WaPo: How Democrats can be progressive without being irresponsible

Fred Hiatt (Washington Post, 4/9/17) argues that Democrats can be “honest” by offering an “entrepreneurial vision” rather than “pie in the sky.”

The Washington Post editorial page is, of course, famous for absurdly claiming, in an editorial defending NAFTA, that Mexico’s GDP had quadrupled between 1987 and 2007. (According to the IMF, Mexico’s GDP increased by 83 percent over this period.) Incredibly, the paper still has not corrected this egregious error in its online version.

This is why it is difficult to share the concern of Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor, that we will see increasingly dishonest public debates (Washington Post, 4/9/17). Hiatt and his team at the editorial page have no qualms at all about making up nonsense when pushing their positions. While I’m a big fan of facts and data in public debate, the Post‘s editorial page editor is about the last person in the world who should be complaining about dishonest arguments.

Just to pick a trivial point in this piece, Hiatt wants us to be concerned about automation displacing workers. As fans of data know, automation is actually advancing at a record slow pace, with productivity growth averaging just 1.0 percent over the last decade. (This compares to 3.0 percent in the 1947-to-1973 Golden Age and the pick-up from 1995 to 2005.)

If Hiatt is predicting an imminent pick-up, as do some techno-optimists, then he was being dishonest in citing projections from the Congressional Budget Office showing larger budget deficits. If productivity picks up, so will growth and tax revenue, making the budget picture much brighter than what CBO is projecting.

It is also striking to see Hiatt warning about automation, the day after the Post editorial page complained that too many people have stopped working because of an overly generous disability program. That piece told readers:

At a time of declining workforce participation, especially among so-called prime-age males (those between 25 and 54 years old), the nation’s long-term economic potential depends on making sure work pays for all those willing to work. And from that point of view, the Social Security disability program needs reform.

Okay, so yesterday we had too few workers and today we have too many because of automation. These arguments are complete opposites. The one unifying theme is that the Post is worried that we are being too generous to the poor and middle class.


Economist Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. A version of this post originally appeared on CEPR’s blog Beat the Press (4/20/17).

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