Go Back To Where You Came, Frum

by Jonathan Chait | July 28, 2011

I think everybody in my corner of the internet has a gentleman's understanding that pointing out the hilarious lies of the Wall Street Journal editorial page is my job. I got that job from Michael Kinsley. One day I hope to pass it on to somebody else. I don't take kindly to it when somebody takes my job. Especially when that somebody is a foreigner like David Frum:

I used to write editorials for the Wall Street Journal myself, 20 years ago now.
So I’m well aware of the challenge faced by those assigned to compose these documents. The strict demands of the paper’s ideology do not always lie smoothly over the rocky outcroppings of reality. It can take considerable skill to match the two together.
In that regard, this morning’s lead editorial about the debt-ceiling crisis is a true masterpiece.
If you were to write a story about government debt, you’d probably be inclined to write about the two sets of government decisions that produce deficits or surpluses: decisions about expenditure and decisions about revenue. You’d want to do that not only as a matter of fairness, but also as a matter of math.
And that’s why, my friend, you would wash out as a WSJ.

It's no fun to lose your job when an immigrant underbids your wages, but it's even less fun when a Canadian immigrant overbids your quality. I mean, this bit from Frum makes me want the INS to start checking the papers of all Canadian immigrants, and maybe conduct some surprise raids of sports bars during hockey season:

It must have taken some searching, but the Journal managed to find a chart vaguely relating to debt that went up under Clinton and stayed flat under Bush. They chose chart 11.1 from the historical tables of the Offices of Management and Budget. (That’s more information by the way than the Journal included – I guess they wanted to enhance the treasure-hunting fun of those curious to check their work.)
You can see the original of the chart here: “Summary Comparison of Outlays for Payments to Individuals, 1940-2016, as percentage of Total Outlays.”
What’s so great about this chart is that it excludes two of the biggest federal spending programs: Medicare Part B and Medicaid, both of whose costs rose faster in the Bush 2000s than in the Clinton 1990s. Isn’t that ingenious? Would you ever have thought of doing that? Again – that’s why you would wash out. This is not a job for just anyone.

Right, and pointing this out is not a job for you, Frum. Stay out.

Anyway, despite the exceptionally strong job Frum has done -- and you can read the rest of his item for more still -- I wanted to gnaw on some of the meat Frum left on the bone. Check out this chart appearing in the same editorial:

Now, if you know much about budgeting, you know perfectly well that the chart does not measure an "Obama-Pelosi Blowout." In 2009, the economy cratered. That caused the denominator in the outlay/GDP percentage to shrink. Additionally, automatic stabilizers on programs like unemployment and food stamps skyrocketed as the need spiked. None of these things represented decisions by Obama and Pelosi (or Harry Reid, curiously absent.) It's true that they did pass an economic stimulus with temporary spending that contributed further to the rise on spending asd a percentage in GDP, but the Journal does not disaggregate the effects, instead pretending the whole rise resulted from Democratic choices.

Next, note the scale on the Journal's chart. It's very tight, with a bottom bound of 17% and a top bound of 26%, so that changes of a few percentage points of GDP appear gigantic. For an interesting contrast, here's how the Journal does it when it wants to make the changes look small. A hardy Journal perennial going back at least a couple decades is the chart purporting to show that revenue never really changes that much -- i.e., low tax rates and high tax rates produce about the same amount of revenue. For instance:

Notice the scale here goes from 0 to 90, so that even pretty large changes look like tiny blips. This is one of the first tricks I remember reading about in "How To Lie With Statistics" in college. You play with the scale of the chart to make changes appear as large or as small as you desire.

Meanwhile, maybe Frum can go point out some logical error in the National Post's editorial on lumber tariffs. 

 

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-chait/92853/go-back-where-you-came-frum