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Friday, May 27, 2005

Just what Minnesota doesn't need

Posted by: Jambo / 12:59 PM

Yesterday marked the return of Katherine Kersten, perhaps the worst columnist the Strib has ever had. Granted she will now be sucking in the Metro section rather than the A section so fewer stomaches will be turned, but still...

I see that she has at least moved away from the the Bride of Frankenstein Home Perm kit she used to use but I see that she can still do her spot-on impression of a constipated school marm.

Her specialty in years past was the rote recitation of warmed over Cato Institute (or AEI or CAE, they all run together) press releases delivered with all the literary flourish of a spread sheet. Now she's at it again in her new space.

Yeah, Katherine, we get it, you don't like paying taxes. What surprises me is that she dredges up that tired and untrue conservative claim that Sweden has a lower standard of living than Mississippi, and it's all because Swedes pay such high taxes. (KK, actually uses the EU as a whole, but the original argument that floated around for a few months used Sweden since it was the "worst" tax offender. I'll stick with that since it is a clearer contrast and frankly the diversity of nations now in the EU makes KK's argument pretty pointless) Without any real research anyone who had visited both places could likely tell you that this is bogus. But the evidence "backing up" this claim is that the GDP per head in Sweden is lower than GDP per head in the United States in general and Mississippi in particular and that is actually correct. But is that really a useful measure of living standards? What the figure fails to acknowledge is that, unlike Americans, Swedes have universal health insurance, a low crime rate, free education thru college, and generous vacation and retirement benefits. As a whole they are better educated and live longer than Americans, to say nothing of Mississippians. Americans also spend 25% more hours at work every year than Swedes. (I'm guessing that accounts for a pretty high percentage of the GDP difference right there. I'll have to do some searching.) All those things contribute to the standard of living but are not shown by the GDP standard.

But you don't even need to know any of that to know that KK's argument is full of crap. After all, if higher taxes destroy the standard of living that surely must hold between states, right? KK points out that Minnesota is one of the highest taxed states in the country. By KK's reasoning (and I use that term loosely) it should therefore have a lower standard of living than states with lower tax rates. It turns out Minnesota has the 9th highest per capita GNP (Gross STATE Product, actually) in the country. Let's try to find a low tax state for comparison, shall we? Hold on while I spin the giant wheel of states to choose one at random. Looks like it's going to be...Mississippi! We now consult the GSP chart and see that Mississippi is in fact 51st. What?! That can't be right. That would mean that KK must be, um, what's the phrase I'm looking for? Oh yeah, full of crap.

(By the way, if you don't like comparing states you can also compare nations. By KK's definition Sweden is indeed poorer than the US, but it is also richer than Britain and Germany, two countries closer (but no doubt still far away from) KK's envisioned no tax paradise.)

These are ridiculous arguments and from some people they would be considered disingenuous but you can't make that claim about KK since it is unlikely she knows or cares about the truth behind her spurious claims. After all, I found this data in about 10 minutes of internet searching in my spare time. She's a one trick pony, that trick being stomping her foot in time with Republican talking points just long enough to give the illusion of thought. Why the Strib would hire her as anything other than a vacuous strawman of the right is beyond me. Maybe they really are part of a liberal media trying to make conservatives look dumb by trotting out a clown show to present their views.

Oh, one last note. No KK column would be complete without praising some Republican office holder. This week it's tim Pawlenty:

I suspect that the governor, like most Minnesotans, would like nothing more than to see poor, dependent mothers and children become self-sufficient and fulfilled.
Really? You think so? There is absolutely NOTHING he would like more than that? If that is true surely he made that the focus of his campaign. He maybe even took some kind of pledge about helping poor mothers. If anyone can find a record of that let me, or more importantly Katherine, know. In fact if there's ANY evidence that Tim Pawlenty gives a damn about the state's poor I'd like to know.


Not to be an annoying stickler (I reserve that mainly for Hammer's posts), but if you're going to use the phrase "standard of living," you probably should accept that it is generally defined as GDP per capita. As such, yes, you're absolutely right, it's not as useful as other measures. Quality of life would be a better phrase for what you're talking about. Alas, that's a little tricky to put a number on, so it's harder for simpleton columnists in trashy newspapers to use.

By Blogger Joseph Thvedt, at 1:55 PM  

It's good to have sticklers. Keeps us honest.

By Blogger Hammer, at 2:07 PM  

I realize that I am kind of conflating two different concepts but I mainly do so because the folks who have made the Standard of Living comparison are doing so with the intent of making readers think that taxes in Europe have somehow plunged them into a state of poverty. They want people to think "Wow, if taxes are too high we will end up like Mississippi." They use they use the term to create a false perception. If conservatives wanted to make an honest point (excuse me, I just shot milk out my nose) they would simply report the differences in GDP per head. And even that hides some real issues. In a country of 4 people, three of whom were slaves, that had a GNP of $48,000 the Standard of Living to KK would be $12,000. No one would prefer to live in that country to one with 4 free people each making $10,000 each even tho it clearly had a lower GDP per person. Well OK, one person would make that choice, the slave owner. Your point is nevertheless well taken.

By Blogger Jambo, at 3:19 PM  

Jambo: You are, of course, correct about the discontinuity between "standard of living" (GP/capita) and taxation/capita. The real gem of your argument is not in the simple averages you compare, but the medians! - You may be thinking "what kind of person gets excited about a median?" Remember the vanishing middle class? While the rich in America are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. The result is an inverse bell-curve where the "average" represents almost no one.

By Blogger Cosmosis, at 3:36 PM  

I am just the kind of geek who can get excited about medians vs. means. There is a great quote I alwyas think of when this topic comes up. I can't attribute it since I don't actually follow the NBA (my guess is that someone here can quickly post the name) but a player for the Bulls once told a reporter "I will always remember this as the night Michael Jordan and I combined for 52 points." Jordan of course scored 50 of them.

(Yes, I know I could google the quote but I have only some much time to devote to research these days.)

By Blogger Jambo, at 3:55 PM  

I think she's just jealous that Sweden ranks better than the US in the level of democracy, freedom of the press, political rights, and corruption. (

Personally, I've enjoyed Stockholm.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:09 PM  

I've been to Denmark briefly and Malmo very, very briefly. I was young, drunk, and stupid, but I felt safe walking with a friend around Copenhagen until the bakeries opened. I didn't speak the language, could hardly see straight, but I felt safe.

Is there a city in the United States where I would feel that safe? Maybe Madison, but only because I used to know it so well.

By Blogger Hammer, at 9:04 PM  

Also check out Anti-Kersten.

By Blogger Hammer, at 7:12 AM  

I have been to Malmo, Stockholm, and Copenhagen. And every time we were out late and wandering dark streets (beer might have been involved) I felt far safer than times when I've been in any American city.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:42 PM  

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