The Fuzzy Math in Douthat's Defense of Paul Ryan

Reading Ross Douthat's New York Times column today, I was struck by his assertion that the median income for a family of four in the United States is $94,900, which seemed exceptionally implausible. I didn't have time to do the math this morning, but looking at the census data, it was obvious that this was erroneous, since only a handful of states had median incomes of $94,900, and most were way under. Fortunately, Dean Baker did do the math, and Douthat was indeed making it up:

Ross Douthat struck another blow against fact-based arguments when he told readers that the median family of four has an income of $94,900. Douthat warned that if the Bush tax cuts are allowed to expire in 24 years the median family would be paying a marginal tax rate of 39 percent on their labor income.

If Douthat wanted to base this argument in reality then he would have had to start with a median income for a family of four of $75,700. This is what the Census Bureau reports. Douthat overstated the median income for a family of four by more than 25 percent. But hey, it's for a good cause, he wants to keep taxes low.

Whoops! Douthat is writing an opinion column, but I would like to think that his editors don't think he's entitled to his own facts.  And the fake fact is crucial to Douthat's argument, as it both exaggerates the tax burden a typical family would face if existing law were to be carried forward and implicitly understates the gross inequalities of income distribution in America. It probably says something that apparently nobody looking at the column thought that Douthat's bogus figures were implausible enough to be worth checking.

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