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Period Three Implies Chaos, political discourse edition

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

In James Gleick’s book Chaos he writes about a paper titled Period Three Implies Chaos. Very roughly, the idea is that even seemingly simple systems can start behaving unpredictably by the third iteration. The responses to David Brooks’ column Tuesday makes it seem like there may be a similar phenomenon with political commentary. Writing about poverty, Brooks described “feedback loops of economic stress and family breakdown.” The causes? “It’s not only money and better policy that are missing in these circles; it’s norms” – norms which have been subverted by what he calls nonjudgmentalism.

Elizabeth Bruenig responded to Brooks, and on that point actually agreed: “if Brooks images that improving social norms is just a sliver of the solution, then he’s right,” but she also basically says, slow down there cowboy. Brooks breezes past the whole money and better policy part, Bruenig focuses on it. She doesn’t weigh in on norms (which is what a nonjudgmental approach would do), just puts them on the periphery.

The traditional conservative criticism of liberal antipoverty sentiment is that it exists in a haze of moral relativism. Hey man it’s all the same if a kid grows up in a stable two parent family or a single parent one with an endless, bewildering parade of shady partners. Bruenig specifically does not do that. She notes approvingly that poor people want to get married at the same rate as the rich, and otherwise notes the presence of sound values.

Bruenig isn’t saying that it’s all the same, just that Brooks’ prescription as a very small part of the solution. Exhorting lower income people to make good choices is fine, but won’t have nearly the impact that well designed programs will. She just points out that programs like SNAP and child allowances have an overall good effect on the very problems Brooks frets about. The biggest problems with them is that they are routinely demonized on the right as fostering dependency, and that conservative leaders have spent decades using singular or apocryphal stories about them as being characteristic of the programs as a whole.

So here’s where it stands at that point. Brooks: (mumble mumble policy money) we must focus on norms! (Perhaps not coincidentally, Brooks’ preferred approach doesn’t require us to do anything but talk.) Bruenig: Sure we do, but hey what was that first part again? At which point period three and chaos arrives in the form of Kevin Williamson. He begins with a variant of a long-running right wing talking point, that America has the richest poor in the world. Which even if it’s true doesn’t ameliorate the anxiety and uncertainty low income people swim about in like a fish in water.

He then goes on a vaguely creepy trip through Bruenig’s biography. Everything he links to is public, but as I read through his litany I thought, this dude is taking an unseemly interest in her. Your mileage may vary but it seemed a little off to me.

Amazingly, Williamson’s non-sequiturs are the strongest part of his post. When he tries to stay on topic he does even worse. He uses his own story of growing up poor as a rebuttal to Bruenig’s data, which is hardly persuasive. Lived experience is important of course, but extrapolating it to everyone is silly. It can be an effective rhetorical technique – witness the persistence of welfare queens and strapping young bucks in the conservative imagination – but if one is seriously trying to refute an argument based on data it’s incredibly weak.

He finishes by claiming, incorrectly, that she is making the case for moral relativism. Her point about moral compasses was that low income people report similar values and aspirations as other groups, not that every single poor person is a paragon of virtue. This seems to be a pretty simple point. If you are poor you will probably want similar things for yourself and your family as everyone else, but the fact of poverty itself will put you in a position to accept or tolerate circumstances you might not be obliged to otherwise. Staying with a less than ideal partner in order to have additional income or child care support, for instance.

Her point is that encouraging good decision making is a comparative drop in the bucket when measured against policies that make real resources available to low income people. If you’re going to devote, say, a New York Times op-ed to poverty, make exhortation the parenthetical aside and policy the focus of the piece, not the other way around. Doesn’t seem like a difficult concept to grasp, but Williamson misses it entirely.

Seeing the discussion fall apart so quickly – point, counterpoint, argle bargle – is a reason to put less stock in the idea of epistemic closure on the left. If this is the kind of dialogue on offer from the right, what benefit is there in engaging with it? National Review Online is one of the pre-eminent sites for conservative analysis, and this is an all too typical example of the quality of the work there. It doesn’t come across as a good faith effort to address the issue but as a quickly assembled grab bag of personal attacks and straw men. Steering clear of that is not an unwillingness to encounter contrary ideas as much as an unwillingness to engage with incipient madness.

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