Who’s Annoying Me Today

March 22, 2011

A: Everyone!

I have no particularly warm feelings towards Greg Mankiw. He’s not an exceptionally libertarian or conservative economist. He hasn’t written anything that I’m aware of that makes any sort of argument for more conservative public policy. If he has, it’s not famous or widely-cited by libertarians. The main economic theory with which he is associated, New Keynesianism, is basically dedicated to showing how the discoordinated market is subject to failure and inefficiency, and how wise public policy might improve the situation. Greg Mankiw is not exactly Milton Friedman.

And yet, for some reason I get extremely angry when people make personal attacks against Greg Mankiw. I don’t know why, I can’t explain it, it just makes me very, very angry. Two examples:

First: A while back, Nate Silver wrote a post, entitled “Intellectual Dishonesty (Gasp!) from a Conservative Economist”, in which he claims that Mankiw misrepresents the conclusions of a paper by David and Christina Romer. Problem: Silver is wrong. Romer and Romer concluded exactly what Mankiw said they did. In his post on Mankiw, Silver argues that the Romers’ conclusion, which Mankiw cites, is not relevant for the question at hand. This argument, right or wrong, is speculative and is a challenge to the Romers’ conclusion, not a more accurate presentation of it. Silver is wrong on the facts about what the Romers were doing and why they were doing it, and uses his misunderstanding to accuse Mankiw of dishonesty.

Second: In two separate posts, Matt Yglesias accuses Greg Mankiw of dishonesty and malfeasance for linking to a table describing the share of taxes paid by the top 10% of earners in various OECD nations. Yglesias notes that although income tax is a progressive tax, other taxes are regressive, and the fact that those taxes are not included in the table makes linking to the table dishonest.

Yglesias is wrong on the facts before we even get to the level of trying to understand what those facts mean. As a commenter on Scott Sumner’s blog put it:

“The only way that Mankiw, the Tax Foundation and the OECD are misleading is if those regressive taxes would make the US look less progressive, right? Why else would Yglesias argue that those 3 sources are misleading when they all point out that the US is more progressive than other countries?

But he is wrong.”

Whether you believe the table Mankiw links to has any important implications or not, Yglesias’ description of this chart as “misleading” has no basis, unless he means that the US system is actually more progressive than this table would make it appear. Because it is. But that’s definitely not what Yglesias means.

And now this chart is getting posted all around the blogosphere, which predicts income share as a function of tax share. Come again? Why would you want to predict income share as a function of tax share? We’re trying to figure out in what countries the top decile pay a higher or lower share of the total taxes, relative to their income share. So wouldn’t the correct chart be this one?

decile_regression

The United States is above the trendline, meaning that US top-decile earners pay a higher share of taxes than you would expect, given their share of earnings.

The only real lesson here is that if you are going to attack someone’s character, you should be damn sure that you have the facts right before you do it. Nate Silver and Yglesias should be embarrassed that their “Gotcha!” posts turned out to be factually mistaken. And unless they are willing to say that their own partisan ideology caused them to make the errors they made, they should probably cool it with the attacks on Mankiw’s character for making what might just as easily be an honest mistake. The fact that Silver and Yglesias got the analysis wrong is a hint that it’s not just partisanship that causes people to err.

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