Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Impact of Economic Opportunity on Behavior

Back when I first started practicing small town law, I represented a significant number of criminal defendants. From the moment I stepped into District Court for the criminal docket, it was an education in a subculture with which I had little prior background. You would see defendants in custody sitting in the jury box as they awaited arraignment, fresh from a night in jail, most yucking it up like they were at summer camp. The smell of a crowded courtroom was usually an unpleasant mixture of body odor, alcohol (from sweat and boozy breath) and cigarettes. No small number of the defendants present had been there before, and with most you had a strong sense that they would be back.

For most of us, the idea of getting through six months or a year without committing a criminal act, let alone being caught and prosecuted, doesn't seem like that big of a deal. For the District Court regulars, it's a real challenge. I represented a number of defendants who couldn't even make it from the day they entered their plea bargains to the date of their sentencings without getting arrested. While investigating cases and interviewing witnesses, I was introduced to households in which a five minute visit would require a shower and a change of clothes - usually due to their being thick with cooking grease, overwhelming 'pet odor' or decaying filth, but other not-so-pleasant odors could enter the mix. At court hearings, I would at times have to remind clients that jewelry that included drug symbols or implied gang activity had best not be worn.

In reading the pre sentence reports of some of these offenders, it was no mystery as to why many of them weren't faring well. Actually, sometimes it was a testament to human resilience - how would you hold up, for example, if your childhood involved witnessing the murders of both of your parents in separate incidents? Odds are the experiences wouldn't inspire you to become Batman.

Sometimes, when working with the defendant, I would meet a spouse who you would think would have a strong civilizing effect on the offender, and you could see that spouse's influence on the children. But it was sometimes quite clear what would happen to the spouse and children if they remained within the defendant's family unit. Odds are, a cycle would continue. And yes, you would see multi-generational patterns.

Within the community, you would find people working hard to live law-abiding, peaceful lives. People trying to get and hold jobs. People who did hold steady jobs. People whose homes were, by any standard, immaculate and well-ordered. Yet their neighbors couldn't hold it together, and the general state of the neighborhood had a spillover effect. Valuables were subject to being stolen, the streets could be unsafe, kids were in danger of being recruited into gangs or as street dealers. And for those who came from the most troubled families, the family itself was akin to a bucket of crabs - try to climb out, and one of your kin will latch onto you and try to pull you back into the bucket.

One thing that was perfectly clear is that there was a multi-generational cycle in effect, with factors including mental illness, substance abuse, and childhood trauma repeating themselves through parents, children, and grandchildren. Another thing that was perfectly clear is that the families and communities where you would see that cycle were economically depressed. There were few job opportunities for young people, many of the adults were unemployed, and those who worked were for the most part making modest wages, near minimum wage.

Another thing that was perfectly clear was that there were no easy answers to breaking the cycle. I recall one particularly odious, abusive offender, about to go to prison, subtly threatening his wife (the victim of his crime of felonious assault) with what he might do if she divorced him. She was there, showing support, along with their son who looked to be about eight years old. You knew that she, and more so their child, would have little chance of escaping the cycle if she stayed with him.

David Brooks believes that our ability to observe this cycle is a relatively new thing,
Over the past 25 years, though, a new body of research has emerged, which should lead to new theories. This research tends to support a few common themes. First, no matter how social disorganization got started, once it starts, it takes on a momentum of its own. People who grow up in disrupted communities are more likely to lead disrupted lives as adults, magnifying disorder from one generation to the next.
The funny thing is, Brooks seems to view that as a retort to the people who have been criticizing his report on Charles Murray's new book. To the contrary, people seem to be criticizing Brooks for imagining that we're seeing a mysterious transformation of human nature that is leading to economic decline, as opposed to economic decline that leads to entirely predictable patterns of behavior. Brooks' critics are acutely aware of what happens if you destroy the economic foundation of a population. Resorting to the same quote of Paul Krugman that I used yesterday in response to Ross Douthat,
Back in 1996, the same year Ms. Himmelfarb was lamenting our moral collapse, [sociologist William Julius] Wilson published 'When Work Disappears: The New World of the Urban Poor,' in which he argued that much of the social disruption among African-Americans popularly attributed to collapsing values was actually caused by a lack of blue-collar jobs in urban areas. If he was right, you would expect something similar to happen if another social group — say, working-class whites — experienced a comparable loss of economic opportunity. And so it has.
People who are concerned with wage stagnation and loss earning potential at the lower end of the labor market - an effect that has crept up into the middle class - are acutely aware of how you can destroy a community and create a set of perverse influences and incentives that create a poverty trap. And experience has taught us that it's much better to keep people out of that cycle than to try to break the cycle. Fifty years of experience demonstrate quite clearly that we're absolutely terrible at finding ways to break that cycle.

Brooks continues,
Second, it’s not true that people in disorganized neighborhoods have bad values. Their goals are not different from everybody else’s. It’s that they lack the social capital to enact those values.
This is true to a degree. Most of the people in what Brooks calls "disorganized neighborhoods" - note how he uses every euphemism he can find to avoid references to the economics of the people and communities he's discussing - have values and goals that are not dissimilar to those in more affluent communities. But they have social deficits. Many lack job skills, not just in terms of marketable skills desired by employers, but the basic sense of what an employer expects and how to behave in a workplace.

I recall one woman who I would see every few months. She always had a job - always a different job. Interpersonally she was engaging and pleasant. But she had a problem taking direction from supervisors, and was reaching an age when a lot of her supervisors were younger than her. These are the people who might be helped by basic training in how to behave during an interview, how to behave on the job, and sometimes even such mundane details as why you need to show up to work on time and why your boss thinks it's a big deal when you blow off a day's work because you have a really bad hangover.

Brooks talks of "social capital" while avoiding the question of how other types of capital, specifically money, factor into the "enactment" of values. When you have enough money to live in a safe neighborhood with decent schools, and where you and your children are exposed to a peer group that has internalized the standards of behavior that are expected in school and in the workplace, gaining that "social capital" can be effortless. When you live in a society, as we do, where about 80% of jobs are filled through personal connections, having people in your life who can make those connections for you is a big deal.

Brooks asserts,
Third, while individuals are to be held responsible for their behavior, social context is more powerful than we thought. If any of us grew up in a neighborhood where a third of the men dropped out of school, we’d be much worse off, too.
Really? My stepfather came from a working class family in the North of England. His grammar school graduating class included about twenty students, the vast majority of his classmates having dropped out along the way. My high school was both a neighborhood school for a working class area of my city and an academic magnet school. I was surprised by how how small my graduating class turned out to be, given the population of the school. Yet I can't say that my stepfather, who has a laundry list of degrees and certifications including a Ph.D. in physics, or I (only one post-graduate degree, alas) are "much worse off" for our experiences. We both had the opportunity to attend good schools, and the British government at the time made my stepfather's college education virtually tuition free. My paternal grandfather went to night school but was not able to finish. My father grew up with the expectation that he would attend and graduate from college. So did I. And you know what? That's a much bigger deal than the drop-out rates in our respective high schools.
What does differentiate [African American men who complete college], the study suggests, is a complex stew of mostly external factors that appeared to give them a sense that college was not only possible but expected, and engaged them academically and otherwise in their schools and colleges. Among those influences: involved parents with high expectations for them; at least one K-12 teacher who took a personal interest in their academic and personal future; adequate financial support to pay for college; and a transition to college in which high expectations were set for them as much if not more by influential black male juniors and seniors at their institutions as by formal programs designed to smooth their way.
So while Murray writes one book suggesting that underachievement by African Americans is dictated by genetics, and another suggesting that underachievement by lower-SES white Americans is driven by values, there in fact appears to be a significant commonality - you know, as if we're all human beings under our skin, behaving as humans do. As for the notion that wealth is somehow earned through good genes and good upbringing, a somewhat controversial study found an interesting commonality between African American students and legacy students enrolled at Duke University - legacy students underperform those admitted through regular channels and have a pattern of switching to softer majors. And yet why am I thinking that a typical legacy student has a significant advantage over a similarly situated African American graduate, or for that matter even an outstanding non-legacy graduate, despite a weak academic performance? If underperforming legacy students like Dan Quayle and George W. Bush hadn't been from rich, powerful families, do you think we would have heard of them? Oh, that's right, it's all about their good values - as demonstrated in G.W.'s case by indifference to academics, years of drunken self-indulgence, DUI's and the like.

Brooks also informs us of "attachment theory", pursuant to which "children who can’t form secure attachments by 18 months face a much worse set of chances for the rest of their lives", a fact that Brooks appears to believe is a revelation but is something you might otherwise learn in psychology 101. Brooks also asserts that "people raised in disrupted circumstances find it harder to control their impulses throughout their lives", something you would think he would understand to undermine his thesis that the tail wags the dog. Does he imagine that families within the bottom thirty percent of wage earners have been moving into neighborhoods in which their children are raised in "disrupted circumstances" because they like run down communities and underfunded schools? Or is that a consequence of the significant reductions in the number of middle class jobs available to workers with fewer job skills, and the overall reduction of wages for most jobs that remain available?

Brooks, like Murray, fixates on an artificial start date as the benchmark for middle class values, an era of cheap higher education, significant economic growth, strong labor organization, and of middle class blue collar jobs that carried good benefits. Brooks could look to many centuries of history preceding that point in time to get an understanding of how an impoverished underclass behaves, and could easily find arguments similar to his own about how it's all a matter of values. Less sympathetic, as in the past it seems people were more willing to attribute bad values to the poor rather than softening things up with terms like "social capital", but there for him to read.

Instead, Brooks focuses on what, by historical standards, is a snapshot. The rise of a significant middle class. Apparently the values that allow for a robust middle class were lying dormant for centuries until they were finally set free in the mid-20th century, only to immediately being to fold in on themselves. And it is those values that led to economic growth, and the growth of job opportunities and wages at the bottom end of the labor pool, the economic realities of the time being irrelevant.

After gently faulting Murray for failing to address "social capital" in his book, Brooks sneers,
Meanwhile, his left-wing critics in the blogosphere have reverted to crude 1970s economic determinism: It’s all the fault of lost jobs. People who talk about behavior are blaming the victim. Anybody who talks about social norms is really saying that the poor are lazy.
That is apparently aimed at Paul Krugman, and particularly the quote I shared above:
Liberal economists haven’t silenced conservatives, but they have completely eclipsed liberal sociologists and liberal psychologists.
If Brooks believes his comment is a fair representation of the position of liberal economists, it can only be ascribed to weak analytical skills. Theirs is not an argument of "It's either economics or values," it's an observation that when you undermine the economic stability of families and communities, you undermine the rewards and incentives that support stronger families and the pursuit of higher education, and increase a significant amount of stress and trauma into families, while undermining their ability to obtain the tools necessary to rise, through such factors as economic distress, economically depressed neighborhoods and weaker schools.
Even noneconomist commentators reduce the rich texture of how disadvantage is actually lived to a crude materialism that has little to do with reality.
I don't know who Brooks is speaking of here, but it's safe to say that it's not the most appropriate target for that criticism - people on the political right who say things like, "How can that family be poor when they have a car, a television, a cellular phone and a microwave oven?"

Brooks declares,
I don’t care how many factory jobs have been lost, it still doesn’t make sense to drop out of high school.
In 1937, George Orwell described the British working class,
This business of petty inconvenience and indignity, of being kept waiting about, of having to do everything at other people's convenience, is inherent in working-class life. A thousand influences constantly press a working man down into a passive role. He does not act, he is acted upon. He feels himself the slave of mysterious authority and has a firm conviction that 'they' will never allow him to do this, that, and the other. Once when I was hop-picking I asked the sweated pickers (they earn something under sixpence an hour) why they did not form a union. I was told immediately that 'they' would never allow it. Who were 'they'? I asked. Nobody seemed to know, but evidently 'they' were omnipotent.

A person of bourgeois origin goes through life with some expectation of getting what he wants, within reasonable limits. Hence the fact that in times of stress 'educated' people tend to come to the front; they are no more gifted than the others and their 'education' is generally quite useless in itself, but they are accustomed to a certain amount of deference and consequently have the cheek necessary to a commander. That they will come to the front seems to be taken for granted, always and everywhere.
And oh, the "disorderliness" of the community,
There is always something to be done, and no conveniences and almost literally not room to turn round. No sooner have you washed one child's face than another's is dirty; before you have washed the crocks from one meal the next is due to be cooked. I found great variation in the houses I visited. Some were as decent as one could possibly expect in the circumstances, some were so appalling that I have no hope of describing them adequately. To begin with, the smell, the dominant and essential thing, is indescribable. But the squalor and the confusion! A tub full of filthy water here, a basin full of unwashed crocks there, more crocks piled in any odd corner, torn newspaper littered everywhere, and in the middle always the same dreadful table covered with sticky oilcloth and crowded with cooking pots and irons and half-darned stockings and pieces of stale bread and bits of cheese wrapped round with greasy newspaper! And the congestion in a tiny room where getting from one side to the other is a complicated voyage between pieces of furniture, with a line of damp washing getting you in the face every time you move and the children as thick underfoot as toadstools!
Orwell noted the impact of high unemployment on people who could not find work,
But there is no doubt about the deadening, debilitating effect of unemployment upon everybody, married or single, and upon men more than upon women. The best intellects will not stand up against it. Once or twice it has happened to me to meet unemployed men of genuine literary ability; there are others whom I haven't met but whose work I occasionally see in the magazines. Now and again, at long intervals, these men will produce an article or a short story which is quite obviously better than most of the stuff that gets whooped up by the blurb-reviewers. Why, then, do they make so little use of their talents? They have all the leisure in the world; why don't they sit down and write books? Because to write books you need not only comfort and solitude--and solitude is never easy to attain in a working-class home--you also need peace of mind. You can't settle to anything, you can't command the spirit of hope in which anything has got to be created, with that dull evil cloud of unemployment hanging over you.
And what of workers whose job skills had become obsolete?
Still, an unemployed man who feels at home with books can at any rate occupy himself by reading. But what about the man who cannot read without discomfort? Take a miner, for instance, who has worked in the pit since childhood and has been trained to be a miner and nothing else. How the devil is he to fill up the empty days? It is absurd to say that he ought to be looking for work. There is no work to look for, and everybody knows it. You can't go on looking for work every day for seven years.
And the influence of consumerism and vice?
Trade since the war has had to adjust itself to meet the demands of underpaid, underfed people, with the result that a luxury is nowadays almost always cheaper than a necessity. One pair of plain solid shoes costs as much as two ultra-smart pairs. For the price of one square meal you can get two pounds of cheap sweets. You can't get much meat for threepence, but you can get a lot offish-and-chips. Milk costs threepence a pint and even 'mild' beer costs fourpence, but aspirins are seven a penny and you can wring forty cups of tea out of a quarter-pound packet. And above all there is gambling, the cheapest of all luxuries. Even people on the verge of starvation can buy a few days' hope ('Something to live for', as they call it) by having a penny on a sweepstake.
You would think that Britain was a hopeless case, and might have imagined that WWII would seal its fate. Oh yes, WWII was the beginning of the end for Great Britain as a world power, but despite the "disorderly", traumatized working class communities, and their emphasis on bling over education, their economic experience mirrored our own, with the rise of a significant middle class including solidly middle class blue collar jobs. Astonishing how similar the behaviors of the working poor of the 1930's are to the behaviors Brooks sees as the cause of the plight of the present working poor - and funny how those values shifted and changed based on wages and job opportunities.

Brooks, from his privileged childhood and exceptionally privileged adulthood, cannot understand why working class kids might drop out of high school. Everything old is new again. Back to Orwell,
To the working class, the notion of staying at school till you are nearly grown-up seems merely contemptible and unmanly.
Brooks no doubt grew up in a household like mine - not in the sense of SES, as I expect his family was exponentially more wealthy than mine, but in the sense of there being a constant expectation that he would attend and complete college. How can somebody not see the value of high school, the most basic academic qualification for entry into the job market? How can somebody not want to at least create a foundation for college, even if they defer enrollment? It has to be a matter of values, not economic, right? But funny how the values that led the sons of coal miners to drop out of school were transformed along with the British economy moving into the 1960's, the starting point for the Brooks/Murray model of middle class values.
The American social fabric is now so depleted that even if manufacturing jobs miraculously came back we still would not be producing enough stable, skilled workers to fill them.
What jobs does Brooks imagine himself to be describing? The jobs held by the legions of Foxconn workers who sit in cubicles for long hours, assembling electronic goods for more affluent and mostly western buyers, before retiring to company dormitories for their night's sleep? The issue isn't that we don't have workers capable of performing that type of task, the problem (if you can call it that) is that the workers of our nation have enough better alternatives that you could not maintain a sufficiently large, stable workforce to keep one of Foxconn's gargantuan company towns in operation. Yes, it would take a considerable amount of time to train a staff of supervisory employees sufficient to oversee such an operation, but that's because no such operations exist in this country. Does Brooks think that the work culture of China's massive manufacturing plants represents a value set our nation needs? Their lives are certainly structured - maybe that's enough for Brooks.

Still convinced that the tail wags the dog, Brooks sees a need "to rebuild orderly communities". Without explaining what policies he in fact endorses, he favors government intervention:
Building organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly rather than irresponsibly and, yes, sometimes using government to do so.
But what has actually changed in the "disorderly communities" that Brooks describes, as compared to those that predated the 1960's? Brooks points to out-of-wedlock childbirth, but makes no mention of declining divorce rates or the fact that out-of-wedlock pregnancy was extraordinarily high in the 1950's. Is he arguing for more shotgun weddings, even if they end in divorce? For imposing significant social pressure on young women not to carry their babies to term, or to give their babies up for adoption?

Brooks argues that marriage rates were high during the period between 1912 and 1962, but makes no explanation for why it took fifty years for "middle class values" to emerge and supposedly transform the economy or why, in his mind, those values proved to be so fragile. He argues, "Community groups connected people across class", which I guess means that people used to attend church more regularly. But seriously, marriage rates, in-wedlock births and "community groups" are the only differences he sees between orderly and disorderly communities? With "orderly communities" peaking in the 1960's, little things like this or this get flushed down the memory hole? Yeah, we were all "one big happy".

Brooks closes by arguing, "The depressing lesson of the last few weeks is that the public debate is dominated by people who stopped thinking in 1975." But David Frum (a guy Brooks perhaps believes is a liberal economist) reminded us know who actually stopped thinking in 1975, perhaps a bit earier:
In the first long quoted passage from Coming Apart, I asterisked one of Murray's statistical claims, a claim stating that wages have stagnated for the bottom 50% of the white work force. That claim is true if you draw your line, as Murray does, beginning in 1960. But put your thumb on the left side of the chart, and start drawing the line beginning in 1970. Then you notice that median wages have stagnated for the whole bottom 75%—and that the median wage only begins to show significant improvement over time when you look at the top 5%.
So again, it's values? And somehow the deteriorating values and "disorderly communities" of the bottom 30% of wage earners have caused wages to stagnate or drop for a full 75% of wage earners over a forty year period? Amazing.

Update: Taking issue with Brooks' suggestion that a key issue in the plight of the working poor is their high school graduation rate, Lawrence Mishel responds,
Brooks’ assumption, I guess, is that many workers have low wages because they never completed high school. He’s not alone in thinking that there are a lot of high school dropouts, but this is definitely not true. As the graph shows, the share of the workforce (ages 18-64) who have neither a high school or further degree (including a GED) has dropped tremendously in the last four decades, from 28.5 percent in 1973 to just 8.4 percent in 2011, a trend true among men as well as women.


  1. The so-called disorderly communities don't disappear when economic times are good for lower wage earners. When times are good, people emerge from those communities and enter the middle class. When times are bad people fall from the middle class and those communities expand.

    The overall values of the workers don't change much - but when the labor pool is smaller employers have to be more forgiving of employee quirks, and offer more training and support. Even if they're starting out with a skills deficit, better workers within that context will learn the skill set they need to maintain their employment and advance. When unemployment spikes and there are dozens of potential applicants even at the entry level, employers are more able to avoid hiring or to fire marginal candidates, and there's less of an opportunity for workers at the margins to develop the necessary skill set to succeed and advance.

    Brooks appears to believe that a decline of certain values must be at the root of the problem, because the people at the margins are employed when times are good and become unemployed when the economy sours. Never mind that it is because they're marginal that, when the economy sours, employers find that particular population to be the one best targeted for layoffs and least desirable for offers of employment.

    Brooks is also oblivous to the shortness of the time frame he's applying. When somebody who has held a job for thirty years is laid off and cannot find a new job, odds are it's not because his values have changed. Odds are it's his value to a prospective employer that has changed.

  2. Is Wigan Pier short? It may be a suitable place for David Brooks to take a long walk.

  3. 1. “. . . if your childhood involved witnessing the murders of both of your parents in separate incidents? Odds are the experiences wouldn't inspire you to become Batman.”

    No, that’s what happens when you witness both being killed in the same incident.

    2. "These are the people who might be helped by basic training in how to behave during an interview, how to behave on the job, and sometimes even such mundane details as why you need to show up to work on time and why your boss thinks it's a big deal when you blow off a day's work because you have a really bad hangover."

    I agree that the lack of same is problematic, but I'm not sure how much of it can be "taught" any place short of active duty in the military or a boot camp (if the school bells and hall monitors can't do this . . . )

    3. ". . . or I (only one post-graduate degree, alas) . . ." I thought we met in trade-school? : )


  4. I have heard about a program that involved intensive, practical interviewing and job skills training (right down to "here's why you need an alarm clock") for people who need that level of structure, but that was one small, local program, and it was quite some time back. I don't know how effective that training is, particularly in an economy in which those most apt to need it will remain among those least apt to find a job even with that level of support and skills training.

    Trade school? Hardly. We're lawyers, not doctors. ;)


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