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Saturday, January 03, 2004

DRUCKER ON JOBS, GLOBALIZATION, AND ALL THAT    First and best management guru Peter Drucker has a fresh take on the changing structure of the American economy. Bet you didn't know that "we import twice or three times as many jobs as we export. I'm talking about the jobs created by foreign companies coming into the U.S." How about this: "The U.S. remains the cheapest place in the world to produce for many of the more advanced industries. I say that not because our wages and salaries are so low. They aren't. But employee benefits are much cheaper than in Europe, and American workers are more flexible." Did you realize that "we have the highest proportion of our population in the workforce by far than any other country in the industrialized world. We have the lowest long-term unemployment rate in the West. "

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 9:25 PM | link  

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THE SPECULATOR CONTRA SPECULATING   
Donald Sensing cites this interesting 2002 speech by Michael Crichton concerning "speculation" in the media. Sensing pulls the right money quote -- about what Crichton calls the "Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect." It's something I've commented about over and over again here: that whenever you read something in the media about which you are personally knowledgeable, you realize that the media has gotten it all wrong -- and yet when you move on to another topic area, you assume the media is reporting and interpreting accurately (I'm using the editorial "you" here). Yet this excellent point of Crichton's has nothing to do with his core topic, which speculation in the media, by which he means the tendency of the media to not just report the facts (wrongly, under the Gell-Mann Effect), but then to assert with confidence various future implications of those facts. No question about it: when the media can't even get the facts right, their extrapolations about the future based on those facts are almost certain to be worthless. But not only because the facts are wrong, but also (as Crichton point out), because of their tendency to "crisis-ize" their speculations and focus only on the worst implications.

Okay, Crichton has a point. The speculation in the media is even more worthless than the facts in the media. But he leaves out two very important elements. First, publishing facts is of little market value unless those facts somehow inform people's future choices, so it's entirely natural that fact-publishers would try to meet customer needs by setting their facts in the most useful context. Whether they do it well is another mater -- but speculation per se is not without value. Second, Crichton fails to include himself among the media speculators. It seems that as a speech-maker he operates often in the skeptical debunking mode (see here, and here). But as a novelist and scenarist, his work is entirely speculative -- and I can't think of a single example in which his speculations do not "crisis-ize" his subject by exploring the worst possible hypothetical outcomes. Is he arguing here for the worthlessness of his own oeuvre?

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 1:27 PM | link  

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THE SILENCE OF THE DELONGS   
We're finally getting some traction with the issue of Paul Krugman's lies about the "unusually large" number of "discouraged workers." A lot of the action is over at Brad DeLong's site -- but it's in the comments section and there's something conspicuously missing: Brad DeLong. All he's contributed to the debate is a big, fat copyright-violating hunk of Krugman's column. Where's DeLong's usual knee-jerk defense of Krugman this time? For that matter, where's Krugman's usual pretzel-logic self-justification on that web-site of his that takes the place of running corrections in his Times columns? Looks like we got him fair and square this time.

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 1:42 AM | link  


Friday, January 02, 2004

KRUGMAN COMES OUT FOR DEAN    The Q&O blog notes that Paul Krugman's column today amounts to an endorsement of Howard Dean for president, and wonders about the ethical implications. As I read it, that's not a violation of the New York Times' Code of Conduct. After all, the Times ran it, so they must approve of it. The Code of Conduct deals with endorsements outside the pages of the paper which the Times can't control. And I'm an eye-witness to one such ethics violation -- and I've got it on tape.

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 10:16 AM | link  

LIBERTARIANS BELOW KRUGMAN'S RADAR    James DiBenedetto of Eleven Day Empire notes that Paul Krugman's column today overlooked the Libertarian Party as one of several spoilers for Al Gore in the 2000 election:
"What do the states of Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin have in common? Each went for Al Gore in 2000, by less than 10,000 votes. And in each, both the Libertarian candidate, and Pat Buchanan, garnered more votes than Al Gore's margin of victory over George Bush. Those four states have a combined 30 electoral votes - more than Florida's 25... "

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 9:55 AM | link  

KOHN KEEPS HIS FINGERS CROSSED    Bob Kohn -- the author of Journalistic Fraud: How The New York Times Distorts the News and Why It Can No Longer Be Trusted -- holds out some hope for "public editor" Daniel Okrent : "...we should not be so cynical as to completely deny the possibility of reform at the New York Times."

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 3:02 AM | link  

JOKE OF THE DAY    Doing big business, Bill Gates-style.

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 2:38 AM | link  

SO JUST WHO SHOULD BE PRESIDENT, ANYWAY?    Krugman today, advising the Democratic field on how to avoid the Prisoner's Dilemma of primary politics:
"This is no time for a candidate who is running just because he thinks he deserves to be president."

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 1:55 AM | link  

ARE WE SURPRISED?    The letter from Bechtel in the International Herald Tribune didn't make it into the Times today.

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 1:53 AM | link  


Thursday, January 01, 2004

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BECHTEL RESPONDS TO KRUGMAN   
Will the New York Times publish this lengthy letter from Bechtel Corporation, appearing today in the International Herald Tribune? Or does running it overseas constitute a sufficient gesture in the direction of fairness and balance? We'll see. The letter answers Paul Krugman's innuendo in his December 12 column that "reports suggest a scandal in Bechtel's vaunted school-repair program," and the statement in his December 16 column that "more detail has been emerging about Bechtel's much-touted school repairs. Again, a Pentagon report found "horrible" work: dangerous debris left in playground areas, sloppy paint jobs and broken toilets." A short excerpt from a much longer letter:

"Of the 52 school complaints that have been formally brought to our attention through USAID from the Ministry of Education, 27 schools - 6 percent of the schools reinspected to date, and 2 percent of the 1,239 schools in Bechtel's scope - have required additional work. Inspections are being performed or have been scheduled and appropriate repairs are being made at these schools. The remaining 25 schools required no action by Bechtel since they were not assigned to us, had issues unrelated to our work, or met the standards approved by the Ministry of Education and provided to us by USAID...

"The problems that have been identified are normal in this kind of work and do not detract from the tremendous success of the Iraq school rehabilitation program. In October, more than one million Iraqi schoolchildren returned to a greatly improved learning environment. We helped make this achievement possible. As one USAID official told Engineering News-Record, Bechtel performed 'extremely well' under a tight deadline. Our more than 20 American and 100 Iraqi engineers poured their hearts and souls into this program - often at great risk to themselves - because they wanted to do something tangible for the children of Iraq, and they deserve to have their efforts understood in the context of the program."

But that won't be good enough for Krugman. Broken toilets in a war-torn country will remain for him symbols of the Bush administration's failure and corruption. If the fact that America's "newspaper of record" disparages the US soldiers and contractors -- and many times more Iraqi workers -- who are doing their best under difficult circumstances, then that's just collateral damage in Krugman's war.

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 8:31 PM | link  

LETTERS FROM THE OPPOSITION, SUCH AS IT IS    Lest you think I only publish flattering letters, here are two from readers who disagree with my refutation of Paul Krugman's lies about the unemployed. You'll notice two things right away (and they are related to each other). These letters have no greater logical force than simply to assert "I disagree, and so there!" -- and the authors don't have the courage to identify themselves.


I disagree. The unemployment numbers vastly underestimate the number of people who quit looking or settled for part-time work.

SF


2004 has just begun, yet you are already starting your tactics from 2003 so that you might be able to have something against Krugman. Once again, however, you fail miserably. You're simply twisting his words to try and prove him wrong, but you can't. Krugman is not making claims for the highest percentages or numbers ever, so your charts don't prove him wrong. Try again, chump.

BJ

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 5:24 PM | link  

THINGS MUST BE PRETTY BAD...    From The Australian, Australia's national daily newspaper, in a New Year's round up of bearish economic forecasts:
"Even high-profile US economist Paul Krugman is worried..."

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 2:36 PM | link  


Wednesday, December 31, 2003

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MARGINAL LIES WORKERS   
I've caught Paul Krugman in another substantive lie about economic statistics. In his Tuesday New York Times column he says,

"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."

Is it true that an "an unusually large number of people have given up looking for work, so they are no longer counted as unemployed"? No. The chart at left, based on data from the Department of Labor's web site, shows that Krugman is lying. To begin with, the number of what the DOL calls "discouraged" workers is a tiny fraction of the total workforce (where the total workforce is the sum of employed, unemployed and what the DOL calls "marginal" workers) -- well under 1%. It is currently nowhere near its highest levels of the last decade. And during the last recession, it failed to track the rising pattern of overall unemployment -- it has done better. In absolutely no sense is this number "unusually large."

Is it true that "many of those who say they have jobs seem to be only marginally employed"? Who knows what Krugman thinks it means to "seem" to be marginally employed (no doubt when he reads this, he'll think of something). But the DOL has an official definition of "marginal" workers. If Krugman -- a trained economist who should know these things -- means something else, then he should say so. The chart at right shows that the number of marginal workers, just like the number of discouraged workers, is small -- and it has not tracked the rising pattern of overall unemployment (it, too, has done better). In absolutely no sense does there "seem" to be "many" marginal workers.

I'll send a note about this to New York Times "public editor" Daniel Okrent. Will he see this as the substantive misrepresentation that it is? Or will this be excused as mere "opinion" because Krugman chose to hide behind weasel-words like "unusually large" and "many" and "seem"? For my money, Krugman's weasely language makes the lies even less defensible.

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 6:16 PM | link  

FIRE WITH FIRE    Here, from a reader: how to use traditional liberal ideals to take on America's most dangerous liberal pundit:
"Mr. Luskin, "I enjoyed the letters in response to Professor Krugman's column on Tuesday. However I think that there is one very important issue that is affecting Wal-Mart's Christmas sales/profits. There is a backlash against Wal-Mart in most communities that is significantly changing the demographics of the people who walk through the automatic doors of the Wal-Mart super centers. The fairly recent raid that produced illegal immigrants working as janitors and the long standing problems with the promotion and treatment of women by middle management personnel at Wal-Mart has turned off many customers that normally head to Wal-Mart for a good deal on frozen vegetables or lawn furniture. I think that this refutes the Krugman assertion that Wal-Mart sales indicate worse wages for working Americans. Instead it shows that expected wages and current wages allow most people to choose between Wal-Mart and their problems or a higher priced grocery and durable goods store that does not have the dilemma of lower prices for compromised ethics."

Matthew A. Wavro


Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 9:04 AM | link  

JOKE OF THE DAY  

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 8:59 AM | link  

THAT'S TELLIN' HIM    The New Orleans Times-Picayune runs the kind of letter that the New York Times would never dare to.

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 2:06 AM | link  


Tuesday, December 30, 2003

LETTERS ON KRUGMAN'S "SO-CALLED BOOM"    For some reason there's been a wave of reader interest in Paul Krugman's New York Times column today. I'll reproduce some of the best letters here in a moment. But first an addendum on Krugman's citation today of research by the Economic Policy Institute -- making a point about wages and productivity that Krugman said several years ago was "just plain wrong," and made by people whom he said "are simply misunderstanding basic arithmetic." Krugman said today, "Calculations by the Economic Policy Institute show real wages for most workers flat or falling even as the economy expands."

If you look at the actual "calculations" on EPI's website, you won't find much. Just a big bar-chart comparing 3rd and 4th quarter estimated GDP growth to 3rd and 4th quarter estimated wage growth for "blue-collar workers in manufacturing and non-managers in services." Amazingly, EPI cites no source whatsoever for its wage growth figures -- these seem to be less "calculations" than inventions. And I assume the figures are all pre-tax (although, truew to form, it doesn't say one way or the other) -- that way Krugman gets to ignore the positive effects on after-tax wages of Bush's tax cuts. And for all that, the EPI still offers a caveat that Krugman doesn't bother with -- one which renders the "calculations" virtually meaningless:

"Economists correctly point out that wage growth responds to overall growth with a long lag, but this is of little consolation to the working experiencing significant cognitive dissonance as they hear the economic cheerleading coming from most market analysts."

Krugman is simply not one of those economists who "correctly point out." Now, on with the letters.


Why does Krugman assume that the good sales at Neiman Marcus and Sharper Image were strictly a function of higher income earners, and that weak sales at Wal-mart means that lower income earners had a miserable Christmas? There are a number of substitution effects that can account for this not the least of which is that stronger sales at the high end came (to some degree) from those same middle and low wage earners shopping at better stores at the expense of Wal-Mart.

David Ford


Krugman's augmented unemployment rate (including those who have stopped looking for work because there ain't no jobs) is always several percentage points above the official  rate. This time is no different. And it's coming down. Krugman is taking the Bob Herbert approach. I generally stay away from Herbert because when I read him, my reaction is: why doesn't someone put this man out of his misery (or at least ban him from writing about economics)? There will always be one poor soul that Herbert or Louis Uchitelle can find to prove things suck.

Caroline Baum


I loved Krugman's column this morning. Somehow he managed to say that the richest 5% of Americans, who pay 67% of all corporate income taxes, are unfairly benefiting by the increase in corporate profits. He might as well say that they are unfairly benefiting from economic growth. Would Krugman be happier if corporate profits and economic growth were falling? At least then the rich would be suffering most. I don't remember him making this argument during the recession.

Bruce Bartlett


Mr. Krugman's piece today on the "so-called" boom notes that some higher-end chains did well against expectations for Christmas sales while Wal-Mart performed more modestly. Sales at higher-end chains may reflect the democratization of luxury, but that is a trend Mr. Krugman cannot see from his zero-sum, class war perspective. Wal-Mart's sales and those of some other chains may have been lower due to lower prices on things like DVD players. Wal-Mart, of course, does more for working Americans -- through its own low prices and through the efficient standards it sets -- than any policy proffered by liberals, and is starting to do this favor for populations around the world. A supposed free-trade advocate, Mr. Krugman leaves this angle unexplored.

Sales might also be affected by the huge volume of gift cards being redeemed apace in Wal-Mart stores everywhere as I write. Gift cards bring liquidity and choice, improving the utility of gift exchanges for many. Smart, money-conscious shoppers may be finding other ways to capitalize on year-end sales as well. Mr. Krugman does not see this and, no doubt, will not return to the subject in a few days when the figures come in and discredit him. Wal-Mart's figures may also look poor in relation to its own aggressive projections, but the idea of an optimistic outlook is one Mr. Krugman cannot comprehend.

None of these explanations may be complete and there may be many others, but Mr. Krugman can see only his bete noire. He provides a stale recital of wealth inequalities, unable to perceive the size of the pie, nor how big even its smaller slices are nor, amazingly since he recites the data, the tax burden borne by the biggest slice-holders. His wealth indicators conveniently omit the effects of broad-based tax relief despite its evidence impact on consumer spending this year. He ends with a skewed view of job statistics, one negated by the facts every day and one that will grow even more untenable in 2004.

Mr. Krugman just can't describe the numbers as he does unless the script already is written by his narrow, partisan bias.

Richard N. Ericson


I came across the Krugman piece called "Our so-called Boom." This is where Krugman proves that black is white and good is bad. George Orwell, call your lawyer. I am no economist, but a couple of things struck me as worth mentioning:

1. Krugman admits that the current unemployment rate (in our "jobless" recovery), 5.9%, "isn't that high by historical standards." Well its about time someone said it. But he announces that there is something "funny" about that number. He says there is an "unusually" high number of people who have dropped out of the job market, so the number is, I guess, invalid. Of course there are always people who have dropped out of the job market, so we need a little more information to conclude that that number is now "unusually" large. What is that number? And how does it compare to other times when unemployment coming out of a recession had gotten up to 5.9%? We have been using this same rate to measure unemployment for as long as I can remember. So why is it now not good enough? Is it because Krugman doesn't like it so he introduces a "red herring" to show that the number is not valid? And, he says, what about all those people who are underemployed? Well, haven't we always had underemployed people? Is there any reason to believe we have more now? Is that number also "unusually high?" I might also say, what about those people who have decided to go into business for themselves in the growing economy? I read that we don't measure them either. Maybe there is an "unusually" high number of them too.

2. Krugman uses an ingenious device to show that the rich are gaining from the "so-called boom" more than the poor. He takes the CBO measure of who "indirectly" pays most of the tax on the growing profits. (Which is where all the "boom" is, he says). Guess what? The poor pay less tax than the rich, therefore the rich are getting the profits more than the poor. Again, I am no expert, but there seem to be a lot of potential holes in this manner of measuring. I do not know what CBO is measuring, for one thing. Are they measuring who pays taxes on the profits that are distributed as dividends? Because, since most of us "poor" hold our stocks in tax deferred accounts, that measure would not be a measure of my benefit. Or is he measuring the impact that corporate taxes will have on the holders of stock? In that case, does he count my pension plan, which holds millions of dollars in stocks, as a rich person or as an assembly of poor people? And if all he is really saying is that the rich hold a lot more stock than the poor, I could have told him that. But each new dollar is far more important to the poor than each is to the rich. So the comparison is not necessarily valid. The poor may be made a great deal better off by having the extra money, even if it is relatively small compared to the rich. Finally, since I have never heard of anyone using this measure to see who is benefiting from the "boom" I have to assume that he made it up to support the argument he wanted to make, not the other way around.

Rick Evans


Can you please tell Mr Krugman that Sharper Image and Neiman Marcus are poor examples of "luxury" retailers? The argument of whether Neiman Marcus' status as luxury versus "high end" or "nice" might at least get an interesting debate going between a couple of idiots, but calling Sharper Image "luxury" is just plain ridiculous. Funny how his argument in the rest of the article disintegrates without this "fact." Even so, is Mr Krugman saying that poor people can't afford $34.95 for the Sharper Image Automatic Pepper Mill with Light (Item #PD300) for Grandma? God, things must be much worse than I thought.

Secondly, lets just agree that his assumption of Neiman Marcus and Sharper Image as leading luxury indicators really is a fact like he wants readers to believe. Do strong revenue figures at these stores really imply that only affluent people are doing well? One could reasonably argue that these figures point to the exact opposite. Given well documented evidence that the income classes in the US are extremely mobile, couldn't these numbers indicate that the Bush economy is producing a movement of people from lower classes to more affluent classes?

Last, couldn't these numbers prove exactly opposite of what Mr Krugman is trying to Prove? Albeit anecdotal, my observations in life tell me that a lot of poor people are obsessed with buying stuff even if they can't afford it. In fact it is one of the leading reasons my poor friends are always poor. Likewise, we all know rich people who don't spend money on any of this crap.

Doug Parent

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 6:50 PM | link  

THE ENVELOPE PLEASE... AND THE WHINER IS...    The New York Times reports that Paul Krugman columns were six of the top ten most-emailed opinion stories of 2003.

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 2:51 PM | link  

LIBERALPLANET: A WORLD WHERE THE MARKET WENT DOWN THIS YEAR   A reader wonders what planet Gary Trudeau is on. "Today’s Doonesbury strip shows a woman who is 66 years old. She is 'a successful lawyer,' but she is unable to retire. The cause? Her portfolio went down 20% this year 'so far.' I have to wonder what on earth this woman was investing in, especially at age 66. But this is Doonesbury, so why deal with a substantially improved economy when you can just make up your own reality?"

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 2:07 PM | link  

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WHY DID THE CHICKEN CROSS THE INTELLECTUAL BOUNDARY?   
Today Paul Krugman makes economic arguments that, a few years ago, he labeled as "just plain wrong." In his New York Times column today, Krugman writes:

"But if the number of jobs isn't rising much, aren't workers at least earning more? You may have thought so. After all, companies have been able to increase output without hiring more workers, thanks to the rapidly rising output per worker. (Yes, that's a tautology.) Historically, higher productivity has translated into rising wages. But not this time: thanks to a weak labor market, employers have felt no pressure to share productivity gains. Calculations by the Economic Policy Institute show real wages for most workers flat or falling even as the economy expands."

In 1996, Krugman wrote in Slate a list of "widespread doctrines that are simply wrong--not doctrines where I disagree with the assumptions, but where the arithmetic is simply, unambiguously wrong." Number two on the list:

"Workers are hurting because labor has failed to share in national productivity gains. Proponents: Michael Lind, of course, but also Robert Reich, Business Week."

He adds that these doctrines are

"...just plain wrong--you don't have to believe that markets are perfect, or that orthodox economics explains everything, to discover that they just cannot be made to hang together... Now we all make mistakes. But the peculiar thing here is that in each of these cases, the proponents imagine themselves to have achieved a higher level of understanding, to have transcended the narrowness of conventional economics. Somebody needs to point out to them and to their audiences that, on the contrary, they are simply misunderstanding basic arithmetic.

And it turns out that Robert Reich -- the fellow who propounds this doctrine that is "simply wrong:" -- is a founder and board member of the Economic Policy Institute, whose work Krugman cites (to support an assertion which, by his own prior admission, is "simply wrong"). The EPI, by the way, is hardly the "nonpartisan think tank" that it claims to be. Its board is a who's who of union leaders. Other members (who are also founders) include Jeff Faux and Robert Kuttner -- whose economic ideas Krugman once said in The American Prospect, have no impact outside "a narrow, self-referential circle of literary intellectuals and policy wonks." Of all three of them, Krugman wrote in Slate,

"...there are people like Kuttner, Jeff Faux of the Economic Policy Institute, and Labor Secretary Robert Reich. Some members of this faction have held university appointments. But most of them lack academic credentials and, more important, they are basically hostile to the kind of economics on which such credentials are based.…And so people like me and people like Kuttner will never be able to make peace, because we are engaged in a zero-sum conflict--not over policy, but over intellectual boundaries."

But all that was then, and this is now. Now Krugman's facing a rapidly expanding economy that he denied until it was staring him in the face -- so now all he can do is grasp at straws to find something wrong with it. If that means violating a few "intellectual boundaries," then so be it. Intellectual boundary crossing in defense of extremism is no vice.

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 10:59 AM | link  

KEEP IT SIMPLE... OR KEEP IT?    Bruce Bartlett reviews a new Treasury study on tax simplification:
"If people really want simplicity, it can be done. But my experience is that when push comes to shove, people would rather have complexity and keep whatever tax provisions benefit them. In the end, the demand for true simplicity always ends up being a mile wide and an inch deep."

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 10:14 AM | link  

WE HAVE ARRIVED    Blogging makes the front page of USA Today.

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 10:09 AM | link  

JOKE OF THE DAY   

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 10:05 AM | link  

LIARS FIGURE    Steve Antler -- the economics professor who blogs as EconoPundit -- is back from holiday break with a bi-coastal pair of econo-gotchas. First, he nails the New York Times' Paul Krugman for confusing income distribution with tax burden distribution. Second, he nails the Los Angeles Time's David Streitfeld for inventing his own special version of the unemployment rate in order to make everything look just awful.

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 10:02 AM | link  


Monday, December 29, 2003

DENIAL IS A RIBBER IN WALL STREET    A banner year for the stock market and a resounding economic turnaround -- and what does Kvetchin' Gretchen Morgenson write for her year-end wrap up in the Sunday New York Times? The headline: "A Year's Debacles, from Comic to Epic."

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 1:08 PM | link  

THE APOLITICAL FED    You know how the press is always talking about how the Fed won't dare raise interest rates during an election year, because "everyone knows" that they never do? But then again, there are the facts...

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 11:14 AM | link  

DENIAL IS A RIBBER IN IRAQ    Baghdad now has a lower murder rate than New York City. And the US rushes humanitarian aid to earthquake-torn Iran, in cooperation with other world powers. Did I mention that the economy is recovering?

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 11:11 AM | link  

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HERD ON THE STREET   
The Wall Street Journal's website calls this "The year's best gift!" It's a collection of "almost fifty of the funniest, most fascinating, and most captivating animal stories from the Wall Street Journal." Only "almost fifty"? Strange -- it seems there were so many more than that.

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 11:04 AM | link  

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A DIALOG WITH OKRENT   
Last week I wrote New York Times "public editor" Daniel Okrent with a query about Paul Krugman's unfair accusations of corruption leveled against Rupert Murdoch. You should read my entire note to Okrent to get the full context, but it concluded by saying:

This can only go two ways. If you agree that Krugman has indeed made the claim of equivalency [between the corrupt Lord Black and Rupert Murdoch] without factual basis, then the Times owes Murdoch a big apology. On the other hand, if you argue that the lack of factual basis itself excuses the claim of equivalency as being mere opinion, then the Times owes its readers an apology for concluding a column so rich in putative facts with what would then have to be regarded an utter non sequitur.

On Friday Okrent responded by writing,

"I see a third: he's seeing connectedness, not equivalency. 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."

I wasn't surprised that Okrent would defend Krugman under the general principle that the expression of mere opinion is inherently unassailable. As I see it, then, his defense falls under the second of the two ways that I outlined in my query: it's an opinion, but a baseless one -- though Okrent claims some "connectedness."

I responded by asking Okrent,

I have one question for you. Do you believe that there is such thing as an unfair opinion?

Or to put it another way, if a statement within a column can be characterized as opinion, and the column appears on the opinion pages of the Times, is the statement by virtue of those things beyond ethical criticism? Obviously I do not mean criticism in the nature of differing opinion, but criticism as to the basic fairness of the opinion itself and/or the way it is argued or presented.

Okrent responded on Saturday,

"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, as I will the corrections policy for columnists."

Okrent said more, and there has since been further exchange of ideas on this between us, but Okrent and I have agreed to facilitate our dialog by keeping it off-the-record -- the passages above are quoted by permission.

While, of course, I would have loved it if Okrent had taken my side in the critique of Krugman's Murdoch column, I didn't expect it. And it's a surprisingly good result that my query has resulted in what is now an open line of mutually respectful conversation. I deliberately chose this ambiguous issue as my first one to raise with Okrent -- rather than some factual gotcha -- in the hopes that it would be more useful in the long-term to engage a potential ally at the level of general principle. That said, Krugman hasn't provided much material for gotcha's lately -- ever since Okrent arrived, come to think of it. Krugman has been on best behavior (for Krugman, at least). He has off-loaded his most obvious lies to the pages of The Nation -- where there is most certainly no "public editor." Eric Alterman doesn't count.

Bottom line: Okrent's presence at the Times is already making a small difference in the behavior of its bad actors. He is intellectually engaged in the core issues of journalistic integrity that transcend the fifteen minutes of fame of any one pundit, no matter how liberal or how dangerous (our friends at The National Debate will be delighted to learn that Okrent is still all over the matter of the Times' corrections policy for columnists). And Okrent is willing to constructively engage the Times' public critics. It's all good news.

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 10:33 AM | link  

GUYS, HE ACTUALLY SORT OF SAID THAT    In his Friday New York Times column, Paul Krugman wagged his finger at his "journalistic colleagues" in this wonderful example of the pot calling the kettle black: "If a reporter must use anecdotes, they'd better be true." He went on to give this example:

"After the Dean endorsement, innumerable reporters cracked jokes about Al Gore's inventing the Internet. Guys, he never said that: it's a malicious distortion of a true statement, and no self-respecting journalist would repeat it."

A reader hunted down what Al Gore actually said. It's on our letters page.

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 10:01 AM | link  


Sunday, December 28, 2003

GADGET DESIGNERS, TAKE THE PLEDGE!    How come the electronic devices that could make us rich and smart always make us feel poor and stupid? Lenore Skenazy has a 12-step program for hardware designers that just might help.

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 7:18 PM | link