Gene Epstein, economics editor for Barron's magazine, has written a new book called Econospinning that promises to reveal "how to read between the lines when the media manipulate the numbers". Unfortunately, Epstein doesn't deliver on that promise. Instead, he lines up a few targets and goes after specific examples of their liberal use of economic data to suit their own political agendas. When I say "liberal" use, there's a double meaning – most of Epstein's targets are those on the left end of the political spectrum.
The first half of the book could conceivably have been titled "Paul Krugman is a big fat idiot", as Epstein cites examples of where he believes the New York Times columnist twisted employment data in an election year to paint an unflattering picture of the U.S. economy. It's difficult to decipher whether Epstein has valid arguments in the maze of data he offers, but in fairness I may just not be smart enough. What I couldn't help but think, however, was that when it came to his arguments against Krugman and others, those indicted had no opportunity to defend themselves, thus making it no clearer whether they were econospinners or whether Epstein might be as well.
That may be the nature of this type of book, but it doesn't help readers understand who's telling the truth versus who's spinning the numbers.
Other Epstein targets in Econospinning: Steven Levitt's argument in Freakonomics that legalizing abortion resulted in reduced crime, Barbara Ehrenreich's report on the difficulty of poor people getting ahead in the book Nickel and Dimed, and CNN's Lou Dobbs. Again, other than a couple of half-hearted swipes at The Wall Street Journal and Alan Greenspan, the majority of those targeted represent the political left, which calls into question Epstein's motives.
Econospinning is at its best when it goes after the methods of economic data gathering versus the conclusions of those who interpret it. For example, he makes a convincing argument against the government's reporting of monthly payroll and unemployment data, saying this data is often revised significantly (with revisions ignored after the spin associated with the initial release of numbers) or reported upon breathlessly even when results are statistically insignificant.
Unfortunately, for readers who buy Econospinning in hopes of understanding who's honest and who's blowing smoke, there's no assistance forthcoming. In fact, despite marketing the book as a guide to "reading between the lines", Epstein admits he's done no such thing in Econospinning's final two paragraphs:
Finally, I had planned a chapter of advice to the average reader. You'd like to know what's happening to the economy, but with all that econospinning out there, how do you cope?
In this case, I ended up having far less to say than I had thought. I conclude instead on an upbeat note: If the people attacked in this book actually read it, maybe their stuff will improve.
For those of us not occupying the political extremes, this seems less like an upbeat note and more like a lame conclusion.