Monday, May 31, 2010

Robert Samuelson would not make a good statistician

Robert Samuelson is taking considerable heat for this column in the Washington Post complaining about the way we measure poverty. Dean Baker and Mark Thoma posted detailed and highly critical responses that listed several problems with Samuelson's argument. Both of them, however, skipped over at least one serious statistical flaw in the column.

Here's the quote from Samuelson:
Second, the poor's material well-being has improved. The official poverty measure obscures this by counting only pre-tax cash income and ignoring other sources of support. These include the earned-income tax credit (a rebate to low-income workers), food stamps, health insurance (Medicaid), and housing and energy subsidies. Spending by poor households from all sources may be double their reported income, reports a study by Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute. Although many poor live hand-to-mouth, they've participated in rising living standards. In 2005, 91 percent had microwaves, 79 percent air conditioning and 48 percent cellphones.
The fallacy here is closely related to the phenomena of the wrong-way coefficient. You fit a model and you see a statistically significant variable with the wrong sign. For a fairly silly example, you build a model predicting how long it takes travellers to get from New York City to DC and you find that the indicator for being searched by a uniformed officer has a negative coefficient which would suggest that being searched somehow shortens your travel time. The explanation for this counterintuitive result is that there's a relationship between this variable and one or more of the other variables in your model. In this case there's a strong correlation between being searched and flying vs. driving.

For people living in residences with functioning kitchens, good ventilation and a land line, getting a microwave, an air conditioner and a prepaid cellphone clearly represents an increase in well being. If, however, there is an inverse relationship among the poor between having a stove/having a microwave, or ventilation/AC or land line/cell, then the high incidence rates could easily indicate a lower standard of living.

For an example of how not having a stove could make having a microwave more likely, check out this story from NPR:
So many immigrants, homeless people and others of limited means living in single-room occupancies (SROs) have no kitchens, no legal or official place to cook. To get a hot meal, or eat traditional foods from the countries they've left behind, they have to sneak a kind of kitchen into their places. Crock pots, hot plates, microwaves and toaster ovens hidden under the bed. And now, the latest and safest appliance, the appliance that comes in so many colors it looks like a modern piece of furniture: the George Foreman Grill. It is, quite literally, a hidden kitchen.
For me, a George Foreman grill would be a luxury purchase, but not having one doesn't mean I'm worse off than the next guy I see pushing a shopping cart with all of his belongings down the street.


  1. The primary problem with being poor in modern America is not that you can't afford to buy enough stuff, it's that you can't afford to move away from other poor people.

  2. Along the same lines, you often can't afford to live where the jobs are.

  3. So true. I went to the Philippines last year and was surprised to learn that a lot of people without a clear source of income had cell phones. When I asked my wife what the deal was she said that the area where she comes from and where we were staying never had landlines, didn't have the infrastructure to support it.

    I'm only an undergraduate econ student, but I was floored by such shoddy work by an economist who is supposed to be trained for years and years to avoid such ignorance, or in this case maybe bias (confirmation?).

  4. I read on another blog that Samuelson is not an economist, and has never had any formal economics training.

  5. On wiki it says he majored in government at Harvard. So I guess he had to have had some sort of statistical training along with classes on public economics. I don't know, just guessing. Either way, we know just from the things he says that he's not fully qualified nor fully informed. We also know that some economists on the right and right wing think tanks and right wing media like Fox love to present such opinion under the veil of rigorous academics or good journalism when it clearly fails to be anything but those two things.