Saturday, March 14, 2015

Americans are better behaved than ever

David Brooks thinks Americans - in particular, less educated, less affluent Americans - are losing their morality. He blames this on the death of collectively enforced social norms:
We now have multiple generations of people caught in recurring feedback loops of economic stress and family breakdown, often leading to something approaching an anarchy of the intimate life...It’s not only money and better policy that are missing in these circles; it’s norms...In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically...These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.
I think David Brooks should look at the statistics on American behavior.
In other words, Americans are becoming better and better behaved in almost every way. 

So David Brooks is cooking up off-the-cuff sociological theories to explain SOMETHING THAT ISN'T EVEN HAPPENING. And then he is recommending big changes in American culture and society, based on his off-the-cuff sociological explanation for SOMETHING THAT ISN'T EVEN HAPPENING.

(So of course we also don't need to invoke poverty to explain the nonexistent "increase in bad behavior"!) 

Yes, Americans - especially lower-class Americans - are suffering from family breakdown and social isolation. These seem like problems of loneliness, not of loss of morality. They're obviously not leading to increases in violence or drug abuse.

You see, the problem with being a grumpy old guy scanning the media for negative anecdotes and grumbling about the world going to hell in a handbasket, and how the only solution is to somehow revamp society to bring back old social norms is that someone might actually listen to what you say.


  1. Sigh. I stopped listening to what David Brooks says long ago. This is just one of many, many examples where he just makes stuff up.

  2. I enjoy virtually all of your posts -- this one especially.

  3. Excellent, certainly better to focus on data rather than anecdote. One slight quibble: "continues to fall" goes beyond the statistical evidence, I think. Perhaps "has continued to fall". After all, one could think of an economist in the 1970s looking at the data and saying, "continues to rise", which would not have been an accurate representation of the evidence, at least in hindsight. Who knows what the future might bring?

  4. Don't rely on anecdotes? Why, what great advice!

  5. Luckily, I think we're seeing behavior out of most Republican pundits and leaders that will lead them to complete self-destruction without our help.

    David didn't get the memo: Dan Quayle's family values focus was just a marketing ploy! Nobody serious took it seriously at the time or since.

    1. Anonymous11:49 AM

      I've stopped believing the Republicans will self-destruct. I used to have that hope, for many years. But every time I think they've gone too far, they keep getting votes and winning elections and going further.

  6. David Brooks sees that the predominantly white America is fading, which must be bad for him. Facts won't get in the way of his narrative.

  7. Not sure I see that happening but I sure would like to believe you are right.

    1. I'm not sure which "that happening" you are referring to, but if it is, "Americans are becoming better and better behaved in almost every way" I would sure appreciate some insight into why the 5 links immediately above the quote are not sufficient.

  8. More that they can now afford divorce.

  9. Rick G7:32 PM

    But is there a divergence of those indicators across classes or not? That was the thesis, not generally crappy morals across all of society on average.

    1. Whether there is relative divergence or not, the average drops swamp all that. And those big average drops matter more for the groups that were most at risk in the first place. So basically, Brooks is just wrong.

    2. Anonymous11:21 AM

      maybe things are getting worse (or not as good) in RED states like OK and WVA and MI
      afaik, measures like teen pregnancy, etc, are much better in blue states, esp nanny states like here in MA

    3. To the extent there is such a divergence across classes it is not the result of the moral laxity of the working class as Brooks would have us believe. Rather it is rooted in the enormous economic pressure placed upon workers as a result of the crimes and greed of the .1%, Brooks's moral exemplars.

  10. Sooooo...what you're saying is that David Brooks is slowly turning into Andy Rooney? No worries. Soon he'll just start writing columns about Taylor Swift and stuff.

  11. Noah - how are you not contradicting yourself?
    Not to defend Brooks, but it's strange to agree with much of Murray, but then say social trends are getting better.

  12. It is important to note that it's so much more than any potential cultural factors, and that culture depends so much on institutions, government, rules, and environment:

    1) Fantastic, must-read, classic short article by the great growth economist Paul Romer on how the culture of corruption in Hong Kong was changed incredibly fast by major changes in government institutions and rules, at:

    2) The gigantic impact on crime decrease, bigger than anything else by far, just by finally prohibiting lead from poisoning our children in paint, pipes, and air. Why didn't we do this decades earlier? Hey, that's big gubment regulation. Even worse, it might cost some billionaires some money. But just keep voting Republican! What harm can that do.

    See, for example:

    3) The enormous negative impact of unemployment/difficulty of finding a middle-class job on culture, i.e. Fishtown vs. Belmont from Coming Apart, quoted in The Second Machine Age (page 235-6):

    Belmont and Fishtown, Yeah baby! Yeah! So glad to hear this, powerful and so important. I first heard of this reading The Second Machine Age. I've quoted their summary in comments. Here again:

    "In his 2012 book Coming Apart, social researcher Charles Murray put numbers to the problems Wilson described and also showed that they weren't confined to the inner cities or largely minority neighborhoods. Instead they were squarely part of mainstream white America. Murray identified two groups. The first comprises Americans with at least a college education and a professional or managerial job; these are dubbed the residents of the hypothetical town 'Belmont', named after a prosperous suburb in Boston. The second group consists of those with no more than a high school education and a blue collar or clerical job; these are residents of 'Fishtown', named after a working-class suburb of Philadelphia. In 2010 approximately 30% of the American workforce lived in Belmont, 20% in Fishtown.

    Using a variety of data sources Murray tracked what happened in Belmont and Fishtown from 1960 to 2010. At the start of that time span the two towns were not that far apart in most measures that tracked the health of a community—marriage, divorce, crime, etc.—and they were also full of people that worked. In 1960, 90 percent of Belmont households had at least one adult working forty or more hours a week, as did 81 percent of Fishtown households. By 2010 the situation had changed drastically for one of the communities. While 87 percent of Belmont households still had at least one person working that much, only 53 percent of Fishtown households did.

    What changed in Fishtown?...In 1960, only about 5 percent of Fishtowners between the ages of thirty and forty-none were divorced or separated; by 2010 a third of them were. Over time many fewer children in Fishtown grew up in two parent homes; by 2004 the figure dropped below 30 percent. And incarceration rates skyrocketed; in 1974, 213 out of every 100,000 Fishtowners were in prison. The number grew more than fourfold, to 957, over the next thirty years. Belmont also saw negative changes in some of these areas, but they were tiny in comparison. As of late 2004, for example, fully 90 percent of children in Belmont were still living with both of their biological parents."

    1. Dan Warlin3:09 PM

      ...but lead poisoning is still approved in the US!

      "Grecian Formula is a men's hair coloring product. In the formulation used in the United States, it contains lead(II) acetate.[1] Because lead acetate is banned in cosmetics in Canada and the European Union, the formulations sold there do not contain it."

      ... so don't touch grandpa’s hair, Johny.

      Are we still asleep?

  13. Anonymous9:27 AM

    What does "family breakdown is a problem of loneliness" mean?
    I'm curious also, if moral accountability is moot, why the insistence on the importance of providing work, rather than welfare? Is it simply pragmatic?

  14. Anonymous1:27 PM

    From INVHAND who does not social media, and therefore logs in as anonymous.
    Actually, I think Noahpinion goes easy on the affluent old curmudgeon. I read his column and he is channeling Robert Putnam, so there are some statistics out there. But David prefers the "profiles" and when he writes that non-college parents are much more likely than 'us' (be honest Dave!) to eat dinner with their kids, he leaps to the conclusion they are hanging out and drinking and worse because Standards Have Slipped. David does not mention "just-in-time scheduling" as a contributing cause.

    See Dave, these people have jobs. Back in the seventies they were far more likely to have one steady job with regular hours, and even if they did shift work, they generally knew their shift some weeks in advance. Now most employers of the not-Us insist on something like 24/7 availability in return for, maybe, fringe benefits. They schedule dynamically! No waste! No messy government bureaucracy involved. It just happens to be hell on families. And with the Job goes a side job or two. Bob Putnam knows this, and I suspect it gets into his analysis. So Dave, did you read the whole book?

    Noah is too nice.

  15. I agree with this post. But this makes it harder to understand what you were trying to say with the Charles Murray post, where you seemed to be agreeing with a similarly hysterical claim that all has been going downhill for lower middle class whites since the 1950s.

  16. Exactly Noah, that's why we need to cut the safety net and eliminate the FED. That FED is always up to something, so I hear.

  17. David J. Littleboy9:26 PM

    This is one of your best posts. I'm especially fond of it because, while the hippy blogsters have been calling out David Brooks for his various inanities for an age now, they are so irritated with him that they end up simply swearing and screaming at him. You managed to retain your cool. Good show.

    I do think, though, that your penultimate paragraph is problematic: you wrote "loneliness" when you should have written "poverty". I.e., it's poverty, not a breakdown in Brooksian Morality, that leads to what problems there are. Loneliness is the result of the poor not being able to play the 9-5 single breadwinner middle class game.

  18. Noah - Always enjoy these types of reality-affirming nonsense-acknowledging posts.

  19. If he thinks there are no socially enforced norms, he should try publishing a column saying that God hates gay people and see whether he gets judged.

    Just because they aren't his preferred norms doesn't mean they aren't norms.

  20. This post is good news and should be welcomed. The data are not all bad.

    That said, there are other metrics that are troubling:

    * Incarceration is way up and world-leading. Soaring crime rates were brought down apparently by incredibly reactionary measures.

    * A majority of all infants born in America require are fed by WIC.

    * The rate of children in a household without two parents has soared, including to a majority for some groups, and poverty has followed.

    * American young people recently scored among the worst in the world in literacy, math and problem solving.

    * Marriage rates are plummeting. Marriage is something most people say they want, and this indicates major disappointment in life for many people.

    * Rates of depression have been soaring

    * Inequality, stagnant incomes, etc...

    A lot of improvement is still needed...

  21. Anonymous10:06 AM

    "Our world reached a critical stage. Children no longer listen to their parents. The end is nigh." - A priest from Egypt, 4000 years ago.

    (Well, at least it says so on the internet, I never found the original source)