March 05, 2005

Column 2005-3-5 Commentary

In this column, Brooks laments the passing of "The Public Interest", a magazine which he was a big fan of. In fact, according to Brooks, "over the past 40 years, The Public Interest has had more influence on domestic policy than any other journal in the country." Naturally, no evidence is given to support this contention. In fact, all we are told about the magazine's impact is that it never had more than 10000 subscribers. Was Reagan one of these subscribers? Did Clinton peruse it on a regular basis? Is George W. -- well, more likely Dick Cheney -- a regular reader? We are not told. It could be, of course, that everybody in Washington political circles knows about the magazine, and what we have here is simply a case of Brooks forgetting once again that most of his readers are not Washington insiders (I would call this elitism, except that only liberals are elitists, as is well known). However, I am left with a sneaking suspicion that Brooks, carried away by the influence that the magazine has had on him, is overstating its importance a wee bit. In fact, I can't help but wonder if this column is not the heartfelt cry of a writer who will have to find somewhere else to steal his ideas from, or, horror of horrors, actually have to think them up himself (assuming he's capable of that). Nonetheless, since this magazine clearly had a major impact on Brooks, an analysis of this column may give us some valuable insights on how he came to be the moron he is today.

In 1965, apparently, the magazine was founded with a fair degree of idealism and a strong liberal slant. It was based on the idea that the country's problems could be solved by pragmaticly designing government problems. "But the war on poverty did not go smoothly," Brooks says. True, and pointless, enough. Iraq hasn't gone smoothly either, and I don't think that Brooks would say that that's a reason to abandon it. Brooks then throws in a complete non sequitur: "All the indicators of social breakdown rose: divorce, out-of-wedlock births, violence, crime, illegal drug use, suicide." First of all, despite Brooks's attempt to tie this supposed social breakdown to the War on Poverty, there is no connection. Despite what Brooks might like to think, it is not only poor people who get divorced, have out-of-wedlock births, commit crimes (violent or otherwise), use illegal drugs, or commit suicide. An increase in divorce and out-of-wedlock births is likely tied to the fact that the taboos against those two things faded in the sixties. Brooks is certainly free to believe that this is a sign of the decline of Western civilization, and we are equally free to believe that this is just one more reason that he is a moron. The increase in illegal drug use is also more likely to have been caused by a change in societal attitudes than to the War on Poverty. In fact, much of the increase in drug use in the sixties was due to more middle-class whites using drugs. ("From the mid-sixties to the late seventies, the composition of drug users changed substantially. While drug use was still associated primarily with minorities and the lower classes, drug use by middle-class whites became a widespread and more accepted phenomenon.") Perhaps I may be misremembering the facts, but it seems to me that the War on Poverty targeted not middle-class whites, but rather poor minorities. Brooks is attempting to link some of the less savory aspects of the sweeping cultural changes of the sixties to the War on Poverty, a typically intellectually dishonest maneuver.

It could also be that he is simply reflecting the views of "The Public Interest", and that the magazine actually felt that the War on Poverty was responsible for some of these changes, which would immediately reduce any credibility it may have had (though finding out that Brooks worships the magazine eliminated most of its credibility). However, Brooks specifically fails to state that this is the case: what worries Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of the co-founders of the magazine, in 1968 is the increase in the number of people on welfare and "the problem of dependency". These are perfectly reasonable things to be worried about, though it seems to me that anybody who thinks that four years is a reasonable amount of time in which to make great strides in eliminating poverty is a little naive. It is worth taking time here to defend the War on Poverty, a program that suffered from a succession of factors beyond its control ever since its inception in 1964. The first blow came in 1966, Republican gains in Congress combined with the increasing unpopularity of the Vietnam War made it very difficult for Johnson to pursue his domestic agenda, and no major new initiatives were passed from 1966-68. The centerpiece of the War on Poverty were the Community Action Agencies, established by 1964's Economic Opportunity Act. The CAA's were intended to encourage the poor to involve themselves in the attempts to lift them out of poverty, but in the late sixties they were steadily undermined by political elites who were worried about the development of a new power base. And then came Nixon, who hated the EOA and rolled back the its programs considerably. Finally, the seventies and early eighties saw economic problems that, understandably enough, distracted attention from programs to attack poverty.

It should be fairly clear that something as sweeping as an attempt to eliminate poverty would require a fairly long time. Some programs might not work, and new ones might have to be proposed and tried. A number of bright, dedicated people would be needed to work in the various programs, and also to evaluate the programs and attempt to improve the ones that were not working. Local communities would have to be involved. Money would be needed: at the very least, budget cuts every few years would have to be avoided. In 1964, it seemed that all of these conditions could be met for the foreseeable future, but such was not the case. There is a tendency now to see welfare as the central program of the War on Poverty, and to use this assumption to attack LBJ and the liberals for being foolish enough to think that poverty could be solved simply by giving poor people money, but a brief examination of the Economic Opportunity Act reveals that this is not even close to the truth. Johnson's plan was to use education (he was the first president to invest significant federal money in the public schools), job training and local community action to fight poverty. But without sufficient funding, continued government support, and community involvement, the War on Poverty was doomed to failure.

But to return to "The Public Interest", starting in 1968 the magazine became part of the anti-Great Society backlash. To quote Brooks, "It occurred to several of the editors that they had accepted a simplistic view of human nature. They had thought of humans as economically motivated rational actors, who would respond in relatively straightforward ways to incentives. In fact, what really matters, they decided, is culture, ethos, character and morality." Having realized that a purely money-based response to poverty was insufficient, the magazine swung around much too far in the other direction, disregarding the impact of economic status entirely. (At the same time, of course, the prong of the War on Poverty that was intended to change the culture of the poor and encourage them to help themselves through community action was being killed by Nixon.) Brooks mentions an essay that claimed that student achievement is influenced entirely by "family background and peer groups", with a small contribution from the "ethos of the school": things like how high the school's expectations were and what kind of environment the school provided. The amount of money spent, the teacher-student ratio, and the condition of the school were irrelevant. Of course, what James Coleman, the essay's author, ignored is that the ethos of the school is not completely independent from the amount of money spent on it. A dilapidated school is unlikely to provide a good evironment for learning. Teachers who are willing to work with students, encourage them, and provide a good environment are naturally going to be in high demand, so it may be necessary to spend money to hire them, and so the less money the school has to spend, the worse the teachers will be. But the main conclusion that one would draw from this essay is that students from poor family backgrounds in peer groups that don't care much about education -- i.e., poor inner-city minorities -- are just uneducable, and spending money to try to improve inner-city schools is simply a waste. Even assuming that there is no racism in this view, I don't believe that this is the case. After all, part of the point of teaching is to inculcate a certain amount of character in the students. This may well be more difficult with poor inner-city minorities, but the solution is not just to throw up one's hands and say "oh well, bad family background and peer group" but to work harder. Find better teachers. Create after-school programs and try to encourage all the students to attend them. Start earlier: provide affordable child care (the lack of which in the United States is a scandal) and use it to expose the children to education from an early age. Programs like Head Start and Upward Bound (both War on Poverty programs) already try to do similar things, and recieve nothing but budget cuts for their pains.

What this viewpoint -- "What matters most is the character of the individual" -- really represents is a throwback to the old Calvinist belief of predestination, only instead of whether or not a person is saved, it's now all about his or her character (of course, these two concepts are not that far apart). Quoting Brooks again, "When designing policies, it's most important to get them to complement, not undermine, people's permanent moral aspirations - the longing for freedom, faith and family happiness." Ignoring the question of whether or not those are people's permanent moral aspirations, the logical consequence of this approach is to say that, if people fail to be helped, they must not have the right moral aspirations and we shouldn't be helping them anyway. From there, it's a short step to saying that the poor with good characters will work their way up, and the others are poor because they deserve to be. Of course, the idea that character can be divorced completely from economic status is ridiculous. If everyone you see around you is poor, and their parents and their parents' parents were poor, well, it's not particularly surprising that you would come to the conclusion that no matter how hard you work, you're going to be poor as well. It's difficult to devote yourself to education if you can't see its good effects and aren't exposed to it outside of school. This is the kind of mentality that causes poor people to commit crimes: if there's no point in working within the system, why even try? And, of course, all these tendencies are exacerbated by racial tensions.

The flaws in this approach can be seen in the two great successes Brooks cites: welfare reform and foreign policy in the Middle East. First, welfare reform, which Brooks says encourages "work and responsibility", responsibility being another code word for "anything that happens to you is your fault." It's too late now, but the best way to reform welfare would be to include a sizable job training and education program (or to expand existing programs to cover welfare recipients) and to provide child care, as most welfare recipients are single mothers and child care costs are a significant barrier to work for low-income mothers (from this study, which you may not be able to access: the abstract is here). The kind of welfare reform that Brooks advocates simply pushes welfare recipients to get any low-paying, dead-end job they can find as soon as possible. Those who, for health, child care, or other reasons, can't find or hold a job, just have to make do however they can. One of the worst consequences of this policy is that the worst-off welfare recipients are the ones who get lost the soonest. Forty percent of women who were removed from the welfare rolls remain unemployed, and two-thirds of these mothers had incomes below half the poverty line. Even for those who do manage to find a job, success is not guaranteed: two-thirds have incomes below the poverty line. And many are unable to get the training or education they need for better jobs because they need to spend so much time working to support their families, or simply because of strict work requirements. Many of those who had found work still needed public support, often for health problems (as almost all had no health insurance). This doesn't seem to furthering a goal of ending poverty. And it should be noted that all the analyses done thus far were based on data gathered up until 2001, during a national boom in which many new jobs were created. Since then, the economy went into recession and employment stagnated: Bush only barely avoided a net loss of jobs during his first term, and it wasn't until January that nonfarm employment broke the pre-recession high of February 2001. Single mothers without education or job skills are likely to have considerable difficulty finding a job in this environment. Furthermore, the five-year limit imposed on welfare recipients did not take effect for most recipients until 2002, meaning that many were being kicked off of welfare right into an awful labor market. These two factors are likely to combine to create a considerably grimmer picture of welfare reform than we have seen yet. (All information from this site, which contains many studies from a study of welfare recipients commissioned by the federal government to evaluate welfare reform. See especially "Not By Jobs Alone").

The second example Brooks gives of the positive effect of adopting a character-first approach is a foreign policy example, Bush's Middle East policy, which is strange since "The Public Interest" is a magazine about domestic policy. But what is stranger is that Brooks claims that this foreign policy is "now contributing to the exhilarating revolutions we're seeing across the Middle East." I guess it isn't only Bush who hasn't been reading the newspapers recently. How many exhilarating revolutions are there currently in the Middle East? Well, unless Brooks intends to include Ukraine and Georgia in the Middle East, just one: Lebanon. Which may or may not qualify as a revolution, and the exhilaration was somewhat reduced by Hizbollah's announcement that it would support Syria (and since Hizbollah largely represents Lebanon's Shiites, and the Shiites are the largest confessional group in Lebanon, this is an important development). I don't think that the U.S. invading Iraq qualifies as a revolution. Iran has actually regressed, as the reform movement there has been crushed. Palestine has potentially become more democratic following the death of Arafat, but I don't think that a revolution has occured. There might still be one, of course, but if it does, the odds are good that Hamas will be behind it, and I don't think that Brooks will be particularly exhilarated. Finally, President Mubarak of Egypt has offered to hold show elections, and Saudia Arabia had some sham elections in which women were not allowed to vote that will change nothing. So to say that, thanks to Bush's foreign policy, exhilarating revolutions are sweeping across the Middle East is something of an overstatement.

Brooks concludes by talking of his growing sadness as he read over some back issues of "The Public Interest", (I can imagine his tears flowing as he realizes that now he's going to have to come up with his ideas himself) but I can't share in his grief. Brooks's column makes it clear that the magazine promoted a deeply wrongheaded view of domestic policy in which economic factors were disregarded in favor of more nebulous issues of character and culture, and we can but hope (though probably in vain) that the demise of this magazine is followed by the demise of the political philosophy it promoted. There is one potential positive outcome of applying this philosophy, though: the New York Times may examine Brooks's character and, finding him wanting, dismiss him from the editorial page.