One of the many odd side effects of having Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for president has been the amount of time very smart people now spend critiquing and debunking claims on which they should not be wasting their time.
Last night, for example, Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted out an image of a bowl of Skittles candy with the comment, “This image says it all. Let's end the politically correct agenda that doesn't put America first. #trump2016.”
The accompanying text read: “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.” His father’s campaign logo appeared below it the Skittles.
Politics, public policy, and simple human decency aside, the Tweet was problematic because of its atrocious grammar and associated lack of clarity. Are there three killer Skittles in the bowl? Or are each of the Skittles so dangerous that just three will kill you?
In the end, most people seemed to assume that there were three theoretically murderous Skittles mixed in with the others. Good folks on the Internet then spent a considerable amount of time running the numbers to prove that Don Jr.’s tweet actually wildly overstates the likelihood of a particular Syrian refugee being a terrorist in disguise.
The problem here is not that the tweet was statistically imprecise -- but rather that treating a glib, social media post as an argument worth engaging is, well, a waste of everyone’s time.
A public relations executive at Skittles parent company won the Internet Monday night with this simple statement of fact: “Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don’t feel it’s an appropriate analogy.”
Last week, the widely respected economic forecasting firm, Macroeconomic Advisers, gave us another example of the Trump campaign’s extraordinary ability to make deeply intelligent people reply to absurd arguments with far more seriousness than they deserve.
In a speech before the Economics Club of NY, Trump, among a number of other improbable promises, said that his policies would create an additional 25 million jobs over the next 10 years. In a brief two-page analysis, MA’s Joel Prakken and Chris Varvares assessed his likelihood of success.
Prakken and Varvares gave Trump the benefit of the doubt, and assumed that his claim included the more than 7 million jobs the Congressional Budget Office already expects the economy to produce in that time frame, leaving Trump to make up the difference with about 18 million extra jobs.
Their analysis is an interesting read, but once you get to paragraphs like this one…
Incidentally, we admit to being perplexed by the rule of thumb. Firstly, it is a “semi-log” relationship. Every extra percentage increase in GDP gives the same absolute increase in employment. Today, a 1.2 million increase in employment is a 0.8 percent increase, but that percentage declines every year as employment increases. This doesn’t seem sensible. Secondly, if we think about the rule of thumb as a sort of Okun’s law, at today’s level of employment it implies that a 1 percent increase in GDP lowers the unemployment rate by about ¾ percentage point, significantly more than the textbook version of the famous relationship between the output and unemployment gaps.
...you start to feel as though Prakken and Varvares put more thought into this critique than Trump put into his whole speech.
In the end, they find that for Trump to make good on his promise, the decades-long slide in the US labor force participation rate would have to execute an immediate about-face, and soar to the highest rates ever recorded within the space of 10 years.
After some more analysis of the possible effects of marginal tax rate changes and the tension between the “substitution effect” and the “income effect” on labor force participation, they determine, “In short, we consider the rise in the participation rate implied by Trump’s figures as simply not credible.”
When I was in elementary school, a math teacher cautioned our parents not to use Algebra to help us with the simple math problems we were learning to solve.
“You don’t need a sledgehammer to crack a walnut,” she said.
Similarly, maybe we don’t need high-level statistical and economic analysis to debunk poisonous and/or nonsensical claims from Team Trump. Calling them what they are -- nonsense -- might be giving them all the consideration they deserve.