Brink Lindsey's New eBook
By Arnold Kling
Brink is trying to thread the needle between those who view the poor as victims and those who apparently don’t. (Bryan read an earlier draft of the book, and I look forward to his comments on the final version.)
There is no good way to make sense of either rapid “catch-up” growth in income or the long-term persistence of ethnic income differences other than by resort to cultural explanations.
In other words, we see that second-generation immigrants to this country do better than their parents. That is cultural, in the sense that second-generation immigrants are likely to be much more fluent in English. However, we see descendents of Asian immigrants save at a higher rate than immigrants of other backgrounds. Brink wants to insist that this is evidence of cultural differences.
the opportunity costs [sic?] of working-class culture have risen sharply in recent decades. Previously…people who had developed only modest fluency with abstraction could nonetheless find work that fairly exercised their capabilities, paid relatively well, and conferred decent standing in the community…a growing gap in socioeconomic status between the highly skilled elite and everybody else has now opened up.
I have a question. Who is more bothered by this “growing gap:” the people in the working class or the people in the elite? Often, it seems to me that it is the elite that is most worked up about it. The elite looks at everybody else and wonders, “what will it take to make them be like us?”
Brink’s answer centers on culture. He thinks that changing working-class culture will be difficult. He speaks of cultural inertia, and yet he echoes Charles Murray’s description of the rapid breakdown in family structure among working-class households in the past 50 years. I am not sure how he reconciles this apparently rapid cultural shift with his view that culture is “sticky.”
Brink thinks that Murray’s plea for a return to older moral virtues is quixotic.
The absolutist conceptions of morality that once kept the working class (and everybody else, too) on the straight and narrow were a cultural adaptation to material scarcity…There is simply no prospect for a return to the more authoritarian morality of yesteryear.
Or, as Robin Hanson would put it, there is no way we are going to trade in our forager values for farmer values.
I think that Brink and I could pretty much agree on the diagnosis. My prescription is, “Live with it.” The elite will have their Vicky culture, over-spending on higher education and other status goods. The working class will have plenty of material comfort. I would not embark on a project to change working-class culture.
Yet it is exactly that project that Brink proposes. My guess is that he should be careful about what he wishes for. I can see the political class buying into the project but rejecting the modesty of his goals and his directionally-libertarian means.
One of Brink’s ideas is to unleash competition in K-12 education.
recent evidence shows that innovative, high-quality schools can have a significant impact on closing the culture gap and reducing class-based differences in scholastic achievement and life prospects.
Color me skeptical. As Brink points out, there is a general tendency for “treatment effects” in education to fade out and/or fail to be reproducible. “Recent evidence” is not necessarily reliable evidence.
the most morally urgent priority when it comes to helping less-skilled adults is essentially defensive…policies that encourage work and reverse the alarming rise of mass incarceration.
All of Brink’s specific proposals are reasonable. At the end, he even sounds a bit of a “live with it” note. I really like the book, which leads me to fear that it will not be well received overall.