Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Psych Approach to David Brooks

My mother and I tend to agree about most political issues, but we have a long running dispute about the wisdom of one political pundit, New York Times columnist David Brooks. The role Brooks occupies is a relatively new entry in the NYT columnist lineup, not really replacing the true "House Conservative" position of William Safire, one which was adopted by Bill Kristol and is currently held by the ever-fascinating Ross Douthat. No, he's more of a living, breathing embodiment of what George Bush 43 referred to as the "compassionate conservative"; he's a man who believes in the policies of the Republican party--at least the economic and tax-regulatory ones--while showing an interest in social issues related to the quality of how people live and what can be done to make people's lives better. Also unlike the Saffire/Kristol/Douthat crew, Brooks's rhetoric is milder and more gentle. Not that someone like Douthat is in the same camp as, say, Mark Levin, but you get the point.

Momma calls this "centrism" and thinks he's nifty; I call it "inherently contradictory for the most part" and think he's shallow but coated with a thin patina of gravitas...which fools people like Momma, bless her soul. "Nitwit" seems too strong a word, especially as he has such a fine command of the English language, but his analytical mind doesn't seem to far off that description from where I stand.

Comes this week's entry: The Psych Approach, a column devoted to taking a look at the social science research known as the Adverse Child Experiences, or "ACE", study. ACE is a survey of about 17,000 people, and looks at particular formative experiences (such as alcoholism in a parent) and current life/health issues (self-reported alcoholism, stress, depression, smoking) in an attempt to look for correlations. For instance, this report demonstrates a significant correlation between alcohol use in a parent and current drinking problems. Further, they go so far as to say in this flyer that "[adverse child experiences] account for one-half to two-thirds of drug use."

I haven't seen the academic data, and while it looks a little slippery--for instance, it's never made clear what constitutes "alcohol problems" so different responders may have wildly varying definitions, making absolute comparisons tricky--it nevertheless seems like a solid piece of epidemiologic research, one that not only documents the importance of formative experiences on current social and health issues, but quantifies it as well. Thus a useful body of data for someone interested in thinking about public policy, like, say, a politician...or at least his or her staff that have the time to read such stuff and think about how government policy can have an impact on such issues.

And here's where Brooks takes his cue. He starts off by noting that maybe government has been looking at fixing the wrong thing:

In the past several decades, policy makers have focused on the material and bureaucratic things that correlate to school failure, like poor neighborhoods, bad nutrition, schools that are too big or too small. But, more recently, attention has shifted to the psychological reactions that impede learning — the ones that flow from insecure relationships, constant movement and economic anxiety. 

And the fix for this? Well, in short, get everyone on the same page to work creatively and for the common good in a "failure is not an option" mode:

When you look over the domestic policy landscape, you see all these different people in different policy silos with different budgets: in health care, education, crime, poverty, social mobility and labor force issues. But, in their disjointed ways, they are all dealing with the same problem — that across vast stretches of America, economic, social and family breakdowns are producing enormous amounts of stress and unregulated behavior, which dulls motivation, undermines self-control and distorts lives.

Maybe it’s time for people in all these different fields to get together in a room and make a concerted push against the psychological barriers to success.

It's a provocative thought. It also is exactly the kind of thought that someone who believes that government policy can make a difference in people's lives would express.

Now, once upon a time, it was a thought that could have been expressed out loud by a member of the Republican party. The disagreement, the Republican would insist, is not whether government can affect change but simply how the government should go about doing so. But that Republican party is long gone, and what appears to be an interesting observation from Hypothetical Presidential Candidate David Brooks would have been derided by his opponents for being "socialist"--which, in the language of modern Republicanspeak, means "anything with which I disagree".

It's a sentiment that would have been expressed by the kind of Republican who, twenty years ago, would have endorsed a public/private solution to the problem of tens of millions of Americans lacking health insurance. In fact, such a solution was proposed and became known as "Obamacare" and was met with fanatical opposition by the current Republican party. Yet the law is thoroughly Republican in its philosophy and was a disappointment to people who a generation ago would have been considered "centrist Democrats". Though now, through the magic of political alchemy, they somehow have been branded "far-left radicals" (and, of course, "socialists").

In short, it's a habit of looking at the world that is not welcome by the modern, Tea Party-dominated Republican party. For David Brooks to find himself fascinated by such research--sponsored as it was by the US Federal Government via the CDC--and to think that such research might somehow lead to the world being a better place is nice. For him to think that the tail-wagging-the-dog Republican party which he so often lauds gives a damn is naivete in the extreme. Which we're used to from him by now.

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