Why a Little Empiricism Helps: Palin, Brooks, Noonan edition
OK folks. Enough with the venting. We all know that the McCain and Palin have been reduced (and I mean that word sincerely) to using Governor Palin’s kids as props.
We know — or at least I believe — that as a matter of the moral duty a parent owes to one’s children, that in itself should disqualify this ticket from the offices they seek.
But what we have not yet done is debunk the myth that her experience as a small town Alaskan is in any sense typical of America — and hence would serve as a kind of empathy-qualification that could, if the GOP were to be believed, trump all other deficits of knowledge, judgment and values that her selection represents.
(Alright — so I had a little vent left in me. Sue me.)
We also understand the right wing pundit class has been straining to carry water on this theme. Readers of this blog know that I defer to no one in my disdain for the work of David Brooks, and so it will come as no surprise that he’s the guilty party I will target most directly here. Peggy Noonan gets an honorable mention too.
So, where’s Brooks in all this?
Here’s what he had to say on Tuesday:
And she has experienced more of typical American life than either McCain or his opponent.
Here’s Noonan, yesterday in the Wall St. Journal in an op-ed. that is the more remarkable because, as Andrew Sullivan noted incredulously, she went accidentally went public with views that directly contradict what she writes here for the rubes. Amidst a lot of notes in what was (to be fair) offered as a kind of convention brain-dump column, Noonan wrote:
I’m bumping into a lot of critics who do not buy the legitimacy of small town mayorship (Palin had two terms in Wasilla, Alaska, population 9,000 or so) and executive as opposed to legislative experience. But executives, even of small towns, run something. There are 262 cities in this country with a population of 100,000 or more. But there are close to a hundred thousand small towns with ten thousand people or less. “You do the math,” the conservative pollster Kellyanne Conway told me. “We are a nation of Wasillas, not Chicagos.”
Give Noonan credit here, a little. At least she acknowledges, elsewhere in the column, that she lives and works in an elite bubble — which means, as she also says, that she don’t know jack about the America beyond that part of the Bos-Wash corridor inhabited by the rich and powerful.
Brooks, of course, is a charter member of that same elite. However, he claims more knowledge than the feckless Noonan, in that his career has been built on the interpretation of pop sociology. Scrivening hack though he is (just like many others, including yours truly), he has built a great part of his reputation on his claims to have come to his views through the analysis of social statistics, and more recently, neuroscience.
In that context, you’d expect him to actually think about the words he uses to describe the social reality that Governor Palin inhabits. He tells us she is typical, that her experience day to day is more like that of an ordinary American than that of McCain or Obama. Is this true?
Well, Noonan gives us the opening to test that claim with her apparantly data-based claim that growing up and raising a family in a town like Wasilla is in fact the norm for our nation, unlike that experienced by Obama who grew up in atypical Chicago.
There is no surprise to come. Brooks once again demonstrates his mental sloth and reflex-driven sloppiness; Noonan does not understand the numerical hooey being shoved at her by her conservative source.
Topline: the American population was estimated to have topped 301 million in July, 2007. (The CIA estimates that it is now 303 million, but as the rest of my data is 2007 or before, I’m using their estimate for that date). Overall, as of the 2000 census, 79.01 percent of the US population were classified as urban, and only 21 percent of Americans could still be considered rural. So we know that city, or at least town life, is by far the “typical” experience for an American — and that with one Google search and two clicks. Estimated time for the effort? Perhaps 2 minutes.
But what about the point Noonan thought she was making: that while most Americans may live in areas formally classified as urban, by far the most typical kinds of cities and towns we inhabit are small — 10,000 folks or less. After all, do the numbers as her source said: 10,000 times 100,000 is ten to the ninth power, or one billion people — more than three times the actual population of the country. That must have impressed Noonan a ton, because she seems to have taken this bollocks at face value. (I know, I know — but I don’t need to construct a distribution of town sizes here; I’ve already looked at the actual data…read on).
Well, it turns out that there is this government agency called the US Census Bureau. They research this kind of thing. They have a definition of what constitutes an urban area: They then refine their data further, and distinguishes between urbanized areas of 50,000 people or more, and urban clusters that house fewer people.
So, who lives where? Again here are some summary statistics. Americans living in urban clusters — the little cities and their micropolitan surroundings — account for a grand total of just ten percent of the United States population — or around thirty million people. By contrast, those living in the just the twenty five largest metropolitan areas, places with population in excess of two million, amounted to more than three times those inhabiting small cities: 111 million and change, or more than one third of the total.
Total time to find this — a quick tour through the links offered up by Wikipedia’s list of US urban areas, maybe a couple of minutes, followed by ten minutes with the calculator.
Now dig just a little deeper, and it turns out that the Census folks very kindly have come up with a list of all US urbanized areas — these are the cores of 50,000 folks at a minimum, around which many more people may be living what is classified as a metro area. Now these are the places that are ten times the size, more or less, of Governor Palin’s Wasilla, pop. five thousand seven hundred and change as of her last year as mayor.
I actually went into the list and added the whole damn thing up, rounding off the hundreds. The total: 195,177,500…or two thirds of the US population. I haven’t got that last piece of the data to round it out, but the figures so far are pretty clear: more than two out of three, and approaching nine out of ten Americans live in settings that are very different, qualitatively so, from the little town that elite bubbleheads assert are typical.
In fact, it turns out that Governor Palin’s small town experience isn’t even typical of her own, sparsely populated, hamlet dotted state of Alaska. Alaska’s total population is about 670,000. Of those, 385,240, or slightly over half, live in what passes for the larger cities there — places with population over 6,000. Of that total, about 330,000 — or half the state total, live in the three cities with more than 30,000 population, and 260,000, or just under 40% of the state total live in just one city, Anchorage. By contrast, just about 90,000 live in the smaller places with one thousand to six thousand folks — including the good citizens of Wasilla. You can play with the numbers a bit — but even in Alaska it looks like at most about 20 percent of the people grew up in similar surroundings to those of their governor.
[Update: Via the inimitable Jon Stewart, Karl Rove commits an untruth in an attempt to make Governor Palin both more consequential. Wasila, pop. just under 6,000 is, according to Rove, the “second largest city in Alaska.” Except, of course, it’s not. Last time I checked, (14 seconds ago), it was the twelfth largest, coming just behing Kalifornsky. No, I’m not making that up.]
None of this, of course, goes to directly to Palin’s actual judgment, views, policy ambitions, managerial skill or what have you — that’s on display, and folks can judge on their own.
But what this overlong tour through the joys of finding out a few actual facts does show, is that there is a deep, vapid, willed ignorance at the heart of the punditocracy, especially in its elite-right version.
There is also the point I keep trying to make: that the purpose of understanding science is to give one the tools with which to make sense of the world. One of the chief of those tools is empiricism, grasping the importance of gathering, weighing and interpreting data.
Noonan’s wide – eyed retelling of the fatuous pollster’s claim “do the math” is an illustration of the embarassing stupidities you can commit when you don’t bother with the data. Brooks, I feel, has simply made a very lucrative career out of simply not caring about contrary facts.
And it might just matter to the election after all: Peggy and David and the GOP true believers may have convinced themselves that the US is still a small-town country, but we are not. It is just possible, you know — I’m just saying — that the men from Chicago and Wilmington, a big city and a smaller one, might actually have the genuine experience of life as well as work that connects with the typical American. You know — the kind of stuff that produces speeches like this:
As always, along this theme, this has been another nod to Brad DeLong‘s never more appropriate keening: why oh why can’t we have a better press corps>McCain, political follies, Politics, Stupidity, Who needs science? comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.