Polish plumbers and stylized facts

I went looking for some Polish plumbers the other evening, and boy, did I find them - in their legions. It was almost exactly a year ago that they (inadvertently) helped precipitate defeat of the proposed European constitution in France.

Voters there were concerned about an invasion from the east: They were afraid that a provision for the free flow of labor and capital within the European Union would lead to an influx of skilled workers willing to accept low wages and thereby destroy the social contract of la belle France. These workers were almost invariably known as Polish plumbers.

And now they're back in the news. As The Guardian reported in London, "A year to the day after French voters rejected the European constitution, amid fears of an influx of Polish plumbers, ministers agreed that such workers should be given a pan-European 'freedom to provide services.' "

Polish plumbers were all over the British press a few weeks ago, when a research unit sponsored by the accounting firm Ernst & Young issued a report crediting them with helping keep the national economy afloat.

"Polish plumbers boost buy-to-let" was one headline generated by the report from the ITEM Club. The body of the piece fleshed the point out a little more: "An estimated 300,000 new workers have arrived in Britain from Eastern Europe over the past three years, and they have been credited with helping the economy meet targets and making people's mortgages cheaper by keeping interest rates down."

Note the relationship here: It's "Polish plumbers" in the headline - but a much more nuanced and, frankly, less interesting "300,000 new workers ... from Eastern Europe" in text. They aren't all Polish, and they aren't all plumbers. Some of them may be Romanian roofers or Hungarian handymen, in fact. But "Polish plumbers" has become the set phrase.

It's one of those bits of shorthand we use to carry on our public conversations, even when their relationship to fact may be tenuous - or even nonexistent. Remember Ronald Reagan and his welfare queens?

Three hundred thousand people does, however, seem to be too many to be a figment of anyone's imagination, even that of an overworked civil servant desperate to come up with figures to show the government economic forecast is on target.

The Daily Telegraph quoted Prof. Peter Spencer as saying, "The stereotype of this all being about just the Polish plumber is well wide of the mark," and continued: "For instance, government data says nearly a third of these migrant workers have found jobs in business administration. Only 4 per cent of Eastern Europeans who have registered since May 2004 work in the construction industry."

Ah, but "Polish business administrators" just doesn't have the same plosive punch, does it? And the advantage of shorthand that refers to an occupation most people understand is not to be underestimated. Everyone knows what a plumber is, right?

The economic term "stylized fact" comes to mind at this point. A stylized fact is "a simplified representation of an empirical finding," according to Wikipedia, which adds, "While results in statistics can only be shown to be highly probable, in a stylized fact, they are presented as true. They are a means to represent complicated statistical findings in an easy way."

In the news media and the public conversation, we (journalists as well as readers, viewers, and listeners) glom onto handy phrases that literally put a human face on complex issues - such as unrestricted movement of labor within the European Union.

Are Eastern Europeans revitalizing economies to the west? Or undermining the Continental social order?

Will the real Polish plumber please stand up?

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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