The Trouble With Statistics

In the comments section of this EconLog post, one commentator, pasjer, attempts to defend Castro’s legacy in particular and communism in general.  He (she?) writes:

I like Castro’s egalitarian planned economy; good health and education systems, existential safety, increased equality. Reasonably good GDP growth last 25 years. That economy, like in USSR and China saved lives. (Don’t rush to argue without checking life expectancy and child mortality data before.)

Life expectancy in China (1978), Soviet Union (1989) and Cuba (these days) was/is 3-8 years longer than world average; child mortality in these countries was/is 2-10 times lower than world average; all three countries, particularly China, started with planned economy poorer than world average.

That those three countries were barely above the World Average (and even then, they beat out mainly war-torn or plagued countries and lagged well behind their developed-world counterparts), is a poor argument for communism.  But it is also a mistake to focus just on life expectancy without looking at the quality of that life.

A simple historical example:

According to the book Time on the Cross, the life expectancy of a US slave in 1850 was about 36 years, slightly lower than the US average (40 years), but higher than many European countries (Italy – 35, Austria – 31) and about the same as others (Holland – 36, France – 36).  And while no estimates exist from the African continent at the time, it is possible these lifespans were even longer than in Africa.  Could one claim, then, that slavery was good for the black man?  Many often did, for this and similar reasons.  These statistics were how slavery was justified on moral (and Christian!) grounds.  But the life and care of the slave was not out of good will or in any genuine attempt to improve his life.  The care was done for the same reason a craftsman takes care of his tools: they serve a purpose and are expensive to replace.  But they have no freedom, no care beyond what is necessary to achieve goals.  They are not living for themselves, but for others.  It’s a very poor quality of life.

When we look at statistics, we must be careful.  Statistics can mislead just as easily as they can enlighten.  Given the extreme lengths Soviet, Cuban, Chinese, etc citizens went to escape their countries with “good health and education systems, existential safety, increased equality…,”I have to conclude the quality of life, of health care and education and equality, left much to be desired. Just like the slave trying to escape his master despite the master providing him with housing, clothing, food, and care.

6 thoughts on “The Trouble With Statistics

  1. “Given the extreme lengths Soviet, Cuban, Chinese, etc citizens went to escape their countries with “good health and education systems, existential safety, increased equality…,”I have to conclude the quality of life, of health care and education and equality, left much to be desired. Just like the slave trying to escape his master despite the master providing him with housing, clothing, food, and care.”

    That is critical reasoning. Statistics can be, and were often, manipulated by the Soviets, Cubans, and Chinese. The proof? The people risking life, limb, and property to escape.

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  2. Technical issues prevents commentor Walter Clark from posting this. His comment is as follows:

    Those on the left who can be influenced by the arguments of freedom (young people) would probably agree that socialized anything is less efficient than the free market version. But they would gladly sacrifice some degree of efficiency if it meant a more equitable distribution of the products of labor and capital.
    Start there.
    Acknowledge that the goals of a socialist revolution can focus on education and medical care and that indeed those things …even today in Cuba… are better than what that same country would produce for education and medical care if they were free. But to make up for the socialist inefficiency in those two aspects of the economy, the Revolution must allocate resources so that these inefficient operations can be shining examples. The Revolution must continue to burden all other economic activities; which are themselves inefficient because they too are socialized. And that means the Revolution must impoverish the whole nation as if it were continuing to fund the revolution against the most terrible foe in its existence. A socialist country must forever fund a war with itself.

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    • Walter

      But they would gladly sacrifice some degree of efficiency if it meant a more equitable distribution of the products of labor and capital.

      Do you mean ‘equitable as in: fair, just, impartial, even-handed, unbiased, unprejudiced? Or in the sense of being equal?

      and that indeed those things …even today in Cuba… are better than what that same country would produce for education and medical care if they were free.

      Is that true? I understand there is a two tiered medical system in Cuba that provides excellent care for the elites and “Those In Charge”, but that care for everyone else is pretty dismal.

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      • This is a Blockquote test:

        “and that indeed those things …even today in Cuba… are better than what that same country would produce for education and medical care if they were free.”.

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