The Wall Street Journal's Quality-Control Failure: Bret Stephens's Misleading Use of Nominal Income in His Editorial "Obama's Envy Problem"

Even on the editorial page, a major newspaper such as the Wall Street Journal has the responsibility to screen out clear analytical errors. To fail at this task can and should hurt a newspapers reputation.  

In Bret Stephens’s otherwise interesting piece in the December 30, 2013 Wall Street Journal, he takes Barack Obama to task for an “analytical error” and then commits a serious one of his own: using nominal income figures that are uncorrected for inflation to argue that the bottom 20% of the population is much better off now than it was in 1979. It is possible to argue in more appropriate ways that the bottom 20% of the population is better off now than in 1979, but not by anywhere near the 186% that Bret claims in this passage:

Besides which, so what? In 1979 the mean household income of the bottom 20% was $4,006. By 2012, it was $11,490. That’s an increase of 186%. For the middle class, the increase was 211%. For the top fifth it’s 320%. The richer have outpaced the poorer in growing their incomes, just as runners will outpace joggers who will, in turn, outpace walkers. But, as James Taylor might say, the walking man walks.

It is hard to read the 186% figure in this passage in any way that is not egregiously misleading. The gist of the argument is that a rising tide is lifting all boats, so that the passage seems to suggest that the bottom 20% have been lifted by 186%. Even on the editorial page, the Wall Street Journal’s journalistic standards should be higher.  

Thanks to David Beffert for alerting me in a tweet to the error in Bret Stephens’s piece. David also provides a source for real income changes in another tweet

Update 1: I am pleased that Paul Krugman picked up on this. However, in his post he gives me too much credit and David Beffert too little for catching this. 

Also, don’t miss Mark Gongloff’s piece on this, in the Huffington Post.

Update 2: Bret Stephens issued a correction today in “About Those Income Inequality Statistics." I very much appreciate that.