Blackadder’s Lair

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Stagnant Thinking III: Where to Begin

In my last post I noted that while the real median income for all workers in up more than 30% over the last 35 years, the real median income of White men isn’t much higher than it was in the early 1970s. In describing this phenomenon, I have spoken of wages being “flat” or “stagnant.” This is the common way of speaking about the matter, but it is inaccurate. To say that wages for a given group were “flat” or “stagnant” during a given period implies that they remained largely unchanged throughout that period. But the fact that wages are more or less the same at the end of a given period as at the beginning doesn’t mean that they have remained unchanged throughout that period, anymore than a roller coaster must be flat because you start and stop at the same point.

Indeed, if we take another look at the Census Bureau’s Historical Income Tables, what we find is that wages (even for White men) have been anything but stagnant over the last 35 years. In actuality the real median income for White men fell nearly 10% between 1974 and 1982, only to rise 15% from 1982 to 2007. In addition, real median income for women increased only slightly between 1974 and 1982 and actually fell slightly for blacks during the same period. (If you are wondering why real wage growth was so bad between 1974 and 1982, you might want to check out my review of Robert Samuelson’s The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath).

This is important for two reasons. First, many people who cite the “stagnant” wages figures often attempt to lay the blame for this apparent stagnation at the feet of Ronald Reagan and his conservative heirs. Ronald Reagan, however, did not become president until 1981, and while his policies are open to criticism on a number of grounds, he did not have access to a time machine, and his actions as president can’t be blamed for what happened in the 1970s.

More importantly, if real median wages really were flat throughout the period of 1973/74 to the present, one might want to search for ways to get them growing again. If, on the other hand, real median wages have been growing since the early 1980s, and only appear flat because of real wage decline in the 1970s (due to policies since corrected), then there is less of a reason to go looking for something in current policy that has caused wages to stagnate. To say this, of course, is not to say that there is nothing in current policy that is open to criticism, or that we shouldn’t try to get real wages growing even faster than they have been (if we can). It is only to express a preference for honesty when assessing social problems.

May 16, 2009 Posted by | Progress, Statistics | 1 Comment

Stagnant Thinking: An Introduction

The recently canceled television series Life on Mars featured a somewhat unusual premise. The show’s protagonist, Sam Tyler, is a cop in present day New York City who, after being hit by a car, finds himself mysteriously transported back to the year 1973. The show was a strange blend of police drama and science fiction, as Tyler sought to undercover how he had ended up in the past, and whether anything that was happening to him was even real.

The premise of the show was, as I said, somewhat odd. But equally odd is that, according to plenty of pundits and commentators across the political spectrum, Tyler may actually have lucked out in being sent back in time. The reason for this, according to these commentators, is that once you account for inflation the material condition (or at least the wages) of the typical American are no better, and may in fact be considerably worse, than in the early in 1970s. The following snippet from a recent Bob Herbert column in the New York Times is typical:

As hard as it may be to believe, the peak income year for the bottom 90 percent of Americans was way back in 1973, when the average income per taxpayer, adjusted for inflation, was $33,000. That was nearly $4,000 higher . . . than in 2005.

Men have done particularly poorly. Men who are now in their 30s — the prime age for raising families — earn less money than members of their fathers’ generation did at the same age.

While the claim that the wages of the typical American have stagnated is most often found on the left, the idea is hardly confined to such quarters. Many libertarians have also been pushing the claim (though whereas those on the left tend to blame Reagan and “neoliberalism” for the supposed stagnation, among libertarians government is the natural culprit). I know that several of my co-bloggers have also made some version of the claim at one point or another. Continue reading

May 14, 2009 Posted by | Progress, Statistics | Leave a comment

Making Abortion Illegal Reduces the Abortion Rate

We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men. – George Orwell

When you make something illegal, you tend to get less of it. Partly this is because people are understandably less likely to engage in an activity if there is even a small chance it will lead to men with guns locking them inside a small room for an extended period of time. Partly this is because illegal activities, if they are to take place, must take place underground, which when the activity requires a willing buyer and seller, makes it harder for the necessary parties to find each other. One sees a lot more advertising for beer now than in the time of prohibition. There is also the effect criminality can have on social norms, and on people’s views of the behavior in question. All of these things combine to make the illegal activity more costly to engage in than it would be otherwise, and as the cost of something goes up, the incidence of it typically goes down. How much of a reduction accompanies criminalization will, of course, depend on a variety of factors, such as the level of enforcement and so on. And of course to say that criminalization reduces the likelihood of an activity is not the same as saying that it eliminates it altogether. Still, it would be passing strange if taking a illegalization did not have an effect on the rate at which the newly illegal activity occurred.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of people who, for whatever reason, want to exempt abortion from this line of reasoning. So, for example, Radical Catholic Mom cites data from the Guttmacher Institute purporting to show high abortion rates in countries where abortion is illegal.

Now the Guttmacher Institute is the research arm of Planned Parenthood. As such, it has both a financial and an ideological interest in finding that outlawing abortion doesn’t decrease the abortion rate. The risk of bias due to these interests is particularly high when you are trying to calculate the prevalence of an illegal activity, since reliable data on such activities is generally harder to come by (for obvious reasons), which leaves more room for creativity when it comes to crunching the numbers. For example, as William Robert Johnson notes: Continue reading

December 1, 2008 Posted by | Abortion, Statistics | 12 Comments

Give or Take a Million

Last night I while I was watching coverage of the Democratic convention, I saw an ad promoting an increased government role in health care. The ad depicted a woman and her father, and told the story of how her mother’s illness had driven the family into bankruptcy despite their having health insurance. At the end of the ad, text flashes across the screen saying: 1.85 Million Americans Go Bankrupt Due To Medical Bills In One Year.

Something about that number didn’t sit right with me. After looking around a bit, I found some statistics on bankruptcy in the U.S. According to those numbers, there were 850,912 bankruptcies in the United States in 2007, just under 30,000 of which were business bankruptcies. I’ll admit that math is not my strong suit, but it’s hard for me to see how you could have 1.85 million people a year declaring bankruptcy due to medical bills when the total number of bankruptcies is a million less than that. Continue reading

August 28, 2008 Posted by | Health Care, Statistics | 7 Comments

A Little Better All the Time

I’ve got to admit it’s getting better/A little better all the time.
– Paul McCartney.

It couldn’t get much worse.
– John Lennon.

To the extent one gets one’s information about the state of the economy from television news, one might be forgiven for thinking that the United States is, economically speaking, going to hell in a hand basket made in China. Wage stagnation. Downsizing. Outsourcing. It’s not uncommon to hear people talking about how we are on the brink of a new Great Depression, if not something even worse.

According to W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm of the Dallas Federal Reserve, the real story is quite a bit different. Below, from their article, are some helpful charts making the case against doom and gloom:
Continue reading

August 25, 2008 Posted by | Economy, Politics, Statistics | Leave a comment

Fair Weather Voting

Voter turn out tends to be lower in the United States than in many other developed countries, and tends to be lower in the United States today than it was in previous generations. For some, this is cause for concern, a sign that American democracy isn’t working as it should. Me, not so much. If you consider that one big motivator for voting is fear about what will happen if the wrong guy gets elected, the fact that voter turnout is lower in places like the United States and Switzerland than in other places may be a sign of the strength of our system of government, rather than a signal of its decay. It’s probably also the case that the idiosyncrasies of America’s system of government – we hold elections every two years, but only elect our President every four years – might tend to skew the result (As for why turnout might be lower now than it was prior to 1972, see here).

Until recently, I had thought that there might be another factor serving to drive voter turnout lower than what it otherwise would be: the electoral college. As Al Gore supporters know all too well, the winner in a presidential election is determined not by who wins the popular vote, but by who gets the most votes in the electoral college. In every Presidential races, there are only a small number of “swing states” that actually could be won by one candidate or the other. Most states, particularly in recent times, are “safe,” which is to say that the winner of the popular vote in that state is fairly certain. We might expect, therefore, that turnout would be higher in swing states (where people think that there votes might matter) than in safe states (where the outcome of the election is known in advance) and that this might serve to make total voter turnout lower than it otherwise would be. Continue reading

August 23, 2008 Posted by | America, Global Warming, Statistics, Voting | Leave a comment

Can A Higher Infant Mortality Rate Be A Good Thing?

You wouldn’t think so. The death of a newborn child is a tragedy, and the fact that the United States has a higher infant mortality rate than other developed countries is often cited as a serious failing of America’s health care system. But according to Dr. Linda Halderman, the higher U.S. rate is due in part to the fact that we try to save the lives of more infants than do other countries:

Low birth weight infants are not counted against the “live birth” statistics for many countries reporting low infant mortality rates.

According to the way statistics are calculated in Canada, Germany, and Austria, a premature baby weighing <500g is not considered a living child.

But in the U.S., such very low birth weight babies are considered live births. The mortality rate of such babies — considered “unsalvageable” outside of the U.S. and therefore never alive — is extraordinarily high; up to 869 per 1,000 in the first month of life alone. This skews U.S. infant mortality statistics.

Norway boasts one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world. But when the main determinant of mortality — weight at birth — is factored in, Norway has no better survival rates than the United States.

Continue reading

August 22, 2008 Posted by | America, Children, Health Care, Statistics | 3 Comments

Millions Flee United States

Some 1.3 million illegal immigrants have left the United States since Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform in the summer of 2007. If the trend continues, according to a new study, the nation’s illegal population will drop by half in the next five years.

Moreover, reports the Center for Immigration Studies, young Hispanic immigrants began heading south before the nation’s economy did – a clue that what’s driving the new outmigration is a stepped-up border and workplace enforcement, not a souring US job market.

More. The report itself can be found here. Aside from the timing issue, the report notes the following: Continue reading

July 31, 2008 Posted by | Economy, Immigration, Statistics | 1 Comment

Boys are Better (and Worse) at Math Than Girls

Girls and boys have roughly the same average scores on state math tests, but boys more often excelled or failed, researchers reported.

The fresh research adds to the debate about gender difference in aptitude for mathematics, including efforts to explain the relative scarcity of women among professors of science, math and engineering.

In the 1970s and 1980s, studies regularly found that high- school boys tended to outperform girls. But a number of recent studies have found little difference.

The latest study, in this week’s journal Science, examined scores from seven million students who took statewide mathematics tests from grades two through 11 in 10 states between 2005 and 2007.

The researchers, from the University of Wisconsin and the University of California, Berkeley, didn’t find a significant overall difference between girls’ and boys’ scores. But the study also found that boys’ scores were more variable than those of girls. More boys scored extremely well — or extremely poorly — than girls, who were more likely to earn scores closer to the average for all students.

Continue reading

July 30, 2008 Posted by | Education, Equality, Media, Statistics | Leave a comment

An Argument for High Gas Prices

Rising prices at the gas pump appear to be having at least one positive effect: Traffic deaths around the country are plummeting, just as they did during the Arab oil embargo three decades ago.

Researchers with the National Safety Council report a 9 percent drop in motor vehicle deaths overall through May compared with the first five months of 2007, including a drop of 18 percent in March and 14 percent in April.

Preliminary figures obtained by The Associated Press show that some states have reported declines of 20 percent or more. Thirty-one states have seen declines of at least 10 percent, and eight states have reported an increase, according to the council.

No one can say definitively why road fatalities are falling, but it is happening as Americans cut back sharply on driving because of record-high gas prices.

Fewer people on the road means fewer fatalities, said Gus Williams, 52, of Albany, Ga., who frequently drives to northern Ohio. “That shows a good thing coming out of this crisis.” He has also noticed that many motorists are going slower.


July 22, 2008 Posted by | Energy, Statistics, Traffic | 1 Comment