Sunday, September 10, 2006

Investing in Human Futures?

When I read the headline to the latest Brooks piece, Investing in Human Futures, I half expected to read something about a futures market for humans. Instead I found his formula for how to beat inequality - he proposes the "socially conservative" model of throwing money at the problem.

He opens with a false dichotomy:
[I]magine we could get every kid in that classroom to graduate from college, and that we could get every kid in every classroom to graduate from college. Don’t you think that’s the most important thing we could do to make America a richer and fairer place?

Some people, actually, don’t think that. Some people don’t think wage stagnation is mainly about education and skills. They think the economy is so broken, the Republican Party so malevolent and all-controlling, that almost all the gains would go to the top 5 percent or 1 percent anyway.

I may be a sucker, but I think they’re wrong.
So the solution Brooks proposes is that every American get a college education, even if they aren't interested in college, even if they're not academically suited for college, and even if they will end up in jobs which do not require college degrees. In fairness to Mr. Brooks, perhaps he envisions a future America where every citizen has a white collar job and every other task necessary to the continued function of society is performed by... guest workers? Robots? Well, perhaps he'll tell us in a later column. I'll be sure to tell one of my former employers, a college drop-out who made $millions in business, or my wife's uncle, who never attended college yet has made $millions as a builder, how they have been left behind by the U.S. economy due to their failure to obtain college degrees.

Mr. Brooks lists five proposals that he believes will cure inequality.

Mr. Brooks first proposes "strengthening the family". This, it seems, he will achieve exclusively by raising the child tax credit to $5,000.

His second proposal is "strengthening marriage". He notes that there are "many cultural ways to strengthen marriage" but endorses only one financial step: "the government could extend the earned income tax credit to single males". This, he tells us, would induce more men to work, and make them more attractive as marriage partners. (Does he mean increasing the tax credit? Would he also have his changes extent to single women? If so, why didn't he mention them?

His third proposal is to make people "think about the future". This he will achieve by creating a $1,000 savings account for every child at birth. (I think the going rate on money market accounts with a $1,000 balance is... a bit under 1%. At 1% interest, and assuming no bank fees, kids can see that amount grow to a whopping $1,250 or so by the time they finish college. Using Chase as a guide, if bank fees of $12/month apply, they can watch the account shrink to nothing by the time they're nine. Hey - maybe we can make growth a sure thing by giving them $1,000 in U.S. Treasury Bonds, and....)

His fourth proposal is for giving "quality preschool" to children "from disorganized homes" so that they can learn to resist marshmallows by the age of three. David Brooks sees a problem with this - "Small, intensive preschool programs yield tremendous results, but realistically, they cannot be done on a giant scale" - but fortunately, as it turns out, David Brooks doesn't see that as a problem. (???) As David Brooks isn't satisfied with Head Start, he's presumably suggesting something much more ambitious (and thus almost assuredly much more expensive).

Finally, he argues that "schools need to be tailored to the way children actually are":
Different human beings have radically different learning styles. So long as diverse individuals are forced to sit in the same classroom and endure uniform teaching techniques, they’ll underperform. It doesn’t matter whether the school is public, charter or administered by Martians.
The necessary investment to achieve this personalized learning environment will be in the hudreds of billions, with vastly increased education budgets required nationwide to sustain it. But apparently that's not a problem when you characterize your proposals as "socially conservative and economically progressive".
But this debate is not going to be won either by the free-market fatalists or by the angry but amorphous populists. It’ll be won by the human capital reformers, the alliance of progressive conservatives and conservative progressives (like the Clintonites) who believe that the market fundamentally works and that social mobility requires what it has always required, skill and effort.
It almost makes you wonder why Canada's "Progressive Conservative Party" changed its name....


  1. Maybe you have to give Brooks a little credit for banging around, brainstorming, and trying to come up with solutions (albeit partial) to some intractable problems. OTOH, his suggestions are so apparently poorly thought out as to be laughable. He also comes across as a social engineer, which on a mass scale is never a good thing.

    The bit about the marshmellows (didn't read the original NYT editorial -- behind a login requirement) sounds like a joke, to be sure. But I think there is actually some truth and perhaps even value to teaching young children emotional self-control and delayed gratification. Frankly, plenty of adults could use those skills.

  2. He didn't propose solutions, though, did he. And if anybody on the left had proposed the type of "bucket of money" approach he just implicitly endorsed he would be the first to ridicule, wouldn't he?

    The marshmallow thing? He was serious.