(Bloomberg View) — Benjamin Disraeli is reputed to have said, “There are three type of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.”
Today let’s address the third component of Disraeli’s formulation in the context of a recent National Review article with the headline, “The Myth of the Stagnating Middle Class.” The article observes that “more Americans have easier lives today than in years past.”
Related: How to fix the middle class blues
To regular readers, this is a variant of the assertion that “common folk live better today than royalty did in earlier times,” a claim we debunked two years ago. The current argument is more nuanced in that it: a) relies on a few statistical twists; b) contains statements that are true but don’t support the main claim; and c) is an argument against Donald Trump’s populism from the political right. It all has the general appearance of plausibility until you start digging.
This is where we come in.
Let’s begin with the claim that more Americans have easier lives today than in years past. This is true and almost always has been. Progress is humanity’s default setting ever since our ancestors climbed down from the trees and began walking upright on the African savanna.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that the standard of living for all Americans has been rising for many years, mainly because of technological advances. However, the main issue under discussion is actually about how the economic benefits of the U.S. economy get apportioned across the populace.
In other words, how the wealth is distributed. The National Review engages in a statistical sleight of hand that distracts from this.
For further insight I spoke with Salil Mehta, who teaches at Columbia and Georgetown, and is perhaps best known for his role as the top numbers-cruncher in the federal government’s $700 billion TARP bank bailout plan in the financial crisis.
Mehta made short work of the article:
The article is a peculiar mixture of motivating facts and fantasy logic, which is what makes cherry-picking statistics unsafe for policy conversation. The main issue with the piece is that that it continuously mixes and matches data to fit a fated narrative.
Mehta further observed that the National Review argument included in some cases various classes of Americans (such as minorities and immigrants), while excluding them at other times in statistics. This kind of data cherry-picking is always a red flag.
Critics argue the recent economic recovery was unevenly distributed by geography, by industry and by level of educational attainment. (Photo: iStock)
Consider for a moment how the Pew Research Center did its big research report, “The American Middle Class Is Losing Ground”: The report, which actually figures in the National Review article, analyzed the Current Population Survey from 1971 to 2015. It used data drawn from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which has well-established standards for managing data and making empirical comparisons.