At times I can’t tell whether the writers and editors at the New York Times are just plain stupid, or supremely clever. For example, this entire piece is little short of an exercise in obfuscation and political propaganda, misrepresenting data repeatedly to shill for the argument – entirely false, that the economic situation of the average American is getting better, and hence, that Donald Trump is wrong.
Well, looking at the data you can concoct that argument, but it isn’t there in the data. So either Mr. Applebaum does not remember his high-school math, or, that he and his editors, believe that the ordinary New York Times reader is too stupid to remember her high school math.
For example, here is how they define ‘median income’ in the article:
“The median income is the amount that divides households evenly between those that make less and those that make more.”
That is not what median income is.
To use words such as ‘divides…evenly’ or ‘middle’ when describing the median is very misleading, as any high school math student knows. In fact, these words are used to fool us into thinking and confusing the median with the mean. A median number is just the number – any number, that appears at the center of a list of numbers ordered in increasing order. It can be any number, and it has 1) no relationship to the number before it or after it, and 2) it tells us nothing about the meaning or significance of the list itself. It is entirely independent of the value of the numbers below it, or the numbers above it. That is, the median is just a number, and even if 1 household among millions ended up with a small increase, while every other household showed no increase, the median can increase. a median has no relationship to real values in the pattern, so reading it is entirely misleading! the median income does not ‘divide’ anything – the use of that word is where the trick is done. the median income is just the middle number.
For example, the median of both the below sets is the same.
See how that works. And see how the writer, or the statisticians, do not tell us the standard deviation or spread of the data! Why is that? It is obvious why that is, because than the trick would be revealed. Looking at the median without looking at the standard deviation is meaningless. In fact, this fact is discussed right in the article itself, but towards the bottom, Mr. Appelbaum adds this statement, which ought to have cautioned the headlines, but of course, did not:
“The distribution of income in the United States remains tilted toward the affluent. Last year’s gains by lower-income households were not enough to shift measures of income inequality.
The data also was a mixed bag for minority groups. Poverty rates fell most sharply for African-American and Hispanic households, but their income gains were smaller than for white households.”
And there you have it – median income can increase, but income inequality can get bigger and bigger at the same time because the median has nothing to do with the real values. So what the numbers hide, and the way The New York Times has hidden them, is by not telling you 1) the historical trend of the numbers (are they better over time or worse), and 2) by not revealing the spread of data in the middle of which this median income number appears.
Furthermore, we are not told how this median number was arrived at i.e what the data set was. A median is affected by the numbers you place into the set. Saskia Sassen has reminded us how states manipulate numbers be ejecting populations that tend to skew them – they are labelled ‘not in the market’ or ‘unemployable’ or simply not counted. these are what she called ‘expelled’ populations that no longer register in the interests of the state.
We get a hint of something amiss in the article itself when we see the graph on the left, and its footnote which reads: “methodology changed in 2013*. So lets see, a sudden spike in the median occurs right after a counting methodology is changed, and that change suddenly shows a rise in a number, and yet we have no clue what this ‘change in methodology’ actually was!
This is a very typical behavior of governments that need to show ‘strong’ numbers – method of counting is simply changed. Pakistan and India, always trying to show falling poverty levels, are masters at this. The reality remains bleak, but our statistics show that poverty is falling, and everyone can go home happy. The very suspicious correlation between a change in counting method, and the upward spike in median, falling spike in poverty, suggests we need to take a closer look at how this method was changed.
But of course, Mr. Appelbaum, already proving his weak math skills, is not the one to ask such rude questions. After all, journalists do not ask rude questions, but instead, thoughtlessly quote a whole host of government spokespersons telling us life is getting better. And that is what this article is filled with: lots and lots of government spoke persons quotes about how its all becoming better. In fact, the concern about the timing of this is actually mentioned in the article, but strangely not commented on again:
“The data was released into a heated presidential race, where Democrats seized on the statistics to promote Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and undercut Donald J. Trump’s dark assessment of the nation’s well-being.”
Anyone reading the article will walk away with caution, realising that the numbers quoted by Democrats are being done so at this point more as weapons of political advantage than as facts. They are being released to show the Democratic party – the same party whose apparatchiks have destroyed this economy, who golden boy Clinton destroyed the protections of hundreds of millions of Americans, the same party that continues to coddle up to the super-rich, which screwing over the super-working class, is actually doing something to change the situation. Mr. Appelbaum and the New York Times offers us Obama’s quotes, Pelosi’s quotes, and a distorted reading of statistics, to sell us a lie. This crass shilling for Clinton has led a situation where the New York Times has become a pamphlet for Clinton, and surrendered even a mild pretense at the act of journalism and critical questioning of power. Manipulating numbers, hiding trends (continuing downwards), and misrepresenting how to read them, is there for all to see.