President Joe Biden came to Wednesday’s press conference armed with an array of statistics that effectively buttressed the argument this administration is making for itself. The only problem with the White House’s strategy is that many of those statistics were, at best, misleading.
In a speech that preceded reporters’ questions, Biden insisted that there would be no “going back to lockdowns” or “closing schools,” but the assembled journalists were incredulous. One observed that “they are closing in some areas,” and asked the president to expand upon what his administration could do to keep schools open.
“Very few schools are closing,” Biden corrected his interlocutor. “Over 95 percent are still open.” That sounds impressive enough, though it didn’t seem to satisfy the president. Soon, Biden noted, we’ll see “up to 98, 99 percent” of schools open. Indeed, minutes later, he declared that “as high as 98 percent of the schools in America are open, functioning, and capable doing the job.”
Where did these strangely volatile statistics come from? The president didn’t elaborate on his sources, and his claims have yet to be independently confirmed by media outlets. There are, however, a variety of educational resources that do their best to track the status of primary schools’ pandemic policies. One of these may have been the source for this claim. There is, for example, the Institute for Education Sciences, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education. According to its survey of fourth- and eighth-grade public-school students as of early December 2021, “nearly 100 percent of public-school students were offered in-person learning.”
But privately operated databases that track educational disruptions attributable only to the pandemic and its associated protocols indicate that the number of public schools experiencing disruptions number in the thousands. As of January 14, the index Burbio, which tracks both the status and educational experiences provided by the thousands of K-12 public schools it regularly audits, found that nearly 5,600 schools were “not offering in-person instruction” due to the pandemic. Sprawling districts in Minneapolis, Oregon, Texas, and Utah had returned to “distance learning” in response to staffing problems, student absenteeism, or quarantining protocols. Even this statistical analysis fails to capture the despair into which parents and pupils alike are surely descending in districts where remote learning has become a way of life; districts like Flint, Michigan, where “virtual learning” has been extended indefinitely.
Though it’s hard to pin down precisely how many schools are “open,” per se, the president is deliberately confusing the distinctions between remote and in-person education. That is a distinction parents don’t have any trouble making. The quality of the educational experience and the demands on a parents’ time associated with “virtual” learning render the difference between an “open” and “closed” school almost entirely academic. Democrats may comfort themselves with Biden’s dubious statistics, but they will likely learn the futility of this self-deception in short order.
Biden’s portfolio of statistics didn’t begin and end with schools. The White House had also apparently taken a meta-inventory of America’s stores and found even more good news. Biden affirmed that, recent weather-related disruptions notwithstanding, the supply-chain crisis has largely abated. “The share of goods in stock at stores is 89 percent now,” the president declared, “which is barely changed from the 91 percent before the pandemic.”
This statistic’s origins are also mysterious. In a January 14 interview with the Boston Globe, the Consumer Brands Association’s vice president of research, Katie Denis, observed that, in grocery stores alone, roughly 12 percent of products are out of stock. For food and drink, the number is closer to 15 percent, which is about twice the inventory deficiency a typical store experiences. “These are higher numbers than we have seen throughout most of the pandemic,” she added. And as a combination of factors conspires to reduce the inventories at grocery stores, prices are on the rise. Over the course of 2021, grocery prices increased by 6.4 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s the largest increase since 2008, and it obscures the skyrocketing cost of items such as beef, which is almost 21 percent more expensive today than it was a year ago.
The abject state in which grocery stores find themselves is only part of the story. Shortages in consumer goods—from consumer electronics to pet food to clothing and apparel—are hard to ignore. A global semiconductor-chip shortage has rendered popular computer products scarce, which partially accounts for the undersupply and high cost of cars. Which brings us to Joe Biden’s final bit of statistical wizardry.
Fully “one-third” of the “increase in cost of living,” the president said, “is the cost of automobiles.” Unlike Biden’s previous statistical citations, the origins of this datapoint are easy to pin down. In July, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index jumped to a 13-year high with used-car prices increasing by 30 percent. Cars, therefore, “accounted for about one-third of the overall increase in the cost of living,” according to MarketWatch. But the CPI is not the same thing as cost of living, as the BLS admits, as it cannot account for behavior patterns that adapt to changing economic realities. This includes consumers seeking out cheaper alternatives to products they would otherwise purchase in a static environment.
If the price of used cars and trucks cratered tomorrow, it would not affect the price of inelastic goods like shelter, fuel oil, gasoline, and electricity. These necessities are also becoming more expensive, and a consumer cannot postpone their purchase like they might avoid buying one model of automobile over another or substituting a car for alternatives. Even if the administration made welcome progress in easing the semiconductor shortage and increasing the availability of products, such as cars, that rely on them, Americans would be unlikely to feel that as an overall reduction in the cost associated with just being alive in the United States.
Biden’s statistics, we can safely assume, are not designed to present the public with a clearer picture of the progress the administration has made over the last year. Rather, they seem intended to provide the White House’s supporters with rhetorical ammunition they can use to win an argument—or, at least, to dazzle and confuse the administration’s opponents with superficially authoritative-sounding data. But the White House is likely to soon learn that it cannot talk Americans out of unlearning what their own experiences have taught them.