Inequality may be complex, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make sense of it

The Fraser Institute has weighed in on the income inequality debate with a report called “Income inequality: measurement sensitivities” that reviews the statistical measurement of income inequality in Canada.

The report quite rightly points out that there are many nuances in the measurement of income, and income inequality, and that the results vary substantially depending upon how economists and statisticians deal with them. Is income measured by earnings, or by total income that includes not just business and investment income but also government transfers? Should it be measured before or after taxes? And should we be looking at total family income or try to represent this as individual income by accounting for family size?

The analysis is carefully done and clearly presented, and though it covers ground that is pretty well standard for many economists working in this area, it helps to clarify the issues for a broader audience.

But the study concludes, in the words of the screaming press release, that there is “No income inequality crisis in Canada when it’s properly measured.”

That is the wrong inference to be making. What the study is missing is a coherent understanding of the link the different measures it so accurately calculates. As a result it misses important policy lessons.

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How to think about “think” tanks

Kady O'Malley Tweet on Think Tanks 1

It is sometimes said that think tanks are good for democracy; indeed the more of them, the better. If there are more ideas in the public arena battling it out for your approval, then it’s more likely that the best idea will win, and that we will all have better public policies. But intuitively many of us have trouble believing this, have trouble knowing who is being truthful, and don’t know who to trust.

This battle of ideas, studies, and statistics has the potential to make many of us cynical about the whole process, and less trusting of all research and numbers. If a knowledgeable journalist like the Canadian Kady O’Malley expresses a certain exasperation that think-tank studies always back up “the think-tank’s existing position,” what hope is there for the rest of us? A flourishing of think tanks just let’s politicians off the hook, always allowing them to pluck an idea that suits their purposes, and making it easier to justify what they wanted to do anyways.

Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that think tanks produce studies confirming their (sometimes hidden) biases. After all this is something we all do. We need to arm ourselves with this self-awareness. If we do, then we can also be more aware of the things in a think tank’s make-up that can help in judging its credibility, and also how public policy discussion should be structured to help promote a sincere exchange of facts and ideas.

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