Brooks: not quite wrong, not quite right

May 11, 2010

I’m a week late in getting to this, but several of you asked me to respond to this piece by David Brooks. Tempting.  Policy is what I do.  And Brooks says it doesn’t really matter that much.

The influence of politics and policy is usually swamped by the influence of culture, ethnicity, psychology and a dozen other factors.

What matters are historical experiences, cultural attitudes, child-rearing practices, family formation patterns, expectations about the future, work ethics and the quality of social bonds.

Most of the proposals we argue about so ferociously will have only marginal effects on how we live, especially compared with the ethnic, regional and social differences that we so studiously ignore.

In a quick paragraph: I think Brooks is right to caution that the power of non-policy factors should inspire modesty among believers in government intervention, but he uses terrible examples to make his point about culture, underestimates the importance of policy implementation, and illogically ends up downplaying the significance of policy while professing belief that bad policy can have catastrophic consequences.

Ok, a little slower.  And in backwards order.

A much beloved mentor of mine is committed to the idea that, at best, policy is damage control and that real social change happens on the ground.  I don’t exactly disagree, but I do dislike the frame, mostly because it rhetorically dismisses the importance of damage control.  As does Brooks when he says, “bad policy can decimate the social fabric, but good policy can only modestly improve it.”

But here’s the thing: preventing the decimation of the social fabric is really, really important work.  Framed more positively (and I believe more accurately), policy can create an environment that makes good social change more or less likely.  Just because it doesn’t take you the whole way doesn’t mean it’s a worthless path.

But the larger point is that we’re defining policy too narrowly.  Policy isn’t just getting a bill through Congress or a new rule through a regulatory agency.  Policy implementation matters too.  Implementation happens on the ground.  And implementation–good implementation, anyway–takes those cultural, psychological, historical factors that Brooks highlights  into account.

Finally, Matthew Yglesias tackles Brooks’ culture examples better than I could, so I’ll just steal from him:

He [Brooks] notes that Asians do well not only in rich states like New Jersey, but also in economically distressed areas. But obviously Asians living in South Korea and Japan (or New Jersey) do much better than Asians living in North Korea. That’s policy. Chinese people living in San Francisco or Hong King or Singapore do much better than Chinese people living in Jiangxi. That’s policy. And the China disparity is much smaller in 2010 than it was in 1980, which is also policy.

Brooks counters by noting that Swedish-Americans and people in Sweden have similar outcomes, which he characterizes as “two groups with similar historical backgrounds living in entirely different political systems.” I think the real lesson here is that Sweden and the US (especially the parts of the US where Swedes tended to settle) actually don’t have entirely different political systems. […]  The United States and Sweden are both stable democracies with market economies, substantial welfare states, and relatively low levels of public corruption. I think the real lesson of Brooks’ story is that the policy differences between stable market/welfare democracies are not that large.

So, by my count, not quite right, not quite wrong.  Pushback?




  1. I had a similar reaction. When Brooks basically writes at the end of the article that bad policy can do really bad things but that we should chill out about policy anyway, I let out an anguished squeal. Or I would have if I hadn’t expected him to write something silly like that in the first place.

  2. Flying Whale is correct; it’s actually just such a ridiculous article that I’m surprised that Jonas took the time to rebut. But I learned something from the rebuttal, so… let me join in :).

    I think policy can have a tremendous impact on the other things Brooks seems to think are important. For instance, many cultural traits cited as causing social discord in marginalized communities (lack of commitment to education/violent crime/drug use, etc.) can be somewhat linked to historical ‘events’ (slavery, segregation, caste-based oppression, etc.) that were addressed in large part by changes in policy (13th Amendment, Brown v. Board, etc.)– and if the right policies had been around to start with, then maybe we wouldn’t have these cultural problems to begin with. And based on my childhood in the deep south, I’d say that policy has had an impact on that area’s culture.

    Yes, cultural changes helped contribute to above-cited policy changes. But if the two cannot really be distinguished from one another, then maybe policy should just be seen as part of our society’s cultural evolution. That still makes it important.

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