Tuesday, 1 March 2011

TPA – Making Numbers Scary

The Government has started the consultation phase of the High Speed 2 rail project, which means that HS2 is not going to be shelved or scrapped any time soon. This has caused significant distress to the non-job holders at the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA), as it means they are being ignored, and by a Government from which they might have expected more.

So the TPA rhetoric has been cranked up a notch: in a truly hyperbolic – and desperate – display yesterday, non-job supremo Matthew Sinclair deployed a well worn TPA tactic, the Scary Numbers. This is where numbers are made to look, well, scary – by representing them, shall we say, in a way that makes them look bigger.

So the total cost of HS2 is presented by the TPA as “over £1,000 per family”. Looks scary!

Ordinary folks, and especially hard pressed hacks, are not expected to look further, such is the intended shock of this truly frightening number. But why should we look further? Ah well. To do so would make the numbers look far less scary, and expose the TPA’s cheap sensationalism for what it is.

Firstly, check out the use of the term “family”. Good deployment of an ambiguous term by Sinclair – it turns HS2 into an “attack on hard working families”. We imagine aspiring parents and little children having their hard earned cash spirited away by dastardly civil servants.

The reality, of course, is totally different: Sinclair has merely taken the population, divided by two, and come up with the term “family” to define his result. That division by two makes the numbers look twice as scary.

Now consider the cost of HS2: it’s still 30 billion quid, and no-one is going to pretend otherwise. But the whole project will not be complete until after 2030, a period of twenty years.

So that’s 1.5 billion a year, spread over 60 million people, which comes out at 25 quid per person per year. That’s 50p a week. Not scary at all.

After all, using Sinclair’s “scary numbers” method, two single people in adjacent houses each having a mortgage with repayments of £1,000 a month means, well, almost half a million pounds per family!

And that’s an utterly meaningless figure. But it demonstrates the level of the TPA’s desperation, and the value of its research.

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