Apples vs Orchards: Comparing Inauguration Costs

People keep sending me links to this, so I’ll make a short post about it.

In the hubbub surrounding the Obama inauguration, there’ve been all sorts of incredulous press pieces discussing the supposed outrageousness of the costs of this inauguration compared to others. I’ve personally heard this reported on the BBC world service, CNN, Fox, and MSNBC. In these
reports, the cost of the Obama inauguration is generally reported as
between 150 and 160 million dollars. When they provide a contrast, they talk about how Bush’s second inauguration cost $40 million.

The problem is, this is a metric error. They’re comparing apples to orchards.

When they cite the Bush inauguration cost as $40 million, they’re talking
about the cost of the inauguration parties – that is, the cost of the festivities themselves. That cost does not include security. It does
not include the cost of paying police to shut down the city streets. It doesn’t include the cost of cleaning up after the crowds. It’s just
the cost of the parties.

The Obama figure of $150-$160 million includes everything – police, security, setup, and cleanup.

A fair comparison? If you exclude the security costs, Bush’s second
inauguration cost $42 million; Obama’s is expected to cost around $45 million. If you include the security costs, Bush’s second inauguration
cost somewhere around $155 million. (The exact figures are still not public
knowledge; Bush and company treated it as a “national security matter” which
did not need to be disclosed.)

Yet another fake controversy brought to you by the supposedly liberal-biased media.

0 thoughts on “Apples vs Orchards: Comparing Inauguration Costs

  1. Carlos

    A friend I shared this with writes:
    “Figures don’t lie, but liars do figure. Even given the costs of security, etc, the last two months are the first time Bush’s second inaugural has ever been estimated this high. Go back to the news of January 2005, and even the most ardent Bush haters couldn’t come up with even $100 million, let alone $155 million. This is just another liberal blogger trying to cover Obama’s butt.”

  2. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    That just doesn’t make sense.
    You can compare the cost of the non-security-related expenses of the two inaugurations, and you find that they’re very close. Obama’s is slightly more, but not dramatically. So where’s Obama supposedly adding all of this other money? The cost of the parties and celebrations is public, and it’s the same as it was for Bush.
    Going back to the news of Jan 2005, and no one could come up with anything about the security cost, because the Bush administration refused to answer questions about the security cost. But we do know the non-security costs – because those were disclosed.
    In the case of Obama, we don’t actually know how much it’s going to cost in the end; the figures that have been bandied around are estimates. And guess how those estimates were generated? By using past experience as a guide. And what’s the highest security inauguration in the past to use as a guide? Bush’s inauguration.
    I’d say that your friend is right about his line about “figures don’t lie, but liars figure”. The question is who’s lying. And comparing costs between the two makes it pretty clear who’s lying. Just the fact that the “left-biased media” continually compares the cost with security for Obama to the cost without security for Bush is pretty damning.

  3. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    That sort-of depends on which part of the numbers you’re talking about.
    Security? Well, the fact is, something like a million people went to DC for the inauguration. Dealing with that number of people costs a huge amount of money – for police, transportation, sanitation, etc. But that’s actually a deceptive cost – measured out per person, it’s very likely that the amount of money spent in DC outweighs what the city needed to spend to bring it there. Remember, you’re talking about metro-fares, food, souvenirs, hotels, etc., for a huge number of people. So on that front, it’s a lot of money, but it’s a lot of people, and it probably balances out pretty favorably.
    On the other hand… Do we really need to have 40 million dollars worth of official parties for an inauguration? Really, no. It’s a positively stupid amount of money to spend on a bunch of fancy parties. But, like it or not, it’s pretty much become expected that a new president will have big huge parties to celebrate his inauguration; and likely, if he didn’t, we’d have all the talking heads on TV griping about how the new president deprived the city of DC of the spending that it counts on every four years.

  4. mgordon

    The 40 million dollars that was spent on the inauguration came from small donors just like the money he used for his campaign.

  5. QrazyQat

    Carlos’ friend is being disingenuous (“Go back to the news of January 2005, and even the most ardent Bush haters couldn’t come up with even $100 million, let alone $155 million.”); the Bush administration claimed in 2005 that they wouldn;t reveal security costs due to “national security”. However, we know that:
    The Washington Post reported in January 2005 that the $40 million cost of Bush’s inaugural celebration, raised from private donations “does not include the cost of a web of security, including everything from 7,000 troops to volunteer police officers from far away, to some of the most sophisticated detection and protection equipment.” Further, The New York Times reported on January 5 that in 2005, “the federal government and the District of Columbia spent a combined $115.5 million, most of it for security, the swearing-in ceremony, cleanup and for a holiday for federal workers.”

  6. Infopractical

    Why should anyone take your word for the breakdown of costs? You’ve done no citation at all to make the apples and apples comparison you’re making.

  7. Michael Paul Goldenberg
    It’s glaringly obvious that Mark is right and that there is tons of misrepresentation of the facts going on. There needs also be mention made of the fact that private donors contributed something like $40 million towards the cost of the parties, according to the latest figures I’ve seen. So the real cost to taxpayers is security, etc., not partying. Does the Right wish to suggest that Obama is pocketing some change, giving security contracts to personal friends, inflating security costs for some nefarious purpose, etc? If so, and that could be proved, there’s a story. Otherwise, this is just utter bullshit. You decide. Obviously, some conservative readers here already have. Why go with facts when you can so much more easily smear Obama without any?

  8. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    Re #9:
    Ever heard of “Google”? Seriously – take a look. There are a variety of estimates out there, which describe rough breakdowns of the cost.
    30 seconds with Google come up with the following links that discuss cost breakdowns:
    Wall Street Journal:
    CNN Money:
    Seriously, when I’m talking about something like this, where there’s a basic figure which is a matter of public record, and which is then augmented by estimates (since the exact numbers aren’t released), I don’t feel obligated to pick a specific one to cite as the correct one. It’s so trivial to find a range of estimates that I think it’s reasonable to assume that if you want to check, you’re smart enough to do it.

  9. mike

    1. The headlines do not mention the cost of Bush’s inauguration. It can be argued that the real story was about the outrageous spending during a recession instead of how much Dems are spending vs. Reps.
    Also, even Obama spending just slightly more than Bush is significant given the economic context of the respective inaugurations.
    2. What does it matter? This is trivial, Mark, unless you mean it, as you hinted, as an example/counterexample of media bias. But this example is not logically conclusive. There very well may be a liberal bias in the media despite this example, right?

  10. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    Re #12:
    Why does it matter?
    Go look at the name of this blog again.
    The reason that it matters is because it’s stupid, sloppy, bad math. It’s a stupid and misleading metric error. News coverage constantly makes mistakes because so many people are so totally fucking clueless when it comes to anything that might, peripherally, involve math.
    If you’re going to compare one thing to another, you’ve got to make sure that the comparison is meaningful. I don’t care whether you prefer to cite the inflated cost of the inauguration with security, or if you prefer to cite the lower cost of the inauguration without security.
    What’s most important to me here is that they press made a meaningless comparison. What matters is that when you compare two things, you need to compare like to like. When you compare two measurements, you need to make sure that you’re comparing measurements of the same thing.
    Which is bigger? A box of paper, or my laptop?
    If you’re talking weight, a box of paper weighs a lot more than my laptop.
    If you’re talking data capacity, my laptop can store a lot more information than a crate full of paper.
    But if you just compare the two, without establishing a common metric, the comparison is meaningless.
    What’s brighter? The flourescent lamp on my desk, or the color yellow? It’s not a meaningful comparison: for a lamp, you’d measure brightness in something like lumens; for a color, you’d measure it in something like reflectivity. The measures are different, and there’s no meaningful way to compare them.
    What’s more expensive? Bush’s inauguration or Obama’s? That’s a question that you can answer. But the answer is only meaningful if in both cases you use the same metric. To compare otherwise is meaningless. To compare Obama’s inauguration including security with Bush’s excluding security is no more meaningful than comparing the lamp to the color.

  11. Pat

    > But if you just compare the two, without
    > establishing a common metric, the comparison
    > is meaningless.
    Well, best case scenario is that the comparison is meaningless and everybody knows it. Worst case scenario is that the comparison is deliberately misleading and some or many people don’t realize it; the comparison is implying that there is meaning when in fact there isn’t any, and someone (or many someones) are snookered.
    I suspect that most often the truth is in-between; someone publishes a meaningless comparison accidentally, and some people read the meaningless comparison and attribute meaning to it.
    If the media has bias, it’s twofold: presenting stories that people are interested in reading, and stating as fact things that are incorrectly understood to be facts.
    I see this *a lot* in media stories that rely upon math, statistics, or science. The understanding of the reporter is presented as truth, as opposed to the understanding of the reporter.

  12. Infopractical

    Your post states that Bush’s numbers are withheld due to national security, yet you want me to Google them and tell me they are a matter of public record?
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m playing the other side to force you to be more precise and be good enough to cite your sources (yes, I do think that’s your responsibility). This post is almost good, but very misleading at the edges, where calculation/estimation actually occurs. My bet is that you could write it much better in a second round, or could have made it better spending more time on it.
    I’ll add that yes, there are lots of media biases — very strong ones on both sides. Perhaps 60-40 liberal/conservative (but fluctuating over time), and all very very biased.

  13. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    Re #15:
    The costs *excluding security* are a matter of public record, and are easy to look up. At the time of the inauguration, the security costs for Bush were not released, but since then, using public records (things like the police budgets, city of DC records), estimates have been put together by a variety of sources.

  14. ToddA

    I will not debate the two figures here. For the sake of argument, lets call them about equal…but as pertains to a bias in the media, please see the below headlines regarding both inaugural events. If we assume similar costs for both, why the huge chasam between how it was reported by the media?
    Headlines On This Date 4 Years Ago:
    “Republicans spending $42 million on inauguration while troops Die in unarmored Humvees”
    “Bush extravagance exceeds any reason during tough economic times”
    “Fat cats get their $42 million inauguration party, Ordinary Americans get the shaft”
    Headlines Today:
    “Historic Obama Inauguration will cost ” only $170 million”
    “Obama Spends $170 million on inauguration; America Needs A Big Party”
    “Everyman Obama shows America how to celebrate”
    I’m not sure how a person can look at the difference and not walk away feeling that there is not a liberal bias that exists in most media.

  15. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    Re ToddA:
    That’s what’s called “highly selective reporting”. Let’s look at a couple of other recent stories on this:
    Yahoo News, headline “That’s a lot of balloons”, first line: “As the recession continues to wreak havoc on the U.S. economy and inauguration celebrations ramp up, a lot of people are asking: “How much will this shindig cost?””
    Associated Press, opening line: “The price tag for President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration gala is expected to break records, with some estimates reaching as high as $150 million. Despite the bleak economy, however, Democrats who called on President George W. Bush to be frugal four years ago are issuing no such demands now that an inaugural weekend of rock concerts and star-studded parties has begun.”
    ABC News: Headline “What recession? The $170 million inauguration”. First line: The country is in the middle of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, which isn’t stopping rich donors and the government from spending $170 million, or more, on the inauguration of Barack Obama.”
    NY Daily News: “Obama’s inauguration is most expensive ever at $160 million”, first line: “It will take Barack Obama less than a minute to recite the oath of office — and when he’s done dancing at the inaugural balls Jan. 20, the price tag for his swearing-in festivities could approach $160 million.”.

  16. Daryl McCullough

    Could you point to which newspaper had those headlines in 2005? If you do a Google search all you find is dozens of people who are cutting and pasting the same complaint.
    Some examples:
    They all use the same headlines, without attribution or links.

  17. Daryl McCullough

    Are posts containing URLs held up for moderation?
    Anyway, my point, in the post that will be showing up sooner or later is that ToddA is engaging in astroturf. The headlines “Republicans spending $42 million on inauguration while troops Die in unarmored Humvees”, etc. are being propagated verbatim around the web anywhere there is a discussion of the costs of the inaugural. I couldn’t find any URLs showing where these headlines came from, although clearly the hundreds of appearances were produced by cut-and-paste from a common source.

  18. ToddA

    My apologies to the blog and its readers. I obviously did not do enough homework and took the information sent to me by someone I normally find trustworthy, to be just that.

  19. mike

    I still think this example is trivial. Mark, you let the media get away with mathematical murder when comparing liberal tax plans versus socialist. All throughout the campaign meaningless numbers floated around like soap bubbles in the air designed to make the candidates’ plans look pretty.
    Mark, you often blog about how people deceive others with bad math. Well, the bad math during the campaigns had far greater consequences than this.
    I think it’s clear from the last line that this story was selectively chosen as a counterexample to the claimed Liberal media bias.
    For the record, it’s preposterous to think the media are anything but in love with Barack Obama and Ann Coulter always cites her excerpts.^^

  20. Harry Johnson

    Fine. Lets only count the approximate costs of the parties and celebrations and say Bush spent $42M and Obama spent $45.
    The point is that the media heavily criticized Bush for spending even that much money! Then they turn around and at the best do not say anything about the money Obama spent and at worst praise his spending because “America needed a party”.
    The media bias is still obvious to anyone who’s not intentionally turning a blind eye and trying to distract the focus away from the original point by claiming the “math is wrong” is disingenious.
    I hope for the best for Obama at one of the most difficult jobs in the world and I hope that everyone will treat him with the respect and dignity the job deserves. However, denying he is a media darling is silly.

  21. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    Re #24:
    So, let me get this straight.
    The fact that media reports about the cost of the inauguration have focused on a fake comparison that makes it appear that Obama spent four times as much on his inauguration as George W. Bush is evidence that the media is obvious biased in his favor.
    Look at the list of media headlines that I cited in a previous comment. It’s not just the conservative Fox news that have been writing stories criticizing the supposedly incredibly huge cost of the inauguration. If you go looking, it’s all three major TV networks in the US; it’s all three major cable TV channels; it’s the NY times, the Daily News, the Washington Post, the LA Times, BBC. In fact, it’s hard to find a major media source that hasn’t run a story about the cost of the Obama inauguration, containing a comparison of the $150/$160/$170 million cost for Obama to the 40 million cost for Bush.
    But it’s all just proof that the media is in Obama’s pocket.

  22. Phil

    I ran across this website and just wanted to weigh in.
    First as to the email circulating and some folks saying “that never happened” well some of the truth is right on this page. While not a “headline” per se, the link provided by Mark (#11) for the BBC is telling. It contains the phrase “Precedent suggests that inaugural festivities should be muted – if not cancelled – in wartime,” New York Democrat Representative Anthony Weiner said in a letter to President Bush.
    He noted the money could be used to buy 690 Humvees and pay for a $290 bonus for each soldier serving in Iraq.”
    Ok, so that could of been a headline in some paper somewhere. Google isn’t perfect.
    Ok, so let’s look at the big picture. We can quibble about if it was this much, if it was that much. I found the following (in the same BBC article) very telling. This is the POINT. If it was considered by “we the people” that it cost too much in 2005 when we were pretty “flush” with money, what changed? Do we not feel the same way today? It’s a WASTE of money, no matter if it’s Bush, Obama or John Smith. I would of been very impressed if Obama would of said “It will be televised, we need to stop spending money”
    “But a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that two-thirds of Americans think inaugural festivities should be scaled back. That includes half of those who voted for President Bush and 80% of John Kerry’s supporters.”
    I think, especially with the current economic climate, it would be more than 2/3rds. No matter the party, we should rein in this cost,but add to that our economy is in deep “doo doo”, what do our “leaders” say?: “To hell with what YOU think, it’s business as usual and we are going to give the biggest damn party that you ever saw!”

  23. Harry Johnson

    I read the three articles you linked in a previous post; one from livemint (Wall Street Journal?), one from CNNMoney, and one from the BBC. The first two mentioned the ~$150M price tag and accurately broke it down including the $45M for parties from private contributions. Neither article criticized the expenditures at all and in the case of the livemint article cast them in a pretty favorable light. The third article, from the BBC, was from the 2005 inauguration and basically enumerated the criticisms of the “ostentatious” celebration.
    From the article: “”Precedent suggests that inaugural festivities should be muted – if not cancelled – in wartime,” New York Democrat Representative Anthony Weiner said in a letter to President Bush.”
    Wonder what Weiner thinks of Obama’s inauguration? No such criticisms appeared in the media reports of Obama’s inauguration you cited in your earlier posting. So, yeah, I stand by my claim that Obama, Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, is a media darling.


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