The Road to Nowhere
A lot of the debate over Arthur Brooks' new book, The Road to Freedom, comes down to a simple question, which of the following paragraphs do you find more persuasive? This one:
What is new and striking about these findings, however, is a particularly high amount of stickiness at the bottom for American males. Specifically, men born into the poorest fifth of families in the United States in 1958 had a higher likelihood of ending up in the bottom fifth of the earnings distribution than did males similarly positioned in five Northern European countries—42 percent in the United States, compared to 25 to 30 percent in the other countries. Furthermore, in the United States, only 8 percent make the “rags to riches” climb from bottom to top rung in one generation, while 11 to 14 percent do so in other countries. However, when making this comparison, it is important to note that the Americans who climb from bottom to top in one generation are climbing further in absolute dollars than their counterparts in Europe, given the broad income dispersion in the United States. Still, according to this measure, rising on one’s own bootstraps is harder in the United States than it is in several northern European countries.
Or this one?
According to the evidence, the United States is an opportunity society, even if an imperfect one. One way to show this is by looking at whether people can and do get ahead economically. University of Michigan-Flint economist Mark Perry has analyzed data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis to see whether Americans are mobile between income classes. He asked the questions, “If you’re poor in America, does this mean you’ll stay poor? And if you’re rich, are you set for life?”
The answer to both questions was a resounding no. The poor can and do rise in America, according to Perry’s research, and the rich can and do fall. He shows that 44 percent of households in the bottom income quintile (the lowest 20 percent of earners) in 2001 had moved to a higher quintile by 2007. During the same period, 34 percent in the highest quintile in 2001 moved to a lower quintile by 2007. In other words, if you are poor, the chances are about one in two that you’ll be doing better within a few years. If you are at the top, the chances are about one in three that you won’t stay there very long.…Not everybody rises from poverty, but millions and millions do. This means real people in America are experiencing real opportunity, all the time. For them, the American Dream is no illusion.
The first excerpt is from a report on economic mobility by the Brookings Institute. The second is from Brooks' The Road to Freedom. One of these paragraphs feels more intellectually honest and is more willing to confront uncomfortable truths. The Brookings report makes clear: compared to other countries, the U.S. is not an upwardly mobile society for the poor. Brooks instead argues that on the whole, America has quite a bit of mobility.
Brooks knows about the sort of data that Brookings is reporting, he has to as a Think Tank president. (He even told me about his concern for the bottom 20% when I spoke to him at AEI.) Yet it doesn't get enough play in his book.
It is jarring for Brooks to spend a lot of time in other chapters comparing how much better off America is relative to the world, but then not to make similar comparisons when the results would be less flattering.
This is the sort of problem which just plagues a lot of conservative rhetoric and policy work. Inconvenient facts are not addressed and the questions they raise are not seriously discussed. This happens a lot in Brooks' book. Consider this paragraph:
But freedom doesn’t just correlate with income; freer people are healthier too. In the freest countries, people live about twenty years longer, on average, than people in the least free countries. There’s no surprise here, of course. Richer countries have better health care than poorer countries. Nevertheless, it is still worth pointing out that free enterprise and prosperity have huge human consequences.
Many of the richest countries in the world have national healthcare systems! Some of them are single payer, others mandate private insurance like Romneycare or Obamacare. But it is disingenuous to talk about the healthcare benefits of being a free country without admitting that those improved healthcare options are due to policies that are attacked in this same book for being against the spirit of free enterprise.
(A similar dissonance occurs every time the Heritage Foundation release its index of 'economic freedom' and laments how America slips in their rankings without discussing why countries with national healthcare systems rank higher.)
Another problem is how the book downplays inequality as an issue. According to Brooks:
To many, it is an article of faith that income inequality in America is exploding, and the rich are getting richer while everyone else is stagnating or getting poorer. This seems certain to be one of the central arguments of the political left in the coming years. Yet a great deal of economic analysis today questions these “facts.” ...[The] increases in inequality are not because the poor and middle class are worse off than in the past, according to Cornell University economist Richard Burkhauser. Inequality increases are mostly due to the fact that the top 1 percent of earners have gotten a lot more prosperous over the years.35 Using data from the government’s Current Population Survey, Burkhauser looks at the bottom 99 percent of earners to measure inequality growth in this group and finds almost none.
A colleague of mine looked at the Burkhauser data and suggested one way the data could be misleading:
[The] Burkhauser evaluation of household income growth does not (I believe) factor in the hours worked, while the TPM chart [this chart about median wage decline] looks at pay per hour. So, according to Burkhauser, if someone has a 20% pay cut and then has to work longer to make up the difference, there would be no change in the household income, even though the individual would be making less per hour.
These sorts of problems come up again and again in The Road to Freedom. The data-needs to the double checked, the broad sweeping statements needs to be compared next to reality, and the moral philosophy is just not very strong, etc.
Yet this is a book that came out of a prominent think tank and was not written by a minor fellow but by the think tank's President, the same President who gives VIP speeches at CPAC. The content of The Road to Freedom is arguably incidental, what really matters is what it says about the state of thinking in the conservative movement.