Incentives have effects. They just may not be effective for the desired outcome.

Starting in 2004, each province in China received from the central government a set of “death ceilings” that, if exceeded,  would impede government officials’ promotions. A result:

The paper by Fisman and Wang asserts, with strong evidence, that the officials just reported manipulated numbers (alternative facts). They digested quarterly reports for 7 categories in 31 provinces over 8 years. The analysis and results would not have been clear without graphs like this one.

The authors point out that the program may have actually been effective–if the central government objective was really dissent minimization. They would not be the only government with that as a priority.

Showing changes

Europe is decreasing CO2 emissions. The United States not so much. And the Europeans will find it difficult to meet their Paris treaty commitment. [The Economist July 8, 2017]

The accompanying chart is relevant but murky.

The chart baseline is 1997, but the treaty reference is 1990. There appears to be little difference between the EU and the US on this scale. China appears to have a huge output but is not mentioned in the article.

Charts that show percent changes from a year are common in finance but can be questionable. Why was that year chosen? Is it representative? Are the series close enough in scale that the comparison makes sense?

The data look like

This graph makes it clearer that the EU is decreasing emissions faster than the US. Also China is clearly not going to achieve a 40% reduction from 1990, but its output is only about twice the US—rather less dramatic than suggested in the original chart.

Data from

Statistics Explained (http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statisticsexplained/) – 16/06/2017 and

Source: Boden, T.A., Marland, G., and Andres, R.J. (2017). National CO2 Emissions from Fossil-Fuel Burning, Cement Manufacture, and Gas Flaring: 1751-2014, Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, doi 10.3334/CDIAC/00001_V2017

A sketch can work

A graph can be good without being dry and sober.

This one has the character of a rough sketch. Yet it communicates better than plain words and has more emotional resonance than a polished graph would. Even without refinements, we have an expectation of how to read a time series plot that works for this example.

The grapher is Charles Hutton, and he’s a hoot.

Interestingly Charles Hutton is also the name of the man credited with inventing contour plots in 1778.