The productive and dependent “tribes”

David Brooks takes a leap in this New York Times column.  Brooks writes about the  disparities Charles Murray explores in his book, Coming Apart, between what I’ll call the productive class and the dependent class.  For example:

Today, Murray demonstrates, there is an archipelago of affluent enclaves clustered around the coastal cities, Chicago, Dallas and so on. If you’re born into one of them, you will probably go to college with people from one of the enclaves; you’ll marry someone from one of the enclaves; you’ll go off and live in one of the enclaves.

Roughly 7 percent of the white kids in the upper tribe are born out of wedlock, compared with roughly 45 percent of the kids in the lower tribe. In the upper tribe, nearly every man aged 30 to 49 is in the labor force. In the lower tribe, men in their prime working ages have been steadily dropping out of the labor force, in good times and bad.

People in the lower tribe are much less likely to get married, less likely to go to church, less likely to be active in their communities, more likely to watch TV excessively, more likely to be obese.

And then Brooks makes his leap by recommending…

…a program that would force members of the upper tribe and the lower tribe to live together, if only for a few years. We need a program in which people from both tribes work together to spread out the values, practices and institutions that lead to achievement.

Stuart Anderson, writing on, suggests that Brooks and his New York Times elites…

…give up their jobs for two years and invite members of the “lower tribe” to live in their homes “if only for a few years”…

Nice suggestion, Stuart.  I have more.

There are number of problems with Brooks’ suggestion.

For starters, we already tried an experiment of forcing the two “tribes” together so the values of the productive class could rub off on the dependent class.  It’s called public education.  It hasn’t worked out so well.   In fact, the public education experiment has had the opposite effect.  It has reinforced the enclaves that Murray writes about by encouraging folks with similar values to cluster geographically into public school districts.  The school districts serving the productive class seem to be doing fine.  The districts serving the dependent class are miserable.

It doesn’t take much imagination to believe that something similar would happen with Brooks’ National Service program.

Next, a reminder to Brooks: This is a free country.  That’s sort of a basic principle.

By the way, Brooks, have you considered that the previous slapdash social engineering projects have contributed to the formation of the productive and dependent tribes?

If not, I would like to introduce you to a new subject.  It’s called systems thinking, but some also refer to it as economics.  In systems thinking, you consider that many things, such as behavior, are shaped by feedback.

Try this experiment: intentionally fart in a business meeting.  I’m sure you’d expect your co-workers to give you stares of indignity.  Those stares are feedback that shapes your behavior and cause you to try to refrain from rudely farting again.

But, sometimes problems develop in the feedback that may cause you to continue the rude farting.

One problem might be that you’re the boss, and a mean one at that, and your subordinates restrain themselves from giving you honest feedback.

Another problem in the feedback might be that you have social elites who believe you have the right to fart.  They reason, studies show it’s healthy to pass gas rather than restrain it.  After all, it’s a natural body function.

This is the first interference with the feedback.  The social elites convince you that you should be able to fart whenever and you do.  A group forms who buy into the social elites’ B.S. and they fart whenever.  After all, the smart social elite got good grades, didn’t they?

But the polite farters remain unconvinced.  They were raised not to fart in professional settings, they think excusing yourself when you need to fart is easy enough and they really don’t like the noisy and odorous distractions of the newly empowered farters, so what do you think happens?

The polite farters begin to segregate themselves from the rude farters.  The rude farters are first left out of meetings, then passed over for promotions and then not even hired in the first place.  Rude farters obviously give themselves away in interviews, after all.

What are the rude farters to do?  They can’t get jobs or keep spouses.

The social elites, never backing down from engineering a social problem (even ones they helped create) come to the rescue.  Well, if rude farters can’t get jobs, we will just tax the polite farters and give the proceeds to the rude farters, after taking our cut, of course.  That way, rude farters can continue their farting practices indefinitely without having to adhere to the unenlightened values of the polite farters.

This is the second interference with the feedback.  Rude farters were starting to get a valuable signal: to be productive they needed to be able to work with others without intentionally farting, despite what the social elite said.

But, the social elites interrupted that feedback signal and made it possible for the rude farters to continue their socially unacceptable behavior.  They no longer needed to be productive to get by.  They could just be dependent on others and continue farting whenever.

Now, decades later a new crop of social elites come along.  One writes a book about how the rude and polite farters don’t mix much and that the polite farters appear to be productive and proficient, while the rude farters are dependent.

Then another social elite columnist comes along, reads his book and suggests that maybe if we just forced members of the rude and polite farting tribes together for a few years in a National Service, maybe, just maybe, the values (although the social elite has a problem identifying exactly what those values are) of the polite farters will rub off on the rude farters — as long, of course, as the rude farters don’t have to stop farting rudely.

The smart social elite never realize:

  • that farting politely is THE value that distinguishes the two groups.
  • they they interfered with the feedback signals that would have minimized that anti-social behavior.
  • that their initial feedback interference caused the formation of the two groups.
  • that their second feedback interference insulated the rude farters from having to modify their behavior to get by.
  • that all they should do is stop interfering with these feedback signals and tell the rude farters that, perhaps, politely excusing yourself when you need to stink it up is okay after all and that whatever is gained by being rude isn’t worth the social costs you impose on yourself.

And, unfortunately, the smart social elite write about the poor rude farters as if they are incapable sad sacks that have no bearing on their position in life, even though generations of immigrants have demonstrated that you can come to this country, start on the lower rungs and work yourself up the ladder rather quickly by adopting productive behaviors and social norms, like not farting in meetings.

(Thanks to Don Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek for the link to Stuart Anderson’s article.)

1 thought on “The productive and dependent “tribes”

  1. Pingback: Two Davids, an Optimist and a Diamond | Our Dinner Table


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