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May 19, 2011


Of course, it just shows the lump sum in each category, not individual earnings, so it is even more dishonest. 9000 people making $100 in an economy with $1000000 make most of the money, but the one person making $100,000 beats them all hollow in terms of taxable income. It is hard for me to fathom why people just plain don't understand that.

One could make the width of the bars for each category proportional to the total amount of income; the total area of the bar would indicate how much taxable income there is in each bracket.

Worth looking at, anyway.

Thanks for the 5/19 Update, Brendan. Apparently the WSJ chart is simply the output that Excel produces when it's asked to create a bar chart from the IRS numerical data. That's the most straightforward approach imaginable. Indeed, had the WSJ done anything else, there might have been a valid basis to accuse them of manipulating the data.

Brendan's Update shows that the Tax Foundation acted properly when they withdrew Kasprak's post. That post incorrectly and ignorantly criticized the WSJ.

The Update shows that Brendan and Krugman and many commenters at their sites were all mistaken in deducing malign intent or conspiracy. It's striking to read the venomous comments on Krugman's site. They show that mean-spirited, ignorant conspiracy mongers are found on the left as well as on the right.

Brendan, I don't buy the excuse that the WSJ supposedly "did plot it in a way that misrepresented the shape of the US income distribution across the population." As pointed out earlier, the chart clearly and correctly depicts the total income in each range. Nor have you provided the plot that you think properly represents the shape of the US income distribution. I think you should have simply admitted that you were wrong.

Five points may be worth mentioning:

1. Ken Schultz and Kasprak both claimed to prove that the WSJ exhibit was biased by providing other arrangements that they said were biased. Where's the logic in that? That's like "proving" that Obama wasn't born in Hawaii by showing how some other hypothetical person might have falsified birth documents.

2. Not a single WSJ critic came up with what they claimed was the proper way to set the bin ranges.

3. I think the real problem may be the difference of opinion on what constitutes "middle class." As I read the WSJ editorial, they considered the middle class to be everyone (other than the poor) below Obama's target group of "millionaires and billionaires." That's a vague definition. I think the WSJ imagined that upper middle class goes up to $200,000 or even more. With that definition the chart accurately shows that the rich earn a relatively small portion of the country'e income. However, many people would set the bottom of the "rich" range at a lower dollar figure. For them, the "rich" do earn a large portion of the country's income.

4. Krugman and many commenters mis-read the WSJ editorial to be a recommendation of whose taxes should be increased. The WSJ was actually predicting who would be taxed more. BTW the WSJ didn't actually convince me that they were right. But, an unconvincing argument still deserves to be accurately represented.

5. Does anyone think that Krugman will now admit that the WSJ did not manipulate the data, but rather charted it just as it came from the IRS? I'd give odds he will never do so. Brendan, I want to acknowledge that you have more integrity than Krugman and the NY Times.

P.S. to Mike the Mad Biologist -- I think your idea would work, However,the WSJ (using the normal Excel chart function) achieved the same thing. In the WSJ chart, the height of the bars for each category were proportional to the total amount of income. Thus, the total area of each bar did indicate how much taxable income there was in each bracket.

So the whole argument comes down to the definition of "middle class". If that means the people within some interval of the average earnings you get a smaller income definition.

But it seems rather clear that the WSJ includes in "middle class" the people making well more than the average but still below the artificial threshold somewhat promoted by the Obama admin as "rich" - >$200K.

Maybe there is an argument the WSJ shouldn't call this group "middle class", but this is all semantics as their point is that you can't tax just the >$200K earners (i.e. the "rich") and balance the budget.

So far I haven't many comments (if any) address that point, which makes the whole "misleading" argument a irrelevant sideshow.

I agree with Brendan that the bar chart was not the best way to display this data. Anyone who's accustomed to working with financial data would realize that the bin widths could not be the same size. She would know that the bin widths are arbitrary. So, a sophisticated reader wouldn't be misled by the WSJ chart nor by any of the supposedly biased alternatives created by Schultz and Kasprak.

However, a naive reader might confuse the WSJ chart with other charts where the bin widths are equal. Thus, the naive reader might be misled by the shape of the chart.

It would have been better IMHO to use a pie chart rather than a bar chart. The pie chart wouldn't mislead viewers into thinking that they could find the center of the distribution from its highest bar. A pie chart would make it easier visually to add up all the segments corresponding to whatever definition of "rich" or "middle class" one wanted to use and see what fraction of total income was earned by that group.

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