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July 24, 2007

David Brooks Fact-Check Brigade

Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam are always telling me to cut David Brooks more slack, to extend the assumption of good faith, to listen to the interesting things he has to say. So I'd really like one of them to dissolve my current impression that Brooks' latest column -- which tries to make the argument that the economy really is in very good shape, save for some issues with inequality -- isn't a pack of lies and deceptions. I'm primarily interested in these two points, which are, rhetorically, Brooks' strongest, but factually appear to be his weakest:

1) Brooks says "after a lag, average wages are rising sharply. Real average wages rose by 2 percent in 2006, the second fastest rise in 30 years." The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the average hourly wage is 1.2 percent higher than its year ago level and still below its December 2002 level. That's almost five years of zero growth. In the late 90s, real wages were growing 1.6 percent annually.

2) Brooks then cites Brookings economist Ron Haskins' assertion based on data from the Congressional Budget Office that "between 1991 and 2005, 'the bottom fifth increased its earnings by 80 percent'." If we turn to the CBO study (Figure 2), we find that earnings for the bottom fifth of families with children actually increased by 120 percent (welfare reform), but this was between 1991 and 2000. Earnings for this group has fallen by about 20 percent in the last five years.

These are serious qualms and, if not factually rebutted, they call into question the accuracy of Brooks' article. Which isn't to say that there aren't answers to these objection. But readers deserve to have them. And without them, it's hard to extend that presumption of good faith. Particularly with pieces like this one providing past context.

July 24, 2007 | Permalink


Reading Brooks' column this morning, my initial and subsequent reaction was "bullshit." How many ways is this mendacious bastard lying or twisting statistics? But it's difficult to find all of the lies without doing research, which many a casual reader will not know.

The idea that we should treat this right wing disinformation artist as a good faith actor is sadly mistaken. He's a hard core panderer to the worst impulses in American politics, albeit one with a soft manner and a disarming style. It makes him even more dangerous to my mind -- give me Novak or Krauthammer any day.

Posted by: KTLN | Jul 24, 2007 10:46:03 AM

KTLN hits on perhaps the most important reason why everyone must heap scorn and ridicule upon Brooks. He is dishonest in ways that are not apparent unless one is willing to search the BLS, CBO or other data sets for the factual underpinning of his claims. Most readers can't and won't go to that trouble. Therefore there must be a presumption that what he writes is inaccurate--if not an outright li--until objective, disinterest proof from another source is cited. Otherwise his lies and obfuscations will be passed off as the truth and the public will be deceived.

Posted by: dmh | Jul 24, 2007 10:54:24 AM

David Brooks making sh*t up? Color me unsurprised.

Does say something about the quality NYT conservatives - no different from other conservatives!

Posted by: faux facsimile | Jul 24, 2007 11:10:14 AM

Brooks is a mannerly hack who's function is to provide "respectable" frames for mendacious Right Wing talking points. Whether he does so knowingly or out of naive credulity is a question for a cleric or a psychiatrist and not germane to how he should be treated in the "marketplace of ideas".

When someone peddles an inferior or harmful product, the salient question is not "Did they do so knowingly?", it's "Should they have known?" He no more deserves indulgence than the quack who "truly believes" that his concocted elixir is a universal curative.

Posted by: W.B. Reeves | Jul 24, 2007 12:32:30 PM

Brooks' weltanschauung is really no different from that of Jonah Goldberg. The chief difference is merely that Brooks is appealing to a more upscale and educated clientele.

I'm also not certain what exactly a vouch from Douthat or Salam adds to Brooks' credibility.

Posted by: kth | Jul 24, 2007 12:46:46 PM

Brooks is no more a liar and deceiver than, say, Ezra is when he says 45-million American lack insurance (a figure that includes a good many who aren't actually Americans, those who self-insure, etc.) People rush way too quickly to the "he's a liar" explanation. Brooks undoubtedly believes what he says. I see every day on this blog terribly slanted arguments from liberals no more accurate or less deceptive than the stuff from Brooks. People on all sides naturally tend to believe things that support their views, and to repeat them.

Baker's link is no good, so it's hard to check the first point. Since I can't see Brooks' piece, I also can't tell where he got his figure. But on the second point, Baker's not trying any harder than Brooks to treat the data fairly. Sure, earnings have fallen over the last five years, but what of 2003-2005? According to his own source, wages for families with children among the bottom quintile have gone up during that period. Each is highlighting what supports his view and leaving out what doesn't.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 24, 2007 1:26:47 PM

Here is news on the quote about real wages which Brooks does not attribute to anyone.

Go to http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/realer.pdf

The last six months of 2006, inflation corrected wages grew 1.3%.

The first six months of 2007 they have fallen 0.9%.

He may be right if you aggregate all 2006 wages, I haven't checked that. But like his claim on 1991-2005 for , the more recent trend is not great.

Posted by: calscientist | Jul 24, 2007 1:32:41 PM

those who self-insure

Isn't "self insure" a euphenism for "hope your savings can cover the cost of your bills" ? That is the very definition of "without health insurance."

Brooks undoubtedly believes what he says

Um, I don't think his belief plays into it at all. In all likelihood, he was handed a bunch of figures by someone. Many of us are already aware of the 10,000 dead/month that he just said he made upregarding the consequences of pulling out of Iraq.

For all intents and purposes, Brooks is lying. Trying to split hairs and say, "well, it isn't technically a lie because he didn't have the mens rea at that very moment to concoct a figure himself," is just sophistry. When you have a reckless regard for facts and you just throw something in there because it sounds good, "lying" pretty much describes what is happening here.

Posted by: Tyro | Jul 24, 2007 1:42:04 PM

Isn't "self insure" a euphenism for "hope your savings can cover the cost of your bills" ?

No. Self-insure means you have enough money available to cover medical expenses.

Tyro, it isn't simply a matter of whether he believes it. Read the rest of what I said. He's doing the very same thing you and others do here everyday. Are you all liars?

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 24, 2007 1:56:11 PM

Excuse me Sanpete -- saying 45 million Americans lack health insurance is a lie? Where is your source of evidence for this claim?

By "self-insure" do you mean rely on savings? Because I've got news for you that's not "insurance."

In the health care field, self-insured generally refers to health plans that do not purchase insurance, but simply fund the claims out of either comapny coffers or a dedicated trust fund. You may hire a Blue Cross type entity to pay claims, but the self insured entity takes all risk directly.

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | Jul 24, 2007 2:00:35 PM

People rush way too quickly to the "he's a liar" explanation. Brooks undoubtedly believes what he says.

And Sanpete gets so upset when it's pointed out how he gives every conservative, no matter how mendacious, the benefit of the doubt. But I'm sure Sanpete believes he's being scrupulously fair, rather than just trying to cement his role as this site's painstaking GOPologist.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Jul 24, 2007 2:01:22 PM

Just to follow up -- individuals don't self-insure. Entities do. Describing a person as being self-insured against health claims is meaningless as far as I can tell. It means, in fact, uninsured.

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | Jul 24, 2007 2:46:28 PM

Mr. Nut, I don't regard the 45-million claim as a lie--that's my point. It's misleading in some ways, just as Brooks' claims are. The 45-million figure has been discussed here numerous times, and Ezra doesn't dispute that it includes illegal immigrants, other non-citizens, those who don't sign up for programs they're eligible for, those who can afford insurance who choose not to buy it, and those so rich they wouldn't need it anyway (which is the group I referred to as self-insured--yes that's still uninsured in terms of buying a policy, but it's insured in the same way an entity is--by having enough money to be secure).

Pseudo, I've seen you make substantive points before. I miss that.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 24, 2007 3:09:45 PM


The fact that people could afford to buy insurance but don't simply doesn't make them not "uninsured." It may make them stupid, shortsighted, or very rich or very young. But the fact remains, they are uninsured. The number of people, by the way, who can afford to be uninsured is pretty small. I make a pretty decent living and I can't imagine ever "self-insuring" in this way.

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | Jul 24, 2007 4:16:30 PM

Mr. Nut, I agree completely that choosing not to buy insurance even if you can afford it doesn't keep you from being uninsured. That some people make that choice voluntarily, though, is relevant to interpreting the 45-million claim, which is usually understood to be about those who lack insurance because they can't afford it. Self-insurance is different from that, of course, and does only make sense for a small number of people, as you say.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 24, 2007 10:04:53 PM

Perhaps my worldview is overly paternalistic, but one of the attractive aspects of single payer is that it protects people from themselves in a benign way. Like seat belt and helmet laws.

As someone who has seen people exceed $500,000 life time caps on medical benefits in a couple of different plans, I say two cheers for paternalism.

Posted by: KTLN | Jul 24, 2007 10:27:56 PM

I'm not opposed to a coverage mandate myself. Might be harder to pass initially.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 25, 2007 2:34:26 AM

In fact, no, the 45 million does not assume that they can't afford it.
The problem is that they haven't got it, period.
If you make a lot of money and therefore "can afford it", but a severe disease means you can no longer work, well then the uninsurance problem is back with a vengeance. The State probably should save you -we are not in a slaughterhouse- but because you were uninsured you never contributed any funds.

Here in France we don't have this. You can afford it? Good, then it won't be too painful to you to contribute. And everyone (OK, not everyone because our administration is not perfect and we can't always track people who forget to make themselves known) is insured.

Posted by: Cyrille | Jul 25, 2007 5:10:02 AM

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is where the 45 million uninsured number came from. http://aspe.hhs.gov/health/reports/05/est-uninsured/report.pdf

Full of interesting data.

Posted by: Rumblelizard | Jul 25, 2007 3:41:56 PM

Sanpete, do everyone a favor, go away -- we get enough lies without you.

Posted by: Ben Dover | Jul 30, 2007 6:08:40 PM

By all means, do provide an example of my lies, oh truthful one!

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 30, 2007 6:15:12 PM

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Posted by: delzhruba ukmwgtnd | Sep 24, 2007 9:02:48 PM

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