Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? Economist Edition: Denial Is Not Just a River in Egypt...
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Intellectual Garbage Cleanup (Joe Klein Edition)

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps? Joe Klein writes:

Op-Ed Pages and Lying: Several years ago, the first New York Times ombudsman, Dan Okrent, created a stir by pointing out factual errors in the columns of Paul Krugman...

This is a piece of intellectual garbage blowing past in front of my nose. I will pick it up.

It is true that Danny Okrent shot his reputation in the head in his final column by claiming that:

13 Things I Meant to Write About but Never Did: Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers.... I didn't give Krugman... the chance to respond before writing the last two paragraphs. I decided to impersonate an opinion columnist...

and then proving unable to back it up. Indeed, in his book Okrent wrote:

On my way out the door, Krugman and I went at each other.... I'm willing to grant that Krugman (and the legions of supporters arrayed behind him) may have gotten the best of me on a few specifics; I was never better than a B student in economics...

and in fact explicitly denied Joe Klein's characterization:

[I] did not say that [Paul Krugman] lied, or that he made numbers up, or even that he was inaccurate...

As Paul Krugman wrote at the time:

Paul Krugman-Daniel Okrent Debate: Mr. Okrent’s claim that I engaged in “blending, without explanation, numbers from the household survey and the establishment survey.... Some people play games by mixing and matching numbers from the two surveys, and Mr. Okrent has apparently spent the past year firmly believing (without having checked with me) that I did the same.... But I didn’t. All the numbers in my 5/25/04 column came from the establishment survey. Moreover, I not only played fair with my readers, I urged them to check....

In correspondence with Mr. Okrent, I pointed out that his specific attacks — especially the blatantly wrong characterization of my 5/25/04 column — were unfair. I asked him to do what he would have expected me to do, and admit that he had been in error. He refused. Let me repeat that Mr. Okrent never raised these issues as public editor. He now says that he didn’t because he “experienced your best-defense-is-a-good-offense approach, and found it futile to deal with it”...

Okrent at the time replied:

Daniel Okrent: For a man who makes his living offering strong opinions, Paul Krugman seems peculiarly reluctant to grant the same privilege to others. And for a man who leads with his chin twice a week, he acts awfully surprised when someone takes a pop at it.... I laid off for so long because I also believe that columnists are entitled by their mandate to engage in the unfair use of statistics, the misleading representation of opposing positions, and the conscious withholding of contrary data.... The mixing of household and establishment numbers in his 5/25/04 column: Missing from the BLS chart he cites is any number that even resembles the 140,000 new jobs each month needed to keep up with the growing population a statistic he cites in the column, and upon which he seems to have based some of his computations. To my knowledge, that number only appeared in the household survey...

Which left all of us at the time bemused because the "140,000" number appears neither in the household survey nor in the establishment survey: it is a rule of thumb used to relate the two.

And what do I find this morning but a graph from Calculated Risk on the relationship between the household survey measure of unemployment and the establishment survey measure of employment, this:

UnemploymentNetJobsQuarterly.jpg (image)

See that point where the dotted line crosses the x-axis at a quarterly change in net jobs of 0.33%? That's a one-month growth in net jobs of 0.11%. Payroll employment is now 131 million. 0.11% of 131 million is 144,000--that is Paul's 140,000 number. Paul's was not an attempt to take some numbers from one survey and some from another to make a political position look good, but rather to do the reverse: to combine the numbers from two different surveys in a consistent and coherent way.

So why spend time on ancient history? Well, just because the Calculated Risk graph floated up in one window while the Joe Klein column floated up in another. And my mother taught me that when a piece of garbage blows by in front of your nose, you pick it up and put it in the trash can.

And, yes, I did give Joe Klein an opportunity to correct before writing this.

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