The Materialist Fallacy
By DAVID BROOKS NY TIMES February 14, 2012
Edited February 16, 2012
DB: David Brooks
DV: David, I’m a bit worried about you. You’re one of the most enlightened conservative columnists in the general media today. Recently, you’ve been enraptured with a kind of social psychology mindset. Your recent book and this column are recent examples. That in itself is not a problem. When you use it, however, to swat at large problems, you come up short.
Your title is the ‘Materialist Fallacy,’ however, nowhere in the column do you use the word ‘materialist.’ From my previous readings over the years, I know what you mean by the term, yet the linking of the word with economic determinism is at best a stretch, at worse a display of analytical rigidity. I can imagine that certain materialist philosophies or worldviews could be deterministic, but to label them all ‘deterministic’ and ergo a failure is sloppy thinking.
But let’s get to your column.
DB: The half-century between 1912 and 1962 was a period of great wars and economic tumult but also of impressive social cohesion. Marriage rates were high. Community groups connected people across class.
In the half-century between 1962 and the present,
has become more prosperous, peaceful and fair, but the social fabric has
deteriorated. Social trust has plummeted. Society has segmented. The share of
Americans born out of wedlock is now at 40 percent and rising. America
DV: In 1912, the beginning of your socially cohesive period, the country had come through a previous period of significant social change. Major changes occurred through immigration, the abusive racial practices of Jim Crow laws in the South, and the populist movement within our rural regions. Additionally, a significant change had occurred by your start date—the development of the capitalist corporation, and by that time, the form was already having an effect on people’s lives. That trend not only would continue but also significantly transform our lives during the next 100 years.
Although you do not fully define what you mean by the ‘social fabric,’ we get an idea. Social relations which include trust, cohesion, etc. A greater problem, however, is you do not explain why the social fabric deteriorated during the latter half of the 20th century. You describe three theories that try to explain this social weakening, but those theories, as you present them, serve only as straw men. This is especially true for the one you attribute to Liberals, ‘economic determinist theory,’ for this relates to your materialist fallacy title. Consequently, I’ll focus on that notion.
DB: As early as the 1970s, three large theories had emerged to explain the weakening of the social fabric. Liberals congregated around an economically determinist theory. The loss of good working-class jobs undermined communities and led to the social deterioration.
DV: Whoa.... Any thoughtful analysis of this column must pause here. If one reads that last sentence, it is reasonable to assume a rational creature might say, ‘well, that sounds reasonable.’ The loss of a good paying, working-class job could reasonably tear the family’s social fabric. If the job loss was due to the closing of a factory (with jobs moving to another country) in a medium-sized community, then the pressures on that family would be significant.
The important point here is this in fact happened to thousands of families during the period. Yes, there were neither world wars nor a Great Depression, but there was a watershed change in the way the
economy functioned. The impact of global
economic relations reached Mainstreet U.S. . USA corporations shipped, and are
shipping, thousands of jobs overseas as ‘good capitalists’ would do to lower
production costs and increase profits. Corporate chains came to both small and
large towns causing thousands of locally-owned businesses to close. Corporations began to move workers around at
will—we are familiar with the IBM term of ‘I’ve been moved.’ U.S.
During the 20th century, corporate capitalism became the dominant economic mode in the
. Since the end of WWII, however, the change
has been more dramatic. The U.S.
corporate structure has morphed into a global animal whose interests transcend
national boundaries. To suggest, as you do, David, that these changes had no
effect on our social fabric is hard to overlook, especially for one writing in
the year 2012 almost five years after the Great Recession began. U.S.
And speaking of that recent economic debacle, the change in our economy has not been limited to the effects of global market forces. The very nature of what qualifies as a commodity has shifted. Businesses, small and large, produce a product or a service and sell it to make a profit. To grow, the companies need capital and for larger businesses, that capital is raised through the sale of stock in the company. The nature of investment began to shift in the 1980s when companies as companies became commodities in the financial markets. Hedge funds attracted investors to buy a company, make changes in its operation and then seel it for a profit. We’re now familiar with Romney’s workk at the hedge fund Bain Capital.
With the loosening of regulations at the end of the last century, investment entities shifted to bundles of contracts such as mortgages and insurance policies. These derivative packages were not based on the potential success of the sale of a product or service or of an entire company itself. They were based on promises to pay. We know what happened when such promises were secured by unsecured or devious means. Millions of individuals suffered: shredded retirement funds, significant unemployment, massive infusion of federal tax dollars to save the system itself and a continuing negative ripple effect around the world.
So, David, you see why I struggle to understand how you dismiss the effects of economic factors as a cause, not to mention a primary cause, of the deterioration of our social fabric.
DB: Libertarians congregated around a government-centric theory. Great Society programs enabled people to avoid work and gave young women an incentive to have children without marrying.
DV: At least among the few Libertarians I know, I can’t imagine any of them believing that young women were craving to have children without marrying.
DB: Neo-conservatives had a more culturally deterministic theory. Many of them had been poor during the Depression. Economic stress had not undermined the family then. Moreover, social breakdown began in the 1960s, a time of unprecedented prosperity. They argued that the abandonment of traditional bourgeois norms led to social disruption, especially for those in fragile circumstances.
DV: As I’ve written, the nature of the economy during the first half of the 20th century was markedly different from the mature corporate capitalism gone globally wild as well as the shift to volatile investment instruments which developed during the last half of that century. As for this neo-conservative view, what do they say caused this breakdown of traditional bourgeois norms?
At this point, David, you bring in the new research which focuses on social psychology. You’ve just presented three theories which you easily shoot down because you don’t do justice in explaining their analyses. Especially the Liberal economic one. But let’s see if you’ve got the rabbit in the hat with this new research.
DB: 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.
DV: If I read you correctly, I could not see how proponents of any of the three theories above could disagree with that observation. Once the dam breaks it’s difficult to stop the flow of the water. But I’m more interested in why the dam breaks; why the disorganization gets started.
DB: 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.
DV: Some fundamental conservatives might believe that the people in such neighborhoods have bad values, but not many others. But you know, David, Liberals have stated this for decades. Remember the FDR and the New Deal?
DB: 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.
DV: Again, it is hard to disagree that a neighborhood in which 30% of the men drop out of high school is not going to be a good environment for the others living there. But one could say, as I do, a neighborhood that has seen businesses close or leave the area becomes a troubled neighborhood whose social fabric begins to weaken. It’s not simply that an area has a disrupted social fabric but why it does. David, you avoid explaining why an area can come to such a condition, so the new research you cite comes across as simple, common sense descriptions without solutions. My point is you have no solutions, because you won’t look at the causal factors for the tears in the social fabric.
Your following examples show interesting research in and of itself, but they hardly cast any light on the point reflected in your title, “The Fallacy of Materialism.” You imply that materialism is economic determinism, but that is all you do. Your new research, as you describe it here, says nothing about causes of social disruption.
DB: The recent research details how disruption breeds disruption. This research includes the thousands of studies on attachment theory, which show that children who can’t form secure attachments by 18 months face a much worse set of chances for the rest of their lives because they find it harder to build stable relationships.
It includes the diverse work on self-control by Walter Mischel, Angela Duckworth, Roy Baumeister and others, which shows, among other things, that people raised in disrupted circumstances find it harder to control their impulses throughout their lives.
It includes the work of Annette Lareau, whose classic book, “Unequal Childhoods,” was just updated last year. She shows that different social classes have radically different child-rearing techniques, producing different outcomes.
Over the past two weeks, Charles Murray’s book, “Coming Apart,” has restarted the social disruption debate. But, judging by the firestorm, you would have no idea that the sociological and psychological research of the past 25 years even existed.
Liberal economists haven’t silenced conservatives, but they have completely eclipsed liberal sociologists and liberal psychologists. Even noneconomist commentators reduce the rich texture of how disadvantage is actually lived to a crude materialism that has little to do with reality.
DV: So you’re really going after those ‘liberal economists’ who are hogging the popular media. Why don’t you identify them. Do you mean folks like Paul Krugman or Simon Johnson? I cannot imagine either one being so one dimensional as to not appreciate ‘the rich texture of how disadvantage is actually lived.’ So I don’t know with whom you are so angry.
DB: I don’t care how many factory jobs have been lost, it still doesn’t make sense to drop out of high school. The influences that lead so many to do so are much deeper and more complicated than anything that can be grasped in an economic model or populist slogan.
DV: Oops...You’re crying foul against the lack of appreciation of the human pain of social disruption, admirable, but you make a statement like it doesn’t make sense to drop out of high school. Well, that’s certainly true for an individual’s future well-being, but if that 16 year-old girl’s mother just lost her job, then the decision to leave school may make plenty of short-term sense. And, if that family is living in a disruptive, down-trodden neighborhood, their perspective is likely to be very, very short-term, such as tomorrow only.
DB: This economic determinism would be bad enough if it was just making public debate dumber. But the amputation of sociologic, psychological and cognitive considerations makes good policy impossible.
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. It’s not enough just to have economic growth policies. The country also needs to rebuild orderly communities.
This requires bourgeois paternalism: Building organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly rather than irresponsibly and, yes, sometimes using government to do so.
Social repair requires sociological thinking. The depressing lesson of the last few weeks is that the public debate is dominated by people who stopped thinking in 1975.
DV: I’ll end by noting your suggested solution of a return to ‘bourgeois paternalism.’ I haven’t read the comments which followed your column in the Times, but this part probably brought out the most vociferous response to your piece. As for me, I’ll simply let it lie.