A Cornball Study
October 1, 2000
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Suppose you are a left-wing activist with an agenda of expanding the size of government and its regulation of the economy. You want national health insurance, government-subsidized housing, government-subsidized child care, government-subsidized transportation and a hefty increase in the minimum wage. Since these policies, and the taxes and bureaucracy necessary to implement them, stand little chance of succeeding on their own merits in the American political arena, what should you do? Well, to judge by a story the New York Times runs today on its front page, the answer is simple: find some economists to cook up a study making things look worse then they really are, then give an early copy of the report to the New York Times, which, while going through the motions of quoting a few economists who disagree with the report, will for the most part advance the liberal activist agenda by giving the cornball study big play in its Sunday paper.
Today's story is almost humorous in its attempt to find bad news about New York's booming economy. It begins, "New York City's rebounding economy has produced a record number of jobs, but a new study shows that the number of low-wage jobs, those paying less than $25,000 a year, is growing much faster than the number of middle- or high-wage jobs." Note the use of the conjunction "but," which is the Times's way of suggesting that these two trends are somehow inconsistent or contradictory. The Times, and the study's authors, apparently see this rapid creation of jobs at the entry level of the labor market as bad news. The study is quoted as saying that, "Despite the strong pace of private-sector job growth, an alarming number of families in New York City are unable to earn enough to achieve an acceptable standard of living."
But to realize how silly this is, just imagine that the study had found the opposite situation: that middle- and high-wage jobs were growing much faster than low-wage jobs. How much do you want to bet that the Times would have put the exact same bad-news lead on the story, and that the study's authors would have used it to justify the exact same big-government policy recommendations? In that case, the story might have begun something like this: "New York City's booming economy has produced a record number of jobs, but a new study shows that the number of low-wage jobs, those paying less than $25,000 a year, is growing much more slowly than the number of middle- or high-wage jobs." In the actual story from today, the Times identifies the actual trend as bad news for poor persons because they have to work in low-wage jobs; in our hypothetical counterexample, the Times would identify the hypothetical opposite trend as bad news for poor people because their employment opportunities were not growing as fast as those for the rich. It's enough to remind a reader of that Cold War-era joke about the headline the Times would have run on its front page in the event of a nuclear annihilation: "World Ends in Nuclear Attack; Poor Hardest Hit."
Today's Times story, and the study upon which it is based, buys into all the usual left-liberal confusions that come up when discussing income statistics. For instance, the article reports, "The new study on low-wage workers found a widening gap between rich and poor workers. From 1989 to 1999, average wages for workers in New York earning more than $75,000 annually jumped by 65 percent, after inflation is taken into account, while those earning under $25,000 experienced a 2.2 percent drop. For those in the least-skilled occupations, after-inflation wages fell by 14 percent." But the study is almost certainly based on snapshot averages and medians, not longitudinal studies of the same individuals over time. In other words, the workers in 1989 who were making less than $25,000 may have been newly arrived immigrants driving taxis while they were studying for the bar exam, or college students working as lifeguards on the beach during the summer. Now, ten years later, they may be highly paid lawyers and investment bankers. In other words, these studies about the gap between rich and poor understate the effect of income mobility. In New York, as in the rest of America, "the rich" and "the poor" are essentially the same folks; the rich have simply been in the labor market ten or 20 years longer than the poor, or they have families who have been in America for one or two generations longer.
The political agenda driving the study and the news report is made clear in a quote from the study's chief author: "This city is always going to have a significant low-wage service sector. The question is: Is public policy going to provide these people with a way to make ends meet?" The whole political discussion is wrapped up in the word "provide." We've had this welfare reform debate already, and we're under the impression that there's a pretty broad consensus in America that "a way to make ends meet" is something that individual breadwinners in America have to figure out how to earn for themselves, not something that is provided by the government. The Times article today discusses the cases of three individual low-wage workers, and it's hard not to be sympathetic to them (though, in discussing their wages, the Times ignores the effect of the earned income tax credit). Yet it would be just as easy to go to France or Germany or some other country with a high effective minimum wage, government health insurance, generous welfare benefits and a high tax burden to pay for them, and to find three unemployed individuals who are loafing on street corners, jobless, because those public policies discourage private-sector job creation. If the approaches outlined in the study and the Times article are so desirable, why aren't more of these low-wage American workers migrating to European countries where such policies are already in place?
Getting Worse on Sharon: Yesterday's edition of Smartertimes.com noted that an editorial in Saturday's Times about the fighting in Jerusalem was in error in referring to the Dome of the Rock as a mosque. A front-page news story in today's Times repeats the error, referring to "the seventh-century mosque the Dome of the Rock." Check any decent reference book or academic expert on Islam; It's not a mosque. But the news story today goes even further in distorting what is going on in Israel. The first paragraph of the article refers, in the Times's own words, to "the third day of fierce fighting set off by the defiant visit on Thursday of a right-wing Israeli leader, Ariel Sharon, to the steps of the ancient mosques atop Jerusalem's Old City." Never mind the incorrect plural "mosques" -- have we mentioned that the Dome of the Rock is not a mosque? What this sentence does is blame the fighting on Mr. Sharon, when all Mr. Sharon did was to go up peacefully to the plaza atop the Temple Mount and walk around with a tour guide. It was the sermon at Al Aksa mosque on Friday that whipped the Arabs into a stone-throwing frenzy. As the Times article itself acknowledges lower down, "Mr. Sharon denied that it was his visit that had touched off violence. 'It was not my visit that lit the fire, but Palestinian incitement,' he said."
More evidence in this story that the Times is siding with the Arab stone-throwers against the Israeli Jews comes with the use of the phrase "Arab East Jerusalem." Arab East Jerusalem existed from 1948 to 1967, but since 1967, the city has been united under Israeli sovereignty. There is no such thing as "Arab East Jerusalem" or, for that matter, as "Jewish West Jerusalem." If the Times wanted to be fair it might refer to "predominantly Arab sections of eastern and northern Jerusalem" or to "predominantly Jewish sections of western and southern Jerusalem." But to refer in the year 2000 to Arab East Jerusalem is to to implement by edict of the Times something that Israeli voters have yet to agree to: a division of the Israeli capital.
The most egregious error in the Times's front-page story today on the violence in Israel, however, comes in the reference to the outbreak as "the worst sustained violence the area has seen since riots erupted in 1996 after Israel opened an ancient tunnel deep beneath the plaza." This is just an error of geographic fact. The tunnel doesn't run "deep beneath the plaza," but along the edge of it. The Times editors could look at a map or go there and see for themselves. The claim that the tunnel ran underneath the Temple plaza and would therefore somehow undermine the Al Aksa mosque was a myth that the Arabs used in 1996 to incite violence against Israelis. Other newspapers that initially committed that error have since acknowledged it was an error; The San Francisco Chronicle, for instance, ran a correction on this point that appeared on September 28, 1996.
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