the national interest

Inequality and Bullshit

The conservative movement generally, and sensibly, has its cranks specialize their crankery, so that you have one set of people tasked with pumping up the fantasies of supply-side economics, another concentrating on denying climate change, another insisting income inequality isn’t increasing, and so forth. James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute is a somewhat unique figure in that he’s deeply involved in all these projects. (Here’s Pethokoukis on “the supposed crisis” of climate change; here he is touting Lafferism.)

His latest project is to deny — or quasi-deny, or muddy the waters, depending on the day — the fact of rising income inequality. Pethokoukis is now taunting me, and I can’t possibly keep up quantitatively with his manic campaign to deny/minimize/muddy the fact of rising inequality. I can explain a few basic points that, if kept in mind, would help a reader so inclined to successfully navigate his way through Pethokoukis’s river of bullshit.

Here are the basic facts. For Americans at most income levels, wage growth has dramatically slowed over the past three decades, compared with the three decades that followed World War II. At the same time, overall inequality has risen, and inequality between the richest 1 percent and everybody has skyrocketed. The Congressional Budget Office’s masterful study lays out these facts in impressive detail.

The thing to keep in mind is that Pethokoukis doesn’t directly challenge any of these facts, though he wants his audience to think he does. He cites a bunch of figures that pick away at pieces of the general picture — here is a study showing median income may have grown more than you thought, here’s a report showing family structure helped drive inequality, and so on. His favorite sleight of hand involves citing studies that do not focus on the richest 1 percent pulling away. The gap between the top 1 percent and everybody else is the most dramatic change, and it’s also the hardest to capture, since it involves a small subset of the population. (Indeed, the idea that the income of the top 1 percent is an important economic phenomenon is itself new, and older measures of inequality aren’t really designed to capture it.) So Pethokoukis just cites figure after figure that don’t measure the 1 percent against everybody else.

He is, in a word, bullshitting. Bullshitting is not the same thing as lying. It is a higher art form, which Harry Frankfurt once explored in his classic essay, “On Bullshit“:

[The] statement is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.

Bullshitting, not lying, is the natural metier of denialists of all forms. Pethokoukis compares the debate over inequality to the debate over climate change, by which he means that liberals are using false claims of expert consensus to stifle a very open question. I agree that it’s like climate change, but in a different way — a broad consensus exists among experts, but there are different ways of measuring it, which produce different perspectives on the shape of the phenomenon.

Because the consensus bolsters the case for policy changes that conservatives don’t like, the movement expends vast resources attempting, with general success, to persuade its adherents that the whole thing is a lie cooked up by liberals. Pethokoukis is executing the dance steps perfectly. First he calls inequality a myth, then — when his primary source contradicts him — he retreats to calling it “overblown,” then returns to calling it a “myth” again. All along he pleads that he merely wants open dialogue, that it’s the liberals who are trying to stigmatize dissent and suppress open debate. The only purpose of the exercise is to muddy the debate enough to allow conservatives to avoid coming to grips with ideologically inconvenient facts.

Inequality and Bullshit