Wednesday, May 5

But, Then, We All Like Meatballs

David Brooks, "The Limits of Policy". May 3

A PARTICULARLY filling exercise from Brooks. Dread, nausea, disgust, despair, weltschmerz, take your pick. Or try the combo platter:
Roughly a century ago, many Swedes immigrated to America. They’ve done very well here. Only about 6.7 percent of Swedish-Americans live in poverty. Also a century ago, many Swedes decided to remain in Sweden. They’ve done well there, too. When two economists calculated Swedish poverty rates according to the American standard, they found that 6.7 percent of the Swedes in Sweden were living in poverty.

O Lord, this is not going to be good…
In other words, you had two groups with similar historical backgrounds living in entirely different political systems, and the poverty outcomes were the same.

Dear God, it's going to be worse than that…
A similar pattern applies to health care. In 1950, Swedes lived an average of 2.6 years longer than Americans. Over the next half-century, Sweden and the U.S. diverged politically. Sweden built a large welfare state with a national health service, while the U.S. did not. The result? There was basically no change in the life expectancy gap. Swedes now live 2.7 years longer.

Again, huge policy differences. Not huge outcome differences.

Okay, we haven't even started the column yet, and we've already managed to combine 1) The Amateur Sociology Means Never Having To Spell Rigor routine; 2) The Government Never Completely Solves Any Problems, So Let's Not Try (Defense and Protection of Capital Excluded) gambit; and 3) The Look, It's Not Racism, It's Just A Cold, Hard Appraisal of the Facts maneuver these guys have been scrabbling for since The Bell Curve.

And y'know, you'd think that with two "reasonable" "conservatives" pushing t-shirt carts around the Times Op-Ed mall, at least one of 'em could manage to remain calm, or whatever it is passes for rational, in the wake of the Arizona party disgracing its entire end of the political spectrum (assuming, arguendo, that such a thing is even possible any more). And, as so often, you'd be wrong, although Douthat (!) did manage to remain calm enough to try to frame the issue as A Question of Immigration and the Unhelpful Lefty Elites Who Scream "Fascist!" at People Who Are Only Trying To Clean Up The Federal Government's Mess.

[This reminds me, by the way, that at some point since the Times Square Couldabomber story broke I overheard some national news hairdo describe the Vietnam vets who alerted the authorities as "men who'd fought for Our Freedom". Now, my experience of that war and the men who served in it comes direct, not as some facile, third-hand, Hallmark-card-magnetic-yellow-ribbon-on-the-family-Panzer sentiment. I knew men--boys--who went because they were drafted, who volunteered, who never thought of anything but becoming soldiers, or who saw no other economic opportunities. I had a friend come back a paraplegic, fail to adjust to life in a chair, and die within five years. I've known men who came home to lead normal lives, and men who spent years on the streets in their BDUs. And I've never heard even the Gungest of the Hos among them talk about "fighting for Our Freedom", at least not before the eleventh beer. The right to prop up a corrupt and decadent colonial mandarin system a century out of date against the wishes of an agrarian people who'd done us no harm and who, in fact, had bravely fought the Japanese, while their colonial masters were busy collaborating, by dropping more ordinance on 'em than the combined tonnage of two world wars is not "Freedom." Freedom's just another word for "I don't want to trouble my beautiful mind learning unpleasant facts, at least not right before my Pilates class." ]

There, now. All better.
This is not to say that policy choices are meaningless.

Of, of course not. It's to say we shouldn't make any social policy, because someone in the chattering classes might point out it's not perfect.
But we should be realistic about them. The influence of politics and policy is usually swamped by the influence of culture, ethnicity, psychology and a dozen other factors.

Of course, that's just the sort of thing you'd expect a New York Jew to say.
The region you live in also makes a gigantic difference in how you will live. There are certain high-trust regions where highly educated people congregate, producing positive feedback loops of good culture and good human capital programs. This mostly happens in the northeastern states like New Jersey and Connecticut. There are other regions with low social trust, low education levels and negative feedback loops. This mostly happens in southern states like Arkansas and West Virginia.

Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you £20,000 for every dot that stopped would you really, Old Man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, Old Man; free of income tax. Only way you can save money nowadays.
If you combine the influence of ethnicity and region, you get astounding lifestyle gaps. The average Asian-American in New Jersey lives an amazing 26 years longer and is 11 times more likely to have a graduate degree than the average American Indian in South Dakota.

Dear God, this sort of thing passes for reasoned opinion these days at the Times, and it passes for argument in David Brooks' head. I don't know which is worse.

Y'know, Mr. Brooks, maybe in the place of your umpteenth rereading of Burke this weekend, and those endless salons where the fifty-seven varieties of American "Conservatism" are endlessly reforged in philosophy's fires, you could, I dunno, read any standard text on the history of Native Americans post-contact, or start in on Taylor Branch's history of the King years, or All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw. In other words, maybe you could spare a few minutes to consider what was actually done politically, over centuries, what enormities were visited on the African-American and Native American populations, and how those have shaped and shaded various "cultures and ethnic philosophies". Y'know, instead of contenting yourself with the idea that you're not being racist because the Heathen Chinee seem to be doing okay. There's no such thing as absolving yourself of the moral, ethical, and political responsibility just because you find them convenient to ignore when profit's involved. Sure, it may be trite to point out that it isn't your ox being gored here, but the point is that it's still fucking necessary, even though it's within your lifetime that African-Americans weren't allowed to sully the drinking fountains of their White betters. If you really believed all this then your professional career would be studded with severe criticism of your own party for capitalizing on Race, and for using the poor as a political football. Instead we get your stagy pretense that you personally are above it all. And closing your ears to it doesn't ameliorate the shame.

It is very hard for policy makers to use money to directly alter these viewpoints.

Yeah. The only thing money can buy you is an invincible military.
In her book, “What Money Can’t Buy,” Susan E. Mayer of the University of Chicago calculated what would happen if you could double the income of the poorest Americans. The results would be disappointingly small. Doubling parental income would barely reduce dropout rates of the children. It would have a small effect on reducing teen pregnancy. It would barely improve child outcomes overall.

Sheesh. The poorest Americans? According to the Official poverty guidelines, it's $22,000 for a family of four. At $44,000 they're supposed to be living high on the hog, watching Masterpiece Theatre, and selecting grad schools? All worry free? Because all social obstacles just melt away when you can afford to eat at Red Lobster twice a month?

Shit. You can't even maintain the façade of the argument ("We shouldn't strive to do much by social legislation because there's no overweening consensus in the social sciences") for 800 words; all evidence that agrees with you is unquestioned. You're talking about great masses of people who were legally prohibited from cultural enrichment for centuries, whose own culture was scorned and dismissed, and whose incredibly brave struggle for basic rights under the law has been systematically opposed for forty-five years by one of our two political parties. Yours, Mr. Brooks. Not coincidentally.
Finally, we should all probably calm down about politics. Most of the proposals we argue about so ferociously will have only marginal effects on how we live, especially compared with the ethnic, regional and social differences that we so studiously ignore.

By dredging them up every election cycle.


Marion in Savannah said...

And thanks to Bobo for moving West Virginia down south. I'm just hoping he wedged in between Georgia and South Carolina. I worry about all that South Carolina stupid leaking down on us. We've got enough of our own, thenkyewverymuch.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

You were right -- this wasn't good. I think I'll just order the dread, nausea, disgust, despair and weltschmerz from the children's menu next time.

By the way, the Third Man ref made me smile.

heydave said...

Am I slow, I mean particularly so, today for some reason.
What the fuck did that assclown Bobo attempt to point out in that drivel?

poicephalus said...

...the Cuckoo Clock. So long, Holly.

R. Porrofatto said...

Gracias as usual. Brooks climbs onto a giant crane to cherry-pick data from the Human Development Project report. What's interesting is that the rest of the report is filled with information that will never come within a suburban mile of a David Brooks column. For a taste, see their unfortunately named Factoids page.

Jay B. said...

In 1950, Swedes lived an average of 2.6 years longer than Americans. Over the next half-century, Sweden and the U.S. diverged politically. Sweden built a large welfare state with a national health service, while the U.S. did not. The result? There was basically no change in the life expectancy gap. Swedes now live 2.7 years longer.

Again, huge policy differences. Not huge outcome differences.

So...You're saying that socialism won't kill grandma? How did that get through?

And of course, Swedes are largely happier than Americans, if you believe things like data.

Sator Arepo said...

I dunno about Masterpiece Theater and some half-assed bookish speculations, but a bunch of Actual Peoples' Daily Lives would improve--drastically--if their families made $44K instead of $22.

Shit. How much did the douche with the rug on his head from Houston bet on the Derby and win (they showed me it on the TV over and over again)? $100K? On a horsie?

nanute said...

Brooks was born in Toronto and grew up in New York City in Stuyvesant Town. But, he is a Jew, nonetheless.

RobertB said...

@Sator: I think that dude with the bad (as in horrible) toupee won some contest that let him place that $100K bet for free.

Unknown said...


I think the point was that doubling their income would not be the "bootstrap" that, when pulled up, would immediately and automatically put them and their compatriots on par with their "betters", who are making considerably more.

Sator Arepo said...


Yeah, I got precisely that, which means, basically, "fuck them."

Besides, if everyone hits the goddamn lottery [of life], who's gonna bring me my fucking breakfast?

guitarist manqué said...

Good work DH I knew you'd give this one a few good whacks.

guitarist manqué said...

@Marion, while I completely agree with you about weapons grade SC stoopid I suggest you will not find West By-God Virginia any improvement.

Gary said...

Thank you for using the word "enormities" correctly.

LittlePig said...

Arkansas? Sheesh. We've got Oklahoma right next door. While Blance and Pryor aren't any great shakes, they sure beat the hell out of horror that is John Kyl and the "you can't abort 'em, but damned if we'll help you feed 'em" state.