Scott Sumner  

Why are NYT editorials so staggeringly bad?

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The New York Times might be the best newspaper in America; it's certainly one of the best. So how are they able to write editorials like this:

In the United States, nearly one-third of adults, about 76 million people, are either "struggling to get by" or "just getting by," according to the third annual survey of households by the Federal Reserve Board.

What are we to make of this? Is 76 million a lot? Does this survey tell us anything about the economic well-being of Americans, or just how they "feel". I'm sure there were days when Trump felt he was struggling to get by (how many bankruptcies did he go through?) How many of these people are middle class (or upper middle class) Americans who borrowed too much, and how many are poor?

The Fed policy committee should take the survey to heart when it meets this month to decide whether to raise interest rates. Higher rates are a way to slow an economy that is at risk of overheating -- a far-fetched proposition when tens of millions of Americans are barely hanging in there.
Let's say the survey means exactly what the NYT assumes. I still don't see how it relates to monetary policy. Lots of Americans felt like there were "struggling" back when Jimmy Carter was President, as prices rose faster than wages. Was this an indication that easier money was needed to fight 13% inflation? Is the NYT seriously suggesting that the FOMC should base its decisions on the fact that 76 million Americans say they are "barely hanging in there"? What happened to the 2% inflation target?
Congress and other economic policy makers, as well as the presidential candidates, could also use the survey to get some insight into Americans' real economic problems. Among them is deep insecurity. Nearly 70 percent of adults said they were "living comfortably" or "doing O.K." -- up a bit from previous years -- but nearly half of all respondents said they could not cover an unexpected expense of $400, or could do so only by selling something or borrowing money.
Here the NYT is winking to its affluent readers. The subtext is that while 70% of Americans say they are doing OK, that can't be right because "you and I know" that someone unable to pay a $400 bill cannot possibly be doing OK. NYT readers will occasionally drop that much at a dinner for two in a fancy restaurant in Manhattan.
Americans seeking a path upward through education are staggering under a load of debt. The median debt load for someone with a bachelor's degree was $19,162.
Staggering? Recall that the vast majority of Americans do not have college degrees, and those who do tend to be relatively well off (even by American standards, the richest major country in world history). I very much doubt whether the typical American college grad would be staggered by a college debt of $19k, which can be spread out over a decade or more. Most college grads are probably in jobs paying over $50,000.

And now for the grand conclusion, the "now more than ever" policy recommendations, pulled right off the shelf without an ounce of actual thought:

Over all, the survey depicts an economy in which many Americans face daily hardship, while even the college educated -- the presumed winners in the economy -- still face big obstacles. The findings argue for continued low interest rates; for government policies and federal spending to help create good jobs at good pay; for affordable education that starts at preschool, thus fostering college-ready students; and for a safety net that can withstand today's potent economic forces. (emphasis added)
Of course the "findings" don't "argue" for any of that. There is no conclusive evidence that preschool makes much difference. (Studies are mixed.) As for the federal government creating "good jobs at good pay", the more $100k plus bureaucrats in the DC area, the higher the tax rates on those struggling families in Youngstown, Ohio. That worsens inequality.

And what exactly are "potent" economic forces? And what does it mean for the safety net to be able to "withstand" those forces? Suppose they are referring to recessions, or inequality, or some other problem. What would be the difference between a food stamp program that could "withstand" those forces, and one that could not?

As Truman Capote once said, that's not writing, that's typing. And it's a pretty good indication of intellectual bankruptcy at the editorial board of the NYT, which is actually an elite newspaper when they put their mind to it. Perhaps they could give some of their better economics correspondents a shot at writing op eds.


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COMMENTS (20 to date)
David R. Henderson writes:

Fantastic post, Scott!
I especially like the Capote line. I will now use it.

MikeP writes:
...nearly half of all respondents said they could not cover an unexpected expense of $400, or could do so only by selling something or borrowing money.

Nearly half of all respondents pay over $400 in Social Security and Medicare tax -- that is immediately given to people wealthier than they are -- every three weeks!

Maybe there's a solution here...

john hare writes:

Here's a fast formula for creating jobs. Stop preventing me from creating jobs.

Thaonad writes:

You ask, what happened to the 2 % inflation target. It might be a great idea if the Fed would try it. It would provide some certainty about future price levels, something their inflation rate ceiling cannot.

Matthew Moore writes:

A lot of poor journalism arises because writers are insufficiently nuanced in their classification of knowledge.

In the worst case, everything is either art or physics.

Journalists treat economics in the same way as art criticism. They think it is an aesthetic choice, a means of self expression. And then they discard any critique of this approach by thinking 'this idiot thinks economics is like physics!'

Other subjects similarly afflicted: clinical trials, climate science (conflated with physics), history and ethics (conflated with art)

We should expect bias in mainstream media, bias favoring more active government, as I have argued. A democratic state could not work without media. A mainstream medium, such as the NYT, becomes part of a democratic state when a large portion of its coverage is motivated by the question: How will we govern ourselves?

That question stands, unfortunately, in front of an unstated assumption. It assumes that the decision, on any issue which may rise to view, will be made by the formal democratic (government) process. If "we have a problem", it assumes, "we will do something" — and this doing will be done by government.

So the government/media complex is a self-organizing system. Both government and media can grow, producing opportunities for more and expanded careers in government and media, as fast as they can learn to cooperate. To cooperate in overcoming the conservatism inherent in a population that has already figured out how to solve most of its problems without meddling from a capital.

Scott Sumner writes:

Thanks David.

Matthew, Very good points.

Richard, Yes, there is a bias towards active government, but even that doesn't fully explain the vacuous nature of this editorial. Refraining from raising interest rates isn't really active, and it's not even necessarily a bad idea. But doing so because people say they are struggling is just silly.

Mark Bahner writes:
Why are NYT editorials so staggeringly bad?

Because there's no one with the power to influence the editorial content who has a substantially different view from what is expressed in the editorials.

In a discussion among family and friends about potential bias in newspapers a month or so ago, I was going bring up the Raleigh (NC) News and Observer's nearly invariable endorsement of Democrats over Republicans (and all other parties, of course). I think that, in the ~3 years I got the newspaper from 1993-1996, they endorsed only a single Republican out of maybe 100+ positions at the federal, state, and local levels. (The one endorsement of a Republican was because the Democrat had done something like embezzle funds, and was facing disbarment and/or prison.)

While searching, I came upon this Wikipedia entry:

In 1988, The News & Observer endorsed its first Republican candidate for statewide election, showing, perhaps, a distancing from Democratic partisanship.

Note that Wikipedia's whole attempt is to present a "neutral point of view." But apparently, among all the people who have edited that Wikipedia article, no one even considered that the endorsing a single Republican candidate in 1988(!) is the exact opposite of "...showing, perhaps, a distancing from Democratic partisanship." To the Wikipedia editors, endorsement of a single Republican more than 20 years ago can actually signal a "distancing from Democratic partisanship."

A similar situation obviously exists at the NYT. There simply isn't anyone at the NYT with the power to influence the content of editorials who has a point of view close to yours, and therefore would have pointed out the obvious problems of the editorial.

Scott, thank you for the correction. Yes, there must be an additional feature in the background which the NYT seems to assume, a feature that supports repetition of partisan dogma in this context.

Generally I do not look at the NYT, except for those moments of self abnegation required of one who avows open mindedness. For the past 15 years Drudge Report has been my first source of news, while I continue to wish better existed.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

I agree with Mark Bahner.

This is a much wider problem. Almost everything written by non-economist academics about "neoliberalism", to take a pertinent example, is crap because they never meet anyone who holds those opinions.

The late Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder (both academic historians of repute) can repeat the canard in published works that Hayek argued that welfarism led to fascism because they never had to deal with anyone who had actually read Hayek.

And so on. Intellectual conformity is seriously destructive of good thinking because of the echo chamber and lack of correction effects. (Cass Sunstein's Why Societies Need Dissent is good on the social science of the mechanisms.)

That is why the work of Jonathan Haidt and Heterodox Academy is so important.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

And the way my comments are held for approval if I put a couple of links in is getting quite tedious.

(I have one in the queue at the moment.)

[Lorenzo: Your comment has been published now. Note that holding up comments for including too many links keeps a lot of spam out of the comment sections. We understand that it's an inconvenience for commenters sometimes, but the alternative of being spammed is a a much greater inconvenience and for all of our readers, not just those who write comments.

[For the record, though, your comment was held up because you used the word "crap," and had nothing to do with your links. Four letter words are not always ruled out entirely: tone and the way they are used matters. But they usually do get your comments held for moderation. I can assure you that it's far more tedious for me to read through daily submissions by angry commenters cursing others out than it is for you to wait a few hours for the glory of seeing in print your own usage of foul language. If you don't want your comments held for moderation, don't use obscenities. Not even mild ones. --Econlib Ed.]

Khodge writes:

The Times is merely trying to redefine "pursuit of happiness" as "guarantee of happiness" with the resultant downward spiral: Failed policies make people unhappy so the only possible response is doubling down with more (inevitably) failing policies.

This plays right into the hands of liberal policy makers who aim to make the opposition look uncaring when they attempt to force government inaction.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

So, one link per comment and no four letter words: including 'crap'. OK

[No, you are inferring incorrectly. I refer you to our longstanding FAQ explaining the point system for comments. If you have additional questions, you are welcome to email me at webmaster@econlib.org. Let's not keep boring other readers with material you've been emailed already, including all the relevant FAQ links about our comment policies and point system. --Econlib Ed.]

I'm not an economist writes:

The NYT is tripped up by the fact that everybody comes up with a list of findings (left, right, center, off the wall) and none of those findings actually include an affordable path to restoring economic vitality.
Americans got a kick in the gut, first from the 2008-09 freefall and then from the real-world shrinking paycheck for all to many workers. Their reax? Slacking off in the workplace as the productivity data shows. Not to forget incredibly high levels of distrust for institutions and alleged leaders.
Presidential campaigns are supposed to be cathartic and both cleanse us from past disappointments and unite us so we join together aimed at shared goals.
No such luck.
We have the Vegematic campaign of HRC, dividing Americans (as Beverly Mann said) along lines of "ethnicity, race, gender or religion." And we have the Don Rickles campaign, an insult a day, that's earned the two Donald's over 100,000 Google joint mentions.
May I respectfully recommend we all take a pointer from Miss Manners and behave politely to each other?

Glen Raphael writes:
Recall that the vast majority of Americans do not have college degrees
The percent of working-age americans who don't have a college degree is either ~60% (if you include AA degrees) or ~70% (if you don't). Neither of those numbers seem like a vast majority, merely a majority. (give it a few more years and it might not even be that!)
and those who do tend to be relatively well off
What's your metric for "well off"? If it includes net worth, the numbers here would seem to be a problem: ( https://consumerist.com/2014/05/14/college-educated-consumers-with-student-debt-have-median-new-worth-of-just-8700/ )
Most college grads are probably in jobs paying over $50,000.
Source? The current median starting salary for those with a bachelor's degree is 45,478. (source: http://time.com/money/3829776/heres-what-the-average-grad-makes-right-out-of-college/ )
Benjamin Cole writes:

How about NYT editorials are krap?

David Glasner has been saying the same things about Wall Street Journal editorials in which oil and gold prices and inflation are conflated.

.

Brian Donohue writes:

Good post, Scott.

Does the NYT realize that a culture that is constantly telling itself how things are awful and getting worse is grist for the mill to the likes of demagogues like Trump and Sanders? Very tiring.

Particularly bothersome when the culture in question is the richest country in the history of the planet.

Scott Sumner writes:

Mark, Aren't you confusing bad editorials with biased editorials?

My claim is that these were bad. I find Krugmans' posts to be biased, but they are not vacuous in the sense of this editorial. Indeed just the opposite.

Richard, Drudge is a horrible news source, in my view. It doesn't seem to have any discernible principles other than being "pro-evil".

And he's finally found his candidate.

Lorenzo, I agree that the press is full of krap. :)

Glen, I don't have a source, but I'm confident that the average college grad makes more than $50,000. I agree that brand new grads are a bit below that level, however.

I meant those with 4 year degrees; I agree that if you include AAs it's no longer the vast majority. But the point remans that policies aimed at reducing the burden of college debt tend to be anti-egalitarian, as college grads earn well above average.

Thanks Brian.

Mark Bahner writes:
Mark, Aren't you confusing bad editorials with biased editorials?

My claim is that these were bad. I find Krugmans' posts to be biased, but they are not vacuous in the sense of this editorial. Indeed just the opposite.

I may have a bit of conflation there. ;-)

But I still maintain that the editorial is bad because everyone who read the editorial that had the power to comment to change it shared the viewpoints expressed in the editorial. There was no one there who questioned whether the findings showed the need for affordable pre-school, or that the government should be spending to create "good jobs at good pay." Or that we should be helping college graduates.

P.S. One place where I disagree with you is that I don't see the editorial comments about an unexpected bill of >$400 being a "wink to the affluent." To me, needing to borrow money or sell something to meet a bill of greater than $400 *is* a sign of pretty significant illiquidity. (Of course, I may be biased by my recent $4900 bill for replacement of my central HVAC system. Or would that be "wrong" rather than "biased"? ;-))

P.P.S. The findings about the $400 unexpected expense seems to be at odds with what is reported for typical checking account balances in the U.S.:

Average checking account balances

floccina writes:

Editorias like that are meant to attract readers to see ads. They infuriate some like you and me and make others happy by stroking them, but they get read and that is why they are there.

Nevertheless great post so was the related post on your blog. To me this is great classic Sumner.

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