Of Love and Money

What exactly does Republican columnist David Brooks want, anyway? A Nanny-state? Or a flat tax? Or does he even remember?

David Brooks: Of Love and Money

How does government provide millions of kids with the stable, loving structures they are not getting sufficiently at home?

More Bobo below:

Tags: , /, /

Let me tell you why I, a[n] imbecile, have spent several weeks trying to understand the amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex.

It all started a few years ago as I was plowing through studies on income inequality. When you delve into this literature, you realize inequality is more complicated than some polemicists let on. For example, inequality is much lower when measured by consumption than by income because poorer people now spend much more than they officially report as income.

Nonetheless, certain conclusions are unavoidable. First, the gap between rich and poor is widening. It's like global warming; you can resist the evidence for a while, but eventually you have to succumb. Second, while standards of living are rising for almost everybody, people at the middle and the bottom of the income scale aren't seeing the gains you'd expect. Third, while mobility rates probably haven't changed much, new stratifications are replacing old ones. Race and sex discrimination matter less, but family background — a child's home environment — matters more.

Once you acknowledge that there is a basic tear in the way the market economy is evolving, you begin trying to figure out the causes. In declining order of importance, they seem to be:

First, the generally rising education premium. The economy rewards people who can thrive in meetings and adapt to technical change. Second, the widening marriage gap. Middle-class people are increasingly likely to raise kids in stable two-parent homes, while kids in poorer families are increasingly less likely to have these advantages. Third, the emergence of millions of low-skill workers in China and India. That's bound to push down low-skill wages. Fourth, changes in salary structures. Employees deemed irreplaceable get big salary raises, while employees deemed fungible do not.

When you look at these causes, you keep coming back to one theme: human capital. The people who do well not only possess skills that can be measured on tests, they have self-discipline (which is twice as important as I.Q. in predicting academic achievement, according to a study by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman). They conceive of their lives as following a script, progressing upward through stages. They benefit from inherited cultural traits.

Some economists believe we should reduce inequality by restructuring the economy — raising taxes on the rich and redistributing money to the poor. That's fine, but it won't get you very far. In Britain, Gordon Brown has redistributed large amounts of money from rich to poor regions, but regional inequality has increased faster under the current government than under Margaret Thatcher.

Hmmm, is that so? And the answer obviously is to give tax breaks to the upper crust, and just wring our hands over the fate of the rest of us?

Income inequality is driven by human capital inequality, and human capital can't be taxed and redistributed. You have to build it at the bottom to ensure maximum fairness. When you turn your attention to human capital formation, you begin by thinking about job training and schools. But you discover that while learning is like nutrition (you have to do it every day), earlier is better. That's because, as James Heckman puts it, learners learn and skill begets skill. Children who've developed good brain functions by age 3 have advantages that accumulate through life.

That takes us to where the debate is today. How do we inculcate good brain functions across a wider swath of the 3-year-old population? Forty-one states are tinkering with or creating preschool programs. Oklahoma is leading the way with preschool and pro-family efforts. California is considering universal preschool.

Getting this right is tricky. Head Start produces only modest benefits, as a study from the Department of Health and Human Services has reminded us again. Small, intensive preschool programs yield tremendous results, but realistically, they cannot be done on a giant scale.

The problem is this: How does government provide millions of kids with the stable, loving structures they are not getting sufficiently at home?

If there's one thing that leaps out of all the brain literature, it is that, as Daniel J. Siegel puts it, “emotion serves as a central organizing process within the brain.” Kids learn from people they love. If we want young people to develop the social and self-regulating skills they need to thrive, we need to establish stable long-term relationships between love-hungry children and love-providing adults.

That's why I'm grappling with these books on psychology and brain function. I started out on this wonk odyssey in the company of economic data, but the closer you get to the core issue, the further you venture into the primitive realm of love.

Jeez, thanks for that, Mr. Brooks. Problem solved. All we need is love. Can the government enforce the rule of Beaver Cleaver households for all? Daddy works, mommy stays home and vacuums with her pearls on? Not without some additional revenue from the upper crust to spread around, and pay those mortgages and Prozac bills. Ahem. And seriously, not even then.

To be fair to Mr. Brooks, I haven't been able to come up with a delightfully utopian community either. I think it involves soma or something.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Seth A. published on May 25, 2006 11:20 AM.

Hamza El Din RIP was the previous entry in this blog.

Department of No Taxing Comment is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.


Powered by Movable Type 4.37