Saturday, May 30, 2009

Compassionate Hackery: Redux

Back in the day, I did a takedown of a book by conservative author Arthur Brooks, who imagined his research proved that conservatives were more compassionate than liberals. But upon reflection, that post was much too long and meandering, so I'm reposting the meat of it here. Enjoy!

The book was Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism, which had been thrown at me as conclusive proof that conservatives were more compassionate than liberals. And in it, Brooks set out to prove that "the common stereotype that conservatives are less compassionate than liberals" was incorrect, by studying charitable donations of time and money.

And the idea was that he was going to show that because conservatives give more to charity, this implicitly proves that they're more compassionate. And while that point is easily debatable, as its based upon a child-like understanding of compassion, let's see what he found.

News Flash: Conservative Researcher Proves Own Premise

And lo and behold, Brooks did the research and it turned out that liberals really were more compassionate than conservatives and the stereotypes were correct. Ha ha, just joking. Naturally, his premise was ultimately confirmed; even if it required him to ignore reality to do so. Because as it turns out, the real distinction he found in charitable giving was between religious and non-religious people; regardless of ideology.

And that's largely because religious people give more to their church. Case closed. That explains almost everything. Religious people on the right and left gave far more than non-religious of either side gave. Moreover, for the year Brooks cited, religious people on average gave $2210 to charity, as opposed to non-religious people, who only gave $642. But...when religious giving is excluded, religious people only gave $88 more on average than non-religious people. That's right, he wrote an entire book on the premise of charitable giving, based upon an $88 difference.

But worst of all, the group that gave the least to charity were non-religious conservatives! And that completely undermines Brooks' case in its entirety! That's it. Game over, dude. Brooks loses. This wasn't a right-left disparity. This was about religion, and if you remove religion from the picture, Brooks' argument vanishes. Secular liberals gave more than secular conservatives. Case closed. And honestly, did anyone ever doubt that religious conservatives gave lots of dough to their church? I don't think so.

Data Problems

Beyond that, there were obvious flaws in his methodology, which certainly undermines the conclusiveness that Brooks' imagined he had.

Because first off, much of the underlying research was done by surveys, which are notoriously unreliable. Particularly when you're asking someone how much they give to charity. And according to this liberal blogger, the underlying data actually says the opposite of Brooks' message, and claims that Brooks says he "adjusted" the numbers to correct for things like age and income. And so it's quite possible that Brooks just pulled this stuff out of his rear.

Conversely, he cited state-by-state numbers to show that Red States gave more than Blue States as a percentage of wealth, but failed to adjust for Cost of Living. He was basing this on total income, not discretionary income. So an NY resident who makes $100k and pays $25k in rent and $10k in donations looks more stingy than a GA resident who makes $85k and pays $10k in rent and $9k in donations; even though the NY guy paid more with the same amount of discretionary income. Any normal person would find an obvious flaw in this logic.

And if you adjust for Cost of Living, eight out of the top ten states were blue, not red; the opposite of Brooks' claim. When confronted with this, Brooks dismisses it saying "there are lots of ways to look at geography and giving, and the question is far from settled." Yes, there's the way that makes sense, and then there's Brooks' way, which was the only way his argument could work. This is the problem when you start with your answer and work your way backwards.

Missing the Forest for the Trees

And the final nail in the coffin (as if one was needed), Brooks was using charitable giving as proof of "compassion." Yet, his definition of charity is anything the IRS considers charity; which includes universities, museums, hospitals, civic groups, public radio, etc. And while those are good causes, they're not necessarily about compassion. I like museums and public radio, but I fail to see how they involve helping people in need; and that's what compassion is all about.

And even worse, Brooks purposefully excluded government spending in his analysis, because it's not voluntary. And is compassionate. When I demand that Congress finance free lunches and Medicaid. That's compassion. And when conservatives insist that taxes are theft and that unemployment benefits are "handouts" which undermine personal freedom, that's uncompassionate. And the amount the government gives to help the poor far exceeds the paltry charity that people give voluntarily. It's not even close.

And this isn't a side issue that can be ignored. That's the whole point of these programs: People would suffer without them. And that's the bottom line. That's what it's all about. Liberals are "compassionate" because we want to take care of people in need. And conservatives are jerkoffs because they don't give a damn about these people (or as Brooks once put it, "conservatives are optimists" who "believe the American economy provides private opportunities to succeed.")

And so Brooks screws around with numbers, hides the truth about what they show, and then completely ignores the liberal side of the discussion, which focuses on using the tools of government to be compassionate. And yet, Arthur Brooks wrote a book that probably made him a decent amount of money; while I still blog for free. Life's a bitch.

1 comment:

Mahakal / महाकाल said...

Conservatives think property is more important than human life. And then they call themselves pro-life, because they are alwsys hypocrites.