Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults. ... No one deserves the personal vituperation that regularly comes Dowd's way, and some of Krugman's enemies are every bit as ideological (and consequently unfair) as he is. ... But that doesn't mean that their boss, publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., shouldn't hold his columnists to higher standards.Some have criticized Okrent for taking the shot at Krugman without providing even a single example. (See Brad DeLong's short post, as well as his subsequent links to commentary on the Daily Howler and a sidebar on Andrew Sullivan's treatment of the issue.)
I'm not going to get into the issue of whether Okrent should have provided an example. The discussion that followed Okrent's piece might lead one to believe that there are no examples. I'll remind my readers of one that occupied our time back in October. It started with the post, "Paul Krugman, Meet Irony." The key quote (with the offending statement highlighted) from Krugman's op-ed, "Checking the Facts in Advance" is:
Mr. Bush will boast about the decline in the unemployment rate from its June 2003 peak. But the employed fraction of the population didn't rise at all; unemployment declined only because some of those without jobs stopped actively looking for work, and therefore dropped out of the unemployment statistics. The labor force participation rate - the fraction of the population either working or actively looking for work - has fallen sharply under Mr. Bush; if it had stayed at its January 2001 level, the official unemployment rate would be 7.4 percent.As I noted in my original post and the considerable discussion that followed (here, here, here, here, and here), there are two channels that allow the unemployment rate and the labor force participation rate to fall while leaving the employment-population ratio unchanged. The first is that people who want to work give up looking for work. (This takes the same person out of both unemployment and the labor force, with no one entering or leaving employment.) The second is that people who have jobs decide they don't want them anymore (perhaps to take care of their kids or go back to school), and they get replaced by someone who was previously looking for work. (This takes one person out of employment and the labor force and another person out of unemployment and into employment. Same net effect.) The two channels have opposite implications for whether we think the statistics are bad news for the economy.
Krugman asserts--via the word "only"--that the second channel doesn't exist. In his interview with Fortune, [Ed. corrected from Forbes] Greg Mankiw succinctly summarizes why many of us are so frustrated with Krugman's writings:
Q: How do you explain what you describe as this change in Krugman?Krugman had his choice of (at least) three ways to phrase his statement. He could have said "only because," "primarily because," or "in part because." These three are listed in declining order of their rhetorical effect and ascending order of the confidence with which he could make the assertion. Taking a shortcut like this is inappropriate in any publication that aspires to be good journalism.
A: I guess if you're a columnist, you want to be widely talked about and be the most e-mailed. It's the same thing that drives talk show hosts to become Jerry Springer. You end up overstating the case because it makes good reading. The problem is that economists by their nature—with a lot of "on the one hand" and "on the other hand" in their prose—can make boring reading.
The process that my readers and I undertook in that series of posts that followed is an example of what Sulzberger should be implementing at the New York Times--before the op-ed can go to press. Challenge every assertion of fact, provide evidence to support it, or change the language to reflect alternative explanations. If the Times won't do that, then who needs the Times?
And even if the Times won't enforce such a rule, for the life of me, I cannot figure out why Paul Krugman would rather have his marginal $100 than 10 hours of skeptical fact-checking by a smart, conservative Princeton undergraduate economics major. It would make his writing better, like it used to be.
Other comments on my posts pointed out that some of the problems with the article are inherent in the op-ed medium. For example, it took me several posts to be able to get all the facts and the rhetoric right beyond my original statement. I say again, if op-eds suffer from these problems, then who needs op-eds? Any time spent reading Krugman in search of an informed, liberal economist's point of view is time that could be better spent reading Brad DeLong's blog.
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