When a politician misleads the public with distorted or flat-out fictional data, or uses eight minutes of national TV time to smear the character of the careful scholar who dared to report an inconvenient set of facts, you can always count on Paul Krugman of the New York Times to leap to the defense of truth and honesty — or, alternatively, to jump on the bandwagon if the politician happens to be a Democrat.
Here, you see, is what happened this week: Salim Furth, an economist at the Heritage Foundation (and a graduate of the University of Rochester, where I knew him to be a thoughtful and honest researcher) testified before the Senate budget committee, where he presented data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showing that most European governments have recently increased their spending. (This isn’t surprising for several reasons, one of which is that governments often spend more in recessionary times.)
Enter Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who spent eight excruciating televised minutes lambasting Furth and questioning his honesty, by reading out OECD numbers that differed dramatically from what Furth had reported. Some choice comments:
Dr. Furth, I am very concerned about your testimony….
When I look at the graph, for instance, which you source to the OECD — did you actually look at what the OECD says?….
They’ve actually written what the numbers are. And here’s what the numbers actually are, according to the OECD….
I am concerned that your testimony to this committee has been meretricious…I am contesting whether you have given us fair and accurate information.
And then there’s another eight minutes of reading out numbers that are, Senator Whitehouse keeps reminding us actually from the OECD, as opposed to these other numbers reported by Furth, which Furth claims are from the OECD, but obviously can’t be, because Whitehouse has the actual OECD numbers right here, and look how different they are — all of this interspersed with a barrage of attacks on Furth’s character and integrity. (See the video below, if you have the stomach for it.)
Now here’s the thing: There are a couple of legitimate reasons why Furth’s and Whitehouse’s numbers don’t agree. The first is that they’re for different time periods. Furth’s are for the years 2007-2012, while Senator Whitehouse’s are for the years 2009-2016. That’s right, 2016. Which brings us to the other reason these numbers differ: Furth’s come from the historical record, while Senator Whitehouse’s come from somebody’s ass.
More precisely: The numbers Whitehouse quoted come from an OECD report on what various countries plan to do (or say they plan to do) over the next few years. Because these numbers differ from what these countries have actually done, Whitehouse wants you to believe first that Furth’s accurate account of what’s actually happened is irrelevant, and second that Furth is a liar for reporting the truth.
But surely Whitehouse realizes that he can’t actually get you to believe that, which is, I’d guess, why he didn’t bother to tell you that the numbers he was reading were largely nothing but pie-in-the-sky projections from politicians with extremely poor track records of living up to their promises.
It’s as if I’d announced plans to lose 30 pounds over the next year, and then promptly gained 10 pounds. Furth comes before Congress and says “Landsburg tells me he just gained 10 pounds”. Whitehouse says: “I can’t imagine where you got that number, because I have a number here from Landsburg that refers to a loss of 30 pounds — and that comes directly from Landsburg, who you say is your source. This makes me very concerned about your testimony, very concerned about where you’re getting these numbers…..” followed by eight minutes of innuendo suggesting that only sheer dishonesty can account for a discrepancy like this.
Well, yes, only sheer dishonesty — or perhaps an extraordinary failure of competence — can account for a discrepancy like this. But the dishonesty is not on Furth’s part.
This, then, is where Paul Krugman comes in. You know, the Paul Krugman who’s always complaining about dishonest politicians with no respect for actual data? Here’s what Paul Krugman had to say on the matter:
OK, this is really shocking: a Heritage Foundation economist has been accused of presenting false, deliberately misleading data and analysis to the Senate Budget Committee.
What’s so shocking? Not the false, misleading data and analysis — that’s SOP at Heritage …. What’s shocking is that they got called on it, in real time.
Krugman’s other big schtick lately has been about how one-sided all the dishonesty is nowadays, with 90% of it coming from Repulicans. I guess this is Democrat Krugman’s attempt to restore some balance.
Edited to add: It’s possible, of course, that Krugman simply made a rash mistake and posted before he’d realized what the facts were. That happens to everyone from time to time. But this is the same Paul Krugman who has urged us repeatedly not to give anyone else the benefit of this kind of doubt, so a decent respect for Krugman’s worldview really demands that we dismiss out of hand any temptation to cut him some slack.