There is a serious analytical mistake gaining increasing popularity. Once you are aware of it, you will see it several times every week.
An Easy Example
As we often do at "A Dash," let us step away from the world of investing. Many important ideas can be more easily understood from a completely different perspective. Here is the situation.
In our Illinois District for State Representative, there was an open seat. It was a hotly contested race. The GOP candidate had a record of service on the School Board and the City Council, but this was her first effort at a bigger office. Her Democratic opponent was a long-time teacher, and a member of homeowner groups. This was a hot contest in our community, which is traditionally Republican, but has growing support for Democrats. The Democratic candidate had plenty of financial help and the Obama coattails.
A key issue in the campaign was negative advertising. The Dem candidate attacked her opponent on abortion rights. The expensive campaign material, delivered to our house several times, featured a coat-hanger on the front. There were other negative ads, but you get the idea.
When the election results were in, the GOP candidate won by fewer than 700 votes out of 50,000 cast -- a real squeaker.
Her media reaction was as follows: "This shows that negative campaigning does not work in our district."
Indeed! Our own assessment was that the intense, heavily-financed negative campaign is what made it close. Without the attacks, the GOP candidate, who had better visibility, better credentials, and a better base, would have won in a walk.
What Comparison is Right?
The problem is the difficulty in determining what analysts call "the counterfactual" situation. Here is how we described it in a past article, analyzing the Greenspan Legacy:
Here are two very prominent current examples of this error:
- The stimulus package did not do any good. The economy still declined.
- The TARP program has not helped. AIG and other companies still need more help. Nothing is having any effect.
There are many other examples, and we invite contributions to the list.