Saturday, February 11, 2012

More on Coming Apart

I've read some of the growing commentary on Murray's book.  Honestly, my opinion that Frum's and Krugman's counter-attacks against Coming Apart are not aimed at achieving a broad understanding of the changes in work, family and values in America.  They are vehicles for promoting specific political talking points - which has a purpose in and of itself.  But I don't like it when the general public simply gloms on to these talking points instead of thinking of interpreting the work for ourselves.

Ultimately, my view comes down closest to Kristof's.  My perspective on the economic opportunity vs. values debate goes back to the work of Goldin and Katz, Heckman and Kreuger, and other labor economists who thankfully have been studying inequality for two decades and built up a reliable body of evidence we can draw upon on.  Yes, economic opportunity has been declining, but much of that can be attributed to the fact that lower-income Americans are not going to college, and that many who go are not prepared to get the most out of it.

Why is this the case?  The answer seems to have a lot to do with early childhood care, and the habits of mind that the children of low-income parents are less likely to acquire.  These habits, such as diligence, politeness, punctuality, etc. can be construed as "values."  But as many studies on values-based issues like abstinence and smoking-cessation show, preaching values and shaming those without values simply does not work empirically.  What does seem work is preschool, and comprehensive support programs like the Harlem Children's Zone.

Ideologues on both the liberal and conservative sides sadly tend to promote lazy thinking (e.g. government is the answer!  government is the problem!).  Poverty and inequality are complex problems, and they require us to understand the practical realities of the poor instead of either labeling them as moral dissolutes or unilaterally endorsing government subsidies.  To me the answer is not about whether people are good or bad, or whether help comes from the government, NGOs, or the private sector.  It's about thoughtful experimentation and rigorous empirical analysis to see what actually works to help low-income people go to college, get good jobs, and live fulfilling lives.


Blue said...

No question that "thoughtful experimentation and rigorous empirical analysis" is needed.

I would recommend, though, that you refrain from attempting to appear neutral between left and right. I don't think it helps to say "Ideologues on both the liberal and conservative sadly tend to promote lazy thinking (e.g. government is the answer! government is the problem!)."

In one sense that's a tautology. Ideologues of any kind tend to promote lazy thinking. But I also think it's lazy thinking to characterize the left and right as you do "(e.g. government is the answer! government is the problem!)"

Neither Krugman nor Frum (certainly not Frum) think that government is the answer.

As Krugman likes to say, attempts to take a "responsible middle ground" supports even worse thinking. He suggests that if the Republicans argued that the world was flat the "responsible, objective press" would run the headline "Parties disagree on the shape of the earth." Sometimes one side really is wrong.

Blue said...

Jared Bernstein has what I think is a good way to contrast right with left.

the YOYOs on the right (you’re-on-your-own) and the WITTs on the left (we’re-in-this-together)

Fred said...

@Blue There is an old joke about politics: "A conservative is someone who is afraid someone is getting away with something; a liberal is someone who is afraid someone is getting screwed." It's funny up to a point, but in fact the apparent hardwiring of fairness into the human brain and differing perceptions of fairness may be a reason people cling so fiercely to their side in a political debate.

@Jialan The references to academic studies are appreciated. Maybe I can read some, sometime. Political debates tend to get all hung up on arguing causality of very complex problems that already exist (this issue is so much like global warming in that sense!), when those causes are almost never amenable to definitive determination, and *solving* the problem may have nothing to do with elucidating the cause anyway. Your call to empiricism (in finding solutions) is well said.