The Treasury’s log rolling

Ben Chu

The Treasury has been slapped on the wrist by the UK Statistics Authority for messing around with the scale of charts.

Here’s what the Treasury produced in its National Infrastructure Plan document:

sa1 300x196 The Treasurys log rolling

This is designed to show a lot of projects in the pipeline. But look carefully at the scale: each interval is 10 times larger than the previous one (this is known as a logarithmic scale). There are times when log scales in graphs are useful, but this is not one of them. This chart serves to flatter the impression of the contribution from some sectors.

The statistics watchdog says that a more enlightening chart would look like this:
sa21 300x298 The Treasurys log rolling

Not such an impressive picture of projects in the pipeline.

But here’s a mischievous thought: what if the Treasury’s dodgy graphical practices were applied to some key public finance charts?

Here’s the national debt in cash terms:

debt1 The Treasurys log rolling

But let’s produce it with the Treasury’s log scale:

debt2 The Treasurys log rolling

Voila! The debt pile looks pretty stable. So why all the panic about Britain being on the verge of bankruptcy in 2010?

How about the deficit?

Here’s public sector borrowing in cash terms:

PB FIRST1 The Treasurys log rolling>

George Osborne says it shot up under “spendthrift” Labour and the Coalition boasts that they have reduced it by a third.

But let’s use the magic log scale:

PB NEW The Treasurys log rolling

Hey presto! It was always quite high and its hasn’t come down since.

So what happened to all that impressive deficit reduction that ministers tell us about?

The lesson is that messing around with logs is hazardous – they can roll back on top of you.

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  • John

    I suggest the log scale wasn’t used for the purpose mentioned. It was used to mask the wholly disproportionate level of spending on Energy. I would hazard a guess this is 80-90% higher than it needs to be due to politicians believing in the global warming fairy, shutting down perfectly good power stations and subsidising woefully inefficient alternatives.

    They must know that if the whole of the UK shutdown completely, in a year the extra emissions from China alone would more than compensate.

    These are futile gestures towards a non-problem.

    The only way it can make any sense at all is if the politicians are taking a %

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