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Hopefulness and Ignorance
06/27/2003

Apart from some optimistic words for aspiring writers, John Derbyshire's blog-like column today presents this as an indication that his entire worldview could be incorrect:

Now along comes Philippe Legrain in The New Republic with a fine contrarian piece arguing that The U.S. is falling behind Europe and will continue to do so! "While living standards in the United States have risen by a healthy 16.1 percent over the past eight years, they are up 18.3 percent in the European Union... Not only does the European Union as a whole outpace the United States [in labor productivity, 1990-2002], so do ten of the 14 individual EU member states for which statistics are available." Holy triumphalism, Batman! Could it be that my entire worldview is just totally wrong?

I don't know where Legrain got those numbers from, and I ain't gonna give The New Republic money in order to find out, but I seem to recall looking into a similar factoid not long ago. The trick lies in the thing being described: "living standards." What's included in that? For one thing, you'll likely find "percentage of the week spent working," or somesuch, that would make a country such as France look like... ahem... a worker's paradise. It's also probable that "free healthcare" would boost the numbers, without taking into account the quality or efficiency of that care (or, to be sure, the necessity of relying on American medical ingenuity).

All of this goes to show that one can have "a clue what's going on," but that it takes a great deal of thought and research. The majority of pundits (although particularly liberal ones, to my experience) simply look at partial pictures — whichever part supports what they want to believe. Perhaps Derb's poet friend's saying should go like this instead: "Very few are willing to admit what's actually going on. Some people fake objectivity better than others, that's all."

Posted by Justin Katz @ 02:24 PM EST