Annoyed

I do get annoyed and some people are good at annoying me. David Brooks is one such person. I was especially annoyed when I saw Tyler Cowen quote and link to his column and refer to it as ‘interesting throughout.’ I found that so annoying that it made me question why I like Cowen.

Brooks annoys me because he comes across (to me, at least) as a pompous elitist who fascinates himself and rarely considers that he might be wrong.

While there was much that annoyed me about the quote that Cowen found interesting, I’ll pick on one thing.  In one part, Brooks wrote this:

So the story I’d like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.

I’ll point out a few things I find dumb about this. I’m willing to consider that I’m the dumb one and maybe you can help me see what I’m missing.

First, his evidence of society becoming more individualistic was that the use of the word “preferences” had increased in books that Google can search over different time periods. Is it possible this isn’t a reflection of society becoming more individualistic? Is it possible that it really has nothing at all to say about society?

Second, society is breaking down, but government is trying to help? Society, seems pretty strong to me. Where is it breaking down? It appears to breaking down in the very parts where government has inserted itself the most. 

I wonder if Brooks has ever considered that it is the elitist folks of his ilk, who fancy themselves competent diviners of society’s problems and providers of solutions to those problems (of which, they never pay any direct consequences for being wrong), who may be CAUSING the breakdowns in society?

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Two Davids, an Optimist and a Diamond

Something made me think about this post from February 2012 and this post from May 2012.

In the first post, I try to explain to David Brooks that his social engineering predecessors created the problem he now wants to solve and he doesn’t recognize that the easiest way to solve it is to undo what they created.

In the second post, I discuss an EconTalk podcast with guest David Schmidtz who cuts right to the nub of the problem with the you-benefit-from-society-so-I get-to-tell-you-what-to-do mindset. The key phrase from Schmitdtz that jogged my memory of this post:

Tell me at what point other people helping me made me your property.

As I re-read that post, I had a couple additional thoughts.

First, not only is the do-gooder presumptuous enough to think they are entitled to tell others what to do, but they derive that belief from what others have done, not themselves. Indeed, when they say they get to tell you to be healthy because they pay for your health care, ask how much they’ve paid so far. Ask for a receipt.

This entitlement to tell others what to do is usually based on the idea that “society” has provided roads, teachers and police protection (again, usually provided by others, not them) in which we all benefit.

But, where did roads come from? From government? From taxes?

Where did those come from?

From wealth creation. At some point in human history we became productive enough through private trading to free up some spare time for some folks to be able to work on things beyond acquiring today’s calories — like protecting us and representing us from and for each other.  Wealth creates government, not the other way around.

For more depth on that topic, I recommend Matt Ridley‘s The Rational Optimist and Jared Diamond’s, Guns, Germs and Steel.

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 Forbes.com, 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.)

“Energetic Government”

In the American Enterprise Institute’s Debate, How Much Government is Good Government?, David Brooks makes a case for an “energetic government” that “builds character.”

I believe the following passage from Brooks provides the key assumption for his energetic government stance:

…the reason that America got rich in the nineteenth century was because we were the most educated country on earth, and we could count on a certain level of social capital we no longer can.

I don’t believe that’s why America “got rich”.

To me, that’s like saying, I got rich by saving for retirement.  That’s not accurate.  You were able to save for retirement, and become rich, by creating enough value for others to generate an income for yourself.

Similarly, I believe the cause and effect flows the other way from how Brooks describes it.  America became the most educated country on earth, with a certain level of social capital [i.e. things like public education, social security, unemployment, etc.], because America “got rich”.

America got rich through bottoms-up innovations enabled by the most democratic, fair and socially mobile system the world has ever witnessed, capitalism.

If Brooks were to consider that he is wrong about how America got rich and wanted to learn other possible explanations, I’d recommend that he start with Matt Ridley’s book The Rational OptimistThis post and this one discuss some of Ridley’s, and my own, insights on the matter.

Of course, Matt and I could be wrong, but I have not found convincing evidence of that yet.  But, would love to hear some.

More debates like this, please

My family and friends are surprised to find out that I’m not a fan of TV-based political debates.   They figure that since I have an above average interest in politics, television debates must be like my Super Bowl, or something.

I prefer debates like How Much Government is Good Government? between New York Times columnist David Brooks and Representative Paul Ryan.   It’s written.  You can download it and read it on your iPad, Kindle or any device that supports .pdf.

I think TV debates don’t give a true picture of the candidate.  Its like trying to pick a wife while watching ladies perform in a roller derby.

There’s more opportunity in the written format to filter out the shenanigans and articulate a more complete representation of your positions and your criticisms of your opponents’ positions.

I downloaded the Brooks/Ryan debate for my Kindle iPhone app and read about 60% so far.  I’ll have more to say about it soon.

I do recommend it.   If you’re the least bit interested in politics, you will find it easy reading and interesting.

Letter to David Brooks

David Brooks’ New York Times column, The Day After Tomorrow elicited this response from economist Arnold Kling and this response from economist Russ Roberts.

This is the Brooks paragraph Kling and Roberts responded to:

The social fabric is fraying. Human capital is being squandered. Society is segmenting. The labor markets are ill. Wages are lagging. Inequality is increasing. The nation is overconsuming and underinnovating. China and India are surging. Not all of these challenges can be addressed by the spontaneous healing powers of the market.

Kling and Roberts disagree with Brooks last sentence.

I’m much more selective about the columns I read anymore.  I find reading columns to be much like having one-sided conversations with arrogant, know-it-alls who are more interested in demonstrating their unique, and often absurd, insights to attract ego stroking.

Just when you’ve digested, picked apart and incorporated last week’s column, the columnist puts out another one on another topic.  It never seems the criticisms of the previous columns are addressed.  It never seems like the conversation advances.

Forbes magazine requires its investment columnists to write once a year about the performance of the stocks they picked versus an appropriate investment benchmark.  I would read more opinion columns if writers did something similar like writing about the criticisms their columns have received, what they have found out to be wrong and what caused them to change their mind.

In other words, I’d be interested if they wrote in a way where they seemed genuinely interested in advancing the conversation to the best answer, rather than just shoving their opinion out there as if it were the best.

I would be very interested to see how David Brooks would respond to Russ Roberts criticism.

Specifically, I would like David Brooks to answer these questions:

  1. Does he believe that government contributed to the problems he writes about (e.g. “labor markets are ill”)?
  2. Why or why not?
  3. What makes him believe that not all of these challenges can be “addressed by the spontaneous healing powers of the market”?
  4. Which ones specifically cannot and why?