Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Eternal Victory Lap

One of the more annoying facets of critiquing conservative blogs is the enormous bluster-to-information ratio.  They spend so much time patting themselves on the back every time they can find a correlation between their beliefs and reality that they often seem to leave out the actual proof.  And considering that these guys don’t base their theories on any particular facts, that kind of makes sense.  For them, evidence is a luxury they usually can’t afford.  It’s nice if you can get it, but there’s no point in going crazy.  And so it usually falls by the wayside while they busily proclaim yet another victory that only they can understand.

Take this recent post by UK blogger Tim Worstall at TCS Daily entitled America: More Like Sweden Than You Thought, which can best be summarized as a 1200-word victory lap by a writer who forgot to run the race.  His post is a simple enough one: To criticize the newest installment of a biennial report from the Economic Policy Institute titled The State of Working America, which will be released on Labor Day.

Tim was admittedly excited about the early release of Chapter 8: International Comparisons (PDF), a teaser released a month early which showcases how America’s numbers stack-up to our foreign competitors.  And his excitement paid-off.  For you see, in that one chapter, Tim found a graph that he could agree with.  That’s right.  Tim Worstall, a conservative, saw a graph in a totally socialist loon report that he could agree with.  Not the whole graph, mind you.  But one aspect of the graph.  And based on that one outrageous discovery, Tim crows that he’s found yet another of “those reports that really don't tell us what the authors think they are telling us.”

I fail to understand how that works exactly, that he can mock a group because one of their graphs didn’t undermine his worldview.  To me, I’d kind of expect to see every graph confirming my view, and not just one.  But I guess when you’re not accustomed to reality confirming your theories, you take what you can get.

One Graph

Here’s exactly what Tim says he was doing: “For there is the great joy of seeing that what they think they're telling us isn't, in fact, quite what they are telling us.”

That’s a worthy enough goal, I guess.  But can he do it?  Of course not.  As I already said, he reads a thirty-six page chapter of the report, and the best he can do is point out ONE graph that he thinks supports his position.  ONE.  He blusters on for over 1200 words, to highlight one graph.  And if you can believe it, he only spends one paragraph actually telling us how the graph didn’t undermine his point.  And he spends the rest of the time high-fiving himself.  How pathetic.

But surely he’s caught something big, right?  He’s exposed them for having lied about what that graph said?  Or ignoring a crucial aspect?  Well, not really.  In fact, I read the chapter and the graph fits right in with what they were saying.  They were suggesting that the inequality in median income between the richest and the poorest people is much higher in America than in other countries, even adjusted for purchasing power.  And that’s exactly what the graph shows.  It’s on page twenty-five of the report if you don’t believe me.

And Tim admits all that.  He acts smug when he points out the parts in the report which show that America is the richest nation, as if there is any disagreement on that, and agrees with them when they say that the evidence shows a big income inequality in America.  He just doesn’t think that’s a problem.  So to him, he’s already done away with the bulk of the work with an implicit criticism; ie, that the Economic Policy Institute is a bunch of weenieheads who don’t understand the real world.  Not that he was cool enough to use the word “weenieheads,” but the point was fairly obvious.

The Power of Snark

As he says:
“Now if the equality of income distribution is something you worry about this is of course a troubling fact.”  A few paragraphs later, he adds: “Shown this undoubted fact we are therefore to don sackcloth and ashes, promise to do better and tax the heck out of everybody to rectify this appalling situation.”

And that’s it.  Income inequality is the major theme of the report and Tim just comes along and dismisses this eternal problem with a bit of snark and moves on.  Mission accomplished.  But hell, he didn’t even need the report to dispute that.  He’s clearly put forth a blanket statement of contempt towards the entire issue of income inequality and sees no need to discuss anything further.  To him, the fact that America is the most prosperous nation is enough evidence to prove that we’ve got the right policies regarding poverty.  

As he says, “Things are actually looking pretty good for the US economy, then -- wealthier to start with, getting richer faster and productivity growth is also highest in the USA, meaning that this trend is only likely to continue.  Looking at all of that it's really rather difficult to see that there's anything wrong with the way things are being managed (or not).”

That’s right.  As long as America prospers, there’s nothing wrong for nobody.  And I guess hardwork, ingenuity, luck, and natural resources don’t count for anything anymore.  Apparently, a good policy can overcome anything.  If only those dumb Swedes would learn.

Dispelling the Miracle

So what is his beef?  We’re almost 900 words into his post (as well as my own) and we still haven’t been told what he’s discovered.  So here it is, I hope you’re seated.  For you see, Tim discovered the awful truth of the Swedish Miracle: Despite horrendous taxes and atrocious government intervention, poor Swedes have the same low level of income as poor Americans.  That’s right.  I’m sure that hurt your socialist ears, but I had to say it.

Specifically, Tim touts the fact that the graph shows that the poorest 10% of Americans make the same percentage of median income as the poorest 10% in Sweden, adjusted for purchasing power.  In other words, the poorest 10% have the same purchasing power in both countries; which is about 38% of median income.  Those bastard Swedes!  

Sure, their unemployment rate is higher than ours, and they don’t nearly have the same resources as us; but their poor can only buy the same trash that our poor buy.  And sure, the top 10% of Swedes only make 110% of the median income, while the top 10% in America make a whopping 210%; which was the whole point of the graph.  But screw that!  Income equality’s for weenies.  The important thing is that the purchasing power of the poor is the same, even in semi-socialist nations.  

Blessed Egalitarianism

Here is the extent of his actual criticism:
But hang on a minute, that's not quite what is being shown. In the USA the poor get 39% of the US median income and in Finland (and Sweden) the poor get 38% of the US median income. It's not worth quibbling over 1% so let's take it as read that the poor in America have exactly the same standard of living as the poor in Finland (and Sweden). Which is really a rather revealing number don't you think? All those punitive tax rates, all that redistribution, that blessed egalitarianism, the flatter distribution of income, leads to a change in the living standards of the poor of precisely ... nothing.

It took him almost 900 words to do it, but he got there.  He finally made his point.  And it’s totally stupid.  See, here’s the problem: Tim seems to think that Sweden’s high taxes are supposed to boost their economy; but he sees that their economy sucks, so he knows that’s not happening.  So he thinks he’s scored a point.

And then he goes in for the kill when he notes that Sweden’s high taxes aren’t making their poor people significantly richer than our own.  But is that what the high taxes are for?  Of course not.  While I’m assuming that the Swedes also have a straight-up welfare system which provides some direct cash to poor people, the primary benefit is not more money.  It’s more services.  And while government services won’t necessarily help your purchasing power, they can certainly increase your standard of living.

And the report makes that clear.  As Tim must know, the report says “However, it is worth noting that PPPs do not account for the cost of non-market social goods, such as education, health care, or childcare, which are much cheaper or completely covered by public spending in many European countries relative to the United States.”

That sounds pretty clear.  And yet Tim makes no mention of this at all.  Just as he makes no mention of any services before declaring that the Swedish system does not change the living standards of the poor.  Sure, America is significantly wealthier than Sweden and should therefore be expected to have richer poor people; but to Tim, the fact that these are the same proves that these programs have no effect.  

Standard of Living

Here’s a brief summary of the Swedish welfare system, per Wikipedia:
The state provides for tax-funded childcare, parental leave, a ceiling on health care costs, tax-funded education (all levels up to, and including university), retirement pensions, tax-funded dental care up to 20 years of age and sick leave (partly paid by the employer).

Wow.  As someone who has spent a small fortune on daycare, education, and dirty teeth, that sounds good to me.  Not just for the poor, but the middle-class too.  And lest you believe that our own tax credit system for daycare and college tuition covers the cost, they don’t.  And these aren’t just perks, but rather have direct benefits to society.

And here’s the line that gives it away:
“…let's take it as read that the poor in America have exactly the same standard of living as the poor in Finland (and Sweden).”

Let’s not and say we didn’t.  Because that graph didn’t say anything about standard of living.  It said the same purchasing power, ie, the ability to buy stuff with your income.  And if you don’t have to purchase daycare, excessive healthcare, college education, or your kid’s dental care; you’ve got a lot more extra money from that same level of income.  And so their standard of living would not be the same.  And even if it was, that wasn’t what the graph said.  And as I said, the report makes that fairly clear.

And none of this is to even mention that the child and elderly poverty rates are astonishingly higher in America than Sweden and other countries; which is also what the report says with Table 8.17 (page 28).  And that would also indicate that the Swedes have their problem better under control.  For example, the child poverty rate in Sweden is a mere 4.2% compared with 21.9% here in America.  

And believe it or not, but Sweden also spends a significantly larger percentage of their GDP than America on social expenditures.  Figure 8H on page 30 shows Sweden’s spending at 14% of GDP, compared with 2% for America.  And in case you were wondering, that graph shows that the countries who spend more on social expenditures also have the lowest child poverty rate.  That’s not to suggest that America should spend 14% of it’s GDP on welfare programs, but there is certainly a clear correlation between spending and poverty.

But all that eludes poor Tim.  He’s apparently some kind of bigtime conservative blogger who has even edited a book which features “the very best writing from the rising stars of online journalism,” and yet he blows through 1200 words and totally misses his mark.  But does that faze Tim?  Of course not.  He’s too busy celebrating.

Problem Solved

The funniest part is his conclusion where he pays lip service to the idea that he cares about a “social safety net,” before he dismisses the idea that we have any problem.  And he actually uses this one graph as part of his evidence.  As he says:
The standard of living of the poor in a redistributionist paradise like Finland (or Sweden) seems a fair enough number to use and the USA provides exactly that. Good, the problem's solved.

And the fact that Sweden’s poor also get much needed services which are denied to us is apparently besides the point.  In fact, Tim doesn’t once even mention what these services are.  He continues to rail against Sweden’s “redistribution of wealth” and fails to even recognize how this works.  It’s as if he hasn’t been told there are any services at all; just pure theft.  And surely he knows better, so why won’t he talk about the services Sweden provides for those tax dollars?  Because it undermines his entire argument which is best summed-up by Taxes=Bad.

He’s trying to show that Sweden’s system is no better than our own, while simultaneously undermining the credibility of this report, but he can’t even tell us what the Swedish system is and obfuscates all the other charts and graphs in that report which show that America’s system is not comparable to the Swede’s.  He found his one fact and he’s sticking to it, even if it doesn’t say what he thinks it says.  And he insists repeatedly that this proves something against the authors of the report.

Now, along with Tim, I too know very little about the Swedish system, and perhaps it’s not the answer.  But we’d never know that from reading Tim’s post, because he’s not interested in providing answers.  He thinks he’s already got them and expects his readers to already know too.  So there was no real need for him to detail his actual point, because it was already more than apparent to everyone involved.  And even if you disprove his actual point, which is easily done, he’ll still insist that his point was still correct overall; even if he can’t dispute the facts that prove him wrong…which are all of them.  

And it’s due to that low level of intellectual honesty that he can declare victory while having gotten almost everything wrong.  Thus, our modern conservative.

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