Audit Notes: Toledo Blade Series, Chait on Pethokoukis, Censorship Inc.

The Toledo Blade is running a very good series on middle class people descending into poverty.

What I like about this particular installment is how the Blade’s Tony Cook takes what for most reporters would be a challenge—finding people to go on the record about their embarrassing circumstances—and turns it into part of the story itself. These are people who are living on the edge and doing all they can to hide it from their neighbors and families, much less the entire metro area. Here’s an example of how that’s threaded into the story:

Although no longer homeless, the Balls are still coping with the shame. It’s a kind of daily internal negotiation with themselves, and each member of their family is handling it differently.

Colleen has decided she’s going public — “I want to change the face of homelessness,” she often says — but Greg and Kelsey are less certain. Both refused initially to allow The Blade to use their names. Then they agreed. Then Greg changed his mind. As a kind of compromise, they decided only to use their first names. Days before publication, they decided at last to use their full names.


The Balls are in many ways the new face of poverty: former homeowners, lifelong workers, educated. They are fallen members of the middle class, people who have weathered past recessions but have not managed to escape the long reach of the Great Recession. They are people unlikely to ask for help, even as their lives crumble.

This new class of the economically disenfranchised is largely invisible.

Over the past few weeks The Blade spoke with dozens of people in circumstances similar to those of the Balls. One of the most common threads is a desire to remain anonymous. The Balls agreed to be interviewed but debated for weeks about whether to allow their names to be used. Others did not want their names used at all, citing embarrassment or the impact it might have on job searches. In some cases, one spouse would agree to an interview while the other — usually the husband — would not.

That’s from the top, which is vividly reported and written, but read the whole thing.

New York’s Jonathan Chait dismantles the American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis in a post headlined, aptly, “Inequality and Bullshit.”

The thing to keep in mind is that Pethokoukis doesn’t directly challenge any of these facts, though he wants his audience to think he does. He cites a bunch of figures that pick away at pieces of the general picture — here is a study showing median income may have grown more than you thought, here’s a report showing family structure helped drive inequality, and so on. His favorite sleight of hand involves citing studies that do not focus on the richest 1 percent pulling away. The gap between the top 1 percent and everybody else is the most dramatic change, and it’s also the hardest to capture, since it involves a small subset of the population. (Indeed, the idea that the income of the top 1 percent is an important economic phenomenon is itself new, and older measures of inequality aren’t really designed to capture it.) So Pethokoukis just cites figure after figure that don’t measure the 1 percent against everybody else…

Bullshitting, not lying, is the natural metier of denialists of all forms. Pethokoukis compares the debate over inequality to the debate over climate change, by which he means that liberals are using false claims of expert consensus to stifle a very open question. I agree that it’s like climate change, but in a different way — a broad consensus exists among experts, but there are different ways of measuring it, which produce different perspectives on the shape of the phenomenon.

Because the consensus bolsters the case for policy changes that conservatives don’t like, the movement expends vast resources attempting, with general success, to persuade its adherents that the whole thing is a lie cooked up by liberals. Pethokoukis is executing the dance steps perfectly. First he calls inequality a myth, then — when his primary source contradicts him — he retreats to calling it “overblown,” then returns to calling it a “myth” again. All along he pleads that he merely wants open dialogue, that it’s the liberals who are trying to stigmatize dissent and suppress open debate. The only purpose of the exercise is to muddy the debate enough to allow conservatives to avoid coming to grips with ideologically inconvenient facts.

Chait’s last sentence here is what I tried to get at in the top of this post fisking Pethokoukis.

— Bloomberg’s Ben Elgin, Vernon Silver and Alan Katz have a terrific report showing how Iran has stepped up its technological surveillance in the last two years with the aid of European companies, including major ones like Sweden’s Ericsson and U.S.-financed ones like Ireland’s AdaptiveMobile Security.

It’s great to see other news organizations investigating what The Wall Street Journal calls Censorship Inc., its important series on how Western businesses enable and profit from state repression.

Here’s a snippet where Bloomberg finds an Iranian Ericsson employee who may have been a victim of its technology:

Fahimi, who fled to Turkey after receiving a two-year prison sentence for his role in the protests, can’t be sure that Ericsson technology aided his interrogators, but he is familiar with the capabilities of these types of systems.

“I worked on the technology and I was a victim of the technology, as well,” Fahimi says.

He has no problem with legitimate monitoring that has court authorization. That isn’t the case in Iran, he says.

“They can monitor whoever they want, for their purposes, not for the benefit of society and people.”

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,