Wednesday, March 11, 2015

David Brooks' Moral Measles

How is that for a post title?

David Brooks, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, has recently gone on (and on) about values.  Values are things which Brooks believes conservatives have and liberals do not have.  It's not that everybody has values, nope.  Or, rather, some people have bad values and other people have good values.  Good values are about family and sacrificing oneself for the sake of order and hierarchy (though the sacrifices are mostly expected of women).  Good values are firmly conservative, bad values are firmly liberal.

That's the first thing you need to know about Brooks and his writings.  The second thing is the manner in which he appears to approach science:  He starts from the conclusions he wishes to draw, then goes backwards until he finds a study or a book which supports those conclusions, then he ignores all other evidence and writes his piece by beginning with the study he likes, implying that it's accepted wisdom by all and then writing how it results in his conclusions.

This pattern is visible in his latest column which is about the good values of rich people and the bad values of poor people.  If only poor people had better values, they, too, could be rich people!

Well, not quite.  But they'd be a lot less trouble to the rich people that way.

The book Brooks brings up this time is about the differences between American college and high school graduates.  He gives various types of data from the book, which leaves me in my usual position when reading him, which is not knowing if the data actually says what Brooks argues it says,  and not knowing how reliable the favored researcher-of-the-week might be.

To write a meaningful criticism of Brooks' thesis would require getting the book (Our Kids by Robert Putnam), reading it and then finding out how reliable its message is.  After that the eager critic (i.e., me) would be ready to respond to Brooks.  But by then everybody else would be in the Bahamas or discussing some new topic from the 24/7 news flow.  This is sad, because it leaves the arena for Brooks and others who are willing to play the opinion game in similar ways.

The gist of Brooks' argument this week is that the families of high school graduates are broken and their children miserable, while the families and children of college graduates do just fine*.

He very very quickly skates through the possibility that all this, if true, may have something to do with the increasing income and wealth inequality in the United States.  He is more interested in the idea that college graduates have good values and high school graduates bad values.  That changes in income inequality and labor markets might be a far superior explanation is even hiding in Brooks' own column:

Roughly 10 percent of the children born to college grads grow up in single-parent households. Nearly 70 percent of children born to high school grads do. There are a bunch of charts that look like open scissors. In the 1960s or 1970s, college-educated and noncollege-educated families behaved roughly the same. But since then, behavior patterns have ever more sharply diverged. High-school-educated parents dine with their children less than college-educated parents, read to them less, talk to them less, take them to church less, encourage them less and spend less time engaging in developmental activity.
Brooks attributes all that to relativism of values, and wants a rigid moral code to be re-introduced:

Reintroducing norms will require, first, a moral vocabulary. These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.
 Hmm.  I think that is rubbish.  Besides, nonjudgmentalism isn't something that would have flowered since the 1980s.

But globalization, outsourcing and increased power of corporations in American politics, all those have indeed flowered during the last thirty-odd years.  All these would explain why poorer families cannot spend as much time with their children as wealthier families (and education here is probably a proxy for income).

Parents who have to work two jobs to make ends meet will have difficulty in finding a lot of time for their children.  The Republican-initiated cuts in government welfare programs have pushed more poor parents into the labor markets, and outsourcing has removed many of the better-paying jobs from this country.

The values of individuals matter.  But they are not sufficient to use as boot-straps to security, and I doubt that they are independent of the mentioned economic trends, either.

Indeed, what really has changed in the value field since the 1970s are corporate values:  Jobs are now disposable or dead-end, benefits are shrinking and firms may suddenly (and costlessly) fire everyone and move their operations abroad.

Consider some of those ghost towns where American industries once employed large numbers of working class families.  Those places didn't become ghost towns because of lack of morals of American working families, though it's possible that the loss of industries affected the morals of the affected families in negative ways.

The title of this post is supposed to reflect  Brooks' fevered writing about morals and values, in particular since his own divorce.  As he himself states:

People sometimes wonder why I’ve taken this column in a spiritual and moral direction of late. It’s in part because we won’t have social repair unless we are more morally articulate, unless we have clearer definitions of how we should be behaving at all levels.
But it's also supposed to reflect the simplistic idea that one can "catch" morals and ethics.  First we specify what they are (and we are all going to agree on those, right?**), then everyone will just adopt the agreed-upon values.  Social repair all done!


*Brooks describes a few "representative" families of high school graduates in his column.  As an example:

Interspersed with these statistics, Putnam and his research team profile some of the representative figures from each social class. The profiles from high-school-educated America are familiar but horrific.
David’s mother was basically absent. “All her boyfriends have been nuts,” he said. “I never really got to see my mom that much.” His dad dropped out of school, dated several woman with drug problems and is now in prison. David went to seven different elementary schools. He ended up under house arrest, got a girl pregnant before she left him for a drug addict.
The term "representative" most commonly refers to "average."  I find it very hard to believe that examples of this type are representative of the families of high school graduates in that sense of average.  They may be examples of the worst outcomes.  But they cannot be the average outcomes, right?

**I'd be very happy if everyone would adopt my values, for example.  But Brooks has often expressed doubt about gender equality etc., so he probably has in mind a different set of values for the society to adopt.