The unbearable liteness of David Brooks

by Ted on April 6, 2004

Sasha Issenberg recently wrote an article in which he tried to fact-check an old article by David Brooks. Brooks wrote an article with a number of verifiable claims about Republican vs. Democratic areas, and specifically about his visit to Pennsylvania’s Franklin County. Issenberg found a number of factual errors; when confronted with them, Brooks explained that he was often joking, and that the main thrust of the piece (lower-middle-class communities are different from upper-middle-class communities) was accurate.

David Brooks wrote a piece in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine called “Our Sprawling, Supersize Utopias” that won’t be so easily tripped up. It isn’t because he’s done the extensive research and hard work to back up his arguments. Rather, it’s because the article is so breezy and rootless, any fact checker who was assigned to this piece would be finished by noon.

Brooks’ basic thesis is that the suburbs are not dull and homogenous. Rather, they are strongly varied communities with distinct characters, as people build suburban communities around people who share similar interests. The centerpiece of the article is a long section where Brooks lovingly describes suburban/ exurban communities of granola-types, upscale bobos with German luxury cars, immigrants, obsessive-compulsive golfers, etc. We are treated to a long list of consumer goods that define each area. This may or may not be right, but it certainly sounds plausible.

Brooks isn’t going to have some smarty-pants out of j-school nitpicking this article. How could they? By my count, there are only seventeen sentences with specific, verifiable facts. In addition, there are six quotations from other authors. The article is about 4000 words. That’s a very low ratio of facts to words for a journalistic article. (Readers may argue with my choices of verifiable facts in the comments.)

And here’s the kicker: none of his facts support his conclusions. We learn that both population and jobs are growing faster in the suburbs than in metropolitan areas. We learn that a lot of people in America were born outside the United States, and we learn that Americans work longer hours, change jobs more often, and relocate more often than Europeans. Finally, we learn that a number of historians and writers think that Americans pursue their dreams.

We do not learn anything that would back up the central conceit of the piece. What are the names of some real-life crunchy/ immigrant/ golf suburbs? What’s the percentage of nonwhites in the suburbs? What suburban communities have sizeable numbers of both Nigerians and Mexicans? Are sales of German luxury cars actually concentrated in certain wealthy communities and not in others? Has he actually seen a left-wing suburb with kids “who tend to have names like Milo and Mandela”? Where? Some of these statements are obviously exaggerations or jokes. But shouldn’t he have something to stand on? A quote from an academic, a census finding, even a personal anecdote… shouldn’t there be something that can be verified?

I repeat that Brooks’ thesis sounds plausible. But having read it carefully, I can’t come up with an answer to the question “How do you know?” This is not journalism, and it’s not sociology. It’s stand-up comedy, and the New York Times is paying too much for it.

POSTSCRIPT: By my count, there are seventeen specific, verifiable facts in this article. I’m not counting general statements like “Many of us still live with the suburban stereotypes laid down by the first wave of suburban critics — that the suburbs are dull, white-bread kind of places where Ozzie and Harriet families go to raise their kids.” You could support a statement like that, but I don’t know how you would verify it:

1. Americans continue to move from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West
2. For example, the population of metropolitan Pittsburgh has declined by 8 percent since 1980, but as people spread out, the amount of developed land in the Pittsburgh area increased by nearly 43 percent.
3. The population of Atlanta increased by 22,000 during the 90’s, but the expanding suburbs grew by 2.1 million.
4. Jobs used to be concentrated in downtowns.
5. But the suburbs now account for more rental office space than the cities in most of the major metro areas of the country except Chicago and New York.
6. In the Bay Area in California, suburban Santa Clara County alone has five times as many of the region’s larger public companies as San Francisco.
7. Ninety percent of the office space built in America by the end of the 1990’s was built in suburbia, much of it in far-flung office parks stretched along the Interstates.
8. Mesa, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix, now has a larger population than Minneapolis, St. Louis or Cincinnati.
9. When the New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup, they had their victory parade in a parking lot; no downtown street is central to the team’s fans.
10. One out of every nine people in America was born in a foreign country.
11. No lifestyle magazine is geared to the people who live in these immigrant-heavy wholesale warehouse zones.
12. The average American works 350 hours a year — nearly 10 weeks — more than the average Western European.
13. Americans switch jobs more frequently than people from other nations.
14. The average job tenure in the U.S. is 6.8 years, compared with more than a decade in France, Germany and Japan.
15. In 2002, about 14.2 percent of Americans relocated.
16. Compare that with the 4 percent of Dutch and Germans and the 8 percent of Britons who move in a typical year.
17. According to one survey, only slightly more than a quarter of American teenagers expect to live in their hometowns as adults.

Six quotations or direct references:

18. Robert Lang, a demographer at Virginia Tech, compares these new sprawling exurbs to the dark matter in the universe: stuff that is very hard to define but somehow accounts for more mass than all the planets, stars and moons put together.
19. Albert Einstein once said that imagination is more important than knowledge
20. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that those who ”complain of the flatness of American life have no perception of its destiny. They are not Americans.” They don’t see that ”here is man in the garden of Eden; here, the Genesis and the Exodus.
21. The historian Sacvan Bercovitch has observed that the United States is the example par excellence of a nation formed by collective fantasy.
22. Francis Parkman, the great 19th-century historian, wrote of his youthful self, ”His thoughts were always in the forest, whose features possessed his waking and sleeping dreams, filling him with vague cravings impossible to satisfy.”
23. There’s a James Fenimore Cooper novel called ”The Pioneers,” in which a developer takes his cousin on a tour of the city he is building. He describes the broad streets, the rows of houses. But all she sees is a barren forest. He’s astonished she can’t see it, so real is it in his mind already.



Ophelia Benson 04.06.04 at 8:52 pm

Yep. Standing grievance of mine for years (yes I know, I have a lot of grievances, I’m like that, okay?): Barnes and Noble shelves Brooks’ idiotic Bobos book in sociology! What B&N does not shelve in sociology is, well, sociology.


Chris in Boston 04.06.04 at 9:20 pm

Wow. Brooks seems to have taken that article as an occasion to write stuff that’s even more breezy with its sweeping conclusions. The charges of liteness are fair, but I have to defend Brooks on one charge: he’s doing op-ed commentary, not reporting. Facts might bolster his argument, but he should be giving us something that’s not fact-checkable.

That said, I found his NYT suburbs article weird for its rambling nature. In fact, I don’t think its problem was the lack of facts or expert opinion backing up his central conceit, it was that it was hard to figure out what his central conceit was. Clearly he thinks coastal liberal elite types shouldn’t dismiss exurbs. And he wants to champion the exurb’s vision of America as a land of opportunity, though he doesn’t present a consistent argument for that either. But ultimately his target seems a moving one.


praktike 04.06.04 at 9:45 pm

I whole-heartedly support a campaign to shame David Brooks into being a better journalist.

Take #2, which is something I have a fair bit of knowledge about, being both from Pittsburgh and in the anti-sprawl business.

The number Brooks cites is from a July 2001 Brookings study called “Who Sprawls Most? How Growth Patterns Differ Across the U.S.” by William Fulton, Rolf Pendall, Mai Nguyen, and Alicia Harrison.

Brookings says:
“Pittsburgh, for example, dropped 8 percent in population but increased its urbanized land by 42 percent [between 1982 and 1997].”

But Brooks says:
“For example, the population of metropolitan Pittsburgh has declined by 8 percent since 1980, but as people spread out, the amount of developed land in the Pittsburgh area increased by nearly 43 percent.”

Nit picky?

Perhaps, but it’s indicative of Brooks’ larger sloppiness.

More broadly, Brooks draws on a lot of Brookings research on sprawl, but seems to rejects all of its conclusions. Brookings is decidedly anti-sprawl. Here’s their recent report on Pittsburgh.

Judge for yourself whether it accords with Brooks’ observations.


James Joyner 04.06.04 at 10:16 pm

My understanding is that the New York Times magazine is not peer reviewed and does not purport to be a sociology journal–or an academic journal at all. Brooks is a popular writer, not a scholar. He writes for a bright audience looking for something non-taxing to do with their Sunday mornings rather than for people compiling a lit review.

P.J. O’Rourke appears in the social science sections of most bookstores. He’s not actually a social scientist, either. My guess is that the people who run bookstores tend to stock books that people want to read and, preferably, actually buy. Not too many books by actual social scientists (of whom I am one) fit either of those categories.


a different chris 04.06.04 at 10:20 pm

praktike (and others)- the columnist Brian O’Neill claimed(unfortunately without reference) that despite our sprawl, that 80% of the jobs in not only Allegheny but all the surrounding counties were within 3 miles of downtown

Do you have any idea where he got this from? Maybe in that Brookings report that I’m too lazy to read?

I meant to e-mail him but forgot- and I bet I’ll forget again as soon as I leave Crooked Timber.


Ted Barlow 04.06.04 at 10:31 pm

I don’t think that it’s enough to point out that the Times isn’t an academic journal. Of course it’s not, but I still maintain that this article isn’t up to snuff. He’s writing general nonfiction, backed up with nothing more than a string of colorful stereotypes that he, personally, made up. It sounds plausible, but if that’s the standard of proof, you can demonstrate any dang thing you like.

I like P.J. O’Rourke, and I wouldn’t be able to make the same sort of complaint about him. He writes in a funny and engaging style, but he pegs his pieces to his own travels or interviews.


Bruce Cleaver 04.06.04 at 10:32 pm

I can vouch for the complete flabbiness of Brooks’ first listed article; I spent my teenage years in Franklin County, PA (in Waynesboro) and am familiar with the haunts both he and Issenberg mention. FWIW, Woody Allen was considered funny by my high school classmates, and there were plenty of places in which to spend a small fortune for dinner. The smugness of Brooks shows through in a hundred different ways – he ends up seeing only what his worldview permits.


Shai 04.06.04 at 10:35 pm

Ophelia Says:

“Barnes and Noble shelves Brooks’ idiotic Bobos book in sociology!”

And Chapters, the equivalent of B&N up here in Canada shelves Al Franken, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Michael Moore in “International Political Science”

The library of congress scheme is also a source of amusement: I found Ayn Rand next to WVO Quine in the stacks at Robarts.


praktike 04.06.04 at 10:37 pm

Chris, I don’t know where O’Neill got his info, but I imagine that’s available from the BEA.


drapeto 04.06.04 at 11:13 pm

He writes for a bright audience

really, what makes you say that? my understanding of teh complaint in this very post is that he does not write for a bright audience.


Adam Kotsko 04.07.04 at 5:18 am

Who’s going to get the dismal job of running


mc 04.07.04 at 8:48 am

Gosh, this is hilarious. What a feast of clichés. My favourite bit:

For more than 260 years, in other words, Americans have been rich, money-mad, vulgar, materialistic and complacent people. And yet somehow America became and continues to be the most powerful nation on earth and the most productive. Religion flourishes. Universities flourish. Crime rates drop, teen pregnancy declines, teen-suicide rates fall, along with divorce rates. Despite all the problems that plague this country, social healing takes place. If we’re so great, can we really be that shallow?

Ehhh… Gotta love that question at the end.

A fairy tale of productivity, prosperity, and relocation. If America was a company, Brooks would be writing its mission statement. So lovely.

Thing is, he does actually come off more disparaging of “the average” American than the ‘critics’ he sets out to argue against.

But the NYT has a fondness for that kind of crap so I’m not suprised.


Kenny Easwaran 04.07.04 at 10:27 am

For the sociology misshelving: philosophers have long gotten used to the idea that bookstores have a very different idea of metaphysics than we do.

As for David Brooks, it seems more like he’s aiming at the truth of novels than the truth of science. He’s attempting to catch and/or shape some aspect of the Zeitgeist, rather than actually track population trends.

The criticisms of him strike me as a bit positivist and/or Popperian, and therefore a bit obsolete. But still reasonable.


Matt 04.07.04 at 1:28 pm

The lack of examples in Brooks’ essay is due mainly to coyness. The ‘german sedan’ suburb he cites is obviously Bethesda, where Brooks lives, and the prime example of a ‘crunchy suburb’ is presumably Takoma Park, not too far away.


purolator 04.07.04 at 2:12 pm

I’d think that Brooks did his best to justify Karl Kraus’s saying that a journalist is someone who has nothing to say but who knows how to say it.

Apperently the New York Times pays him quite nicely to do so, and this might not be accidental. Imaginative writers are distinguished not by a sweeter character (too often very much not), greater intellectual honesty, or even deeper intelligence, but — apart from the gift of expression which is their stock in trade — a way of looking at the world which is interesting because it is exaggerated or distorted.

No surprise yet.

What really seems odd to mee is the zeal with which Brooks is observed, nitpicked, and disparaged since he writes for the “Grey Lady”.

What’s that — scribblers’ version of penis envy?


pblsh 04.07.04 at 2:14 pm

Considering that this wasn’t an original article, but an excerpt from his forthcoming book, we have another 60,000 words or so of this nonsense to look forward to. Shelved in the Sociology section, no doubt, and coming soon to a bestseller list near you. But then, genial plausibility is all that Brooks has ever aimed at. You do him a favor even to consider him in the light of a scholar or even a journalist, harsh as either may prove to be.

I actually understand his appearance in the Sunday Times Magazine. He is not and has never been a scholar nor even a serious reporter, but there’s a place for genial plausibility on a Sunday morning. It’s his regular gig on the op ed pages that I find astounding, as one hopes that the opinion there is at least informed, if not enlightened.


Ophelia Benson 04.07.04 at 6:06 pm

This is all kind of fascinating.

The criticisms of him strike me as a bit positivist and/or Popperian, and therefore a bit obsolete. But still reasonable.

Er – meaning what? That it’s obsolete to think factual statements should be accurate? Really? Cool!

What really seems odd to mee is the zeal with which Brooks is observed, nitpicked, and disparaged since he writes for the “Grey Lady”.

What’s that — scribblers’ version of penis envy?

Well now I would have thought it had something to do with the idea that since the Grey Whatsit has a grotesque amount of authority and influence, in a country with so few decent newspapers and only two that can be considered partly national, it really ought to do a decent job. But that’s probably wrong, no doubt it is some form of penis envy. Is the Grey Lady’s penis kind of like the maternal penis that Melanie Klein talks about? How I wish I could see it.


Thomas 04.07.04 at 9:22 pm

The question is, is what Brooks rights plausible? I mean, does it matter whether he’s talking about Bethesda, if you don’t recognize Bethesda? I recognize the America he’s exaggerating. And, recognizing that America, I can consider his thesis, such as it is (America lives in the future tense, etc.).

The joy of Brooks is the humorous portrait of the America you recognize once he points it out to you.


Ophelia Benson 04.07.04 at 10:11 pm

Er, no, the question is not whether it’s plausible, not if it’s dead wrong. Plausible bullshit is still bullshit.


Sven 04.08.04 at 4:41 am

Lighten up, people. Hunter Thompson may have played fast and loose with the facts, but we all know that the Kentucky Derby is indeed decadent and depraved.

Gonzo has grown up, and after begetting 2.5 kids and a mortgage, it was bound to settle down. Brooks is the vanguard of the way new journalism.

Sure, it may not have the kick of HST’s LSD, but it has its charms. Like a nice, warm double mocha latte, Brooks’ prose has subtle texture and a sweet taste. Mmmm. And even though it’s slightly addictive, it’s completely safe to drink every day — or in this case, bi-weekly. What more could you ask for?


Gary Farber 04.08.04 at 7:11 pm

As I briefly blogged here, the very sage Timothy Burke, whose blog you should all be reading, taught Issenberg, and had typical insightful comments here.


Matt Hardwick 04.09.04 at 7:20 pm

Sure, it may not have the kick of HST’s LSD, but it has its charms. Like a nice, warm double mocha latte, Brooks’ prose has subtle texture and a sweet taste. Mmmm. And even though it’s slightly addictive, it’s completely safe to drink every day — or in this case, bi-weekly. What more could you ask for?

Well, if anything else, the Appeal to Authority that Brooks makes would be kinda nice. And would even make his writing as honest and as imaginative as HST’s was, even more so! The reason folks started gunning after Brooks’ work in the first place was that he marketed himself as writing with what an earlier poster here said was the “truth of science”. Like William Whyte and James Reissman of earlier times. But as it turns out, the reason he marketed himself as such was because he was far too insecure in his craft to write with the “truth of novels”…

The most enduring part of Thompson’s “kick” was his Anti-Authoritarianism. LSD, after all, is a drug so potent that one does not take it all that often. While the nice, warm double mocha lattes of Brooks’ sort of Journalism only last so long…

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