David Brooks: The Character Factory

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morriswalters
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David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby morriswalters » Fri Aug 01, 2014 11:20 am UTC

I found this reflects some of my thinking and was wondering if anybody has a different take.

David Brooks: The Character Factory

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby Tyndmyr » Fri Aug 01, 2014 1:07 pm UTC

It's certainly an influence on mine, to be sure. Economics and all that ARE important, but they are hardly the only factor.

Building character isn't necessarily something the government is great at, though. Oh sure, there's the military, which does indeed have important lessons to teach(but also some horribly bad ones)...but they also have some serious self selection bias going on. Not everyone will be improved by going through boot camp or what not. Sure, people need challenges, but they need them in manageable chunks, to build up the capacity to handle bigger ones. What's manageable for one person may be wildly different than for another.

So, how DO we fix the lack of character building?

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby jseah » Fri Aug 01, 2014 3:07 pm UTC

Tyndmyr wrote:So, how DO we fix the lack of character building?

First, identify what causes character building in a person. Second, make it happen.
There may not be singular causes fully generalizable across humans. Nevertheless, we might be able to get a subset (and you need to be able to identify that subset) with specific methods; and then develop character building strategies for each subset.

Well, that's probably not possible without a better understanding of psychology. Perhaps increase funding to psych and neuroscience research?
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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby Mokele » Fri Aug 01, 2014 3:12 pm UTC

The fundamental failure in logic is that it assumes the poor are poor due to character defects, which is not demonstrated by any of his studies cited. Yes, he showed that poor kids aren't as good at dull tests, but that could easily be due to low-quality schools. The "marshmallow test" may explain small variations in college outcomes, but there's no evidence to extrapolate the line beyond the data and say it explains the difference between a CEO and pauper. Add in the fact that we know, considerably more definitively, that childhood outcomes on numerous mental tasks are adversely affected by poor nutrition and lead exposure (which is very high in poor neighborhoods in some parts of the US), and his hypothesis that it's all about character starts looking pretty weak. Does the kid have poor willpower because they "weren't raised right", or because they're in a lead-paint-covered house (yes, those still exist, particularly in New England), attending a horrible school, and getting terrible nutrition, which have stunted brain development?

$20 says Brooks is happy to spend taxes on "character-based anti-poverty measures" of dubious merit that allow him to feel superior, but won't consent to spending a dime on lead remediation efforts in spite of a century of data showing its toxicity.

I'm not saying character has *no* effect, only that the evidence presented does not support it having either a large or primary effect compared to issues like access to education or nutrition. Any benefits of his condescending program could be produced ten-fold more by funding better schools.

If character is so important, and the military builds character so well, why are there so many homeless or impoverished veterans, eh, Mr. Brooks?
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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby Zcorp » Fri Aug 01, 2014 3:20 pm UTC

Tyndmyr wrote:So, how DO we fix the lack of character building?

First we need to agree that moral relativism is wrong, that human well-being is definable and can be studied scientifically. I could go on...but really that there won't happen for a long time so...


Mokele wrote: his hypothesis that it's all about character starts looking pretty weak.

He did not ever state it was all about character.
His arguments are weak largely because he makes a statement and really only backs it up with one old study and only talks about one aspect of character. There is much more than this bad article about assessing human behavior and aspects of success. Of course success in different areas of skills often require opposing aspects of character to be more likely to succeed. Which Brooks also fails to speak about.

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby jseah » Fri Aug 01, 2014 3:27 pm UTC

Zcorp wrote:
Tyndmyr wrote:So, how DO we fix the lack of character building?

First we need to agree that moral relativism is wrong, that human well-being is definable and can be studied scientifically. I could go on...but really that there won't happen for a long time so...

You don't have to say "wrong". You just have to acknowledge that in a world like today's, certain sets of values have a observable tendency to cause certain economic outcomes.

Therefore, reduce the number of people holding value sets that are known to lead to poor economic outcome should result in less people with poor economic outcomes, ceteris paribus.

If you value moral relativism over economic equality, well, then you're left with changing how the world works. (in that case, I'd say subsidize automation research and try to hit a point where Basic Income is possible)
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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby morriswalters » Fri Aug 01, 2014 3:29 pm UTC

Food for thought. Long ago and far away they used to let school children buy bonds as stamps. The point being is if you think like an engineer than the problem can be broken down into things you can work on now and things that you can fix as you get the capability. Let kids save some small sum each week at school. In effect give it to them for doing something. Set small goals and give them an opportunity to see the power of deferring gratification. In this case the end of the school year. As a child I wasn't taught that. And a lot of poor kids aren't.
Mokele wrote:The fundamental failure in logic is that it assumes the poor are poor due to character defects, which is not demonstrated by any of his studies cited.
I would turn it on its head and say that they have character defects because they are poor. Poverty robs you of any number of things that the middle class take for granted. Among them are familial mentors and basic skills like deferring gratification.

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby Tyndmyr » Fri Aug 01, 2014 4:43 pm UTC

Mokele wrote:The fundamental failure in logic is that it assumes the poor are poor due to character defects, which is not demonstrated by any of his studies cited. Yes, he showed that poor kids aren't as good at dull tests, but that could easily be due to low-quality schools. The "marshmallow test" may explain small variations in college outcomes, but there's no evidence to extrapolate the line beyond the data and say it explains the difference between a CEO and pauper.


People who perform worse in school do have worse outcomes on average. Nobody is saying this is the only factor, but...it's obviously important. College is a very significant impact on education. Also, you're misdescribing the marshmallow tests. They did not measure JUST college outcomes(though those were a metric), but even metrics such as BMI, and directly measured brain activity differences in specific regions. It's quite a big deal.

Add in the fact that we know, considerably more definitively, that childhood outcomes on numerous mental tasks are adversely affected by poor nutrition and lead exposure (which is very high in poor neighborhoods in some parts of the US), and his hypothesis that it's all about character starts looking pretty weak. Does the kid have poor willpower because they "weren't raised right", or because they're in a lead-paint-covered house (yes, those still exist, particularly in New England), attending a horrible school, and getting terrible nutrition, which have stunted brain development?


Character isn't some metaphysical thing that's divorced from physical reality. Yes, obviously someone who was allowed to eat lead paint "wasn't raised right". Malnutrition is also not "raising kids right". Obviously.

The question is, what actions do you take to best create the character traits associated with success? Eliminating lead exposure is...a fairly obvious step, but I suspect there's a lot more to it than that.

$20 says Brooks is happy to spend taxes on "character-based anti-poverty measures" of dubious merit that allow him to feel superior, but won't consent to spending a dime on lead remediation efforts in spite of a century of data showing its toxicity.


A bit of googling does not turn up any writing done on the matter by him. However, as most people are generally for limiting lead exposure, and it's not a particularly controversial topic, it seems questionable to assume he would hold extreme viewpoints on this without evidence.

If character is so important, and the military builds character so well, why are there so many homeless or impoverished veterans, eh, Mr. Brooks?


The military discussion was merely my musings, this article is not about the military.

Zcorp wrote:
Mokele wrote: his hypothesis that it's all about character starts looking pretty weak.

He did not ever state it was all about character.
His arguments are weak largely because he makes a statement and really only backs it up with one old study and only talks about one aspect of character. There is much more than this bad article about assessing human behavior and aspects of success. Of course success in different areas of skills often require opposing aspects of character to be more likely to succeed. Which Brooks also fails to speak about.


Agreed. "character" is a broad, vague term. Much like intelligence, or anything else. The citations are really studying a particular aspect of behavior...that of self control. Clearly, self control is a beneficial trait, and one that should be encouraged, but we cannot generally assume that other traits are equally advantageous. Still...even that alone is pretty major. Short term planning is endemic in society, addictive behaviors are well known to be a problem, and so on. So long as we are careful to not generalize unduly, we can still postulate improvements based on current data.

morriswalters wrote:Food for thought. Long ago and far away they used to let school children buy bonds as stamps. The point being is if you think like an engineer than the problem can be broken down into things you can work on now and things that you can fix as you get the capability. Let kids save some small sum each week at school. In effect give it to them for doing something. Set small goals and give them an opportunity to see the power of deferring gratification. In this case the end of the school year. As a child I wasn't taught that. And a lot of poor kids aren't.


Hmm. I had savings bonds as a kid, yeah. A very small amount that eventually got eaten by college, but seeing the value grow was important. Some sort of savings account or program with feedback to let the kids see progress does seem wise. There may have to at least initially be limitations on the kids simply spending the allotment or whatever instead of saving it, of course...but I think I like this idea.

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby Jave D » Fri Aug 01, 2014 5:23 pm UTC

As Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution pointed out recently in National Affairs, both orthodox progressive and conservative approaches treat individuals as if they were abstractions — as if they were part of a species of “hollow man” whose destiny is shaped by economic structures alone, and not by character and behavior.


A single death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic.

The same with lives.

If you've lived poor, working a menial, soul-crushing, degrading, low-paying job that leaves you with neither time nor money to find opportunities* to do better, you wind up realizing that economic systems have vast scope and strength, and will utterly demolish an individual's free will. People are herd animals, not lone wolves.

*And of course, a lot of people have that optimistic naivete about the American Dream, that assumption that there are opportunities out there, if only we had the guts/balls/wit/character/will/drive/luck/hard work to go get them. Are there? Always? For everybody?

Or that assumption mentioned in this thread about creating "traits associated with success," that the traits lead to success, and not the other way around. Or that if you simply possess certain traits, success will come. Eventually. With hard work! Just work harder!

In the real world, if you work hard, you are rewarded with more hard work. Nothing more. The "traits associated with success" are more likely to be things like a demonic ambition, willingness to be dishonest, able to manipulate other people, good looking. But "character" oriented gurus would have us believe that it's really only the positive traits, because again the assumption is that the system works, the American Dream is real, virtue is rewarded and sin is punished, and that free will exists. I would question all of those unstated, underlying beliefs.

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby morriswalters » Fri Aug 01, 2014 6:22 pm UTC

Jave D wrote:If you've lived poor, working a menial, soul-crushing, degrading, low-paying job that leaves you with neither time nor money to find opportunities* to do better, you wind up realizing that economic systems have vast scope and strength, and will utterly demolish an individual's free will. People are herd animals, not lone wolves.
I'll tell that to a friend who started poor but was given those basic tools by his mother and mentors. He is doing rather well today.
Tyndmyr wrote:There may have to at least initially be limitations on the kids simply spending the allotment or whatever instead of saving it, of course...but I think I like this idea.
Think smaller. Maybe what you do with it at the end of the school year isn't as important as doing it in the first place.

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby leady » Fri Aug 01, 2014 8:43 pm UTC

Tend to agree with the thrust, but don't like the word character.

But lets be honest, the one massive thing that dictates "character" and life outcomes in this context are stable 2 biological parent nuclear families. Everyone realises these days that this area is political suicide regardless of the data.

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby Mokele » Fri Aug 01, 2014 9:42 pm UTC

Tyndmyr wrote:People who perform worse in school do have worse outcomes on average. Nobody is saying this is the only factor, but...it's obviously important. College is a very significant impact on education. Also, you're misdescribing the marshmallow tests. They did not measure JUST college outcomes(though those were a metric), but even metrics such as BMI, and directly measured brain activity differences in specific regions. It's quite a big deal.


Yet why do we assume that poor people are poor because they lack self-control? Could it be that poverty itself, which forces the individual into an unpredictable environment with little stability or ability to establish resources, selects for short-term planning?

This happens across species - in unstable environments, species will latch onto and immediately use any resource they can find, because there's no guarantee they can retain it or find another. The ultimate form is the male redback spider, for whom locating a female is so improbable and random that they're born without mouths, able to do nothing but seek a mate, and fling themselves onto her fangs in order to prolong copulation while she devours them. Many parasites have similar consequences, producing as many offspring as possible as soon as possible in a host, because they can't be sure how long they'll be able to live or how many offspring will find hosts vs dying.

Even if we reject the hypothesis that short-term planning is adaptive, do you have evidence of causality, or just correlation? I'm pretty sure poor kids didn't cause their conditions, what with the whole "being kids" thing and thus being dependent upon their parents.

As for the "Marshmallow test" correlations, what were the correlation coefficients? In huge, messy data sets (like human lives), if you have enough points, you can get significant correlations with r2 of 0.05. And what are the mangitudes of the slopes? If there's a significant correlation between self control and BMI, but the maximum difference along the line is +-2 BMI points, that's hardly worth writing home about. (Also, can you link to them - I tried wading through this guy's papers, but I've got other work to do. I found a reference to the SAT results as "in prep" in a 2008 paper, if that helps).

Yes, obviously someone who was allowed to eat lead paint "wasn't raised right". Malnutrition is also not "raising kids right". Obviously.


Yet the same conservatives who harp on about "character" will torpedo funding for lead removal or childhood nutrition programs because of cost.

Hmm. I had savings bonds as a kid, yeah. A very small amount that eventually got eaten by college, but seeing the value grow was important. Some sort of savings account or program with feedback to let the kids see progress does seem wise. There may have to at least initially be limitations on the kids simply spending the allotment or whatever instead of saving it, of course...but I think I like this idea.


According to a bit of googling, the current interest rate is 0.5%. That means a kid would need to wait almost 20 years to see an even 10% increase in their money (assuming none added). In contrast, the current inflation rate is 2.1%. This means the kid will actually be poorer when they take out the savings bond (though admittedly not as poor as if they'd held it as cash). Are we supposed to be teaching them futility?

morriswalters wrote:I'll tell that to a friend who started poor but was given those basic tools by his mother and mentors. He is doing rather well today.


I'm aware of someone who got bitten by a coral snake while hundreds of miles from even the shittiest local hospital and lived (dry bite). Does that mean I should free-handle neurotoxic snakes?

Anecdotes aren't data. The fact that the US has worse economic mobility that almost any other industrialized nation shows why statistics are preferable to "just-so-stories".
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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby Jave D » Fri Aug 01, 2014 10:55 pm UTC

morriswalters wrote:
Jave D wrote:If you've lived poor, working a menial, soul-crushing, degrading, low-paying job that leaves you with neither time nor money to find opportunities* to do better, you wind up realizing that economic systems have vast scope and strength, and will utterly demolish an individual's free will. People are herd animals, not lone wolves.
I'll tell that to a friend who started poor but was given those basic tools by his mother and mentors. He is doing rather well today.


You go right ahead, and make sure to include the exact phrasing. Perhaps he has the basic tools to comprehend what you have not.

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby morriswalters » Sat Aug 02, 2014 12:00 am UTC

I am poor and I know exactly what you think you mean. I just don't agree. Talk to me about how soul killing it is when you have cleaned as many toilets as I have. I've done what I needed to do to take care of my family. But the engineering degree I couldn't get because of the self control I lacked would have made it easier.
Mokele wrote:According to a bit of googling, the current interest rate is 0.5%. That means a kid would need to wait almost 20 years to see an even 10% increase in their money (assuming none added). In contrast, the current inflation rate is 2.1%. This means the kid will actually be poorer when they take out the savings bond (though admittedly not as poor as if they'd held it as cash). Are we supposed to be teaching them futility?
Walk back a step. The idea isn't to make them wealthy. It is to teach them self control. If you gave them a dollar a day for each day they attend then after 40 weeks they would have 200 dollars. The more they miss the less they earn. What would that teach? Your assumption fails because in a large number of cases the child isn't taught anything about money or saving, so .5 percent interest is meaningless to them, there is no context. Your trying to teach that time and effort equal money. With a bonus, in this example, of motivating them to attend. Conservative or not, is the lesson worth teaching?
Mokele wrote:Anecdotes aren't data. The fact that the US has worse economic mobility that almost any other industrialized nation shows why statistics are preferable to "just-so-stories".
You've told me what, now tell me why. I've see many plans that were designed defeat poverty with Johnson's Great Society being the first. I still see poor people, what is that telling me? That type of thing doesn't seem to be working very well, and the available resources seem to be shrinking not expanding.
Mokele wrote:Yet why do we assume that poor people are poor because they lack self-control? Could it be that poverty itself, which forces the individual into an unpredictable environment with little stability or ability to establish resources, selects for short-term planning?
I'm taking these out of order. Poor people are poor for any number of reasons. They aren't a homogeneous group, so no assumption will apply to all. So the question is not why are they poor, but what skills do they lack? Self control is a skill, unless you can show me differently. If you don't have it any number of things become impossible. From doing homework when you come home from school to walking away from unhealthy treats. Most middle class families teach these skills as a matter of course. If a parent doesn't have that skill then how would you suggest they teach it.

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby Jave D » Sat Aug 02, 2014 12:18 am UTC

morriswalters wrote:I am poor and I know exactly what you think you mean. I just don't agree. Talk to me about how soul killing it is when you have cleaned as many toilets as I have. I've done what I needed to do to take care of my family. But the engineering degree I couldn't get because of the self control I lacked would have made it easier.


Oh, I get it. The anecdote is really not about your poor friend now doing well, but about you. The incrimination you go on about, like lacking skills and lacking self-control, is really just self-incrimination. But it's still an anecdote. I could tell you about how many toilets I've cleaned, but that's just one more anecdote.

So the question is not why are they poor, but what skills do they lack? Self control is a skill, unless you can show me differently. If you don't have it any number of things become impossible. From doing homework when you come home from school to walking away from unhealthy treats. Most middle class families teach these skills as a matter of course.


Oh, they do, do they? In what country?

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby jseah » Sat Aug 02, 2014 1:57 am UTC

Jave D wrote:If you've lived poor, working a menial, soul-crushing, degrading, low-paying job that leaves you with neither time nor money to find opportunities* to do better, you wind up realizing that economic systems have vast scope and strength, and will utterly demolish an individual's free will. People are herd animals, not lone wolves.

*And of course, a lot of people have that optimistic naivete about the American Dream, that assumption that there are opportunities out there, if only we had the guts/balls/wit/character/will/drive/luck/hard work to go get them. Are there? Always? For everybody?

Or that assumption mentioned in this thread about creating "traits associated with success," that the traits lead to success, and not the other way around. Or that if you simply possess certain traits, success will come. Eventually. With hard work! Just work harder!

In the real world, if you work hard, you are rewarded with more hard work. Nothing more. The "traits associated with success" are more likely to be things like a demonic ambition, willingness to be dishonest, able to manipulate other people, good looking. But "character" oriented gurus would have us believe that it's really only the positive traits, because again the assumption is that the system works, the American Dream is real, virtue is rewarded and sin is punished, and that free will exists. I would question all of those unstated, underlying beliefs.

You say that but I know of a few points where I could have worked harder and went a different path. Starting with working hard enough to get a 1st class degree instead of 2nd upper... Or doing the market research and knowing myself well enough to see that doing computer science might have been a better choice than biology (which subject I was scoring the least in university). Or simply buckling down to actually work through the math for an engineering subject for which I could have done but didn't want to because it was too much work.

And while this is all anecdotal, my point is that plain hardwork in general is not really useful. But there are key points where hard work, or intelligence, have far larger impact than other times.
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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby Jave D » Sat Aug 02, 2014 3:33 am UTC

jseah wrote:
Jave D wrote:If you've lived poor, working a menial, soul-crushing, degrading, low-paying job that leaves you with neither time nor money to find opportunities* to do better, you wind up realizing that economic systems have vast scope and strength, and will utterly demolish an individual's free will. People are herd animals, not lone wolves.

*And of course, a lot of people have that optimistic naivete about the American Dream, that assumption that there are opportunities out there, if only we had the guts/balls/wit/character/will/drive/luck/hard work to go get them. Are there? Always? For everybody?

Or that assumption mentioned in this thread about creating "traits associated with success," that the traits lead to success, and not the other way around. Or that if you simply possess certain traits, success will come. Eventually. With hard work! Just work harder!

In the real world, if you work hard, you are rewarded with more hard work. Nothing more. The "traits associated with success" are more likely to be things like a demonic ambition, willingness to be dishonest, able to manipulate other people, good looking. But "character" oriented gurus would have us believe that it's really only the positive traits, because again the assumption is that the system works, the American Dream is real, virtue is rewarded and sin is punished, and that free will exists. I would question all of those unstated, underlying beliefs.

You say that but I know of a few points where I could have worked harder and went a different path. Starting with working hard enough to get a 1st class degree instead of 2nd upper... Or doing the market research and knowing myself well enough to see that doing computer science might have been a better choice than biology (which subject I was scoring the least in university). Or simply buckling down to actually work through the math for an engineering subject for which I could have done but didn't want to because it was too much work.

And while this is all anecdotal, my point is that plain hardwork in general is not really useful. But there are key points where hard work, or intelligence, have far larger impact than other times.


Of course, and I'm not saying that's not valid. Most people can probably look with hindsight at their lives and find those key points. But you can see how that poses difficulties when suggesting paths out of poverty. People in it, are not looking back on it. And the system, in the US, is most definitely more difficult than in other first world countries: It requires not simply hard work or intelligence or skills or self control, but more of these things. I would suggest, more than average (regardless of class), as well as good deal of luck. Meaning the path out of poverty is all but impossible for a lot of people. And sure, we all know of the rags to riches stories. We know them because they're told in our culture, sort of like folktales. The exceptions that prove the rule. Most people living in poverty are not going to bootstraps themselves out of it using hard work and self control (or whatever). The middle class is shrinking, not growing. We have major systemic flaws to address before it can even be said that people have a decent chance.

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby EMTP » Sat Aug 02, 2014 4:15 am UTC

The problem is that policies that ignore character and behavior have produced disappointing results. Social research over the last decade or so has reinforced the point that would have been self-evident in any other era — that if you can’t help people become more resilient, conscientious or prudent, then all the cash transfers in the world will not produce permanent benefits.


The trouble with that statement -- on which Brooks' whole argument hinges -- is that it is clearly, demonstrably false. It represents what conservatives wish were true, which (as is so often the case) is exactly antithetical to the reality-based community's understanding of the situation.

Cash transfers work. Health benefits work. Providing housing works.

So the entire argument is based around a lie. Which raising the question -- What can we as a country do about the lack of character of David Brooks and his ilk, the moral idiots that call themselves "conservatives"?
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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby Zamfir » Sat Aug 02, 2014 5:01 am UTC

I once ran into this brilliant teardown of a Brooks essay: http://www.phillymag.com/articles/booboos-in-paradise/

I never could take the guy serious ever since. He just makes up stuff to support the narrative he wanted to tell anyway, and it's always a narrative you have heard before.

jseah wrote:You say that but I know of a few points where I could have worked harder and went a different path.

I am sure this true for all of us, including very successful people. It's like sin for Christians: there's always something to be ashamed of, you're more aware of your own moral failures than of the people around you, and that can be exploited to make everyone feel like they're not living up to the expected standard. Used to be about wanking, now it's about slacking on the job.

In the case of hard work, keep this in mind: it's usually people in low paying jobs who are physically broken by the time they get to retirement. Not the people who built their successful career on true grit and hard work. Somehow, we're redefining 'hard work' as whatever it is that rich people do.

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby jseah » Sat Aug 02, 2014 7:15 am UTC

Disclaimer: I'm not in America and I have no idea what sort of problems goes on over there.
Jave D wrote:Of course, and I'm not saying that's not valid. Most people can probably look with hindsight at their lives and find those key points. But you can see how that poses difficulties when suggesting paths out of poverty. People in it, are not looking back on it. And the system, in the US, is most definitely more difficult than in other first world countries: It requires not simply hard work or intelligence or skills or self control, but more of these things. I would suggest, more than average (regardless of class), as well as good deal of luck. Meaning the path out of poverty is all but impossible for a lot of people. And sure, we all know of the rags to riches stories. We know them because they're told in our culture, sort of like folktales. The exceptions that prove the rule. Most people living in poverty are not going to bootstraps themselves out of it using hard work and self control (or whatever). The middle class is shrinking, not growing. We have major systemic flaws to address before it can even be said that people have a decent chance.

The kicker about those examples is that I knew they were important. Final exams? Choosing your degree? Obviously important. I had parents and teachers telling me they were important. Heck, I myself knew they were important. It didn't take hindsight to know it was important since society beats it into you throughout your school life that doing well in education is THE factor that determines your future.
Somehow I never managed to study enough.

Besides, what sort of systemic issues / problems do you see as making it more difficult in America?


Also, rags to riches stories are exceptions because to get anywhere near the visible top of the heap takes a lot of luck. That's why it's the top of the heap. Lower down in the middle is a bit easier to get to. Often, a useful degree does it.

Zamfir wrote:In the case of hard work, keep this in mind: it's usually people in low paying jobs who are physically broken by the time they get to retirement. Not the people who built their successful career on true grit and hard work. Somehow, we're redefining 'hard work' as whatever it is that rich people do.

Isn't that an argument towards changing the world such that physically demanding work is no longer required (or at least minimized)? Let's invest in robotics and automation so people don't have to do it.
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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby Zamfir » Sat Aug 02, 2014 9:06 am UTC

I don't know what can and cannot be done in future utopias. In the here and now, physically demanding work is a very telling example how things like 'character' can be defined to suit a narrative.

David Brooks, and many people like him spend a lot of effort describing how moral fibre is important in social and material success. And how government efforts to help poor people end up harming them by harming that moral fibre. The single most mentioned aspect of that supposed moral fibre is the willingness to work hard, and how it's sapped away by cozy welfare programs.

To make that anywhere believable, they have to twist what it means to work hard. By shifting the emphasis on the hard work of successful people, and away from the hard work of unsuccessful people. So we get a concept of hard work where the number of hours on the job count (because important people spend lots of hours on their job) but the physical hardness of the work doesn't count, because unssuccesful people tend to do physically more demanding work.

The stress of responsibility counts a lot. Sometimes literally: in Dutch, a 'heavy function' is a job with lots of responsibility. The stress of being ordered around by bosses and customers doesn't get anywhere near that attention, even though research tends to show that control (and lack if it) over your actions is o e of the largest determinants of wellbeing.

Another example: office work hours count a lot more than household hours. There are plenty of busy executives who buy off most household work to cleaners, nannies and the like, and only do the paid work that they enjoy and from which they get status. For the David Brookses of this world, those people are still showing plenty of character by doing hard work.

Don't get me wrong: it really is demanding work to put in long office hours in a stressful job with lots of responsibility. It just that this particular form of demanding work that gets emphasized, and its advatages deemphasized, and other forms of demanding work get deemphasized. In order to show how successful people work hard and successful people do not.

It's a repeating pattern: success is argued to stem from moral virtue, but the moral virtues are constructed to coincide with success. Physical hard work is just a very telling example: with a straight face, people will tell you how poor people are poor because they shirk hard work, even though poor people do pretty much all of the literal hard work.

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby jseah » Sat Aug 02, 2014 11:23 am UTC

I was addressing your point that long hard work physically breaks people. That sounds like a negative externality and we should seek to reduce it.

Zamfir wrote:Don't get me wrong: it really is demanding work to put in long office hours in a stressful job with lots of responsibility. It just that this particular form of demanding work that gets emphasized, and its advatages deemphasized, and other forms of demanding work get deemphasized. In order to show how successful people work hard and successful people do not.

It's a repeating pattern: success is argued to stem from moral virtue, but the moral virtues are constructed to coincide with success. Physical hard work is just a very telling example: with a straight face, people will tell you how poor people are poor because they shirk hard work, even though poor people do pretty much all of the literal hard work.

Or perhaps hard work is a short form for a more complicated equation where actual hard work, long hours and responsibility are only parts of it. Certainly in my admittedly limited experience, sheer hard work is not actually enough without also some amount of skill* to apply it usefully. I've never actually seen any job that did not require significant abstract thinking skills** score high on the pay scale. (absent celebrity type positions, sports falls under that)
EDIT: I don't actually agree with the moral fibre part. I think it's mainly an education problem. I've seen a few friends/cousins/colleagues who insist that they cannot think through problems without a formula but I think it's mostly because they never trained that ability...


*see below for more elaboration on my use of the word "skill"; it actually means skills in demand by the market
**this referring to the sorts of skills used by management and STEM fields; sometimes you do find people able to substitute this with personal connections although IMO those cases are bad ones and a good example of what inequality looks like


On the other hand, risk to wellbeing whether through physical or mental stress (your point about being ordered around) is only a partial factor in the economic forces that determine compensation. The primary factor is whether your skillset matches what is in demand.

With this, hard work at the job is perhaps not what they mean, but is actually hard work at acquiring/applying skills that are in demand***. (learning a new skill from scratch is definitely hard work...) What is perhaps the problem here is that which skills are in demand is shifting faster in recent years than before and currently high-demand skills all require long training periods and education.

***skills that are in demand is not the same as skills most used in our economy. It's a bit circular but skills in demand are skills that have high compensation, the best market indicators being price...

------------------

For the 'here and now' as you put it, I think the largest impacts will be gained from the education system. I don't think we fully understand how people (and children) learn, what motivates them to learn and how to encourage them to learn economically relevant skills. After all, the education system is our answer to one of the more fundamental economic allocation problems, namely, what skills do we learn? If it's not working well enough for us now, then we need to see how it can be improved.

(privately, I have a few thoughts on the matter but that would be a little OT)
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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby morriswalters » Sat Aug 02, 2014 11:49 am UTC

It didn't take me to long to use the term self control to find this. Of course it is a conservative rag.

For Kids, Self-Control Factors Into Future Success

There were a number of other articles and research papers. I suppose all of these people are conservative. I hadn't known that conservative thought was so prevalent.
EMTP wrote:So the entire argument is based around a lie. Which raising the question -- What can we as a country do about the lack of character of David Brooks and his ilk, the moral idiots that call themselves "conservatives"?
Neither of your points demonstrate anything related to the article. Certainly I can give you income. If you are in poverty and I give you 60K a year you are no longer in poverty. And if I give you healthcare you will do better. But those don't change you. Could you please offer something relevant. I don't like conservatives much myself, but that doesn't mean they have nothing to say worth hearing. Can you offer any article that says teaching self control doesn't lead to better outcomes?
Jave D wrote:Oh, I get it. The anecdote is really not about your poor friend now doing well, but about you. The incrimination you go on about, like lacking skills and lacking self-control, is really just self-incrimination. But it's still an anecdote. I could tell you about how many toilets I've cleaned, but that's just one more anecdote.
You haven't offered anything other than your opinion which is no better than my anecdote. Give me a source that says that helping children learn self control does not lead to better outcomes.
Zamfir wrote:To make that anywhere believable, they have to twist what it means to work hard. By shifting the emphasis on the hard work of successful people, and away from the hard work of unsuccessful people. So we get a concept of hard work where the number of hours on the job count (because important people spend lots of hours on their job) but the physical hardness of the work doesn't count, because unssuccesful people tend to do physically more demanding work. I didn't see anything in the article talking about hard work. Perhaps you can tell me which of these particular statements offend your sense of justice.
I must have read a different article than you did.
First, habits. If you can change behavior you eventually change disposition. People who practice small acts of self-control find it easier to perform big acts in times of crisis. Quality preschools, K.I.P.P. schools and parenting coaches have produced lasting effects by encouraging young parents and students to observe basic etiquette and practice small but regular acts of self-restraint.

Second, opportunity. Maybe you can practice self-discipline through iron willpower. But most of us can only deny short-term pleasures because we see a realistic path between self-denial now and something better down the road. Young women who see affordable college prospects ahead are much less likely to become teen moms.

Third, exemplars. Character is not developed individually. It is instilled by communities and transmitted by elders. The centrist Democratic group Third Way suggests the government create a BoomerCorps. Every day 10,000 baby boomers turn 65, some of them could be recruited into an AmeriCorps-type program to help low-income families move up the mobility ladder.

Fourth, standards. People can only practice restraint after they have a certain definition of the sort of person they want to be. Research from Martin West of Harvard and others suggests that students at certain charter schools raise their own expectations for themselves, and judge themselves by more demanding criteria.
I don't suggest that he is correct in all his assumptions. However all these thing are things that the middle class hold as desirable. Is there some reason to believe that they have no worth at all for the poor?

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby Telchar » Sat Aug 02, 2014 5:27 pm UTC

Before people talk about character in poverty you really need to distinguish between short term poverty and generational poverty, because those two things are vastly different in terms of what works and what needs to be done.

I would highly recommend Bridges out of Poverty.Understanding why people in a generational poverty situation make decisions the way they do will help better tailor solutions.
Zamfir wrote:Yeah, that's a good point. Everyone is all about presumption of innocence in rape threads. But when Mexican drug lords build APCs to carry their henchmen around, we immediately jump to criminal conclusions without hard evidence.

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby Jave D » Sun Aug 03, 2014 5:53 am UTC

morriswalters wrote:You haven't offered anything other than your opinion which is no better than my anecdote. Give me a source that says that helping children learn self control does not lead to better outcomes.


But your argument isn't merely that "helping learn self control leads to better outcomes," but rather that this is some kind of key strategy towards addressing poverty. You assume, like so many, that being poor is practically irrelevant and that asking why someone is poor isn't a question worth asking, but rather asking "what skills do they lack." The central theme is that poverty is caused by having poor skills, specifically, poor self-control.

Which is simply a variation on the "poor are poor because they're lazy" 'argument.' It's a way to cast the whole poverty issue in the glowing ideology of so-called personal responsibility, such that being poor is a failure of character. And I don't really need a "source" to squat and take a contemptuous shit on that kind of talk. I'll leave that to people who enjoy vainly addressing sociopolitical propaganda rhetoric.

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby morriswalters » Sun Aug 03, 2014 2:14 pm UTC

And your responding to something I haven't said. Your responding to what you believe character means. A middle class family may be a shrinking part of America but the skills that make them middle class are valuable at any economic strata. Why shouldn't we try to impart those skills to the poor? It won't solve all of the problems but it might solve one or two.

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby Telchar » Sun Aug 03, 2014 2:45 pm UTC

Did you know that although the poverty rate hovers around 12-13%, fewer than 4% of those are still under the poverty line 36 months later. link

Impermanent poverty is much more prevalent than the chronic, generational poverty. There are definitely ways to change the mental models of people in generational poverty to lift them out of it, but it's intensive and it's much, much harder than you realize. The more common type of poverty is fleeting and is much better alleviated by temporary assistance.
Zamfir wrote:Yeah, that's a good point. Everyone is all about presumption of innocence in rape threads. But when Mexican drug lords build APCs to carry their henchmen around, we immediately jump to criminal conclusions without hard evidence.

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby morriswalters » Sun Aug 03, 2014 5:10 pm UTC

Because something is hard doesn't mean it isn't worth doing. Like most things humans do, you try things and see what works. I didn't offer a panacea, I offered an alternative point of view to discuss. There really hasn't been much of a discussion about the thought. I've heard about what a fool the author is, how I try to use anecdotal evidence, and so on. The only question I asked was if teaching children self control is a bad thing. I gather from the response it is. Here are the same statements with the BS filtered out. And I've added commentary.
1. First, habits. If you can change behavior you eventually change disposition. (you teach your kids to keep their rooms clean by showing them an example(mentoring the behavior) and giving them an expectation of what it is you desire from them.)

2. Second, opportunity. Maybe you can practice self-discipline through iron willpower. But most of us can only deny short-term pleasures because we see a realistic path between self-denial now and something better down the road. Young women who see affordable college prospects ahead are much less likely to become teen moms.( again something that can accomplished through mentoring from peers who have succeeded)

3. Third, exemplars. Character is not developed individually. It is instilled by communities and transmitted by elders.(self explanatory)

4. Fourth, standards. People can only practice restraint after they have a certain definition of the sort of person they want to be.(self explanatory)

If you can't teach self control then all the rest fails. And if I said this in a middle class living room, people would accuse me of stating the obvious.

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby Mokele » Sun Aug 03, 2014 10:11 pm UTC

morriswalters wrote:Because something is hard doesn't mean it isn't worth doing. Like most things humans do, you try things and see what works. I didn't offer a panacea, I offered an alternative point of view to discuss. There really hasn't been much of a discussion about the thought. I've heard about what a fool the author is, how I try to use anecdotal evidence, and so on. The only question I asked was if teaching children self control is a bad thing. I gather from the response it is.


I doubt anyone here seriously objects to teaching self control.

The objection, the thing that makes the Brooks column go from "stating the obvious" to "economic Calvinist jackassery" is the assumption that lack of self-control causes poverty and, conversely, that poor people are to blame for their fate because they lack self control.

Or perhaps, as per Telchar's post, you think poor self-control is like the flu, and it clears up on its own after a while? Otherwise, how to explain the high turnover in the actual people who are poor?
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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby jseah » Sun Aug 03, 2014 11:53 pm UTC

Mokele wrote:The objection, the thing that makes the Brooks column go from "stating the obvious" to "economic Calvinist jackassery" is the assumption that lack of self-control causes poverty and, conversely, that poor people are to blame for their fate because they lack self control.?

Even if they were "to blame", doesn't mean we can't help them anyway.

That said, there at least appears to be a correlation between self-control measured in early childhood and later adult income.

Mokele wrote:Or perhaps, as per Telchar's post, you think poor self-control is like the flu, and it clears up on its own after a while? Otherwise, how to explain the high turnover in the actual people who are poor?

Obviously in those cases, the interpretation would be that those people already have 'character'. That's why they don't stay poor for long.
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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby morriswalters » Mon Aug 04, 2014 1:02 am UTC

Mokele wrote:The objection, the thing that makes the Brooks column go from "stating the obvious" to "economic Calvinist jackassery" is the assumption that lack of self-control causes poverty and, conversely, that poor people are to blame for their fate because they lack self control.
Hundreds of things cause poverty. Some short term and some longer term. But the lack of self control takes the bad and makes it worse. There is a saying that luck favors the prepared. If you have the tools, then when and if opportunity arises you can at least have a shot. For the record, in so far as I could see, he never mentions causes of poverty at all.

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby Telchar » Mon Aug 04, 2014 11:07 am UTC

morriswalters wrote:
Mokele wrote:The objection, the thing that makes the Brooks column go from "stating the obvious" to "economic Calvinist jackassery" is the assumption that lack of self-control causes poverty and, conversely, that poor people are to blame for their fate because they lack self control.
Hundreds of things cause poverty. Some short term and some longer term. But the lack of self control takes the bad and makes it worse. There is a saying that luck favors the prepared. If you have the tools, then when and if opportunity arises you can at least have a shot. For the record, in so far as I could see, he never mentions causes of poverty at all.


Talking about teaching self control to children in order to avoid generational poverty is fine, I guess. And if you want to spend your money doing that then I hope it works. I'll be over here, advocating for things that have a better chance of success.

I say that because teaching self-control as though it's some intellectual pursuit won't work. Poor people also thing education and saving money is a good thing, intellectually, but when the rubber meets the road they often are unwilling or unable to actualize these pursuits. The processes that work are long and intensive and generally involve some monetary incentive (There's a group in my town that does group support with families in generational poverty that pays them 25 dollars to attend the 2 hour class once a month, rationalizing it as paying them for their attendance and support of others in the group. It's successful in comparison to many other projects.)

The idea that poor people don't have character is bullshit. They have a different kind of character and it unfortunately lends itself to serious amounts of stress and a lack of funds but it also lends itself to caring much more about building relationships and interpersonal connection.
Zamfir wrote:Yeah, that's a good point. Everyone is all about presumption of innocence in rape threads. But when Mexican drug lords build APCs to carry their henchmen around, we immediately jump to criminal conclusions without hard evidence.

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby morriswalters » Mon Aug 04, 2014 11:44 am UTC

Telchar wrote:I say that because teaching self-control as though it's some intellectual pursuit won't work. Poor people also thing education and saving money is a good thing, intellectually, but when the rubber meets the road they often are unwilling or unable to actualize these pursuits.
Why do you think that is?
Telchar wrote:The idea that poor people don't have character is bullshit. They have a different kind of character and it unfortunately lends itself to serious amounts of stress and a lack of funds but it also lends itself to caring much more about building relationships and interpersonal connection.
Fixing the first or at least attempting it, doesn't mean the second will not still be true.
Telchar wrote:I'll be over here, advocating for things that have a better chance of success.
Be my guest, I just wanted a conversation about an idea. Advocate what you believe in. However don't be all that surprised if it fails like so many other poverty correcting schemes have.

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby Mokele » Mon Aug 04, 2014 4:17 pm UTC

morriswalters wrote:
Telchar wrote:I say that because teaching self-control as though it's some intellectual pursuit won't work. Poor people also thing education and saving money is a good thing, intellectually, but when the rubber meets the road they often are unwilling or unable to actualize these pursuits.
Why do you think that is?


Time is a huge part of it. How can you do college classes when your job has unpredictable hours and you're called in at a moment's notice? You either skip the class you paid for (possibly getting a lower grade or failing) or refuse to be called in, losing the job that pays for the class (and food, and electricity, and rent). And yes, bosses can and do make such demands, routinely, and will fire you if you refuse to comply. And for many folks, there's childcare, which they need to find for cheap from unreliable sources because daycare costs exorbitant amounts and only opens for certain times. Ever thought to ask why most poor folks don't cook much, even though it saves money over fast food? Because they lack time as well as money.

Saving money is great too - until your car's transmission fails (because you're too poor to afford a decent car). Suddenly you either need to pay the exorbitant repair bill or buy a new car, all while still paying rent and utilities, which will either deplete your savings or possibly force you into debt. (and don't say "public transit", because there's only about 3 cities in the US where it's worth a crap). Hell, maybe your car was fine, but some jackass t-boned you and your insurance is dicking you around about whose fault it is.

You know what the biggest cause of bankruptcy is? It's not "poor self control", it's medical costs. Many, many people are just one catastrophe away from debilitating poverty, whether that's a car accident or cancer or losing their job. And if such misfortune requires more money than you have, you've got no real choice but to borrow money at usurious rates from dodgy lenders, because banks won't touch you and your landlord won't accept excuses as rent payments.

Think of being poor like playing a Youtube video on a slow internet connection, without the ability to manually pause it. Even if you build up a buffer, the slightest drop in your connection speed erases it, and you wind up taking 10x as long to get the same video as someone with a fast connection. Remember, there's no "pause" button in life - rent is due when it's due.

Be my guest, I just wanted a conversation about an idea. Advocate what you believe in. However don't be all that surprised if it fails like so many other poverty correcting schemes have.


I'd say a rapid turnover in poor people is a success - it means that the current methods are helping people get out of poverty. So all we need to do to reduce the pool of people is reduce the inflow or increase the outflow.

The problem is, it's a zero-sum game. Every dollar we spend on "character building" is a dollar we take from the mouth of a hungry child. That's a pretty steep cost, and you'll need something more than vague promises and anecdotes to justify such a funding shift.
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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby morriswalters » Mon Aug 04, 2014 6:28 pm UTC

Mokele wrote:Time is a huge part of it. How can you do college classes when your job has unpredictable hours and you're called in at a moment's notice? You either skip the class you paid for (possibly getting a lower grade or failing) or refuse to be called in, losing the job that pays for the class (and food, and electricity, and rent). And yes, bosses can and do make such demands, routinely, and will fire you if you refuse to comply. And for many folks, there's childcare, which they need to find for cheap from unreliable sources because daycare costs exorbitant amounts and only opens for certain times. Ever thought to ask why most poor folks don't cook much, even though it saves money over fast food? Because they lack time as well as money.
To put a short end to it these are excuses. And I have made most of them. I'm going to start in the middle with your assertion of childcare. Children having children is part of the problem. Childcare is only an issue if you make a choice to have children. And before some social justice warrior jumps out of the weeds that doesn't mean abstaining from sex. It means having the self control and responsibility to make certain that you don't have them within the statistical limits of what is possible.

Time is a commodity that you lose as the realities of life take over. Get married and have kids early, and life as you know it, is over. You will never have as much time as you will have when you are eighteen and single. This is a specific case for delayed gratification. Being poor doesn't change that. Certainly the tap dance that you do when you have to work while in school is hell. But if you survive it then you have something worth having.

On cooking I hear this same story all the time. People and not just the poor, eat fast food, in part because the are programmed to do so by incessant advertising. Business are in business to make money. They make money by manipulating you to achieve the outcome they desire. But if it gets this far, send a check, because the moment when something could be done to change the path, is past. This isn't about poor adults, IMO, this is about children.

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby Tyndmyr » Mon Aug 04, 2014 6:35 pm UTC

Mokele wrote:
Tyndmyr wrote:People who perform worse in school do have worse outcomes on average. Nobody is saying this is the only factor, but...it's obviously important. College is a very significant impact on education. Also, you're misdescribing the marshmallow tests. They did not measure JUST college outcomes(though those were a metric), but even metrics such as BMI, and directly measured brain activity differences in specific regions. It's quite a big deal.


Yet why do we assume that poor people are poor because they lack self-control? Could it be that poverty itself, which forces the individual into an unpredictable environment with little stability or ability to establish resources, selects for short-term planning?


There is no meaningful difference between those statements.

Though....I caution you against referring to poverty as if it were an entity, capable of acting of it's own accord. It is a state of affairs.

As for the "Marshmallow test" correlations, what were the correlation coefficients? In huge, messy data sets (like human lives), if you have enough points, you can get significant correlations with r2 of 0.05. And what are the mangitudes of the slopes? If there's a significant correlation between self control and BMI, but the maximum difference along the line is +-2 BMI points, that's hardly worth writing home about. (Also, can you link to them - I tried wading through this guy's papers, but I've got other work to do. I found a reference to the SAT results as "in prep" in a 2008 paper, if that helps).


I'd imagine it varies somewhat depending on the particular test and effect being cited. I admit, I didn't check every number for all of them...it was a lot. The SAT test results, however, listed those who passed the delayed gratification test as scoring an average of 210 points higher. Since it was a strict pass/fail test, that doesn't tell us if the effect is continuous...but it seems likely that it would be. No doubt there is additional information to be extracted here, but at a minimum, I feel safe saying it's a quite significant effect.

Yes, obviously someone who was allowed to eat lead paint "wasn't raised right". Malnutrition is also not "raising kids right". Obviously.


Yet the same conservatives who harp on about "character" will torpedo funding for lead removal or childhood nutrition programs because of cost.


Maybe those programs pass cost/benefit analyis, maybe they don't. Here, you're letting partisanship get in the way of actually thinking about or discuss the issue. For the record, I'm third party, so I'm not overly worried about the whole right/left pissing match. There is ALWAYS something wrong and stupid on the other side to point and laugh at. This is still not a reason to dismiss other issues.

Hmm. I had savings bonds as a kid, yeah. A very small amount that eventually got eaten by college, but seeing the value grow was important. Some sort of savings account or program with feedback to let the kids see progress does seem wise. There may have to at least initially be limitations on the kids simply spending the allotment or whatever instead of saving it, of course...but I think I like this idea.


According to a bit of googling, the current interest rate is 0.5%. That means a kid would need to wait almost 20 years to see an even 10% increase in their money (assuming none added). In contrast, the current inflation rate is 2.1%. This means the kid will actually be poorer when they take out the savings bond (though admittedly not as poor as if they'd held it as cash). Are we supposed to be teaching them futility?


The current interest rate is particularly low, and probably should not be relied on to be a long term average. An exercise such as this would probably need to be constructed, not tied to current interest rates...though ideally some level of financial knowledge should also be taught. Finances are critically important in the modern world, but it is an area that, if taught at all, is woefully short on hands-on examples, and dry lectures alone may not be as desirable for many students. Considering alternative means of teaching the topic seems reasonable, be it this idea or another.

morriswalters wrote:I'll tell that to a friend who started poor but was given those basic tools by his mother and mentors. He is doing rather well today.


I'm aware of someone who got bitten by a coral snake while hundreds of miles from even the shittiest local hospital and lived (dry bite). Does that mean I should free-handle neurotoxic snakes?

Anecdotes aren't data. The fact that the US has worse economic mobility that almost any other industrialized nation shows why statistics are preferable to "just-so-stories".


I do not think Morris intended this as a replacement for data, but as a complementary tale to the data already listed. Certainly, data trumps anecdotes, but here, there's no conflict between them.

I note that the US *still* has worse economic mobility despite the addition of a great many anti-poverty programs. Poverty is still with us, too. Now, they're not all worthless...but like the war on drugs, after many decades with disappointing results, one might wish to reconsider tactics.

jseah wrote:Also, rags to riches stories are exceptions because to get anywhere near the visible top of the heap takes a lot of luck. That's why it's the top of the heap. Lower down in the middle is a bit easier to get to. Often, a useful degree does it.


Definitely true in the US. Best way to become a billionare is...well, first off, be born in the US. Secondly...have millionare parents. Both of those are straight luck. But...billionares are a tiny percentage of the population, and not actually that relevant to most of our lives. The difference between a 300 million and a billion is...mostly irrelevant to me, and likely, to any of you. But the difference between $30,000 a year and $100,000 a year is not. And moving from the former to the latter in that pair is MUCH more reasonably acheived with education, work, etc. Educational attainment is highly correlated with success...as well as with positive class mobility.

Describing this as "working hard" is...kind of true. A willingness to work hard is part of that, but it's a very vague term. You can work 12 hours a day shoveling coal, and that's certainly hard work, but as a career plan, it may not be ideal. It is a portion of the path to success, but it is only a portion. Long term planning is also critical(though this requires self control). Nobody plans to pass up opportunity. They simply fail to plan, or fail to recognize the opportunity, or do not dare to risk what they have. However...all of these skills can be taught.

If the US has failed to enable people to climb the social ladder, surely we must cast an eye on our educational system, and consider if it is not failing to provide the skills to do so.

And frankly, there has never been a point in my life where I regretted learning more skills.

Mokele wrote:The objection, the thing that makes the Brooks column go from "stating the obvious" to "economic Calvinist jackassery" is the assumption that lack of self-control causes poverty and, conversely, that poor people are to blame for their fate because they lack self control.

Or perhaps, as per Telchar's post, you think poor self-control is like the flu, and it clears up on its own after a while? Otherwise, how to explain the high turnover in the actual people who are poor?


It seems quite clear that lack of self control causes poverty. I'm not sure why that would be in question.

Lots of people hover on the border between poverty and "not technically poverty", and cycle from one to the other depending on the whims of the economy and chance. The higher up you are on the economic food chain, the lower your risk of poverty becomes. None of this is that strange, and is all entirely consistent with a causal explanation for the correlation between self control and poverty. Economic status is not entirely static, and everyone is subject to at least some chance and fluctuations. Having skills simply better equips you to deal with such things, while if you lack skills and money, what is a mere setback for another is a crushing blow for you.

As for "blame", ugh. Blame is what you are doing when you want to push the problem onto someone else instead of finding an answer to it. Let's chat about answers instead of squabbling about blame.

Mokele wrote:Time is a huge part of it. How can you do college classes when your job has unpredictable hours and you're called in at a moment's notice? You either skip the class you paid for (possibly getting a lower grade or failing) or refuse to be called in, losing the job that pays for the class (and food, and electricity, and rent). And yes, bosses can and do make such demands, routinely, and will fire you if you refuse to comply. And for many folks, there's childcare, which they need to find for cheap from unreliable sources because daycare costs exorbitant amounts and only opens for certain times. Ever thought to ask why most poor folks don't cook much, even though it saves money over fast food? Because they lack time as well as money.


Hours worked is correlated to wealth. The poor have more time, the rich, less. This relationship is not necessarily linear(because there isn't that much time in the world), and yes, low income folks frequently enjoy less predictable schedules than wealthier folks, but overall free time is greater.

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Mokele
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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby Mokele » Mon Aug 04, 2014 7:13 pm UTC

morriswalters wrote:
Mokele wrote:Time is a huge part of it. How can you do college classes when your job has unpredictable hours and you're called in at a moment's notice? You either skip the class you paid for (possibly getting a lower grade or failing) or refuse to be called in, losing the job that pays for the class (and food, and electricity, and rent). And yes, bosses can and do make such demands, routinely, and will fire you if you refuse to comply. And for many folks, there's childcare, which they need to find for cheap from unreliable sources because daycare costs exorbitant amounts and only opens for certain times. Ever thought to ask why most poor folks don't cook much, even though it saves money over fast food? Because they lack time as well as money.
To put a short end to it these are excuses. And I have made most of them. I'm going to start in the middle with your assertion of childcare. Children having children is part of the problem. Childcare is only an issue if you make a choice to have children. And before some social justice warrior jumps out of the weeds that doesn't mean abstaining from sex. It means having the self control and responsibility to make certain that you don't have them within the statistical limits of what is possible.


And what happens if you're in a comfortable, middle-class life, have children, and THEN become poor? Should you abandon or murder your children?

See above - most people who are poor aren't poor for super long. Many or even most made the decision to have kids before becoming poor, without knowing that they would become poor.

You seem fixated on blaming the poor for being poor, in spite of all evidence and logic. If the poor were so bad at making life decisions, how come so few stay poor?

Time is a commodity that you lose as the realities of life take over. Get married and have kids early, and life as you know it, is over. You will never have as much time as you will have when you are eighteen and single. This is a specific case for delayed gratification. Being poor doesn't change that. Certainly the tap dance that you do when you have to work while in school is hell. But if you survive it then you have something worth having.


So you simultaneously acknowledge the problem and refuse to admit that it completely torpedoes your Economic Calvinist views? Nice.

his isn't about poor adults, IMO, this is about children.


Except kids are poor only because their parents are poor. And since the statistics show that almost all of their parents are only temporarily poor, I fail to see the issue. This is only an issue in generational poverty, which has conclusively been shown to be vanishingly small.

Tyndmyr wrote:There is no meaningful difference between those statements.


Logic fail. If state A is correlated with character B, did B cause A, or did A cause B? These are not equivalent statements.

To put it in terms of discussion I recently had with a colleague, are most desert reptiles limbless or reduced-limb because desert environments select for that, or because the two groups who already show that morphology (snakes and skinks) are more likely to colonize the desert for other reasons (low water loss)? Cause and effect are very different in the two scenarios.

I'd imagine it varies somewhat depending on the particular test and effect being cited. I admit, I didn't check every number for all of them...it was a lot. The SAT test results, however, listed those who passed the delayed gratification test as scoring an average of 210 points higher. Since it was a strict pass/fail test, that doesn't tell us if the effect is continuous...but it seems likely that it would be. No doubt there is additional information to be extracted here, but at a minimum, I feel safe saying it's a quite significant effect.


Yet SAT is mostly just a measure of parental income.

What about earnings? That's what's relevant to this discussion. Significant effect doesn't mean large effect (not in statistics, anyway).

I note that the US *still* has worse economic mobility despite the addition of a great many anti-poverty programs. Poverty is still with us, too. Now, they're not all worthless...but like the war on drugs, after many decades with disappointing results, one might wish to reconsider tactics.


Yes, but considering that funding is largely stable, endorsing a new tactic means taking money away from others which have some measurable effect. That means any proposal must show, out of the starting gate, good reason to expect a substantial improvement per dollar spent. Given the many, many, many flaws of this column pointed out here and elsewhere, it at least needs much more data to even be considered.

If the US has failed to enable people to climb the social ladder, surely we must cast an eye on our educational system, and consider if it is not failing to provide the skills to do so.


Agreed, but it also comes under the "born rich" paradigm, at least in the US, where schools are funded via local property taxes. If you're in a poor part of town, you get a crappy, overcrowded, poorly funded school. If you're in a rich part of town, you get awesome lab equipment and great student/teacher ratios in clean, gleaming halls.

It seems quite clear that lack of self control causes poverty. I'm not sure why that would be in question.


Prove it. Show me a controlled study, a longitudinal survey that establishes it to statistically significant levels.

"It seems clear" is not science, and not good public policy. Evidence only.

Lots of people hover on the border between poverty and "not technically poverty", and cycle from one to the other depending on the whims of the economy and chance. The higher up you are on the economic food chain, the lower your risk of poverty becomes. None of this is that strange, and is all entirely consistent with a causal explanation for the correlation between self control and poverty. Economic status is not entirely static, and everyone is subject to at least some chance and fluctuations.


And where's the evidence that the deciding factor is self control?

Hours worked is correlated to wealth. The poor have more time, the rich, less. This relationship is not necessarily linear(because there isn't that much time in the world), and yes, low income folks frequently enjoy less predictable schedules than wealthier folks, but overall free time is greater.


Funny, I don't see many rich folks with night jobs. Where's the source for this? Is it accurately taking into account multiple jobs? Seasonal and part-time work? Under-the-table work?

Plus, there's a big difference between working 50hr/wk, but knowing that it's 9-7 M-F, and working 35 hours a week but having no idea more than a week ahead of time what shift or days you'll work. In the former case, one can reasonably easily schedule doctors appointments, child-care, evening classes, applying for better jobs, etc. In the latter, it's incredibly difficult.

The central point is this: Attempting to implicate "self-control" as a major factor in poverty is part of a toxic general tendency to blame the poor for their state, and has no real evidence to support it. If we're serious about addressing poverty, there are much, MUCH better ways to do it.
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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby Tyndmyr » Mon Aug 04, 2014 8:41 pm UTC

Mokele wrote:
morriswalters wrote:
Mokele wrote:Time is a huge part of it. How can you do college classes when your job has unpredictable hours and you're called in at a moment's notice? You either skip the class you paid for (possibly getting a lower grade or failing) or refuse to be called in, losing the job that pays for the class (and food, and electricity, and rent). And yes, bosses can and do make such demands, routinely, and will fire you if you refuse to comply. And for many folks, there's childcare, which they need to find for cheap from unreliable sources because daycare costs exorbitant amounts and only opens for certain times. Ever thought to ask why most poor folks don't cook much, even though it saves money over fast food? Because they lack time as well as money.
To put a short end to it these are excuses. And I have made most of them. I'm going to start in the middle with your assertion of childcare. Children having children is part of the problem. Childcare is only an issue if you make a choice to have children. And before some social justice warrior jumps out of the weeds that doesn't mean abstaining from sex. It means having the self control and responsibility to make certain that you don't have them within the statistical limits of what is possible.


And what happens if you're in a comfortable, middle-class life, have children, and THEN become poor? Should you abandon or murder your children?

See above - most people who are poor aren't poor for super long. Many or even most made the decision to have kids before becoming poor, without knowing that they would become poor.

You seem fixated on blaming the poor for being poor, in spite of all evidence and logic. If the poor were so bad at making life decisions, how come so few stay poor?


This is at odds with the accusation of reduced economic mobility in the US. I suspect it relies on people bouncing back and forther from "poor" to "just barely not poor", not that it shows that people are randomly cycling between poverty and ultra-rich.

his isn't about poor adults, IMO, this is about children.


Except kids are poor only because their parents are poor. And since the statistics show that almost all of their parents are only temporarily poor, I fail to see the issue. This is only an issue in generational poverty, which has conclusively been shown to be vanishingly small.


Uh...that's not the only reason children are poor. A significant reason, sure, but life is sufficiently complex that there is not only one single reason for poverty.

Tyndmyr wrote:There is no meaningful difference between those statements.


Logic fail. If state A is correlated with character B, did B cause A, or did A cause B? These are not equivalent statements.


Poverty is not an entity. It is a state of being. "poverty selects for poor self control" is functionally identical to "people are poor because they lack self control". It's not as if poverty is exercising free will, both statements are purely identifying a mechanism.

Unless, of course, you're interested in just finding someone/something to blame, changing the phrasing to identify "poverty" instead of "people" is irrelevant.

Perhaps you meant "poverty CAUSES poor self control"? Because that is very different from selects for.

I'd imagine it varies somewhat depending on the particular test and effect being cited. I admit, I didn't check every number for all of them...it was a lot. The SAT test results, however, listed those who passed the delayed gratification test as scoring an average of 210 points higher. Since it was a strict pass/fail test, that doesn't tell us if the effect is continuous...but it seems likely that it would be. No doubt there is additional information to be extracted here, but at a minimum, I feel safe saying it's a quite significant effect.


Yet SAT is mostly just a measure of parental income.

What about earnings? That's what's relevant to this discussion. Significant effect doesn't mean large effect (not in statistics, anyway).


Parental income is good, obviously, but the SAT does not measure just that. It's correlated with positive life outcomes. So is parental income, obviously, but they are not exactly the same thing. Merely pointing to well known factors does not dismiss this one.

You can do some additional research if you like. I'll grab some of the info here and there, but I fear I lack the time to read all the studies in full right now.

I note that the US *still* has worse economic mobility despite the addition of a great many anti-poverty programs. Poverty is still with us, too. Now, they're not all worthless...but like the war on drugs, after many decades with disappointing results, one might wish to reconsider tactics.


Yes, but considering that funding is largely stable, endorsing a new tactic means taking money away from others which have some measurable effect. That means any proposal must show, out of the starting gate, good reason to expect a substantial improvement per dollar spent. Given the many, many, many flaws of this column pointed out here and elsewhere, it at least needs much more data to even be considered.


*shrug* That's what trials and such are for. Presumably we're not going to throw everything out overnight, we're just chatting about potential alternatives that maybe deserve consideration.

If the US has failed to enable people to climb the social ladder, surely we must cast an eye on our educational system, and consider if it is not failing to provide the skills to do so.


Agreed, but it also comes under the "born rich" paradigm, at least in the US, where schools are funded via local property taxes. If you're in a poor part of town, you get a crappy, overcrowded, poorly funded school. If you're in a rich part of town, you get awesome lab equipment and great student/teacher ratios in clean, gleaming halls.


The current system has many issues, and that's certainly part of it. I suspect that's hardly the only failing in public schools, but the unequal start no doubt contributes to poor outcomes.

It seems quite clear that lack of self control causes poverty. I'm not sure why that would be in question.


Prove it. Show me a controlled study, a longitudinal survey that establishes it to statistically significant levels.

"It seems clear" is not science, and not good public policy. Evidence only.


That's...exactly what they did with some of the marshmallow studies. Followed the same folks over a nice long period of time. More and better data is always possible, but surely, this is better data than a great deal of public policy is founded on already.

Lots of people hover on the border between poverty and "not technically poverty", and cycle from one to the other depending on the whims of the economy and chance. The higher up you are on the economic food chain, the lower your risk of poverty becomes. None of this is that strange, and is all entirely consistent with a causal explanation for the correlation between self control and poverty. Economic status is not entirely static, and everyone is subject to at least some chance and fluctuations.


And where's the evidence that the deciding factor is self control?


It is a significant factor. There are likely many factors. Not sure why you only care if it is the "deciding factor". It's not as if only one factor matters.

However, it's certainly worth discussing if this factor is more cost-effective to work on than other factors, or indeed, to discuss if there are other similar factors that have also been mostly overlooked. Perhaps working memory correlates with outcomes? Don't know...but there are many aspects to intelligence, and it seems likely that at least some are significant, and that they vary in trainability.

Hours worked is correlated to wealth. The poor have more time, the rich, less. This relationship is not necessarily linear(because there isn't that much time in the world), and yes, low income folks frequently enjoy less predictable schedules than wealthier folks, but overall free time is greater.


Funny, I don't see many rich folks with night jobs. Where's the source for this? Is it accurately taking into account multiple jobs? Seasonal and part-time work? Under-the-table work?


Under the table work is maybe not entirely accounted for. Depends how well it's hidden. I need to dig out my sources for this, I've linked them for previous income inequality posts, but not on that computer at the moment. I'll try to grab those for next post, as google seems to be overly filled with GDP graphs that aren't exactly what I'm looking for.

Plus, there's a big difference between working 50hr/wk, but knowing that it's 9-7 M-F, and working 35 hours a week but having no idea more than a week ahead of time what shift or days you'll work. In the former case, one can reasonably easily schedule doctors appointments, child-care, evening classes, applying for better jobs, etc. In the latter, it's incredibly difficult.

The central point is this: Attempting to implicate "self-control" as a major factor in poverty is part of a toxic general tendency to blame the poor for their state, and has no real evidence to support it. If we're serious about addressing poverty, there are much, MUCH better ways to do it.


You need not approach it from a standpoint of blame, and in fact, I would argue that trying to determine causes by who you think should or should not be blamed is extremely harmful to truth or actually fixing the problem.

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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby Mokele » Mon Aug 04, 2014 9:07 pm UTC

Show.

Evidence.
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Re: David Brooks: The Character Factory

Postby morriswalters » Mon Aug 04, 2014 9:23 pm UTC

Mokele wrote:And what happens if you're in a comfortable, middle-class life, have children, and THEN become poor? Should you abandon or murder your children?

See above - most people who are poor aren't poor for super long. Many or even most made the decision to have kids before becoming poor, without knowing that they would become poor.

You seem fixated on blaming the poor for being poor, in spite of all evidence and logic. If the poor were so bad at making life decisions, how come so few stay poor?
Please don't wag your finger at me. I suggest that you read the Wikipedia article on poverty. It appears to be reasonably accurate.
Mokele wrote:So you simultaneously acknowledge the problem and refuse to admit that it completely torpedoes your Economic Calvinist views? Nice.
If I was sure that you were reading what I wrote I would just go away, instead I will say it one more time, and then I will go away. I'm worried about children. Once you reach the age 18 I will help you, but if you already have a child there will be a limit to what I can do. I don't care if you're Einstein, once you have kids you've complicated the picture so much that all you can do is support them and hope for the best. But you may be able to do something for the kids.


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