Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Conspiracy of Dunces

by Tom Bozzo

Feeling myself in toxic waste removal mode, I thought I'd investigate my claim from a couple posts ago that as long as there is a Donald Luskin, merely being a Pollyanna for the national security state is playing amateur hour. I was not totally disappointed.

The last week of Luskin's conspiracy looked pretty much like rip-and-read links, as well as this item, pertaining to Paul Krugman's August 15 column on the 70th anniversary of the Social Security program, which I reproduce in its entirety.
WILL HE NEVER LEARN? Just getting around to Paul Krugman's Monday column. Seems he's quoting people saying things they never said (again). Power Line has him dead to rights -- I can't improve on this one. And the EU Rota blog catches Krugman in a little arithmetic misunderstanding -- something about percentages.
Of this, only the sentence about Paul Krugman having a column on the 15th is true (and the "just getting around to" part is not provably true, especially considering how Krugman-stalking fits in Luskin's M.O. on the Internets, but that's irrelevant to the discussion). The balance makes up for its lack of complex argument in willfull falsity on both substantive points.

Needless to say, subcontracting one's fact checking to Power Line is a dicey proposition. The blogger now known as just plain old manly John (*) quotes a portion of an op-ed by Social Security Commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart and says:
In Krugman's twisted world, this mild exposition is a tissue of lies, misprepresentations, and abuse of power. Krugman writes:

Last week Jo Anne Barnhart, the commissioner of Social Security, published an op-ed article claiming that Social Security as we know it was designed for a society in which people didn't live long enough to collect a lot of benefits.
But wait! Barnhart didn't say any such thing. Krugman is just making it up! Read Ms. Barnhart's article with care, and see whether you can find any trace of a claim that "Social Security as we know it was designed for a society in which people didn't live long enough to collect a lot of benefits." There is none.
Not wanting myself to be manipulated, I did read Barnhart's op-ed in its entirety. To excerpt the relevant portions (portions in italics NOT quoted by Hinderaker):
[T]he passage of seven decades has brought substantial and unanticipated change, especially to the population the program was created to serve.

The number of older Americans living now is greater than anyone could have imagined in 1935. Then, only 7.5 million people were age 65 or older. Today, approximately 36 million, or roughly one in eight people, are older Americans.

These numbers are going to continue to grow even more rapidly in the coming decades. In less than three years, America's 78 million baby boomers will begin to reach retirement age. By the middle of this century, about one of every five Americans will be 65 or older.

This increase in life expectancy is a wonderful success story for our nation. More and more Americans are working longer and enjoying a lengthy retirement. But increases in life expectancy mean challenges for Social Security.

The Social Security program is largely a pay-as-you-go system -- with today's workers paying for today's beneficiaries. This system has worked well over the years -- especially when there was a relatively large number of workers to support each individual receiving benefits. But today's demographics are working against us. [Emphasis added.]
Barnhart is claiming that increases in life expectancy and the attendant the shift to the present age distribution of the population was "unanticipated" and "mean[s] challenges for Social Security." Far from being caught "dead to rights" putting words in Barnhart's mouth, Krugman is simply noting the isomorphism of Barnhart's exposition and the Republican talking points along the lines that the system supports a lot more long-lived beneficiaries now than it did in the past, or alternatively that it was "designed" to do. So Krugman is correct, unless Social Security's designers managed somehow to incorporate even factors they couldn't anticipate into the design of the system. Hinderaker, meanwhile, reinforces the old saw about the difficulties of getting someone to understand something when they're paid to stay ignorant.

But the claim that the demographic shift was unanticipated is itself totally false, leading to the so-called "arithmetic misunderstanding." Krugman noted that the current one-eighth of the population over age 65 is fractionally less than was estimated — in 1934 — for the year 2000 by FDR's Commission on Economic Security. Given this lemon, both Hinderaker and the author of EU Rota try to make some lemonade over the Commission having underestimated the actual 2000 population by nearly half, leading to this bottom line question on EU Rota:
Could it be that a system designed in 1935 for 19 million people [the number of retirees forecasted in 1934] may be in trouble when the actual number is over 35 million?
In short, no. While there are nearly twice as many retirees as was forecasted in 1934, there are also proportionally more workers to support them. (**) The right question is:
Is it a problem that there are 35 million over-65 seniors instead of the 19 million originally expected, given that it turns out there are 140 million workers to support them instead of the 75 million in the original design?
The bad 1934 forecast of the 2000 population simply introduces an irrelevant scale factor; missing the population composition clearly would have constituted a far more significant error, and once again Krugman has it right.

It's interesting to see both Barnhart and the forces of Wingnuttia clinging to the false implication — uttered by George Bush and Alan Greenspan, at least one of whom should know better — that the declining number of workers per retiree poses a problem for Social Security that it wouldn't also pose for an alternative (privatized) retirement system. Were a privatized system not to keep older workers on some job any longer than the status quo with current-law Social Security, there couldn't be any material improvement in the worker-retiree ratio. What would change a lot would be the nature of the claims retirees would have on the production of those workers, as the large fraction of the population unable to amass significant private savings would get to fend for itself.

Remember, thousands of sites link Power Line, mostly because in the right's reality distortion field, it's considered a reliable source by the site owners; it gets tens of thousands of visits daily. Heck, hundreds of sites link Luskin, most of those not in the "utter stupidity" section of the blogrolls. It can make you wonder, as Drek did here in the Pub Sociology comments, why it's even worth trying to be fair. On that note, I'm off to decontamination.

Addendum: Author GEA3 of EU Rota responds in comments, and I respond to the response.


(*) I know that my son is just plain old manly John, but I doubt he'll be using overcompensating nicknames like Hindrocket (not that there's anything wrong with that) when he grows up.

(**) I couldn't find a corresponding employment forecast, but it's unlikely that 1934 forecasts would have predicted the increase in the employment-population ratio that began in the late 1970s and most recently peaked in Clinton's second term.
Hello MU,

Re-read my post. My post deals with the sleight of hand "reporting" used by Krugman.

The SSA commissioner stated:

"The number of older Americans living now is greater than anyone could have imagined in 1935."

Please note, "number".

Krugman then baits and switches to percentages:

"And the current number of older Americans as a share of the population is just about what the founders of Social Security expected."

Please note, "share".

There is a big difference. 12% of 140m is slightly different than 12% of 280m. My post deals with the "reporting" style of Krugman, bait and switch.

As so often, political arguments are being made to fit economic arguments and vice versa. By all involved, including myself.

Krugman tries to make the SSA commissioner look to be unknowing/stupid by twisting her quote regarding numbers not percentages.

Krugman pulls a Lakoff and "reframes" in order to make his point.
GEA3: Welcome, and thanks for the clarification of the point of your post, but I'm not convinced.

Given a few hundred more words in the column, Krugman no doubt could have filled in that the absolute number of seniors was greatly underestimated, but (my point) it's totally irrelevant because the absolute number of workers was greatly underestimated, too. Given the space constraint of the NYT column, going straight to the result that the Commission accurately estimated the more relevant quantity is not "reframing" but rather elimination of irrelevant detail.

Moreover, neither Luskin nor Hinderaker contradict (nor could they) Krugman's more proximate and clearly correct point that Barnhart's vague if ominous warnings about the unanticipated effects of life expectancy changes are at odds with a FAQ document on the SSA's own web site.
I don't feel any need to defend Luskin, but I will enjoy attacking Krugman. My guess is that Krugman has roughly zero impact on anyone on the right side of the aisle and, therefore, I don't see the need to quibble over Krugman's (or Luskin's) use of SS spin.

If you are going to be a successful OP-ED writer, I would think that you should at least try to persuade someone who disagrees with you. Krugman is the ultimate political hack, and I am continually repulsed by him. I would guess the only people who take Krugman seriously are those that already agree with him (this might be true for Luskin as well). Of course the NYT can do whatever it wants, but if I were running the show, I'd get rid of Krugman and Hebert right away. As it is now, Krugman is almost irrelevant, and when the NYT starts charging to read the OP-EDs, I guess we can remove the "almost" part.
Hello Tom,

I stated my point regarding Krugman's rendering of the facts. We can disagree. Not trying to convince, just bring light to that point.

As it relates to SS in general. I would be very happy not just for partial privatization but a full-fledged opt-out. I want absolutely no part of the ponzi scheme. I would happily pay higher taxes in general, for a specified time, to handle the transition costs.

How is that for clarity??? :-)
Bryan, it may be true that the right is programmed to tune out Krugman, but as a Madison Man of Science, surely you'd want to know why.

A big part of it is that guys like Luskin fashion themselves as "Krugman truth squads" and gin up fake objections to his economics writing that people knowledgeable about economics know and can demonstrate to be bullshit, falsely suggest he's playing fast and loose with the faces (as here! QED!) in other cases, and label him "shrill" when he's expressing anti-Bush political opinions he was (last time I checked) free to express. This is periodically amplified by major right-wing blogs, and here you are attacking Krugman after I've demonstrated he's made no error in the material under discussion. (No errors ever? Surely not, but then none of us are infallible.)

Bottom line is that it's Luskin, Hinderaker, and Barnhart who are the hacks here, where by "hack" I mean someone engaging in willfully misleading discourse for political ends. You may choose to disagree with Krugman, and I won't attempt to stop you with more than reason, but that doesn't make him a hack.

GEA3: I would take issue with the "ponzi scheme" label, but your position on Social Security in general is a model of clarity compared to the major privatization proponents.

I am not programmed to tune out Krugman - it's a position I was able to take because I do read many of his columns on the NYT website (while it's still free). I have also seen him quite a few times on political talk shows, such as my weekly TiVoed Meet the Press. I am not rejecting him w/o ample evidence. I said "I don't see the need to quibble over Krugman's (or Luskin's) use of SS spin" and perhaps I should mention that I don't care if Luskin or Krugman is right in regards to your post. They're both annoying as sh*t. I would put Krugman in the same class as, say, Sean Hannity - opinion guys who push away more people than they persuade. Could Krugman possibly be right about some things? Of course, but will anyone notice?
Ample evidence of what, exactly, beyond disagreeing with you?

As for the point of this post, I think it's clear cut: Krugman accurately points out disingenuous political spin by Social Security Commissioner in support of the Bush Administration privatization agenda, village idiot plus major right-wing blogger lie about it. And you can't be bothered about to care about if, because of patent BS like the Krugman=Hannity equation. No wonder you voted for the creationist.
Sorry to touch a nerve.

I don't know what my vote in the elections has to do with anything.

I don't want to waste the day finding specific examples of Krugman this or Krugman that, so I will withdraw my earlier comments and resign in this debate, except to say that I stand by the generalization that Krugman pushes me away more than he persuades me. And if this is true for most people on the right (who pay any attention at all to PK), then what is the point of his prominent Op-Ed position anyway, except to energize people who already substantially agree with him? Maybe not Hannity, but in the same class. But, you're right, those are my initials!
Bryan: I shoulda put a smiley after "creationist."
You better believe that I'm going to decimate Krugman's next column :).

Is there any evidence as to Kerry's view on creation/evolution? I believe I heard that he thought that both ID and evilution should be taught in public schools, but I might be wrong on that one.

BTW, are you referring to Luskin as the village idiot or someone else? Luskin seems to be at least a reasonably capable person. I don't think you are giving him a fair shake.
A lot of Dems are sadly wishy-washy on ID. I recall Kerry was at best wimpily evasive on the topic -- better than Bush, but not by much. But Dr. Dean has stood up for science.

Note, at that link, McCain may be seen advocating that the controversy [sic] be taught. Remember when I said that there was plenty of time to knock off the '08 Republican field? With Frist in the ID camp too, that's two down.

Luskin is the antecedent of "village idiot." At the peak of his Krugman Truth [sic] Squad activities, I had seen plenty of reason not to take him as a serious commentator, whatever his capabilities might be in theory -- base little distortions like the ones above are not strikes 1 and 2.
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