Cothran is always wrong

Martin Cothran asks: Are there really 15.1 million poor people in the United States?

Short answer: Yes. Cothran doesn’t actually answer, but strongly implies that he thinks the answer is: no. To justify this, he claims:

A multi-millionaire who owns several houses (with servants’ quarters), matching his and hers Bentleys, a luxury yacht, and a private jet could find himself listed as “in poverty” in the United States.…

the United State Census–where all those statistics are coming from telling us that 15.1 percent of Americans are living in poverty–takes account only of income for the year. So if a rich person shows a loss (which is quite common) or has fancy accountants who can reduce his adjusted gross income to below about $22,000 (assuming a family of four), he is counted as poor by the Census.

(Along the way, he also misspells Warren Buffett’s name.)

Cothran is confusing the IRS, the agency concerned with adjusted gross income, with the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the folks who define and report on poverty rates. Those groups don’t report adjusted gross income, they report “real median household income.” Here’s how that’s defined, from the report Cothran links to above (Appendix A):


How Income Is Measured

For each person 15 years and older in the sample, the Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC) asks questions on the amount of money income received in the preceding calendar year from each of the following sources:

1. Earnings
2. Unemployment compensation
3. Workers’ compensation
4. Social security
5. Supplemental security income
6. Public assistance
7. Veterans’ payments
8. Survivor benefits
9. Disability benefits
10. Pension or retirement income
11. Interest
12. Dividends
13. Rents, royalties, and estates and trusts
14. Educational assistance
15. Alimony
16. Child support
17. Financial assistance from outside of the household
18. Other income

You’ll note that this doesn’t allow the sorts of deductions that go into the IRS’s definition of adjusted gross income. It’s a measure of how much money you take in, even if you spend it on stuff the IRS lets you deduct. The report explains:

Data on income collected in the ASEC by the U.S. Census Bureau cover money income received (exclusive of certain money receipts such as capital gains) before payments for personal income taxes, social security, union dues, Medicare deductions, etc. Therefore, money income does not reflect the fact that some families receive noncash benefits, such as food stamps, health benefits, subsidized housing, and goods produced and consumed on the farm.

Excluding capital gains will certainly exclude a meaningful chunk of actual income to certain wealthy families, but it also means that a paper loss can’t be used to claim negative income. Between interest, dividends, rent, estates, and trusts, even Warren Buffett would report substantial income, certainly sufficient to clear the threshold for poverty. Buffett is married, and his three adult children don’t live at home. A two-person household consisting of people over 65 would have to have income of less than $13,180 per year in order to be in poverty. Buffett clears that handily, since he’s publicly stated he paid $6,938,744 in taxes last year, which represents 17.4% of his taxable income. Many of his investments give him dividend-paying stock, so that wasn’t all capital gains. Given that Cothran used Buffett’s image as an illustration, and used Buffett as the only concrete example of someone who could erroneously be placed in the 15.1% of households living in poverty, I think we can say that Cothran is wrong. Again.

It hardly seems worth noting, but Cothran replied to my last post on Galileo, and he manages to misread the primary sources there as badly as he did in the case above. He makes much hay of a contrast between my original claim that “By the time Galileo was publishing on heliocentrism, the idea was already circulating and widely accepted in scientific circles, including Jesuits,” and my subsequent statement “When Galileo’s heliocentrism was first taken up by church authorities in 1610, heliocentrism didn’t have wide support, but I don’t think I claimed it did.” But Galileo published on heliocentrism over a period of 25 years. Even by 1610, the support for heliocentrism had grown beyond the ten heliocentrists alive in 1600. I’ve since edited the original piece to clarify that I meant “During the time Galileo was publishing…,” an edit that in no sense alters the thrust of my original point about Rick Perry.

Cothran inquires: “In what way was Galileo ‘persecuted’ in the 1610s–particularly by the ‘political and religious leadership of his country’?” Well, in 1616, the Catholic Church and the Roman Inquisition – organization which exercised both religious and secular authority in 17th century Italy – ordered him not to “hold or defend” heliocentrism as true, not to write books advocating heliocentrism or otherwise speak out in its favor except as a mathematical trick. That sure seems to take away his freedom of thought, his freedom of speech, and his academic freedom. When he violated that order, he was placed under permanent house arrest and compelled to withdraw his advocacy for heliocentrism. He was persecuted.

It should be noted that, while he was not tortured, the Church did take efforts to make it seem as if he had been tortured, presumably as a way to discourage others from taking his side. For more on that aspect of the story, check out the titular chapter in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. That wasn’t specifically Galileo being persecuted, but it’s still persecution.

Cothran tries to wipe that persecution out by noting that Galileo and Pope Urban VII liked to hang out, neglecting to note that, when Vatican politics shifted, Urban ordered Galileo’s trial for advocating heliocentrism. However friendly they may have been earlier, the Pope used his spiritual and temporal powers to persecute Galileo.

Cothran also claims that Galileo was never made aware that his views had been found heretical. To arrive at that conclusion, he has to ignore substantial evidence, not just the letter from Cardinal Bellarmine which I quoted before, but Bellarmine’s public clarification of the result. Cothran claims:

When a rumor began making the rounds that Galileo had somehow been personally indicted in the decree, Cardinal Bellarmine, two months later, issued a formal declaration in Galileo’s defense, pointing out that “Galileo has not abjured in our hands, or in the hands of others here in Rome, or anywhere else that we know, any opinion or doctrine of his.”

In fact, Bellarmine’s statement goes rather farther than that, making clear that

the declaration made by the Holy Father, and published by the sacred Congregation of the Index, has been intimated to him, wherein it is set forth that the doctrine attributed to Copernicus that the earth moves round the sun, and that the sun is stationary in the centre of the world, and does not move from east to west is contrary to the Holy Scriptures, and therefore cannot be defended or held.

Cothran objects to my claim that Galileo “chafed” at the Church’s restrictions on his heliocentric advocacy, claiming Galileo never knew of these restrictions. The historical record, including letters and public statements Cothran himself offers as evidence, shows that Galileo absolutely knew he was forbidden from pursuing his research.

He also tries to defend the Church’s position by insisting that they’d have given Galileo a pass if he could offer proof of heliocentrism. Alas, Cothran neglects to mention that the standard of “proof” required was indexed not to simple empirical evidence, but to how well that evidence matched the contemporary reading of certain Biblical texts. This is one of the points the Pope made in declaring “The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world’s structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture.” As the Pope noted, Galileo offered alternate readings, but was ignored.

Given Cothran’s general failure at philosophy of science, I’d not be surprised to find that he is not aware that science doesn’t deal in proof, so he wouldn’t realize the demand for “proof” was excessive, unreasonable, and inappropriate. But it still was. After all, how could he amass the evidence to support his idea unless he could publish his preliminary results and discuss them with other scholars? It’s rather silly to insist that no one discuss partial results until their ideas are fully proven.

Cothran winds up by asking: “Was the Church wrong in putting him on trial? Probably.”

Look, even the Pope has acknowledged that it was definitely an error to have put Galileo on trial, so why is Cothran still defending it?

Presumably because he’s a fan of Rick Perry’s, and of Perry’s approach to science. And that’s the problem: Cothran’s letting his political beliefs bias his reading of the facts. That’s what Perry does, and it’s what Pope John Paul II acknowledged his own Church did in the 17th century.


  1. #1 Moopheus
    September 15, 2011

    I think the issue is that the wealthy low-income person of Cothran’s example still has wealth in the form assets–savings, real estate, etc.–that support them even in bad years. Families in actual poverty tend not to have these assets. It’s not clear to me how or if the Census takes that into account, but I’d guess there are not millions of secretly wealthy people getting food stamps.

  2. #2 Porlock Junior
    September 19, 2011

    Doesn’t know much about rich people, does he? (Hey, does that count in his favor? He couldn’t be so ignorant if he had any experience of managing a lot of personal capital. But is it more favorable to be a toady than a tycoon?)

    Try to contemplate so many billionaires and big-time millionaires losing money in a given year that they contribute to the total of fifteen million poor people. I guess the Disco Inst expects you to leave the arithmetic to its experts.

    (You know who else couldn’t do math, and therefore couldn’t get into art school and had to become a dictator instead? No, don’t go there. But I couldn’t resist.)

    I’m ignoring that capital gains and losses aren’t counted. But in fact, if you have multi megabucks and you buy and sell investments — not being one of those zillionaires who don’t! — you cannot help picking up nickels and dimes from interest and dividends in amounts way over 15 – 20 thou.

    Enough of that. A couple of friendly nits to pick on the Galileo case, though.

    What he calls a formal letter in Galileo’s defense was a personal letter to Galileo, written at Galileo’s request, specifically to counter rumors that Galileo had been forced to abjure. Well and good; but you can judge how much this was a formal public defense by the fact that in 1633 the Inquisition didn’t know it existed. They questioned him extensively on the basis of another document that gave a different account of the meeting where Bellarmine laid down the law to Galileo. Specifically, it said he had been ordered not to teach heliocentrism in any way at all, and this was a major part of the case against him. It is clear from the Inquisition’s records that they were suprised when Galileo offered the Bellarmine letter in his own defense, not having known there was such a letter. Not that the new evidence caused that charge to be wholly dropped. Nobody expects the Roman Inquisition to change its mind.

    You’re slightly off in saying that Galileo offered alternate readings of Scripture but the Church ignored them. The Church actively opposed such unofficial theologizing, even by its own priests. The trouble with Bellarmine actually started when a priest, Foscarini, wrote a book explaining how to reconcile the new science with the old Bible, and Galileo was quickly pulled into the matter. When the Church officially passed on the case, and Galileo had to agree to pretend that heliocentrism was just a gimmick, he got off easier than Foscarini, who was disciplined.

    In fact, Galileo’s shocking pretense that he could interpret the Bible is held against him to this day by apologists for the Inquisition. This position actually showed up in the Skeptical Inquirer — presented seriously, not scoffed at — in their second Science and Religion issue a few years ago. These aplogists of course are more Catholic than the Pope, who said specifically that Galileo understood the theological questions better than the professional theologians of his day.

  3. #3 Marion Delgado
    September 20, 2011

    “Given Cothran’s general failure at philosophy of science, I’d not be surprised to find that he is not aware that science doesn’t deal in proof, so he wouldn’t realize the demand for “proof” was excessive, unreasonable, and inappropriate. But it still was. After all, how could he amass the evidence to support his idea unless he could publish his preliminary results and discuss them with other scholars? It’s rather silly to insist that no one discuss partial results until their ideas are fully proven.

    Still the line taken by today’s inquisitors and defenders of the faith – ironically, they also claim to be Galileos.