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Peter Greene: David Brooks Gets Everything Wrong (Again)

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Peter Greene here reviews David Brooks’ latest effort to advise the nation about education issues. Brooks argues that it would be a mistake to try to reduce poverty by redistributionist policies (I assume he means such policies as higher taxes on billionaires or direct benefits to those who are poor or government programs for job creation); instead, we should count on education to reduce inequality and poverty.


In earlier columns, he concluded that Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone charters were “miracle schools” that had closed the achievement gap between white and black students (however, the miracle has not been sustained, even though Canada kicked out the entire entering class whose scores were low, and his schools spend substantially more than public schools with which they are compared); and Brooks endorsed the idea that teachers would produce higher test scores through a trick called “loss aversion,” where they are given a bonus at the beginning of the year, but the bonus is taken away if the scores don’t go up. In 2011, after he heard me speak in Aspen, Colorado, he wrote a column criticizing me for questioning high-stakes testing and charter schools, and of course, he complained that I said that poverty is a leading cause of low test scores. He seems to believe that testing and charters are the answer to poverty, even though after some 13 years of high-stakes testing and 25 years of charters, there seems to be more child poverty, not less.


In today’s column, Brooks claims that the way to prosperity is not to reduce poverty by, for example, creating jobs for people who want to work or raising taxes on the super-rich (that would be redistributionist, which is a very bad thing in his eyes), but by making sure that everyone goes to college. If everyone goes to college, then everyone will get good jobs, and no one will be poor. But where will all those new jobs come from? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 20 occupations that will supply the most jobs between now and 2022 are mostly low-paying. Except for registered nurses and managers, 18 of the 20 occupations are not high-wage occupations. Do we need to improve our schools? Yes, of course. Will that be enough to reduce poverty? No.


Greene writes:


Mostly Brooks wants to argue for education as the miracle engine of economic justice. And to make his argument, he trots out the work of Raj Chetty, a piece of research that proves conclusively that even researchers at Harvard can become confused about the difference between correlation and causation. (Chetty, for those of you unfamiliar with the “research,” asserts that a good teacher will result in greater lifetime earnings for students. What he actually proves is that people who tend to do well on standardized tests tend to grow up to be wealthier, an unexciting demonstration of correlation best explained by things we already know– people who score well on standardized tests tend to be from a higher-income background, and people who grow up to be high-income tend to come from a high-income background.)


Brooks also cites magical researcher David Autor of MIT, who believes that if everyone graduated from college with a degree, everyone would make more money because, reasons. Because if everyone had a college degree, flipping burgers would pay more? Because if everyone had a college degree, corporations would suddenly want to hire more people? The continued belief in the astonishing notion that a more educated workforce causes higher-paying jobs to appear from somewhere is big news to a huge number of twenty-somethings who are busy trying to scrape together a living in areas other than the ones they prepared for these days.


Brooks isn’t done spouting nonsense:


[Brooks writes:] “Focusing on human capital is not whistling past the graveyard…No redistributionist measure will have the same effect as good early-childhood education and better community colleges, or increasing the share of men capable of joining the labor force.”


Because the vast number of high-paying jobs currently going unfilled is….. what?


Brooks says that redistributionists don’t get it, that they believe that modern capitalism is fundamentally broken, but that their view is biased by short-term effects of the recession. I have two responses for that pair of thoughtbubbbles.


First, it’s not clear whether capitalism is broken or not because we are currently tangled up in some sort of twisted fun-house mirror version of faux capitalism where the free market has been obliterated by a controlled money-sucking machine run by the government on behalf of the oligarchs. I’m actually a fan of capitalism, but what we currently have in this country is not capitalism at all.


Second, your argument about the “temporary evidence” of the recession is invalid because the recession was (and is) not the result of some mysterious serious of natural events. The economy went in the tank because the CEOs and Wall Street put it there. The economy broke because the “capitalists” broke it, and consequently the recession itself is Exhibit A in the case against modern faux capitalism and the greedheads who run it.


Throwing all this back at a magical belief in education is simply another way to blame poor people for being poor. So sorry you need food stamps and health care, but if you’d had the guts and character to go to college and get a degree, you wouldn’t be in such a mess. Your poverty is just the direct result of your lack of character and quality. Well, that and your terrible teachers. But it certainly has nothing to do with how the country is being run. It’s all on you, lousy poor person. And also your teachers.

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