Politics & Policy

The Worst Economics Writer

The Associated Press’s beat journalist falls for old myths and fallacies.

Ask a conservative who is the worst and most destructive writer on the subject of economics, and the answer is bound to be Paul Krugman, which I suspect is very good for his ego. But with all due respect to Professor Krugman, I’d like to suggest that he is nowhere near as destructive a force in our public discourse as is Martin Crutsinger.

Mr. Crutsinger is not a celebrity on the order of Professor Krugman, and he has no Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences to recommend him. What he is is the principal economics reporter for the Associated Press, a position he has held for a very long time. That gives him a reach and influence that Professor Krugman can only envy. Anybody who is paying attention knows what he is getting when he takes up a Paul Krugman column, but the men and women who produce the endless sludge of dreary grey copy of the Associated Press are largely unknown to the general public, and what they write is not, in the minds of most readers, tendentious commentary — it is simply “the news.”

Crutsinger’s name first entered my consciousness sometime during the late Paleolithic era when I was editing wire copy at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal and was struck by his combination of faulty reasoning and Clinton cheerleading. His work has not improved over the years. There is a good deal of liberal bias in the newspapers of even our most conservative cities (Lubbock’s member of the House, Representative Randy Neugebauer, is proud to have been named the most conservative congressman by National Journal in 2011), and the Associated Press is the main conduit of that liberalism. But Crutsinger’s main offense, beyond his unbearable prose, is not his sneaking sympathy for Democrats, but his shallowness.

Take today’s report on the Commerce Department’s revision of the economic-growth rate in the final quarter of 2012, raising its estimate from basically nothing (0.1 percent) to might-as-well-be-nothing (0.4 percent). Early estimates had been even worse, calculating a small contraction in the economy. Throughout the piece, Crutsinger cites cuts in government spending as a drag on the economy and expresses hope that consumer spending will help to goose growth.

Crutsinger’s report today is not particularly biased, but it does traffic in the sort of mythology that tends to reinforce the liberal economic narrative. Take the relationship between government spending and GDP. You will be hard-pressed to find an Associated Press report acknowledging the fact that government spending is accounted for at cost when calculating GDP. What that means is that $1 spent by the government on purchases, salaries, services, and the like (but excluding entitlement transfer payments) shows up at $1 in GDP, regardless of whether that $1 was put to some productive use.

For example, if the federal government should spend $200 billion on old newspapers, and then pay me $100 billion to set them on fire on the National Mall, that would add $300 billion to GDP, equivalent to adding the entire economic output of Venezuela to the U.S. economy in exchange for a lot of charred AP copy. So writing that an increase in government spending boosts GDP is the equivalent of writing that an increase in government spending boosts government spending. That this is a tautology — if we increase the things we measure, the things we measure will increase — seems never to have occurred to the ladies and gentlemen of the Associated Press economics desk, even though criticism of conventional GDP measurement is common both among conservatives and among more progressive economists, such as Joseph Stiglitz.

One cannot blame the AP too much for parroting conventional wisdom, though one can blame Crutsinger for writing, as he does today: “Consumer spending drives 70 percent of economic activity.” He writes that sentence fairly often; I suspect he has a shortcut key for it. Like GDP, the category of “consumer spending” contains a lot of government spending; for instance, Medicare and Medicaid both are lumped into the “consumer spending” category, though they have little or nothing to do with the choices consumers make. (See “70 Percent: The Myth of Consumer Spending.”) Actual consumer spending constitutes something closer to 40 percent of U.S. economic activity, but that 70 percent myth shows up all over the place.

Or consider this report from January 4, 2006, in which Crutsinger writes: “Construction spending hit an all-time high in November as government spending to build schools, highways and sewer systems offset a slight dip in home building.” Reading that sentence, you would think that this is an obvious case of a public-sector expansion offsetting a private-sector contraction, but you would be mistaken. As Newsbusters pointed out at the time, Crutsinger got several things wrong: The data showed that 75 percent of the spending decline happened in the public sector (as money spent building and repairing public housing declined) while 78 percent of the increase happened in the private sector (in non-residential construction and construction of non-owner-occupied housing).

Crutsinger’s desire to tell a success story about President Obama’s economic policies is evident in sentences such as this one from March 8: “The American job market isn’t just growing. It’s accelerating.” But the hiring numbers in what he called a “four-month hiring spree” were: 247,000, 229,000, 119,000, and 236,000, respectively. So during that four-month period, there was no acceleration — hiring was fairly steady, with one month weaker than the others. Of course, Crutsinger argues, the numbers would have been better if the government were hiring more people.

The final product is an AP-distributed political worldview that government spending is always good for the economy, good for employment, good for construction, etc., with little or no contemplation of the possibility that government spending may be one of our more significant economic problems. That government spending may be out of control is a possibility that has occurred to many Americans, but not to the economics desk of the Associated Press.

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent. His newest bookThe End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesomewill be published in May.

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