Hairsplitting inequality data is sort of besides the point

Historic representation of actual nit-picking

Historic representation of actual nit-picking.

Matt Yglesias has a nice round-up of the data dispute over the latest “the last thirty years of exploding economic inequality in one chart” spurred by last week’s income growth chart from Pavlina Tcherneva. Remember when I mentioned Drum’s comment that “[t]he precise numbers (from Piketty and Saez) can always be argued with?” Well conservative wonk Scott Winship, who I should add is worth reading even you disagree with him, wrote an impressively-long response in which he nit-picks the numbers (and by extension, Piketty and Saez) in Tcherneva’s graph:

But as a depiction of income inequality trends, the Tcherneva chart obscures more than it reveals. The shortcomings of the chart—and more broadly, its source data compiled by Piketty and his fellow economist Emmanuel Saez—do not stem from errors made by Piketty and Saez (or Tcherneva), but from the pervasive misinterpretations about the practical relevance of the data. We’ll get to that gradually, but first […]

And so on, etc. From my understanding this is more of a longer-running project for Winship, which is at its heart a methodological dispute over data measurements. So as Yglesias aptly points out these are really just many many words about how best to measure inequality is in the United States, not whether it exists at all (my emphasis):

But look past the framing and you’ll see that even Winship himself agrees that “income inequality is at staggering levels in the US, and that income concentration at the top has probably risen.” After all the quibbling is said and done, Winship and Tcherneva don’t really disagree — it’s more that Tcherneva thinks the inequality is important and wants to draw attention to it, while Winship does not and thus opposes Tcherneva-style framings that dramatize growing inequality. At the end of the day, whether inequality is important is not something charts or data can prove. But we can help you understand what the data disputes are about.

I don’t really have anything more to add to this overall except to say I largely agree. Whenever these dust-ups occur I dutifully read them because I’m interested, but honestly it’s besides the point. While on the merits I happen to put more weight on Piketty and Saez’s datasets, as best as I can judge them, it doesn’t really matter. If a bolt of quantifiable data lighting struck me tomorrow and Winship’s hair-splitting rung true inequality would still be “at staggering levels in the US,” and I would continue to very much have a problem with that reality. You’re more than welcome to read Winship, Yglesias, etc and decide for yourself to what extent but the Great Divergence is still occurring. So the next step is arguing over what, if anything, should be done to correct it.


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