Concerns About Arthur Brooks's "Who Really Cares."--

In the post immediately below, I describe some of the arguments in Arthur Brooks’s, Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide; Who Gives, Who Doesn’t, and Why It Matters.

There were, however, some things that troubled me.

Although the liberal v. conservative split is the hook for the book, the data are not nearly as stark as the hype surrounding the book might indicate.

Consider this passage (pp. 21-22):

When it comes to giving or not giving, conservatives and liberals look a lot alike. Conservative people are a percentage point or two more likely to give money each year than liberal people, but a percentage point or so less likely to volunteer [citing the 2002 General Social Survey (GSS) and the 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey (SCCBS)].

But this similarity fades away when we consider average dollar amounts donated. In 2000 [citing 2000 SCCBS data], households headed by a conservative gave, on average, 30 percent more money to charity than households headed by a liberal ($1,600 to $1,227). This discrepancy is not simply an artifact of income differences; on the contrary, liberal families earned an average of 6 percent more per year than conservative families, and conservative families gave more than liberal families within every income class, from poor to middle class to rich.

I am skeptical of basing so much on the SCCBS, in large part because it reports that liberal families make more money than conservatives (it is not clear from Brooks’s book whether the survey is of a representative national sample). In the 2000, 2002, and 2004 General Social Surveys, which are representative samples of the US, conservative families make $2,500 to $5,600 a year more than liberal families in each one. Although I don’t have the ANES data handy, my recollection is that the economic differences between conservatives and liberals are usually in the same direction and even larger in the ANES than in the GSS. Further, in each of these 3 GSSs, the lowest income families were the political moderates, who usually made substantially less than either liberals or conservatives.

This raises another problem with Brooks’ analysis: the contrast in Who Really Cares is frequently made between liberals (about 30% of the population) and conservatives (about 40% of the population), but I find that often the group that contrasts most strongly with conservatives is not liberals (who share with conservatives higher than average educations), but political moderates (about 30% of the population).

This problem comes to a head in Brooks’s probit and regression models analyzing SCCBS data (pp. 192-193). After controlling for a lot of things that you might not want to control for (i.e., being religious or secular), Brooks concludes that “liberals and conservatives are not distinguishable” in whether they have made any donation in the last year. This is literally true, but he fails to note that in the model liberals give significantly more than moderates, if a traditional .05 significance level is used, while conservatives do not differ significantly from moderates. Yet in Table 6, the significance level used as a threshold for identification with an asterisk is .01, not .05, as he uses in some of the other tables. In one table (p. 197), Brooks even reports significance at the .10 level, as well as at the .05 and .01 levels.

I can’t rule out the possibility that Brooks changed his reporting of the significance level so he wouldn’t have to explain why, after lots and lots of controls, liberals were more likely to have made a donation than moderates, while conservatives did not differ significantly from either liberals or moderates.

Brooks’s somewhat misleading reporting continues when he presents the results of the model predicting the dollar amount of donations. Brooks says that in the continuous dollar model, “conservatives are slightly (but distinguishably) more generous than liberals.” (p. 192) Again, this appears to be literally true. But what the model actually shows is that liberals give significantly more money than moderates, while conservatives give significantly more than both moderates and liberals. Moderates would seem to be the ungenerous ones, not liberals.

This problem of treating liberals and conservatives (who share similar levels of education) as the outliers — when moderates often are the outliers — is a common one in conservatism research, whether that research is done by liberal or conservative researchers. Here it can make liberals look as if they are at the opposite end of the spectrum in donations from conservatives, but from the data that are presented by Brooks, it’s often hard to tell whether moderates (not liberals) really are the outliers.

My first post related to Brooks’s book concerned, not liberals, moderates, and conservatives, but those who favor income redistribution v. those who don’t. Here the answer is more consistent: those who oppose income redistribution tend to be less racist, more tolerant of unpopular groups, happier, less vengeful, and more likely to report generous charitable donations. In most years of the GSS (but not 2004), political moderates tend to be nearly as redistributionist as liberals, so it’s important not to see redistribution as a simple issue of liberals v. conservatives.

On the whole, I think that Who Really Cares is a valuable book with much sound analysis, but it appears that some of its main conclusions are based on the 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, some of whose demographics don't appear to match national representative samples such as the GSS and ANES. And in Brooks's book, sometimes liberals are accused of being ungenerous when it appears that they may be more generous than political moderates. Generally, his otherwise strong analysis is weakened by focusing too little on what I have called the forgotten middle: moderates