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Watch out for Wikipedia

? Is Productivity Growth Weaker than It Seems? |


| Did the Government Really Hire that Many People? ?

November 01, 2006

Watch out for Wikipedia

Michael Mandel

So I was researching the 'misery index'--the unemployment rate plus the inflation rate--and of course looked at the wikipedia entry. The very first sentence says:

The Misery Index is an economic indicator created by Chicago economist Robert Barro in the 1970s

Okay. I didn't remember that. So I looked further. Under the Wikipedia entry for Barro, it said:

During the 1970s Barro also developed the concept of the Misery Index, which Jimmy Carter publicized during his 1976 presidential campaign, and Ronald Reagan in his 1980 presidential campaign

Boy, that's pretty specific. So I shot off an email to Barro asking him if that was true (it was 5AM in the morning, and I was pretty sleepy). In the meantime, I looked at the site, which says

The misery index was initiated by Chicago Economist Robert Barro in the 1970's

and the Investopedia describes the misery index this way:

The index was initiated in the 1970s by a U.S. economist named Robert Barro

Safety in numbers? Hardly. By then my brain was functioning, despite the early hour, and I was pretty sure all these entries were wrong. Finally I tracked down the truth. In fact, the original misery index was invented by economist Arthur Okun. Barro was responsible for the much more recent "Barro misery index," which he described in a 1999 BusinessWeek column . The Barro misery index includes GDP and interest rates, as well as unemployment and inflation.

The moral of this story: Be very suspicious of Wikipedia information, even if it seems confirmed by other sites.

11:14 AM


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Good comment. I just fixed the Wikipedia article based on this article. For now it's correct (could change in the future though)

Posted by: Ray Lopez at November 1, 2006 12:48 PM

Unfortunately, it is still the best source out there. 99% of wrong info does get corrected over time. Plus, even YOU can correct that entry that you have verified is wrong. That is the beauty of it.

Posted by: Kartik at November 1, 2006 01:09 PM

I wonder if all those other sites used Wikipedia as their source? Colbert's "Wikiality" lives!

By the way, what is the misery index these days? And what would it be if:

A) The government hadn't changed the way it calculated unemployment in January 2003, and

B) The inflation were calculated without all the hedonic games?

Posted by: Brandon W at November 1, 2006 01:53 PM

If only one could correct the misinformation that appears in the NY Times! Wouldn't that be nice.

Posted by: Tom at November 1, 2006 02:53 PM

Actually, I like wikipedia a lot. But we aren't teaching our kids how to adopt the proper skeptical attitude.

Posted by: Mike Mandel at November 1, 2006 03:07 PM


You've probably already read the article, but if not...

There probably aren't any surprising numbers there, but the articles lays out the reality of most of the country (vs the top 1%) quite nicely.

Posted by: Brandon W at November 2, 2006 11:45 AM

so if you went to the miseryindex site first and never went to wikipedia, then your stupid article would be about not trusting what a waste of your time and mine for answering

Posted by: martin at November 2, 2006 12:24 PM

Epilogue. The Wiki article on Robert Barro attributes the Misery Index to him. It is tough to update all of Wiki.

By the way, we created a Wiki in my division to track several engineering processes. It works very well at pushing out about 80% correct information and 20% incorrect information.

Not great you say. Perhaps true. I can't measure it, but I suspect pre-Wiki were were pushing out 50% correct and 50% incorrect information.

Thus, I postulate that even an inaccurate Wiki is better than no Wiki. - pjw

Posted by: Patrick J. Walker at November 3, 2006 08:11 AM

Actually, wasn't wikipedia the first one you found wrong, so shouldn't the lesson be information you find on the internet, not just wikipedia. It just shows that research should start at wikipedia, but not end there, especially if there is information you were skeptical about.

Posted by: Peter at November 3, 2006 08:18 AM

The jobless claims shoot up way beyond expectations (18,000)... The economy produces a meager 92,000 jobs...

And the Unemployment Rate drops .2% to 4.4%?

Doesn't anyone else see the preposterous disconnect? Could someone tell the government that losing $300/mo promoting your Amway "business" does not constitute real employment?

Posted by: Brandon W at November 3, 2006 10:59 AM

Martin, Peter..

It would be interesting to see where the misinformation started first. However, I'm pretty sure that the first stop for most people these days is going to be the wikipedia.

Posted by: Mike Mandel at November 3, 2006 12:05 PM

I've read that wiki is more accurate than traditional book based encyclopedias. The difference is they have a credibility issue since anyone can edit it.

Posted by: Joe Cushing at November 6, 2006 12:50 AM

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