Archive: Mar 2012

World's water resources by type of water, via The Atlantic data from the USGS
World's water resources by type of water, via The Atlantic data from the USGS

Is Minnesota like Saudi Arabia?

Minnesota is the land of 10.000 lakes and thus holds far more than its representative share of precious fresh water. Is this synonymous with the naturally granted wealth of oil in countries like Saudi Arabia? Maybe. But does that mean Minnesota is going to become a state with a similar level of political economic power? No…not so much. It is silly to compare nation states like Saudi Arabia to states in a federation like Minnesota; it is silly to think that a state with an existing economy relatively unreliant on water is going to suddenly transform itself into an economy with a single primary commodity; it is silly to think that a democratic governance system will respond like a dictatorship did to a valuable commodity. As an aside, Tim Mitchell’s latest book, Carbon Democracy makes a historically grounded argument about the relationship between the material qualities of oil and coal and the technics of the political economy that developed in concert with carbon-based wealth.

How are information graphics like propaganda?

This infographic is more than half graphic (and less than half ‘info’). Normally, that’s not the best balance for displaying social science data. Usually, social science data is multi-faceted, requires a contextual framework for adequate understanding, and the sheer amount of information necessary to tell the story makes it harder to include graphic elements that do not represent information. However, this is not social science data. Technically, it is geological data, but I think it would be more accurate to describe it as data that is being mobilized for political reasons. Hence, the title of this post makes a blatant comparison between water (blue gold) and oil (black gold) to emphasize the implicit political valence of the message in this graphic.

In short, information graphics are being mobilized for what are essentially purposes quite similar to propaganda. This particular graphic is not the best example. It is the example I happened to see yesterday, and it does a good job of demonstrating what is at stake in the current infoscape with respect to information graphics. These graphics are generally considered to be intellectual and political lightweights compared to communication that is based on the production of critical texts. Overlooking the work that these graphics do is both dangerous and foolish. For one, many critical voices from within the academy *have* critical messages they have trouble communicating with broader audiences because many audiences are unlikely to read academic writing, even if that writing is posted to blogs. If these academics can create their own graphics, they add another tool for communicating clearly just what their perspective is. Yet pretending that information graphics are either merely ‘pretty’ or that they are straightforward representations of empirical data avoids engaging with the way that political messaging is built into graphic design.

One reason this blog exists is to help people start to sharpen their critical visual analysis tools. As educators, we spend a lot of time in the classroom teaching students how to write and how to stop believing everything they read by becoming aware of rhetorical moves, selective mobilization of facts, and reliance on carefully chosen narratives that initiate particular kinds of human perceptual biases and emotional responses. Art historians teach the same kinds of critical skills for interrogating paintings and photographs. Media studies folks teach the same kinds of skills for interrogating popular culture products like television shows, films, and magazines. Social scientists would serve the discipline well if they begin to teach students how to critically consume information presented in infographics.


Thinking Big Series. (2012) The World’s Water Supply. The Atlantic. This series is sponsored by Fidelity Investments, LLC.

Mitchell, Tim. (2009) Carbon Democracy: Political power in the age of oil. Verso.

The Rich Get Even Richer
The Rich Get Even Richer research by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. Graphic by the New York Times, Stephen Rattner author.

What works

Quoting Justin Wolfers who I happen to follow on twitter, it’s generally not good practice to look at a single year’s worth of data, especially when it would be easy to get comparable data going back for years. Still, in this particular economic news climate, many of the people who are likely to see this graphic have some sense of the relevant contextual data in their heads already, thanks in part to the Occupy Wall Street movement but also to the often thankless work of social scientists and labor statisticians who have been working on issues like income distribution since long before OWS congealed. That’s a long-winded preamble to summarize two fairy simple achievements in this graphic:

  1. This graphic demonstrates that it is possible to make it appear as though there was income growth for everyone in 2010 – even that bottom 99% saw an INCREASE in income, albeit a tiny one – despite the fact that the economy was rather slack in 2010.*
  2. The graphic amply demonstrates that the post-2008 world is quite similar to the pre-2008 world in the sense that income distribution is dramatically skewed. The rich do get richer.

One thing that the article draws readers’ attention to is that the study, which looked at tax returns, and the graphic are about income. Thus, we are not talking about the distribution of wealth (ie the accumulated capital that results from single year uneven distributions of income and a lack of attendant unequal distributions of spending). The rich folks in 2010 got most of this income from labor, not from returns to investments.

What needs work

*One thing I fear is that this graphic obscures an important truth by comparing only the top 1% to the bottom 99%: many people had declining income in 2010. This graphic makes it seem like everyone got *something* but really, the folks at the bottom of this distribution got no increase or a decrease, for the most part. From a statistical leverage point of view, the 99% is just too big of a group to be all that revealing. The spotlight is on the 1% in both this graphic and the current political economic discourse in a way that curiously contributes to the inaccurate notion that America is a classless society. One of the things that makes the 1% vs. the 99% a clever rhetorical frame in America is that we all thought we were in the middle class before OWS and we can now continue to think of ourselves as one giant middle class with this troublesome small pimple of a distribution problem to sort through represented by a mere 1%. The whole 99% sounds so comfortably inclusive and that pesky 1% must, in the end, be a manageable problem because it sounds kind of small-ish. It’s only 1%.

Of course, the rhetorical move of splitting the American population into the 1% and the 99% sets up for all these fantastic (as in remarkable, not as in laudable) statements, like the one made by the graphic, that go something like: “The top 1% of the population got 93% of the income in 2011 while the bottom 99% only got 7%.” Being able to make comparisons like that is a more straightforward, empirically sound reason for the 99% vs. the 1% framing than one that seems to make an effort to avoid noting that America has a lower class.

Relative frame: US vs the world

If you are not in the 1% – and most of you are not – I imagine you might be feeling righteously indignant right now. But think of it this way. All of you have computers and internet connections, most of you are American or English according to the google analytics for this blog, and are therefore in the global 1%. It’s a golden rule problem not in the sense that you should do unto your less fortunate global neighbors what you would have your more fortunate doctors/bankers/lawyers/businesspeople do unto you – though I suppose that might apply, too – but more along the lines of, ‘those who have the gold, rule’. Revisit C. Wright Mills The Power Elite, skim a bit of Marx, and maybe look at something a little more recent like Tim Mitchell’s Rule of Experts and this graphic and the entire OWS narrative is analytically similar to a snapshot of a sports event: different in its particulars but so predictable it’s almost trite. It would be trite if there weren’t so much at stake.


Rattner, Stephen. (25 March 2012) The Rich Get Even Richer. In the New York Times, The Opinion Pages.
Note: The author, Mr. Rattner, is himself a member of the 1%. Sometimes when I see graphics like this, I wonder if people who know that they are in the 1% are secretly congratulating themselves for having done so well compared to the rest of us.