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“David Brooks Will Never Get It”: Isn’t The New York Times Embarrassed By This Lazy Ignorance?

The New York Times’ resident moralizer David Brooks is at it again. This time his lecture podium is pointed at Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the new memoir “Between the World and Me.” Coates’ book, mostly a meditation on race in America, is written as a series of open letters to his teenage son. Let me confess now: I haven’t yet read Coates’ book, though I’ve read much of his writings on race. Few write with the force and clarity that Coates does, and fewer still write about topics as urgent as race and power.

David Brooks isn’t convinced, however. He’s not sure if  Coates, a black man from Baltimore chronicling his own life, really understands “the black male experience.” No, Brooks thinks Coates is too angry, too pessimistic about America’s past, too fatalistic about its future. First, it’s worth noting that Coates isn’t talking to the David Brookses of the world. His letters are addressed to his son and to black Americans, not to cloistered elites writing for the country’s most prestigious paper.

In any case, Brooks begins, as he often does, with a kind of faux-olive branch, a perfunctory offering: “The last year has been an education for white people,” he writes. “There has been a depth, power and richness to the African-American conversation about Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and the other killings that has been humbling and instructive.” Brooks, of course, promptly commends Coates for his “contribution to that public education.”

But then, right on cue, Brooks begins to miss the point of the person at whom his lecture is aimed. He’s especially miffed at Coates’ dismissal of the American dream as a quaint fantasy built on the backs of enslaved black people. Brooks writes the following:

“You write to your son, ‘Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.’ The innocent world of the dream is actually built on the broken bodies of those kept down below. If there were no black bodies to oppress, the affluent Dreamers ‘would have to determine how to build their suburbs on something other than human bones, how to angle their jails toward something other than a human stockyard, how to erect a democracy independent of cannibalism.’

Brooks finds this critique “disturbing.” He tells Coates directly (Brooks’ Op-Ed is also written as an open letter — surely a failed attempt at cleverness): “I think you distort American history.” By distort Brooks means that Coates is too consumed with the ugly parts — the slavery, the lynching, the plunder, the redlining, the false imprisonment and so on. For Brooks, all this brooding over the past and its impact on the present obscures the obvious (and more pleasant) truth, namely that “America was the antidote to the crushing restrictiveness of European life…the American dream was an uplifting spiritual creed that offered dignity, the chance to rise.” As for that slavery business, sure, it was horrible, but “There’s a Lincoln for every Jefferson Davis and a Harlem Children’s Zone for every K.K.K.”

Brooks’ point, which no one disputes and which is obvious in any event, is that America isn’t all bad; that injustice is inherent in America, but doesn’t come “close to the totality of America.” Fair enough. But Coates’ argument seems to be much more complex than that. At least in his other writings, particularly his essay on reparations, Coates argues that much of what makes America great was born of everything that made it unjust; and that awareness of this truth depends, more often than not, on which side of the line you fall.

Brooks doesn’t really want to hear that, though. He doesn’t want to hear that our distant sins aren’t really distant at all; that the legacy of racism stretches into the present; that Ferguson, Baltimore and Charleston are part of a living history from which we can’t divorce ourselves. Brooks, for instance, says he finds “the causation between the legacy of lynching and some guy’s decision to commit a crime inadequate to the complexity of most individual choices.” He finds it inadequate, in part, because he sees events like Baltimore in a vacuum, ignoring all the antecedent causes that led to it. This is precisely the error people like Coates are exposing. Brooks’ privileged perch affords him the luxury of not understanding how these things are connected; they enter his life only as abstractions, not concrete truths. I imagine it’s far less abstract for a black man from Baltimore, or for his teenage son, or for anyone else encumbered by the past.

How easy it must be for Brooks to focus on tomorrow, to write in earnest that we can “abandon old wrongs and transcend old sins for the sake of better tomorrow.” Those untouched by the pangs of history find it easier to dismiss, I suppose. But Coates is talking about the present as much as he is the past. Brooks, despite making the appropriate gestures, is blind to this part of Coates’ argument. He does not — and apparently cannot — see how our past defines our present and constrains our future.

Brooks rarely makes the effort to see the world from the perspective of the other. When he’s writing about poverty or middle-class virtues or racism, his analysis is always removed, abstract and condescending.

Today’s column continues that tradition in fine form.


By: Sean Illing, Salon, July 17, 2015

July 19, 2015 Posted by | American History, David Brooks, Racism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Lifetime Framework”: The Devastating, Lifelong Consequences Of Student Debt

America has gone through a rapid social experiment over the last 20 years. We have created a system, in large part through public disinvestment, where our young people take on large amounts of student debt in order to achieve a college degree. The sea change has been so quick it’s been difficult to gather even basic, solid numbers on it, making the consequences of such massive student debt subject to intense debate.

A new report from Beth Akers and Matthew M. Chingos of the Brookings Institution has further fueled that debate, arguing that the conventional story of escalating debt burdens due to student loans are overstated. Even though the number of young households with debt has increased from 14 percent to 36 percent between 1989 and 2010, the percentage of monthly income those people put toward their student debt payments is largely the same. Even though student loan debts are going up, they’ve been accompanied by rising incomes, largely balancing out the burden. The focus shouldn’t be on student loans broadly, and instead on more targeted solutions like focusing on those who drop out of college but still have debt.

But this study, like many arguments along these lines, suffers from a major problem: It focuses on a month-to-month comparison. When we look at the effects of a major economic changewhether it’s government debt, taxes, or replacing a system of publicly funded free colleges with a system of debt for a diplomawe can’t just look at what immediately happens. We need to also consider how people behave in the long run. And when we look at student loans from the point of view of a lifetime, the results are more worrisome.

How could this matter? An infamous study on student debt by Jesse Rothstein of the University of California, Berkeley, and Cecilia Elena Rouse of Princeton looked at the results of a highly selective university replacing loans with grants. It concluded “that debt causes graduates to choose substantially higher-salary jobs and reduces the probability that students choose low-paid ‘public interest’ jobs.”

Let’s imagine two scenarios. In the first you have high student loans, so you work for a corporation in the private sector for high wages. And in the second you have virtually no student loans, and you work for less wages in a job focused on the public interest, say as an educator or at a nonprofit. In both cases your student loan payment would be the same as a percentage of your income. The Brookings result would hold. However your lifetime choices will have radically changed as a result.

We see this with other lifetime measures, such as how entrepreneurial people are. A recent study by Brent W. Ambrose of Pennsylvania State University, and Larry Cordell and Shuwei Ma of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, found “a significant and economically meaningful negative correlation between changes in student loan debt and net business formation for the smallest group of small businesses.” This makes sense. You can keep your high student loan burdens low if you stay with an established employer. But if you strike out on your own, you’ll have less and more volatile income when you start. This is harder to manage with student loans, which also impacts your credit rating. Again, we can see the short-term student loan burdens staying the same, even though lifetime choices are much more limited as a result.

The lifetime framework also puts front and center something the Brookings study largely hand-waves: the rapid increase in how long people are paying off their student debt. Though the percentage of income that student-loan debtors pay stays the same, the length they are paying those loans is up 80 percent. What was once an average length of 7.4 years in repayment in 1992 is now 13.4 years. All things equal, a large increase in the length you will be paying student loans means you will dedicate a larger portion of your lifetime income to student loans. This burden goes missing by narrowly looking at a month-to-month basis.

This has major consequences for people’s ability to build wealth. Indeed, much of the current energy in analyzing student loan burdens are looking at this longer dynamic, and how it interplays with the ability for people to amass savings. As Richard Fry of Pew found, using the same data set as Brookings, “households headed by a young, college-educated adult without any student debt obligations have about seven times the typical net worth ($64,700) of households headed by a young, college-educated adult with student debt ($8,700).” Fry also finds that those who took out loans are less satisfied with their financial situation compared to people without loans. Similar results have been investigated and found by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

This, in turn, has major consequences for how young people will ultimately transition into adulthood. According to Dora Gicheva of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, student debt decreases the long-term probability of marriage by a significant amount. In a result that should make social conservatives gasp, Gicheva found that an additional $10,000 in loans decreases the probability of marriage by at least 7 percentage points. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that young student debtors are retreating from those traditional markers of adulthood, homeownership and owning a car. These effects reflect the long-term consequences of student debt on a young person’s economic security just as much, if not more, than their monthly bill.

This system of student debt has happened so fast that proper analysis is hard to do. But what’s most interesting is research showing how student debt threatens fundamentally American ways of life. Student debt chips away at the ability to be a risk-taking entrepreneur, a homesteader who has amassed enough wealth to be self-sufficient, or someone who has dedicated their craft to working in our rich civil society. These are three very real versions of the American Dream, and contrary to what studies like Brookings’s might show over the short term, they are all being weakened by the way we saddle young people with student debt burdens.


By: Mike Konczal, a Fellow with The Roosevelt Institute; The New Republic, June 24, 2014

June 30, 2014 Posted by | Higher Education, Student Debt | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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