5 truths about character and poverty that David Brooks has too much self-control to grasp

My David Brooks posts tend to be blockbusters (tens of hundreds of viewers!) so I am leaning in and going full listicle for this rant about his latest column, which in Brooksian fashion puts a modern social scientific sheen on old conservative ideas of blaming poor people for laziness lack of character and recommending solutions to social problems through education , rather than “addressing the material deprivation of the poor.” He claims to be inspired by this article by Richard Reeves, of the Brookings Institution, but I have a suspicion that David Brooks may have been mostly inspired by David Brooks.

1) Asking people why they behaved a certain way (and asking other people why they didn’t) is a naive approach to social science. Richard Reeves cites the findings of a panel convened to explain the August 2011 London riots.

Nonetheless, at Clegg’s insistence a Riots Communities and Victims Panel was established. The members gathered evidence, visited affected neighborhoods, and then offered advice to the government. The panel’s conclusion was that the decisive factor behind the riots was not lack of money or even morality, but lack of character.

The panel spoke not only to young people who had taken part in the disturbances, but also, crucially, to hundreds who could have but did not. “In asking what it was that made young people make the right choice in the heat of the moment, the Panel heard of the importance of character,” the nonpartisan group concluded. “A number of attributes together form character, including self-discipline, application, the ability to defer gratification and resilience in recovering from setbacks. Young people who develop character will be best placed to make the most of their lives.” And, of course, will be less likely to riot, loot, and burn. Character, like oxygen, is most noticeable when it is missing.

Taking people’s own word about the reasons for their behavior as the best evidence for the causal power of these explanations ignores decades the entire history of social psychology. I guess I can understand it from Reeves, who seems to be an accomplished public intellectual who mostly adopts a lens of political philosophy rather than empirical work in psychology, sociology and political science.  But ignoring our tendency to make up (incorrect) stories about the causes of our behavior is downright odd coming from someone like Brooks who writes regularly extolling the virtues of social psychology.

2) The marshmallow test does not mean that self control trumps everything else, or even that self-control is the only thing measured in that situation. Brooks claims that “Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiment demonstrated that delayed gratification skills learned by age 4 produce important benefits into adulthood.” However, new results suggest that how reliable the child sees the reward also determines how quickly they eat the marshmallow. In other words, these children may be making a rational decision. A bird marshmallow in the hand is worth two in the bush promises of an unreliable stranger. The greater SAT scores that our special little gratification delayers (coochie coochie goo! aren’t you my little gratification delayer! yes you are!) may not be due to greater cultivated character, but environmental effects that of course include parents, but also may extend beyond.

3) The relationship between academic achievement and financial success that Brooks and neoliberals treat as a totem is a feature of our economic system at this moment in time not a natural law. As an college professor, I am of course an advocate of the transformative power of education. I am totally in the pro-knowledge camp. School … good. But even as I can wax poetic on the power of education, I am wary of arguments that economic injustice in our society exists because those on the lower rungs of the ladder haven’t figured out how to educate themselves up.  I love doctors and lawyers and scientists (some of my best friends…) but it is one thing to tell one student to apply her interest in math and science and escape her humble circumstances by becoming an engineer, and an entirely different thing to tell a generation that they can all escape poverty by doing the exact same thing.

What happens when everyone goes to college? What happens to 64,000 people who have persevered through college and graduate school to gain a PhD:

One thing many PhD students have in common is dissatisfaction. Some describe their work as “slave labour”. Seven-day weeks, ten-hour days, low pay and uncertain prospects are widespread. You know you are a graduate student, goes one quip, when your office is better decorated than your home and you have a favourite flavour of instant noodle. “It isn’t graduate school itself that is discouraging,” says one student, who confesses to rather enjoying the hunt for free pizza. “What’s discouraging is realising the end point has been yanked out of reach.”

 When Brooks writes:

if you can’t help people become more resilient, conscientious or prudent, then all the cash transfers in the world will not produce permanent benefits.

is he imagining that if everyone who invested with Bernie Madoff got their water turned off in Detroit were more prudent, we would have less poverty? Is he imagining that if only the predatory contract sellers evicted residents of 1960s Chicago slums were more conscientious, our cities would not suffer from urban decay? If only the smartest guys in the room black college graduates could exercise more resilience, then they would enjoy the “permanent benefits” of a society that had actual economic mobility?

4) Alienation and distrust are not character flaws of damaged people, but symptoms of a society that encourages such emotions.

Brooks closes with

But if families, communities and the government can envelop lives with attachments and institutions, then that might reduce the alienation and distrust that retards mobility and ruins dreams.

This is a strong causal claim (alienation and mistrust are what retard mobility and ruin dreams) with little basis in fact. You know what retards mobility? Racist hiring practices. You know what ruins dreams?  Structural discrimination. Oh, also, shooting people for wearing a hoodie. Choking people to death for selling illegal cigarettes. How’s that for “exemplars?” Often when I am baited into finishing a Brooks column, I find myself re-reading great antidotes like Tressie McMillan Cottom.

5) In America, you can’t talk about a culture of poverty without acknowledging the past and current impact of policies built around white supremacy. Reeves ends his piece with: The quality of our policies is a vital concern. But so is the quality of our people. Perhaps such an ending was out of the question for Brooks, but his calculated evasion of race is apparent between the lines. When lauding KIPP, Brooks is not talking about rural poverty in Mississippi (95% of the 58,000 KIPP students are African American or Latino). When he writes about the benefits of parenting coaches or a “BoomerCorps” of over 65 do-gooders helping to instill character, he is not talking about Appalachia.

If not reducing poverty through character, what should we do? How should we remedy an economic system fraught with unemployment, injustice, and inequality? For starters, I think with employment and justice. I happen to think that some inequality is inevitable, but we should act to reduce its recent growth, through (gasp!) cash transfers and respecting and subsidizing work that we now consider low status.

I view my support of such policies as applied humility. this support is a consequence of recognizing that my success is not a simple result of my resilience, hard work and perseverance (I am sure I would score average on many of these indices of character), but a complicated blend of luck, privilege and undeserved gifts. A truly humble columnist might acknowledge his own luck and be less likely to lecture the poor on their lack of resilience, conscientiousness or prudence.

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2 Responses to 5 truths about character and poverty that David Brooks has too much self-control to grasp

  1. Paul Thomas says:

    Great post; everyone should read Scarcity.

    Learning and Teaching in Scarcity: How High-Stakes ‘Accountability’ Cultivates Failure


  2. Rusty Whitney says:

    Interesting reality checks. Be sure to check out the original
    researcher’s very accessible description of The Marshmallow
    Test. Look for Walter Mischel including a great interview on
    the Diane Rehm Show and his new book.

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