First, this number represents the aggregate wages of all workers and therefore does not account for the top-heavy distribution that the Northwestern professors found in their study. And second, as an August 28 Times article noted, wages and salaries made up nearly five percent less of the GDP in the first quarter of 2006 than in 2001, rendering Brooks’ contention that they have “made up roughly the same share of the GDP for 50 years” patently false.
But what are facts and intellectual honesty when you can tug reader heartstrings with doleful rhetoric about obvious, but utterly immaterial problems like broken families?
Brooks got himself into more trouble when he cited the work of Harvard economist Lawrence Katz in support of his assertion that “the meritocracy is working almost too well” by “rewarding people based on individual talents.” Ezra Klein of the American Prospect asked Katz what he thought of Brooks deploying his theories to the political battlefield.
“There are,” Katz told Klein, “clear market forces that have to do with the demand for talented individuals, but the current period is not that different from the past for that type of thing. In the past, however, we’ve done a very good job expanding access to education to keep up with growth, providing bargaining power to those left behind, and using government policy to help them. What’s changed in the last twenty years is that we’ve eroded those ameliorating institutions.”
Katz also said that he didn’t “have anything to do with the ‘spin’” Brooks put on his ideas. He even expressed support for the “populist” solutions — unions, higher taxes for the wealthy, wage subsidies — that Brooks deplores.
The left-wing Krugman, while not as flagrant as Brooks, coats his column with a similar sort of partisan slipperiness. While he criticizes “conservative commentators [who] tell us about wage gains for one-eyed bearded men with 2.5 years of college of whatever — and conveniently forget to adjust for inflation” he chooses somewhat specific data himself, suggesting that there has been a decrease between 2000 and 2005 of incomes for a “typical household headed by a college graduate.” Krugman doesn’t tell us where he got this statistic, and he fails to define “typical,” so we are left to guess who exactly these desperate college graduates might be.
Columnists are, by definition, in the business of presenting opinions, and they must do so with limited amounts of space. But they do their readers a disservice when they make broad generalizations and cherry pick numbers to support their political perspectives. When tackling an issue as complex and statistically rich as income inequality, op-ed writers ought to be held to the same standards of accuracy as their front-page counterparts.
If that seems too much to ask, run for office.
In our original post, we said that Krugman’s statistic was not “widely published.” We had looked for the statistic in the Detailed Income Tabulations section of the Census Bureau website. It is not listed there but is in fact listed in the Historical Income Data section. We regret the error, and the text has been corrected.
Update, 01/30/12: This article was originally credited to Bree Nordenson.