Via Jimmy Atkinson on Twitter, I am alerted to this chart from the Wall Street Journal.


The title of the article is "Fiscal Constraints Await the Next President." The key message is that "the next president looks to inherit a particularly dismal set of fiscal circumstances." Josh Zumbrun, who tipped Jimmy about this chart on Twitter, said that it is worth spending time on.

I like the concept of the chart, which juxtaposes the economic condition that faced each president at inauguration, and how his performance measured against expectation, as represented by CBO predictions.

The top portion of the graphic did require significant time to digest:


A glance at the sidebar informs me that there are two scenarios being depicted, the CBO projections and the actual deficit-to-GDP ratios. Then I got confused on several fronts.

One can of course blame the reader (me) for mis-reading the chart but I think dataviz faces a "the reader is always right" situation -- although there can be multiple types of readers for a given graphic so maybe it should say "the readers are always right."

I kept lapsing into thinking that the bold lines (in red and blue) are actual values while the gray line/area represents the predictions. That's because in most financial charts, the actual numbers are in the foreground and the predictions act as background reference materials. But in this rendering, it's the opposite.

For a while, a battle was raging in my head. There are a few clues that the bold red/blue lines cannot represent actual values. For one thing, I don't recall Reagan as a surplus miracle worker. Also, some of the time periods overlap, and one assumes that the CBO issued one projection only at a given time. The Obama line also confused me as the headline led me to expect an ugly deficit but the blue line is rather shallow.

Then, I got even more confused by the units on the vertical axis. According to the sidebar, the metric is deficit-to-GDP ratio. The majority of the line live in the negative territory. Does the negative of the negative imply positive? Could the sharp upward turn of the Reagan line indicate massive deficit spending? Or maybe the axis should be relabelled surplus-to-GDP ratio?


As I proceeded to re-create this graphic, I noticed that some of the tick marks are misaligned. There are various inconsistencies related to the start of each projection, the duration of the projection, the matching between the boxes and the lines, etc. So the data in my version is just roughly accurate.

To me, this data provide a primary reference to how presidents perform on the surplus/deficit compared to expectations as established by the CBO projections.


I decided to only plot the actual surplus/deficit ratios for the duration of each president's tenure. The start of each projection line is the year in which the projection is made (as per the original). We can see the huge gap in every case. Either the CBO analysts are very bad at projections, or the presidents didn't do what they promised during the elections.





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