Watching the Watchman

WATCHING THE WATCHMAN….Poor old Donald Luskin. Even when he’s right, he makes an idiot of himself.

Here’s the background: in Paul Krugman’s column last week he said that California’s spending growth between 1989-90 and 2002-03 was 10% after adjusting for inflation and population growth. Luskin says that’s not true: Krugman’s source actually pegs the growth at 13.4%.

Now, in the context of what Krugman was saying, rounding off to 10% isn’t that big a deal, and it doesn’t change the essential correctness of the point he was making. Still, 13% is the right number, and Krugman should have used it. Score one for Luskin.

But then, apparently swept away by the excitement of finally finding a genuine inaccuracy in one of Krugman’s columns, Luskin pulls a full frontal Dowd by demanding that the New York Times publish a retraction:

And when will it correct Krugman’s flatly deceptive claim that this growth “was simply a matter of keeping up with the population and inflation,” when calculations of real per capita growth, by definition, already take those factors into account?

Goodness. Would Paul Krugman “flatly” claim that California’s spending growth was a simple matter of keeping up with population and inflation? Of course not. Here’s what Krugman said:

As analysts at the nonpartisan California Budget Project point out, real state spending per capita was only 10 percent higher in 2002-03 than it was in 1989-90 ? that is, most of the spending growth was simply a matter of keeping up with the population and inflation.

Ah, so “most” of California’s spending growth was due to inflation and population gains. And indeed it was. Total spending growth during that period was about 130%, and 13.4% is a small fraction of that. (As it happens, this is actually not a very compelling argument on Krugman’s part, but it is the argument he made.)

So why did Luskin decide to leave out the word “most”? And when will he apologize for deliberately misquoting Krugman?

Answers are left as exercises for the reader.

UPDATE: Weirder and weirder. Luskin emails Glenn Reynolds to say that of course he understood exactly what Krugman was saying, but many other people were confused and Krugman ought to write more clearly. So maybe it doesn’t require a correction at all.

Well, fine. But if he understood what Krugman was saying, why did he write the paragraph above? And why did he Dowdify the quote?

UPDATE 2: In comments, Sam Jackson points out that about $4 billion of California’s “spending increase” is actually just weird accounting: vehicle fees were reduced in the 1990s, and the state reimbursed local government for the lost revenue. Although this is actually a tax cut, here in Lotus Land it is counted as a spending increase. If you remove this, the real per capita spending increase is ? ta da! ? about 10%, so it appears that Luskin doesn’t even get credit for the alleged arithmetic error. Poor guy.

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