometry is simply to be very skeptical of all such economic impact studies. Ordinarily, we might invoke the Latin admonition “Caveat Emptor” or “let the buyer beware,” but in this case, the economic impact study is invariably bought and paid for by its flattered client. When presented with an economic impact study that expensively describes some organization or project’s accomplishments and importance, one might consider another Latin expression: “Timeo danaos et dona ferentes” which is generally translated to mean, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.”