Tuesday, January 31, 2012

David Brooks Loves Charles Murray. A Marriage Made in Hell

Do you remember Charles Murray? One of the authors of the infamous Bell Curve book about the presumed lower intelligence of blacks? The man who has argued that a) blacks, b) Latinos and c) all women are intellectually inferior creatures. The man who has argued that poverty cannot be helped by anything the government could do, because that breeds indolence and poor work habits and in any case poverty is caused by the innate stupidity and bad work ethics of the poor.

Guess what. Murray has written yet another book, and this time even white guys can join the rest of us in Murray's humongous group of cretins. But only if they are not rich. The book, titled Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 was reviewed by Joan Walsh. She concludes:
At bottom, Murray’s old genetic fatalism undoes him in “Coming Apart.” Clearly the new lower class can’t be helped by government programs, but Murray doesn’t seem to think they can climb into the upper class by hard work and self-discipline either. Ultimately, he believes the sorting and separation of the classes is inevitable, given the cognitive intelligence differences between them. And here we’re back to IQ again.
Walsh's review is good. But it doesn't go deep enough. To review the final product of someone like Charles Murray (who has shown himself biased in the past) you can't simply assume that his data is good and reliable. Instead, you have to go and poke around in the garbage dumps where he might have found his data, and whatever you find must be taken home in plastic bags and subjected to careful forensic scrutiny. Then you have to go out again to acquire all the data he will have excluded, on purpose.

That's the job for someone in a hazmat suit and a couple of decades of time.

All this is background to explain to you why my holy inner rage flared like a volcano this morning when I read the introductory sentence in David Brooks' column "The Great Divorce":
I’ll be shocked if there’s another book this year as important as Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart.” I’ll be shocked if there’s another book that so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society.
Murray’s basic argument is not new, that America is dividing into a two-caste society. What’s impressive is the incredible data he produces to illustrate that trend and deepen our understanding of it.
And Hitler was the up-and-coming world leader of the 1930s, too. I keep being reminded of this quip about David Brooks:
When you want a truly vile opinion dressed up to sound innocuous, Brooks is your guy.
Indeed. My righteous anger left me stuck there, in those first few sentences. For the whole day.

Charles Pierce has a funny review of the rest of Brooks' ramblings. Brooks carries out the usual high-school class level analysis of what he calls the two tribes of America in Murray's book: The industrious rich people with 1950s values and the poor fat slobs who spend their days watching television and having children out of wedlock:
Murray’s story contradicts the ideologies of both parties. Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses.
Democrats claim America is threatened by the financial elite, who hog society’s resources. But that’s a distraction. The real social gap is between the top 20 percent and the lower 30 percent. The liberal members of the upper tribe latch onto this top 1 percent narrative because it excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness.
It’s wrong to describe an America in which the salt of the earth common people are preyed upon by this or that nefarious elite. It’s wrong to tell the familiar underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the elites.
The truth is, members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive. They may mimic bohemian manners, but they have returned to 1950s traditionalist values and practices. They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids.
Strict codes to regulate their kids? Whooah. And 1950s traditionalist values and practices? A housewife in every kitchen? Racist and sexist beliefs? McCarthyist fear of the communists? Is that really the way Brooks sees the top 20% of American earners (assuming that this is what the upper tribe might be based on)? Pierce responds:
(Mmm, word salad. "Postmodern neighborhoods"? Do you know what some of those elites "worked arduously" at in the first decade of the 21st century? Devising complicated financial instruments by which they could steal most of the money from the rest of the country and get away with it. They haven't "returned to 1950's traditionalist values and practices." Too many of their wives are working and taking the pill, which is covered by the gold-plated health-care plans The Firm offers to its most valued employees. I'd like to see data on how well they're "regulating" their kids, too, and find another verb, fool. Kids are not water heaters. David Brooks is impressed that Charles Murray, career hack, has found some white people he can treat like black people, and just in time, too. The country was beginning to notice that some of the fundamental economic unfairness built into the society, largely through policies that people like David Brooks supported. Save me, Racist Data Man!)
In Brooks' world values are odd things. The ones he likes he attributes to the 1950s conservative era. The ones he doesn't like he attributes to the 1960s hippies. Given that divorce rates are the lowest in places such as Massachusetts, the Sodom and Gomorrah of conservative imagination, I resent that false linkage. But what do you expect from the go-to-guy when vileness needs to be garbed in innocence?

The overall topic is well worth discussing. But Murray has pretty much poisoned the well, given his basic approach. What we really need is a good and objective survey of the statistical data and a concerted effort by many researchers to explain the various theories for what we observe. But the role of rising income inequality, the role of outsourcing, the role of dying factory towns, the role of poor schools, the role of cutbacks in the government safety nets, the death of good unionized jobs and the role of the flaws in the traditional patriarchal marriage certainly should enter the conversation.

Brooks wants to keep all that outside the door, to mute what the media sells us (soaps, scandals, sex and serial killers), to ignore the fundamental role of Americans as consumers for the products of global firms. He pretends that values are something fairy godmothers (well, probably fairy godfathers) offer people and all the people need to do is to pick the right ones! Then you, too, can be rich though you won't enjoy it very much, given Brooks' description of those austere and rigid church-goers who adamantly regulate their children.

I have not read Murray's book yet, so I cannot tell what kind of data mining he has carried out. But I do note a selective flavor in Brooks' quote, this one:
His story starts in 1963. There was a gap between rich and poor then, but it wasn’t that big. A house in an upper-crust suburb cost only twice as much as the average new American home. The tippy-top luxury car, the Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, cost about $47,000 in 2010 dollars. That’s pricy, but nowhere near the price of the top luxury cars today.
More important, the income gaps did not lead to big behavior gaps. Roughly 98 percent of men between the ages of 30 and 49 were in the labor force, upper class and lower class alike.
That reference to the income inequality is the extent of Brooks' nod to the economic realities. He quickly moves on to everyone in 1963 having egggzactly the same values! Men were out there working very hard. Women are not mentioned because they are supposed to be in the kitchen, for the benefit of the country.

But what really drew my attention was that reference to the labor market participation rate of men between 30 and 49. If you want to find out the group of men with the highest participation rate you would zone in on that age group, sure. So picking that number is intended to provide a high estimate of the great work ethics of men in those days.

But note that we are not told what the corresponding percentage would be today. Neither are we told that economic opportunities have changed, some for the better (such as more men and women perhaps studying rather than working, even in this age group) and some for the worse (manual and many service jobs leaving the country) and that there are now families where the man might be a stay-at-home dad while his wife works full time. We are simply given that one number as a sign of how horribly everything has changed.

I must hand it to these guys. Their task is to make us look away from the ever increasing income inequality of this country which is happily turning into a banana republic, and they are so good at that! Here I sit actually arguing with David Brooks! As if arguing with word salad makes any sense. Just stick a fork in it already.

What Murray really says is that the poor are at fault because they are stupid, fat, lazy and without sexual morals. The rich deserve their wealth because they are smart, slim, monogamous and rigid parents. Brooks chimes in about the proper guilt liberals and progressives should feel about this, presumably because they advocate sloth and obesity and group sex, and about the crucial role of the 1960s hippies. Those are the groups which really caused the obesity epidemic, the increasing income inequality and the high divorce or non-marriage rates of the less wealthy Americans. Probably the global climate change, too.

That's miraculously inane.
Added later after some calming down: The basic problem in most of Brooks' pseudo-sociological and pseudo-psychological theories can be clarified with this particular example: If poorer people have different values, hobbies or interests then Brooks assumes (without even mentioning that it's an assumption) that it is those values, hobbies and interests which are the cause of poverty. That a somewhat more likely explanation goes in the other direction, from poverty to particular lifestyles, hobbies and interests, is completely ignored. The true explanation is most likely even more complicated, given the vicious cycle aspect of poverty.