Friday, March 10, 2006

Rich? Poor? Either Way, You Deserve It!

Wow, David Brooks really had me going there. For the first time in memory, I read a column of his (yesterday, March 9) without once thinking, "What incredible idiocy! And how eloquently and cleverly expressed!"

That is, until the very last sentence, when Brooks returned stunningly to form.

The column was about the sociological research of Annette Lareau, author of (among other books) Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Lareau has studied the parenting styles in upper-middle-class and working-class families and observed marked differences in the amount and kinds of cross-generational communication, parental involvement in kids' activities, and emotional and psychologial distance between parents and kids. To over-simplify, working-class parents tend to give orders, refuse to explain decisions, and generally talk with their kids less, while middle-class parents accept backtalk, try to persuade rather than command, and encourage kids to express themselves. The middle-class parents also tend to program their kids' lives with organized activities, while working-class parents let the kids amuse themselves.

Most everyone would consider both of these behavioral patterns partly good, partly bad. For example, the capacity of middle-class kids to reason, argue, and talk with adults on a sophisticated level seems good; the fact that they're prone to whining and are unable to entertain themselves seems bad. But Lareau's point isn't that one style of parenting is good, another bad. Her point is that the structures of society tend to reward the upper-middle-class style, and that therefore these differences are one way that class distinctions tend to get perpetuated--and that people get pigeonholed from childhood.

Interesting and potentially valuable stuff, I'd say. And in his column, Brooks actually appears to summarize Lareau's work fairly accurately. Until that last sentence. Here is the grand take-away that Brooks actually believes is demonstrated by Lareau's analysis:

But the core issue is that today's rich don't exploit the poor; they just outcompete them.

What the--? How on earth is it possible to deduce this from Lareau's study of parenting styles?

I can think of lots of factual data that might help us resolve the question of whether today's rich exploit the poor. We might consider how the income gap between CEOs and front-line workers has changed over time or how the current minimum wage compares to top executive salaries. We might look at the array of health care, pension, and other benefits offered by major corporations and see how it has changed in the past generation. We might move to the macroeconomic scale and consider what percentage of the national income is flowing to hourly workers as compared to shareholders, or perform a similar who-gets-what analysis on an individual company basis.

Any or all of these data might help us determine what fraction of the national wealth is going to those at the bottom of the economic ladder and what fraction those at the top are keeping for themselves. And we could then apply our innate sense of fairness to deciding whether the current distribution pattern seems equitable or exploitative.

But, silly me!--that sort of economic analysis is evidently unnecessary. All David Brooks needs to know is that Lareau's working-class mom refuses to help her daughter build a playhouse out of boxes, and what's more she does it "casually and without guilt." This alone suffices to prove that the rich and the poor are both getting exactly what they deserve.

Which after all is the overarching, oh-so-comforting truth that David Brooks has dedicated his career to demonstrating.

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