Picking up from my earlier discussion of the way cross-sectional data get turned into (sometimes misleading) longitudinal stories, it’s been about a year since the Obama campaign unveiled The Life of Julia, a slide show that contrasted Obama’s and Romney’s policies with regard to their effects on women at different ages. Stated that way it would be pretty standard and uncontroversial, but in fact it turned into a flashpoint for the early part of the campaign. Why? Precisely because it was not a list of cross-sectional promises — What President Obama will do for children; What President Obama will do for seniors; etc. would be standard campaign web site headings — but was turned into a longitudinal story. These were not 12 different women, of different ages, who would putatively be helped by the president’s policies, but a single woman “Julia” who seems to be spending her whole life looking for government programs to scrounge from. Of course, it only seems this way because of the way this infographic interacts with our expectations of a biographical narrative, where we expect to be seeing the high points of her life, and every one of them involves government services. Creepy! It’s no wonder some critics were reminded of cradle-to-grave socialism.
Of course, the real story is cross-sectional. If Julia is 3 years old now, Obama is not really promising to provide a small business loan to her in the year 2040. And by the time she reaches retirement, she’ll probably be living on a Mars colony or hiding out from roving mutant bandits in subterranean bunkers after the nuclear climate catastrophe.