David Brooks' Celebration: The U.S. Is Richer Than Chad!

Okay, it's not quite that bad, but when someone who pretends to be serious wants his readers to celebrate the fact that: "the average American worker is nearly 10 times more productive than the average Chinese worker," it's getting pretty silly. (Actually it's probably closer than 7-8 times, but this is David Brooks we're talking about.)

People in the United States are used to comparing their living standards to countries like Canada and Germany, not China. While China is a rapidly developing country, it is still a relatively poor country in a process of catching up. It's more than a bit silly to tell people in the United States that our productivity is many times higher than that of a poor peasant agricultural worker in central China.

Brooks seems fascinated by the fact that our income is on average projected to rise. This is true and always has been true and it is true for almost every other country in the world. Incomes rise, incomes rise, incomes rise. Let's say that a few thousand more times so that no columnist will ever again write it up as though it is news.

This is the normal state for economies. Incomes rise through time because people become more educated, we get more and better capital, and our technology improves. The real issue is the rate at which incomes rise. For most people in the United States the rate of increase in income or living standards (this can also be the result of more leisure) has been extremely slow in the last three decades. Projections show that rising health care costs will eat up much of the projected gains in income over the next three decades. This is the sort of issue that serious people would look at.

Instead, Brooks touts our growing population -- hey we should be like Congo or Ethiopia, they even faster population growth. It's hard to know what planet Brooks lives on, but on this one, population growth is not a measure of prosperity. In fact, in a world where there is a desperate need to limit greenhouse gas emissions, population is decidedly unhealthy.

Brooks also specializes in presenting bizarre statistics with great authority with have nothing to do with reality. He told readers that:

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

To have this even close to resembling reality, he has to be referring to household income, since the earnings of single adults. In other words, a competent columnist would have put this as:

"Over the past 10 years, 60 percent of American adults lived in a household that made more than $100,000 in at least one or two of those years, and 40 percent had incomes that high for at least three."

But, let's check this against the data we can get in two seconds from the Census Bureau. The Census Bureau tells us that 20.5 percent of households have income greater than $100,000. High income households are more likely to have two adults, so let's assume an average of 1.8 adult per high income household compared to 1.4 overall. This gets us 25.7 percent of adults were living in households that earned more than $100,000 in 2008.

Can we get 60 percent of adults living in a household with an income above $100,000 for at least one year in the last ten if only 25.7 percent had an income this high in any given year? That seems unlikely given that we know many two-earner professional households will never fall out of this category.

But, let's take the flip side. There were roughly 29 million households that had incomes of less than $25,000 in 2008. If we assume 1.2 adults in these households on average, then there were roughly the same number of adults living in households with incomes under $25,000 as there were living in households with incomes above $100,000.

Now, if we assume the same mobility around the bottom as around the top, then 60 percent of adults lived in a household that made less than $25,000 in at least 1 or 2 of the last ten years. And 40 percent of adults had incomes this low for at least 4 of the last ten years.

Well, Brooks did warn serious people to not read his column. They would be well advised to take this advice.

--Dean Baker

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