How to lie with numbers: taxpayer spending on former US presidents

*Source, AP. Figures rounded.

*Source: AP. Figures rounded.

There’s a story making the rounds of most major media outlets on how much US taxpayers shell out every year to maintain the four living former presidents (FPOTUSes?).

Bill Clinton billed John and Jane Doe $450,000 for his office space, George W. Bush, who spent the most overall topping $1.3 million, racked up $85,000 in phone calls.  Even Jimmy Carter (wasn’t he on duty during “Argo” or something?) had interns affixing $15,000 in postage stamps in 2012.

But the published numbers don’t tell much of a story – or at least a very accurate one.

Numbers stories are always more complicated than they look; the AP version makes me wonder whether there’s even really a story at all.

The information was culled by a report from the Congressional Research Service, unavailable in its entirety to the public, unless you write your rep or wait for a library to get it.

Unfortunately, the figures published in the story are comparison-resistant: “The $3.7 million taxpayers shelled out in 2012 is about $200,000 less than in 2011, and the sum in 2010 was even higher. ” (You can picture a graphic showing the minimal decrease in FPOTUS spending over the last three years with the 2010 figure as “even higher,” right?) There are mentions of postage, phone and office costs, but not enough exact figures for each of the former leaders to make comparisons.

After the alarmist figures on office space and postage, the story backtracks noting how spending decreases with the amount of time since the POTUS left office.

That seemed like an interesting relationship to examine, which is what you see in the chart above. (Note, though, that these are rounded numbers as appeared in the story – George W. Bush spent “just over $1.3 million,” Clinton is “just under $1 million,” Carter is “about $500,000,” and George H.W. Bush at “nearly $850,000.”)

Looking at it that way: Jimmy Carter spends less than half of what George W. Bush does, but he’s been out of office for a generation, or eight times as long. Clinton and Bush Sr. have similar expenses, but the elder Bush has been out of office twice as long. Then again, does it matter that George Bush spent the equivalent of a year’s housing for a death row inmate or two years of tuition at Stanford in phone calls? And, given the trillions in the federal budget, what’s $3.7 million spent on FPOTUSes, anyway?

Maybe we shouldn’t be paying to keep former presidents in phone calls and postage, but I’m not sure the AP story, which closes mentioning a bill by Rep. Jason Chaffetz [R-Utah] to limit FPOTUS spending to $200,000 a year, presents enough information. That bill, by the way, was shot down in 2012 but looks like it has been revived.

What do you think?