Crowd Sourcing Snark: New York Times Economics Fail

The Great Grey Lady (No Longer) of 43rd St. is just trolling us.  After today’s piece, “Hey! Look! Destitution Is Not So Bad,“they’ve given great prominence to this piece by Adam Davidson of Planet Money, somberly explaining why no one, not the government, nor business, can create jobs in a depression.

It’s a particularly irksome read, given that I’ve enjoyed Planet Money, and now must no longer to take anything said there as valid without double or triple checking.  Davidson’s writing is the worst kind of lazy journalism — breezy, unsourced assertions that hide vast unsupported generalizations to pave the way for a prebaked conclusion.  Exhibit A:

The most popular types of jobs programs involve state tax breaks or subsidies that seek to seduce a company from one state to another. While this can mean good news for “business-friendly” states like Texas, such policies don’t add to overall employment so much as they just shuffle jobs around. This helps explain Rick Perry’s claim that more than one million jobs were created under his watch in Texas while the rest of the country lost more than two million.

The federal government does something similar when it decides, for instance, to regulate oil drillers and subsidize windmill makers. Such a policy might help the environment but it just moves jobs from one sector to another without adding any.

This crowd can catch the fail there without my help, I think…though I’d start with the notion that when there are specific jobs bills before Congress, terming state by state races to the bottom “popular types of jobs programs” is heroic misdirection.  But there’s more:

With no new theories, Democrats dusted off the big idea from the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes’s view that government can create jobs by spending a lot of money.

Yumping Yiminy!  I don’t know where to begin, except to suggest Mr. Davidson read an actual Nobel laureate economist who writes for the same paper in which this parody of a thought appears.  He might learn from Paul Krugman that Keynsian ideas have not lain frozen in amber since 1933, and that there is an enormous amount of actual empirical knowledge about neo-Keynsian claims — data that contradicts the paean to Chicago-school economics that follows.

It gets worse, much worse, but actually fisking this is as it deserves would take hours and some actual research and reporting to do properly.

The real burr in my nether regions is that this is exactly the kind of work  Davidson seems to foregone.  There is literally not one single quote from an actual human being, living or dead.  There are no cites of either data or research.  There are plenty of broad, confident, fallacious claims, but nothing resembling actual intellection, nor journalism, anywhere in this piece.

Which, I guess, is what makes this a type specimen of Village received wisdom — wrong, and damaging, and one more cut to bleed dry any hope of civic discourse — but nothing out of the ordinary for all of that. But it is so damn brazen in its failure of the craft I’ve spent a lot of effort trying to master, and which I try to persuade my students to respect.

If any of you night owls want to document your own favorite travesties to be found therein, I’d be glad to learn.  I’m also hoping other, more authoritative econbloggers have a whack at it too (Brad Delong? Whaddayasay?).

Have fun.  I’ll check back after some hours of the dreamless…

Image:  Vincent van Gogh, Street Scene in Montmartre,  1887

47 replies
  1. 1
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    I shall now beat my head against a wall to make the pain go away.

  2. 2
    Fluffy says:

    This was a beautiful description of the Village elite’s mendacity, and smugness.

  3. 3
    sven says:

    “And President Obama’s jettisoned $400 billion jobs package”

    Nice verb.

  4. 4
    Calouste says:

    Are you sure that it is a real article and not an essay send in as part of an application for David Brooks’ role that accidentally made it’s way into print?

  5. 5
    andrewsomething says:

    Ugg… I too have mostly enjoyed Planet Money up until now. Though that might just be because anything is better than the horrid Marketplace.

  6. 6
    Cacti says:

    There are plenty of broad, confident, fallacious claims, but nothing resembling actual intellection, nor journalism, anywhere in this piece.

    “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong.”

    -H.L. Mencken

  7. 7
    Jenny says:

    I surprised this didn’t get more attention.

    Romney is so desperate for winger support he proposed ending Medicare today.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/s.....=142010158

  8. 8
    patroclus says:

    It’s not just that there are no studies, data, quotes or research offered by Mr. Davidson, it’s that he doesn’t even bother to mention the actual plans proposed by politicians (like Obama) to create the conditions for job growth. Reading this article, one would never even learn that the President (and others) have proposed specific ideas and that they were divided into sub-ideas and were recently debated and rejected by the U.S. Senate. And they aren’t just “spending money” as he asserts. There’s a schools component, a roads piece, an unemployment insurance part, bridges, railways and a payroll tax reduction, as any google search should reveal.

    A real economist attempting to “demystify” economic policy and analysis, it seems to me, would at least mention the actual plans that are actually being debated and voted on at some point. And an analysis of each specific component part of the plans and the specific claims regarding job growth compared to similar plans implemented in the past regarding job growth would be helpful as well. Davidson did none of this.

    Moreover, there are many more schools of economic thought than Keynesianism and the “Chicago school.” And neither of them can be caricatured so simplistically as Davidson does – when one really studies them and their champions, they each break down into sub-specialties, with differing nuances and emphasis, and they share much in common and are not so diametrically counterpoised against one another.

    The gist of the article seems to be that economics is really simple and that the first simple thing you have to learn is that government policy is meaningless. This is complete and utter nonsense.

  9. 9
    sophronia says:

    Starting this week, I’ll be writing a regular column in the magazine that tries to demystify complicated economic issues

    *sob*

  10. 10
    some guy says:

    @Jenny: your bon mot in Kaplan Today,

    “And Mitt Romney unveiled a spending and entitlement plan that made Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) kvell. Which of these will have the most impact on the 2012 presidential race?”

    was teh awesome. brava!

    subsidize windmill makers
    new band name.

  11. 11
    Cacti says:

    @Jenny:

    Romney is so desperate for winger support he proposed ending Medicare today.

    And privatizing Social Security.

    Paul Ryan loves it. Talk about a kiss of death.

  12. 12
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Cacti:

    Paul Ryan loves it. Talk about a kiss of death.

    One hopes. The man is an embarrassment to the state of Wisconsin and to the fraternity to which we both belong. Fucking douchebag (understanding that douchebags have a function while Paul Ryan does not.)

  13. 13
    some guy says:

    @Cacti: @Cacti:

    Inequality Blur Regime

    K-Thug was just talking today about all the propagandists out in force today to illegitimize the “so-called data” about massive economic disparity and inequality. so yes, let’s celebrate Mittster’s clarion call to make Paul Ryan kvell by stealing his plan to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted.

    not to worry, jenny rubin is on the job, bringing the importance of Mitt and his Pronouncements to our prompt attention.

  14. 14
    sven says:

    @patroclus: Exactly. Once it has been stated that ‘both sides are wrong’ the article basically endorses every conservative claim about the current economic climate. The entire second page is just a recapitulation of structural arguments for unemployment.

    This quote is particularly wrong headed:

    “(Both sides agree)…Jobs, in other words, are not the cause of a healthy economy; they’re the byproduct.”

    Wrong.
    Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.
    This is exactly the point of contention. I would use this metaphor.

    Imagine if your couple’s counselor said this to you:

    “Your marriage is basically sick, once it is healthy again, your spouse will stop abusing you.”

    A Keynesian doesn’t see the economy and unemployment as separate problems. You can’t fix one without the other.
    He’s using imaginary agreement to covertly endorse the conservative perspective.

  15. 15
    some guy says:

    were people confused somehow that Planet Money was all about the 0.1% and their interests?

  16. 16

    So I’m thinking while I’m reading this, wasn’t it Adam Davidson who was so appallingly rude and hostile to Elizabeth Warren when she was on Planet Money?

    Er, yep.

    I listen to Planet Money like I read Sully. I get a lot of good stuff out of it, but sometimes I just want to throw things in their direction.

    But the interview with Warren was something else entirely. Not just the usual sins of false equivalence, overdone deference to Chicago econ profs, etc. That interview was just downright nasty. I’ve never heard anything like it before or since on PM. I was literally shocked.

    As were a lot of other listeners judging by the pushback. So much outrage from listeners they had to address it on another show, but Davidson of course did the usual non-apology apology, insisted he was just doing “tough journalism.” Or some such BS. Totally clueless and unselfaware. Or just another damn villager.

    (I guess really there’s no need for the “or” in the last sentence now that I think about it.)

  17. 17
    some guy says:

    “I was vomiting and had diarrhoea,” Sabehgi said. “I just lay there in pain for hours.”

    Sabehgi’s bail was posted in the mid-afternoon, but he said he was unable to leave his cell because of the pain. The cell door was closed, and he remained on the floor until 6pm, when an ambulance was called.

    He was taken to Highland hospital – the same hospital where Olsen was originally taken after being hit in the head by a projectile apparently fired by police.

    Sabehgi was due to undergo surgery on Friday afternoon to repair his spleen, which would involve using a clot or patch to prevent internal bleeding.

  18. 18

    Keynesian economics has certainly not been frozen in amber since 1933, since “The General Theory of Employment,Interest and Money” was published in 1936.

    However, I’m not so sure that new Keynesian economists have added to Keynes. Actually they have more nearly slavishly followed Chapter 19 Appendix “on Prof. Pigou’s Theory of Unemployment” in which Keynes explains his teacher Francis Pigou’s theory of unemployment. Keynes goes on to explain how his theory differs and why he doesn’t find Pigou’s theory convincing anymore.

    I absolutely promise you that a whole lot of “new” Keynesian economics is identical to the model Keynes critiqued and more accurately called pre-Keynesian economics.

    Basically the best way for a young economist to find a good topic in macroeconomics is to read “The General Theory …” and math up one of the many brilliant insights which has been forgotten. At least that’s what my macro prof taught me. He is an ultra hard line new Keynesian named N Gregory Mankiw.

    On the main point you are right. The evidence for Keynesian effects of public spending remains overwhelmingly strong. So much so that the anti;Keynesians decided that hypothesis testing was not a good way to do social science as there hypotheses kept losing to Keynesian hypotheses (this claim is due to Nobel Laureate Thomas Sargent).

    On the specific claim that the ARRA caused increased employment, all economists who are paid to get it right agree that it did (including the one who worked for the McCain campaign). So does Douglas Holtz Eakin (leading Republican). So do all of the research departments of the big bad banks (but I repeat myself). Denying Keynes is not like denying global warming. There isn’t a consensus in the economics profession. But the desperate hatred of data of the anti Keynesians is just like that of global warming deniers (they are just working at top economics departments).

    You might ask me what title I have to write about Keynes. The answer is in your post “Brad DeLong.” He has authorized me to write on his blog on “What Keynes has to say about the current crisis” and gave me the password. Not to drop names or anything.

  19. 19
    Suffern ACE says:

    @sophronia: I am not a fan of Planet Money. The fake everyman “I’m so confused by this…let’s ask an expert” goofeyness. I thought it was fake first, but I soon figured out that, no they really don’t understand what they are talking about. And it’s their job to do that. And after all these years, they should know something. The hosts never seemed to have learned a damn thing about the economy. At least Tom Keene appears to have read the book of the person he’s interviewed and have a basic grasp of the issues.

  20. 20
    William Hurley says:

    Planet Money’s been pretty useless for a while now. The much touted “Big Pile of Money” primer on the housing and financial bubbles was a triumph of style over substance.

    Then there’s Marketplace. Marketplace went from bad to worse once McCardle joined The Atlantic and fulfilled her obligatory role as one of the program’s rotating econ “specialist” from the magazine. Though it may require a minor violation of the laws of physics, it’s very possible that McCardle is dumber than Amity Shlaes or, given standard physics, McCardle/Shlaes is Palin/Bachmann redux.

  21. 21
    sven says:

    @Robert Waldmann: The input of an expert is obviously appreciated. My question is always why do journalists cover Keynesian economics so poorly. It isn’t just a matter of technical details. They often have basic descriptions completely wrong. Do you think they are using poorly informed sources or are they just going off some sort of conventional wisdom?

  22. 22
    Hill Dweller says:

    @sven: A lot of reporters are stupid.

  23. 23
    mick says:

    adam davidson is, has been and always will be a complete tool. listen to him harass and hector elizabeth warren for a full hour here:

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/money.....rview.html

    would you not love to hear gingrich, bloomberg, some republican held to that level of interrogation? i would. but it ain’t ever gonna happen on adam davidson’s planet shill.

  24. 24
    Patrick Phelan says:

    …Okay, not so much “correct me if I’m wrong”, but “tell me where I’m wrong”. But apparently the right answer to:

    With no new theories, Democrats dusted off the big idea from the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes’s view that government can create jobs by spending a lot of money.

    …is, essentially, “um, we didn’t bronze Keynesianism after Keynes died; it’s still new and vital and all that”. But that’s not the answer I got. The answer I got was, “Well, did it, or did it not, totally fuckin’ work?” I mean, is the value of an idea in its novelty, or in the fact that it totally fuckin’ works? I wouldn’t mind applying the economic solutions of Ug, First Man In Tribe To Kill Mammoth, if it – again – totally fuckin’ worked.

  25. 25

    @sven:

    It isn’t poorly informed sources. It’s well informed sources with agendas. Rather than invest time and effort, the reporters simply repackage and repeat what some well connected person reveals as the inside stuff. The reporter’s goal, after all, is not to inform the public, but to promote his own career. You don’t get the good jobs by going against the big shots.

  26. 26
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Robert Waldmann: Thanks for the comment. So now use your powers for good and write a “what Keynes said” post over at the sage of Berkeley’s place. Or poke Brad to do it.

  27. 27
    Mark S. says:

    I thought Romney would be smarter than to embrace Vouchercare. I guess next week he’ll call Social Security a ponzi scheme. If he’s still needing some teabaggin’ love, there’s always the gold standard.

  28. 28
    gnomedad says:

    “That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say ‘I did look it up, and that’s not true.’ That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book. Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works.” – Stephen Colbert

  29. 29
    Ben Wolf says:

    The school of thought most accurately reflecting Keynesian theory while building a solid, empirical and non-ideological foundation is MMT. The basics can be found here:

    http://pragcap.com/resources/u.....ary-system

    Fair warning, it turns most of what we think we know about our economy on its head, so set aside some serious thinking time.

  30. 30
    TheF79 says:

    There are some pretty lazy comparisons and poor descriptions in here, though I was happy to see this bit about growth through austerity:

    The U.K., as part of its austerity measures, is in the process of firing about a half-million government workers under the notion that the private sector would be so thrilled by low taxes and less regulation that it will expand and snatch up all those laid-off public servants. But this plainly isn’t happening. The British economy continues to grow slowly, if at all, and few former government workers have found new jobs in the private sector.

    If this article is a bellweather for the conventional wisdom of the punditocracy, then perhaps there’s some hope. We might not get the aggregate demand stimulus we need, but at least we won’t get ANTI-stimulus from slashing government spending.

  31. 31
    patroclus says:

    I looked up Mr. Davidson’s bio and I think I now understand where he is coming from. His sole degree is a B.A. from, you guessed it, the University of Chicago. Not that there is anything wrong with that, necessarily, but it does explain the over-emphasis on the “Chicago school” and the antipathy for Keynesianism. I suspect that Mr. Davidson’s sole intellectual economics training came from a beginning level macro course at the U of C. He might have taken a micro course too, but probably not much else.

    The “Chicago school,” of course, is term developed in the 1950’s to apply to several economists then teaching in Hyde Park who disagreed with some aspects of the then-prevailing Keynesianism. It wasn’t even monolithic back then, but since then, it has spawned numerous different oft-competing economic theories; including, among many others, monetarism, rational expectations, business cycle theory and neo-classicism, all of which differ on the varying degrees of efficaciousness of various types of governmental policies. Put simply, Gary Becker, Richard Posner, Milton Friedman, Frank Easterbrook, George Stigler and many others believe different things and have written about different subjects; often taking different positions. For example, Friedman believes that governmental monetary policy certainly has an effect on the aggregate economy and Posner, at least recently, has taken a much more eclectic view about all aspects of governmental policy. These days, it is a fallacy to caricature/lump them all together in one “school” – if a first-year macroeconomics student attempted to do that in a test or paper (without discussing the differences of the competing sub-schools), the student would not earn a very good grade.

    Why, then, is Davidson allowed to do that in the NYT and on NPR? The UC economics professors themselves differ on the efficacy of various types of economic policies (as do Keynesians, post-Keynesians, supply siders etc…). To boil the entireity of the economics profession into two (and only two) competing opposite theories, blithely criticize both as wrong and then repeat the B.S. from only one aspect of one of them is just shoddy and lame. Readers will learn about as much from this Davidson column as they would from a two-year old chimpanzee. The NYT and NPR can certainly do a LOT better than this drivel…

  32. 32
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @patroclus:

    The NYT and NPR can certainly do a LOT better than this drivel…

    The evidence suggests otherwise.

  33. 33
    BH in MA says:

    This kind of attitude makes me crazy. When consumers and businesses spend money it contributes to economic growth, but somehow when the government buys stuff, it doesn’t. Think about it for a second: if consumers buy new homes (concrete, steel, wood, plumbing & electrical supplies, asphalt, construction workers, plumbers and electricians) it causes growth. If a business builds a new building (concrete, steel, wood, plumbing & electrical supplies, asphalt, construction workers, plumbers and electricians) it also causes growth, but if the government spends money on construction projects (concrete, steel, wood, plumbing & electrical supplies, asphalt, construction workers, plumbers and electricians) it doesn’t cause any growth at all. Somehow.

  34. 34
    sukabi says:

    There are plenty of broad, confident, fallacious fellatious claims, but nothing resembling actual intellection, nor journalism, anywhere in this piece, which is as it’s intended. After all, when you’re the mouthpiece for a Koch your entire job is to suck.

  35. 35
    slag says:

    Having just listened to Planet Money for the first time a few weeks ago, I am surprised that anyone would find those guys remotely credible. I listened to two shows and both of them represented the classic case of not letting actual evidence interfere with one’s preconceived notions. And in the end, the only thing I’m left wondering is whether or not they’re as stupid as they seem or just think their audience is that stupid.

  36. 36
    RSA says:

    From the article:

    [A]n economy is truly healthy only when its people know how to make and do things that others will pay them a decent amount for. Jobs, in other words, are not the cause of a healthy economy; they’re the byproduct.

    Is this what serious people believe? I’m not an economist or a business journalist, so this seems a completely backward way of thinking about things, as if it’s the economy (a pretty abstract entity) that’s important rather than people with or without jobs. I’d guess that average people don’t give a crap about the economy in general, except to the extent that they’re able to get a job or not. But I’m probably missing something.

  37. 37
    AA+ Bonds says:

    Econ 101 would have taught these idiots about market failure if they hadn’t been shooed through it by a frustrated teacher without having to learn a thing.

    This is what happens when you get finance guys who think they know about economics. The worst are the ones with econ degrees – if you squeak through and have no head for scholarly work, you often end up doing what you’re told by computer screens and memos and believing that you suddenly have all the expertise your bachelor’s never gave you.

    There are literally no serious economists who believe that government job creation is impossible. The only people who believe that are a tiny sliver of Austrian radicals, and some(!) Marxists.

    This is how divorced the Republican Party and its spokespeople have become from economics.

  38. 38
    AA+ Bonds says:

    That was too long so I just need to reiterate:

    People in finance, even people in finance with economics degrees, GENERALLY KNOW NOTHING ABOUT ECONOMICS which is why they are in finance

    The only people you will see trumpeting these wack-ass laughable Austrian theories are financiers who stand to benefit directly and Republicans who stand to benefit politically.

  39. 39
    AA+ Bonds says:

    @patroclus:

    Writer’s sole background is a B.A. from University of Chicago? Who called it, LOL! ! ! ! ! ! To be fair, not even his teachers would endorse the theory he’s advancing, but they’d certainly shut up and pretend they did because they’re whores who believe information asymmetry is great when applied to democratic elections

  40. 40
    Pat says:

    A word in defense of Planet Money here—or at least, in defense of the non-Davidson portion of the staff. I have listened to the podcast from the very beginning, and it gradually became apparent that Adam Davidson views his job as an ideological role, rather than a reporting one. It seems he’s been marginalized over time, and he appears less often on the podcast, but still from time to time it’ll be a slow news day and they’ll grudgingly agree to host one of his “let’s talk to a hacky ideologue from George Mason about how the government can’t ever do anything right” interviews.

    David Kestenbaum, Caitlin Kinney, Channa Jaffe-Walt (I’m almost certainly misspelling some of these) and the rest of the staff, though, remain quite good. Had the NYT gone to one of those reporters for contributions, the paper would have done its readers a pretty good service. It’s almost tragic that they went with Davidson, instead.

  41. 41
    AA+ Bonds says:

    With no new theories, Democrats dusted off the big idea from the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes’s view that government can create jobs by spending a lot of money.

    “With no new theories, Democrats dusted off the big idea from the turn of the 20th century, Albert Einstein’s view of mass-energy equivalence.”

  42. 42
    Barry says:

    @sven: “The input of an expert is obviously appreciated. My question is always why do journalists cover Keynesian economics so poorly. It isn’t just a matter of technical details. They often have basic descriptions completely wrong. Do you think they are using poorly informed sources or are they just going off some sort of conventional wisdom?”

    Follow the mother-lovin’ money.

    What we’re seeing now is a few layers of curtains drawn back, making it clearer that when push comes to shove, the elite MSM’s core function is propaganda for the elites.

  43. 43
    AA+ Bonds says:

    @RSA:

    Is this what serious people believe?

    No, it is emphatically what non-serious losers in the field believe, people who will never be placed in a position to advise either a Republican or Democratic president on economic policy, thank God.

    Arguing that deadweight loss rules out government stimulus is somewhere between global warming denial and globe-shaped-Earth denial.

  44. 44
    AA+ Bonds says:

    @Robert Waldmann:

    I would trace the point of crisis in U.S. economic policy from the day that the 112th U.S. Congress was sworn in and the Republicans fell under the control of people who believe that Mankiw is a Communist.

  45. 45
    AA+ Bonds says:

    If you’re wondering looking for where all the Mankiw-style Republican Keynesians are (besides running practically every large university econ department), they’re writing blogs like this that spend 50% of their time dropping their jaws at the “let ’em fail, bomb the state” philosophy of the pseudo-scholars who replaced them.

  46. 46
    Danny says:

    Hey everyone. I actually did write a massive blog post fisking this article. If anyone wants to read it it’s here:

    http://exleywartime.blogspot.c.....-side.html

    It’s mostly off the top of my head. It was tough enough just getting it all out of my head into pixels so I’ll probably go back and add links backing up my arguments later. Hope some of you read, and enjoy!

  47. 47
    someofparts says:

    Don’t you just hate that moment when a magazine you once enjoyed and trusted publishes something so dishonest and incompetent you are obliged to stop trusting that old favorite source. I hit that wall with New Republic back in the stone age when they published Christina Hoff Summers. It never ceases to feel like someone has put the kids from detention in charge of the school – and put the teachers in detention for good measure.

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