Review of Gene Epstein, Econospinning

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Gene
Epstein, Econospinning:
How to Read Between the Lines When the Media Manipulate the Numbers
.
Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2006.

"Early
in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in
a newspaper." ~ George Orwell

Economists
are familiar with the cliché "lies, damned lies and
statistics," which puts statistics at the top of the pyramid
of lies. ESPN sports radio personality Colin Cowherd, on the other
hand, insists, "People lie, the numbers don’t."

Since people
create the numbers the line between liars and bad numbers may be
less than bright and clear, but Gene Epstein – economics columnist
for Barron’s magazine and author of Econospinning –
essentially sides with Cowherd. Epstein finds little fault with
government’s economic numbers and plenty of fault with the reporters
and pundits who use those numbers.

Perhaps
surprisingly for a pro-market, anti-statist economist, I agree with
Epstein’s assessment. Most of the numbers, especially the labor
data produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics upon which Epstein
concentrates, are tolerably reliable and accurate, provided the
user takes the time to learn their limitations. In 2001–2,
I was chief economist at the labor department, a Bush-Cheney political
appointee of all things, and was quickly impressed with the thoroughness
and professionalism of BLS personnel and their numerical output.

Epstein defines
"econospinning" as the "sort of economic journalism
that shapes data around a predetermined story rather than the story
around the discoverable data." It is all familiar enough, now
isn’t it? Rather than asking "What happened?," too many
observers push their own agenda, fixing the intelligence around
the policy as the Downing Street memo on Bush’s Iraq invasion put
it.

Read
the rest of the article

January
26, 2008

Morgan
Reynolds, Ph.D. [send him
mail
], is professor emeritus at Texas A&M University and former
director of the Criminal Justice Center at the National Center for
Policy Analysis headquartered in Dallas, TX. He served as chief
economist for the US Department of Labor during 2001–2, George
W. Bush’s first term. Visit his
new website
.

Morgan
Reynolds Archives

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