Misinformation at the Times

The New York Times’ web site says that today’s most emailed article was Tom Friedman’s column titled Sunday News Quiz. Friedman writes:

I’ll give you 10 news stories from the past few weeks and you tell me what they all have in common.

Friedman than recapitulates, in a sentence or two, ten recent news stories, all of which are intended to reflect badly on the Bush administration; the general theme–reminiscent of leftism of the 60s and 70s–is that there is plenty of money for defense, while social programs are being cut. Friedman concludes:

So what is the common denominator of all these news stories? Wait, wait, don’t tell me. I want to tell you. The common denominator is a country with a totally contradictory and messed-up set of priorities.

There is a fundamental problem, however, with Friedman’s attempt to show that our national priorities are wrong. The news stories he cites are largely either false, or mischaracterized by him. Let’s take them one at a time.
“1. The report that Colin Powell told President Bush a few weeks ago that we do not have enough troops in Iraq and that we don’t control the terrain.” There isn’t space to recap the entire Iraq debate here, but suffice it to say: the commanders on the ground say we have enough troops. And if Friedman thinks our army is too small, why does he go on to say that the defense budget is too large?
“2. The report that the Pentagon’s $10 billion-a-year effort to build an antimissile shield, and have a basic ground-based version in place by the end of this year, ran into difficulty two weeks ago when the first test in almost two years failed because the interceptor missile didn’t take off.” Friedman mischaracterizes the aborted test, apparently relying on an incorrect Reuters report which we debunked here.
“3. The report that the Bush-Republican budget for 2005 contained a $100 million cut in federal funding to the National Science Foundation.” This one I think is true; the cut represents a 1.9% decline.
“4. The report that at a time when young Americans are competing head to head with young Chinese, Indians and Eastern Europeans more than ever, the Bush team is trimming support for the Pell grant program, which helps poor and working-class young Americans get a higher education.” Friedman apparently fell for the false report in the Washington Post which we debunked here, and missed the Post’s correction.
“5. The report this month that children in Asian countries once again surpassed U.S. fourth graders and eighth graders in the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. (U.S. eighth graders did improve their scores from four years ago, but U.S. fourth graders remained stagnant.)” The TIMSS data show that American 8th graders are above average in mathematics and well above average in science. It’s true that kids in several Asian countries outperform American students, but Asian-American students likewise outperform their peers here, for reasons that have nothing to do with school funding. To the extent that Friedman’s main complaint is that we aren’t spending enough on education, see the charts below.
“6. The report this month that the Bush administration has reduced America’s contribution to global food aid programs intended to help the world’s hungry feed themselves.” This refers to the U.N.’s Millenium Project. In light of what we now know about the U.N. under Kofi Annan’s leadership, is it unreasonable to question whether lavishly funding the U.N.’s programs is the best way to spend our taxpayers’ money?
“7. The report that U.S. military spending this year is running at about $450 billion.” And a good thing it is.
“8. The report that Donald Rumsfeld was confronted by troops in Iraq about the fact that they did not have enough armor on their vehicles and were having to scrounge for makeshift armor to protect themselves.” Another hoax, as we pointed out here and here.
“9. The report that among President Bush’s top priorities in his second term is to simplify the tax code and to make the sweeping tax cuts from his first term permanent.” This is the bottom line, of course: Friedman wants higher taxes; like most people who work for the Times, and unlike nearly all reputable economists–I’m excluding Paul Krugman here–he thinks high taxes are per se good.
“10. The report that the U.S. dollar continued to hover near record lows against the euro.” Which is a good thing if you’re an American exporter, and a bad thing if you’re an American importer. Note that Friedman and others at the Times will fight the Bush administration’s efforts to balance the budget tooth and nail, even though reducing the deficit would tend to support the dollar’s value.
So, while some of what Friedman says is true, much of it is simply misinformation. But let’s make a more fundamental point: Friedman’s key contention is that America’s priorities are out of whack because we are not spending enough money on education and foreign aid. This claim is absurd. Let’s look at education spending first. Check out the actual data from the Department of Education. The U.S. spends more per capita on secondary education than any country except Switzerland:
oecd.gif
Expenditures for primary and secondary education have doubled since 1990:
expend.gif
Are there problems with our education system? Sure, but they have nothing to do with “priorities” as Friedman means the term; i.e., budgetary priorities. Our problem stems from the fact that we put the welfare of administrators and teachers’ unions above that of students. But on this topic, Friedman has nothing to say, and his newspaper bitterly opposes the only practical solution on the table, school choice.
Friedman’s second criticism of America’s priorities is that we don’t spend enough on foreign aid. Here, like most liberals, he falls into the trap of equating “spending” with “government spending.” What is unique about America is that most contributions to foreign countries come from individual citizens and churches, not from the federal government:

Gauging national generosity solely by government giving ignores new economic realities. Until a decade ago, most international resources flowing into developing countries came from governments. But in 1992, foreign direct
investment and financial markets took off in emerging economies. For the first time, developing countries were attracting the kind of private capital that creates and sustains development. As financial flows went private, so did foreign assistance. While ODA stagnated, private giving skyrocketed.
Europeans and the Japanese continue to give primarily through their governments, but the OECD’s outdated measure fails to take into account how Americans now give abroad. In 2000, the last year for which comparative figures are available, U.S. ODA totaled $9.9 billion. This figure includes the budgets of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Peace Corps, contributions to the World Bank, and some State and Defense Department humanitarian assistance. Together, these programs account for just over one-sixth of total U.S. assistance — public and private — to developing countries. Private giving makes up more than 60 percent. The remainder — $12.7 billion in 2000 — is government aid that, although not within ODA guidelines, is still foreign assistance. This includes aid to Israel, Russia, the Central Asian Republics, and central and eastern European nations and support for the National Endowment for Democracy and international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund.

Friedman concludes: “If we were actually having a serious national debate, this is what we would be discussing, but alas, 9/11 has been deftly exploited to choke any debate.” Actually, Tom, there is a debate going on. The New York Times just isn’t part of it, because it operates at too low a level of information to be useful to knowledgeable news consumers.
UPDATE: Reader Carrick Talmadge thinks I was too kind to Friedman, with respect to his statement that the administration’s 2005 budget contains a $100 million (1.9%) cut in funding for the National Science Foundation:

This may be true, but it is misleading. Here are some more statistics:
total NIH funding: 2.1% increase (http://www.aamc.org/advocacy/library/laborhhs/labor0003.htm)
total NIST funding: 12.6% increase (http://www.aip.org/fyi/2004/153.html)
total DOE funding: 2.9% increase (http://www.aip.org/fyi/2004/151.html)
total NASA funding: 4.5% increase (http://www.aip.org/fyi/2004/150.html)
The AIP site gives a lot more particulars area by area. Some programs took hits, others got windfalls. In other words, a pretty typical year for research.

FURTHER UPDATE: Reader Dave Casper has more:

[Friedman] first raised the NSF budget red herring in an editorial (“Fly Me to the Moon”) about a month ago.

Responses