Conservatives Twist Economic Debate

Conservatives Twist Economic DebateProtesters, some dressed as zombies, walk the streets as part of the Occupy Wall Street protests, which began three weeks ago, in New York, Oct. 3, 2011. (Photo: Damon Winter / The New York Times )

Recent facts have not been kind to the political right in the United States: a better-than-expected jobs report; a renewed focus on inequality, driven both by research from the Congressional Budget Office and by the gift of Mitt Romney’s candidacy. What to do?

The answer is to throw a bunch of bogus numbers at the issues, in the hope that something sticks, or at least that the discussion becomes confused.

First, about that jobs report released earlier this month: all the usual suspects have jumped on the routine population adjustment by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, claiming that the numbers were cooked. The real story here is that the B.L.S. estimates unemployment based on a monthly survey; this tells us what fraction of workers are unemployed. To turn that into a number of unemployed, the B.L.S. estimates total working-age population; but it updates those estimates only once a year. So there’s usually a step up or down in the totals each January, signifying nothing.

Back in the Bush years there were a lot of bogus claims of huge job growth that reflected a step up in the population numbers. Now we have Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, etc., claiming that a step down somehow implies fake calculations. Still not true. And the thing that makes this so tiring is that they keep trotting out the same old bogosity, no matter how many times it has been refuted.

Next up, inequality denial. The Census Gini figure (which measures income distribution in a population) hasn’t moved much since the early 1990s — but as Jon Chait, a writer at New York Magazine, says, we know perfectly well why: it’s because Census numbers are “top-coded,” that is, cut off at high income levels, and the big gains have come way up the scale.

“The Census Department does not collect detailed information about rich people’s income, which is why inequality researchers look elsewhere when they want to study changing income among the very rich,” Mr. Chait wrote in an online post on Feb. 3.

Just look around: walk around New York’s pricier neighborhoods and tell me that inequality hasn’t increased. But also, look at income tax data. See what the I.R.S. tells us about income shares in the chart on this page.

Notice that the rise is almost entirely concentrated in the top 1 percent; even the bottom half of the top 10 percent went nowhere, which tells you once again that this is about the 1 versus the 99, not the top 20 versus the lower class. And yes, the data shows, overwhelmingly, a rise in inequality.

Oh, and Mr. Chait tells us that the usual suspects are also rolling out the old “the rich in America pay more taxes than the rich in other countries” thing. Yes — because the American rich are much, much richer.

In a way it’s almost a relief to find these guys coming up with new fallacies. Brad DeLong, an economist and a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, recently caught The Wall Street Journal looking at estimates that federal workers get 2 percent more salary and 48 percent more benefits than private-sector workers — and concluding that this means that they are overpaid by 50 percent. “There is literally nothing these people can do or say that will lose them their megaphone, is there?” Mr. Delong wrote on his blog on Feb. 4.

The important point to make here is that all these bogus numbers are coming from seemingly authoritative sources — Fox News, which is a big organization, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the American Enterprise Institute. You could not imagine a similar level of statistical dishonesty from, say, The Nation, or Washington Monthly, or the Economic Policy Institute.

This is what I mean when I say that the left and right aren’t symmetric. People of all persuasions lie, but the right has a whole institutional structure of lying that has no counterpart on the left.

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Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008.

Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including “The Return of Depression Economics” (2008) and “The Conscience of a Liberal” (2007).

Copyright 2012 The New York Times.