May 12, 2002

Let Us Now Praise Right Wing Hacks

David Broder thinks that the success of the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute is "something to cheer" because they are so "proficient in generating and promoting ideas" and have great "intellectual honesty." I disagree: I think David Broder has lost his ability to distinguish intellectual wheat from partisan chaff. Cato and Heritage's main function is to provide soundbites. As a result,their work can rarely be relied on: too much of the time, even when the good, straight, accurate arguments are on their side, the guys from Cato and Heritage are likely to come up with something twisted, inaccurate, and misleading that sounds punchy. Brendan Nyhan also disagrees with Broder, and expresses it better than I do.)

For example, consider Stephen Moore, sometime Director of Fiscal Policy Studies at Cato, sometime a Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Let me pull down from the shelf Stephen Moore and Julian Simon (2000), _It's Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last Hundred Years_ (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute). It's a book I by and large agree with: things are a lot better now than they were 100 years ago. It's a book I'm sorry I bought, because I cannot refer to it without carefully checking every word, and wondering on each page, "Is this a place where Moore is trying to make me into a fool?"

Let me open it at random....

Page 59... in "the broadest measure of a nation's overall economic performance" they headline total GDP rather than GDP per capita. GDP per capita has multiplied more than sixfold over the century, but GDP has grown by more--more than twentyfold. But is total GDP a good measure of overall economic performance? No. A country where population quadrupled and living standards halved would see its total GDP double....

Page 61... nothing wrong here...

Page 63... the graph of median family income is no series I have ever seen before: certainly it is not the case that the years 1989-1994 are the only years since 1947 in which median family income has declined...

Page 65... oh this is an absolute beauty: "The Millionaire Next Door... less than 5000 Americans, or less than 0.1 percent of households, were millionaires in 1900.... Today there are almost 8 million millionaire households in the United States [or 7.7% of households." The problem is that a dollar back in 1900 had about 20 times the purchasing power of a dollar today. If you want to answer the question "How many people today are as wealthy as a 1900-millionaire?" you need to look at the people today with wealth more than $20 million--about 0.4% of households. Now it's not that Moore is confused about the statistics--it's just that he would rather give you the (phony) number that an American today is 77 times more likely than an American in 1900 to be a "millionaire" than the (real) number that an American today is 5 times more likely to have the purchasing power of a 1900-era-millionaire than an American in 1900.

Now on all four of these charts the basic point Moore wants to make is true: America is much richer and there are many more millionaires now than in 1900, median family income has risen steeply over time, the U.S. edge over other countries in productivity has grown, and American economic growth in the twentieth century has been amazing and remarkable. He can tell his story and he can tell it strong without resorting to false, erroneous, or misleading calculations at all.

Yet still he makes them. Only one of the four items above headlines what everyone would agree are the right numbers. The other three do not. Moore simply cannot resist gilding the lily. He cannot resist making things much "clearer than truth." The result is that I cannot believe a word he writes. It's frustrating. Moore's book is completely usless.


Now why does Moore follow this strategy of grasping for the weak and false but good-sounding bite when there are strong, powerful, and valid arguments on his side? The reason is that he is embedded in an ecology in which the major players are people who can't evaluate the substantive strength of intellectual and policy arguments, aren't especially interested in learning the substance of public policy in any depth, yet have acquired substantial journalistic influence without every learning that their own biases and kneejerk reactions are not automatically valid. In such an ecology, what use are a commitment to education first and partisanship second? What use are scruples? What use is an unwillingness to make the worse appear the better cause? You lose them if you swim in the advocacy think-tank sea, just as animals that live underground lose their eyesight...

Posted by DeLong at May 12, 2002 02:58 PM | TrackBack

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