Sunday, June 06, 2010

What Passes for Scholarship on the Political Right

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, has penned the type of editorial one would expect from the Wall Street Journal editorial page, an exercise in jaw-dropping mendacity. For example,
The International Social Survey Programme asked Americans and Europeans whether they believe "It is the responsibility of the government to reduce the differences in income between people with high incomes and those with low incomes." In virtually all of Western Europe more than 50% agree, and in many countries it is much higher—77% in Spain, whose redistributive economy is in shambles. Meanwhile, only 33% of Americans agree with income redistribution.

Simply put, Europeans have a much stronger taste for other people's money than we do.
Leaving aside for the moment that the difference in results isn't all that dramatic - on the whole, one sixth of people who responded to the survey, skewed markedly upward by outliers like Spain - to somebody who is actually interested in the issue, it would be helpful to know the means by which the survey's respondents expect the government to close the income gap. For example, they may favor greater investment in education, from pre-school through college, to help ensure broad access and opportunity for the best students. It could mean job training for lower skilled or displaced workers. It could mean attempting to reduce discriminatory policies in the workplace. But it's Europe so Brooks doens't feel any need to find out the facts, and instead assumes that the only possible means to the desired end is to tax the rich and redistribute their assets.

Brooks next complains that some politicians are skeptical of the origins of the Tea Party movement, particularly in relation to the "tax day tea party protests in April 2009", and their assertion that some wealthy interests are funding the movement. Rather than looking at the facts, Brooks turns to of all things an opinion poll, asserting that "more than half of Americans viewed the [2009 tax day] protests favorably" and, shifting gears to healthcare reform in 2009, "61% of those polled" believed that the people protesting healthcare reform at town hall meetings were "mainly individual citizens coming together to express their views" while 28% thought the protests "were mainly coordinated by health-care interest groups." This, Brooks tells us, means that "Average Americans are not as cynical" as Democratic politicians. But as you might expect, he begs the question of who was correct - presumably because he knows the facts aren't on his side.

Brooks next moves on to a dishonest attack on civil service wages:
The increasing size of the federal work force is an early indication of what lies ahead. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in the last year the federal government added 86,000 permanent (non-Census) jobs to the rolls. And high-paying jobs at that: The number of federal salaries over $100,000 per year has increased by nearly 50% since the beginning of the recession.

Today, the average federal worker earns 77% more than the average private-sector worker, according to a USA Today analysis of data from the federal Office of Personnel Management.
We've gone through decades of outsourcing, leading to a present in which a lot of the low-skilled and unskilled jobs once performed by government workers are instead performed by contractors. In no small part as a result, the average government job requires a significantly higher skill set and level of education than the average private sector job. If you include the jobs performed by those contractors in the average government wage you'll see the average go down, just as you would if you had the government fire its contractors and hired new federal workers to perform the outsourced services. Brooks isn't honest enough to concede the former point, and he would of course (and appropriately) strenuously object to ending outsourcing even though it could cause what he pretends to be a problem, the average wage of a federal worker, to plummet.

Brooks could have done us the favor of identifying specific federal employees or classes of employees who are paid at a higher level than their private sector counterparts. But... I guess that would be too much to ask. I haven't checked to see if Brooks railed against the Bush Administration's policies on compensation and bonuses for civil servants, but let's not forget that the Bush Administration implemented a system of bonuses for its appointees - a practice that had been banned by the Clinton Administration - insisting that government wages alone were too low to attract and retain the best candidates. Which is it - are government wages too low, with private sector jobs siphoning off the best talent with offers of far greater compensation, or are they too high?

Further, the claim that "The number of federal salaries over $100,000 per year has increased by nearly 50% since the beginning of the recession" tells us nothing about how many federal salaries are over $100,000 so that we have context about what a 50% increase actually means, and doesn't tell us why the increase has occurred. On the first point, it's reasonable to assume that we had more than two federal workers earning more than $100,000 at the start of the recession, but an increase from two to three would be a "50% increase". With Brooks deliberately removing the context, the statistic is supposed to shock his readers but is in fact meaningless. Second, for the statistic to have any meaning we need to know how many federal employees were making almost $100,000 at the start of the recession. Brooks presumably wants to send the false message that the Obama Administration has been lavish with salaries and raises since taking office. The mundane reality is that we're talking about salary scales and annual cost of living adjustments that were put into place before President Obama took office.

The piece calculated to inspire an anti-government reaction on the part of the reader, and to that end it probably works. But it takes a deliberate attitude of facts be damned. Brooks doesn't even attempt to introduce facts, save as red herrings (i.e., opinion poll results to challenge accusations of astroturfing). While typical of the AEI's contributions to public discourse, it's a shame that the Institute has so little regard for the quality of that discourse.

1 comment:

  1. He describes health care reform as "ObamaCare", something that is typical of shallow right-wing diatribes.