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Memo to David Brooks: Correlation Does NOT Equal Causation

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.

61 Responses

  1. Believe me, it’s not the worst thing NYT published, not even the worst Brooks drivel. But the good news is: the Bell curve lives!
    David Brooks fulfills a useful role. Every time I say “media” followed by something un-complimentary – it’s Brooks’ face I see. He is the embodiment of what’s wrong with the 4th estate.

    • I know. It’s just that I usually avoid reading the NYT op ed page. Today I got sucked in.

      • Your loss, people are going to be lining up around the block to pay for this premium content. Clearly, we should allow Sweden to colonize us and then we can all compete for the privilege of breeding with their industrious Protestant genes. Fractional Swedes are better than none.

        • LOL!

        • Where do we line up to breed with beautiful blond Swedes? 🙂

          • I’d say you were born in the wrong country at the wrong time, seems like you’d have gone far with the idea about 60 odd years ago over there in Berlin… possibly a few programs still left in Argentina you could check out ….


  2. He’s an example of what is wrong with Op-ed pages these days. They all are more taken with what goes on their small worlds and minds than just about anything else. They all need to move out of Washington DC and NY and perhaps they’d wake up.

    • Don’t have to move out. Just change neighborhoods for the wakeup of a lifetime. 😉

  3. The saddest part of all is Brooks might actually believe this drivel.

  4. Ian Welsh … What is Obama

    The comments are particularly good. We could add he is a man whom David Brooks would swoon over.

    • you obviously weren’t over on FDL about 3 years ago when I was holding conversations with Ian … here’s a pretty good example


      • Never spent much time at FDL. I don’t have the patience. I think Ian and I share a trait in that we would like to see a citizenry that isn’t there now. I would like to think that Americans would stand up and say No, but I’ve wanted that for most of 9 years now. I despair that we are going to circle the drain quietly and just slip away.

        • after Obama was elected and started making appointments, he got skeptical fast, I’ll grant him that

          • http://firedoglake.com/2008/11/04/obama-victory-speech/

            here’s the night of the election … I’ll just leave it at that.

          • If I’m not pure enough for you then you’re in very rarified company. There is nothing objectionable in my liveblog of Obama’s speech, I was simply liveblogging it (ie. I said what he said, paraphrased). I was for Edwards while he was in, then I was for Clinton, and there is plenty of evidence of that. I was one of the only people who defended Clinton on Huffpo from the Kennedy assassination smear.

            As for my Greek riot post, what can I say, I kept expect Americans to be willing to fight back against their lords and masters. I’ve since rectified that analytical error. In terms of Obma: once he was elected, I gave him some marginal benefit of the doubt. You’re cherrypicking, you could just as easily, for example, have chosen this post:


            There were, and are, also limits to what could be said on FDL (especially at the time.) That’s part of why I left.

          • I always wondered why you left FDL. I still have issues for the bashing that was allowed on threads of people that weren’t convinced that Obama was a godsend and those of us that questioned his credentials and positions on issues. I think frontpagers could’ve been more active in stopping that negativity in their thread. It’s a complaint, not a condemnation.

      • Re: the riots in Europe

        I don’t know whether to be proud or ashamed that the investment bankers aren’t hanging from the lampposts in Manhattan. I suppose that depends on whether it’s due to an innate respect for law and due process, or just laziness, apathy, and cowardice.

        BTW: AP is reporting that Chase foreclosed on Shazam’s house.

    • That’s very good, thanks for the link!

  5. Yawn. What Brooks said in that op-ed piece is a tired old argument that has been around forever. It is always made by prejudiced people and avidly devoured by other prejudiced people and is meant to reinforce the status quo. Similar arguments are made about women. Sex is destiny too, doncha know?

    • Sorry if I put you to sleep. I thought it might be interesting to actually look at his sources.

    • I think it’s hilarious that Frank Rich accuses anyone who is even mildly critical of Obama of being motivated by racial prejudice, yet he shares the Op-Ed page with this column (which is barely one step removed from Stormfront material).

      I haven’t seen anything this racist in print since I was a kid (in the Deep South, in the 1960s).

      • It seems to me that Brooks is a stalking horse for what’s coming–cutting off the safety net. If you’re poor you deserve it, so why should you get any help from society?

        • Yes, and that fits in with the ongoing Oprah-message that you have to ‘create’ your ‘own reality’. It’s nonsense but goes a long way toward rationalizing a sacrificial class.

      • Bob Somerby does minced meat of him today.

    • Ethnicity is destiny. Sex is destiny. Heredity is destiny. Make way for the New Feudalism (although “The Divine Right of Investment Bankers” doesn’t sound quite right – I think it needs “rebranding”, as the PR folks like to say).

    • Actually, I was thinking about Sex, too. I mean, women live much longer than men on average, and isn’t everyone all up in arms about how women are beating boys academically these days in terms of numbers of college grads? Other than the income measure, women just seem to be the gender equivalent of Swedes. So I guess we should stop spending all of that political capital on bettering the circumstances of men, since it’s not going to make much difference anyway.

      • Men also commit what, 90%+ of violent crimes? With those inalterably depraved genes, we should probably be rounding them up and deporting them as gender would seem to be a better predictor of criminal tendencies than immigration status.

        • Yes, funny how David Brooks forgot all about how women live several years longer than men, on average. And, what do you know? We make less money too!

          Oh, the cognitive dissonance!

          • Women do most of the world’s work, produce half of the world’s food, earn 10% of the world’s income, and own 1% of the world’s property.

        • Obviously, we need to do something about the lack of opportunities for women to advance in the violent crriminal profession ;-).

  6. OT: Nice article about why women are undervalued and possible solutions:

    One of the reasons women are undervalued globally is the lack of opportunities that allow women to use their brains (rather than their bodies) to earn income, says Samasource CEO Leila Chirayath Janah. But Samasource is spreading digital work to women in the poorest parts of the world, providing themwith training, internet access and a cheap laptop, and giving them skills that will help bring them out of poverty. Through their efforts to spread digital work to women in developing countries, Samasource hopes to create sustainable economic opportunities for women, and prove that work for women matters.

    • That’s a great idea. Hope it works out better than expected and bet it does.

    • I’m sure Brooks did similar things:

      • Hmm, OK, not so off topic after all.

      • I rather like that but there is one canard that I really hate which these things always seem to push. “Your worth is your work” is a completely baseless statement based on the slave mentality.

        Your work is important in that it earns you a living but your worth is based on the fact of your humanity. Capitalist brainwashing would have us believe differently but screw ’em.

        • Good point. There’s also opportunity for exploitation as with most things. But it still might do good.

  7. Social Darwinism has returned. Maybe it never really left.

  8. In 19th Century America, of course, Swedish and Norwegian immigrants were widely considered to be dim-witted, ineducable, and suited only for unskilled manual labor. In fact, the “big, dumb, Swede” was something of a literary and comedic stereotype well into the 20th Century. Question for Mr. Brooks: What changed? And, for a followup, had you been writing this column 150 years ago, what would you have said about Swedes then?

  9. “The last time eugenics prospered in this country was during the Republican circus reign of the 1920s. Now eugenics has apparently returned.”

    “For years, David Brooks and his chums at various conservative rags of bitterness such as The Weekly Standard, National Review, Commentary, and The New Criterion have been telling the American people that looking backward is more productive than looking forward, that business is more important than health, that ancestors are more important than “education, that genes are more important than culture and environment.”
    From Huffington Post
    Posted: Dan AginAuthor/NeuroscientistJune 20, 2007
    Eugenics Redux: What Hath Daviid Wrought

    For years, David Brooks and his chums at various conservative rags of bitterness such as The Weekly Standard, National Review, Commentary, and The New Criterion have been telling the American people that looking backward is more productive than looking forward, that business is more important than health, that ancestors are more important than education, that genes are more important than culture and environment.

  10. Sorry double post + copy and pasty iPhone trouble.

  11. When does David Brooks not have a hilariously incoherent column?

    Thanks for the thread, bb. I would never have the patience to dissect his BS. No wonder Brooks thinks Obama is such a towering intellect. His own is so empty and shallow.

    • “…so empty and shallow.”
      The ascendancy of the hollow man – GW Bush included.

  12. What a WEALTH of knowledge from Brooks. I hate to upstage him, but I say screw the swedish meatballs, and stick with the Irish stew.

  13. Brooks’ “research” reminds me of that old joke about the guy planting flamingos on the lawn in order to keep elephants away from his house. “But there’s no elephants here!” “See, it works!”

  14. Look, Asians live longer and do better simply because they are Asians! We know that even though we know nothing about Asians! Thank goodness I’m an Asian, otherwise I may very well conclude that Asians are aliens sent here from the outer space to take over the world.

    Perhaps that’s how things work in Mr Brook’s mind? Clearly, he has no knowledge of the fact that, a mere 60 years ago, the average life expectancy of Chinese was 36 years old (now it’s 74 for females and 71 for males). No, our ethnicity hasn’t changed. It is the system that has changed. You know, all those boring things, like per capital income, poverty rate, and public health system, they do make a difference in people’s lives. Huge difference.

    It’s also funny how small Mr Brook’s world is, with America on the one end and Sweden on the other. It’s like trying to catalog all the colors in the world with a spectrum ranging from pale pink to baby pink. We have a unique Chinese idiom for someone with such kind of narrow minded naivety/arrogance: a frog living in a well.

  15. Would that include the tacky plastic palm tree?

  16. Would David Brooks research the possibility that 25% of the population of Sweden might have migrated to, for instance, Liberia. What type of sociological and economic development would that Swedish immigration reach according to his view?

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