Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fun with figures

From A3 of today's paper:

Microsoft chief financial officer, New Zealander Chris Liddell, has announced a $1.4 million donation of software to Barnardos New Zealand.

[...] Microsoft NZ has donated more than $5.5 million in software and funding to 288 non-profit organisations in the country in the past 12 months.

Mr Liddell said the donation was emblematic of Microsoft's wider philanthropic focus.

"Bill Gates himself impressed upon our company the value of giving back to the communities we serve," he said.

You know what software is, right? He could have turned up with it all on a memory stick. Good story.

Sorry to be so cynical, but I'm pretty sure the ad space on page two of the Herald was worth more than the 'actual' value of the software.


Speaking of millions of dodgy dollars, this article appeared on the Herald website yesterday. While it's not in the print edition today, it's shoddy enough to warrant a mention. In fact, although I called it an 'article', it's less a piece of reporting than a police press release; it's actually largely lifted from 'the Police magazine Ten One'.

The number of cannabis plants destroyed by police has hit a 10-year high.

In the 2008/2009 year police seized 141,000 plants with the potential to cause community harm worth $379 million.

Wow, that's some statistic - $379m in community harm! That's almost $100 each; could you tell me more about how that figure is reached, NZPA? No? Well maybe this article from a year ago will shed some light on the calculations involved.

The Drug Harm Index, released yesterday, will help police determine the socio-economic costs from drug seizures and track the value of the drug trade in New Zealand.

It measures social harms related to drug use such as lost work output, health service use, diverted resources and reduced quality or loss of life.

Plenty of (sensible) words have been spilled on the internet and elsewhere about how silly the Drug Harm Index ("developed by economists"!) is; this article is quite informative if you're interested. It turns out that what might have been a useful tool for the police - they are mandated by politicians to crack down on drugs, so they may as well do it 'efficiently' - has become a hilarious propaganda tool for the war on drugs.

It turns out that, despite the Herald's claim last year that the figure reflects "harms related to drug use such as lost work output, health service use, diverted resources and reduced quality or loss of life", the large majority of the $379m number is made up of:
  • the production cost of the drug, and
  • the cost of enforcing drug law.
It's rather circular reasoning; as the NORML article above puts it:
“I don’t like that activity. Therefore everything to do with it is a harm, Look how harmful that activity is. I was right to not like it”.
To then include the cost of enforcement seems rather like adding insult to injury. It's great that we saved that $379m, it's just a shame that we had to spend so much to do so.

But that's all as may be. My point is that someone at NZPA thought that uncritically lifting an article from a backslapping trade journal counted as journalism, and then someone at the Herald (implicitly or explicitly) thought it would be a good idea to pop it on the front page of the website.

EDIT: Scooped! I knew I shouldn't have waited.


  1. "10 year high"


  2. To be fair - the 'cost of enforcing drug law' comes down to paying and supporting civil servants through tax. I can understand the herald supporting that as 'harm'.

  3. >Cannabis "gateway" to crime.

    And I thought sworn officers were prohibited from making untrue statements, more especially where these are made for self interest (malfeasance anyone?).

    No cost-benefit analysis of cannabis prohibition in NZ has EVER been done. It was budgeted for ($50k/pa) in the National Drug Policy formulation documents, but it disappeared presumably due to 'legislative implications'.