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Friday, December 9, 2016

How many Americans think income inequality is our greatest challenge, as President Obama asserts?

According to what, at least until now, has been one of the most respected pro-business research organizations in Washington, the number of Americans holding this view totals just 315.

The figure of 315 comes from James Pethokoukis, a “scholar” at the American Enterprise Institute. It was published Monday without irony or even a hint that it was a poor attempt at humor.

Pethokoukis is a writer with a well-established reputation for pieces that events and the passage of time showed to be wrong in premise, context and specifics.

He began his AEI blog, which National Review Online reprinted:

Forget about the 1 percent versus the 99 percent. It’s really more like the 0.000001 percent versus everybody else. A tiny group — mostly comprising the Obama White House, a bunch of Washington Democrats, progressive economists, and the media elite — continues to fixate on income inequality as America’s greatest challenge.

Most everybody else, the 99.999999 percent, sees things differently. Surveys continue to show Americans most worried about jobs and economic growth, not the income gap between the top and bottom.

The idea that only 315 Americans think inequality is our top economic problem will not pass muster even with Fox News.

The latest Fox News poll finds (at page 10) that 12 percent of Americans rank inequality as “the most important economic issue facing the country.”

If you count everyone, using the standard Pethokoukis did, that means 37.8 million of us, not 315. But, hey, Pethokoukis’s unsourced figure is only off by a factor of 120,000. Close enough for AEI, evidently.

And, of course, Pethokoukis cited no source because he just made it up. In that he is like too many on the right in America, who mix fact and fantasy and thus sow confusion on all sorts of issues that degrade our civic debate. (The left and center have people who do this, too, but they are not sponsored by the likes of AEI.)

Two years ago Jonathan Chait deconstructed one particularly egregious piece of nonsense on inequality by Pethokoukis. Chait’s New York magazine piece was titled “Inequality and Bullshit.

Chait drew on the brilliant and hilarious short book by Harry Frankfurt, a retired Princeton philosophy professor, titled On Bullshit. In 7,000 words Frankfurt lays out a theory of commentary that does not rise to outright lying, but bears little connection to truth, which describes Pethokoukis’ writings quite well.

Chait noted that Pethokoukis, in a piece on a new official report on income inequality, “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…”

Why should progressives care about the bullshit that AEI spreads when it publishes Pethokoukis?

To improve America so it can be a shining light of what the human spirit can accomplish, our nation needs a thoughtful conservative movement, one that argues for holding on to the tried and true, not just holding on to what is, as some conservatives have always done (see slavery, arguments for its economic necessity).

America needs constructive and serious conservative thinkers because their work will promote public policy debates rooted in facts and reason, as those sons of the Enlightenment, the Founders, intended.

And this, in turn, will foster better-reasoned arguments and more effective policy solutions from those whose vision is of what America can in time become rather than what it is. That is because they will have to address serious critiques, not bull.

In previous columns about a David Brooks column on inequality and National Review’s Mark Steyn on climate research, I showed how failure to do basic reporting produced nonsense in both cases and a lawsuit against Steyn and National Review that may doom that publication.

The tolerance for low-grade reporting, or none at all, by writers on the right does not help our democracy endure, but instead tears at its fabric.

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