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David Leonhardt Trolls Liberals about Marriage and Education

By William K. Black
Bloomington, MN: January 11, 2015 (updated)

David Leonhardt runs the New York Times’ Washington Bureau, which is a traditional stepping stone to power at the NYT. He begins his January 9, 2015 article entitled “Letter From the Editor: Marriage, and When Liberals Are Wrong” begins by telling his readers how brave he is. He says he chose to avoid the “safe” journalistic route by deciding to employ “analytical judgments” and pronounce his views on who is right about the issues.

“The safe thing for a journalist to say about these dueling views is that they’re both partly correct. And they are! Yet that’s also an incomplete statement. To be blunter, I’d say that family structure is an area where many liberals are putting more weight on their preconceptions (inequality is bad for society) than on the evidence (changes in family structure are both an effect and a cause of inequality).

[W]e’re providing a service to readers when we’re willing to make analytical judgments.”

Leonhardt writes to take liberals to task for not properly evaluating the evidence on two policies. They fail to do so in family structure, which my spouse, June Carbone is responding to, and in education, which this column responds to. He charges that liberals, while “partially correct,” do not interpret properly the facts about family because of ideological “preconceptions.” Leonhardt claims that liberals are simply “wrong” on the issue of education. Worse, liberals are wrong because they lack any facts to support their position on education and they compound their error by adding hypocrisy “when they argue that education is overrated (but still send their own children to expensive colleges).”

CEPR has done an excellent technical response to Leonhardt’s attack on liberals on education that I commend to readers. I will focus on how scientists apply logic to facts – and how bad journalists substitute straw man arguments for logic and facts. CEPR notes that Leonhardt’s education criticism seems to be aimed at Richard Rothstein’s July 21, 2009 article about education, jobs, and the financial crisis. Rothstein’s piece is short, analytically rigorous, and well-supported by the facts. It makes several sophisticated arguments in clear language that I urge everyone to read. His points are not new to labor economists, but they are typically not understood by journalists and politicians (including our President). Rothstein’s article proved a bridge way too far for Leonhardt’s powers of analysis.

Rothstein is making a point that economists (and criminologists) understand well, but seems odd to many people when they first encounter it. Indeed, the criminology variant is more easily understandable than the economic variant. It can make perfect sense for any individual car owner to use a product that visibly makes it more difficult to steal the car. Doing so helps the individual car owner reduce the risk of car theft. It does not, however, do much to reduce overall car theft – the thieves simply steal other cars that lack the visible anti-theft device. We call this “displacement.” Non-visible anti-theft devices that secretly alert the police to the car’s location produce convictions of car thieves and accomplices and likely reduce not only the individual owner’s risk of (permanently) losing his car, but also the overall societal risk of car theft.

Similarly, if there are too few good paying jobs for all the workers, the effect of increasing the number of college graduates, from the societal perspective, is dramatically less than most people assume. Six years after the peak of the financial crisis we still observe that enormous numbers of recent college graduates (and many older graduates) are working at jobs that do not require college educations. On a societal basis, increasing the percentage of young workers with college degrees during the Great Recession and its aftermath does very little to increase total employment. What it does is cause the additional college graduates to displace high school graduates who would otherwise hold the jobs as bartenders, sales associates, and waitresses that so many college graduates now take.

The harmful effects of this displacement are, of course, felt by the kids with college degrees, by they are suffered most severely by the working class kids who do not have college graduates and lose, or fail to get the jobs as waitresses and sales associates taken by college graduates. As June Carbone shows in her article, the reduction in steady employment opportunities, particularly for working class males, reduces their incomes, their marriage rates, and their quality of life and increases depression and divorce.

Leonhardt, however, does not understand these points. As Rothstein explained in mid-2009, “In a contemporary environment where only 20% of college graduates can find jobs appropriate to their education and training … inequity can only get worse.” Rothstein’s logic of the implications of the rampant underemployment of recent college graduates in tasks not requiring a college degree is impeccable: “If there were truly an economic shortage of well-educated workers, employers would have gobbled up these undercompensated and uncompensated college graduates, at regular rates of pay.”

Leonhardt, in an Ocbober 8, 2011 column entitled “The Depression: If Only Things Were That Good” unintentionally revealed his lack of understanding of economics, history, labor markets, and Rothstein’s article. He also displayed a lack of empathy. In the context of his errant ode to the wonders of the Great Depression, Leonhardt claimed that expanding the number of college graduates is the key to growth and that college degrees inoculate the graduates from harm even in a Great Depression or a Great Recession. Leonhardt’s 2011 column is particularly bizarre because it makes a number of the points that Rothstein made in 2009. Leonhardt’s 2011 column argued that high unemployment was likely to persist until at least 2017 – and that job growth had been weak since 2001. This makes Leonhardt’s attack on Rothstein in 2015 logically incoherent.

Reading Rothstein’s 2009 article, however, explains the very human reason why Leonhardt attacked Rothstein as a purported hypocrite who advanced arguments that purportedly had zero factual support. While Leonhardt claimed that conservatives had the better of the evidence on families, he admitted that liberals were “partially correct” even under his (flawed “analytical judgments”). But on the subject of his claim that increasing the number of U.S. college graduates was the key to economic growth, Leonhardt claimed that there was zero evidence supporting the contrary argument and then added a nasty that was supposed to prove that liberals are hypocrites.

“We should also be willing to say when we think liberals don’t have a claim on the evidence — such as when they argue that education is overrated (but still send their own children to expensive colleges) or when they argue that marriage isn’t very important.”

It is, therefore, a huge personal problem for Leonhardt that the facts and logic of Rothstein’s 2009 article annihilated the argument about the number of U.S. college graduates that Leonhardt made in his odd ode to the Great Depression in 2011. Leonhardt explained the reality of the labor markets in mid-2009 succinctly, with supporting data and logic that Leonhardt found so unassailable that he did not even attempt to refute Rothstein’s facts and “analytical judgments.” Instead, he substituted insults and simply declared that Rothstein was a specious hypocrite whose arguments were so weak that that Rothstein had no “claim on the evidence.” The truth is the opposite. Rothstein exposed the logical flaws that demonstrated that the facts Leonhardt relied upon for his claims that increasing the number of college graduates would be a major spur to U.S. growth did not support his claims. Rothstein, the labor market expert, took Leonhardt’s thesis and revealed (and aptly labeled) it to be a “fiction.”

“The number of available jobs (including those that require college education and those that do not) depends upon the size and growth of the economy, affected in turn by demand-side factors such as the strength of consumer (public and private) demand and credit availability. Education reform cannot influence such factors.

Yet while this truth is obvious in today’s economic crisis, at other times many observers forget it and assert a fiction: that if more students graduated from college as attractive job candidates, more would find highly-skilled jobs requiring college education. This fiction assumes that when our economy is not in recession, there is a shortage of college graduates available to fill jobs requiring college education.

But this fiction is just that. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has consistently projected that the number of college graduates in the U.S. labor market will continue to match (or exceed) the number of job openings requiring college education.”

Leonhardt’s 2011 take on the experience of young college graduates in the current crisis shows that he understood neither Rothstein’s article nor the labor markets.

“Despite the media’s focus on those college graduates who are struggling, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that people with a four-year degree — who have an unemployment rate of just 4.3 percent — are barely experiencing an economic downturn.”

Leonhardt obviously does not have children who are recent college graduates. Studies consistently find an exceptionally high rate of over qualified recent college graduates. Four years after Rothstein’s article, with the economy much closer to recover, a 2013 Accenture study still found that even among those with full-time employment over 40% were overqualified for the jobs they took. This figure did not include those who were unemployed or withdrew from the labor force, e.g., to return for further schooling. Leonhardt is not peddling simply an “exaggeration” – the claim that college graduates “are barely experiencing an economic downturn” is a deliberate misrepresentation that Leonhardt peddles to try to hide the fictional nature of his claim that we would have a much stronger recovery if only we had more college graduates.

It is also bunk to claim that Rothstein was making a “liberal” argument when he cited these facts. Another columnist wrote last week about her horror that: “A shocking 46 percent of recent college graduates work in jobs that do not require a college degree.” Phyllis Schlafly is not famously liberal. Rothstein cited the facts about labor markets in his 2009 article because they are relevant facts, not because he is a liberal.

Rothstein was careful, even in a short piece, to stress that there are reasons other than jobs to encourage more people to get college degrees. He made clear that the purpose of his article was to respond to the claims that increased college graduation rates or better instruction would materially reduce overall unemployment. Indeed, the 2009 article begins with the framework of his argument.

“In response to a new study finding that only a small portion of 2009 college graduates had jobs lined up, the National Journal posed the question How Can Colleges Help Graduates Pursue a Career? EPI research associate Richard Rothstein argued that the problem rests not with the preparation colleges were providing, but with larger economic trends, particularly a shortage of jobs.”

The Individual, Parent/Child Perspective on College Education

From the individual perspective, however, the rewards to higher education can be very high. Parents face a very different question than society needs to face. Parents understand how vital having a job is and how much harm unemployment causes to their children. (Leonhardt concedes the severity of that harm in his weird ode the Great Depression.) Parents are motivated to invest enormously in their children’s education if they have the resources. If you help your kid get a college degree it is very likely that he or she will get a job, even if the job does not require a college degree. If your kid has high skills, the individual returns to high education can be very high. In a “winner take all” society the individual who graduates from a top private school has an important advantage in the race to be a big winner. Liberal and conservative parents both want the best for their kids – regardless of whether that provides any great advantage to society as a whole. There is no hypocrisy in liberals sending their kids to top schools. Liberals are far more likely than modern conservatives to support generous public education for other parents’ kids.

Rothstein’s article provides the data backing up the points I’ve summarized. It is Leonhardt who brings no facts to the table. In Leonhardt’s parlance, he doesn’t “have a claim on the evidence.” From Leonhardt’s perspective, Rothstein’s unforgivable sin was exposing the fact that when Leonhardt made what he thought were “analytical judgments” about the data he was actually crafting “fiction” because he does not understand labor markets. Leonhardt relies entirely on this deliberate mischaracterization of what Rothstein argued and demonstrated.

The Bear Joke (In Celebration of Stephen Colbert): Group v Individual Outcomes

One of Colbert’s long-running riffs was his pretended rage at bears. One of the many bear jokes illustrates the distinction I’ve been making. Two friends are hiking in the woods. They see a hungry bear 300 yards away suddenly charge them. Fred drops his pack and gets ready to run. John drops his pack, furiously unties his heavy hiking boots, and puts on his running shoes. As Fred starts running to the left he shouts to John: “What are you doing? You can’t outrun a bear!” John starts running to the right and shouts back to Fred: “I don’t have to outrun the bear; I just have to outrun you!” The outcome for the group is unchanged: the hungry bear chases down one of the hikers and eats him. But from Fred and John’s individual perspective the outcome is critically different – having the best running shoes may decide whether you live or die. The game theoretic answer (to do economist speak) is for our parents to buy us the best running shoes their incomes can buy. (Yes, it also pays not to be obese, to run regularly, and to hire coaches to train you to be a better runner, but neoclassical economists think in marginal terms.) The same number of people are eaten no matter how much society spends on shoes or training as a runner because a bear is faster over short distances than even world-class human sprinters. Economists who point that fact out are not hypocrites when they buy their kids the best shoes they can afford – they are hard-headed realists who love their kids and they understand the critical difference between group and individual outcomes.

The societal answer is to take on the corporate predators that prey on our kids. That improves both the group and individual outcomes. Today, virtually all our efforts are being spent instead trying to make sure it’s somebody else’s kid that gets eaten. The folly and inhumanity of that sure-to-fail strategy (from a societal perspective) is what Rothstein was explaining. Leonhardt serves the corporate predators, so he portrays them as benign. The poor, and the bears who feast on the poor, “ye shall always have with you” has become Leonhardt’s credo.


As CEPR aptly pointed out, the most recent data further support Rothstein’s points and demonstrate that they remain true six years after the peak of the crisis. Leonhardt simply failed to understand the difference between societal and individual results even though Rothstein repeatedly explained the difference and provided the data to explain the significance of that difference. Leonhardt has a powerful personal incentive not to understand because if he were to understand he would have to abandon the fiction that he has tried so hard to foist on the Nation and inform his reader that he was wrong and Rothstein was correct. Admitting that would take real intellectual bravery by Leonhardt. We all hope he is up to that bravery.

Leonhardt is Wrong about Liberals, Conservatives and the Family Debate

By June Carbone

David Leonhardt, in a recent “Letter from the editor” in the New York Times, wades into the marriage debate. In the new guise of journalist as judge he pronounces that “liberals are wrong” on the relationship between inequality and the change in family structure.  In the process, he misstates what the issue is about and gets the wrong answer to the question he does ask. He makes both mistakes because of an age old journalistic problem: those trained to meet the limited space of physical newspaper column are taught to turn a complex issue into a simple one: does inequality cause a change in family structure or does a change in family structure cause a change in inequality? Here is how Leonhardt initially frames the supposed debate as to which liberals are “wrong.”

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