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July 29, 2011


The New York Times deserves a Darell Huff Award for skill in lying with statistics. During Bush's years as President, the Federal deficit averaged around $300 billion a year. That's an ugly record for which the Times justifiably criticized him. During Obama's years as President, the deficit has average around $1,500 billion -- 4 or 5 times as big. One might think that Obama deserves much more criticism, but the Times found a way to blame Obama's deficits on Bush.

One minor trick was to include 2009 in the Bush record, even though Obama was President for most of fiscal year 2009. (fiscal year 2009 runs from Sept. 30, 2008 to Oct. 1, 2009). But, this is relatively minor. Arguably, it may even be justifiable, since a new President is limited in what he can do. OTOH plenty of liberals (including Brendan Nyhan) blamed Bush for economic results that took place before his policies had time to affect the economy.

The Times' main trick was to come up with a new measurement of "change in costs". This measurement is based on the unstated assumption that President Obama was powerless of change anything President Bush did.

E.g., the Times assigned the cost of the Bush tax cuts to Bush. That's appropriate. However, the Times didn't assign to Obama the cost of maintaining tax rates at Bush's level. It's as if the ghost of Bush magically forced Obama to sign the bill authorizing Bush's tax rates.

In reality, every dollar of spending and every dollar of revenues was capable of being revised by Obama. This was particularly true during his first two years, when the Dems had huge Congressional majorities.

The Times measurement of "change" assigned no cost to Obama for continuing the Iraq War, even though he pledged to end that war and didn't do so. Nor did they charge Obama for the cost of his surge in Afghanistan. The Times didn't even charge Obama for the costs of the war in Libya, even though that war was stared unilaterally by Obama. The Times charged Bush for the war in Libya by lumping it into the category of "defense."

Jonathan Chait writes:

Rick Hertzberg continues his thankless, vital lonely job of carefully refuting every argument raised against the National Popular Vote plan.

However, the link doesn't quite show that. It merely shows Hertzberg refuting a couple of weak arguments against the NPV Plan. Chait seems to imply that Hertzberg has refuted many other anti-NPV arguments in other articles, but Chait didn't link to those refutations.

IMHO Republcans like the Electoral Collge because it's more apt to help them. Dems dislike it because it's more apt to hurt them. I can see a number of theoretical advantages to electing the candidate with the most votes. However, I think there are some valid arguments against the NPV, e.g.

1. When one party dominates a state, they may be able to manipulate the voting or the vote count. Under the current system, there's no advantage to cheating; the dominant party will get that state's electoral votes. Under an NPV plan, the dominant party in the state has an incentive to cheat and show the maximum number of reported votes for their party's Presidential candidate.

2. The NPV Plan isn't Constitutionally binding. It's enacted legislatively, so it can be changed legislatively. Consider this hypothetical example:

Sarah Palin wins a majority of the national popular vote in 2012. Having enacted the NPV law, California must give Palin all its electoral votes, even though Obama got more votes than Palin in California. However, suppose the electoral vote total is such that if California were to repeal its NPV law and give its electoral votes to Obama, Obama would be re-elected. Would Jerry Brown and the California legislature repeal the NPV in order to give Obama a victory and save the country from the disaster of a Palin Presidency? I think they would if they could.

(A somewhat more probable version of this hypothetical would be that California along with several other Dem states could move the victory from Palin to Obama by jointly repealing the NPV.)

If someone can point me to a refutation of these two arguments by Hertzberg or by someone else, I'd be grateful.

Megan McArdle, senior editor for the Atlantic who writes about business and economics, agrees with me that the New York Times chart comparing Bush's vs. Obama's contribution to the deficit is partisan and unhelpful.

the graph at top was made by someone who seems very interested indeed in allocating as much blame as possible to Republicans--indeed, more interested in that than anything else. So it does not do a very good job of illustrating the relative size of choices--the Bush figures are eight year figures, the Obama figures three-year figures. And it's entirely retrospective. Aside from the massaging I discussed above, the focus on the past makes it a very bad guide to the relative magnitude of the future choices we need to make. Some of these items (tax cuts, entitlements) will grow, and some of them (military spending, some discretionary items) won't. All this graph is good for is apportioning blame for the debt we've already incurred, and as I say, it's rather questionable whether it's even good for that.

If ignorance were corn flakes, David Leonhardt would be General Mills (paraphrasing Cecil Adams.) Look at his linked column:

We are too often occupied with distractions, rather than trying to answer a simple question: What works? What economic policies have succeeded before and are most likely to lead to the best life for the largest number of people?

If he really supported economic policies that have succeeded before, he'd be advocating tax rate cuts and opposing stimulus. After all, there were 3 major tax rate cuts in the 20th century and one more in the 21st. All four were followed by booming economies. OTOH stimulus by FDR, Bush, and Obama all were followed by continued bad economies.

When it comes to economics, we know that a market economy with a significant government role is the only proven model of success.

Leonard gives some examples of economies that improved when the government role was reduced, but no examples showing that a significant government role is necessary.

In fact, the US economy boomed for 150 years with little government role. Hong Kong boomed with little government role.

We also know that ever-rising levels of education are crucial to a country’s success.

Most of the studies cited by Leonhardt make the mistake of attributing the difference in earnings between college grads and non-grads to the value of college. In fact, those two groups are inherently different. Those who graduate from college tend to be smarter, more disciplined, and more ambitious. They would earn more money with or without college. E.g., despite his failure to graduate from college, Bill Gates has earned somewhat more money than Brendan Nyhan.

Leonard falls for the economic fallacy of composition. Just because something is true for an individual unit, it does not mean that it is true for the aggregate. Nowadays, many a job requires a college degree even though college is useless for that job. An individual may earn more money by going to collegem when the degree is required for the job he wants. But, if college doesn't help him do the job better, then his college education doesn't improve the aggregate economy.

The only way out of this problem involves some combination of tax increases and cuts to Medicare, Social Security and the military. Anyone who won’t get specific about which ones they favor is not a fiscal conservative.

The first sentence is mostly true. We also should be cutting programs other than the three he mentions, like high speed trains to nowhere and payments to millionaire farmers.

The second sentence is completely unsupported. Leonhardt evidently derived it via the POOMA method.

It's easy to guess where it came from. Leonhardt admitted that spending must be cut. That would imply that fiscal conservatives are right to demand spending cuts. Can't have that! So, he made up a new condition that those who recognize the need to cut spending are required to lay out where the cuts should be made. Of course, all politicians are leery of identifying areas to cut spending, since that would offend voting blocs. So, Leonhardt's made-up principle allows him to dsicredit fiscally conservative politicians.

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