How Ideologues Poison Wikipedia

Bill McBrideBill McBride wrote a very interesting article that I want to expand on, Using Nomimal GDP to Mislead: a Bogus Reagan Wikipedia Sentence. Here’s the sentence, “[Reagan’s] economic policies saw a reduction of inflation from 12.5% to 4.4%, and an average annual growth of GDP of 7.91%; while Reagan did enact cuts in domestic spending, military spending increased federal outlays overall, even after adjustment for inflation.” I’m not that up on this kind of stuff, but I bristled at this bit of propaganda. Two things are clearly wrong with it: (1) Reagan should not be given credit for the reduction in inflation; (2) the GDP growth rate is just wrong — not that I knew what it was, but the US has never seen that kind of growth in my lifetime — no advanced economy does.

McBride pointed out three things. First, the decrease in inflation was due to Paul Volcker at the Fed. It it important to remember that Volcker’s work at the Fed is also probably the reason that Carter didn’t get a second term as president, since his policies really hurt the economy in the second half of Carter’s term. Second, the GDP growth rate is given in nominal terms — not adjusted for inflation. The real growth rate was 3.4%, which happens to have been the same as Carter’s growth rate. Reagan was no magician.

And third, the whole end of the sentence is wrong. Reagan did indeed raise domestic spending even after adjustment for inflation. This has been one of the most annoying things of the Obama era. Always before, during recessions, the federal government increased spending. But the Republicans have stopped Obama from doing this. So last year, we saw 2.4% GDP growth — which looks bad until you consider the drastic decline in government spending, because the Republicans know that their only way to power is to destroy the economy.

McBride is a pretty well known guy, so I was curious to see what happened to Wikipedia. His article was published on Tuesday in the afternoon. By late that night, the passage had been change. It was then technically accurate, while still providing the same basic impression, “During Jimmy Carter’s last year in office (1980), inflation averaged 12.5%, compared with 4.4% during Reagan’s last year in office (1988)… and unadjusted GDP growth averaged 7.4% with a high of 12.2% growth in 1982.” They’ve actually made it worse by adding a deceptive and unnecessary comparison: Carter bad, Reagan good. And it left the largely meaningless unadjusted GDP growth rate, but at least it labeled it.

By this morning, the information was better, but not good, “During Jimmy Carter’s last year in office (1980), inflation averaged 12.5%, compared with 4.4% during Reagan’s last year in office (1988)… and real GDP growth averaged 3.44% with a high of 8.55% in 1983, while nominal GDP growth averaged 7.4%, and peaked at 12.2% in 1982.” So they left in the deceptive comparison to Carter and the nominal garbage data, but at least added the data on the real growth rate.

Notice how there is a reference to Carter regarding inflation, because it makes him look bad. But there is no reason to include Carter in this at all. It could just say, as McBride does, that inflation was 11.8% at the start of Reagan’s term and 4.5% at the end — still deceptive in that it gives Reagan credit for something that he didn’t do, but not too bad. Notice also that when mentioning Reagan’s GDP growth, the writers appear to have not thought it worth comparing to Carter — for obvious (very partisan) reasons.

I like Wikipedia a lot, but it is very prone to this kind of nonsense. Wikipedia provides a way for true believers to literally rewrite history. And they do. You may remember back in 2011, Sarah Palin said that Paul Revere “rang bells” while he was “warning the British” — apparently they were unaware that they were attacking. As a result, Palin fans went to the Paul Revere page and added the necessary new postmodern Sarah Palin history about the bells and who Revere was warning. A change would be made, the editors would take it out. And on and on. Eventually, the editors had to stop changes to the page for a while to let the “controversy” settle down.

That’s all we are seeing with the Reagan Wikipedia page. There are people who have deified Reagan. If they see that Wikipedia is saying that economic growth under Reagan was no better than under Carter, and that Reagan shouldn’t get much if any credit for decreased inflation, these people are going to change it. As much as I like Wikipedia, when it comes to people and issues like this, you really have to be careful.

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