Why are NYT editorials so staggeringly bad?
By Scott Sumner
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.