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As the boldest experiment in journalism history, you admit you made a mistake

The pre-NYT David Brooks liked to make fun of the NYT. Here’s one from 1997:

I’m not sure I’d like to be one of the people featured on the New York Times wedding page, but I know I’d like to be the father of one of them. Imagine how happy Stanley J. Kogan must have been, for example, when his daughter Jamie got into Yale. Then imagine his pride when Jamie made Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude. . . . he must have enjoyed a gloat or two when his daughter put on that cap and gown.

And things only got better. Jamie breezed through Stanford Law School. And then she met a man—Thomas Arena—who appears to be exactly the sort of son-in-law that pediatric urologists dream about. . . .

These two awesome resumes collided at a wedding ceremony . . . It must have been one of the happiest days in Stanley J. Kogan’s life. The rest of us got to read about it on the New York Times wedding page.

Brooks is reputed to be Jewish himself so I think it’s ok for him to mock Jewish people in print. The urologist bit . . . well, hey, I’m not above a bit of bathroom humor myself—and nor, for that matter, is the great Dave Barry—so I can hardly fault a columnist for finding a laugh where he can.

The interesting part, though, comes near the end of the column:

The members of the cognitive elite will work their way up into law partnerships or top jobs at the New York Times, but they probably won’t enter the billionaire ranks. The real wealth will go to the risk-taking entrepreneurs who grew up in middle- or lower-middle-class homes and got no help from their non-professional parents when they went off to college.

One of the fun things about revisiting old journalism is that we can check how the predictions come out. So let’s examine the two claims above, 17 years later:

1. “The members of the cognitive elite . . . probably won’t enter the billionaire ranks.” Check. No problem there. Almost nobody is a billionaire, so, indeed, most people with graduate degrees who are featured in the NYT wedding section do not become billionaires.

2. “The real wealth will go to the risk-taking entrepreneurs who grew up in middle- or lower-middle-class homes and got no help from their non-professional parents when they went off to college.” Hmmm . . . I googled rich people and found this convenient wikipedia list of members of the Forbes 400. Let’s go through them in order:

Bill Gates
Warren Buffett
Larry Ellison
Charles Koch
David H. Koch
Christy Walton
Jim Walton
Alice Walton
S. Robson Walton
Michael Bloomberg
Sheldon Adelson
Jeff Bezos
Larry Page
Sergey Brin
Forrest Mars, Jr.

Most of these had backgrounds far above the middle class. For example, of Gates, “His father was a prominent lawyer, and his mother served on the board of directors for First Interstate BancSystem and the United Way.” Here’s Buffett: “Buffett’s interest in the stock market and investing also dated to his childhood, to the days he spent in the customers’ lounge of a regional stock brokerage near the office of his father’s own brokerage company.” Koch: “After college, Koch started work at Arthur D. Little, Inc. In 1961 he moved back to Wichita to join his father’s business, Rock Island Oil & Refining Company.” And I don’t think I have to tell you about the backgrounds of the Waltons or Forrest Mars, Jr. Larry Page had more of a middle class background but not the kind that David Brooks was looking for: “His father, Carl Page, earned a Ph.D. in computer science in . . . and is considered a pioneer in computer science and artificial intelligence. Both he and Page’s mother, Gloria, were computer science professors at Michigan State University.” And here’s Sergei Brin: “His father is a mathematics professor at the University of Maryland, and his mother a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.” Damn! Foiled again. They might have even really violated Brooks’s rule and paid for Brin’s college education.

That leaves us with Larry Ellison, Sheldon Adelson, Michael Bloomberg, and Jeff Bezos: 4 out of the Forbes 15. So, no, I think Brooks would’ve been more prescient had he written:

The real wealth will go to the heirs of rich people or to risk-taking entrepreneurs who grew up in rich or upper-class homes or who grew up middle class but got lots of help from their well-educated professional parents when they went off to college and graduate school.

But that wouldn’t have sounded as good. It would’ve been like admitting that the surf-and-turf at Red Lobster actually cost more than $20. As Sasha Issenberg reported back in 2006:

I went through some of the other instances where he [Brooks] made declarations that appeared insupportable. He accused me of being “too pedantic,” of “taking all of this too literally,” of “taking a joke and distorting it.” “That’s totally unethical,” he said.

This time, let me make it clear that I’m not saying that Brooks did any false reporting. He just made a prediction in 1997 that was way way off. I do think Brooks showed poor statistical or sociological judgment, though. To think that “the real wealth” will go to the children of the “middle- or lower-middle-class” who don’t even pay for their college education . . . that’s just naiveté or wishful thinking at best or political propaganda at worst.

Brooks follows up his claim with this bizarre (to me) bit of opinionizing:

The people on the New York Times wedding page won’t make $4 million a year like the guy who started a chain of erotic car washes. They’ll have to make do with, say, $1.2 million if they make partner of their law firms. Maybe even less. The cognitive elite have more status but less money than the millionaire entrepreneurs, and their choices as consumers reflect their unceasing desire to demonstrate their social superiority to people richer than themselves.

I honestly can’t figure out what he’s getting at here except that I think it’s a bit of “mood affiliation,” as Tyler Cowen might say. According to Brooks’s ideology (which he seems to have borrowed from Tom Wolfe), “the guy who started a chain of erotic car washes” is a good guy, and “the cognitive elite” are bad guys. One way you can see this is that the erotic car wash guy is delightfully unpretentious (he might, for example have season tickets to the local football team and probably has a really big house and and a bunch of cars and boats, and he probably eats a lot of fat steaks too), while the cognitive elite have an “unceasing desire to demonstrate their social superiority.” They’re probably Jewish, too, just like that unfortunate urologist from the first paragraph of Brooks’s article.

But the thing that puzzles me is . . . isn’t 1.2 million a year enough? I mean, sure, if this car wash guy really wants more more more, then he can go for it, why not. But it seems a bit rich to characterize a bigshot lawyer as being some sort of envious hater because he was satisfied to max out at only a million a year. I mean, that’s just sad. Really sad, if there are people out there who think they’re failures unless they make 4 million dollars a year. There just aren’t that many slots in the world for people like that. If you have that attitude, you’re doomed to failure, statistically speaking.

Why bother?

The question always comes up when I write about these political journalists: why spend the time? Wouldn’t the world be better off if I were to put the equivalent effort into Stan, or EP, or Waic, or APC, or MRP, or various other statistical ideas that can really help people out?

Even if you agree with me that David Brooks is misguided, does it really help for me to dredge up a 17-year-old column? Better perhaps to let these things just sit, forgotten for another 17 years, perhaps.

My short and lazy answer is that I blog in part to let off steam. Better for me to just express my annoyance (even if, as in this case, it took me an hour to look up all those Wiki pages and write the post) than have it fester in my mind, distracting me from more important tasks.

My longer answer is: Red State Blue State. I do think that statistical misunderstandings can lead to political confusion. After all, if you really think that a good ticket for massive wealth is having lower-middle-class parents who won’t pay for college . . . well, that has some potential policy implications. But if you go with the facts and look at who the richest Americans really are and where they came from, that’s a different story.

Also, more generally, I wish people would revisit their pasts and correct their mistakes. I did it with lasso and I wish Brooks would do it here. What a great topic for his next NYT column: he could revisit this old article of his and explain where he went wrong, and how this could be a great learning experience. A lesson in humility, as it were.

I’ll make a deal with David Brooks: if you devote a column to this, I’ll devote a column to my false theorem—the paper my colleague and I published in 1993 that we had to retract because our so-called theorem was just wrong. I mean wrong wrong wrong, as in someone sent us a counterexample.

But I doubt Brooks will take me up on his offer, as I don’t think he ever ran a column on his mistake regarding the prices at Red Lobster, nor did he ever retract the “potentially ground-shifting” but false claims he publicized awhile ago in his column.

So, even though I would think it would be excellent form, and in Brooks’s best interests, to correct his past errors, he doesn’t seem to think so himself. I find myself in the position of Albert Brooks in that famous scene in Lost in America in which he tries in vain to persuade the casino manager to give back all the money his wife just gambled away: “As the boldest experiment in advertising history, you give us our money back.”


  1. Slugger says:

    David Brooks is an admirer of Edmund Burke. Like his ideal, Mr. Brooks is a sycophantic lick-spittle who tells the elites of his time that they deserve their power and position because they are naturally better than the rest of us. In this world it is unacceptable to say that the US has had increasing upward distribution of wealth with a Gini coefficient and intergenerational mobility that is out of line with the rest of the first world.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      By the way, totally OT, “in that famous scene in Lost in America in which he tries in vain to persuade the casino manager to give back all the money his wife just gambled away:”

      When I was watching “Lost in America” in a theater in Westwood, CA in 1985, just as they got to that scene where Albert Brooks tries to talk the casino manager into giving him his money back, the screen went black as the soundtrack continued. After about 10 minutes, the projectionist announced that the bulb had burned out in the projector and couldn’t be replaced until tomorrow. Thus, we would all get a rain check worth one admission to the Crest Movie Theater. Since I was going back to Chicago the next day, I wasn’t happy about not getting my money back. As we were standing in line to get our rain checks, passers-by would ask why we were standing in line at 1am? I told them the theater was giving out free tickets and I managed to collect a sizable crowd of spongers.

  2. Rahul says:


    I think you are wrong if you think there’s not a significant number of people out there who make “only” $1.2 million & hence envy the ones making $4 million.

    I bet a portion of them are actually sad about it. And yes if you get “stuck” at $1.2 million for a while you can start thinking of yourself as a real failure.

  3. Rahul says:

    I think, to be fair to Brooks (unless you want to be pedantic), one should exclude inherited wealth from that list.

    • Andrew says:


      Maybe you’re right. But I think his sentence wouldn’t quite sound the same had he written, “The real wealth will go to the children of rich people, the children of some well-educated upper-middle-class people who paid for their kids’ college, and also to some risk-taking entrepreneurs who grew up in middle- or lower-middle-class homes and maybe got no help from their non-professional parents when they went off to college.”

      The dig at “Stanley J. Kogan,” though—there’s no point to that. What did Stanley J. Kogan ever do to deserve being mocked like that? Just cos he has an ethnic name and a funny job having to do with penises?

      • Rahul says:

        True. But that’s the whole difference between writing a magazine article versus a patent claim or a legal contract.

        • Andrew says:


          Yes, but that’s the point. By ignoring the vast majority of the cases, Brooks can make a powerful political point. But he can only make such a point by implying a level of economic and social mobility that doesn’t exist.

          It’s not like I’m trying to trip him up on the fine print here. Rather, I think his whole argument falls apart once we reflect upon the fact that his statement, “The real wealth will go to the risk-taking entrepreneurs who grew up in middle- or lower-middle-class homes and got no help from their non-professional parents when they went off to college,” is actually false. He got it wrong, and I think that makes a difference. And I think the facts should make a difference to Brooks too, given his frequent discussions of the importance of social science.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            In defense of David Brooks, keep in mind that he wrote “The real wealth will go to the risk-taking entrepreneurs who grew up in middle- or lower-middle-class homes and got no help from their non-professional parents when they went off to college” way back in 1997.

            1. It was difficult to look up evidence online until the Alta Vista search engine appeared a year or two before 1997. Wikipedia didn’t exist back then. Today, I look up sociological patterns about billionaires all the time, but I’m considered weird and disreputable.

            2. Back in 1997, before the Internet Bubble got fully going, a certain fraction of billionaires really were Sheldon Adelson-types who clawed their way up from nowhere in lowbrow businesses. They often were Jewish and working or middle class in origin. In 1987, Nathanael Weyl calculated that 22% of the Forbes 400 was Jewish. It was reasonable for Brooks to assume in 1997 that these hard-charging Larry Ellison-type Jews became billionaires because they had started out as nobodies and thus were extra-motivated.

            From the perspective of 2014, however, it seems more apparent that the secret sauce in becoming super rich wasn’t starting out hungry in a duplex in Newark, but in being ethnically Jewish: today about 35% of the Forbes 400 is Jewish (versus about 3% of adult Americans). And fewer of the current Jewish billionaires started out downscale than was true 17 years ago. Mark Zuckerberg’s dad, for example, is one of the wealthier dentists and his mother is a psychiatrist who gave up her practice to be a housewife. Today, in the wake of Cochran and Harpending’s work, it seems anomalous that there were ever poor Jews like Sheldon Adelson used to be.

            3. Brooks, in the 2010’s, is not unaware of these developments, but it’s hard for him to discuss frankly the fact that Jews increasingly dominate the power elites of America because you can’t really mention the J-word and expect to keep your career (see the unfortunate careers of Gregg Easterbrook and Rick Sanchez). So, Brooks gingerly writes columns comparing the old WASP elites’ sense of noblesse oblige to the new “meritocratic elites” or “power elite’s” sense of entitlement. For examples, see:


            Now, you know and I know that what Brooks is trying to do in these columns, under the guise of talking about today’s imperfect “meritocrats,” is to get through to his fellow American Jews that they need to stop conceptualizing themselves so overwhelmingly as History’s Greatest Victims and start developing a sense of noblesse oblige about this country in which they have become predominant, to develop a sense of stewardship about this country in which they dominate the worldview of the educated classes.

            But does anybody else get what Brooks is talking about? I’ve read through hundreds of NYT readers’ comments on Brooks’ columns on this crucial subject, and almost none of them seem to have a clue about how dominant Jews have become. It’s just not something you are supposed to talk about, and surprisingly few people can keep track of facts they aren’t allowed to discuss in public.

            • Andrew says:


              Yes, I’m not slamming Brooks for making a prediction in 1997 that turned out to be wrong. I’m criticizing him for not going back and running a correction. If he’s not going to get his numbers right, David Brooks is nothing but a knockoff Tom Wolfe without the wit and insight. OK, maybe that’s a bit strong—I do think that Brooks has had some good insights in his columns over the years. But I still think it’s uncool to not go back and correct one’s mistakes.

            • Rahul says:


              Umm…I don’t think looking up patterns about billionaires is why you are considered weird and disreputable.

      • Rahul says:

        And I think you are being too touchy about the ethnicity bit. People’s jobs get made fun of all the time: try mentioning your day job’s an undertaker or a sexologist. Or a video game tester.

        Outside of truly malicious, it’s really hard to make a rulebook for acceptable mocking. Frankly, I found that article rather entertaining. But I wouldn’t read too much into it.

        • Andrew says:

          Yes, I agree. I go for the cheap laugh myself on occasion. I still think it’s kinda tacky to make fun of a guy for presumably being proud of his daughter, but I’m sure that I go over the border of tacky from time to time too.

          • Rahul says:

            Sure. OTOH many young people might find an elaborate NYT wedding announcement tacky in itself. Especially if it manages to weave in Yale, Stanford, Princeton, Phi Beta Kappa & summa cum laude & your fathers credentials & profession.

            • Phillip M. says:

              And all of this time I thought that Chicago cornered that market. Or am I mistaking wedding announcement for Bar/Bat Mitzvah :).

            • David says:

              I’m sure it’s not just young people… I can’t think of anything more tacky than the NYtimes wedding page. Anyone who appears there deserves to be mocked mercilessly.

              • Andrew says:


                I disagree. I think a wedding can be a wonderful celebration, and having an announcement in the local newspaper seems like a pleasant tradition. If you don’t want to announce your wedding in the paper (or, for that matter, if you don’t want to announce your relationship status as “married” on facebook or put your kids’ photos up on your office wall), that’s fine too. I respect people who want to keep their privacy. But I don’t see why you’d want to mock those people who choose to announce their weddings.

              • Rahul says:


                Note the difference between: “X is marrying Y today” versus “X (long list of credentials) daughter of Z (another list) is marrying Y (more affiliations listed)”

              • David says:

                Andrew, I agree weddings and marriage have their good points. They also have a history related to consolidating wealth and power. The Times wedding page seems more in this latter tradition, reporting on weddings of the wealthy and privileged. Like Rahul, I draw a distinction between various types of announcement.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            Brooks is trying to get through to his fellow Jews that they need to stop assuming that WASPs run the country anymore, and start noticing that they are the most influential element in determining the fate of America:


  4. jonathan says:

    Brad deLong runs an occasional “mark to market” of his opinions. It’s tough to think of many other examples outside of sports and I assume that’s because everyone makes “bets” about sports knowing they’re likely to be wrong while political and social opinions more deeply reflect what you as a person actually believe should be or must be true.

    One of the interesting things to me about the remembrances of Steve Jobs is that he could switch on a dime when he realized he was wrong. My point is that, to me, reflects his framing context, that his overall mission was to get x right and that his ego drove him within that context. So many people, with Brooks being a small example, have a worldview which makes self-correction difficult. Their priors make that difficult.

    In your case, not knowing you personally, you exhibit a context or priors based in the advancement of statistical analysis and that context sits to an extent outside your ego so you can exercise your ego within your work while retaining the ability to see that you screwed up.

    I’ve thought sometimes how hard it must have been for Kurt Goedel to retain sufficient sanity when the context his work existed in was … undefinable by the very nature of his work while knowing the best he could do was define he couldn’t … well, no wonder he was nuts.

    • Andrew says:


      I don’t disagree with you, but my impression is that Brooks’s persona is not that he’s some sort of superman who’s always right but rather the opposite, that he’s a serious, somewhat plodding thinker who cares about nuance, is not subject to the passions of the extreme left and right, is conservative in the sense of respecting tradition, is reasonable but at the same time does not glorify pure reason as being superior to human intuition, etc etc. The man taught a course on Humility, for chrissake! I’d think that someone with this image would have no problem admitting he’d made the occasional mistake.

      But, obviously, there’s something I don’t understand about the situation. Brooks seems embedded within an admit-no-mistakes culture.

      • jonathan says:

        I may be able to illuminate that aspect a bit. I’ve known some popular columnists. They have generally said a big part of becoming that job is you say stuff, you put it out there and you move on. You develop a sort of compartmentalization in which today is today and yesterday never happened or, more combatively, that what I said yesterday is what I said yesterday and so what? They learn to shrug off critics – typical of sports guys – or to defend their perspective no matter what they actually said. Otherwise they’d second guess too much to write regularly.

        NYT admits mistakes within a narrow window. That’s typical of news organizations: here is the small space and limited circumstances in which we can say “oops”. I get coffee at a place in downtown Boston where the tables are covered in old newspapers. Hilarious in many cases. My favorite is the destruction of the attempted German invasion of Crete in huge type … which is the opposite of reality and I’ll bet next to no one who sits at that table knows that Crete fell in 10 days. Newspapers used to be for wrapping fish. Or as the song goes: “Who wants yesterday’s papers / Who wants yesterday’s girl / Who wants yesterday’s papers / Nobody in the world”.

        I sometimes get angry when news anchors/reporters are lazy with things they should know. As when they misuse “allegedly”, so Jared Remy “allegedly killed” Jennifer Martel … no, it’s Jared Remy “allegedly murdered” Jennifer Martel because it’s undisputed he killed her in front of people who tried to pull him off. The difference is legal culpability versus an irrational statement that an event which happened somehow may not have occurred. Bugs me, but then I realize they spout crap to sell electronic newspapers and as soon as it’s out of their mouths it’s yesterday’s papers.

        The conceit is you don’t admit because you are focused on today’s story, on today’s column and that engaging in a dialogue about what happened and what was true or not is only useful if you are making a point today for today’s paper and today’s column. That constructs a powerful limiting context.

        As for Brooks, he’s the kind of guy who annoys me only because a few people I know tend to bring up something he’s written and that makes me feel bad for liking these people.

        • Eric Tassone says:

          Sounds like a helpful mentality for a closer in baseball or a cornerback in football. Not so much for a columnist writing in the Internet era who teaches a course about Humility.

        • Brad Stiritz says:

          jonathan, thanks for your sharing your insights, they ring true to me. Andrew, with respect, I think you would benefit from deep reflection on what jonathan is describing. It’s just a very different view & stance on “reality” than yours.

          In your professional world, things that people write are judged over a period of years / decades / centuries by a succession of world-class thinkers. The truth-value of the symbol stream is held to an exceedingly high standard. Students pay significant amounts of money to get help understanding the best of these writings, which transcend into intellectual tools for the next generation(s).

          By contrast, on the op-ed pages truth-value & sales-value aren’t always easily teased apart. “That’s by design. It’s a feature, not a bug”. When he left radio for Sirius, Howard Stern joked that he’d taken a new job : selling (satellite radio) subscriptions. David Brooks’ Job 1 is likewise to sell newspapers.

          I remember feeling shocked & crestfallen when as a 20s I proudly told my dad that I was reading the NYT carefully 7/7 & trying to understand the world better, and he warned me simply that “reading the newspaper is really just a form of entertainment.”

          I’ve learned over the years that my dad was right. A huge fraction of the readership of anything mainstream is just looking for something to occupy a bit of their time & hopefully give them something to talk about with others.

          When someone is paid full-time just to give his opinion, this comprises a de facto elevation of status. Hierarchical relationships depend on steady maintenance of that unequal status. In the context of the NYT & its readership, admitting wrong, revision of opinion, etc. is a jolt to the system.

          Given low investment by & relatively low emotional needs in the newspaper reader vs. very high investment by & difficult, demanding needs in the newspaper publisher, maintenance of a shared illusion that the opinion-giver possesses greater knowledge / wisdom / judgment seems to be adaptive, wouldn’t you think?

          • Andrew says:


            Yeah, I guess you’re right. It still makes me sad.

            • Brad Stiritz says:

              >It still makes me sad

              I sympathize with you. I think the Germans call your feeling Weltschmerz. Anyway, it’s a long way down the X-axis from where you’re standing. You’re a great man for trying to change a few systems for the better, here & there. But the essential tragedy of the bell curve will outlast us all. (hopefully perhaps becoming ever more left-Winsorized ;)

              This is why personal relationships & appreciation of the small daily, real pleasures in one’s life are so important. I do hope you spend a fair bit of time truly connecting with loved ones & friends. The injustices of the world can be all-consuming & terribly destructive if obsessed over too much…

        • Steve Sailer says:

          In defense of Brooks, have you ever read the comments on his columns in the New York Times?

          NYT subscribers don’t want their world views challenged. Look what happened to America’s most distinguished man of science, James D. Watson, back in 2007 when he got quoted in the Times of London saying of blacks, “”All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.”

          He was forced to resign from the leadership of the great medical research lab he’d rebuilt from ruins over the last four decades. The people who read quality newspapers don’t want the facts, they want comforting myths.

          • Brad Stiritz says:

            >”In defense of Brooks..”

            Steve, with respect, your comment seems a bit non sequitur. What about those Brooks commenters? I couldn’t quickly find any column by Brooks about Watson & CSH. Did he write one supporting Watson? If so, are you saying you remember reading overwhelmingly angry / gloating comments (e.g. “He got what he deserved”) ?

            p.s. I see you posted at 5:29am. If that’s EDT, then that was the middle of your night, right? does this explain the logic? ;p

            • Steve Sailer says:

              This would make a good academic study: class and ethnic trends in the Forbes 400 since 1982. My prediction from having looked casually at a lot of list would be that there would be fewer Old Money heirs but also fewer Sheldon Adelson-type up from the bottoms in one generation.

              But, there is very little interest in thinking hard about the Forbes lists because crimestop sets in as soon as would-be researchers start reading the names and say, “Uh-oh, a whole lot of Jews. This is only of interest to the Jewish press. They love articles about how rich Jews are. The mainstream press doesn’t. The New York Times never ever ever pays any attention to how Jews are on the Forbes 400. It’s just not done.”

              You’ll notice that the Kaplan – Rauh paper below on the Forbes 400 has zero mention of ethnicity.

            • Steve Sailer says:

              “What about those Brooks commenters?”

              In “Why Our Elites Stink,” David Brooks wrote in the NYT in 2012:

              “The corruption that has now crept into the world of finance and the other professions is not endemic to meritocracy but to the specific culture of our meritocracy. The problem is that today’s meritocratic elites cannot admit to themselves that they are elites.

              “Everybody thinks they are countercultural rebels, insurgents against the true establishment, which is always somewhere else. This attitude prevails in the Ivy League, in the corporate boardrooms and even at television studios where hosts from Harvard, Stanford and Brown rail against the establishment.

              “As a result, today’s elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess. If you went to Groton a century ago, you knew you were privileged. You were taught how morally precarious privilege was and how much responsibility it entailed. You were housed in a spartan 6-foot-by-9-foot cubicle to prepare you for the rigors of leadership.

              “The best of the WASP elites had a stewardship mentality, that they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations. They cruelly ostracized people who did not live up to their codes of gentlemanly conduct and scrupulosity. They were insular and struggled with intimacy, but they did believe in restraint, reticence and service.

              “Today’s elite is more talented and open but lacks a self-conscious leadership code. The language of meritocracy (how to succeed) has eclipsed the language of morality (how to be virtuous). Wall Street firms, for example, now hire on the basis of youth and brains, not experience and character. Most of their problems can be traced to this.

              “If you read the e-mails from the Libor scandal you get the same sensation you get from reading the e-mails in so many recent scandals: these people are brats; they have no sense that they are guardians for an institution the world depends on; they have no consciousness of their larger social role.”

              In career terms, obviously, Brooks’ euphemistic approach — never precisely mentioning that he’s addressing this to his fellow Jews as the dominant group in 21st Century America — is better than my plain-spoken one (“Jews make up 35% of the Forbes 400 and 50% of the Atlantic 50 list of top pundits, so therefore they need start practicing noblesse oblige and good stewardship of America”). And it would be easy to argue that my frankness is too abrasive, that Brooks’ vague euphemisms — “meritocratic elite” — are better for getting our mutual message out.

              But, here’s the rub: What evidence is there that Brooks’ readers grasp what he’s talking about at all? I’ve read through a fair fraction of the 527 comments on his column, and I don’t see many (if any) examples suggesting that Brooks’ readers comprehend his underlying message:


              The problem with political correctness is that what goes unsaid eventually goes unthought.

          • Rahul says:

            NYT subscribers don’t want their world views challenged.

            As opposed to which people Steve? Fox News audiences? What’s your counter-factual here?

            • Steve Sailer says:

              The New York Times is the apex predator of the news media, with the most resources, the highest standards, and the most influence. One would hope that serious questions could be discussed in serious manner there, if anywhere.

              Unfortunately …

              • Rahul says:

                Did I really hear you Steve giving the NYT credit for having “the highest standards” of news media?

                Or just ostensibly the highest standards is what you mean?

                Anyways, when I’m yearning for a serious discussion on a serious question I always end up at your blog. Best commentators in the blog-sphere!

      • Steve Sailer says:

        “Brooks seems embedded within an admit-no-mistakes culture.”

        The whole country is increasingly in an admit-no-mistakes culture over a lot of major issues. For example, 45 years ago, Arthur Jensen of Berkeley published a 70 page meta-analysis in the Harvard Education Review saying that there’s a large gap in average IQ between blacks and whites and it doesn’t look terribly amenable to being closed by government programs. A few trillion dollars later, there’s not much new evidence that Jencks was wrong. But when he died a couple of years ago, a bunch of us had to write emails to the New York Times for a few weeks before they would finally run an obituary for the poor man.

        Similarly, political elites decided a generation ago to bet the country on poor Mexican immigrants being the New Italians. When Jason Richwine documented a year ago that that’s not working out so hot, he got fired for being the bearer of bad news.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          “not much new evidence that Jencks was wrong”

          Sorry, I meant Arthur Jensen, not Christopher Jencks of Harvard. But there’s not much new evidence that Jencks, the socialist author of the 1972 meta-analysis of the Coleman Report “Inequality” and Dr. Jason Richwine’s thesis adviser, was wrong, either.

    • I have a vague recollection from discussions about Godel’s theorem in my history of mathematics course (now about 20 years ago) that Godel was actually religious and was driven to research on incompleteness by a belief that only god could be perfect and axiom systems devised by man couldn’t… but this is really stretching my memory of some afternoon class discussion many years ago. Still might motivate you to do some googling around.

  5. […] seeing my post on the sister blog that discussed the economic success of the so-called cognitive elite (quick summary, surprising […]

  6. ysidro says:

    Andrew, you are in good company, when Nick Kiefer interviewed Art Goldberger, an econometrician’s econometrician, a bit of the ET dialogue went like this:

    Nick: How did you pick your research questions? Is there a “Goldberger approach” to econometrics?
    Art: Well, nowadays I pick research questions when I get irritated. I have a nit- picking style. If there’s something that irritates me, or if I find something pretentious in somebody’s interpretation of results, I may feel compelled to look into the topic. And I work on something if it’s fun —I think that’s an important consideration.

  7. jrc says:


    A lot of your posts about journalism and writing are almost like literary criticism – close reading for context, picking out particular sentences or clauses that reveal something fundamental about the viewpoint from which they originate.

    I wonder if there isn’t something closely related between that kind of skill and good statistical analysis: nuance, context, one or two funny little coefficient-movements/word-choices that you could easily look past (or read over), but, to an alert reader/analyst, might reveal something fundamental about the relation between the model (or idea) and the real world.

    Maybe it makes more sense the other way: bad writers write some stuff and keep what sounds good (regardless of its actual truth or falsity or depth of insight) the same way bad analysts run some regressions and keep the ones that are statistically significant.

    I’m not even touching on how academic researchers really need to become better writers instead of just learning how to spit out disciplinary babble.

  8. ed says:

    You may be interested in the research of Kaplan and Rauh, who provide a more systematic view of the Forbes 400 and how it has changed over time.


    Very Short Summary: as inheritance has become less important, growing up with “some wealth” has become more important.

  9. ed says:

    Ugg, bad link for Kaplan and Rauh paper. Another try:

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Another common pattern among billionaires is Middle Class Father + Rich Uncle. Consider two 1980s superstars, Sam Walton and Michael Milken.

      Sam Walton was the richest man in the world when he died in 1992. His father was a farmer when he was born, but it’s a little more complicated than that:

      “Sam Walton was born to Thomas Gibson Walton and Nancy Lee, in Kingfisher, Oklahoma. There, he lived with his parents on their farm until 1923. Sam’s father decided farming did not generate enough income on which to raise a family and decided to go back to a previous profession of farm mortgaging, working for his brother’s Walton Mortgage Company, which served as an agent for Metropolitan Life Insurance[3][4] where he repossessed farms during the Great Depression.[5]”

      Mike Milken’s father was an accountant and he went to public Birmingham HS in the middle of the San Fernando Valley. But Milken’s uncle was a very successful businessman who provided him with a role model of business audacity.

  10. Steve Sailer says:

    My impression is that it’s pretty common for the super-successes to have upwardly mobile fathers and perhaps prosperous mothers. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, is the 4th generation of upward mobility in his male line of descent. His paternal great-grandfather was an immigrant peddler, his grandfather was a postman, and his father is a highly successful dentist. I suspect that’s a pretty common upward trajectory.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      For example, Larry Page’s paternal grandfather was an autoworker and union man, but his father was a brilliant college professor. It’s hard these days to jump in one generation from the working class to the Forbes 400, but 2 generations are not uncommon.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        The Kochs, for instance, have been rising for 3 generations. Grandfather Koch was an immigrant printer from the Netherlands who wound up a newspaper owner. Father Koch was an MIT grad who started a huge company. The current Brothers Koch have been about as successful as their father and grandfather, just starting from a bigger base of wealth. (I don’t know about the Mrs. Koch’s, but I would hardly be surprised if they didn’t inherit some wealth.)

        It’s hard to get as rich as the Kochs in less than 3 generations of striving.

  11. Steve Sailer says:

    The Forbes 400 and Forbes’ other lists of billionaires around the world are excellent resources for statistical analysis. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be analyzed systematically very much, probably because it’s considered in poor taste to mention the striking proportion of Jews.

    Here’s the best Forbes ethnic count I’ve found:

  12. Steve Sailer says:

    Jeff Bezos wasn’t all that poor either.

    “Bezos was born Jeffrey Preston Jorgensen in Albuquerque, New Mexico to Jacklyn (née Gise) and Ted Jorgensen.[9] His maternal ancestors were settlers who lived in Texas, and over the generations acquired a 25,000-acre (101 km2 or 39 miles2) ranch near Cotulla. Bezos’s maternal grandfather was a regional director of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in Albuquerque.”

    His stepfather was an Exxon engineer, and Jeff lived in River Oaks, the nicest neighborhood in Houston. Then they moved to Miami where he attended public high school, but it’s one of only two Miami public high schools with a white plurality.

  13. Steve Sailer says:

    Mayor Bloomberg grew up a little bit above middle class. His father was a real estate agent, his mother was a housewife. She graduated from NYU in 1929, which probably put her in the top 10% of the women in the country born in 1909.

  14. Steve Sailer says:

    Larry Ellison, who is among the most ostentatious of billionaires (e.g., he owns a MiG-29) and fits Brooks’ template well, had a disorderly but not necessarily low class background:

    Larry Ellison was born in New York City to an unwed Jewish mother.[3][4][5][6] His father was an Italian American US Air Force pilot. After Ellison contracted pneumonia at the age of nine months, his mother gave him to her aunt and uncle for adoption.[6] He did not meet his biological mother again until he was 48.[7]

    Ellison graduated from Eugene Field Elementary School in Chicago in January 1958 and attended Sullivan High School at least through the fall of 1959 before moving to Chicago’s South Shore, a middle-class Jewish neighborhood. … Louis Ellison was a government employee who had made a small fortune in Chicago real estate, only to lose it during the Great Depression.[6]

    Ellison was a bright but inattentive student. He left the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after his second year, after not taking his final exams because his adoptive mother had just died.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      South Shore is a pretty nice place. There was a spectacular Catholic country club on the lakefront that’s now a city park; the old clubhouse hosts a lot of wedding receptions. I went sailing there when I lived in Chicago. Jesse Jackson lives in South Shore. I went to look at his 15-room house when he was running for President in 1988: the Secret Service man out front stared daggers at me when I came around again to take a second look.

  15. Steve Sailer says:

    Sheldon Adelson is definitely old school”

    “Adelson was born and grew up in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Sarah (née Tonkin) and Arthur Adelson.[5][6] His family was Ukrainian Jewish.[7][8] His father drove a taxi, and his mother ran a knitting shop.

    “He started his business career at the age of 12, when he borrowed two hundred dollars from his uncle and purchased a license to sell newspapers in Boston.[10] At the age of 16, he had started a candy-vending-machine business. He attended trade school to become a court reporter and subsequently joined the army.[11] Adelson attended City College of New York, but soon decided to drop out.

    He established a business selling toiletry kits after being discharged from the army then started another business named De-Ice-It, which sold a chemical spray to help clear frozen windshields.[12] In the 1960s, he started a charter tours business.[5] He had soon become a millionaire, although by his 30s he had built and lost a fortune twice. Over the course of his business career, Adelson has created over 50 of his own businesses.[13]

  16. Slugger says:

    Where can I find Dr. Gelman’s blog? A glitch in my iPad seems to be continually delivering me to Mr. Sailer’s site.

  17. Gabriel Curio says:

    I read a biography of Warren Buffet that claims his family was very middle class. His father was a congressman who refused all the luxuries of office. Politically, the guy was an extreme libertarian, but was very ethical. Whenever his dad lost his seat, which happened twice, they family was left in poverty. Eventually they ascended to the upper middle class.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Well, what do you mean by “class”? Maybe his father wasn’t rich, but he had a lot of connections.

      • Andrew says:

        Yeah, whenever the phrase “his father’s own brokerage company” comes up, we can be pretty sure we’re not talking about someone who’s surviving by pulling out quarters from the back of the sofa.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          You start with “yeah,” but actually you are disagreeing with me. You are agreeing with Gabriel that “class” should be purely about money, just disagreeing about the facts of Buffett’s wealth or the definition of the threshold. But I am concerned about the identification of “class” with money.

          • Andrew says:


            I never said that “class” should be purely about money, I just think it’s extremely unlikely that anyone whose father had a his own brokerage company can be considered to have pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. If you have your own brokerage company, you probably have some pretty good connections, too.

  18. Alex says:

    The more Sailer you accept, the more you attract.

  19. […] op-ed is by New York Times columnist David Brooks, and I assume my correspondent was pointing to this recent post. But she could’ve been referring to this post from last year, where I discussed […]

  20. […] recently we discussed David Brooks’s annoying habit of never revisiting his mistakes, and earlier we’ve been talking about all those researchers […]

  21. […] (I didn’t criticize Brooks for making the prediction, which turned out to be far from the mark; I criticized him for not taking the opportunity to go back and discuss his past […]

  22. […] former reporter who couldn’t correctly report the price of a meal at Red Lobster? The guy who got it wrong about where billionaires come from and who thought it was fun to use one of his columns to make fun […]

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