To Win a Debate, Confuse Matters

Columbia Journalism Review recently published a takedown of a “study” from the American Enterprise Institute purporting to show that income inequality in the United States hasn’t increased, after all.

Ryan Chittum, a reporter at C.J.R., commenting on a blog post from A.E.I. titled “5 Reasons Why Income Inequality Is a Myth — and Occupy Wall Street Is Wrong,” wrote on Oct. 26: “That kind of headline draws you to read the post, which proceeds to give seemingly sound (but ultimately misleading) evidence for why inequality isn’t growing in order to plant seeds of doubt about whether that whole inequality thing is really a problem.”

What’s striking is the way A.E.I. doesn’t even resort to the usual practice of concocting misleading numbers; it just flat-out lies about what various other peoples’ research, like the economist Robert Gordon’s work, actually says.

What I found myself thinking about, however, is the way the inequality debate illustrates some typical features of many debates these days: the way the right has a sort of multilayer defense in depth, which involves not only denying facts but then, in a pinch, denying the fact that you denied those facts.

Think about climate change. You have various right-wingers simultaneously (a) denying that global warming is happening, (b) denying that anyone denies that global warming is happening, but denying that humans are responsible, and (c) denying that anyone denies that humans are causing global warming, insisting that the real argument is about the appropriate response.

I’m not sure there are three levels (yet) on inequality, but we definitely have (a) right-wingers denying that inequality is rising and (b) denying that anyone is denying the rise in inequality, but attacking any proposal to limit that rise.

You might ask, how is it possible to take such mutually contradictory positions? And the answer is, it’s very easy if confusing the debate is your job.

I Do Not Think That Word Means What Politico Thinks It Means

In case anyone thought that my post last week about widespread misunderstanding of the meaning of the word “hypocrisy” was arguing with a straw man, now comes Politico, telling us — without a hint that there might be some misunderstanding here — that Elizabeth Warren, who is running for senator in Massachusetts, may not be credible in her campaign against economic injustice because she’s personally affluent.

According to a post by Scott Wong published on Nov. 6: “Elizabeth Warren may have embraced the Occupy Wall Street movement and the ‘99 percent’ crowd, but public records reveal the liberal firebrand belongs to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans.”

[Bangs head against wall]

Well, duh.

She’s a Harvard law professor, with a professional husband. Now we’re shocked that she makes a good living?

And we’re supposed to disapprove — rather than praising her ability to transcend narrow self-interest — because she favors policies that would raise her own taxes? Anyway, I personally am honored to find myself in her company.

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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 2011 The New York Times.