David Brooks has a hilariously incoherent column in today’s
Knee Jerk Times New York Times called The Limits of Policy, in which he comes very close to suggesting that ethnicity is destiny.
First Brooks presents unsourced data about a comparison between Swedes living in Sweden and and Americans of Swedish ancestry that supposedly demonstrates that people of Swedish extraction have similar life expectancies and poverty rates, despite the differences in public policies in Sweden and the U.S. Therefore, Brooks implies, government health and welfare policies makes no contribution to how well families and individuals do in a particular environment. According to Brooks, it’s really all about ethnicity and to some extent about where you choose to live within the U.S.
Of course Brooks claims he isn’t implying what we think he’s implying:
This is not to say that policy choices are meaningless. But we should be realistic about them. The influence of politics and policy is usually swamped by the influence of culture, ethnicity, psychology and a dozen other factors.
Sure, David, “we should be realistic” when the Obama administration tries to force Social Security and Medicare cuts down our throats so that snooty top one-percenters like you don’t have to contribute any of your vast inherited wealth to the common good. And we should accept that if we happen to be in one of the high poverty ethnic groups, we need to realize that no matter what the government does, we’d have no hope of being middle-class anyway, right David?
Next Brooks offers some data from a new report from The American Human Development Project, A Century Apart: New Measures of Well-Being for U.S. Racial and Ethnic Groups. (PDF).
As you’d expect, ethnicity correlates to huge differences in how people live. Nationally, 50 percent of Asian-American adults have a college degree, compared with 31 percent of whites, 17 percent of African-Americans and 13 percent of Hispanics.
Asian-Americans have a life expectancy of 87 years compared with 79 years for whites and 73 years for African-Americans.
The region you live in also makes a gigantic difference in how you will live. There are certain high-trust regions where highly educated people congregate, producing positive feedback loops of good culture and good human capital programs. This mostly happens in the northeastern states like New Jersey and Connecticut. There are other regions with low social trust, low education levels and negative feedback loops. This mostly happens in southern states like Arkansas and West Virginia.
If you combine the influence of ethnicity and region, you get astounding lifestyle gaps. The average Asian-American in New Jersey lives an amazing 26 years longer and is 11 times more likely to have a graduate degree than the average American Indian in South Dakota.
Is that so? And what does all this have to do with Sweden and Swedish-American immigrants, pray tell?
Next, Brooks cites a book by University of Chicago sociologist Susan E. Mayer, What Money Can’t Buy. The book was published in 1997, so the research may be just a little out of date, but Brooks doesn’t mention that. Apparently Mayer used some kind of statistical method to figure out what would happen if you doubled the income of poor American families–increasing their household income from $15,000 to $30,000. She supposedly found that this increase in income would have almost no effect on factors that might contribute to a better life, such as reducing teen pregnancy and getting more kids to stay in school.
Brooks acknowledges that public policies can severely damage the prospects of a people. For example, if you murder, rape, and pillage indigenous peoples, like, say….the Native Americans, and then you take away their land and exile them to “reservations,” those people are going to have “bad outcomes for generations.”
And that’s really a shame, but based on Mayer’s “research,” there’s nothing government policy can do about it once those people are living in squalor. They just are, and we have to accept it.
The takeaway message from this mishmash of partially reported and poorly sourced academic research is that we are stuck wherever we find ourselves right now, and we should forget about trying to improve our quality of life through political activism. Finally, Brooks says “we should all probably calm down about politics” because we now know that public policy has little effect compared to “ethnic, regional and social differences.”
Alrighty then. But despite Brooks’ recommendation to “calm down,” I decide to investigate his sources.
I think I located Brooks’ source of the information on Swedes and Swedish Americans. It’s an article at “New Geography,” which offers “economic, demographic, and political commentary.” The article, written by Nima Sanandaji, who, like Brooks, is a fan of the late University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, is called Is Sweden a False Utopia? Here’s an excerpt:
A Scandinavian economist once stated to Milton Friedman: “In Scandinavia we have no poverty.” Milton Friedman replied, “That’s interesting, because in America among Scandinavians, we have no poverty either.” Indeed, the poverty rate for Americans with Swedish ancestry is only 6.7%, half the U.S average. Economists Geranda Notten and Chris de Neubourg have calculated the poverty rate in Sweden using the American poverty threshold, finding it to be an identical 6.7%.
Ironically, this points us towards the conclusion that what makes Sweden uniquely successful is not the welfare state, as is commonly assumed. Rather than being the cause of Sweden’s social strengths, the high-tax welfare state might have been enabled by the hard-won Swedish stock of social capital. It was well before the welfare state, when hard work paid off, that a culture with strong protestant working ethics developed.
Gotta love that old Protestant work ethic! Aren’t you nostalgic for the good old days when “hard work paid off?” As opposed to the last thirty years in the U.S. when wages have been pretty much stagnant while productivity has increased. Yep, hard work doesn’t pay off so well these days….
As I noted above, Susan Mayor, the sociologist who showed that giving poor families twice as much money wouldn’t change anything is also a denizen of the University of Chicago.
Finally, Brooks’ third source for his ethnicity-as-destiny thesis is the report from the Human Development Institute, linked above. This study used three measures of well being–health, education, and income–to calculate a “human development index,” a single number that represents quality of life.
The three components of the Human Development Index—longevity, knowledge, and income—are valued by people the world over as building blocks of a good life, and good proxy indicators are available for each. In the American Human Development Index, these components are weighted equally and are measured using the following
• A Long and Healthy Life is measured using life expectancy at birth, calculated
from 2006 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
and CDC WONDER Database.
• Access to Knowledge is measured using two indicators: educational
degree attainment for the adult population age 25 and older; and school
enrollment for the population age three and older. The data come from the
American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau, 2007 one-year
and three-year estimates.
• A Decent Standard of Living is measured using median annual gross personal earnings, also from the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau, 2007 one-year and three-year estimates. These earnings figures are presented in inflation-adjusted 2008 dollars.
These three sets of indicators are then combined into a single number that falls on a scale from 0 to 10, with 10 being the highest.
The results of the study showed that, to no one’s surprise, quality of life or “well-being” differs greatly across racial and ethnic groups. Yes, there are lots of significant correlations between where you fall on “human development index” and race and ethnicity. But David forgot to tell us that there are also correlations between certain public policies and quality of life for the people who live under them. For example:
Policy and investment at the state level related to key human development areas, such as public education, the public health infrastructure, health insurance coverage, social services, income supports like state earned
income tax credits, and housing. There is a strong correlation, for example,
between state expenditure per pupil on public education and that state’s
score on the educational index.
Other important factors are jobs, industry, and “rates of unionization.” And within racial and ethnic categories, newer immigrants tend not to do as well as well established members of the same ethnic group. In addition, the authors point out that when people are in an ethnic group that has access to the power structure of a state, then tend to achieve higher levels of well-being. And finally racial segregation is correlated with lower levels of well being in specific ethnic groups, such as African Americans. From the report:
Washington, D.C., geographically a single city, contains within it two
completely separate, yet side-by-side, worlds, one home to whites experiencing
some of the highest well-being levels in the nation, the other home
to African Americans living, on average, drastically shorter lives, with less
access to educational and income-generating opportunities.
No kidding. But the authors don’t claim these differences have nothing to do with public policy, as David Brooks implied in his column.
What is Brooks really trying to say anyway? It seems to me that, in his snooty, above-it-all way, he is saying the same thing that those Arizona voters are saying, and what was accepted wisdom in the segregationist days–that if you belong to a particular ethnic group, there’s pretty much no hope for you. And you probably brought it on yourself through laziness or bad child-rearing practices or something.
In any case, you shouldn’t come crying to the government or wealthy elites like David Brooks. They have nothing to offer you, and even if they did try to help you out, it wouldn’t do you any good.
At the very least, someone needs to explain to David that just because two things are correlated–that there is some kind of association between them–doesn’t mean that one of those things caused the other thing. Even my Psych 101 students know that. So unless Brooks can show me an experiment where someone took hundreds of individuals from all the different ethnic groups and had them live out their lives in carefully controlled laboratory conditions, I’m not buying his dopey conclusions. And The New York Times should be ashamed to publish this drivel.
UPDATE: Brad DeLong mocks Brooks and the NYT. Matt Yglesias trips all over himself whiletrying to defend Brooks from DeLong.
Filed under: General | Tagged: David Brooks, ethnicity, Milton Friedman, race, Sweden | 61 Comments »