What Sonny and Cher Can Tell Us About Relative Inequality

Isn’t the Internet wondrous? I mean, finally, a tool to aid in communication by providing an almost friction-free forum for exchanging ideas and working towards the  truth. (Let’s leave the arguments about truth aside for today, please.) Nowadays magazines all seem to have blogs and posts all have nifty discussion or comment boxes at the bottom like the one shown at right.

A typical denizen of Hyde Park's Speakers Corner

Thing is, discussion suggests some purpose, as in coming to agreement or fully airing the points of view on a subject while comment seems to implicitly allow for opinion to reign unopposed. So I approach those boxes with some trepidation and tend to not enter the fray. I’m always interested in dialog; my interest wanes when lovefests and shouting matches get going. Better to be a crank in this here virtual Hyde Park than an antagonist in a conversation populated with any possible number of dunderheads.

Still, every once in a while I post to a discussion as I did just this past week. What captured my attention was a post entitled “Will Inequality Keep Getting Worse?” by Megan McArdle on The Atlantic‘s site.  Her kitchen pieces aside, for the most part I enjoy reading McArdle. While I am often astonished at how well-established tenets of social science are entirely missing from her intellectual armament, the compensation is that she does an excellent job of voicing the common wisdom of the B-School set. Reading her can save me from all sorts of tedious, in-person conversations.

Fortune telling aside, speculative questions about social phenomena are always rife for misuse of data. And this time the error was a doozey. As I posted in the ‘Join the Discussion’ section, I can’t comprehend how the data were supposed to engender a serious conversation.

McArdle begins her post by referencing a conversation with Professor Steve Kaplan from the Booth School–her alma mater and the University of Chicago‘s business school. At this point, 11 words into the post, every alarm bell a critical reader has should be ringing because this is a masterfully efficient rhetorical trick. In fewer than a dozen words she’s managed a double-barrelled appeal to authority and established herself within an elite group. (Let’s not argue this one either. A school that ranks in Top 10 listings consistently positions itself, and by extension its alums, as elite.)

Logical fallacies don’t make a strong foundation for any argument. Data sometimes do. McArdle shows two graphs, the first of the income share  for the top 1% of US Households  from 1913 to 2009 and the second showing the same information from 1980 to 2009. Both graphs show that the income share of the top 1% has fallen, perhaps even back to the levels of the mid 1990s.

Conveniently, the second graph leaves out the dissimilar period that occurred in the 35 years prior, a complaint I voiced in the somewhat dry language of analysis. But there’s a less pretty term for this act  (also found in the list of fallacies)–cherry picking. I don’t expect adherents of the Chicago School to suddenly embrace socialism but they ought to be able to explain differences in the data logically and comprehensively in advancing an argument. Dropping off what doesn’t fit the narrative strikes me as bush league.

Predictably, my post generated little discussion. The one comment I received was, as so many of the other comments also were, rooted in personal experience. I didn’t think the issues I raised were addressed by the commenter. And our author? She does get into the fray on many issues but questions of method seems never to catch her interest.

Perhaps it was my ending with a paraphrase of a line from the Grundrisse. Surprsingly there was a time in the recent history of these United States that an entire economics curriculum could be built on Marx. I’m sure the Fama-ites and Samuelson disciples were spared this (and I envy them). But capitalism is kind of like tying a bow tie–you need to close your eyes and believe, otherwise it doesn’t work. The tie may be a mess right now.

I’d expected to be called out on my use of personal anecdote as data. I should have been. My statements about national mood from the perspective of a blue-collar household are coloration, not information. Readers of this space will know I believe that pop culture and related ephemera can tell a lot about the social situation. So don’t believe me about the national mood in the mid 60s when the share of the top 1%, according to McArdle’s graphs, was 1/3 of the  recent maximum and 1/2 what it is currently. Just enjoy Sonny & Cher reflecting on the national mood in their #2 Billboard hit from 1967:


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