David Brooks was fact-checked and Donald Trump will be fact-free. They’re not the only rich jerks, plus other mixed nuts…. (More)

I thought et al. was an abbreviation for “eat all the nuts in your bowl.” It turns out mom was wrong about that. It’s really an abbreviation for the Latin phrases et alii (m), et aliae (f), or et alia (n), and it means “and others.” My point is, before we get to Brooks, Trump, et al.

Habeus Corpus Sciurus

… we need another Latin phrase. Habeus corpus, as everyone knows, means “Let me out of jail.” In Latin it means “you should have the body” or “produce the body,” and it’s the archaic opening of a writ requiring the government to bring a prisoner into court for a hearing. But with Pacific Gas and Electric, we should use its literal sense:

Last week, an evening power blackout struck 45,000 electric utility customers in the Bay Area, plunging substantial parts of Berkeley and neighboring communities into darkness for more than two hours. The Downtown Berkeley BART station was shut down; a warehouse worker was trapped in an elevator. Cars eased cautiously through intersections, with no traffic lights to guide them.

The utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, placed the blame squarely on a particular woodland creature, one that was found dead at a substation in El Cerrito, a few miles from Berkeley.

PE&G tweeted:

Oh really. Yves Feyrer isn’t so sure:

The Times story continues:

Ms. Feyrer, 70, was working in her studio on that balmy Monday night when her computer screen suddenly went blank. When she heard the company’s explanation, she said, “I said to my husband, ‘Do you think it’s the apocryphal squirrel, an easy way out that covers all P.G.&E.’s faults?’”

While it is entirely possible a rogue squirrel caused all the damage, Ms. Feyrer said, “It’s also possible P.G.&E. made a mistake and trotted out the squirrel – when things go wrong, there’s always an excuse.”

I say, oyez and inter alia and res ipsa loquitur, habeus corpus sciurus, PE&G. We squirrels are tired of being blamed for inadequate infrastructure. Produce the body, or accept responsibility for your incompetence. Quod erat demonstrandum and ipse dixit. Or something like that.

Facts vs. David Brooks

“Or something like that” brings us to our next case, Facts vs. David Brooks. Here the corpus delicti is a claim Brooks has made several times, including his latest book The Road to Character:

In 1950, the Gallup Organization asked high school seniors if they considered themselves to be a very important person. At that point, 12 percent said yes. The same question was asked in 2005, and this time it wasn’t 12 percent who considered themselves very important, it was 80 percent.

This of course proves the Royal Stoa charge about the corrupt youth of Athens. Pass the hemlock, please.

Or not, Salon’s David Zweig discovered:

One of the key talking points (if not the key talking point) cited by Brooks in lectures, interviews, and in the opening chapter of his current bestseller, The Road to Character, is a particular set of statistics – one so resonant that in the wake of the book’s release this spring, it has been seized upon by a seemingly endless number of reviewers and talking heads. There’s just one problem: Nearly every detail in this passage – which Brooks has repeated relentlessly, and which the media has echoed, also relentlessly – is wrong.

In fact, Brooks had used almost the same words in a previous book, The Social Animal:

In 1950 a personality test asked teenagers if they considered themselves an important person. Twelve percent said yes. By the late 1980s, 80 percent said yes.

Notice how the story morphed from “a personality test” asking “teenagers” in “the late 1980s” to “the Gallup Organization” asking “high school seniors” in “2005.” And notice another key distinction, the question changed from “Are you an important person?” to “Are you a very important person?”

Zweig kept digging and found that Gallup never did a poll on this topic. There was an academic study, “Changes in Adolescent Response Patterns on the MMPI/MMPI-A Across Four Decades,” but Zweig explains that Brooks got that wrong too:

When I clicked the link and read the abstract, the first thing I noticed was the paper itself was published in 2003. The Road to Character stated that the data set was from 2005; how could that be when the final published paper came out two years earlier? That paper listed two relevant sets of data: One set collected in 1948 and 1954, and another set from 1989. I emailed Brooks’ publicist again. Had he merged the 1948 and 1954 polls into one that he then listed as having occurred in “1950”? And what the hell was up with the 2005 date listed in The Road to Character?

Zweig cut his journalistic teeth fact-checking for magazine articles, so he didn’t stop with simply finding the abstract. He read the full paper and called two of the authors, Cassandra Newsom of Vanderbilt University and Robert Archer of Eastern Virginia Medical School to discuss their findings in detail:

Newsom explained that, indeed, the first data set was from samples taken in 1948 and 1954, not 1950, and the second data set was from 1989, not 2005. Also, the first data set was exclusive to Minnesota, where respondents were disproportionately white, while the second was a more heterogeneous national sample. The respondents were not high school seniors, as Brooks wrote: In the ’48 and ’54 set, respondents were ninth graders; the 1989 sample was composed of 14- to 16-year-olds. (The ’48 and ’54 data set was later sifted to match the 1989 set by including only ninth graders who were aged 14-16.) Lastly, in the 1989 set, 80 percent of boys answered “true” to the statement “I am an important person,” and 77 percent of girls said true. Yet Brooks cited 80 percent as the only figure. I asked Newsom if it was possible that some other study was done in 2005 with the same “I am an important person” question. She said there has not been another normative sample since 1989.
In addition to his factual errors, it’s worth noting that Newsom and Archer challenge Brooks’ interpretation of their paper. Newsom explained to me that “I am an important person” was one question in a subset of questions related to “Ego inflation.” Interestingly, though this one question had a huge jump, ostensibly supporting the case of less humility over time, in fact, the overall subset that this question was a part of – Ego Inflation – had a relatively small increase from the first data set to the second. It’s generally not sound to spotlight one question in isolation, especially if it contrasts with the findings of the overall study or subset.

One reason is language itself. The words “I am an important person” may have been interpreted differently in the ’40s and ’50s, than in 1989. Archer said that the early sample may have interpreted the item as meaning “more important than others” whereas the ’80s sample may have read it to mean “I believe I am a valuable person.” Further, though the authors compare a sample from Minnesotans to a national sample, it’s done so in a paper intended to be read and interpreted by academics, who can weigh the discrepancy. Mainstream readers would likely benefit from knowing the samples are not apples to apples, as Brooks’ citation implies.

In other words, Brooks attributed Newsom’s and Archer’s work to Gallup, made up dates to suit his fancy … and misrepresented a single data point to support a These Kids Today fable that Newsom and Archer say their data don’t prove.

Brooks sorta-kinda backtracked in his column on June 12:

Every society has its rites of passage, marking the transition from youth to adulthood. Most of these rites of passage are ritualized and structured, with adult supervision and celebration. But the major rite of passage in our society is unritualized, unstructured and unnamed. Most of the people in the middle of it don’t even know it is going on. It happens between ages 22 and 30.

After kvetching about how These Kids Today don’t study enough in college and then graduate and move back home to play video games and wonder why the world isn’t all about them after all, Brooks empties his umbrage gland and concludes:

Yet here is the good news. By age 30, the vast majority are through it. The sheer hardness of the “Odyssey Years” teaches people to hustle. The trials and errors of the decade carve contours onto their hearts, so they learn what they love and what they don’t. They develop their own internal criteria to make their own decisions. They fear what other people think less because they learn that other people are not thinking about them; they are busy thinking about themselves.

Finally, they learn to say no. After a youth dazzled by possibilities and the fear of missing out, they discover that committing to the few things you love is a sort of liberation. They piece together their mosaic.

One thing we can tell young grads and their parents is that this is normal. This phase is a thing. It’s a not a sentence to a life of video games, loneliness and hangovers. It’s a rite of passage that makes people strong.

I guess that’s Brooksese for “Oops.”

“I’m really rich!”

Speaking of oops, Donald Trump is running for president:

It was an announcement that lived up to the outlandish expectations that Trump’s provocative personality promised. He arrived via escalator, insisted that “there’s never been a crowd like this” (wrong), said he can build a Web site for $3 (?) and noted “I’m really rich” (mostly right).

Pro Tip: When announcing your candidacy, don’t arrive looking as if you’re already on a sinking ship. You’re welcome.

The point is, Trump’s candidacy is very very bad for politics because, Chris Cillizza explains, reporters can’t not write and talk about him:

Trump’s candidacy is a terrible thing for politics, plain and simple. Here’s why: Trump can’t and won’t be ignored. Ever.

Because he is a well-known name – most people know and don’t like him but they do know him – Trump is, at the moment, in the top 10 of national polling among Republicans. That means, according to the rules of the first debate being sponsored by Fox News in August, Trump will qualify to be on the big stage.
People like Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee and everyone else on that debate stage will be playing by one set of rules, Trump will be playing by another. Or, more accurately: Trump won’t be playing by any rules. He won’t be bound by time constraints put on the candidates. He won’t be bound by the generally accepted rule that you try to offer policies that might have a chance of becoming law. He won’t feel the need to strictly adhere to, well, the truth.

That lack of rule-following (or even an acknowledgment that rules exist) will ensure that Trump is a big part of any story written off of the debates or any other forum where multiple presidential candidates are present. And that’s indicative of the bigger problem that Trump presents the media and why he’s so bad for this race: He is the car-accident candidate. You know you shouldn’t slow down to look but you know you will.

Yes, the same Chris Cillizza who insists that he and his colleagues have “a very important role [in the electoral process] – and one that is essential to a functioning democracy” … also insists that he and his colleagues lack the professional self-discipline to ignore Donald Trump’s ravings.

So, umm … which is it?

“We’re not all equal when it comes to water”

Speaking of rich jerks, may I present Exhibit – umm, let me count back: PE&G, Brooks, Trump, Cillizza? yeah, him too I guess – Exhibit E, rich Californians who resent water restrictions because, well, they’re rich:

Drought or no drought, Steve Yuhas resents the idea that it is somehow shameful to be a water hog. If you can pay for it, he argues, you should get your water.

People “should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens to be beautiful,” Yuhas fumed recently on social media. “We pay significant property taxes based on where we live,” he added in an interview. “And, no, we’re not all equal when it comes to water.”

The drought in Southern California is so bad that the Santa Fe Irrigation District is capping consumer water use, with severe penalties for people who exceed the caps. And that’s just absurd because, as we all know, droughts are for poor people:

The restrictions are among the toughest in the state, and residents of Rancho Santa Fe are feeling aggrieved.

“I think we’re being overly penalized, and we’re certainly being overly scrutinized by the world,” said Gay Butler, an interior designer out for a trail ride on her show horse, Bear. She said her water bill averages about $800 a month.

“It angers me because people aren’t looking at the overall picture,” Butler said. “What are we supposed to do, just have dirt around our house on four acres?”

Cue Vox’s David Roberts and Javier Zarracina:

So I was reading this story about water restrictions imposed in the wake of California’s horrible drought, and how wealthy people are reacting to them, and it reminded me that rich people are kind of jerks. That’s one big reason lots of solvable social problems aren’t getting solved.
So what are the marks of jerkdom here?

First is the odd contention that those who use more resources are being “overly penalized” and “overly scrutinized” in discussions of how to allot scarce resources, as though having and using more resources should be irrelevant to that discussion. It speaks to a conviction among the rich that they are a disadvantaged class, discriminated against without reason, leading one rich person to compare resentment toward the wealthy to the persecution of Jews in Hitler’s Germany. Did I say one rich person? I meant a bunch of them.

Roberts and Zarracina present both academic studies and empirical evidence for the thesis that rich people are jerks. Of course, since they’re writing about rich people – a privileged class – they must include a caveat:

When I say rich people are jerks, do I mean that all rich people are jerks? No, of course not. That’s not how generalizations work. Plenty of rich people are nice enough. Bill Gates, say. “Rich people are jerks” is shorthand for a few related concepts.

This is just like when people talk about urban crime, or women who raise children on their own. They always make a point to say #NotAllBlackPeople and #NotAllSingleMoms. I’m kidding. You won’t find much in either of those hashtags. But look up #NotAllMen and #NotAllWhitePeople and you’ll find plenty. Just sayin’. So yes, we need a hashtag #NotAllRichPeople, lest we offend The Powers That Be, as Roberts and Zarracina explain:

First, per Piff, and per most of their public-facing statements, the proportion of jerkdom among the rich appears to be substantially higher than among the general population. Whether becoming very rich makes you a jerk or jerks are more likely to become very rich (I suspect there’s some of both), there’s a correlation.

Second, the Total Jerkdom (TJ) of a given demographic is a function not just of jerkdom’s prevalence (p) within the demographic, but also its significance (s) to the larger population. TJ = p*s. Even if the level of jerkdom among the rich is equal to or lower than the level in the general population, it will still have more malign effects, because, as the research above shows, the preferences of rich people have extremely high significance (s) value for U.S. governance. In fact, they appear to be the only preferences that have any significance at all.

In short, rich people, qua demographic, have high jerkdom (p) and (s) values and thus uniquely high TJ. In other words, rich people are jerks.

Roberts and Zarracina have clearly proven their case, tradere nucibus. So ordered, heretofore and wherewithal during the party of the first part, sine lacrimis.


Good day and good nuts