Tuesday, April 06, 2010

A quick bet against Brooks

UBER UPDATE 4/26/10:  My copy of Rebound finally arrived, and I was essentially right (as were many commenters): Rose's figures do refer to household income. They're also limited to "prime age" adults. Brooks did not literally misquote, and I shouldn't have inferred that he did without the book in hand. But he missed some key definitions early in the chapter. More here; full review of Rebound here. I have moved prior updates to the bottom, so that everything appears in sequence. 

Arguing today that America's future is bright, David Brooks retails a stat from Stephen J. Rose: 60 percent of US adults have earned over 100k in at least one of the last ten years..I am willing to bet that "adults' should be 'households.' George Will made a similar error in a Jan. '08 column arguing that all was rosy with the American middle class. I will check this out later today.

UPDATE:  Bingo. Post above was from a Blackberry.  The book by Stephen J. Rose that Brooks references, Rebound: Why Americans Will Emerge Stronger from the Financial Crisis, is not out yet. But in a June 4, 2007 Huffington Post column, Rose wrote (my emphasis): 
Because income swings up tend to be larger than income swings down, the median of multi-year income is higher than median in each of the separate years. Consequently, the median income over ten years ending in 2002 was nearly $75,000 (in 2005 dollars) for prime-age adults and only 20 percent had ten-year average incomes below $40,000.

In addition, half of adults had at least one year in which their total household incomes were greater than $100,000.
I suppose it's just possible that in Rose's forthcoming book, updated stats would bear out Brooks' representation. But I seriously doubt it.*

As noted in the original post above, this is deja vu all over again.  On Jan. 6, 2008**, George Will, pooh-poohing John Edwards' populism, wrote:
Economist Stephen Rose, defining the middle class as households with annual incomes between $30,000 and $100,000, says a smaller percentage of Americans are in that category than in 1979 — because the percentage of Americans earning more than $100,000 has doubled, from 12 to 24...

What Rose said,  in a Dec. 23, 2007 Washington Post op-ed, is that between 1979 and 2007, "the number of people in households that bring in more than $100,000... rose from 12 percent to 24 percent."

Over the course of several years, Rose has repeatedly sought to demonstrate that American families' economic status is difficult to pin down because income and fortunes are volatile (though increased income volatility, as Jacob Hacker has shown, is itself a major source of economic distress and lack of wealth accumulation over time).  Rose is at pains to notify Democrats in particular that they tend to overstate Americans' overall economic distress and that this distorts both their framing of issues and their policies. His insistence that the broad American middle class remains prosperous is catnip to conservative columnists -- who, in their rush to expropriate, exaggerate. 

Brooks and Will are both notoriously sloppy with facts (cf. Will on climate change, Brooks on Senate history), and Brooks is a notoriously sloppy popularizer of others' ideas. Neither scruples to wring facts (and others' ideas) out of context to bolster their lawyers' briefs. It's not at all surprising that they'd share an impulse to misread Rose.

* I've sent Rose a query regarding the stats in Rebound.

 ** Date corrected per 2nd anon comment - thanks.

UPDATE 2/RETRACTION - I am told that David Brooks has seen this post and affirms that I am in error below: Rose's book does assert that 60% of US adults have earned more than $100k in at least one of the last ten years, not merely that 60% live in households that earned over $100k at least once within that time, as in Rose's assertion in the 2007 article I cite below.  Assuming that's true, I am truly chastened and offer my sincere apologies to Brooks and to Stephen Rose.  I seem to be guilty of the fault with which I charged Brooks:  not having access to Rose's book, which is due out on April 13, I went with what seemed to me (and still seems, frankly) a 99% assurance that his language and stats in the book would be congruent (not identical but congruent) with those in the 2007 article. I should have waited for a response to my query to Rose (per my footnote below), or for the book to come out next week, but instead succumbed to the blogger's temptation be quick on the draw.. My apologies to readers and commenters as well as to Brooks and Rose.

UPDATE 3: On the Dish, a quote from Rebound: ""Another way to look at incomes over many years is to see how often people experienced high and low incomes. Indeed, fully 60 percent of adults had at least one year  in which their incomes were at least $100,000." p. 119. Apology, unequivocal.

UPDATE 4: an explanation? I've also learned secondhand that in Rebound, Rose limited his data set to people aged 26 to 59.  In the Huffington Post article, which stated that "half of adults had at least one year in which their total household incomes were greater than $100,000," Rose defined "prime age adults" as those between 25 and 62 years old.  Perhaps clipping off another three years enabled Rose to drop the "lived in households" qualifier (as well as up the percentage, not that it may not have risen in an apples-to-apples comparison).

UPDATE 5: Thanks to many insightful commenters. While Rose's numbers certainly raise some questions, and I look forward to scouring his book when it comes out, I just want to clarify that what I retracted, rightly, was my wrong inference that Brooks misquoted Rose specifically by mistaking household income for individual income. Assuming that Rebound makes clear that the data set is adults 26-59, Brooks should have added that qualifier. But the book does say, whether rightly, rightly with major caveats, or wrongly, that "60 percent of [U.S.] adults had at least one year  in which their incomes were at least $100,000." There may yet be a little pronoun drift there -- is "my income" "mine and my wife's"? Grammatically, no, but I want to see if the point is elaborated at all in the book (and also, per the comments, whether "income" may include sale of a house, inheritance, etc.).  Maybe, too, Brooks' "made more than $100,000" is not quite the same as Rose's "their incomes were at least $100,000." But the fact remains that Brooks did not make the specific error I inferred. Also, I should have quoted Brooks more fully (the post started on a Blackberry) and added the perhaps more startling claim that 40% of adults (26-59) made more than $100k in three of the last ten years.

Also, not to make another unfounded inference, but Brooks also writes, "the percentage of prime-age American adults earning between $35,000 and $70,000 declined by 12 points between 1979 and 2007. But that’s largely because the percentage earning more than $105,000 increased by 14 points."  That too is a stat that in another 2007 Rose article -- cited in my post in connection with a real George Will error -- was ""the number of people in households that bring in more than $100,000... rose from 12 percent to 24 percent."

One other question, btw, is what about the considerable percentage of adults 26-59 who have not yet had ten years to earn?  I trust that Rose deals with that.


  1. You're still misreading Rose. If you are correct that he says "number of people living in households that bring in more than $100,000... rose from 12 to 24 per cent," then this is still not households. For instance, my wife and I, and our five children, live in a household that brings in more than 100K. That's seven people. Not seven households. I'm sure Rose can clear this up, but that's a much more plausible explanation. I flinched when I read Brooks' column too.

  2. just trivia, but the date of the will column is jan '08, not '07...your post reads like he had access to a time machine..otherwise, great stuff

  3. Does the $100,000 include profits from the appreciation and sale of a home?

  4. Thanks for this explanation! I just read Brooks' column and I immediately searched for some fact vetting. It really is a cringe inducing error. However, what is even scarier is that people like Brooks live in such a social bubble that the number he cites probably seems quite plausible from his isolated perspective.

  5. I had the same thought as Jon H. above.

  6. Cynthia of CaliforniaApril 6, 2010 at 3:56 PM

    Income is different from salary. Brooks's assumption that a whole bunch of people making $35-70K suddenly got jobs paying over $105K within the past ten years doesn't pass the laugh test. Most people don't see their salaries rise that much in one decade. Add in rising 401K's and the stock market gains, and yes, incomes did indeed rise. But it wasn't due to a majority of workers getting better paying jobs.

  7. I also wonder if that includes inheritances. It's a bit vague as stated.

    The implied high variability suggests that it is because of this kind of thing rather than regular wages.

  8. I have worked as a freelance writer, lawyer and professor during the past 13 years. I have a JD and a PH.D. I have never made close to $100K (whether salary, salary + "investments" or any other source).

    No one in my immediate family or extended family of middle class relatives aunts, uncles, cousins has ever had a household income of $100K or more.

    Obviously, I'm worse off than I realized. I'm not even middle-class.

  9. Your apology is kind, but the new stat that 60% of adults have earned $100K at some point in the past 10 years seems totally, unimaginably fantastical.

    The real median earnings of men who worked full time was $45,113 in 2007. So I'm to believe that in one of 10 years in the past decade, ALL of the people above the median, and 1/5th of the people below that median pulled in 100K as a one-off?

    No way did these median earners more than double their earnings in a year. Its just got to be bad statistical modeling or bad reporting of the modeling.

  10. I live in a small midwestern town. Maybe 5 to 10% of households make that much in a year--any year in ten, there isn't that much variability. Maybe if you live in a big city this sounds more plausible, but big cities have unemployed and underemployed and welfare recipients as well. I would like to know what evidence Rose cites for this figure, even at the "household" level. What's the number of households below the poverty line at least one year in the past ten?

  11. Brooks may have quoted Rose correctly, however what evidence is there that Rose is correct? I can believe the $100K household earnings statement but not the $100K individual earnings statement with the known median household and individual earnings over the years mentioned. I do believe that in Brooks bubble that is true.

  12. So what if David Brooks' quote was "correct" because this seems quite the fantasy that 60% (3 out 5! adults) in at least one year of the last ten earned over $100k. The US Census data for 2006 shows the median personal income for full-time working adults ages 25-64 was $39,509. In 2006 only 6% of the 25-65 cohort had personal income over $100K. It seems unlikely that more than half of this group at one point or other during the past decade had that $100k amount. I'd like to see the Rose data to support this declaration because it really doesn't pass the smell test.

  13. I think your apology/retraction. was premature.

    Quote from Brooks:

    "Over the last 10 years, 60 percent of Americans made more than $100,000 in at least one of those years, and 40 percent had incomes that high for at least three."

    Brooks does not qualify this statistic as "prime age Americans" or as "Americans between the ages of 26 to 59." He makes this claim about "60% of Americans."

    Although your explanation about Brooks likely miscounting households versus people was incorrect, I agree with your characterization of Brooks's assertion as being "sloppy with the facts."

  14. George Will: "Economist Stephen Rose, defining the middle class as households with annual incomes between $30,000 and $100,000, says a smaller percentage of Americans are in that category than in 1979 — because the percentage of Americans earning more than $100,000 has doubled, from 12 to 24..."

    Did he correct for inflation? Knowing George, I doubt it.

  15. What John H said. The only way this number passes the smell test is to consider the percentage of people who at some point will have sold a house. I can well believe that pushes the overall number of 100K-at-least-once up to 60% -- since you can't detangle couples filing their taxes jointly, so I will bet he credits both spouses with that income.

    The idea that 60% of people in the nation have at least one year where their *salary* is >100K? Bwa ha ha.

  16. i sent this article to a friend and got this reply " I'm not saying that it accounts for a majority of the $100,000 cohort, but tens of thousands of auto workers in the last decade accepted a buy-out in the face of guaranteed job elimination. In the buy-out year they made over $100,000 - and then they joined the ranks of the long-term unemployed and uninsured. Not exactly rich."

  17. David A. SpitzleyApril 7, 2010 at 4:44 PM

    These figures are utterly and completely implausible. Please, retract your retraction for the moment; you're much closer to correct (in any meaningful sense of that word) than Brooks or Rose.

  18. Yes, instead if retracting say we're still waiting for the truth and can bet it won't resemble Brooks. "Earn" is another word being abused here.

  19. Thanks to all commenters. Please note response in "Update 5" above.