January 06, 2004,
America's most dangerous liberal pundit has been on his best behavior lately almost. Paul Krugman's New York Times columns over the last month have been bland, at least relative to his normal shrill standards. Just the usual mindless Bush-bashing Halliburton-causes-cancer stuff you can read on almost any editorial page these days.
What's reined Krugman in? Well, there's a new cop on W. 43rd Street.
In December, Daniel Okrent became the Times's first "public editor" something between an ombudsman and a special prosecutor, brought in to restore the paper's tarnished reputation in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal and the sacking of executive editor Howell Raines.
Okrent has set up both e-mail (email@example.com) and voice-mail (212-556-7652) to receive public comments. He's already reported on two cases of misbehavior by the Times in his bi-weekly Sunday column. One was an arguably sensationalistic story on OxyContin the drug used by Rush Limbaugh by a reporter who stood to profit from sales of a book he had just written on the subject. And the other was the arguably distorting truncation of a quotation from President Bush on gay marriage. In both cases Okrent bent over backwards to be even-handed chiding the Times at the same time as he extended it the benefit of the doubt. Probably not a bad way to start for someone who needs potentially resentful Times staffers to willingly return his calls.
I've been eager to open up a dialog with Okrent hoping against hope that I could even recruit him as our "inside man" on the Krugman Truth Squad. And why not? A "public editor" should be interested in truth, right? But with Krugman watching his step, it was difficult for me to find an open-and-shut lie to bring to Okrent.
So I had to settle for an issue that's a little more subtle. In Krugman's December 3 column, he reported on the alleged crimes and political corruption of the conservative publishing magnate Conrad Black. Krugman concluded the column by likening Black to Rupert Murdoch smearing Murdoch with the comparison, I argued with no better justification than that they are both conservatives and both media executives. When I complained to Okrent about it, he replied:
I do not see any charge of illegality. I see that Krugman doesn't like Murdoch or his role in the media, and believes that Murdoch, like Black, uses his position to advocate positions that Krugman deplores. And I believe that as a columnist he, like you, is entitled to hold very strong opinions whether anyone else likes them or not.
In other words: Krugman's column is an opinion column, and the Black/Murdoch comparison is Krugman's opinion so that's that. Then I asked Okrent whether he would acknowledge that there is any such thing as an "unfair opinion." In Okrent's view, is there anything wrong, for example, with innuendo? Okrent replied:
That's a very fair question, and I've been thinking about it since I accepted this job. I intend to address it in a column sometime in the future …
An evasion? A stalling tactic? Or a subtle shot across the bow of editorial innuendo artists at the Times like Krugman and Maureen Dowd? I took it as a hopeful sign, and was glad to have opened up a mutually respectful dialog with Okrent. But maybe Krugman saw Okrent's response as evidence that the new cop on the beat isn't such a tough guy after all. The day after I published my correspondence with Okrent on my blog, The Conspiracy to Keep You Poor and Stupid, Krugman reverted to type. In his December 30 column, he published a substantive factual distortion of economic statistics.
Oh, hell let's call a spade a spade. It was a flat-out lie.
Desperate to find something negative anything negative! to say about the robust economic expansion that has taken root since the enactment of President Bush's tax cuts last May, Krugman wrote:
The measured unemployment rate of 5.9 percent isn't that high by historical standards, but there's something funny about that number. An unusually large number of people have given up looking for work, so they are no longer counted as unemployed, and many of those who say they have jobs seem to be only marginally employed. Such measures as the length of time it takes laid-off workers to get new jobs continue to indicate the worst job market in 20 years.
It is a lie to say that "An unusually large number of people have given up looking for work." The chart below, assembled from data available to the public on the website of the Department of Labor, displays the entire recorded history of what the DOL calls "discouraged workers" (Krugman's people who "have given up looking for work"). One glance at the chart proves that there is no possible way to truthfully claim that their number is "unusually large."
Discouraged workers represent less than one third of one percent of the entire labor force (the sum of all employed, unemployed, and available workers). And that number is only five-one-hundredths of one percent higher than the historical average. More, whereas the number of discouraged workers fell in lock-step with the unemployment rate from the recession of the early 1990s to the top of the boom in early 2001, it has risen far less sharply than the unemployment rate since then.
Let's look at the claim that "many of those who say they have jobs seem to be only marginally employed." What does "many" mean? What does it mean to "seem" to have any particular employment status? And what does it mean to be “marginally” employed? The Department of Labor uses that term to mean certain people who have no job at all, but that’s apparently not what Krugman means.
Viewing the broadest possible measure the number of part-time, self-employed, and unpaid family workers as a percentage of all employed workers we have data going back all the way to 1955, and it's just as damning to Krugman's claims. As the DOL chart below shows, at 24.49 percent today, the number of marginal workers is twenty-nine-one-hundredths of one percent above the average level of almost half a century. Is that "many"? Is that how it "seems"?
Finally, let's examine the claim that "Such measures as the length of time it takes laid-off workers to get new jobs continue to indicate the worst job market in 20 years." For this one, let's consult ultra-liberal University of California at Berkeley economics professor Brad DeLong. He has posted on his website a chart of the median duration of unemployment the number of weeks it takes half the unemployed to find new work. Yes, DeLong's chart shows two short-term spikes several months ago that almost reached the recessionary levels of 1983. But those are only spikes, and the current level is hardly "the worst ... in 20 years."
Thanks for catching another Krugman lie, Professor DeLong. Welcome to the Krugman Truth Squad.
But what of New York Times "public editor" Daniel Okrent? Not a word. Despite my repeated requests for comment, by press-time Okrent had nothing to say about these latest Krugman lies.
I've had a very productive relationship with Okrent so far, so I don't want to leap to the conclusion that he's stonewalling, or that he's afraid to take on the superstar pundit at the Times. As I see it, Okrent's in a tough spot on this one.
But there are ways out:
First, Okrent will have to pierce what I call "the veil of opinion." He can't let Krugman characterize his lies as mere "opinion" just because they were printed in what is putatively an opinion column, or because he used subjective descriptions like "unusually large" or "many." Face it, Mr. Okrent, these are issues of fact. And I trust Okrent would agree that false statements of fact should not be permitted in the "newspaper of record," even on its editorial page.
Second, Okrent will have to find some way to distinguish truth from lie in a subject area that is fairly technical and a subject area in which Krugman is putatively an expert. What will Okrent do when, as we've seen in other cases, Krugman conceals a simple statistical matter behind an edifice of irrelevant but impressive-sounding theory? If Okrent finds a Stanford economics professor who will contradict Krugman the Princeton economics professor, how will he decide which one is right?
I don't envy Okrent, but this is precisely the kind of problem he was hired to solve. Jayson Blair showed that news isn't necessarily factual just because it's in the New York Times. Okrent must face the reality that statements about economics aren't necessarily factual just because Paul Krugman writes them.