THE CHARACTER FACTORY (July 31, 2014) David Brooks
(With useful annotations and explanations of the author’s possible meaning)
Nearly every parent on earth operates on the assumption that character matters a lot to the life outcomes of their children. Nearly every government antipoverty program operates on the assumption that it doesn’t. [Do conservatives really want government to instruct all Americans on the content of their character, or only poor Americans? Are we to assume that poverty springs from failure of character? Do corporations of better character succeed and those of low character fail, or does it have more to do with luck, the way riches and poverty do? Is ruthlessness considered a positive character trait in a poor person? It's certainly essential in a corporation. When taxpayers rescue a company, say via bankruptcy, do they weigh the character of the CEO or the entire board of directors? Do they measure the character of every shareholder? No. We rescue corporations based upon collateral, the same as we rescue rich people. Often it is because that collateral is comprised of employees who didn't cause the company to fail, or the broader economy which might suffer, if the corporation is a bank and is large enough. Brooks hasn't begun well, has he?]
Most Democratic antipoverty programs consist of transferring money, providing jobs or otherwise addressing the material deprivation of the poor. Most Republican antipoverty programs likewise consist of adjusting the economic incentives or regulatory barriers faced by the disadvantaged.
As Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution pointed out recently in National Affairs, both orthodox progressive and conservative approaches treat individuals as if they were abstractions — as if they were part of a species of “hollow man” whose destiny is shaped by economic structures alone, and not by character and behavior. [What Mr. Brooks calls “abstraction” is what policymakers might call lack of prejudice. An attempt to make the grant of benefits less about whether the bureaucrat likes the look of the applicant. Once an applicant for assistance is concrete and no longer abstract, other forms of judgment come in. What we call “discrimination”. Does this sound familiar? Does the applicant look like someone you’d ask to lunch? Did your son play lacrosse with him at Choate? Is he “the sort of person” you’d like to have move in next door? Once the terms become concrete the decision is less about the applicant and more about the person granting the benefits, the person deciding the terms.]
It’s easy to understand why policy makers would skirt the issue of character. Nobody wants to be seen blaming the victim — spreading the calumny that the poor are that way because they don’t love their children enough, or don’t have good values. Furthermore, most sensible people wonder if government can do anything to alter character anyway. [Insert a silent “But…" Here is where Brooks gets credit for saying he won’t say something before he spends the rest of the column saying it.]
The problem is that policies that ignore character and behavior have produced disappointing results. [Disappointing to whom? By whose standards? Disappointing to conservatives who despise welfare programs? Disappointing in the way conservatives enjoy being disappointed? The way they have a habit of being disappointed? And who are the rich to judge the character of the poor? Seems like a lot of the failures of character in recent years have been by rich folks. Do we give Social Security benefits based upon “character”? No. Medicare? No. Not even corporate welfare programs are based upon character, otherwise corporations who run themselves into the ground might be found wanting. Only programs for the poor require extra tests to see if the recipients are worthy. And the only instances when corporate welfare is said by conservatives to require extra worthiness tests is when the rescue is called for to save the jobs of the employees who were not to blame for the corporate failure.]
Social research over the last decade or so has reinforced the point that would have been self-evident in any other era — that if you can’t help people become more resilient, conscientious or prudent, then all the cash transfers in the world will not produce permanent benefits. [Perhaps this research (whose research?) has shown this uniformly discouraging result because by 2004 the U.S. had already degraded a lot of the meaningful and effective instruments of our social welfare system, and beefed up the systems devised to make obtaining welfare a hard job in itself, by creating bars and tests and restrictions, by erecting barriers to discourage the poor from getting help. These systems also shifted critical dollars away from the actual welfare and into the pockets of the functionaries hired to make welfare more difficult to obtain. And it happened at a time when working class incomes were in swift decline and jobs were being shipped overseas where they could be done by children for 50¢ an hour with no benefits and no 40 hour work week. The poor in other countries have more “character” than our own poor, they'll say, which means the poor will work longer and harder for less than America's poor. That's not character. That's inferior status. And fear.]
Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiment demonstrated that delayed gratification skills learned by age 4 produce important benefits into adulthood. [Or maybe the children who failed were simply more hungry than the ones who succeeded? Mightn't this delayed gratification training be better applied to the preschoolers who will one day be corporate executives? Wouldn't you say that the impulsive self-centeredness and impatient greed of the 1% does more harm than the undisguised hunger of preschoolers? If delayed gratification signifies superior character, wouldn't 450 years of delayed gratification mean that descendents of slaves have a lot to teach the rest of us?]
Carol Dweck’s work has shown that people who have a growth mind-set — who believe their basic qualities can be developed through hard work — do better than people who believe their basic talents are fixed and innate. [True. But is this a greater deficiency among the poor? Is it a fair calculus to apply to persons of innately limited ability, who also tend to wind up poor? Conservatives hate the “everyone is special” philosophy taught during the '70s, but they seem to think everyone is equally able. True? Or not? Should we punish the unlucky? Should we add a “character test” for those who God, in His wisdom, decided to bless with limited abilities?Perhaps this test would be more usefully applied to the scions of the wealthy classes whose lives will float happily on a tax-free pillow of inherited wealth, whatever their innate abilities––if David Brooks can persuade our men and women in Congress to eliminate the inheritance tax.]
Angela Duckworth has shown how important grit and perseverance are to lifetime outcomes. [You want to see grit and determination? Spend some time with the horribly underpaid working classes in this country. After a full week working at Walmart or McDonalds and whatever other second job they have, they still have to expend the effort to jump through the foodstamp hurdles and endure the opprobrium of cashiers and fellow shoppers when they use these benefits. Enduring the scorn of others is real endurance. Don't get me started on the long commutes some of the working poor endure every day to get to their jobs, or the thousands taken from each of them via legal systematic wage theft by their employers and creditors.]
College students who report that they finish whatever they begin have higher grades than their peers, even ones with higher SATs. Spelling bee contestants who scored significantly higher on grit scores were 41 percent more likely to advance to later rounds than less resilient competitors. [Can I obtain my Grit Score from the Grit Bureau the same way I get my Credit Score? Of course not. It's a fiction. Grit is one of those words that should be reserved for individuals enduring the indignity of menial work, not for the cosseted classes Mr. Brooks is more familiar with.]
Summarizing the research in this area, Reeves estimates that measures of drive and self-control influence academic achievement roughly as much as cognitive skills. [Shall we include the negative effects that persistent systematic discouragement and sense of class inferiority learned from the indignities the poor and persons of color suffer every day? That has a more measurable effect on achievement. Let's not include that, though, because it may skew the reassuring conclusions Mr. Brooks prefers with his breakfast. And I'm sure his is a nutritious hot one, enjoyed with the New York Times, neither of which are as available in many poor working class households. I'll bet the poor hardly ever see a decent half grapefruit between one Christmas and the next, and seldom enjoy the better kinds of granola.]
Recent research has also shown that there are very different levels of self-control up and down the income scale. Poorer children grow up with more stress and more disruption, and these disadvantages produce effects on the brain. [Ya think? Amazing how this factoid is relegated to the bottom of one of the middle paragraphs, where the author sorts the things he wants you to dismiss quickly while giving him credit for mentioning them. How fair and honorable of Mr. Brooks. One star for Gryffindor!] Researchers often use dull tests to see who can focus attention and stay on task. Children raised in the top income quintile were two-and-a-half times more likely to score well on these tests than students raised in the bottom quintile. [I'm afraid I scored badly on this paragraph. Can someone untangle the previous sentence?]
But these effects are reversible with the proper experiences. [Like what, par example... Experiences like pony camp? Computer camp? Computer camp followed by ownership of a computer, perhaps even a current model with decent software? We'd be better off sorting the prospects of Mac children vs. the losers who grow up with Windows.]
People who have studied character development through the ages have generally found hectoring lectures don’t help. [This is inserted to correct the idea that David Brooks is hectoring, which he would never do. A poor person would need to have a subscription to the Times to feel hectored. The brilliance of this rhetorical strategy is astonishing. What is the Latin expression for it?]
The superficial “character education” programs implanted into some schools of late haven’t done much either. [Here I will not say anything using David Brooks and superficial in the same sentence.] Instead, sages over years have generally found at least four effective avenues to make it easier to climb. [Stairs? Stairs that actually go up? Stairs that don't have double-locked doors at the top? Stairs which don't have a No Persons Of Color sign painted above them? I'm speaking in metaphors here.] Government-supported programs can contribute in all realms. [Brooks is saying this is government's responsibility. Or is this a clever trick?]
First, habits. If you can change behavior you eventually change disposition. [Shall we also consider changing the negative behaviors of people other than those needing social welfare programs? For instance the people who pay them miserably and get rich thereby? Red lining and other forms of economic prejudice are not habits of the poor or people of color. They're the habits of the outside groups who decide the destinies of poor people without regard to their worthiness or character or hard work.]
People who practice small acts of self-control find it easier to perform big acts in times of crisis. [Was it by several centuries of self control that African Americans found it easier to invent the only significant art forms America is known for? I'm sure that's too complicated for conservatives to answer. Did Mr. Brooks ever know someone whose self control enabled him to overcome the effects of several generations of poverty in his family? Such cases are not unknown, but they are outliers, they are not the rule. Why? Perhaps it would be more fair to blame the pervasive failure of poor and working class children to enter Princeton on some societal factors rather than on the individual's lack of “grit.” Perhaps it has something to do with the shrinking number of places available to “poor-people-with-grit” in places like Princeton, places which need to charge Westchester-and-Darien prices to stay, as they say, in the black. Let's face it, scholarship programs are more carefully directed at young people who are just a bit below the top quintile rather than those far below it. And perhaps there are many more “young ambitious poor persons with grit” who fail than there are “young ambitious rich persons with or without grit” who fail. Grit is less of a difference here than background and the learned experience that we call history. The rich child is likelier to land on his feet however things turn out.]
Quality preschools, K.I.P.P. schools and parenting coaches have produced lasting effects by encouraging young parents and students to observe basic etiquette and practice small but regular acts of self-restraint. [Is this Brooks's subtly disguised hymn to charter and private education?
“Private enterprise is the answer to everything.” From what I've read young black males learn to exhibit basic etiquette among whiter peers and adults earlier and better than young white males do. Self restraint is not something wealthy children tend to learn, but they don't spend their lives paying for that failure. The rest of us pay for their failures as well as our own.]
Second, opportunity. Maybe you can practice self-discipline through iron willpower. But most of us can only deny short-term pleasures because we see a realistic path between self-denial now and something better down the road. Young women who see affordable college prospects ahead are much less likely to become teen moms. [Gosh...did you read this in the same handbook I got from my health teacher in 1965? Quit insulting us and I'll quit insulting you. Did women deserve the vote and the right to property more because they waited centuries for it? I refer again to the centuries that African Americans waited for the right to basic civil rights in this country. We didn't withhold that to make them better people. In both cases we white males did it to make ourselves rich and powerful at their expense. The wrong class of people seems to be giving the character lectures here.]
Third, exemplars. Character is not developed individually. It is instilled by communities and transmitted by elders. [Translation: why the hell isn't every black father exactly like Bill Cosby? Meaning, I guess, wealthy, understandably irritable and articulate.]
The centrist Democratic group Third Way suggests the government create a BoomerCorps. Every day 10,000 baby boomers turn 65, some of them could be recruited into an AmeriCorps-type program to help low-income families move up the mobility ladder. [Shall we get right on this when the person of color gets out of the White House? Because nuthin's gonna happen till he's gone. The Confederate Army now occupying Congress have made that plain. Still, not a bad idea. The people in our generation who will never be able to afford to retire will need something to do. And those who can will need something to do not to feel like lazy privileged jerks. Genuine lazy privileged jerks have no trouble dealing with idleness and wealth.]
Fourth, standards. People can only practice restraint after they have a certain definition of the sort of person they want to be. [Oh, I love this. Yardsticks. Standards. Always applied downward, never applied upward toward the persons pulling down enormous annual barely taxed pay packages despite dismal corporate performance. Here's a standard practice for you: If a CEO does a lousy job he pays the shareholders back out of his enormous package from the previous year. Here's another: If a Congress spends its entire two years in office doing nothing but withholding benefits from unemployed people and veterans, degrading our infrastructure, opposing everything and posturing, they don't get paid. Another: If they retire to a lucrative job as a lobbyist they surrender their retirement.]
Research from Martin West of Harvard and others suggests that students at certain charter schools raise their own expectations for themselves, and judge themselves by more demanding criteria. [Or maybe it's just that those families who go to the effort to move their child to a different school are likelier to be more demanding. Here's another standard we might enact, but you won't like it: Expect all American companies to pay their employees a living wage, a wage sufficient to feed a family. This failure belongs to the employer not the employed, not the struggling worker or his and her children. This failure IS a failure of character that belongs to the very very rich in this country who have become rich by exploiting hardworking people. That is an old American tradition, exploiting workers, but it's not one we should be proud of. It may build character in the exploited but all the rewards accrue to the exploiter whose character is deficient if it exists at all. Wealth absolves a person from having his character or worthiness questioned. After a few generations he is automatically a better person than his economic inferiors––according to “conservative” beliefs. Even the wealth from generations of slave trading and slave-owning can confer superior character on the heirs.
Time launders the family as efficiently as it launders the wealth.]
Character development is an idiosyncratic, mysterious process. [Magical thinking is useful when the real variety gets sticky, so let’s finish with a vague compound aphorism:]
But if families, communities and the government can envelop lives with attachments and institutions, then that might reduce the alienation and distrust that retards mobility and ruins dreams.
Labels: class warfare, condescending, corporate welfare, David Brooks, naive, patronizing, prejudiced, smug, Welfare