Do Ethnicity and Culture Matter More Than Politics?

David Brooks thinks so

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David Brooks has yet again sparked fierce debate. His Tuesday column can be summed up by a sentence in the middle: "the influence of politics and policy is usually swamped by the influence of culture, ethnicity, psychology and a dozen other factors." He cites a few examples of Asian-Americans doing well regardless of the part of the country they're in, as well as studies suggesting that doubling the income of America's poor would do little to counteract the culture of poorer communities. His conclusion is that policy-making should aim to avoid "destroy[ing] social bonds," and instead look to "establish basic security" in which "people may create a culture of achievement." He also thinks policy should be used "to strengthen relationships." Ultimately, though:
... we should all probably calm down about politics. 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.
That was enough to get the blogosphere going.
  • 'Utter Stupidity,' says economist Brad DeLong. He's referring to Brooks's comparison of American Indians in South Dakota to Asian-Americans in New Jersey, and his subsequent attempt to extrapolate from that to conclude that "differences in policy really do not matter very much."
  • Conclusion: Policy Does Matter Think Progress' Matt Yglesias defends Brooks from DeLong's criticism, but says he has another problem with the piece: "[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." Thus, he thinks the better conclusion to draw from the studies Brooks cites is that "the policy differences between stable market/welfare democracies are not that large and especially that controversies about tax levels are overblown in terms of their consequences."
  • Conclusion: More Technocracy Aside from pointing out that "it's not clear what [Brooks] means" when he says the government should only "establish a basic level of economic and physical security" and avoid "destroy[ing] social bonds," The Washington Post's Ezra Klein thinks Brooks's column doesn't actually recommend what it appears to recommend:
I think Brooks's point is that the power of non-policy factors should inspire modesty among believers in government intervention. And he's right about that. But it goes in reverse, too: The complexity of these outcomes should inspire modesty about the relevance of broad philosophical insights rather than well-designed tests of specific interventions. Brooks's column doesn't favor the conservative's principled belief in less government so much as the technocrat's commitment to voluminous evidence and careful studies.
  • Siding with Yglesias on This One, decides National Review's Reihan Salam, who points out that there's "a lot of daylight" between Yglesias's and Klein's positions on the Brooks column. He adds that "the principled belief in less government is precisely about the limits of what we can reliably and usefully know about human behavior."
  • 'Right. Let's Not Try to Fix Anything,' says Athenae at First Draft, taking Brooks's argument to what she sees as its logical conclusion. "I'm tired. You know what I'll do today? Go shopping. Because when I die what I want it to say on my tombstone is that my throw pillows matched. Jesus Banana Bread Christ. Are we really that scared to give a shit about anything?" Towards the end of this irate response, she reveals her bottom line on this anti-policy argument, as she sees it:
I will take this shit from people who worked 40 years as social workers or juvie cops or public school teachers ... What I won't do is take this crap from Brooks, who not only has never gotten filthy trying to help the people he now says are behind it all, but actually supported those who nurtured systemic poverty and a permanent underclass in the first place.
  • You Want Some Racial Supremacy with That? DougJ at Balloon Juice says Brooks's "strange meandering column," by seeming to muse on how Asian-Americans will be Asian-Americans and poor will be poor, "is a dipping of the toes into racial supremacist waters."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.