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Being a PhD Economist Doesn't Mean Being Able to Construct an Argument...

apparently. The author of this incredibly silly piece (even by the standards of the site on which it appears)--one Arnold Kling--purportedly has a PhD in economics from MIT. The MIT economics faculty can not be happy about this. Here is the "argument" of the piece. The author purports to refute the view of Congressman Sanders and Senator Edwards "that life is getting harder for working Americans, that things have been going down hill for thirty years, and that our only hope is bigger government." Instead, the author will show "that it is nonsense to suggest that the middle class is disappearing and that the standard of living is eroding for working Americans."

Here is evidence that would seem, prima facie, to have bearing on these claims: (1) income and earning trends adjusted for inflation since the 1970s; (2) hours worked by individuals and households since the 1970s; (3) comparative data on hunger, malnutrition, mortality, and incidence of disease between the well-off and the poor, and between the 1970s and the present; and (4) changes in purchasing power, adjusted for inflation, since the 1970s.

Incredibly, no real evidence on these points is mentioned by the author. Instead, the author offers us the following by way of argumentative support: Today, almost everyone owns a telephone, refrigerator, color TV, et al., whereas in 1970 only the vast majority owned most of these. Many more today now own large-screen TVs too. In addition, 68.6% own their own homes today, in comparison to 64.6% in the 1970s.

It might have occurred to the author, but apparently did not, that one explanation for these changes might be that (1) prices of many of these items went down, and (2) individuals and households now work more. If the former, then consumer goods are more available, but we have not yet shown that life has gotten better along any other pertinent dimension (health, leisure, professional and personal well-being, even overall standard of living); if the latter, then life has gotten worse along one equally tangible dimension.

The closest this Ph.D. economist comes to noting the relevant factors bearing on the interpretation of his litany of consumer goods is the following: "[W]hat explains the fact that, adjusted for inflation, the pay of the lowest-wage workers has not increased much over the past thirty years? There are a number of factors involved, but I suspect that the largest component of the explanation is a shift in the composition of the low-wage work force. In the 1970's, many of the people at the bottom of the wage scale were heads of households. Today, many low-wage workers are providing second or third incomes to families." No actual data is in evidence here, just the author's "suspicion" of an explanation. And still no awareness is shown of the competing explanations for the increasing prevalence of consumer goods in the society at large.

But it gets better.

The author now presents the reader with powerful evidence that people are working much less now, and consuming more goods, than in...the late 19th-century! Since Congressman Sanders and Senator Edwards had not suggested that conditions for working Americans had deteriorated over the last century, but over the last 30 years, the relevance of this evidence is, shall we say, a bit obscure. Even the author correctly stated at the start the claims at issue. Yet he apparently does not realize that a significant portion of his article is devoted to evidence unrelated to any claim at issue in the argument.

But it gets still better.

To show that "we are healthier" now, and that the exploding costs of healthcare are delivering results, we are presented with two kinds of "evidence": first, the population is healthier now than a century ago (indeed, than two centuries ago!); and second, anecdotes about the author's own experiences with medical care, e.g., "My wife's cancer was detected early and treated effectively. My mother's cancer killed her in 1976, at age 53. If you ask me, the 1970's were no golden age of medical care." The first piece of "evidence" is, once again, irrelevant to the argument. The second piece is not even evidence.

I confess that it is tempting to conclude from this irrational display that this man is either criminally dishonest or a stark raving moron. Meanwhile, of course, the article was cited approvingly by Glenn "no bit of right-wing sliminess is beneath me" Reynolds. I leave to the reader to answer the question which of the disjunctive explanatory possibilities previously noted applies in the case of Professor Reynolds.

UPDATE: You can see all the web sites that are happily endorsing Dr. Kling's "argument" here. "The less they know, the less they know it."

ANOTHER UPDATE: A law colleague elsewhere writes: "If desired consumer goods are indeed getting cheaper, that is in fact a rise in the standard of living for both rich and poor." To which I replied, in part: "There is more to the standard of living than color TVs." Unnoted in the article, except anecdotally: changes in the costs and availability of health care, schooling, housing, personal services, safety, transportation, etc., as well as changes in the amount of time it is necessary for people to work to secure any of these items, including consumer goods.

AND AGAIN: Reader Paul Wolfson from Dartmouth points out that the site on which this article appears is not (as the quality of the article would suggest) a reputable or trustworthy forum: details here.

AND ANOTHER: Dr. Kling, it turns out, has a blog, and in his posting advertising his article there is an interesting comment by one Lawrence George Lux about changes since the 1970s:

Food Costs down, but Food quality also down. Education costs up, and educational quality actually down in the lower 12 Grades. Utilities actually higher percentage of basic Household expenditures. Medical Costs up while basic medical service declined. Insurance costs vastly increased, while coverage remained mediocre. Retail service and Warranties much better, but totally designed to lock Consumers into a periodic Credit-financed repurchase program. This is the exchange We made for the improvements from the 1970s. Those improvements were substantial, though, and must be given weigth: We have higher Household debt, We have higher-priced, but actually lower quality housing, and the Middle Class makes up 14% less of the total population according to some estimates. "I lived through the 1970s, and I am still alive today, so that is something. I personally think the proliferation of services We have today incites too much taxation, while unlimited Corporate Price schedules adversely affect the American standard of living. A Worker in the 1970s had only to keep his job, and he could pay his bills, buy his house, and have about 12% of his Income for entertainment or savings. Today, he is likely not to have Life or Medical insurance, and his Car insurance is a major factor of his income. The privilaged Elites--wealthy or educated professionals--image life is better in 2004, but the Working Poor are the ones to ask--they have to live in an inflated-cost life expenditure pattern.

Of course, what we would really need is the systematic data on all these points.