Notes Toward Some Heuristics for Ignoring Claptrap

| Fri Sep. 16, 2011 12:36 PM EDT

Conservative economics columnist James Pethokoukis recently wrote a piece arguing that the 2009 stimulus bill actually made things worse. Shazam! Even Rick Perry only claims it created zero jobs, not a negative number. I suspect Pethokoukis got this envelope-pushing idea from Amity Shlaes, who's become a conservative hero for her book arguing that the New Deal prolonged the Great Depression.

But Ezra Klein tells me something I didn't know: Pethokoukis actually made two arguments in his column. I didn't know that because I quit reading after I hit the first one. I'll let Ezra explain:

Pethokoukis’s first argument is that the White House’s “own economists predicted the stimulus would prevent the unemployment rate from hitting 8 percent. But the rate actually rose as high as 10.1 percent...."

The Bernstein-Romer calculations were conducted in December 2008 and released in January 2009....And they weren’t alone. Every private-sector forecaster — from Macroeconomic Advisers to Moody’s to Goldman Sachs — was making the same mistake....The bottom line is simple, and it need do no damage to Pethokoukis’s case: In the fourth quarter of 2008, our economic inputs were wrong. So forecasts using those inputs to make predictions about the future produced answers that were also wrong. That says nothing about whether the stimulus worked or failed.

....(In general, I have actually found this to be a useful test: When economic commentators use this argument, I know not to take them seriously, because they either don’t know the facts or aren’t letting them stand in the way of their argument.)

See? That's exactly how I felt. The only difference is that because it was obvious Pethokoukis was making such a dumb argument, I just quit reading. Ezra, tenacious reporter that he is, actually slogged his way through the rest.

And guess what? It wasn't any better! Imagine that.