Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal thinks President Obama and America have what he calls an “envy problem.” In a recent column the Pulitzer Prize winning commentator, following a speech by the President regarding inequality, attempted convince his readers that there was no inequality problem in the country and that overall everyone is doing better than they were in previous eras. Unfortunately for Stephens, his poor use and misreading of available data has now seemed to result in his own sort of problem. Namely, a Krugman problem.
Thursday, the Nobel Prize winning economist (probably a better source for economic data than a Pulitzer prize winning commentator,) while penning an op-ed for his regular NYTimes blog, destroyed Stephen’s assertions while chiding him openly for his poor research and fundamental misinterpretation of basic data. Citing the work of fellow economist Miles Kimball, Krugman takes Stephens to task first for his complete disregard for economic inflation when presenting nominal figures from recent census data, which if looked at in the skewed and lazy manner of the Wall Street Journal, could lead one to believe incomes have gone universally up.
But beyond what he called the “unforgivable sin,” of Stephens’ data omission and misinterpretation in regards to his census data research, Krugman goes on to slam the WSJ columnist for his apparent commentator contortion act, where he bends over backwards and fits himself through a tennis racket in an attempt to claim that it has been the top 20%, not merely the top 10% who have seen the greatest income gains over the past decades and that for the rest of America, wages have largely improved as well.
So perhaps indeed, while at a cursory glance without any additional information or understanding about economic development, and with a total and willful disregard for general inflation, what looks on paper to be on average a 186% increase in middle class household incomes since 1979, may give one the impression that things are on the up and up for everyone. But again…this only works if inflation is ignored…which it was…routinely…to the point where one is forced to wonder if it was done so purposefully.
Krugman argues that if these same figures Stephens has taken, can be held up in the light of economic realities, such as inflation, that what one finds is that for the bottom 20% of the income food chain have actually experienced a 3% decline in household incomes since 1979, with the top 20% experiencing a 43% rise and the top 5% enjoying a robust 64% increase in their incomes. Again, plain as day and perhaps requiring some willful ignorance on the part of those arguing that inequality doesn’t exist.
Though stunning to find a Pulitzer prize winner either misrepresenting or simply failing to understand such data, it can hardly be surprising. Last month, Forbes columnist John Tamny became the focus of populist ire when he, in a display of monumental ignorance, decried the federal nutrition assistance program “SNAP,” ineffective and cruel, stating that he believed hunger was a myth in the United States. Similarly, Scott Winship, who is presently advising classist congressional gym-rat Paul Ryan on issues related to poverty and inequality, recently said during a PBS interview that he doesn’t believe inequality is a matter to be concerned with.
The trend of conservative, wealth obsessed columnists and commentators attempting to downplay the growing inequality throughout the nation is a rather telling sign of the times we live in. So vested in their ideologies and philosophies about the virtue of wealth, many of within the top 10% of income earners and especially those in the public eye who jump through endless hoops to defend their generally unfair hoarding of wealth, seem dedicated to either ignoring or fudging data which threatens what could be described as their “just world theory.”
Regardless of their ignorance however, Americans are lucky to still have wonky watchdogs like Krugman, to call the charlatans out on their charades. For the reality of income inequality, despite the hopes of this new American oligarchy, continues to develop as a central issue in the minds of voters. And as we collectively march forward into an uncertain future, its safe to say that especially in the realms of data and honest analysis, the stakes have never been higher.