Tuesday, April 13, 2004

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The trouble with indices...

Every index can be challenged on the quality of the data that goes into it, and the weights that are assigned to the various components that make up the overall figure. A lack of transparency about methodology is also a valid criticism. For example, in my previous post on the competitiveness of different regions in the global information economy, the company responsible for the rankings provides little (free) information on how the index was computed. That's a fair critique.

Even when the methodology is transparent, there can still be problems. Gregg Easterbrook, for example, fisks the Kerry campaign's "middle class misery index." Easterbrook points out:

Suppose I announced an Easterblogg Happiness Index with these indicators: mortgage interest rates, crime rates, rates of heart disease, life expectancy at birth, rates of car ownership, median home size, air quality, water quality, highest educational degree earned, rates of accidental death, percentage of workforce employed in white-collar professions. Needless to say, I've chosen these because all trends in these categories are favorable. My happiness index would not be a fair assessment of society, because I've excluded the negatives. (Maybe I should throw in "accuracy of NBA jump shots" just to have one negative.) My all-positive index wouldn't tell you the larger trend just as Kerry's all-negative index does not....

You may not like W.-onomics--I don't like his tax policy for the top bracket--but you've got to have a pretty badly jiggered index to hide the favorable current status of the unemployment/inflation comparison, always one of the best measures of the economy. If inflation were as out of whack as it was under Carter, or unemployment as out of whack as it was in the first Reagan term, current misery would be far more pronounced. Give me the "misery" of the George W. Bush numbers any day.

Real Clear Politics has dueling graphs, comparing Kerry's misery index with the actual misery index. Check them out for youself.

Meanwhile, ESPN's Page 2 devises a much more controversial misery index for baseball teams. Why controversial? Because some Boston Red Sox fans will be shocked to learn that their beloved Olde Towne Team is only the sixth most immiserating team (Montreal was first):

If you listen to the wailings in Boston, no one outside of a Mel Gibson movie has endured the pain of Red Sox fans. And while it's true they've had more agonizing moments than any other team -- the Ruth trade, Ed Armbrister, Bucky Dent, Bill Buckner, Grady Little ... well, you get the point -- they've also been one of the best, most consistent teams in baseball since the Impossible Dream season.

Sure, autumn is always painful but summers in Fenway are about as good as it gets. And really, is there a single Red Sox fan who would trade places with a Brewers fans?

I agree with ESPN, but I'm probably in the minority among Sox fans. Already, some Sox fans are outraged.

So, indices seem to serve one useful purpose -- the fostering of debate. So debate away!

posted by Dan on 04.13.04 at 05:16 PM


I don't get it. Was Easterbrook born yesterday?

Of course Kerry will try to focus on those indicators that make Bush look bad. Bush would do exactly the same thing if the situation was reversed. Just a few weeks ago conservatives were explaining how the Household Survey was better than the Establishment survey, simply because it made Bush look better.

posted by: GT on 04.13.04 at 05:16 PM [permalink]

Hmm, where's the debate?

Of course, when you campaign on 'jobs, jobs, jobs' and can't put the unemployment rate in your misery index, you have problems. But another thing I found particularly odd about Kerry's index is that it ignored interest rates. I mean, for the Party of Rubinomics, interest rates are everything; virtually the entire economic argument made by Democrats against the Bush tax cuts is a variant on the tax cuts=>deficits=>high interest rates meme. Which makes it all the more telling that nobody's complaining about high interest rates (another reason to scoff at an index that pines for the good old days of 1978 (a banner year for ESPN's misery index, too)).

posted by: Crank on 04.13.04 at 05:16 PM [permalink]

There is only one real reason why John Kerry has even a chance to fool people with his “misery index”: the corrupt liberal media act as his partners. Other than that, he would be laughed out of town. Bill Clinton in 1996 never endured so much grief as George W. Bush with similar economic statistics. Yes, the economy is rapidly growing---but the major media will do everything to make it look like a failure. They only have one nonnegotiable goal and that is the defeat of the current president. He is never to receive credit for anything. The stories, and especially the headlines, will be worded to the President’s disadvantage. Please note that I didn’t hesitate to describe the liberal media as corrupt. I am therefore charging these people with moral turpitude and not mere inadvertent tendencies to commit honest mistakes. This is not something I tend to do easily.

What is the misery index according to the liberal media and intellectual “elite?” Any improvement in the poll numbers of President Bush. Screw the nation, the White House incumbent must be destroyed. This is priority one.

posted by: David Thomson on 04.13.04 at 05:16 PM [permalink]

Yes David, yes. We know. It's all the media's fault.

posted by: GT on 04.13.04 at 05:16 PM [permalink]

GT writes:

"I don't get it. Was Easterbrook born yesterday? Of course Kerry will try to focus on those indicators that make Bush look bad. Bush would do exactly the same thing if the situation was reversed."

In fact, what Easterbrook writes is that Kerry's index is "a campaign tool, so naturally, it finds that things have never been worse than at this very moment." "Naturally," GT, is a word which in this context conveys to us native English speakers a meaning along the lines of "unsurprisingly," "it goes without saying that" or "of course" (as in "Of course Kerry will try to focus on those indicators that make Bush look bad").

Not that I blame you for focusing on Easterbrook's imagined naivete -- it's certainly easier than disputing the real point of Easterbrook's essay, which is that the index is useless, misleading and bears no relation to most rational people's view of economic hardship or well-being. If you disagree, perhaps you'd like to take a crack at justifying the misery index's selection of the Carter era -- the height of America's stagflation doldrums -- as the second most wonderful economic period of the past 30 years.

posted by: salaryman on 04.13.04 at 05:16 PM [permalink]

Of course Kerry will try to focus on those indicators that make Bush look bad.

True, but when those same numbers that he uses to make Bush look bad, make Carter look GOOD, I submit Mr. Bush is going to have far less trouble at the election than anyone on the left would care to say. As Easterbrook points out:

Check the Kerry campaign's graph, halfway down the page. When were times best by this index? At the end of the Clinton administration, and in 1978. Can you find one single person in the United States who would want a time-machine ride to the economic conditions of 1978?

Wel, we know one, who wants to return to that period... John Kerry.

If this is the example of what Mr. Kerry and his people hold to be good times, I think we know what we have to look forward to under a Kerry Administration... 21% inflation, unemployment figures that make today's figures look like a skinned knee in the context of the nuclear attack on our economy that was Carter. (To say nothing of the world-wide embarrassment of Carter Foreign Policy) It took a God-given miricle in the form of Ronald Reagan to save us last time. I think we'll not see his like soon again, and thereby we may not recorver from the damage another Carter would cause us.

posted by: Bithead on 04.13.04 at 05:16 PM [permalink]

Given that a lot of the Democratic strategy is to harness anger coming from a sense that Bush lied us into Iraq, it's a little surprising that they would build a campaign around the deceptive use of statistics. Just using Reagan's phrase ("Are you better off than you were four years ago?") would do the same thing, without the necessity of a fib.

I guess the Kerry campaign figures the press is biased in his favor,and will let him get away with it. He should remember what happened to Al Gore.

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 04.13.04 at 05:16 PM [permalink]

Thing is, AM, that if we take the polls as anything approaching accurate, it seems the lies the Democrats have been caught in, leaves their credibility open to serious quesiton.

Their constant bleats about 'Bush lied' don't help either, in light of the long list of Democrats, inclduing Clinton, who demonstrate quite clearly that Bush was operating from information he and everyone else had.

Damn that Bush; his reach is tremendous...He managed to plant information in the WH and in Clinton's hands, 4 years before giving the order to go into Iraq. (sound of tounge popping from cheek)

Is it any wonder the people don't trust the Democrats on much?

posted by: Bithead on 04.13.04 at 05:16 PM [permalink]

it's certainly easier than disputing the real point of Easterbrook's essay, which is that the index is useless, misleading and bears no relation to most rational people's view of economic hardship or well-being.

But I did dispute that, maybe I wasn't clear enough.

Yes, Kerry's index is a campaign tool. So? BFD. ALl campaigns do that.

I just find these types of articles utterly useless and meaningless. Kerry will obviously focus on what he thinks Bush did wrong and Bush will do the opposite.

posted by: GT on 04.13.04 at 05:16 PM [permalink]

Recent polls show that Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of the economy and, more importantly since its a great predictor, think the country is going in the wrong direction.

posted by: GT on 04.13.04 at 05:16 PM [permalink]

Which flies in the face of economic relaity, of course.

posted by: Bithead on 04.13.04 at 05:16 PM [permalink]

and come to think on this, and more to the point; Do the polls suggest the epopel think another Jimmy Carter, is the RIGHT direction? See, there's the problem; it's not been cast as an either /or question. When it gets to specifics, as it will once the DNC has it's convention, It will be be cast as a question of whose policies get followed... Bush or Carter

posted by: Bithead on 04.13.04 at 05:16 PM [permalink]

The BLS's chart omits long-term unemployment. Thus the inaccurately pretty picture.

posted by: goethean on 04.13.04 at 05:16 PM [permalink]


You say: "But I did dispute [that the Kerry index was 'useless, misleading and bears no relation to most rational people's view of economic hardship or well-being']" although you go on to admit that "maybe I wasn't clear enough" in saying that you dispute that thesis.

Unfortunately, not only did you NOT dispute Easterbrook's thesis in the sense of "presenting facts and cogent arguments showing that Kerry's index is in fact useful and bears a strong relation to rational people's view of economic hardship or well-being" you didn't even dispute it in the weaker sense of "simply denying without any supporting evidence or argument whatsoever that Kerry's index is useless." (And to think I had always believed that Monty Python's "Argument Clinic" sketch would have no practical application to my life.)

All you said was (1) Easterbrook's naive; (2) all politicians focus on things that make the other side look bad; and (3) Look, here's an example of Republicans doing it.

Fair enough, but that doesn't address whether Kerry's index is BS or valid. (It makes a difference whether politicians are focusing on legitimate complaints that make the other side look bad or are merely twisting statistics out of self interest.)

Maybe you DON'T dispute that Kerry's index is BS. Or maybe you could ably defend Kerry's index as a smashing good way to determine how well the economy is doing (again, you could start by defending its selection of the Carter presidency as a golden era economically). Either way, we'll never know, because you haven't told us.

posted by: salaryman on 04.13.04 at 05:16 PM [permalink]

I'll agree that Kerry's index is a bit of BS. But if I remember correctly, as a recent undergrad that took Econ101 recently, Gregory Mankiw's last textbook had a whole chapter on the Misery index. This is a according to standard Economics, a real statistic (Inflation + Unemployment).

As a side Note, ESPN2s Misery index is quite good. To all you Red Sox fans' out there, F off. Us Pale Hose fans have been waiting 87 years since our last win. To compound that, we haven't won a Playoff series in 87 years!

To put it a simple way, it's over 10000 to one that at least the Sox or Cubs would bring home the trophy by now, but no. So Boston, live and let learn.

posted by: theEnvoy on 04.13.04 at 05:16 PM [permalink]


Fair enough. I should have been clearer.

Is Kerry's index valid or bogus?

IMO both actually.

The index's components ( median family income, college tuition, health costs, gasoline cost, bankruptcies, the homeownership rate, and private-sector job growth) are all valid and important indicators. Are they the MOST important or the MOST relevant? Probably not. But then again no one index can do that. It always depends on what group you are looking at.

In the end this is simply a political device. Yes, it tells you some things. And it leaves some things out. There is no analytical reason to say that the old misery index, based on unemployment rate and inflation, is any better. Both are political constructs.

And that's the central failing of Easterbrook's piece. It must be difficult coming up with new ideas for columns all the time. So that's why nonsense like this gets published. If he had just said "Look this misery index is a political ploy, just like the first one was" it wouldn't have made much of an article.

posted by: GT on 04.13.04 at 05:16 PM [permalink]

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