Moving the goalposts

Posted: 6 November 2011 in Uncategorized
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Economists, both academic and everyday, are busy moving the goalposts these days.

David Leonhardt is trying to convince us that we have to face the prospect of more sacrifices ahead because we have promised ourselves benefits that we simply cannot afford. Unless, of course, we tap the enormous surplus captured by wealthy individuals and large corporations.

Bruce D. Meyer and James X. Sullivan, like other hired guns of right-wing think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, are worried that more and more people believe poverty has grown and working-class incomes have stagnated since the mid-1970s. So, they find new numbers (price indices, taxes and transfer payments, and consumed wealth) to show that there has been “considerable improvement in material well-being for both the middle class and the poor over the past three decades.” But they don’t, of course, carry out similar calculations for those at the top.

Jason Deparle, Robert Gebeloff, and Sabrina Tavernise (here and then again here) challenge the official Census count—according to which the number of poor people has risen by 9.7 million since 2006—by utilizing the Supplemental Poverty Measure. They’re quite willing to add billions in increased safety-net spending to the absolute measure of poverty but not to calculate, as they do in Europe and elsewhere, the level of relative poverty.

Roger E. Backhouse and Bradley W. Bateman harken back to another time when economists discussed “comparative economic systems.” But they’re only interested in the “hard questions that can shape a new vision of capitalism’s potential,” not the potential of moving beyond capitalism.

Alex Tabarrok believes that college graduates should stop complaining about crushing student debt and just major in the right subjects, like science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He forgets, of course, that society as a whole benefits from affordable, high-quality higher education, replete with students who study everything from science to the arts.

All of these economists and pundits, along with many others, are engaged in a concerted campaign to move the goalposts.

And then there are people, like Elizabeth Warren, who are attempting to make sense of why they’re being moved, and to push them back into place.

Moments into a speech before volunteers here Wednesday evening, Elizabeth Warren was interrupted by a Tea Party supporter who hurled a gender-based epithet at the Senate candidate. The man, who said he’d been unemployed since February 2010, objected to Warren’s expressed affiliation with the frustrations of Occupy Wall Street, and argued that the Tea Party has been protesting Wall Street excess for longer than the nascent global movement. . .

After the event, Warren reflected on the man’s outburst, which she said was her first such encounter. “I actually felt sorry for the guy. I really genuinely did. He’s been out of work now for a year and a half. And bless his heart, I mean, he thought somehow it would help to come here and yell names,” she told HuffPost.

The assault stuck with Warren, and she continued to think about it throughout the night. Hours later, she said she wasn’t upset with the man himself, but rather with those who attempt to channel his anger in a malevolent direction. “I was thinking more about the heckler. I’m not angry with him, but he didn’t come up with the idea that his biggest problem was Occupy Wall Street. There’s someone else pre-packaging that poison — and that’s who makes me angry,” she said.

  1. […] because median income rose substantially from 1979 to 2007. (This is reminiscent of the attempt by Bruce D. Meyer and James X. Sullivan, also for the American Enterprise Institute, to show that poverty is not a problem because poor […]

  2. […] that is, they want, like Bruce D. Meyer and James X. Sullivan, to show that the poor really aren’t as poor as it seems. Share […]

  3. […] so much publicity by the poverty deniers of the American Enterprise Institute—folks like Bruce D. Meyer and James X. Sullivan—is nothing new. It’s just a dressed-up version of the work the Heritage […]

  4. […] they might perform a sleight of hand not unlike what Bruce D. Meyer and James X. Sullivan have been doing for […]

  5. […] the usual response from conservatives these days (from a recent commentator on this blog through Bruce D. Meyer and James X. Sullivan to Deirdre McCloskey) when the issue of inequality comes up. Don’t worry about inequality […]

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