WASHINGTON – The editor of the Old Farmer's Almanac (search) once explained why he has no use for averages. If you've got one foot in a bucket of boiling water and the other in a bucket of ice, he said, on average you should be feeling fine.
Judson Hale was talking about weather averages. In the Democratic presidential campaign, averages may be just as pointless as the public tries to figure out whose goose is cooked and who makes out like gravy under the multitude of tax plans and other proposals being offered by the candidates.
The problem with averages is that practically no one is.
"You will look long and hard before finding anyone so aptly described," the writer Fran Lebowitz dryly noted.
They exist, if to everyone's bewilderment, in the platforms of the campaign.
The candidates juggle percentages with one hand and averages with the other to put their proposals in the best possible light.
Howard Dean's average taxpayer is a big loser under President Bush's tax cuts. Rival Joe Lieberman's (search) average taxpayer is a big winner under the very same package. Dick Gephardt's (search) is somewhere between fire and ice.
No one is making up numbers. But everyone is using them to their own ends.
And not very effectively, says Bob Lichter, president of the Statistical Assessment Service (search), which monitors the misuse of numbers.
"On average, politicians are below average in using averages," he said.
Dean, who wants to eliminate all of Bush's tax cuts, says repeatedly that "60 percent of us" got a mere $304 out of the deal, on average. And that those meager savings were more than offset by people's rising costs in other areas — college tuition, health care, state and local taxes and fees.
To complete the argument, he says those costs went up because federal taxes went down, forcing schools, local governments and more to go begging.
Lieberman sees things differently. Like several other Democratic candidates, he only wants to get rid of the tax cuts that went to the richest Americans. He'd go even further than Bush in cutting middle-income tax rates.
Lieberman calculated the value of the Bush tax cuts at $1,800 for an average family of four in Iowa, site of the leadoff presidential caucuses on Monday.
Dean comes up with his finding that a majority of taxpayers only got $304 by looking at the lowest-earning 60 percent. Because many in that group pay little or no federal income tax to begin with, they don't save much from the Bush tax cuts.
The Annenberg Public Policy Center says it would be just as accurate, but misleading, for Bush to look at the highest-earning 60 percent of taxpayers and tell people the majority of Americans are getting almost $2,000 from his tax cuts.
As for Lieberman, he calculates by looking at a family with two children — each a little cash cow thanks to the child tax credit — and other circumstances that apply to a lot of Americans, but not necessarily most.
Another problem with averages is that when sensationally high or low numbers are added to the mix, the results tell people nothing.
For example, the average pay of professional baseball players may look lucrative, but that's because superstar salaries are skewing the reality that many other players make the minimum.
"Averages describe populations but not individuals," Lichter said. "People go from a number to an image in their minds of a person, but the number can be made up of all sorts of different people."
Still, politicians and policy-makers reach quickly for averages.
"An average is a statistic people are familiar with," he said. "It doesn't scare them as much as other statistics. Maybe it should scare them more."
The best way for people to calculate the effects of a candidate's plans on them may be the hard way — to get out the calculator, bills and tax forms and see how the campaign proposals would change things.
A single person who faced a steep increase in tuition or health care premiums might have done as poorly under Bush's package as Dean says. A married couple with school-age kids and none attending a university might have as much at stake as Lieberman contends.
The reality probably falls somewhere in between. On average.