Thursday, April 21, 2011

David Brooks: Brilliant if Maddeningly Nonspecific

David Brooks continues to serve the role of something Europeans treasure and Americans instinctively suspect---that of "public intellectual." The French are notoriously guilty of elevating brilliant, but sometimes self-promoting philosophes whose pronouncements on just about everything are often as opinionated and sometimes as ridiculously shallow and self-serving as, say, Donald Trump about ten times a day on almost any subject.

Trolling through David's blogs [using the fishing analogy, not the Nordic legend bridge-haunting metaphor], I find subjects of excellent quality and superb variety. Ever since I read E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology in the late '70s, I've had an abiding interest in just how social interrelationships contribute to the welfare of society. This goes beyond politics and the day-to-day water-cooler gossip curiosity about how people interact. Brooks is superb in this respect, and always piques my curiosity when I pick up his books like the one I read decades ago on the suburbs as some sort of New Babylon.

Here's one of David's recent selections from his insatiable curious miscellany:
It’s well known from the work of Arthur Brooks and others that conservatives give much more to charity than liberals, especially charities meant to alleviate poverty. That makes sense. Liberals believe in government provisions more and conservatives believe in private provisions more. James Lindgren of Northwestern University recently published a Northwestern Law and Economics Research Paper in which he compared attitudes about income redistribution and other beliefs.

He relied on data from the General Social Surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center between 1980s and 2004. He found that people who express traditionally racist views (on interracial marriage and such) tend to oppose free market capitalism. Those who express less tolerance toward a variety of minority groups also are more hostile to capitalism.

Though these results describe the section of the population that openly expresses racist or intolerant views, Lindgren’s really interesting results concern the relationship between attitudes toward income distribution and other mental and emotional traits. For example, he writes:

“Compared to anti-redistributionists, strong redistributionists have about two or three times higher odds of reporting that in the prior seven days that they were angry, mad at someone, outraged, sad, lonely, and had trouble shaking the blues. Similarly, anti-redistributionists had about two to four times higher odds of reporting being happy or at ease. Not only do redistributionists report more anger, but they report that their anger lasts longer. When asked about the last time they were angry, strong redistribuitonists were more than twice as likely as strong opponents of leveling to admit that they responded to their anger by plotting revenge. Last, both redistributionists and anti-capitalists expressed lower overall happiness, less happy marriages and lower satisfaction with their financial situations and with their jobs or housework. ”

People who oppose redistributionist policies were also more likely to report altruistric behavior and were more likely to donate to charities. One exception: redistributionists were more likely to give to homeless people on the street.

The crucial issue here, obviously, is the role of income. People with more education and higher incomes are more skeptical of redistributionist policies. Do all the positive psychological results they describe derive from simply being wealthier, leaving their attitudes about redistribution as an appendage that is unrelated to their overall happiness, or are their attitudes about personal responsibility themselves responsible for the relative success. Perhaps there is a positive feedback loop at work? Discuss amongst yourselves.

My only comment will be that I've often noticed that redistributionists do have emotions that appear to exceed their rational grasp of the subject matter before them. They are especially prone to accept fixed ideas and received opinions, frequently from those "public intellectuals" I mentioned at the top of this piece, as not requiring further elucidation and debate.

To take a situation that frequently presents itself, climate change and redistributionists' adamant insistence that the world is heating up SOLELY because of human economic and other activities, including raising livestock, is just one example of this tendency. When alternative hypotheses are brought forward, such as the well-documented correlation of sunspots with long-term weather changes on our lovely home planet, they scoff and frequently resort to ad hominem attacks on the intelligence of the antagonist.

Finally, the Lingren paper might have hit a key sweet spot in proving the major fallacy of the Democrats' "class warfare" social and political arguments with the sentence "people with more education and higher incomes are more skeptical of redistributionist policies."

Of course, the immediate redistributionist response is some sort of marxist rictus citing the exploitation of the working class. Lingren's research also shows that underlying this might be an insecurity that lies in the redistributionists' reluctance to take risks---and their deep envy and even jealousy of those who make investments in time and sweat equity that pay off handsomely in the long run. And what this portends is an inescapable slide toward a nanny-state, as more of the public school students are brainwashed into accepting the Standard Model of redistributionism.

BTW, if you want a good chuckle, read the many comments enraged NYT readers sent to David Brooks' site on this article ranging from the University of Chicago and Northwestern are careless in using "self-selecting" persons polled, i.e., they cooperate to expressing total outright obloquy hardly worthy of an esteemed newspaper of the Times' pretensions.

BTW, one more time. Elsewhere, David mentions that the Pareto Principle is now becoming widely considered as an alternative statistical tool to measure human intelligence and intention. In replacing the Bell Curve, which puts the emphasis on those in the middle of so-called "average" IQ and capabilities, the Pareto Principle stresses that a tiny minority of hyper-motivated and talented individuals are responsible for most of the breakthroughs in human development---a sort of Atlas Shrugged of social and biological psychology. I wonder what career contrarian Richard Dawkins and others of that ilk will do to uphold the Darwinian version of the Spanish Inquisition they utilize when confronted with annoying alternative views of reality.

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