Friday, March 6, 2015

David Brooks Gets Everything Wrong

In an attempt to add some nuance to the positioning of Hillary Clinton, David Brooks took to the New York Times to say a series of not-very-wise things, including some deeply confused observations about education.

He sets up the idea of a main camp of Democrats who have believed for some unspecified period of time that by making American workers smarter and more productive, the country can rebuild its middle class.

He creates that notion so that he can explain its opposition--"populist progressives" who argue that education levels is not the root of all inequality. These are the folks who, Brooks observes, say that the game is rigged by the oligarchy, the workers' share is stagnant, and that corporate power has stifled worker gains.

People in this camp point out that inflation-adjusted wages for college grads has been flat for the past 14 years. Education apparently hasn't lifted wages. The implication? Don't focus on education for the bottom 99 percent. Focus on spreading wealth from the top. Don't put human capital first. Put redistribution first.

This is a leap that Evel Knevel would be impressed by. I am not sure who exactly finds that the implication of stagnant wages is that education should be a low priority. Education is awesome, still awesome, always awesome and desirable. But it does not magically transform the economy.

Brooks then leaps to the idea that redistribution will appeal to Clinton because it allows her to hit Wall Street and CEO's, which is kind of like suggesting that Scott Walker is looking for a policy that allows him to strike out against hard right conservatives or Paul Ryan is looking for a good argument to use against Ayn Rand.

But mostly Brooks wants to argue for education as the miracle engine of economic justice. And to make his argument, he trots out the work of Raj Chetty, a piece of research that proves conclusively that even researchers at Harvard can become confused about the difference between correlation and causation. (Chetty, for those of you unfamiliar with the "research," asserts that a good teacher will result in greater lifetime earnings for students. What he actually proves is that people who tend to do well on standardized tests tend to grow up to be wealthier, an unexciting demonstration of correlation best explained by things we already know-- people who score well on standardized tests tend to be from a higher-income background, and people who grow up to be high-income tend to come from a high-income background.)

Brooks also cites magical researcher David Autor of MIT, who believes that if everyone graduated from college with a degree, everyone would make more money because, reasons. Because if everyone had a college degree, flipping burgers would pay more? Because if everyone had a college degree, corporations would suddenly want to hire more people? The continued belief in the astonishing notion that a more educated workforce causes higher-paying jobs to appear from somewhere is big news to a huge number of twenty-somethings who are busy trying to scrape together a living in areas other than the ones they prepared.

Brooks isn't done spouting nonsense:

Focusing on human capital is not whistling past the graveyard...No redistributionist measure will have the same effect as good early-childhood education and better community colleges, or increasing the share of men capable of joining the labor force.

Because the vast number of high-paying jobs currently going unfilled is..... what?

Brooks says that redistributionists don't get it, that they believe that modern capitalism is fundamentally broken, but that their view is biased by short-term effects of the recession. I have two responses for that pair of thoughtbubbbles.

First, it's not clear whether capitalism is broken or not because we are currently tangled up in some sort of twisted fun-house mirror version of faux capitalism where the free market has been obliterated by a controlled money-sucking machine run by the government on behalf of the oligarchs. I'm actually a fan of capitalism, but what we currently have in this country is not much like capitalism at all.

Second, your argument about the "temporary evidence" of the recession is invalid because the recession was (and is) not the result of some mysterious serious of natural events. The economy went in the tank because the CEOs and Wall Street put it there. The economy broke because the "capitalists" broke it, and consequently the recession itself is Exhibit A in the case against modern faux capitalism and the greedheads who run it.

Throwing all this back at a magical belief in education is simply another way to blame poor people for being poor. So sorry you need food stamps and health care, but if you'd had the guts and character to go to college and get a degree, you wouldn't be in such a mess. Your poverty is just the direct result of your lack of character and quality. Well, that and your terrible teachers. But it certainly has nothing to do with how the country is being run. It's all on you, lousy poor person. And also your teachers.


  1. Peter, you never cease to amaze me. With this post you show that not only are you a great writer, a philosopher, and a sociologist, but also a political scientist and an economist.

    I especially love your 6th paragraph -hilarious-and your word "greedhead", which is my new favorite word.

    It's obvious David Brooks doesn't understand sociology, political science, or economics. I find particularly telling his phrase "increasing the share of men capable of joining the labor force." Evidently women just don't exist. And his last paragraph totally contradicts itself and makes no sense. Maybe he just left out a "not". The NYTimes needs better editors.

  2. I spotted an error in this spot on analysis. The economy did not break because the "capitalists" broke it. It was the "monopolists" who broke it. The masquerade as "capitalists".

    1. I think "capitalists" is in quotes because "capitalists"=faux capitalists, which you could also call monopolists.

  3. It's bollocks to pretend that education can solve social inequality.

    First, as you pointed out in an earlier post, preaching the wonders of school as a route out of poverty is like focusing on rescuing people from burning buildings - instead of preventing the fires in the first place.

    Second, even if all kids went to public schools, and all public schools were equally great, education would not address the problem of social inequality. It would just change its basis. The world would belong, not necessarily to those born with wealth, but to those individuals with a talent for lucrative professions. Well, hooray for them and all, but what about people who don't have the knack or appetite for a career in software engineering, finance, law, medicine? What about people who are good at looking after children, or writing poems, or gardening? All of which, btw, do more for our quality of life and our culture than most highly-paid professions.

    The middle-class wasn't created by pretending that everyone was going to become a software engineer. It was created by paying higher wages to people in traditional blue-collar jobs.