Why An “Objective” Economist Attacked Me On Twitter

The fight continues!

The fight continues!

Yesterday, Daniel Beekman at the Seattle Times reported that city councilmember Kshama Sawant sent a sternly worded letter taking issue with aspects of a recent University of Washington study of Seattle’s minimum wage. Sawant had two main areas of contention: first, she questioned some of the methodology of the study, including its approach of frankensteining together a hypothetical “Synthetic Seattle” where the minimum wage didn’t go up. In the real world, Seattle saw lots of good news—higher pay, more jobs, more hours worked—but this imaginary “Synthetic Seattle,” which was compiled together out of lower-wage parts of Washington State, did even better.

But Councilmember Sawant also had a problem with the “anti-minimum wage editorializing” by UW Professor Jacob Vigdor. In a letter signed by all the UW researchers, Vigdor and the other professors responded:

 With regards to Dr. Vigdor’s public commentary, we are very aware that the value of this study rests entirely on the perception that it is an objective, nonpartisan effort. We are also aware, however, that our work product is a public document, subject to partisan interpretation. As you know, selected findings from this study have been used to promote both a positive view of the minimum wage (as in the Bernstein piece) and a negative view (as in the Monson piece).

Dr. Vigdor and other team members have conducted interviews across the media and political spectrum, with full knowledge that anything said can be edited or taken out of context. This is a risk that we can only avoid by refusing contact with the media. As the most misleading representations of the report have been authored by individuals who did not contact any member of our study team, we do not feel that a withdrawal from public commentary on our own work would enhance public understanding.

Hmmm. Who could they be talking about in that second paragraph—the bit referring to the “most misleading representations of the report” and so on? Gosh, I wonder. I wrote the first summary of the UW study back in July, before Professor Vigdor presented it to the City Council, and he famously went ballistic in response, leaving comments on the article, in our Facebook feed, on Twitter, and over email. To my knowledge, Vigdor hasn’t responded as vigorously or as ferociously to anyone—on the left or the right—in the time since.

I stand by my interpretation. Unlike many of the conservative commentators who misconstrue the study as definitive proof that Seattle lost jobs due to the minimum wage, I acknowledge the “Synthetic Seattle” model in my write-up. (Plenty of second-hand conservative sources now repeat the lie that employment is down in Seattle without ever mentioning that employment is only down when considered in relation to the even-higher numbers of the imaginary Synthetic Seattle.) And in fact, in real Seattle, as I said, “wages are up, low-wage employment is up, and the number of hours worked are up.” So what could Vigdor’s problem be? Why hasn’t he tackled these conservative pundits with the same ferocity that he brought to my report?

I couldn’t tell you for sure, but I do find it interesting how the UW team acknowledges that they value “an objective, nonpartisan” stance; they seem to blame any partisan slant that may be attributed to their team as “edited or taken out of context.” Jud Lounsbury has reported at The Progressive that Vigdor has a professional relationship with at least two conservative think tanks, both of which have done considerable work to discredit the minimum wage. Further, Seattlish dug up some of Vigdor’s own old blog posts from 2014 where he wrote that the minimum wage is at once “a lousy anti-poverty program” and “largely a tax on food.” These posts are not edited or taken out of context and they are decidedly not “objective” or “nonpartisan.”

Look: I think objectivity is bunk. Everyone has an agenda. I wouldn’t even be upset if Vigdor just admitted his preconceptions. When scientists perform experiments, they always carry expectations about what’s going to happen. The trick is to be transparent about those expectations, and to report honestly on the findings. This is what we expect of our scientists, and it should be what we expect of our economists.

But for the researchers behind the UW study to claim objectivity as a goal in the same letter that they gloss over Vigdor’s personal failure to be objective is more than a little suspicious.

My lack of objectivity is a matter of record. I believe that when people who work in restaurants make enough money to eat in restaurants, we all do better. I believe that people who threaten the end of the world when the minimum wage goes up are trying to intimidate workers out of the money that they’ve earned. And I believe that everybody’s got an angle, and the people who say they don’t have an angle are the people you should trust the least.

Comments

comments

Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.