TOPIC: statistics
Issue 20
March 24, 2019
The Student Debt Crisis & What Can Be Done About It

“Getting a college degree has long been integral to the mythic promise of American opportunity. Yet for millions, it’s become exactly that, a myth---and a very expensive myth at that. The average student leaves school carrying $30,000 in debt. More than 40% of students who enter college fail to earn a degree within 6 years, and many of them wind up in the workforce lacking the credentials and practical skills required to get ahead.” - Bloomberg

A few weeks ago, following an exhaustive investigation by the FBI, dozens of privileged individuals including some public figures were charged by the United States Department of Justice with crimes that included racketeering, fraud, money laundering, obstruction of justice and conspiracy to defraud the United States. The offenses encompassed parents creating fictitious profiles of their children in order to bolster their chances of gaining admissions to selective universities, including highlighting athletic achievements for sports they did not participate in. Some high schools didn’t even field a team for the sport the prospective student was being profiled for! Other despicable actions included paying college entrance exam proctors to supply answers to tests, and outright bribery. Subsequently, both liberal and conservative factions of the mainstream press have had a bonanza highlighting the legitimate inequities regarding the college admissions process.

The Quintessential Centrist agrees that the college admissions cheating scandal is newsworthy. A few in the media have even written about how ultimately, it’s the children who will bear the brunt of their parents’ maleficence. That’s true; however much more widespread problems warranting investigation, thoughtful debate, and corrective action are the overbearing cost of a college education which has consistently outpaced inflation, the increasing amount of debt students incur to secure a college degree, and the fact that a growing number of employers (and students) maintain that the education our colleges provide is not commensurate with the skillsets they are seeking in new hires.

In an effort to frame this slow-moving crisis – and make no mistake, it is a crisis – consider these jarring statistics:

• In 2018, ~70% of college students took out loans to pay for their education.

• “According to figures from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, between January 1989 and January 2016…the cost to attend a university increased nearly eight times faster than wages did…”.

• Since the late 1990’s, colleges and universities have raised the price of education faster than any sector except healthcare.

• There is $1.56 trillion dollars of student loan debt outstanding. Aside from home mortgages, student loan debt represents largest consumer debt segment in the United States. To put $1.56 trillion dollars of student loan debt in context, consider that total credit card debt in America totals ~1 trillion dollars; and keep in mind, there are many more credit card holders in The United States than student loan borrowers. Hence, not only is the notional value of student debt roughly 50% larger than credit card debt, the dollar amount of student debt per borrower (~$30,000 per person) is exponentially higher than for credit card borrowers (~$5,700 per person).

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Issue 29
June 2, 2019
Skewed Data: Why Flying Might Not Be As Safe As You Think

At The Quintessential Centrist, we are ardent fans of social economist Steve Levitt. Mr. Levitt, who currently plies his trade at the University of Chicago, possesses an uncanny ability to seamlessly explain complicated statistical information using fun, fascinating, real-life examples that keep his students and readers alike engaged and entertained. We recommend his enjoyable books, Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics.

Like most aviation experts, airplane manufactures and operators often make the case that flying is the safest form of travel. In Super Freakonomics, Mr. Levitt makes a similarly compelling case supported by exhaustive data: that driving is safer than flying. It probably is. However, in our view, some of the analytical data comparing the safety of those two respective modes of transportation – while not flawed per se - are materially skewed in favor of driving.

The most commonly used metric to measure safety in the driving vs flying debate is the morbid statistic of fatality rate per mile traveled. Sure enough, on page 65 of Super Freakonomics, Levitt argues, "per mile, driving is much more dangerous than flying." While factually correct, a more granular analysis suggests that this is a misleading statement with limited practical application when considering which mode of transport, air or auto, is truly safer.

Why?

When comparing the safety of air travel vs that of an automobile on a per mile basis, one fails to control for an important variable in the equation, the total number of hours of exposure. Consider the following: a commercial jetliner travels ~500 miles per hour (mph) at cruising altitude. A passenger vehicle goes ~70 mph on an open, interstate highway. As Mr. Levitt so eloquently does, let us use a real-world example to help frame our argument. A lady drives for one hour, she travels 70 miles. A week later, she decides to fly for one hour; she goes 500 miles. However, in order to travel a distance of 500 miles in a car, our lady friend would have to drive approximately 7 and 15 minutes, or 7.25 times further than a comparable trip in a plane, leaving a lot more opportunity (time) for bad things to happen. Hence, using per mile metrics when comparing the safety of various means of travel is deceptive, because that form of measurement does not control for the total amount of time spent driving a car vs flying in a plane. If our subject drove and flew for the same amount of time, the data would tell a very different story and airplanes would appear less safe. So if we are going to use fatalities per passenger mile as a default metric upon which to base our analysis, we must also control for the amount of exposure or time spent in each mode of transport; but we don’t.

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Issue 30
June 9, 2019
Fun Facts & Figures

Shoplifting & Theft

American retailers lose ~$50 billion dollars per year courtesy of theft. Shoplifting accounts for most (36.5%) of those losses. Employee theft, administrative errors and vendor fraud are responsible for most of the balance. According to Shopify, the most-shoplifted items include:

• Electronics
• Cigarettes
• Pregnancy Tests
• Handbags
• Weight loss pills
• Pain relievers
• Infant formula
• Alcohol
• Razors

"Thou shalt not steal" is one of the Ten Commandments of the Jewish Torah (known to Christians as the first five books of the Old Testament), which are widely understood as moral imperatives by legal scholars, Jewish scholars, Catholic scholars, and Post-Reformation scholars. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The seventh commandment forbids unjustly taking or keeping the goods of one's neighbor and wronging him in any way with respect to his goods. It commands justice and charity in the care of earthly goods and the fruits of men's labor. For the sake of the common good, it requires respect for the universal destination of goods and respect for the right to private property.”

• The Bible is world's most shoplifted book. Most are swiped from hotel rooms.

Dangerous Animals

The Cone Snail, sometimes referred to as the “cigarette snail,” is a mollusk that typically measures ~5 inches in length. It is considered the 9th most dangerous animal in the world by Conde Nast Traveler (CNT). If you are ever on holiday in the Caribbean, you might be unlucky enough to meet one, especially near the vicinity of a coral reef. Cone Snails are gorgeous animals defined by their peculiar shape and beautiful shell. Look, but do not touch; they are one of the most toxic creatures on earth. Fortunately, only a few people have ever had the misfortune of being stung by one (there is no antivenom). If you happen to get stung by a Cone Snail, do not bother going to the ER, you will be dead on arrival. Instead, smoke a cigarette. The Cone Snail’s highly toxic and concentrated venom causes paralysis then death in the time it takes the average smoker to finish a cigarette, hence the snails nickname.

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Issue 34
July 14, 2019
The English Bulldog vs The Olde English Bulldogge

According to thelisti, English Bulldogs are the 4th most popular dog breed in the world, and with good reason. Bulldogs are friendly, fun, and patient, traits that make wonderful family pets. They tend to get along swimmingly with other animals and love children. Given their sturdy stature, Bullies are not bothered when the youngest member(s) of the family pull, poke or prod them. While not known to be very bright – they have consistently ranked as one the least intelligent breeds – and can be stubborn at times, they are also loyal, loving, funny and eager to please. This wasn’t always the case.

Bull-baiting.

In Europe, harking back to the 1500’s, Bulldogs were bred to be extremely athletic, aggressive and ferocious animals. They were equipped with overly muscular bodies, massive heads and powerful jaws, and were trained to fight to the death. They were used primarily as a participants in the brutal “sport” of bull-baiting. In this sport, Bulldogs (and other animals) were coaxed into clamping down on the snout of an enraged, tethered bull; wagers were then placed, and whichever Bulldog immobilized the bull by pinning it to the ground 1st, would be declared the victor.

Those adorable wrinkles that help distinguish Bulldogs from various other breeds were once intended for the blood of a bull to meander through so as not to interfere with the Bulldog’s iron-clad grip. The Bulldog’s pushed in face allowed it to continue breathing – ironic because present day Bulldogs have a litany of respiratory problems - while its powerful jaw clamped down on a bull’s nose. During bull-baiting matches, dogs were often maimed or even killed and bulls were often badly injured too.

In the United Kingdom, bull-baiting reached the peak of its popularity in the early 19th century. However, the sport’s status and its association with gambling coupled with the growing horror of animal rights activists, served as a catalyst for politicians to get involved. In 1835, lawmakers made bull-baiting, along with bear-baiting and cockfighting, illegal via the Cruelty to Animals Act. By the stroke of a pen, the English Bulldog’s primary use in the U.K. and other parts of Europe was rendered null and void.

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Issue 60
February 2, 2020
The Wuhan Coronavirus

The 2019-nCoV, known as the Wuhan Virus is a coronavirus, one of a group of viruses that originate in animals. Coronaviruses are not typically passed from animals to humans but occasionally the virus mutates and humans can become susceptible. An infected human can communicate the virus to other people.

There are seven (known) human coronaviruses. Four strains: HCoV-229E, -eL63, -OC43, and -HKU1 are always percolating among us. These typically cause common colds. Sometimes, a more severe coronavirus can cause pneumonia and on rare instances, can prove deadly.

The Wuhan coronavirus is the third known strain of human coronavirus that can cause acute symptoms. The other two are SARS-Cov better known as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS-Cov better known as MERS, (Middle East respiratory syndrome, or camel flu).

SARS:

The SARS virus originated in Yunnan province, in Southern China. The initial outbreak occurred in late 2002 / early 2003. Most likely, SARS was initially communicated from a bat to a wild animal, possibly a civet. The virus then mutated and humans became vulnerable. Although Chinese authorities at first covered up the SARS outbreak, which of course contributed it to spreading, in total only ~8,000 people became infected. The vast majority of cases were contained to China and Hong Kong. Of those, ~10% succumbed to the disease. There were 27 reported SARS cases in the United States; nobody perished.

MERS:

Bats are believed to be carriers of the MERS virus but camels are suspected as being the agent that passes this particular coronavirus on to humans. While MERS is rare - only ~2,000 people worldwide are known to have contracted it - it is particularly lethal. ~40% of people who acquire it, die. Most MERS cases have been concentrated in Saudi Arabia and South Korea. There have been two reported cases of MERS in the US, both patients survived.

The Wuhan Coronavirus:

The Wuhan coronavirus originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, in Hubei province, located between Chengdu to the west and Shanghai to the east. Specifically, the virus has been traced to a (since closed) wild animal market in Wuhan. Most likely, an infected civet hosting the disease passed it on to a human who in turn infected other unsuspecting peoples. Thus far, the vast majority of Wuhan virus patients are concentrated in mainland China.

The timing of the Wuhan outbreak is particularly suboptimal, the dangers magnified by the lunar New Year, a time period in which many rural migrants travel on the nation's network of bullet trains and buses to reunite with family; each passenger a potential host of, and agent to pass on, the Wuhan virus.

The Wuhan coronavirus is contagious when an infected person is symptomatic. Many new patients are healthcare workers who treated the initial batch of infected people without donning proper protective gear. Asymptomatic transmission (people who are infected but do not have noticeable symptoms) might be possible during the incubation period (~2 weeks). Travelers deemed high risk are being quarantined to help mitigate that threat. What is not yet clear is if Wuhan is transmitted via casual contact or from close or more intimate interaction. Furthermore, “Both SARS and MERS had ‘superspreaders’-patients with unusually high viral loads, who are exceptionally infectious. In South Korea in 2015 a patient with MERS infected 81 people during a 58-hour stay at a hospital emergency room.” It is unknown if any Wuhan patients share similar properties.

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