Safe Haven | The Financial Endgame Slowly Plays Out – and then…

Safe Haven | The Financial Endgame Slowly Plays Out – and then…“Amongst the growing plethora of warnings, some erudite some emotional, Mr. Paul Volcker’s commentary in the Washington Post entitled, “The Economy on Thin Ice”, of April 10th, has to be taken very seriously, given the former’s position as Chairman of the Fed from 1979 to 1987″

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05.31.2005 Robert Schlesinger
Do Conservatives Have a Problem With the Truth?
Ohio University Professor Kevin Mattson argues in Tuesday’s Washington Examiner Politics page (which I edit) that where conservatism once stood for hard truths, they’ve slipped in recent years into a more relativistic view of the world.
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Readers’ Opinions > Forums > The Public Editor > Public Editor’s Web Journal

Public Editor’s Web Journal

Byron Calame, the public editor for The New York Times, comments here on matters that aren’t appropriate for his column in the Sunday Op-Ed pages, or won’t fit into it. He may address issues raised in reader e-mail or post e-mail from readers and responses to them.

Readers are invited to respond to the public editor’s comments in this Web Journal by e-mailing public@nytimes.com.

Note: Any opinions expressed here, unless otherwise attributed, are solely Mr. Calame’s.

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bcalame – 11:49 AM ET May 31, 2005 (#2 of 2)

New Public Editor Hosts Paul Krugman-Daniel Okrent Debate

Daniel Okrent, in his May 22 farewell column as the first public editor of The New York Times, criticized Paul Krugman, an Op-Ed columnist for the newspaper. Prof. Krugman, who disputed the validity of Mr. Okrent’s comments in the public editor’s regular reader-letters column in The Times on Sunday, elaborated in a longer e-mail message for this Web Journal — with the understanding that Mr. Okrent’s response would be posted simultaneously.

* * *

Krugman Lays Out Why He Believes Okrent Was Wrong

When I asked Daniel Okrent for the specifics behind his final attack, he offered two examples of what he claimed was improper use of numbers. This was the first time I heard from him, or anyone else, about either alleged problem.

Let me start with the example that, I think, sheds most light on what is going on: Mr. Okrent�s claim that I engaged in “blending, without explanation, numbers from the household survey and the establishment survey — apples and oranges — apparently in order to make a more vivid political point about Bush (5/25/04).�

He�s referring to two different surveys conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which provide alternative estimates of employment. Some people play games by mixing and matching numbers from the two surveys, and Mr. Okrent has apparently spent the past year firmly believing (without having checked with me) that I did the same thing, to score political points. But I didn�t. All the numbers in my 5/25/04 column came from the establishment survey.

Moreover, I not only played fair with my readers, I urged them to check the data for themselves. Here�s what I wrote in the column:

�Go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Web site at stats.bls.gov. Click on �U.S. economy at a glance,� then on the green dinosaur next to �Change in payroll employment� for a 10-year chart of monthly job gains and losses.�

If Mr. Okrent had done that, he would have seen for himself that what I said about job growth was true.

For his other example, Mr. Okrent criticized me for �asserting that the 40 percent unemployed out of work for more than 15 weeks was a 20-year record” (2/10/04, 3/12/04) without acknowledging that the comparison only applies back to the redesign of the CPS questionnaire. See Polivka and Miller, The CPS After Redesign, on the BLS Web site.

This sounds like another accusation that I blended two sources of data, without telling readers. In fact, all I did was use the Bureau of Labor Statistics data series on long-term unemployment, which is available on the BLS Web site, where there is no indication given to the public of any problem with comparisons between different time periods. Lou Uchitelle did the same thing in an article published in the New York Times business section, “The New Profile of the Long-Term Unemployed,” two days after Mr. Okrent�s blast. That article made the same point that I did in the columns Mr. Okrent criticized: long-term unemployment is unusually high.

After Mr. Okrent directed me to Polivka and Miller, I checked it out; it�s a 1995 research paper which suggested that the 1994 redesign of the Current Population Survey questionnaire might have raised estimates of long-term unemployment. It wasn�t an official statement that pre-1994 comparisons are improper, and the BLS didn�t consider the questions raised in that paper serious enough to warrant a warning for consumers of its data. Like most such consumers, I don�t go hunting for research papers suggesting possible problems with the numbers unless the BLS says there�s reason to be concerned otherwise, it would be impossible to get any work done. Let me also say that the issue is pretty trivial: adjusting the data might put long-term unemployment at a 10-year rather than 20-year high, but it�s unarguably very high by historical standards.

To summarize: when I asked Mr. Okrent for evidence of my malfeasance, he provided one example in which his description of what I did was simply wrong, and another in which he accused me of pulling a fast one on readers, when all I did was use official data in a standard way.

In correspondence with Mr. Okrent, I pointed out that his specific attacks — especially the blatantly wrong characterization of my 5/25/04 column — were unfair. I asked him to do what he would have expected me to do, and admit that he had been in error. He refused.

Let me repeat that Mr. Okrent never raised these issues as public editor. He now says that he didn�t because he �experienced your best-defense-is-a-good-offense approach, and found it futile to deal with it.�

Maybe a description of some of my experiences with him will give some sample of what he found difficult to deal with.

On 6/8/04, I made a numerical mistake, reading from the wrong line in a table of tax rates during the Reagan years. Although the mistake didn�t change the column�s conclusions, I reluctantly issued a correction. But I forgot to use the word �correction,� which I hear got Mr. Okrent upset.

Mr. Okrent questioned my assertion (10/12/04) that Congressional Budget Office estimates show tax cuts were responsible for two-thirds of the fiscal 2004 deficit. I explained that in each of its budget projections the CBO estimates how much of the change from its previous projection is due to changes in tax law, and that the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities adds these numbers up to calculate the CBO�s implied estimate of the overall cost of tax cuts since 2000. I provided Mr. Okrent with the data used for that calculation.

Mr. Okrent challenged my assertion (5/9/05) that the Bush Social Security �progressive indexing� plan would impose its largest percentage reductions in retirement income on middle-income workers.

I explained that the term �retirement income� normally refers to income from all sources, not just Social Security benefits (the Social Security Administration says on its Web site that �you should not count only on Social Security for your retirement income.�) I supplied him with a study (pdf) that used Social Security Administration data to show that because high-income workers depend much less than middle-income workers on Social Security, they would have smaller percentage cuts in overall retirement income than middle-income workers. This was similar to a point I made, using different data, a week earlier (5/1/05), so I was surprised that Mr. Okrent even raised the issue.

If Mr. Okrent was unsatisfied with my explanations in these and other cases, it was his right to demand a fuller explanation, and, if he was still unsatisfied, to say something specific in his column.

I hope we aren�t going to get into an extended period in which Mr. Okrent, who failed to air his concerns when that was his job, then failed even in private to provide examples that bear any resemblance to what he accused me of doing, keeps throwing out new accusations.

* * *

Okrent Responds

For a man who makes his living offering strong opinions, Paul Krugman seems peculiarly reluctant to grant the same privilege to others. And for a man who leads with his chin twice a week, he acts awfully surprised when someone takes a pop at it.

Because only a fool or a supply-sider would eagerly engage in a debate on economics with Prof. Krugman, I�ll try to eschew argument and stick to facts � or, at least, the sort of statements that he himself represents as purely factual:

1. I offered him only three examples of �shaping, slicing and selectively citing� (for some reason, he�s left one out of his rebuttal) because I was at home when he began bombarding me with outraged demands for retraction and apology; I�d completed my tenure as public editor the preceding week, and did not have any files with me. When I had the chance to consult some of my reader mail later in the week, some of his greatest mis-hits immediately came to the fore. I�ll get to a few of those in point No. 5, below.

2. This was the first he heard from me on these specific issues partly because I learned early on in this job that Prof. Krugman would likely be more willing to contribute to the Frist for President campaign than to acknowledge the possibility of error. When he says he agreed �reluctantly� to one correction, he gives new meaning to the word �reluctantly�; I can�t come up with an adverb sufficient to encompass his general attitude toward substantive criticism. But I laid off for so long because I also believe that columnists are entitled by their mandate to engage in the unfair use of statistics, the misleading representation of opposing positions, and the conscious withholding of contrary data. But because they�re entitled doesn�t mean I or you have to like it, or think it�s good for the newspaper.

3. The mixing of household and establishment numbers in his 5/25/04 column: Missing from the BLS chart he cites is any number that even resembles the 140,000 new jobs each month needed to keep up with the growing population a statistic he cites in the column, and upon which he seems to have based some of his computations. To my knowledge, that number only appeared in the household survey.

4. The Polivka-Miller paper: On the substance, readers can come to their own conclusions by examining the report themselves, particularly the chart and related narrative addressing �Duration of Unemployment� on page 23 (pdf). On Prof. Krugman�s defense of his unfamiliarity with it, he�s effectively saying, �If I didn�t know about it, it must not be important.� This is a polemicist�s dodge; no self-respecting journalist would ever make such an argument.

5. Some other examples of Krugmania that popped out of my copious files:

His 1/27/04 assertion that the cost of unemployment insurance �automatically� adds to the federal deficit. This two-fer misrepresents a pair of facts: that unemployment insurance is largely borne by the states, and that major federal contributions to the states come about only because of an act of Congress, which is hardly automatic.
His 2/3/04 assertion that tax proposals offered by Democrats would help the 77 pecent of taxpayers in the 15 percent bracket or less. The most recent generally accepted figures available at the time indicated that the number was actually 64 percent.
A very recent example that nonetheless escaped my memory until Prof. Krugman generously reminded me of it in his letter: His 5/9/05 column on progressive indexing. The column itself (without the ex post facto explanation) suggestively conflates �retirement income� and �social security benefits� without sufficient explanation, but with plenty of apparent point-making.
Believe me — I could go on, as could a number of readers more sophisticated about economic matters than I am. (Among these are several who, like me, generally align themselves politically with Prof. Krugman, but feel he does himself and his cause no good when he heeds the roaring approval of his acolytes and dismisses his critics as ideologically motivated.) But I don�t want to engage in an extended debate any more than Prof. Krugman says he does. If he replies to this statement, as I imagine he will, I�ll let him have what he always insists on keeping for himself: the last word.

I hate to do this to a decent man like my successor, Barney Calame, but I�m hereby turning the Krugman beat over to him.

* * *

bcalame – 4:29 PM ET May 24, 2005 (#1 of 2)

New Public Editor Looks at ‘Downing Street Memo’ Coverage

(Editors’ Note: This post was originally published in Daniel Okrent’s Web Journal)

The flood of reader e-mail criticizing The Times’s coverage of the so-called Downing Street Memo has moved me to post about the issue.

Some background: The secret minutes of a July 2002 meeting of top advisers to British Prime Minister Tony Blair were published May 1 by The Sunday Times in London. Critics of the Bush administration and the Iraq war have focused on two matters in the minutes. One is the suggestion that Mr. Bush had decided to go to war earlier than he has acknowledged. The other is the statement that the chief of Britain’s secret intelligence service had returned from a visit to Washington where he found that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

Here’s one of the less strident reader e-mails, from Leslie Lowe of New York City:

“After all the mea culpas about the poor job the NYT did on pre-invasion news analysis, I find it noteworthy that the paper has barely mentioned the memo by Matthew Rycroft [the foreign policy aide to Mr. Blair who prepared the minutes, according to The Sunday Times] that rocked the U.K. and nearly cost Blair the election. According to the Rycroft memo, the authenticity of which has not been disputed, the decision to invade Iraq had already been taken as of July 2002 and the ‘intelligence’ was subsequently cooked to justify what the U.K. Attorney General deemed an illegal invasion of a sovereign nation.
“Please be good enough to explain why this story has not been the subject of further investigation on this side of the Atlantic and editorial demands for explanations from the White House? This memo is a bombshell and your one-day story, buried on page 9, certainly makes me wonder about your editors’ news judgment. Or is it news censorship?
“Once again, The NYT is failing to give its readers the full story of how we got into the present disaster. Increasingly, we must turn to the foreign press and the Internet for critical information and analysis.”
The Times’s coverage of the once-secret memo started alertly with a May 2 article by Alan Cowell that laid out its contents in the context of the possible impact on the May 5 British election. But the news coverage languished until this morning when a Times article from Washington focused on the reaction to the memo there. This has left Times readers pretty much in the dark until today � and left critics of the paper’s news columns to suspect the worst about its motives. (On the Op-Ed page last Monday, Paul Krugman did cite the memo high up in his column.)

My checks find no basis for Ms. Lowe’s concern about censorship or undue outside pressures. Rather, it appears that key editors simply were slow to recognize that the minutes of a high-powered meeting on a life-and-death issue � their authenticity undisputed � probably needed to be assessed in some fashion for readers. Even if the editors decided it was old news that Mr. Bush had decided in July 2002 to attack Iraq or that the minutes didn’t provide solid evidence that the administration was manipulating intelligence, I think Times readers deserved to know that earlier than today’s article.

Phil Taubman, The Times’s Washington bureau chief, believes that Mr. Cowell’s May 2 story met some of this need for readers. That story, however, didn�t deal at all with the impact in Washington. (Ms. Lowe wasn�t the only reader to complain about the story’s play inside the front section, but I think the play appropriate given its British election context.) Mr. Taubman explained in an e-mail to me how the bureau sorted out the need to follow up on the memo’s suggestion that Mr. Bush had already decided to go to war:

“Given what has been reported about war planning in Washington, the revelations about the Downing Street meeting did not seem like a bolt from the blue. The minutes of the meeting suggest a degree of certainty about going to war that is newsworthy, but in thinking about this, the bureau recognized that Cowell had covered the report. If we were going to do something, it should, if possible, add to the story and offer some perspective.”
I then asked Mr. Taubman about the comment in the minutes that was the most striking to me � the assertion that the Bush administration was manipulating intelligence estimates. His response, slightly defensive but holding fast to a high reporting standard:

“As I read the minutes, they described the impressions of the head of MI6, who had recently returned from Washington, where he had met with George Tenet. It is mighty suggestive that Lord Dearlove, the chief of MI6, came home with the impression, or interpretation, that ‘the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.’ However, that’s several steps removed from evidence that such was the case. The minutes did not say that Mr. Tenet had told that to Lord Dearlove or that Lord Dearlove had seen specific examples of that. The minutes, in my estimation, were not a smoking gun that proved that Bush, Tenet and others were distorting intelligence to support the case for war.”
In the end, Mr. Taubman said Thursday:

“All these considerations were factored into the decision that the bureau did not have to jump on the story immediately after The London Times account appeared. Given continuing reader interest, we decided to do the story that Doug [Jehl] is filing today.”
(Mr. Jehl, it should be noted, was tied up earlier this month on the coverage of the John Bolton confirmation battle and was assigned early this week to do today’s story.)

So Times readers finally have the Washington bureau’s take on the Downing Street Memo to go with the alert coverage on the minutes the foreign desk provided back on May 2. Overall, it’s better than the readers of most other newspapers got. It’s just unfortunate that today’s Washington perspective, much of it based on reporting that could have been done days ago, didn’t land in readers’ hands sooner.

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