Vice uses lobbyist group’s manipulated data to prop up anti-Amazon agenda

September 26, 2023

By Tim Worstall

Simply publishing tendentious claims from political organizations is not what journalism is supposed to be about. Examining such claims, explaining them, and pushing back against those that are wrong is what journalism is supposed to be about. This is a test that Vice just failed with its repeat of claims from the National Employment Law Project.

The NELP is not an official body, despite what the name intends to project. It’s a particularly progressive pressure “advocacy” group with reported lobbying expenditures. As such, its claims should be subject to more, not less, examination.

But there’s more to this than just dereliction of journalistic duty. This is dangerous. If that free press, that speaker of truth to power, becomes a repetition of absurd claims, then the body politic is infected with nothing but those absurd claims. As we say, this is dangerous – repeating nonsense pollutes the public discussion.

The actual NELP claim is that when Amazon hires large numbers of people, this depresses local wages. This is such an absurdity that it’s shameful for Vice to be repeating it. More workers being employed means fewer workers not employed in an area – wages rise. That low unemployment rate has recently pushed starting wages up to $15 and $17 an hour around the country, even while the federal minimum wage is $7.25. That basic supply and demand really does work with workers. 

The statistical manipulation NELP goes through is to claim that when Amazon hires warehouse workers, warehouse wages go down.   

“Working In a Warehouse Is a Decent Gig — Except Where Amazon Sets Up Shop, Report Finds

“Warehouse jobs are middle-income jobs…in most of the U.S., except in the counties where Amazon operates fulfillment centers.”

As the report itself goes on to imply: 

“We find that while Amazon tends to operate in higher-earnings counties, warehouse workers in Amazon counties actually take home less each month on average than their counterparts in other U.S. counties. This difference is even starker when Amazon counties are measured against other high-earnings counties with warehouses. We also find that this was not the case before Amazon arrived in those counties, suggesting that Amazon’s presence has substantially shifted warehouse earnings lower in the counties where it operates.”

See? Amazon lowers wages!

Except that’s not what they’ve found at all. They’ve used a statistical trick.  

Average wages for warehouse workers are lower when Amazon has a fulfillment center in a county. OK, we’ll accept that as an idea. The claim that is being pushed is that wages for warehouse workers – people who worked in warehouses before Amazon arrived – are now lower in those counties. This is not true.

To invent some numbers to make the logic clear:

Before: Amazon arrives; the county has 1,000 warehouse workers, all making $30 an hour. Amazon then comes in and hires 10,000 workers (those fulfillment centers are big) at $20 an hour. There are now 11,000 warehouse jobs in the county, and 10,000 of them are new – wages have probably risen as a result of the new jobs. Wages of the existing warehouse workers have probably risen as Amazon competes for them. The Amazon workers are all making more than they were before because otherwise, why are they working for Amazon? Everybody’s wages have gone up because Amazon has arrived. 

Now, the trick: Before, we had 1,000 people on $30 an hour – average pay was $30 an hour. After, we have 1,000 on $30, plus 10,000 on $20. Everyone’s pay has gone up (the Amazon workers) or, at worst, stayed the same (the original warehouse workers), but average pay is now 10,000 x $20 plus 1,000 x $30 / 11,000, which is $20.90 an hour. Average pay for warehouse workers has gone down.

Those are entirely invented numbers, but that is the logic of what NELP is complaining about. Average wages go down when more people get hired.  

We don’t blame NELP for this; it’s a propaganda outfit pushing for unionization. Propaganda is propaganda, after all. We do blame Vice for not examining this. Journalism isn’t propaganda, or shouldn’t be; it’s supposed to be an examination of it so that we are all aided in reaching the truth. 

We also insist this is dangerous. For, of course, merely repeating propaganda and only doing it from one side is polluting the public discourse. It’s misleading us all.

All wages can – probably do – rise in a county where a new employer turns up to employ lots of people, even as average wages in one specific sector can fall. That’s a well-known statistical trick. Journalism is about pointing out people using such tricks, not just repeating them. 


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