China and its Discontents

Archive for the ‘David Brooks’ tag

David Brooks’ Specious and Trite Op/Ed on Chinese Education

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David Brooks wrote an embarrassingly clueless New York Times op/ed a couple days ago comparing Chinese and American learning styles, making conclusions that wouldn’t line up if you had even spent a minimal amount of time in the Chinese educational system. Brooks seems to think that the Chinese educational system exists as some sort of Confucian utopia:

“Westerners tend to define learning cognitively while Asians tend to define it morally. Westerners tend to see learning as something people do in order to understand and master the external world. Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.”

But in reality this doesn’t reflect modern Chinese education at all. Education in China today is more free than it used to be but it is still heavily influenced by Mao: education’s purpose is largely defined as fulfilling a set of political goals, not cultivating virtuous individuals. Kids grow up with explicit “values lessons” in elementary school, but instead of cultivating a love of learning and a sense of citizenship, they learn obedience to authority and rote memorization. Then when they get to high school and college they transition to political education emphasizing traditional Marxism-Leninism. I suppose this is one kind of moral outlook, but normatively it certainly isn’t one that I would establish in schools.

The structure of the system itself squelches creativity and independent moral thought: the gaokao (the national standardized college admissions test) is morality-free, largely cognitive/instrumental, and serves as the main admissions standard, thus eliminating more whimsical criteria like admissions essays. Once students get into college, they must choose a major (often in a technical field that they are not interested in) and are never allowed to switch majors. Furthermore, they face academic dishonesty at all levels: among students and among faculty (hardly encouraging of independent thought!). Finally, no actual Chinese student would define their learning goals the way Brooks does. Brooks likes to think Chinese students emulate the Confucian ideal:

The idea is to perfect the learning virtues in order to become, ultimately, a sage, which is equally a moral and intellectual state. These virtues include: sincerity (an authentic commitment to the task) as well as diligence, perseverance, concentration and respect for teachers.

But in fact almost every Chinese student will tell you they work hard in order to a) Satisfy parental expectations, and b) If they’re a male, find a good job so they can buy an apartment and a car, get married, and support a family, or if they’re a female, attract a husband who will support them. This is but one more example of what Wang Hui calls “the de-politicization of politics”: “commercial logic is replacing political reasoning, a developmentalist discourse is replacing political participation, and a restructuring of interest relations of capital is replacing a debate on political values.” Framing education first as a method to drill in obedience and second as a way to create happy capitalist pawns strengthens the power of the CCP twice over.

A friend of mine describes what is most disappointing about this op/ed, however: “In the usual tunnel-vision view of the West as Wall Street and Hollywood, the whole tradition of moral learning going back to Aristotle and Aquinas is overlooked.” One would think that, even though David Brooks is no China expert, he might have a pretty good understanding of pedagogy and the philosophy of education in the West. The inculcation of virtue has been one of the principle pedagogical aims of education in the West all the way up until being deemphasized in the second half of the 20th century. In my view, while Confucianism has historically emphasized virtue, the virtues taught in the West have generally been normatively superior (this is especially true of the concepts of citizenship taught in Western public school systems–systems that are under attack in the U.S. by low funding and voucherization). I agree with Brooks that a moral impulse in education is good and that we should re-imagine what it means to teach citizenship today, and even that Confucianism might have something valuable to teach us in this regard. But he is completely wrong in looking to modern China for inspiration.

Re: Central Moral Challenges

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He spoke for those who believe the country’s runaway debt is the central moral challenge of our time.

– David Brooks, on Mitch Daniels’ CPAC speech.

What?! Poverty, disease, and war are the central moral challenges of our time. What kind of world does David Brooks live in? Mitch Daniels is the dream candidate for pretty much one type of person: the pseudo-libertarian Washington media personality.

Written by Will

February 25th, 2011 at 8:14 am

No, David Brooks, Do Follow the Money

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David Brooks, whom it can be so easy to be disappointed with, answered the wrong question in his column several days ago (at this point – I’m a little late to the party). He starts with the factual that a) there’s been a lot of commentary on the role of money in politics recently, and then pivots to b) this commentary assumes campaign spending influences elections. He then proceeds to explain using numbers how campaign advertisements do little to elect candidates.

This is wrong. Why are journalists and activists complaining about money? The influence that money exerts on legislators! It’s besides the point whether or not the money is actually useful to campaigns. The reality is that regardless of whether it is effective, incumbent legislators spend way too much time on fundraising vs. legislating, and are enmeshed in a system that institutionalizes corruption. “Personal corruption,” as Lawrence Lessig has argued, is not as big a problem anymore (despite the highly-publicized instances of it). Rather, money rears its head in politics in subtler ways.

When representatives spend 70% of their time on the phone with fundraisers (I don’t have the energy to look up the citation, sorry), their attention is not where it should be. Their attention is with the people giving them money. Money buys attention, which subsequently influences legislation. Other patterns of influence surface in the bureaucracy, where drugs are tested for safety using industry-sponsored studies, and the coal industry is left to its own devices, destroying the environment mountain by mountain.

David Brooks, please don’t try to refute a position by misdirection next time.

Written by Will

October 22nd, 2010 at 3:00 am

Posted in Politics

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David Leonhardt Puts His Finger on the Button, and More Deficit Politics

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David Leonhardt at the New York Times gets it exactly right:

The reasons for the new American austerity are subtler, but not shocking. Our economy remains in rough shape, by any measure. So it’s easy to confuse its condition (bad) with its direction (better) and to lose sight of how much worse it could be. The unyielding criticism from those who opposed stimulus from the get-go — laissez-faire economists, Congressional Republicans, German leaders — plays a role, too. They’re able to shout louder than the data…

In an ideal world, countries would pair more short-term spending and tax cuts with long-term spending cuts and tax increases. But not a single big country has figured out, politically, how to do that.

This is the problem, very elegantly put. With a slight change in priorities and with the right mix of policy, wiping out the deficit is a very doable task. Only bad politics is screwing over the right policy.
I also love Paul Krugman’s refutation of David Brooks’ recent op-ed, and this wonderful deficit calculator from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, which shows you just what policies would get us to a budget surplus.

Brooks is Wrong – Consumer Confidence is High

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As an addendum to last night’s post on David Brooks misguided op-ed, Ezra Klein and Ryan Avent point out that contrary to this sentiment:

“in times like these, deficit spending to pump up the economy doesn’t make consumers feel more confident; it makes them feel more insecure because they see a political system out of control.”

Consumer confidence is actually at an all time high. I really liked how Ezra Klein put it:

Now, it may be that the deficit itself scares people even as the deficit-driven economic recovery is making them confident. But that just goes to the question of whether you’d prefer to have people worried about a deficit that’s actually not a major problem or an unnecessarily deep recession that actually is a major problem.

This gets back to what I said last night – do we worry about some phantom fears of deficit or turn our attention to quantifiable worries?

Written by Will

June 11th, 2010 at 6:37 pm

David Brooks: Debt Armageddon Killing Economic Recovery?

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David Brooks’ latest op-edclaims that Keynesian counter-cyclical stimulus proponents have it all wrong – fiscal policy resulting in government debt doesn’t boost aggregate demand, it frightens the business community with visions of debt armageddon:

Voters, business leaders and political leaders do not seem to think that the stimulus was such a smashing success that we should do it again, even with today’s high unemployment… In times like these, deficit spending to pump up the economy doesn’t make consumers feel more confident; it makes them feel more insecure because they see a political system out of control. Deficit spending doesn’t induce small businesspeople to hire and expand. It scares them because they conclude the growth isn’t real and they know big tax increases are on the horizon. It doesn’t make political leaders feel better either. Lacking faith that they can wisely cut the debt in some magically virtuous future, they see their nations careening to fiscal ruin.

All Brooks seems to be concerned about is the stimulus bill passed last year, and how it’s scaring the living daylights out of the industrious entrepreneurs of America. Pop-psychology aside, this was a small component of counter-cyclical stimulus, and a small reason why the deficit exploded in 2009. First, unemployment skyrocketed and unemployment insurance picked up the slack. I don’t know how to quantify the fear of businessmen, but I do know how to quantify billions of dollars sent to the unemployed, spent on food, shelter, and basic necessities. This sort of stimulus is extremely effective, because it all gets spent. Second, revenues plummeted.
My point is most of the deficit of the last year was not a direct choice of policy-makers in Washington, and cannot possibly indicate “a political system out of control.” Brooks (and most others on the right) are using the stimulus bill as a proxy for all deficit spending, and that’s wrong. We can quibble over how well the stimulus bill did its job. But what about unemployment insurance and other counter-cyclical policy? How can he balance money in the hands of the unemployed with some contrived nonsense about consumer confidence? You can look at numbers, or you can look at public opinion polls.
Tyler Cowen agrees – and he especially loves Brooks in this segment:

large and decisive deficit reduction policies were followed by increases in growth, not recessions.

I think Brooks and Cowen (and the academic researchers Brooks cites) have a problem mistaking correlation with causation. In particular, Brooks cites the US in the 1990’s; so the cw goes, President Clinton pushed through spending cuts, which encouraged business to bring in bountiful times. But this doesn’t quite hold up to inspection. While I can’t easily analyze Brooks’ examples of Ireland and Denmark, I can look at historical US government receipts, outlays, deficits (or surpluses), and GDP, all in inflation-adjusted 2005 dollars. In 1993 as Clinton came to power, $12 billion in spending was cut. But every year after, real spending was on the rise. Meanwhile in that first year, revenues increased $44 billion, $106 billion the year after that, rising every year. The deficit reduction in the 90’s only happened because a massive amount of new revenue came into the Treasury, not because spending was cut.
Besides reducing the deficit, Brooks adds what else he would like the government to pursue:

boosting innovation in areas like energy, and spending more money on growth-enhancing sectors like infrastructure.

Doh! That’s what the stimulus did! So we can’t take any money away from programs in the stimulus bill – they enhance growth. We can’t easily pull the rug under millions of unemployment insurance beneficiaries. Surely money in the pockets of the unemployed that is immediately spent can be agreed to be successful fiscal stimulus. And we can’t magically raise revenues. What does that leave us?

making the welfare state more efficient

I don’t know what this means. Regardless, it seems like Brooks wants all the benefits of Keynesian counter-cyclical fiscal stimulus without all the debt involved.
For a similar, more comprehensible argument, read William Galston and Paul Krugman.