February 05, 2003
Paul Krugman Bangs His Head Against the Wall

One implication of things like this embarrassment found on the OMB home page: the career staff--patriotic people who care about the future of the country, and who understand the government--appear to be frozen out. At least, if any of them had seen this they would have pointed out what howler it was.


When the end justifies the medians:

How the Bushies lie with statistics, part 667: Sorry, I can't help myself. The home page of the Office of Management and Budget  home page currently carries a chart purporting to show that government spending has raced ahead of personal income, comparing growth in department budgets with median household income.

Two problems:

1. Median household income is income per household - it grows much more slowly than total income in part because the number of households is growing. Shouldn't the other numbers be spending per household?

2. Median income also grows more slowly than average income because of growing inequality. In fact, when touting tax plans the Bushies always use averages - that way they obscure the fact that most of the tax cut goes to a few wealthy families. But now, suddenly, they've become proponents of the median...

Posted by DeLong at February 05, 2003 08:10 PM | Trackback

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Seems to me it's fortunate that trials for heresy and the like have fallen out of fashion.

Posted by: Bob Briant on February 6, 2003 04:51 AM

Yeah, but fashion is cyclical. If bellbottoms can come back...

Posted by: a different chris on February 6, 2003 06:42 AM

I'm not sure I understand the point. Plural points, rather. Let me expose my ignorance and beg enlightenment.

1) It would seem that the Bush complaint seems to be that federal spending is going up "too fast". This seems odd. Isn't the administration responsible for proposing a budget? (Not THE budget -- Congress works out compromises to do that. But _a_ budget. ) My understanding of libertarian complaints about the Bush administration is that the Bush proposals raise spending by a greater fraction, and faster, than during a comparable period in the Clinton era.

If so, why would Bush complain about Bush's proposal?

2) If the (good?) Bush complaint about the (bad?) Bush budget is somehow justified, wouldn't the (bad?) Bush response be to skew the "household income" figures the other way? I mean, if some torsion on the data could be applied to inflate the income figure and make it look like income is growing faster than, or at least commensurate with, federal spending? But the (bad?) response seems to CONFIRM the (good?) complaint.

3) Which side of the schizo-Bush argument is Krugman taking? Does he agree that spending is going up "too fast" -- does he agree with (good)Bush that household income increases are falling behind federal spending and (presumably) the situation is EVEN WORSE than originally presented due to statistical error and that (therefore) the proposed spending increases for Dept of Education, Medicare prescriptions, etc etc. should be _cut back_ ? _OR_, does Krugman suggest that the (bad?)Bush that proposed spending levels increases are not only necessary, but insufficient? That federal spending should go up EVEN MORE, and those increases be budgeted EVEN THOUGH "household income" is NOT increasing?

4) Where is the Micky Kaus-ian analysis about the nature of households? If some small fraction
(a tenth?) of single working mothers living alone ( multi-person households, household income circa $20K - _per capita_ income less than $10K ) react to various welfare-reform, marriage-encouraging, tax-penalty-removing, etc incentives to marry and move in with their long-term boyfriends (1 person household, household and _per capita_ income circa $20K) to form new households of $40K
(_per capita_ income holding firm at just under $10K -- housing _expenses_ presumably reduced and some shift in the household spending economy away from Budweiser and toward Enfamil ) ... uh... I'm loosing track of things here.

Oh. Isn't this "increase" in median family income -- despite being a census bureau accounting fiction -- nevertheless a good thing? Worthy of spending federal funds to acheive?
Or, perhaps, foregoing the "marriage penalty" taxes to acheive?

5) Were any prior administrations REALLY appreciably better about avoiding such budget inconsistancies and statistical howlers? Is Krugman's point that a Republican-leaning economist/columnist (Sowell for instance) would NEVER have had grounds to write a comparably selective screed about a Democratic administration?

Or is the point being that every week the newpaper expects so many column inches to be filled by various amounts of "analysis" and that any old subject will do?


Posted by: Melcher on February 6, 2003 07:06 AM

Melcher asks >Were any prior administrations REALLY appreciably better about avoiding such budget inconsistancies and statistical howlers?<

Short answer: yes.

As has been presented in the interview of John DiIulio, the Bush White House has politicized everything. And, yes, the Bush White House is capable of simultaneously arguing that spending is rising too fast, even while urging Congress to spend faster. They are that dishonest.

Krugman's point is that this sort of distortion is deliberate and therefore inexcusable. I would rather that he had focused on the deliberate distortions at the UN yesterday, rather than on this sort of petty prevarication, but it's his column.

Posted by: Charles Utwater II on February 6, 2003 08:06 AM

Sorry, Melcher, but this wasn't a column inch-eater; this was a note on PK's personal website, where he gave vent to his frustration at yet another Bush fudging.

Your Point 1 about what the Bush admin should or shouldn't be saying is irrelevant; the relevant page is titled "The Wastebasket: Finding and Fixing Wasteful Gov't Programs." In fact, that is typical Republican spin - the problem isn't our proposals, the problem is wasteful Washington bureaucrats, who presumably spend the bulk of their time shredding taxpayers' money.

Anyway, the point is that, to create a chart that looks scary (16% income growth, 45% gov't growth), they choose not just a form of data that reinforces their argument (which would be spin, but fair game), but a number that is fundamentally irrelavant (apples and oranges), and one that they pointedly avoid using when it would be _more_ informative elsewhere. I think that what really gets PK's goat here isn't this chart; as you suggest, it surely will not go down in the annals of deceptive politics. But juxtaposed with (against?) the Bush refusal to use medians to describe tax cut benefits, which is overtly misleading to millions of Americans who don't/can't/won't distinguish between mean and median... it's simply perfidious.

Posted by: JRoth on February 6, 2003 08:15 AM

"My understanding of libertarian complaints about the Bush administration is that the Bush proposals raise spending by a greater fraction, and faster, than during a comparable period in the Clinton era."

Yes, Bill Clinton was a liar. And he treated the Constitution like toilet paper. (This wasn't unique; it was basically the same as every President of the 20th century. But Bill Clinton was allegedly a lawyer.) And Bill Clinton committed at least one act of terrorism (bombing the Al Shifa plant in Sudan, and then not paying to rebuild it).

But at least he never submitted a budget with a proposed 9% increase in overall spending. (To my recollection.)

"If so, why would Bush complain about Bush's proposal?"

It *does* seem a tad hypocritical. (Or irrational, if I was to be charitable.)


Posted by: Mark Bahner on February 6, 2003 04:13 PM

"...the problem isn't our proposals, the problem is wasteful Washington bureaucrats,..."

Ummmm...but Bush is a wasteful Washington bureaucrat.

No one in Washington can spend more money than Congress appropriates. And what Congress appropriates can be limited by what the President proposes, and later signs...or doesn't sign. Especially with such an evenly divided Congress.

Given the fact that Bush's first budget proposal had a 9% increase in overall spending, and given the fact that he's vetoed nothing (as far as I know) in the way of new spending, it's more than a little peculiar that his OMB would be complaining about rapidly increasing spending.

Posted by: Mark Bahner on February 6, 2003 04:24 PM
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