Megan McArdle writes,

Alex Tabarrok takes Eric Rauchway to the woodshed and spanks him so hard my butt hurts. As a general rule, it is a bad idea to title an exceptionally misleading and/or ignorant post “Stop lying”.

Here’s what Megan has missed:

Alex is wrong about describing the data he cites as “official” and mine as “alternative”. Therefore my post is neither “exceptionally misleading and/or ignorant”; those words might better apply to Megan’s.

Here’s a much more interesting point: why is it “lying” and not just a mistake or a difference in judgment? The op-ed says,

As late as 1938, after almost a decade of governmental “pump priming,” almost one out of five workers remained unemployed.

Let’s get rid of the dispute about which data to report. Let’s pretend the author wrote this sentence in 1976, when the only data available to him were Lebergott’s, and (unlike Michael Darby) he didn’t read the footnotes, he only looked at the numbers. Here’s what he’d see.

Here’s the thing: even with these data, the sentence is still dishonest.

What did he do? He looked at the highest unemployment rate over the entire New Deal—1938. OK, that’s just cherrypicking, and if he’d said,

In 1938, almost one out of five workers were unemployed

—that would only be misleading. Because he’s picking the peak year, but it’s narrowly true.

But he didn’t say that. He said,

As late as 1938 … almost one out of five workers remained unemployed

Now it’s dishonest. Because “As late as … remained” means that the unemployment rate stayed up. Which, as we’ve seen, it didn’t.

And it’s doubly dishonest, too. Because take out the ellipsis and consider the sentence again:

As late as 1938, after almost a decade of governmental “pump priming,” almost one out of five workers remained unemployed.

This phrase, “after almost a decade of governmental ‘pump priming,’” is a problem, too, because it means “after all this pump-priming”. But that’s not right. As E. Cary Brown long ago wrote, and as most economic historians know,

Fiscal policy, then, seems to have been an unsuccessful recovery device in the ’thirties—not because it did not work, but because it was not tried.

Which is to say, there was never enough spending to achieve the desired effect. People who know about the New Deal know this—know about Roosevelt’s reluctance to implement direct relief programs, know about the dissolution of CWA in 1934, know the WPA came only in 1935, know that Roosevelt cut it back in 1937-38, know that Keynes wrote Roosevelt in February of 1938 to criticize him for insufficient relief spending for this very reason.

People who don’t know these things are ignorant; people who know these things and say otherwise owing to constraints of space or audience are misleading; people who do so in an outright dishonest way that uses extra words to conceal the facts are lying.

I feel it would be inappropriate to express a hope that Megan’s butt feels better now.

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