How To Invent A Misleading Statistic

The Washington Post’s David A. Fahrenthold hyped the size of the federal government out of context, presenting an excellent example of how to construct a misleading statistic.

Writing on the size of the federal workforce, Fahrenhold claims:

Measured another way — not in dollars, but in people — the government has about 4.1 million employees today, military and civilian. That’s more than the populations of 24 states.

Wow, 24 states. That’s almost half the country. Clearly the federal behemoth has grown too big.

Other ways he could have phrased this statement include:

That’s less than the population of the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA Metropolitan Statistical Area.


That’s less than half the audience that viewed America’s Got Talent last week.

Or more accurately:

That’s approximately 1.3 percent of the total U.S. population, handling all government business, including delivering our mail, serving in the military, inspecting our food, fighting terrorism, etc.

Farhenthold’s statistic was clearly designed to imply to readers that the federal workforce had grown too large and therefore more spending cuts were necessary. Even more misleading than his statistic was his failure to mention that further cuts could actually harm the economy. According to the International Monetary Fund, “the United States had proved too aggressive in carrying out budget cuts, given its still-sluggish rates of growth and high unemployment levels.”