July 20, 2003

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? Part CCCXXIV

In "The Deficit Is Big, but Is It Bad?" Alex Berenson of the New York Times fails to make the distinction between big short-run deficits (good when the economy is depressed and unemployment is high) and big long-run deficits (simply bad, slowing capital formation, slowing economic growth, and raising the risk of economic crisis). As a result, his article turns into hopelessly-confused "he said, he said" mess.

It's not a hard distinction to grasp, or a hard distinction to remember.

Is it asking too much to expect the New York Times to find reporters to cover the economy who are capable of thinking analytically to the extent of making such distinctions?

Posted by DeLong at July 20, 2003 08:42 AM | TrackBack


Astonishing that so many journalists simply will not bother to read. What does it take? Go to cbpp.org? Duh. How about paying attention to the NYTimes' and Princeton's own Paul Krugman? How about learning to spell Brad DeLong? Duh....

Posted by: jd on July 20, 2003 09:05 AM

Sort of: How I learned to stop worrying and love the defiocit. Tra la....

Posted by: anne on July 20, 2003 09:15 AM

Darn. Day afer day, I keep hearing or reading reporters tell of 30 some-odd casualties in Iraq since May 1. So sadly, the number must be 90 now.

Posted by: bill on July 20, 2003 09:27 AM

It's basically the same comment I hear very often these days - tax cuts are good stimulus in bad times, so don't worry about the deficit.

Not that I'm surprised that the Times (or others) know little more than the average uninformed observer.

Posted by: richard on July 20, 2003 10:15 AM

We should be surprised. Reporters ought to be able to learn, able to research. What is taught in journalism school? Oh, to dress for the camera? To be long-legged, thin, blond, and conservative. Here I come Fox. John Stewart does better commentary than any PBS analyst, and John Stewart is funny. Here I come Fox.

Posted by: lise on July 20, 2003 10:27 AM


We can sneer out Ann Coulter.


Posted by: anne on July 20, 2003 10:37 AM

"Is it asking too much to expect the New York Times to find reporters to cover the economy who are capable of thinking analytically to the extent of making such distinctions?"

Given the state of American education, it probably is asking too much.

Posted by: Frank Wilhoit on July 20, 2003 11:05 AM

I wouldn't be too put out myself. I hardly ever come across an article in the New York Times, or any other paper, for that matter, dealing with mathematics, biology or Africa that doesn't contain some obvious howler or another.

For instance, a while back I stumbled upon an article in the Times' Science section, in which the article's author wondered why animals would engage in behavior like cannibalism, given that it was harmful to the "survival of the species." I wrote to the author to inform him that group selection was a less-than-respectable idea, and that the proper frame of reference was at the individual, or even better, the gene level. His response? "Why do animals look after their kin then?" It would be hard to think of an example less suitable to bolster his argument than the one the journalist went for ...

Posted by: Abiola Lapite on July 20, 2003 11:20 AM

Gretchen Morgenson of the NYTimes is terrific, and has written a fine column on Alan Greenspan.

We do have to question first Greenspan's support of the initial Bush tax cut. The supposed endless surplus was of course not endless nor was it the slightest problem, rather a cushion for a weak economy and an assurance of Social security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Second, the reliance on interest rate cuts by the Fed is resulting in a loss of equity in homes and a lower interest returns to older savers. Third, the failure of Greenspan to explain that there is no way to balance tax cuts and loss of tax revenue with government spending cuts unless social services are to be cut to ribbons.

Greenspan's support of absurd fiscal policy will be a severe problem for an aging population. So much for some of the legacy.

Greenspan indicated that as soon as the economy gained growth speed the Fed would raise rates. So, we may have begun a bear market in bonds. The 10 year treasury has risen from 3.1 on June 13, to 4.0%.

Posted by: anne on July 20, 2003 11:31 AM

I think Dean Baker's weekly analysis of press reporting is excellent; see

Posted by: Stephen J Fromm on July 20, 2003 05:14 PM

I think Dean Baker's weekly analysis of press reporting is excellent; see

Posted by: Stephen J Fromm on July 20, 2003 05:15 PM

Brad is correct. The article is not worth the price of the ink it used to print it. It is as bad as grading undergraduate compositions. There is no point to the article. The writer has no POV or message.

The original question is bad. First the sentence starts with "But" . The question "What do such numbers mean?" leads to a quote fest of what the numbers mean to different people. This is an analysis of opinions, not an analysis of the deficit.

The writer then mixes opinions about short term deficits and long term deficits and ends up with a muddle.

I wonder what his book is like?

"The Number provides a big-picture analysis of the scandal of corporate America--how it happened and what to do about it--by Alex Berenson, a top financial investigative reporter for The New York Times. Every three months, publicly traded companies report sales and profits to their shareholders. Those quarterly announcements are the lodestar that investors--and these days, that's most of us--use to judge the health of corporate America: earnings per share, the number for which all other numbers are sacrificed. It is the distilled truth of a company's health. Too bad it's often a lie. Alex Berenson's book provides a comprehensive overview of how Wall Street and corporate America lost their way during the great bull market that began in 1982. "

Posted by: bakho on July 20, 2003 05:19 PM

OK, well there's another one. These day, investors aren't most of us. Take the less than 50% who are investors and figure that at least some do not invest in stocks, and Berenson's blurb is not just logically inconsistent (distilled truth = lie) but wrong on the facts about the investing public.

The point to all this is not, In think, why reporters cannot get economics right, but rather why they aren't required to get economics right. There has to be at lease some suspicion that editors don't give a rats patootie that economic drivel ends up on their pages. There will always be carpers and complainers, no matter what gets written, so carping and complaining by those who want better economics probably needs to cross a certain threshold before having an impact. Keep trying, Brad.

Posted by: K Harris on July 21, 2003 04:56 AM

Abiola, didn't Gould assert some group selection theory? I could be mistaken, but I thought that was the case and so (if so) it's easy to see how, for example, a *moderately* science-aware journalist would think that group selection was mainstream evolutionary theory.

And of course it should be noted that this sort of vulgar group selection theory--"the good of the species"--along with a fair amount of teleology, characterize almost completely the popular (mis)understanding of evolutionary theory.

Having said, that, I'm aware that it's rubbish, I've read George Williams's book[1], I'm *not* a biologist and I *can* easily imagine myself as a science journalist. Indeed, it's reasonable of me to expect a NYT science writer to be *more* informed about this matter than I am. But this doesn't seem to be the case. I've noticed that in this and other fields, my level of general science knowledge allows me to catch quite a few errors in general science writing. I tend to think the science writers are likely to be people very much like myself, but it seems that perhaps they are not. Are they really mostly just journalism or English majors with typically science-impoverished educations that are forced to work in the ghetto of science writing? Maybe so. That would explain a lot.

[1] Williams goes out of his way to allow that *some* limited group selection theories are quite reasonable and probably correct. If I'm correct that Gould advocated something like group selection, for all I know it was a completely acceptable variety. I don't know one way or another since I pretty much haven't read Gould. It wasn't intentional, but nowadays I sort of consider myself lucky to not have been unwittingly influenced by him.

Posted by: Keith M Ellis on July 21, 2003 05:38 AM


Looking at the following review of "The Structure of Evolutionary Theory"
it would indeed seem to be the case that Gould advocated group selection of a rather, shall we say, "adventurous" form. I haven't read the book myself, and to be honest, it isn't on my list of must-reads, so I can't say more. Nevertheless, advocacy of group selection as more than a merely theoretical possibility would be of a piece with Gould's tendency to contrariness for its' own sake. I also suspect that he just didn't understand the mathematics well enough to see why most of his contemporaries refused to take the concept seriously.

What does seem clear is that the conditions that must be met for group selection to occur are somewhat ... extreme; for instance, the rate of group extinction must be greater than that of outward migration. I daresay that no one has yet found an example of such a state of affairs in nature. An interesting introduction to the mathematics of kin and group selection can be had by reading Steve Frank's paper entitled "George Price's Contributions to Evolutionary Genetics"
(see http://stevefrank.org/reprints-pdf/95JTB-Price.pdf)

Another interesting paper is the following one by David Queller, entitled "Quantitative genetics, inclusive fitness and group selection"
(see http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~evolve/pdf/QuantG_IF_GS.pdf)

"I tend to think the science writers are likely to be people very much like myself, but it seems that perhaps they are not. Are they really mostly just journalism or English majors with typically science-impoverished educations that are forced to work in the ghetto of science writing? Maybe so. That would explain a lot."

I think this sort of thing tends to be the case with all classes of journalists. To illustrate, you only have to go to http://www.debito.org/ to see David Ardwinckle's complaints about the lack of familiarity with Japan's language and culture that foreign journalists tend to betray, and the lacunae in their reporting that arise from this ignorance.

Posted by: Abiola Lapite on July 21, 2003 10:49 AM

Funny how standards can vary so much within a profession. Dow Jones employs John McAuley, for instance, to write about economics. McCauley teaches economics at Fordham, worked as an economist at investment firms and has a Ph.D. This is the Dow Jones that has a hard time keeping its head above water. The NYT, the flagship of US newspapers, employs a number of economics and financial market writers, some quite good, but with enormous variability in results overall.

Posted by: K Harris on July 21, 2003 12:52 PM

The New York Times has a Clark-medal winning economist whose columns consist of conspiracy mongering and partisan bombast. Is it any wonder that the economic writing in the rest of the paper is no better?

Posted by: Arnold Kling on July 21, 2003 12:52 PM

Is it asking too much to expect the New York Times to find reporters to cover the economy who are capable of thinking analytically to the extent of making such distinctions?


Posted by: Billmon on July 21, 2003 12:58 PM

To its credit, the Times does hire Paul Krugman to write a column. If only their reporters would read it or bounce some ideas off of him. CNN often uses PK for comments:

<a href="http://www.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0307/17/se.12.html"

PK on Bush fiscal policy.

Posted by: bakho on July 21, 2003 01:57 PM

I can't believe someone actually praised that Gretchen Morgensen column from Sunday. It's a ridiculous sequence of non sequiteurs -- the only interesting part is a single quote from a famous hedge fund manager and that statement isn't followed up or analyzed. Is approval or disapproval of these articles a question of pure partisanship?

Posted by: JT on July 21, 2003 02:37 PM

Arnold, when Krugman confines himself to writing about economics he is very good and you can trust what he has to say. Where economics directly intersects politics and public policy, such as some of Bush's policies, he is trustworthy as well. You probably don't think so because (I'm guessing) you are also partisan. Pot, kettle; kettle, pot.

But his general political commentary isn't very good because, in my opinion, he's somewhat politically naive. Still, I happen to think--unlike yourself, I'm sure--that he's generally correct. The problem, though, is that he's hardly, if at all, more qualified to write about many of these things than I am.

Well, this is true of a great many political commentators. But I find it distressing and rather ironic that academics like Krugman, or Brad, or others who should be the *most* aware of the gulf that seperates truly having expertise and not often speak with equal authority on matters within and without their expertise. In the informal context of a blog, this is somewhat acceptable as the shared assumption is that a well-educated and earnest person is at least minimally qualified to discuss matters of public concern. It's more distressing when someone uses a forum they've been granted as a result of expertise in one field to speak authoritatively about another. It's especially a problem with scientists since the general public has a very, very naive faith that scientific expertise is generalizable across all scientific disciplines--which it emphatically is not. But scientists themselves who should know better are tempted by this view.

I wonder if economists are more prone to this error than others. It certainly seems to be that case that well-regarded economists like Brad are not embarassed by Krugman's high-profile non-economics writing. This is certainly *not* the case in many scientific fields. I've known a lot of astronomers, for example, and almost all of them were deeply embarrassed by Sagan in his later days. People often defend the Sagans of the world from their peers by saying that the resentment is motivated mostly by envy. No doubt that this is true to some degree. But I think that it's motivated more than anything else by a desire to maintain the credibility of one's scientific profession. It's a cultural ethos that rightly derides "hand-waving" and insists on intellectual rigor.

I think the overestimation by specialists of their expertise in fields outside their specialty, and the related confusion on the part of the general public, is a very significant component of the degradation of public discourse from its ideal.

Posted by: Keith M Ellis on July 21, 2003 04:01 PM

I watched Capital Gang talk about Dr. Greenspan's latest testimony and these four D.C. reporters kept saying Greenspan claimed deficits did not matter. Besides their arguing politics, all I got from their discussion is that not a single one of them actually bothered to read Greenspan's testimony. Well, maybe they read it but they clearly did not understand it. Then again - I read Bartlett's latest on deficits and the economy over at National Review and by comparison, Capital Gang's discussion was much better.

Posted by: Hal McClure on July 21, 2003 06:21 PM

Brad's initial point is only reasonable at first glance. In fact, it is contains politically-loaded assumptions about future government expenditure growth in talking about "big long-run deficits." Admittedly, the Bush administration has had a poor record in cost containment up to this point, but that could change. I also don't consider those CBO estimates a trustworthy source. Berenson's article actually makes an attempt to present both sides of the opinion battle over this issue -- a rarity for the hyperpoliticized NYTimes -- and is taken to task for it as incompetent. It's as if any attempt to describe an ideological disagreement is automatically treated as a debate between right and wrong.

Posted by: JT on July 22, 2003 09:06 AM
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