David Brooks is pulling out all the conservative pundit tricks in this passage from his column today:
If you’ve paid attention to the presidential campaign, you’ve heard the neopopulist story line. C.E.O.’s are seeing their incomes skyrocket while the middle class gets squeezed. The tides of globalization work against average Americans while most of the benefits go to the top 1 percent.
This story is not entirely wrong, but it is incredibly simple-minded. To believe it, you have to suppress a whole string of complicating facts.
The first complicating fact is that after a lag, average wages are rising sharply. Real average wages rose by 2 percent in 2006, the second fastest rise in 30 years.
The second complicating fact is that according to the Congressional Budget Office, earnings for the poorest fifth of Americans are also on the increase. As Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution noted recently in The Washington Post, between 1991 and 2005, “the bottom fifth increased its earnings by 80 percent, compared with around 50 percent for the highest-income group and around 20 percent for each of the other three groups.”
Brooks later claims that "the Democratic campaign rhetoric is taking on a life of its own, and drifting further away from reality... [C]andidates now compete to tell dark, angry and conspiratorial stories about the economy."
Another way to frame this might be to say that pundits compete to tell optimistic, context-free fables about the state of the economy.
The first trick that Brooks uses is to present an out-of-context statistic that sounds promising about the state of the economy under Bush, the same technique used by, for instance, the Wall Street Journal editorial board, NRO's Jerry Bowyer, and the administration (here and here).
He writes that "after a lag, average wages are rising sharply. Real average wages rose by 2 percent in 2006, the second fastest rise in 30 years." But the "lag" Brooks briefly mentions means that workers haven't gained much during the current expansion -- here's what real average wages look like since 1993, for instance:
In general, the current recovery does not compare well to the post-WWII average (or the 1990s), as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out:
Brooks's second claim is also misleading. In it, he uses the gains made under President Clinton to make the status of the poor look better than it is, writing that "according to the Congressional Budget Office, earnings for the poorest fifth of Americans are also on the increase." He then cites statistics for the 1991-2005 period.
However, if you actually look up the CBO report in question (PDF), you'll find this graphic, which illustrates that income hasn't really been "on the increase" for the lowest quintile of households with children under Bush:
The earnings gains that Brooks highlights have tailed off particularly dramatically under Bush:
Of course, it is true that the economic situation is complicated. But Brooks is giving short shrift to concerns about an economy that is currently doing very little for most Americans.
Update 7/31 8:56 AM: Brooks ran this clarification today:
Last week I cited data on rising earnings among the working poor. I should have made it clear that the data referred to poor households with children, since poor households without children did not enjoy those gains.
No word, however, on the larger issues with his column.