Notes Toward Some Heuristics for Ignoring Claptrap

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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.

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GREAT JOURNALISM, SLOW FUNDRAISING

Our team has been on fire lately—publishing sweeping, one-of-a-kind investigations, ambitious, groundbreaking projects, and even releasing “the holy shit documentary of the year.” And that’s on top of protecting free and fair elections and standing up to bullies and BS when others in the media don’t.

Yet, we just came up pretty short on our first big fundraising campaign since Mother Jones and the Center for Investigative Reporting joined forces.

So, two things:

1) If you value the journalism we do but haven’t pitched in over the last few months, please consider doing so now—we urgently need a lot of help to make up for lost ground.

2) If you’re not ready to donate but you’re interested enough in our work to be reading this, please consider signing up for our free Mother Jones Daily newsletter to get to know us and our reporting better. Maybe once you do, you’ll see it’s something worth supporting.

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