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Is a ‘national shift toward envy’ underway? Maybe not.

Jay Livingston is a one-man truth squad for Arthur Brooks. Livingston is a professor of sociology at Montclair State University in New Jersey, and Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and an occasional op-ed writer for the New York Times.

A few years ago, Brooks wrote in the New York Times:

Who is happier about life — liberals or conservatives? . . . Scholars on both the left and right have studied this question extensively, and have reached a consensus that it is conservatives who possess the happiness edge. . . . None, it seems, are happier than the Tea Partiers.

But Livingston looked up the data from the General Social Survey and found that in 2009-10 (the tea party era), self-identified extremely conservative people turn out to be the most likely to be unhappy:

Last year Brooks wrote, again in the New York Times:

Conservative women are particularly blissful: about 40 percent say they are very happy.

Livingston again went to the source and found this:


In the graph, the far left and far right are equally “very happy,” and in the “not too happy” category, very conservative women outnumber their liberal sisters nearly two to one. (More background here.)

A new example came up the other day, again in the Times, when Brooks wrote in a piece titled “The Downside of Inciting Envy”:

According to data from the General Social Survey, the percentage of Americans who feel strongly that “government ought to reduce the income differences between the rich and the poor” is at its highest since the 1970s. In January, 43 percent of Americans told the Pew Research Center that government should do “a lot” to “reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else.”

Livingston responded:

Brooks’s reading of the GSS data is barely true. Respondents mark their opinion on a 7-point scale.  In 2012, 24.3% chose #1, the most redistributionist option. That was only slightly higher than 1990 (22.6%) and 1986 (22.7%). (Using #1 and #2 combined puts 1990 highest.)

It’s understandable that in the Great Recession years, economic hardship would inspire more people to look to government to assuage inequality.  But before then, the average redistributionst sentiment in Republican years (Reagan-Bush41, Bush43) is higher than in Democratic years (Clinton). This might be relevant for Brooks’s assertion [that] “we must recognize that fomenting bitterness over income differences may be powerful politics, but it injures our nation.”

As before, Brooks isn’t making claims that are definitely false, it’s more that he’s presenting different pieces of the data in a way that to Livingston (and to me) don’t seem to show an accurate picture. One of the difficulties of dealing with survey data is that there are so many numbers floating around. If you’re not careful, you can pick out just a few and get a misleading impression.

Anyway, I think the Times should ask Livingston to write a few columns for them.

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University. His books include Bayesian Data Analysis; Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks; and Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.

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