Michael Maiello's picture

    Morality Tale Economics

    David Brooks and Ross Douthat are both singing the same tune about Robert Putnam's work on income inequality -- They believe that the tribulations of poorer Americans are caused as much by a breakdown in the culture as by a lack of money.  On the face of it, this is a bit like treating somebody with hypothermia by delivering a cold weather safety lecture while not sharing your coat.

    Douthat argues that poor people in better cultural climates have exhibited the virtues of work, thrift, sobriety and delayed gratification that helped get their kids ahead, if not themselves. Today's poor, he and Brooks argue, don't benefit from such moral strength.  They lay the blame on the poor and on the rich who, from their position of superior influence, led the culture into a moral abyss of casual sex, divorce on demand and radical investment banking without the requisite noblesse oblige.

    The mental failure here is that economic stories are not morality tales or fairy tales.  Brooks and Douthat are sophisticated enough to realize that hard work is not always rewarded.  They also know that some people get rewards that seem out of proportion to the amount of work they do or the quality of that work.  They believe in a quietly suffering poor, willing to work and play by the rules even when the rewards are few.

    As for how the poor became poor, Brooks and Douthat seem to have found all sorts of reasons, grounded not in the unfair economics of our system, but in the choices made by the poor.  It's not so much that they "blame the poor for their circumstances."  Yes, that's what they're doing, but they do this so that they can argue that the poor can be changed (through moral instruction) while the system is left intact. Let's teach these people to stop bringing troubles upon themselves!

    This economic argument, fought at the household level, reminds me of the post Financial Crisis arguments we had for the foreclosure pandemic and the conversation being had in Europe right now over Greece's sovereign debt.  People who should know better are pretending that economics is all encapsulated by the tale of the ant and the grasshopper.

    But Greece's debt was not fueled only by the avarice of Greece's government.  Back in better economic times, underwriters and bond investors around the world were lining up to convince Greece to issue bonds and to facilitate the issuance.  Why?  Because they knew they could charge more interest on Greek bonds while still counting on the same backstop from the European Central Bank that they believe would kick in were their French or German bond holdings ever to near default.  For the same reason, banks issued mortgages to subprime borrowers and then sold the loans soon after they were issued.  Poor Americans are issued credit by payday lenders and other legalized loan sharking operations, often with confusing terms and unclear costs.

    The economic lives of families and countries are never so simple as working hard, saving or not. We should be honest about the complexities of our system and we should take practical steps, rather than make more pronouncements, to address bad outcomes.  Poor people really do need more money.

    A couple of other points here.  One is that Brooks and Douthat are clever.  If I say, for example, that the wealth of the Kardashian or Hilton heirs is proof of an unfair, rigged system, they will largely agree with me, and then point out that it's our sick culture that turned the Kardashians and Hiltons into celebrities.  It's a ridiculous argument, as we've been making celebrities of the very wealthy forever.

    Another point is that Douthat uses the phrase "unskilled worker," which is a phrase that I try never to use (and if you see me using it, please call me out).  All jobs require skills. I cannot quit my job and become a school janitor tomorrow.  I actually lack the skills.  I've done retail work that might be considered "unskilled." I don't think it was.  Dealing with customers is hard.  Trying to make an extra buck by participating in an overnight store inventory is to learn, at about 3 a.m., that you have not signed up for "easy money" and that the work is both mentally and physically challenging.  I do believe that Douthat would be physically exhausted to the point of tears working a double shift waiting tables at a mid-priced restaurant and that he would surprise himself by the mistakes he would make under physical and mental stress.

    The phrase "unskilled worker" is another attempt to place blame, as the skills are supposedly out there for the taking, if people are sufficiently motivated and interested.  I'm sure Douthat fancies himself "skilled" in much the way that I fancy myself "skilled." 

    But really... there's only one person in America who can be confident that he has any real skill.







    Driftglass is the nation's leading Brooks analyst.  I don't know why anyone takes Brooks, or Douthat for that matter, seriously, or why Brooks is still employed for writing his utter nonsense.

    I have seen the recommended instruction on the ground level. I have done it myself, saying: "The game is played the way it is so you must figure it out or get plowed under. "

    Making a terrible necessity out to be a virtue in itself is a cheap and easy kind of morality:

    Everything that happens is for a good reason.

    Making a terrible necessity out to be a virtue in itself is a cheap and easy kind of morality:


    Everything that happens is for a good reason

    That first line deserves a DD award, IMO, it just jumps out and says so much. That second line just seems out of touch with the phenomenal chaos of reality.

    I need to become a better ventriloquist. I meant for the talking doll to say the last line, not me.

    I gotcha.  The last part is the most heart breaking bit.

    Brooks has no idea what he is talking about.  He never has.  

    Douthat Is just a jerk. A mean one at that.

    They imply that the poor are all addicts of some sort.  I bet there would be a higher failure rate of drug testing on Wall street then among the poor around here. 

    It takes real skills to survive in poverty.  Not only on low wage jobs but at home too. After your rent and utilities are paid then you have to make the rest stretch to maintain transportation and necessities that you can't get with food stamps or from a food pantry. You learn to make your own cleaning products and laundry supplies. You do the kind of stuff your grandmothers did. 

    I bet they never have to think about thrift and delaying self gratification when they use toilet paper so it will last until the next pay day. They just grab a arms length of it and wipe.  

    OK, I'll raise my hand to be the devil's advocate. Yes, Brooks and Douthat's are dipshits, and economics is not a morality tale, but even if culture doesn't cause poverty, it does contribute. To use a microcosm, think about a school where children are frequently tardy or absent, misbehave in class, skip homework, and bully students who get good grades. That school has a culture, and children who attend it will assimilate. They are more likely to fail at that school than they would at another where the kids behave better and study harder. 

    Now we can speculate about how that school got to be the way it is, but at some point it doesn't matter. We need to fix the school. Part of fixing the school is making sure there is sufficient money to pay teachers, buy materials, and maintain the facilities, but that isn't sufficient. The student culture has to change too.

    More broadly, more jobs and better safety nets will certainly help address poverty in America, but they won't eradicate it. Even countries with low unemployment and cradle-to-grave benefits have pockets of endemic poverty where crime, drugs, broken families, and other social ills are rampant.

    The trouble is that no one knows how to change culture (other than wagging a disapproving finger in NYT op-ed column).

    Hear, hear

    The trouble is that no one knows how to change culture.

    There has been a divergence in this "culture that causes poverty" between countries like Finland/Norway and the rest of Europe since, perhaps, WWII. I think if you look to those, you find the answer regarding "how to change cultures." Not too surprisingly, it has been done in the ways Maiello suggests: You don't withhold blankets while preaching about the "morality" and merits of keeping warm.

    I certainly agree that withholding blankets while preaching about morality is NOT how to change culture. I thought that was clear from my comment. But that does not answer the question of how you DO change culture. If Scandinavian countries have made great strides in mitigating endemic poverty through cultural change, I would very much like to know how they did it (with the caveat that it's probably easier to pull off in a small, homogeneous country).

    These are just pockets that can be changed with investment in those communities of time and money.

    But right now in time, the majority who are economically disadvantaged are there because of the economy through no fault of their own. There is no reason to paint everyone with that brush.  As soon as the right structure is put back into place to get the economy going, these people will move out of poverty. 

    With a better economy and more jobs, we will certainly have less poverty. But we will still have a lot of poverty.

    Community organizing in areas like sustainable gardening, children play areas, organized sports, support for mothers and building a community centers.  Education for adults in areas of interest, such as, home repair, photography, cooking, art and needlework.  Summer programs for kids and community street fairs. Community health center with counseling.  Sewing circles to make needed things for new moms, wheelchair bound people and warm clothing for children. Putting pressure on slum lords to repair property.

    Many years ago I read a book written by a retired Principle of a elementary school in one of D.C. poorest neighborhoods.  She started out asking for washers, and dryers from local charities.  When she got them she then started asking local charities for donated clothing for children including new socks and underwear.  She cleaned out the storage area of the gym and got some moms to help her sort through all of that.  This school had a shower room.  She wrote to companies that made soap and hygiene products and begged.  

    When the kids arrived at school dirty and neglected, they were offered a shower and clean cloths.  She wanted the kids to feel safe at school and everyone would be treated with dignity and respect. The way she did it was to make the kids feel good about their appearance.  The kids that had their cloths changed were given their old cloths back clean to wear home and a clean outfit to wear the next day. Kids that never could make it to school on time was given an cheap wind up alarm clock to use and taught about time.  

    Grades improved, test scores improved and attendance.  Parents took an interest in the school and raised money for this. Older children that had moved on to middle school and high school kept returning to ask for things they needed and would show off their report cards. They would also mentor the younger children.  Many went on to trade schools and college.  

    This principle and her teachers fought hard at school board meetings to keep the school open a few extra hours a day to keep this program up. 

    I don't remember the name of the book or the author because it has been a long time.  

    That is some of the ways the change and break the cycle of chronic poverty and crime.  

    This sound like a wonderful operation. I love the focus on basic human dignity. If the country could move beyond the interminable culture vs. resources debate and work together on nurturing human dignity, which needs culture and resources, America would be a much better place.

    I just read this over at TMP cafe just now. 


    In other words, we’re better, smarter, fairer actors when we have basic stabilities—health, money, care, etc.—in place. Remove those, and our sanity frays at the edges. Our judgment gets cloudy. Desperation is no catalyst for self-discipline. This is a basic principle of human behavior—especially when we’re trying to understand the choices of the poor, who face comprehensive threats to their basic human dignity.

    And yet, there’s a resurgent effort to flip that basic equation on its head by suggesting that the poor won’t build stable families and break out of poverty unless we shame them to higher moral standards. (snip)

    That’s how privilege works. Well-heeledwell-educated folks can weather marital collapse and a fair degree of anarchy in their intimate lives. Their privilege gives them a cushion, gives them room to snag extra bits of short-term pleasure (or indiscretion) without sacrificing much long-term good.

     In truth this is what I am saying.  All the small stuff is big stuff when you are poor.  Everyday things that most people take for granted can be a challenge and you have to work very hard to make those everyday things happen. 

    I blame all this on Reagan's dog whistle "welfare queens." and the country's racism.  Too many want to dehumanize poverty instead of admitting we all need to do more to change it.   

    The whole phrase "welfare" is problematic.  What we have is publicly funded unemployment insurance.  The premiums are part of your tax bill.  Nobody should feel any more shame for using that insurance than they do for using medical or car insurance.

    This gets to the "dignity" angle you've both been talking about.  It's really the answer.

    Poor children have moral defects. A wealthy teen who killed four people while driving drunk suffered from "Affluenza". Poverty is a morality problem, wealth is the real burden in life. The father of the teen was an excellent role model.

    Sure, resources aren't sufficient.  But you can't deprive the resources and expect the culture to change.  The culture responds to stimulus.  Douthat and Brooks explicitly argue that people need to exhibit the cultural virtues they want even in the absence of reward.  It's unrealistic. There will be drop-outs in any society, no matter how plentiful the opportunities or rewards, but I think you have to set a pretty high bar before you start blaming people for not getting ahead.

    To your school example -- it'd be shocking if such conditions existed at a well funded, well run school.  It could happen.  I'm sure there are situations where you could say, "we've given them everything, they just don't seem to want it, what's wrong with these people?"  But that'd be rare, wouldn't it?

    Without going back for another read, it wasn't my impression that Douthat and Brooks argued for depriving people of resources. But if they did, I certainly do not. My point was that resources alone are not sufficient eliminating poverty.

    As for schools, look at any large public school district, such as New York's. The schools receive roughly equivalent funding (parent fund-drives play part, but it's relatively small), yet some schools are very good and some are very bad. What is good/bad about them? The principal, the teachers, the facilities sure. But most parents I know are primarily concerned about the other students, particularly in middle school and high school. They know their kids will be influenced by the friends they make, so they want them to be around studious, well-behaved peers.

    It's not that the children at bad schools are not inherently bad. If you moved them individually to better schools, the vast majority would work harder and behave better under the influence of their new peers. But if you moved the entire student body into a new facility with new teachers, you would continue to see a serious cultural drag on academic performance.

    To give you a personal example. In junior high, I was so embarrassed about getting good grades that I deliberately wrote wrong answers in tests. In high school, the students were more mature, and I was lucky enough to attend an excellent public school where my peers respected academic success. That culture encouraged me to strive. Many people I know, even students from the other public high school in a wealthier neighborhood across town, did not have such good fortune.

    PS Happy birthday, dude!

    Thanks, man!

     My point was that resources alone are not sufficient eliminating poverty.

    This is an important point that I may have failed to acknowledge in my comment below.  I think it's fair to say that resources are a necessary but not sufficient component to eliminating poverty.

    This is an excellent essay Michael.  Americans have always (almost always?) held on to that rags to riches kind of hope, and it ends up being based upon this or that anecdotal diddy.  There are structural problems we will not face and the rags to riches stuff is at the core of so many of the arguments that subsume the problems of things like education within a general approach seeing evil in all things government and the revenues that are necessary for all things government.  

    Nice work.


    I loved that "while not sharing your coat"!

    I have been thinking about this subject.


    John Jay, a Founding Father, second governor of New York and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court:

    The owners of this Country ought to rule it.



    I cannot get italics going right now, but you know what I mean.

    John Jay was a giant among men. And I respect him, even as a peasant.

    He fought against slavery with persons of note including Aaron Burr.

    And John Jay fought against slavery in NY even though he owned slaves.

    Eventually, of course, slavery was abolished in NY.

    But step into the shoes of some of these folks.

    Imagine that you wake up like I did at the age  of two, and there are slaves and plantations and such that existed.

    And then, you are part and parcel of this culture.

    Like the South understood, there would be nothing wrong with this system just as if you had been born in Rome, a couple thousand years ago.

    Well Jay just like Jefferson in Virginia, fought against slavery.

    Only NY finally arrived at the 'right' decision.


    Historically of course, most states understood that only those people with property, whatever the hell that means, could vote.

    And, historically the legislators of the various states would appoint a Senator.

    This means, by those who had means, would control the US Senate until the Constitutional Amendment making Senators appointed by the CITIZENS.

    AGAIN, John Jay, put into his historical context WAS A LIBERAL. hahahahah

    It just got to me that we can go right to John Jay (as well as Jefferson) to find the anti-aristocracy and anti-clerical source of our Constitution that actually knew that we need a new mercantile class to rule the peasants.

    It all makes sense.

    And the political right, feels this same desire.

    We must keep the peasants from revolting because the peasants are revolting

    THE END.

    Thanks, I really did not feel like doing a blog today.



    Latest Comments