David Brooks, Yet Again

In the course of a multi-post assault on David Brooks' column on neo-populism, Ezra Klein writes:

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 don't know about "pack," since much of what Brooks has to say I agree with: The Hacker thesis about rising income volatility seems increasingly dubious; globalization has brought a host of benefits to middle-class Americans, in terms of lower prices and greater diversity of goods, that don't show up in wage growth figures; much of the growth in income inequality is the result of trends like performance pay, longer hours for upper-income workers, and the increasing value of major corporations, none of which are amenable to easy policy fixes; tax revenues are higher and the deficit is in better shape than most liberals predicted a few years ago; and so forth.

But yes, the first two assertions Brooks makes in his column are technically correct but misleading, and if Ezra thinks that makes him a liar than I doubt there's anything I can do to disabuse him of the notion. While critiquing the doom and gloom of the neopopulists, Brooks cites rising incomes for poor families over the last twenty-five years without noting that they've stagnated or fallen in the last five; he cites wage growth figures from last year without noting that they're down in the first six months of this year; and he uses "average" wages rather than "median" wages, when the latter tends to be a better tool for assessing how the typical worker is doing. Tyler Cowen mounts a defense of the latter two points here, noting, among other things, that the "average wage" measure in question excludes management-level wages (including the skyrocketing CEO salaries that can skew averages upward) and is therefore a more solid metric than Brooks' opponents argue. But overall, I think the liberal critics are right, and Brooks' use of the data in these two examples deserves criticism and correction.

Whether that justifies calling him a "liar," or whether it might be more appropriate to treat him the way I would assume Ezra would like to be treated himself - as a fallible pundit who is sometimes insufficiently skeptical about information that dovetails with his preconceptions, and who merits respectful disagreement in such cases rather sneering and name-calling - well, make up your own mind. I'm done arguing about David Brooks. I think he's an excellent columnist; I think his body of work speaks for itself; I think that liberals who demand that the Times sack him every time he gets a piece of data wrong or attacks a straw man or commits one of the hundreds of venial sins that every columnist commits (yes, even Paul Krugman) should get a grip. And that's where I'll leave it.