Written in Ink
Written in Ink
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Pro-Austerity Academic Study Bunk Debunked

Online, New York Magazine has a nice profile of the graduate student who found the silly error in the academic study used by austerity-minded politicians to justify cutting spending right when more spending is needed.

"I checked my e-mail, and saw that I had received a reply from Carmen Reinhart," he says. "She said she didn't have time to look into my query, but that here was the data, and I should feel free to publish whatever results I found."

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Herndon pulled up an Excel spreadsheet containing Reinhart's data and quickly spotted something that looked odd.

"I clicked on cell L51, and saw that they had only averaged rows 30 through 44, instead of rows 30 through 49."

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What Herndon had discovered was that by making a sloppy computing error, Reinhart and Rogoff had forgotten to include a critical piece of data about countries with high debt-to-GDP ratios that would have affected their overall calculations. They had also excluded data from Canada, New Zealand, and Australia — all countries that experienced solid growth during periods of high debt and would thus undercut their thesis that high debt forestalls growth.

Herndon was stunned. As a graduate student, he'd just found serious problems in a famous economic study — the academic equivalent of a D-league basketball player dunking on LeBron James. "They say seeing is believing, but I almost didn’t believe my eyes," he says. "I had to ask my girlfriend — who's a Ph.D. student in sociology — to double-check it. And she said, 'I don't think you're seeing things, Thomas.'"

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The mistakes Herndon found were so big, in fact, that even Herndon's professors didn't believe him at first.... [more]

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