Mismeasuring Progress

It is shocking to discover just how much of the debate over politics and policy rests on semi-arbitrary government standards for measuring things. For example, if you believe the Consumer Price Index speaks with absolute authority, then you will believe obviously absurd things, like the idea that real wages have stagnated. Virginia Postrel has a nice short essay in Forbes [free reg. req.] on this aspect of the mismeasurement of economic progress. If Bureau of Labor Statistics true-believers are right, then

… you have to wonder who’s buying all those flat-screen TVs, serving precooked rotisserie chicken for dinner or organizing their closets with Elfa systems. “Anybody who thinks things are getting worse should go to Best Buy and notice the type of people who go to Best Buy,” says economist Robert J. Gordon of Northwestern University.

Gordon is the author of a much-cited study showing that from 1966 to 2001 real income kept up with productivity gains for only the top 10% of earners. What the pessimists who tout his study don’t say is that, while Gordon does find that inequality is increasing, he’s convinced that the picture of middle-class stagnation is false.

“The median person has had steadily improving standards of living,” he says. But real incomes have been understated. The problem lies in how the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates the cost of living.

Similarly, the American Enterprise Institute’s Nicolas Eberstadt has a terrific essay on the bizarre and inaccurate method by which the government calculates the poverty rate in the new Policy Review. Eberstadt shows that the official poverty statistics often get things backwards, indicating that poverty is getting worse when it is in fact getting better according to a number of other noncontroversial measures of economic well-being:

The official poverty rate is incapable of representing what it was devised to portray: namely, a constant level of absolute need in American society. The biases and flaws in the poverty rate are so severe that it has depicted a great period of general improvements in living standards — three decades from 1973 onward — as a time of increasing prevalence of absolute poverty. We would discard a statistical measure that claimed life expectancy was falling during a time of ever-increasing longevity, or one that asserted our national finances were balanced in a period of rising budget deficits.

Journalists unfortunately tend to take government numbers as gospel, and therefore end up communicating to the public a badly distorted picture of the state of our economy and society. And far too often intellectually savvy commentators who ought to know better repair to government statistics as if they are pure data, untainted by systematic methodological bias. However, far from a neutral picture of empirical economic reality, we get a funhouse mirror. I don’t think there is any intentional bias in these measurement methods. But there sure is ideological resistance to replacing them with more empirically adequate measures. Things really are getting better all the time, but “reality-based” economic measures might get in the way of some people’s pet policies. And we can’t have that! I think we’ll eventually get better official methods for measuring real income and poverty, but not without a fight.