Arnold Kling  

Brink Lindsey's New eBook

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It is called Human Capitalism. It might be called The Age of Abundance* (*for some people).

Brink is trying to thread the needle between those who view the poor as victims and those who apparently don't. (Bryan read an earlier draft of the book, and I look forward to his comments on the final version.)


There is no good way to make sense of either rapid "catch-up" growth in income or the long-term persistence of ethnic income differences other than by resort to cultural explanations.

In other words, we see that second-generation immigrants to this country do better than their parents. That is cultural, in the sense that second-generation immigrants are likely to be much more fluent in English. However, we see descendents of Asian immigrants save at a higher rate than immigrants of other backgrounds. Brink wants to insist that this is evidence of cultural differences.

the opportunity costs [sic?] of working-class culture have risen sharply in recent decades. Previously...people who had developed only modest fluency with abstraction could nonetheless find work that fairly exercised their capabilities, paid relatively well, and conferred decent standing in the community...a growing gap in socioeconomic status between the highly skilled elite and everybody else has now opened up.

I have a question. Who is more bothered by this "growing gap:" the people in the working class or the people in the elite? Often, it seems to me that it is the elite that is most worked up about it. The elite looks at everybody else and wonders, "what will it take to make them be like us?"

Brink's answer centers on culture. He thinks that changing working-class culture will be difficult. He speaks of cultural inertia, and yet he echoes Charles Murray's description of the rapid breakdown in family structure among working-class households in the past 50 years. I am not sure how he reconciles this apparently rapid cultural shift with his view that culture is "sticky."

Brink thinks that Murray's plea for a return to older moral virtues is quixotic.


The absolutist conceptions of morality that once kept the working class (and everybody else, too) on the straight and narrow were a cultural adaptation to material scarcity...There is simply no prospect for a return to the more authoritarian morality of yesteryear.

Or, as Robin Hanson would put it, there is no way we are going to trade in our forager values for farmer values.

I think that Brink and I could pretty much agree on the diagnosis. My prescription is, "Live with it." The elite will have their Vicky culture, over-spending on higher education and other status goods. The working class will have plenty of material comfort. I would not embark on a project to change working-class culture.

Yet it is exactly that project that Brink proposes. My guess is that he should be careful about what he wishes for. I can see the political class buying into the project but rejecting the modesty of his goals and his directionally-libertarian means.

One of Brink's ideas is to unleash competition in K-12 education.


recent evidence shows that innovative, high-quality schools can have a significant impact on closing the culture gap and reducing class-based differences in scholastic achievement and life prospects.

Color me skeptical. As Brink points out, there is a general tendency for "treatment effects" in education to fade out and/or fail to be reproducible. "Recent evidence" is not necessarily reliable evidence.

the most morally urgent priority when it comes to helping less-skilled adults is essentially defensive...policies that encourage work and reverse the alarming rise of mass incarceration.

All of Brink's specific proposals are reasonable. At the end, he even sounds a bit of a "live with it" note. I really like the book, which leads me to fear that it will not be well received overall.



COMMENTS (10 to date)
Jeff writes:
There is no good way to make sense of either rapid "catch-up" growth in income or the long-term persistence of ethnic income differences other than by resort to cultural explanations.

Paging Steve Sailer. Steve Sailer to the comment box, please....

The absolutist conceptions of morality that once kept the working class (and everybody else, too) on the straight and narrow were a cultural adaptation to material scarcity...There is simply no prospect for a return to the more authoritarian morality of yesteryear.

As Bryan has pointed out (correctly, in my opinion), if you could dismantle much of the welfare state and it's redistributive practices, you might make some headway, but that isn't politically possible. Instead, we are heading the other way: toward more redistribution. I do not expect to be pleased by the results.

RonB writes:

The elite looks at everybody else and wonders, "what will it take to make them be like us?"

It depends on what you mean by "elite". I think most of the "elites" of both parties in government or the liberal elite don't want everyone to be like them. They would no longer be elite and destined to rule. They want everyone to be equal at some level below their "elite" level. Or I suppose you could argue that they want everyone to be equal but they would be "first among equals".

Tom West writes:

I think most of the "elites" of both parties in government or the liberal elite don't want everyone to be like them. They would no longer be elite and destined to rule.

Oh come on. Is it necessary to attribute malice to those you disagree with? Or is anyone who views the world differently from you necessarily evil?

At least among the middle class liberals (essentially the "elite" for most of these discussions), having everybody at roughly the same level means not having to feel guilty about one's success, which is a *big* win for them.

ThomasL writes:
The absolutist conceptions of morality that once kept the working class (and everybody else, too) on the straight and narrow were a cultural adaptation to material scarcity...There is simply no prospect for a return to the more authoritarian morality of yesteryear.

The assumption in this is that morality is something we "make up" to fit some particular circumstances. But a made-up morality cannot bind. If it is only made-up, why would I not change it? What moral principle obligates me to obey the rules of your society? It is not good enough to say the moral rule you made up morally obligates me to follow the rules you make up. That argument quickly degenerates into either "might makes right" or the inconsistency of saying that there exists a real, unchanging moral law, but that its single precept is obligation to a completely fictitious moral law.

At some point, if someone is willing confront the full implications of this position like Sartre, they must acknowledge that either there is an eternal law of morality or there is no such thing as morality.

Of course, the application of any given moral law is dependent on time and circumstance. The appropriate way to execute it may alter even while the law remains constant. I do not think that is what he meant though.

Jeff writes:
At least among the middle class liberals (essentially the "elite" for most of these discussions), having everybody at roughly the same level means not having to feel guilty about one's success, which is a *big* win for them.

Good point. They probably also feel like they've atoned for the sins of their racist/colonialist/segregationist/sexist/etc ancestors. Puts quite a spring in your step, I'd imagine.

IVV writes:

Yes, are we talking about the elite, or the upper middle class?

I identify myself as upper-middle, and would be more than happy to keep myself surrounded by upper-middle ideals--so in that sense, sure.

As for someone who wants to improve the lot of the upper-middle lifestyle, I would prefer less distribution, but also less income inequality. Sticking it to the 1% seems quite promising to the 10%.

Joe Cushing writes:

The use of the word "poor" to describe people who live in low income conditions implies that they are victims. The reality is, many low income people are victims and many are not. There are things that are done to people to make low income and there are many things people do to themselves to make them low income. Often there is a combination of the two. Sometimes you hear about a person who is disadvantaged becoming wealthy. The more economic freedom a society has, the more having low income is the fault of the person who has it.

Jim writes:

I tend to ignore morality in favor of behavior and incentives.

Women now instigate 70% of all divorce cases, the number one reason being they 'fell out of love.' Absent a pre-nup, women are now monetarily incented to kick the guy out; they get a huge annuity without having to wash underwear. Welfare also favors single families.

Network theory helps explain straining 'income inequality.' Government regulation, from zoning to licenses, always protects capital and raises the cost of new nodes at the expense of the disconnected and capital impoverished; poor people. Specialization exacerbates this trend.

With education costs out of control, it takes 2 generations just to accumulate enough capital and develop the network connections to become gainfully and comfortably employed. Entrepreneurial activity is basically no longer legal if you are poor. Try cutting hair, using your car as a taxi, starting a blue collar business out of your house, or selling baked muffins.

Barriers to entry and byzantine regulation inspired by special interest has artificially raised the cost of living while creating demand for 'elite' overhead. That is the system which will collapse in the next great depression. And that is the system which in the shorter run inspires structural corruption, tax evasion and non-compliance in general. Ask Spain or Russia how difficult it is to get rid of it once it is entrenched.

We are all fans of Mancur Olson now.

Jim writes:

I tend to ignore morality in favor of behavior and incentives.

Women now instigate 70% of all divorce cases, the number one reason being they 'fell out of love.' Absent a pre-nup, women are now monetarily incented to kick the guy out; they get a huge annuity without having to wash underwear. Welfare also favors single families.

Network theory helps explain straining 'income inequality.' Government regulation, from zoning to licenses, always protects capital and raises the cost of new nodes at the expense of the disconnected and capital impoverished; poor people. Specialization exacerbates this trend.

With education costs out of control, it takes 2 generations just to accumulate enough capital and develop the network connections to become gainfully and comfortably employed. Entrepreneurial activity is basically no longer legal if you are poor. Try cutting hair, using your car as a taxi, starting a blue collar business out of your house, or selling baked muffins.

Barriers to entry and byzantine regulation inspired by special interest has artificially raised the cost of living while creating demand for 'elite' overhead. That is the system which will collapse in the next great depression. And that is the system which in the shorter run inspires structural corruption, tax evasion and non-compliance in general. Ask Spain or Russia how difficult it is to get rid of it once it is entrenched.

We are all fans of Mancur Olson now.

equired writes:

I'm inclined to agree with Arnold Kling, but (assuming I'm a member of the elite), how do I know I'm not just rationalizing my status, as opposed to feeling guilty?

Also, can someone tell me what "Vicky" culture refers to?

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