Posts tagged ‘Russell Roberts’

Numbers in the Media Are Almost Meaningless

Every time I dig into numbers in a media report, I typically find a real mess.  Russell Roberts finds the situation even worse than average in the recent Washington Post article on middle class finances.

The debt figure of $55,000 in 2004 (which supposedly is 151% higher
than in 1989 to pay for day-to-day expenses) is actually ALL forms of
debt INCLUDING mortgage debt. So how can that be? How can the median
family have only $55,000 of all kinds of debt when there's $95,000 of
mortgage debt all by itself?

That's because each line of the chart (other than the top line and
the bottom line) is a subset of all families and a different subset.

So among families that have mortgage debt (maybe 40-50% of all
families) the median mortgage debt among those families is $95,000.

But among families that have any kind of debt, (about 3/4 of all families) the median indebtednes including all kinds of debt
is $55,000. That includes mortgages debt....

So you can't add up any of the lines of the chart or even compare
them to each other. They're each for a different subset of the
population, the population who have that kind of debt or asset.

On Political Calibration

If I had to choose one word that describes why I despair of politics, it is "calibration."  Recently, it has been observed that Ron Paul, for example, cannot possibly win because he sticks to a basic set of beliefs and never calibrates his message to the electorate and recent polls.  On the other end of the scale, Hillary Clinton is famous for endlessly calibrating everything she does in the hopes of maximizing the votes she receives.

Calibration is one of those dangerous words that tend to obfuscate the underlying reality.  Because, there are only two possible definitions of calibration as used in this political context:

  • Lying, i.e. telling the electorate what they want to hear with the intention of acting differently once in office
  • Total nihilism,, i.e. willingness to shift beliefs based on whatever is effective

Russell Roberts describes the situation pretty well:

But there is little difference between Republican and Democratic
Presidents in what they actually do. In what they say? Sure. Both
Reagan and Bush talk about individual responsibility and the market
blah blah blah. Bill Clinton talked more about feeling people's pain
and the downtrodden blah blah blah. Similarly, in the current
presidential campaign, there are stark rhetorical differences between
say Giuliani and Romney on the one hand and Obama and Clinton on the

But will the actual results be different? Will Hillary double the
minimum wage? Change our health care system to be more socialized?
Eliminate corporate welfare? Will Giuliani make the health care system
less socialized? Eliminate the minimum wage? Get rid of farm subsidies?
Stop spending federal money on education?

Most of it is talk and it's not just because change is hard to
achieve. It's because they really don't want change. Did Bill Clinton
get rid of income inequality? Dent it? The share of income going to the
top 1% rose throughout most of the Clinton administration. Was it his
policies? The steady rise in the share of income going to the top 1%
started rising in 1976. Was it Carter's doing?

Was Bush or Reagan a hard core free trader in practice? Nope. They
used protectionism when it was politically expedient. Just like Bill
Clinton signed welfare reform and NAFTA and then chose not to enforce
the truck provision of NAFTA because the Teamsters didn't like it.

Government gets bigger under both Republicans and Democrats. What
they spend money on is a little different, yes. But to hate George Bush
for being a free market guy is to miss what is really going on. And to
hate Hillary because she doesn't understand the power of markets and to
love, say, Mitt Romney, is to misunderstand both of them. They use
rhetoric to dupe you. Don't be duped.

This all leads to the question of into which category should we place Paul Krugman - lier or nihilist?

Paul Krugman worries that,
although trade between high-wage countries is mutually beneficial,
"trade between countries at very different levels of economic
development tends to create large classes of losers as well as winners"
- and so is suspect because it likely harms ordinary American workers
("Trouble With Trade," December 28).

A famous trade economist
argues that this concern is misplaced.  In a 1996 essay, this economist
- responding to a protectionist who fretted that western trade with
low-wage countries would harm workers in the west - wrote that this
protectionist "offers us no more than the classic 'pauper labor'
fallacy, the fallacy that Ricardo dealt with when he first stated the
idea, and which is a staple of even first-year courses in economics. In
fact, one never teaches the Ricardian model without emphasizing
precisely the way that model refutes the claim that competition from
low-wage countries is necessarily a bad thing, that it shows how trade
can be mutually beneficial regardless of differences in wage rates."

Oh - the economist who wisely warned against the pauper-labor fallacy is none other than Paul Krugman.