“Dream Hoarders” (Richard Reeves): what about equality of opportunity?

I used to rehearse the phrase “equality of opportunity” in my own mind when I was younger, because I thought providing that would provide a moral basis for looking at people through my own distant guise of meritocracy.

Richard Reeves, senior fellow in Economic Studies and co-director on the Center on Children and Families in the Brookings Institution, and himself a naturalized U.S.  citizen from England, takes on this aspect of inequality in his brief new book “Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What We Can Do About It”.  That’s a mouthful of words for a book title.

One of Reeves’s key observations that it’s not just the top 1% who show their privilege, it’s more like the top 20%.  And it is true, kids of affluent parents tend to do better in life than kids of poor people. And it’s true that affluent parents are more often European or Asian and Christian or Jewish.  Poor parents are more often African or Latino or Native descent.

And affluent parents to dote on their kids. David Callahan had covered this problem in his 2004 book “The Cheating Culture”.

But Reeves goes particularly after policy patterns that give affluent parents to “hoard” opportunity fr their kids in what he sees as a zero-sum game of “positional play” (as in chess, you have a finite set of pieces and sometimes you make small sacrifices).

He does support individualism (as supported by meritocracy), for adults.  He thinks that grownups need to accept the idea of downward mobility to balance things out (I remember that period after my forced “retirement” at the end of 2001 and what the pimpy job interviews were like). But for kids, we need to keep them raised up.

He has a number of specific policy proposals.  These include backing down on exclusionary real estate zoning laws so that people of different incomes and their kids mix, and the end to legacy preferences in college admissions and internships.  He does take up the student loan problem to some extent, not going as far as Peter Thiel to call it a scam.  And he waffles on condemning unpaid internships (compare to Ross Perlin’s 2011 book “Intern Nation”). He thinks that Charles Murray (“Coming Apart”) and Robert Putnam (“Our Kids”) are too nice to rich people, for different reasons.  He does take a swipe at the lenient treatment of inherited wealth in our tax code.

Putnam thinks that much more needs to be done to help disadvantaged kids in person, but he seems to want big government behind it.  He wants teachers to pay their dues by working in poor neighborhoods, and he wants to see home visits.  He sees this sort of escalated interpersonal intervention into poor families as a job creator.

Reeves makes the point that legally married parents who wait until marriage to have kids raise better kids.  He takes a libertarian position on adult consensual sex as long as unplanned pregnancies don’t happen. (There’s a whole world of population demographics that he does not touch.) He supports planned parenthood programs and criticizes the GOP for its hypocritical moral squeamishness. He would not be too sympathetic to single moms because they usually result from carelessness.  He also notes that higher income and better educated people are more likely to marry and also more likely to avoid bad health habits (like cigarette smoking) and generally avoid obesity – and indeed higher income teens are much less likely to be obese and generally are better able to balance screen time and Internet use with real world physical activity and opportunity.  He does not consider same-sex marriage but probably the same observations would hold;  same-sex couples seem able to provide the same supervision for kids.   There’s one outlier he does not mention:  single gay men, who don’t fit the marriage profile.  But in upper classes single gay men often compete very well because they have more disposable income and haven’t had kids, ironically part of Milo’s (and my) “dangerous” argument.

Author: Richard V. Reeves
Title, Subtitle: “Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What We Can Do About It”
publication date 2017
ISBN 978-0-8157-2912-9
Publication: Brookings, Washington DC; 196 pages, hardcover, endnnotes, indexed
Link: Author

(Posted: Friday, July 7, 2017 at 12 Noon EDT)

“Ovarian Psycos”: women of color organize bike rides in East Los Angeles to improve civic values in their community

The documentary “Ovarian Psycos”, by Joanna Sokolowski and Kate Trumbull-LaValle, aired on PBS Independent Lens on Monday March 28, 2017. Slightly condensed from its 72 minutes.

The film covers the efforts of Latino women in East Los Angeles to motivate other residents in their neighborhood to care more about their homes by organizing informal (non-competitive) bicycle rides through the area.

Some of the women came from the most troubled areas in Central America, like El Salvador.

The film also covered the problems of nutrition – the need for food distribution and healthier foods to counteract Type 2 diabetes and obesity.

One of the rides is whimsically called “clitoral”.

I am reminded of the musical work “A Little Breeze” (“Eine Brise”) for 111 cyclists by Mauricio Kagel.  That’s been performed in the streets of Greenwich Village in NYC, not sure about Los Angeles.

Name:  “Ovarian Psycos”
Director, writer:  Joanna Sokolowski, Kate Trumbull-LaValle
Released:  2016/3 at SIFF, 2017 PBS
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  PBS Independent Lens, 2017/3/27
Length:  72 or 56
Rating:  NA
Companies:  PBS
Link:  official

(Posted: Tuesday, March 28, 2017 at 11:30 AM EDT)

“The Trump Survival Guide” by Gene Stone; what can “you do”? Join movements? Volunteer? Become an activist?

I read about this little handbook in the Washington Blade print edition at dinner last weekend.  It’s a new Bantamweight book “The Trump Survival Guide: Everything You Need to Know About Living Through what You Hoped Would Never Happen”, by Gene Stone, a little paperback and Kindle how is prolific with advice guides.  (Should read, “what you had hoped…”.)

The back cover says “Don’t Despair, Don’t Retreat, Fight Back”.

The book  is set up in fourteen short chapters about various issues.  Each chapter introduces the history of the issue, says what Barack Obama did about it, then speculates what Donald Trump might do, and then what to do about it personally.

The historical narratives assume a reader who knows very little history.  So this book, in a sense, is “for people”;  it’s not an argument about what policy should be (although it generally is “liberal” to moderate in tone).  I don’t write these sorts of articles or books myself, and I’ve sometimes been quizzed as to “why not”.   It may sell very well for a while.

The advice, “What you can do” is rather challenging.  It says, join organizations (or maybe movements?) Volunteer.  Become a teacher.  Become a mentor.  Volunteer in a soup kitchen.  Knock on doors and raise money.

I don’t knock on doors and ask for money because I view myself as a “journalist” and “above that”.  That makes me a spectator and critic, I guess.

On the volunteering, I find my own activity has to be very carefully thought through and matched to my background.  Many volunteer organizations are not very transparent and too bureaucratic and authoritarian in their own way.  I could imagine, for example, directing chess tournaments in underprivileged areas.  But I would like to get my own playing skill back up first (to something like USCF 2000).

All that said, there are some interesting points.

One is that Nixon conspired to get black people convicted of drug offenses so they couldn’t vote later.   I’ve heard that before, but it’s good to be reminded.

Another is the whole history of political parties, that at one time we had a “Know Nothing” party that predicts modern anti-intellectualism, and that the US has often had very discriminatory immigration policies in the past.

Still another is the attitude toward women’s work – that women were needed in the workforce during World War II, rather suddenly, so that the men could fight.  There is coverage of Trump’s inconsistency with regard to women (and his vulgar comments), and a hint that many men, ironically, see women’s work as a sign of their relative impotence, a profound cultural issue (which stands opposite to how male homosexuality often works).

He gives a good history of LGBTQ rights, especially pre-Stonewall, when society was deliberately intrusive into the private lives of gay people.  He covers the history of sodomy laws briefly, as well as DADT. He notes that Trump personally has claimed to support gay rights, but seems to be appointing anti-gay people to his Cabinet (Mattis seems OK on the DADT repeal as of this writing).  Trump seemed to treat gay contestants fairly on his own “Apprentice” show.

On immigration, he notes that Obama set up DACA but was pretty aggressive with deportations.  He notes that Mike Pence had once said he wanted to deport even the settled Syrian refugees.

On national security, he notes Trump’s own waffling on Iraq, but he doesn’t pay enough heed to the fact that Obama’s withdrawals may have helped allow the civil war in Syria to aid the spread of ISIS into Iraq and create random lone wolf threats to American civilians at home. I think the targeting of civilians, a kind of enemy conscription, is a bigger legal threat to other areas (like free speech online, with the terror recruiting problem) than most commentators realize. He does talk about the NSA and the torture issues.

On health care, he does explain that premiums for some people in the individual market, under the individual mandate, went up under Obamacare to help cover other people with pre-existing conditions.  People with too much income were not assisted with subsidies, so that is why many voters (who became Trump supporters) became incensed.  I like the idea of covering pre-existing conditions separately with a reinsurance vehicle. But you would have to debate, state by state, what gets covered this way.

He doesn’t cover the free press and free speech issues, or network neutrality, in much detail, but his brief statement on net neutrality sounds grim, like it could lead to censorship by telecom companies.

Author: Gene Stone
Title, Subtitle: The Trump Survival Guide: Everything You Need to Know About Living Trhough what You Hoped Would Never Happen
publication date 2017
ISBN 978-0-06-268648-0
Publication: Dey St/William Morrow, 191 pages, paper, 14 chapters, endnotes
Link: author

(Posted: January 26, 2017 at 1 PM EST)

“Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis”, by Robert Putnam; identity politics alone will not “make America great” again


Author: Robert D. Putnam
Title, Subtitle: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis
publication date 2016
ISBN 978-1-4767-6990-5
Publication: Simon & Schuster, 386 pages, indexed, paper
Link: author

About a year ago, a rounded tabby cat showed up on my driveway, looking for a place to crash to have her babies.  I guess I was being invited to become a sudden adoptive parent.  As I recall, some other teens in the neighborhood sheltered the event, which probably gave a good lesson in biology, and in caregiving.

Maybe this was an example of suddenly confronting a real need.

That provides, for me at least, a moral backdrop for reviewing Robert Putnam’s “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis”.

Putnam’s observation is differential:  kids from disadvantaged backgrounds are not doing better than their parents now, whereas a half century or more ago, they could.  We can get into calculus terminology and call this “differential inequality”.

The book comprises an overview, then chapters on “Families”, “Parenting”, “Schooling”, “Community”, and “What is to be done?”  Putnam gives comparative family histories from many places, including his own Port Clinton, Ohio, Bend, Oregon, Atlanta, and (like Charles Murray in “Coming Apart” in 2012), Philadelphia.

It seems like a paradox, that the working class was “better off” in the 50s and 60s than now – give the rampant racism which begrudgingly retreats for decades after the Civil Rights Movement. Generally, it’s the white working class that was better off – Donald Trump’s subjects for his own version of identity politics.  But people were not so segregated by economic class as they have become since.

Putnam covers the “sexual revolution” and acknowledges conservative theories as to how this development undermined poor people, along with the use of welfare payments which seem, on the surface, to encourage unwed motherhood.  It’s true that it seems harder to pay high-paying jobs to more people as women compete in the workplace on near parity with men.  And more single and childless adults (that used to include LGBT more than it does now) compete for the same jobs often reducing possible opportunities for heads of families (I could also say that the singles sometimes work for less and are more likely to survive layoffs).  I was part of that scene.

But the biggest problem seems to be globalization and technology has eliminated old-fashioned manufacturing jobs that stabilized the middle class.  Also, jobs get exported.  All of this fits Trump’s theories and demagoguery. At the same time, at a personal level, culture has become more individualistic.  The new sense of self -reliance (so much the moral basis for the libertarian right wing – and predicted by Ayn Rand)  works well with people who grow up in strong families and social backgrounds, but further weakens the disadvantaged.

Putnam focuses particularly on how parenting in poor neighborhoods results in kids without the physiological brain development that it takes to grow up to become reliable independent adults who can answer for their own choices (again, the morality of the libertarian right).  I’ve tended to focus on the idea that “observable inequality” of unearned wealth tends to convey a message to the disadvantaged that the “rules” don’t make sense and that they might as well live by the laws of the jungle (or inner city gang) anyway – I said that in my own “Do Ask, Do Tell III” book in 2014.  But Putnam brings this back to neuroscience.  Kids raised in lower class homes, without effective interaction, hopefully with two parents (same sex or not) don’t learn abstraction, and don’t develop the brain circuitry to support it.  This is part of the argument of Nicholas Kristoff in “A Path Appears”. That’s true in both sub-Saharan Africa and in Chicago’s gang neighborhoods.

Then the disadvantages propagate.  Teachers won’t stay at disadvantaged schools (although in Washington DC they actually make visits, story) .  Schools emphasize test scores and cut back on extracurricular activities that would help more disadvantaged kids get social skills.  Wealthy parents bend over backwards to get their own kids grow up to be little “Clark Kent’s”, while the disadvantaged fall further behind.

Finally, disadvantaged kids don’t get informal mentoring from unrelated adults, and don’t develop the extensive social “networks” of non-close people whom they know and could still learn from (and probably get leads on for employment).  The trends go over into modern social media.

Here, Putnam seems to part company a bit with Charles Murray (indeed the moral voice of the libertarian right) in “Coming Apart” (2012), in that Murray criticizes lower income communities (especially the white working class) for not maintaining strong inner social capital.  With Murray it’s “preach what you practice” – the better-off merely show the less well-off how to keep eusociality alive.  I asked Murray by Twtter if this book resembled his, and he answered, well, while the policy recommendations are much more from the Left, otherwise, “pretty much”. But I also disagree with both Murray and Putnam a little– I think the “working class” even today has a better “watch each other’s back” street sense in social relations than many wealthier people.

As to “what is to be done”, part of the policy solution is the usual recommendation for much more assistance for new parents in low income areas, regardless of “moral hazard”.  This has to do with tax credits, cash grants, guaranteed income, and a variety of progressive proposals (which Vox Media in particular has suggested).  But it’s on the personal side that it gets interesting.  He says that poor kids need a lot “well off” adults willing to serve as their mentors, sometimes in structured and sometimes informal settings.  Places of faith are good for this.  Presumably this should incorporate childless people.  This is starting to sound like moral pressure related to real need.  Should there exist a legal concept called “mentorship”?

Local churches send older youth overseas on missions to do this kind of thing (“The Mission in Belize” has been covered on these blogs), and the same sort of concept exists with refugees and asylum seekers.  But we may need to do a lot more of this with our own.

(Posted: Monday, Oct. 17, 2016 at 1 PM EDT)