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AEI Does Itself A Disservice With Obvious Lies

Economy Memo Pad Politics

AEI Does Itself A Disservice With Obvious Lies

Income Inequality

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.

David Cay Johnston

David Cay Johnston won a 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of taxes in The New York Times. The Washington Monthly calls him “one of America’s most important journalists” and the Portland Oregonian says is work is the equal of the great muckrakers Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair.

At 19 he became a staff writer at the San Jose Mercury and then reported for the Detroit Free Press, Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and from 1995 to 2008 The New York Times.

Johnston is in his eighth year teaching the tax, property and regulatory law at Syracuse University College of Law and Whitman School of Management.

He also writes for USA Today, Newsweek and Tax Analysts.

Johnston is the immediate past president of the 5,700-member Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) and is board president of the nonprofit Investigative Post in Buffalo.

His latest book Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality an anthology he edited. He also wrote a trilogy on hidden aspects of the American economy -- Perfectly Legal, Free Lunch, and The Fine Print – and a casino industry exposé, Temples of Chance.

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  1. Sand_Cat February 10, 2014

    Well, I never cared much for them; maybe the fact that Democrats listen to them seriously explains why they’ve been so incredibly weak and inept in standing up to GOP BS.

    1. mikem42 February 11, 2014

      Gotta listen. Gotta respond. No points here.

      1. Sand_Cat February 11, 2014

        I must have missed something. Would you mind giving me the kindergarten version?

      2. mikem42 February 11, 2014

        “maybe the fact that Democrats listen to them seriously explains” etc. etc.” You did write that? Well, we do listen to them, and respond as needed when needed.

  2. disqus_ivSI3ByGmh February 11, 2014

    Considering AEI only polled 316 people, I think that 315 is rather telling.

    1. davidcayjohnston February 11, 2014

      LOL — and we need humor on these issues…

  3. sigrid28 February 11, 2014

    This take-away is a shocker: You can lie with impunity in the right-wing media and make a fortune doing so. Besides calling out a particularly egregious example of sloppy reporting from the right, disguised as an academic publication, this article is by David Cay Johnston. Not only is he a card-carrying journalist of the first rank, his pristine academic credentials cannot be bought. By example, he represents a high standard by which guys like James Pethokoukis, working for the party that “will not be constrained by fact-checkers,” fail every test. The pile-on aspect of lying on the far right is amazing to watch and hard to believe. That is why I commend the NM and David Cay Johnston for keeping our eyes on these counter-intuitive truths.

  4. Kurt CPI February 11, 2014

    Politicians get huge rewards in exchange for using their influence to bring about legislation and regulation that is favorable to the people who contribute to their campaigns – the people with money. I don’t disparage anyone for success, but I do object to a political system where success openly permits the buying of influence. In order for a politician to join the 1% club themselves, they have to maintain its stronghold. They work to reinforce this income inequality while all the time denying that it exists. Citizens United and other legislation that circumnavigates free speech EQUALITY are the culprits.

  5. daniel bostdorf February 11, 2014

    The whole article comes down to this simply paragraph:

    “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.)”

    1. mikem42 February 11, 2014

      This article cites an individual and the entity that sponsors him. What individual and entity are you citing? Facts trump generalities.

      1. daniel bostdorf February 11, 2014

        “thank you for your point of view”

  6. DoctorFaustroll February 11, 2014

    They missed my mother, and she’s dead.

  7. centerroad February 12, 2014

    That unfortunately was pitifully lightweight. Such a great subject, but all I heard was a shrill cry and some finger pointing.

    Content, not words.


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