Comparing Avocados to Kumquats

by Don Boudreaux on October 21, 2012

in Data, Inequality, The Hollow Middle

Someone – courageously identifying himself or herself as “anonymous” – e-mailed to me this link.  I paste below the full and unedited text of Mr./Ms. anonymous’s accompanying e-mail.  It is, as you will see, sent to me in response to my recent open letter to PBS reporter Paul Solman.

You lie. You lie. You lie shamefully. You tell Koch lies!!!! You lie to you’re [sic] readers that the middle class is not disappearing in America. You lie in your letter to Paul Soloman [sic] that more families are moving up in income and not down in income. This link shows how you lie. YOU LIE!!!!!!!!

Mr./Ms. anonymous – like the author of the colorful comments in the table – apparently believes in comparing apples to oranges.  My letter to Paul Solman did not reference the Census Bureau table that Mr./Ms. anonymous (and his or her colorful inspiration) think that I reference.

In my letter to Paul Solman I reference Census Bureau table #690, entitled “Money Income of Households — Percent Distribution by Income Level, Race, and Hispanic Origin, in Constant (2009) Dollars.”  This table reports, for each year from 1967 through 2009, the percent of American households earning annual money incomes in different brackets – Under $15,000; $15,000 to $24,999; $25,000 to $34,999; $35,000 to $49,999; $50,000 to $74,999; $75,000 to $99,999; and $100,000 and over.  (It also has finer breakdowns for annual incomes of $100,000 and over.)

In my letter I point out that this table points out that, over time – and, in particular, since the mid-1970s (when America’s middle-class allegedly reached the height of its economic well-being) – the percent of all American households earning inflation-adjusted incomes in the lower income brackets is falling while the percent of households earning incomes in the higher brackets is rising.

My agitated anonymous correspondent, however, sends to me – intended as proof that I lie – a table that reports something entirely different from “Money Income of Household — Percent Distribution by Income Level.”  The table (#694) sent to me by my correspondent has data on (as its title clearly says) “Share of Aggregate Income Received by Each Fifth and Top 5 Percent of Households: 1970-2009.”  That is a completely different data set than the one that I referenced in my letter to Paul Solman.

That the share of aggregate income going to upper brackets of income earners (“the top quintile” or the “top 1 percent”) is increasing over time is not remotely inconsistent with the reality that the percentages of U.S. households earning annual inflation-adjusted incomes in each of the lower dollar-income brackets are falling while the percentages of households earning annual inflation-adjusted incomes in each of the higher dollar-income brackets are rising.

The fact that my anonymous correspondent, and the person who supplied the link that my correspondent shared with me, confuse these two phenomena – the fact that these anonymous people miss the vast difference between, on one hand, percentages of households earning annual incomes in various dollar-income brackets and, on the other hand, the “distribution” of aggregate income among quintiles (that is, the percent of aggregate income earned by people in each income-earning quintile) calls into question their ability to analyze data properly and as objectively as possible, as well as their ability to draw plausible conclusions from their analyses.

Epilogue: I’m amused by how the person who assembled the link sent to me by anonymous merely presumes that I must have looked at the 8.7 percent figure (highlighted in green by the link-assembler) and then used that figure as the basis for my letter to Paul Solman.  Indeed, were this presumption not so amusing I would accuse the link-assembler of himself or herself of lying.  But such carelessness and inattentiveness to what’s being said more likely reflects an intellect that deserves pity rather than ethics that deserve criticism.

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