July 8, 2012 · 1 Comments
By Marie Burns:
Arthur Brooks, president of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, writes in an op-ed in today’s New York Times that conservatives are happier than liberals. Brooks, who is a former contributor to the New York Times‘ “Freakonomics” blog, proposes to explain why that is. He doesn’t. Brooks has written extensively on the subject, so he knows his way around the data. And he does go around the data, cherry-picking this, eliding that, ignoring the other thing.
First, there is independent evidence that Republicans are more apt to report they are “very happy” than are Democrats. Brooks writes, “the Pew Research Center in 2006 reported that conservative Republicans were 68 percent more likely than liberal Democrats to say they were ‘very happy’ about their lives. This pattern has persisted for decades. The question isn’t whether this is true, but why.”
Actually, the question is whether this is true. Brooks is misleading the reader on several counts. (I’ll bet you’re surprised.) The Pew analysts wrote that party affiliation is significantly more important than conservative/moderate/liberal ideology in predicting happiness: “Conservatives are happier than moderates or liberals but this relationship is largely explained by party identification.” Controlling for the “ideological factor, a significant partisan gap remains. Conservative Republicans are happier than conservative Democrats, and moderate/liberal Republicans are happier than liberal Democrats…. Partisan differences, not ideology, predicts happiness,” the Pew researchers write. (The bar chart illustrating that analysis appears on page 16 of the Pew report, page 17 of the pdf.)
According to the Pew study, the “happiness gap” between conservatives, on the one hand, and moderates and liberals on the other, is only two or three percentage points, nowhere near the 68 percent Arthur Brooks would have you believe. So the results show – not that conservatives are happier than everybody else – but that Republicans say they are happier than Democrats and independents. The numbers for liberals and moderates are about equal.
The Pew researchers found that
… the most robust correlations of all those described in this report are health, income, church attendance, being married and, yes, being a Republican. Indeed, being a Republican is associated not only with happiness, it is also associated with every other trait in this cluster. Even so, the factor that makes the most difference in predicting happiness is neither being a Republican nor being wealthy – it’s being in good health.
Arthur Brooks writes that “Many conservatives favor an explanation focusing on lifestyle difference.” He mentions two of those lifestyle factors – marriage and church attendance – but he carefully omits the two factors that Pew found most significant – health and income – and he leaves out party affiliation, too. Then Brooks goes into full flimflam mode: he writes, “consider this: Fifty-two percent of married, religious, politically conservative people (with kids) are very happy — versus only 14 percent of single, secular, liberal people without kids.” What he is doing here is piling up other factors – marriage, children and religious and political affiliations – to lead the reader to believe that conservatism is the defining factor, when in fact, conservatism makes very little difference, at least according to the Pew results. Republican party affiliation makes a substantial difference in the happiness gap; conservative ideology does not. Brooks is an expert; he knows better than to muddy the waters as he has here.
Brooks then acknowledges that some researchers have posited a “liberal” explanation for the happiness differential:
An explanation for the happiness gap more congenial to liberals is that conservatives are simply inattentive to the misery of others. If they recognized the injustice in the world, they wouldn’t be so cheerful. In the words of Jaime Napier and John Jost, New York University psychologists, in the journal Psychological Science, ‘Liberals may be less happy than conservatives because they are less ideologically prepared to rationalize (or explain away) the degree of inequality in society.’ The academic parlance for this is ‘system justification.’
The data show that conservatives do indeed see the free enterprise system in a sunnier light than liberals do, believing in each American’s ability to get ahead on the basis of achievement. Liberals are more likely to see people as victims of circumstance and oppression, and doubt whether individuals can climb without governmental help.
Napier and Jost do not identify themselves as liberals but as psychologists, so their goal was not to offer a “liberal” explanation for happiness inequality. And the explanation was not just “in the words of” Napier and Jost. They actually did an extensive, multi-part study. Unfortunately, like Brooks, Napier and Jost conflate conservatives with Republicans, liberals with Democrats. They do not control for party affiliation in their results (though they knew the affiliations of the respondents). Napier and Jost note in their report that in the raw data they used, “it is at least conceivable that conservatives’ greater satisfaction was due to the fact that the Republican party had recently won the presidency.” They’re talking about the 2000 election. Yeah, it’s at least conceivable.
Further complicating the Napier and Jost study – most of the American respondents had no idea just how unequal American society is. As Professors Michael Norton and Dan Ariely reported in a study published in 2011, Americans are ignorant of the extent of wealth inequality in the U.S.:
First, respondents dramatically underestimated the current level of wealth inequality. Second, respondents constructed ideal wealth distributions that were far more equitable than even their erroneously low estimates of the actual distribution. Most important from a policy perspective, we observed a surprising level of consensus: All demographic groups – even those not usually associated with wealth redistribution such as Republicans and the wealthy – desired a more equal distribution of wealth than the status quo.
Americans think the U.S. is more like that socialist country Sweden. And Americans, including Republicans and the rich, want U.S. income distribution to be even flatter than Sweden’s. We are all socialists now! So when Napier and Jost’s respondents said they were okay with income equality, they didn’t know how severe an inequality they were accepting. Maybe they would not have been so happy if they knew.
In any event, Napier and Jost concluded,
… the difference between conservatives’ and liberals’ satisfaction with life was explained at least in part by conservatives’ stronger tendencies to rationalize economic inequality…. We found that increasing economic inequality … from 1974 to 2004 has exacerbated the happiness gap between liberals and conservatives, apparently because conservatives (more than liberals) possess an ideological buffer against the negative … effects of economic inequality…. That is, increasing inequality was associated with a steeper decrease in happiness among liberals than among conservatives…. Inequality takes a greater psychological toll on liberals than on conservatives, apparently because liberals lack ideological rationalizations that would help them frame inequality in a positive (or at least neutral) light. This could explain, in part, why conservative governments tend to increase inequality more than liberal governments.
In plain English, conservatives accept the economic system as it stands, according to this research, and they agree with statements like these: “It is not really that big a problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others,” and “This country would be better off if we worried less about how equal people are.” The data used in these studies were gathered before Barack Obama became president and before the Occupy Wall Street movement shined a spotlight on U.S. wealth inequality. It would be interesting to know if conservativeRepublicans are still so into “system justification.”
The real bottom line of the NYU studies is that respondents who self-identified as conservatives didn’t care much about income inequality, and they didn’t care that inequality was the result of an inherently unfair system that favors the “haves” over the “have-nots” from cradle to grave.
Arthur Brooks gives short shrift to the premise that “conservatives are ignorant, and ignorance is bliss.” To back up his claim, Brooks cites a study (Schlenker, Chambers & Le; 2012) which concluded that conservatives “expressed greater personal agency (e.g., personal control, responsibility), more positive outlook (e.g., optimism, self-worth), more transcendent moral beliefs (e.g., greater religiosity, greater moral clarity, less tolerance of transgressions), and a generalized belief in fairness, and these differences accounted for the happiness gap.” That is, conservatives are happier than others because they’re so totally more well-adjusted and responsible and moral and all around better than the rest of us. The Schlenker-Chambers “findings” have “triggered a barrage of criticism.” Brooks, of course, doesn’t tell you the academic community – including John Jost – is highly critical of the Schlenker-Chambers conclusions.
But the fact remains that more Republicans do say they are “very happy” than do other Americans. And the question is – Why? Contra Arthur Brooks, I do think there is quite a lot of anecdotal evidence that Republicans’ happiness relies in part, at least, on ignorance. The study by Norton and Ariely points to that: if Republicans don’t know the extent of inequality in the U.S. – and they don’t – then they haven’t much to trouble them. Although some studies have looked at general education level as a factor in determining happiness – the Pew study found more educated people were somewhat more inclined to say they were “very happy” than less educated respondents – none has attempted to coordinate specific knowledge of political platforms with happiness. This would not be difficult. Pew periodically conducts “news IQ quizzes,” and the results are rather shocking: in the most recent survey, a quarter of those polled couldn’t answer basic questions – like which party was more conservative. (Republicans, who are better-educated, did better on the quiz than did Democrats.) Then there’s this: Robert Draper writes in today’s New York Times Magazine,
[Democrat Bill] Burton and his colleagues spent the early months of 2012 trying out the pitch that [Mitt] Romney was the most far-right presidential candidate since Barry Goldwater. It fell flat. The public did not view Romney as an extremist. For example, when [Burton PAC] Priorities informed a focus group that Romney supported the Ryan budget plan – and thus championed ‘ending Medicare as we know it’ – while also advocating tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing.
That is, Americans have no idea how bad the GOP policy platform is, and even when they hear what it is, they think it is so bad that it is literally “unbelievable.” Throw in general voter ignorance and Republicans’ inclination to trust their own leaders, top it off with favorable demographic factors that track Republican, and it’s pretty easy to figure out why Republicans might be happier than the rest of us.
What is not easy to figure out is why the New York Times would publish Arthur Brooks’ misleading op-ed piece. Reading partisan hackery passed off as academic analysis does not make me “very happy.”
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com