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Prove It or Correct It
It's time for the Times to weigh in on its error-prone economist.


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Donald L. Luskin

I hereby issue a public challenge to the New York Times.

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When is the “newspaper of record” going to run a correction of Paul Krugman’s egregious mathematical error in which he claimed, in his August 1 column, that growth in real per capita California state spending from $1,950 in 1990 to $2,211 in 2003 was “only 10%,” when anyone with a pocket calculator can tell that it is really 13.4 percent? And when will it correct Krugman’s flatly deceptive claim that this growth “was simply a matter of keeping up with the population and inflation,” when calculations of real per capita growth, by definition, already take those factors into account?

I challenge the Times either to demonstrate that Krugman’s calculation and his characterization are accurate, or to correct his errors. For a Princeton economics professor, this should be a simple matter to straighten out with the editors.

And when is the “newspaper of record” going to run a correction retracting the embarrassing quotation that Krugman attributed to the Bush administration’s Treasury Department in his August 5 column, but which no one in the Bush administration or the Treasury Department ever actually said? Krugman wrote that Treasury provided NBC’s Tim Russert with statistics on the effects of repealing the Bush tax cuts on six example families. Krugman mocked the Treasury for claiming an “example of a ‘lower income’ elderly household was one receiving $2,000 a year in dividend income.” I have seen the documents that Treasury provided to Russert, and neither they nor similar documents published in January used the expression “lower income” in relation to this example household (nor to any other). More, Russert never even said it.

I challenge the Times either to show where the administration said “lower income,” or to retract this invented quotation. Surely disclosing the source of the quote should be a simple matter for the Times, as no doubt — in a post-Jayson Blair world — all quotations are fact-checked before publication.

If the source cannot be produced, then Krugman himself would have to retract the invented quotation, too — because he repeated it Saturday in a posting on his personal website. The posting was Krugman’s response to a stinging rebuttal published in the letters section of the Times that same day. The letter was from Andrew B. Lyon, the Treasury’s former deputy assistant secretary for tax analysis, whose staff prepared the examples for Russert. (By the way, Krugman Truth Squad member Robert Musil wrote a good deconstruction of Krugman’s rebuttal-of-the-rebuttal on his Man Without Qualities blog.)

Based on past experience, it’s a safe bet that both the Times and Krugman will ignore these challenges, and there will be no corrections or retractions. The editorial pages still report directly to publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. — as they always have — so the change from Howell Raines to Bill Keller as executive editor of the rest of the paper can’t be expected to raise standards of integrity on the editorial pages. And publishing that letter from Lyon is no evidence of improvement. As I noted on my blog, The Conspiracy to Keep You Poor and Stupid, the full version of Lyon’s letter on Krugman’s site has a lot more teeth in it than the sanitized version the Times actually published. No, Krugman probably isn’t aware the versions are different.

So what will happen now? At most, Krugman will post a lame self-defense on his website. He’ll come up with some econobabble to wave away the “only 10%” spending growth that is really 13.4 percent. And maybe he’ll claim that those quotation marks around “lower income” were just a gag — like in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, when Dr. Evil and Mini-Me pantomimed quotation marks around words like “laser” and “liquid hot magma.” Hey … maybe I’m onto something. The diminutive Krugman is an awful lot like Mini-Me. As Dr. Evil himself said, “He’s evil, he wants to take over the world, and he fits easily into most overhead storage bins.”

Now, let the Krugman Truth Squad briefly train its fire on Krugman’s most recent column for the New York Times — the one from Friday in which he said (let me try to put this into just sixteen words): “Salon.com has learned Bush is being bribed by the energy industry to delay on global warming.” Is there an imminent threat? But of course: “… the fate of past civilizations that destroyed their environments, and hence themselves.”

That’s right. The central point of his column is just a rehash of an article in Salon.com. The article asserted that the case for the threat of global warming is open-and-shut, and that anyone who questions it has been corrupted. As Krugman summarized it, any

appearance of uncertainty is “manufactured.” Very few independent experts now dispute that manmade global warming is happening, and represents a serious threat. Almost all the skeptics are directly or indirectly on the payroll of the oil, coal and auto industries.

It never seems to occur to this Princeton professor who does his scientific research on Salon.com that the oil, coal, and auto industries have an entirely legitimate interest in being skeptical about something that threatens them. But Krugman quite literally doesn’t care. His solution is — you guessed it! — to slap new taxes on industries that contribute to global warming. (As determined by whom? Salon.com?) He proposed his tax solution in a 1997 article for Slate, and while admitting that it would probably reduce GDP, he shrugged, “But so what?”

But maybe we can work with this. As Robert Musil pointed out, Krugman seems to have adopted a new policy of accepting ideas that “very few independent experts now dispute.” Musil wondered whether this will apply to the economy?

Krugman has insisted that the economy is not recovering, thanks to Bush’s tax cuts and Alan Greenspan’s “destructive outbreak of optimism.” Now that the Wall Street Journal reported that an “overwhelming 92% of economists … believe the rise in profits will prompt companies to boost capital spending and investment” and Krugman’s own New York Times reported that the “spring upturn has nearly every forecaster, even the pessimists among them, signing on to the proposition that the national economy is finally breaking out,” won’t Krugman have to admit that the Bush economic program is working?



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