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A Sudden Surge of Statistical Confusion

The New York Times and the Washington Post have done some solid reporting on inequality. But this past week doesn’t rank among their finest moments.

Blogging Our Great Divide
February 19, 2015

by Sam Pizzigati

If you’re suddenly feeling confused about inequality, you have a good reason. Two of America’s most authoritative dailies — the New York Times and the Washington Post — have just come out with pieces that suggest that America’s rich aren’t really doing all that well after all.

The Times piece — headlined “Inequality Has Actually Not Risen Since the Financial Crisis” — sums up the most recent work of George Washington University’s Stephen Rose. The Post piece assigns U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (Independent-Vermont) a “Pinocchio” for claiming that “99 percent of new income is going to top 1 percent of Americans.”

Both pieces do readers a disservice. They mislead. In fact, inequality has increased since the Great Recession began, and almost all the gains from the recovery have gone to the richest of the rich.

Analyst Ben Walsh has done the best overall job dissecting the new Times article, combining his own insights with points other critics have been making. As for the new Post contribution to our inequality discourse, Senator Sanders himself offers a solid retort. The Post, to its credit, is running the Sanders response online right below the initial Pinocchio column.

All these articles and columns dive deeply into the relatively abstract summary stats on inequality. But sometimes we need anecdotes to help us make sense of our stats. We have some interesting new ones from the recently concluded antique automobile auctions in Arizona. The 2015 sales have just set some phenomenal new records. Classic models from the likes of Lamborghini and Ferrari, one news report notes, “sold well above their pre-auction estimates,” with some even doubling what the experts predicted.

One auction house active in Arizona, Bonhams, has jumped from $13.5 million in sales in 2013 to $24.8 million in 2015. The auctioneers from Barrett-Jackson dispatched $111 million worth of fine old motor cars last year and another $131 million at this year’s sales.

America’s rich are doing just fine. The statistics tell us that. If you ask them, the auctioneers will, too.

An addendum: Pavlina Tcherneva, over at New Economic Perspectives, has just chimed in with another excellent appraisal of this disappointing New York Times stumble.

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