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The Dumbest Article You’ll Read Today


David Brooks wins that title with most of his articles, but his piece fretting about men in the economy is particularly bad. After a long pointless discussion of The Searchers, which I guess he means to use to fill his word count construct men as pioneers who become irrelevant, Brooks proceeds to misunderstand completely why male employment has not recovered like female employment. It’s not because of some crisis of values, which Brooks loves to push. It’s because of the very economic model for which he has spent a whole life selling us.

The definitive explanation for this catastrophe has yet to be written. Some of the problem clearly has to do with changes in family structure. Work by David Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that men raised in fatherless homes, without as many immediate masculine role models, do worse in the labor force. Some of the problem probably has to do with a mismatch between boy culture and school culture, especially in the early years.

But, surely, there has been some ineffable shift in the definition of dignity. Many men were raised with a certain image of male dignity, which emphasized autonomy, reticence, ruggedness, invulnerability and the competitive virtues. Now, thanks to a communications economy, they find themselves in a world that values expressiveness, interpersonal ease, vulnerability and the cooperative virtues.

Surely, part of the situation is that many men simply do not want to put themselves in positions they find humiliating. A high school student doesn’t want to persist in a school where he feels looked down on. A guy in his 50s doesn’t want to find work in a place where he’ll be told what to do by savvy young things.

This is, frankly, stupid. The reason why male employment hasn’t recovered is because the jobs men used to have no longer exist. That the 20th century economy was inherently sexist cannot be questioned. Men had industrial jobs that became high paying after decades of union organization. The middle-class of salesmen, middle managers, etc., was also dominated by men. Women were in service positions. Now you tell me, which jobs still exist in the United States in 2013? The industrial jobs on the shopfloor? Uh, no. Even college educated men are told that they will change jobs multiple times in their lives. The basis of a secure economy that came from knowledge that your job would last a lifetime is long gone. Even lawyers have no work. What remains is a service economy, with jobs long defined as female. Housekeeping, nursing, child care, entry level office work, Wal-Mart–these are jobs that are available. This is not so different than the Great Depression, when men found themselves out of work and women often did not. That’s because telephone operators, teachers, secretaries, and other female-defined jobs proved more stable than a mechanic, working in an auto plant, or mining coal. In the 1930s, you saw a rash of men, embarrassed because they could no longer fulfill their masculine duties of maintaining a household, running away, hopping trains, committing suicide, leaving their families behind.

None of this is to excuse gender divisions at work. It’s to say that (likely) long-term shifts in American capitalism are to blame for what David Brooks would like to blame on culture.

……I stand corrected. Richard Cohen saying that our fear of even mentioning crime committed by young black men is like our fear of talking about sex in the Victorian Era is the dumbest article you’ll read today.

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  • I am really sick of all this bleating about how schools are unfairly targeting boys by making them sit still. Sitting still in school is not new. When schools were all male the boys had to sit still, damned still, and no one thought that they “couldn’t learn” or were being “oppressed” by the evils of feminization. I get why this is being said, and by whom, but its sickeningly ahistorical and ill informed. The problem with modern schooling for poor kids is that they are in overcrowded, poverty stricken schools in poverty stricken neighborhoods where they may not have enough food, clothing, or a safe place to do homework and sleep. This has nothing to do with whether they are still required to sit in rows.

    • LeeEsq

      On a related note, my brother criticizes Hanna Rosin’s End of Men thesis. What he thinks is more accurate, but not as provocative as a title, is that what we are seeing is the End of Some Men. Mainly, the ones described by Erik above. He also describes this as the “why is it so hard to get boys from working and lower-middle class backgrounds into college while it seems somewhat easier to get girls from those background into college” problem.

      Boys from my socio-economic background, middle to upper-middle class, basically seem to be doing fine. We go to college and get some sort of job even if its not exactly what we wanted. If there is no tradition of college education in the family, thats when you get boys that have a hard time adopting.

      • The kinds of jobs that men without college degrees used to get were good, high paying, union jobs. You didn’t need a college education just to break even, and a college education didn’t cost that much except in time and the need for financial support while you weren’t working full time. It is now the case that even jobs for which you did not previously need a college degree–pink collar–you now need a degree while the male jobs for which you only needed a highschool diploma or a GED also now require a college degree (or two!).

        The great recession destroyed millions of jobs and these have simply not been replaced. You can’t talk about the jobs there are and the qualifications and requirements for those jobs (in an educational sense) without talking about the ways in which its a buyers market and the requirements/qualifications have therefore become completely unmoored from reality. Nevertheless, they have become unmoored from reality. Highschool drop outs could still do plenty of work in this economy but they will never get the chance because the positions either don’t exist or are being filled with someone who has a paper qualification that they don’t really need but which they have. No wonder people at the lower end of the SES are discouraged and losing motivation.

        • LeeEsq

          My question is more about adaptation. I grew up in a family where college was basically assumed for all kids. My grandparents were children of Jewish immigrants and they went to college. Naturally, my parents and their siblings did as well. As a result, college was a natural assumption for my brother and I.

          I know that in many families, college is not a natural assumption. That many people are the first their families to go to college or what not. However, it seems that in the families where college isn’t a natural assumption that, in general, girls have been faster to adopt to the new realities than boys. It seems a bit easier to get girls from families with no college background into college than boys.

          • Josh G.

            What about people, of whatever gender, who just plain aren’t smart enough to finish college? Should society expect them to resign themselves to lives of poverty?

            We need to provide good life opportunities for all Americans, not just the best and brightest. This was the glory of the post-WWII era and it is now almost completely lost.

    • joe from Lowell


      Schools have become much less oriented around students sitting still in neat rows of desks than they were during Brooks’ golden age.

      Has this guy never seen a photograph of a classroom from the 1950s?

      • Uncle Kvetch

        Being of Italian/Irish Catholic stock, I’m trying to square this new meme with the nostalgic tales I grew up with, about how Sister Atrocious back at St. Flavia’s could keep 35 kids in line with nothing more than a yardstick and a thousand-yard stare. To think that she was part of the problem after all…

        • Just

          This. Cognitive dissonance, how does it work?

    • Karen

      This is sooooo true. I have two sons sons in school right now, and while I worry about the fact that they aren’t at the tops of their classes, I’m also very happy with cultural changes that make it easier to be something other than a jock. They play in their school orchestras, the younger one is a talented sculptor and painter and the older one writes sci if novels as a hobby. They have active and happy social lives, and, most importantly,have girls as platonic friends. This would not have happened 30 years ago and wouldn’t happen in the world Brooks wants for men.

      • catclub

        “one writes sci if novels” Alternative alternative fiction?

    • Sherm

      Totally anecdotal, but I share some of these concerns regarding our young boys; I just don’t agree that “feminization” of the schools is the problem, and I have no clue as to the cause of the problem, if any. I suspect it might be a maturity issue compounded by the pressure on the schools these days to perform (ie testing). But whenever I’ve been at my daughter’s school for an award ceremony, I have noticed that nearly every top student is female and that at least 2/3 of the kids on the highest honor roll are female. The only boy who received a top award when my daughter graduated middle school last year was for best student in the non-advanced math class in a district where at least 40% of the kids are enrolled in advanced math. The Honor and AP classes are predominantly female as well.

      In contrast, and as a father of a young son with special needs, it seems that a vast majority of the young kids receiving extra services through special ed are boys. And when my daughter was younger, she was regularly placed in the inclusion class each year (presumably bc she was such an empathetic kid), and I do not recall any of the special ed inclusion kids being female.

      I’m curious how many others have made similar observations.

    • Josh G.

      John Holt and other progressive educators were saying much the same thing as far back as the 1960s.

  • After a long pointless discussion of The Searchers, which I guess he means to use to …construct men as pioneers who become irrelevant

    Wait. What? That was the point he got from The Searchers???

    • Ethan Edwards made this world possible, but he is unfit to live in it. At the end of the movie, after seven years of effort, he brings the abducted young woman home. The girl is ushered inside, but, in one of the iconic images in Hollywood history, Edwards can’t cross the threshold. Because he is tainted by violence, he can’t be part of domestic joy he made possible. He is framed by the doorway and eventually walks away.

      That image of the man outside the doorway is germane today, in a different and even more tragic manner. Over the past few decades, millions of men have been caught on the wrong side of a historic transition, unable to cross the threshold into the new economy.


      • Holy Fucking Crap.

        He doesn’t get that Debbie is Ethan’s daughter? And that for him to stay would mean he’d destroy the reputation of Martha? That he’s leaving well enough alone?

        What an idiot! That’s so obvious that it’s painful he missed it.

        • Hogan

          Maybe he was thinking of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and got his note cards shuffled.

        • MAJeff

          Just because he wants The Humanities to “elevate man” doesn’t mean he actually has to understand narrative.

          • Lyanna

            It all makes sense once you realize that when he says ‘man,’ he’s not just being archaic, he’s being literal.

        • sibusisodan

          Nonsense. He knew full well. This is just him demonstrating Humility. Obviously.

        • Just Dropping By

          I’ve seen the film twice and it never occurred to me that Debbie was supposed to be Ethan’s daughter. Prompted by your comment, I’ve gone looking for critical analysis on that point and while it seems that a number people have speculated about whether that was the case, no one says there’s anything explicitly in the film about it.

          • No, but it’s strongly implied by the relationship with Martha and the fact that Ethan is so insistent on finding Debbie and returning her home. This really only makes sense if he knows she’s his.

            • Also, it’s important to keep in mind that this was a) a John Wayne film and b) the era this film was released in.

              It would not do for the Duke’s public image in 1956 to appear in a movie where he sexes up brother’s wife then abandons her pregnant.

              It’s clear from the scenes between them they love each other. The depth of that love has to be inferred, but it’s pretty clear it’s not an in-law thing.

      • Josh G.

        Kit Whitfield posted an excellent deconstruction of The Searchers a couple of years ago.

        • Just

          Thanks for the link. I watched the movie a while ago and didn’t care for it, figured I must be missing something. Turns out, not so much.

          • I hope you weren’t thinking I raised my plot point to defend the movie. I watched it cringing, even as a kid. I’m intrigued with it, because you can find it’s effects in films all the way down to the present era.

  • Joshua

    Charles Murray spent, presumably, lots of time and effort to write a book about how ‘white America’ is in trouble not because their jobs have disappeared and been replaced by Wal-Marts, but because of dumb libs and their spending programs.

    These guys are working very, very, very hard to ignore the evidence right in their face.

    • Ronan

      In fairness to Murray, wasnt his book largely spot on (apart from his causal explanations )

      • Bill Murray

        which book? The Bell Curve contained very poor science, in addition to the causal explanations.

        • Ronan

          the falling apart one..bell curve was an obvious pile of shit (i assume, not having read it)

          • Ronan

            ..coming apart..

        • wjts

          I think they’re talking about Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. I haven’t read it, but apparently the book has some problems.

          • Ronan

            Thanks for the review. This was also a pretty decent and fair run down of his argument


            I’m generally less sympathetic to the idea of a new gilded age, or the claim that we’ve left behind an eden in the postwar order(not speaking really to the US, though I think some of it applies – in terms of more opportunities for non whites and women that werent possible in the context of the postwar order)but I think Murrays book was more speaking to that context(IIRC, as a non American with a simplified outsiders perspective) of the problems associated with growing inequality, class stratification and weakening of social mobility in the last 40 years, rather than a larger historical perspective
            It seemed to capture *some* of the narrative that I hear the American left talking about, although with Murrays idiotic hobbyhorses thrown in and a completly disproportionate emphasis on ‘cultural’ explanations (Its kind of how I feel about a British conservative like Ferdinad Mount speaking about the new oligarchy, some reasonable insights backed up with insane explanations. Overall though not terrible, all things considered. My *spot on* might have been over the top though)

  • Work by David Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that men raised in fatherless homes, without as many immediate masculine role models, do worse in the labor force.

    No wonder we’ve never ever elected a President who came from a broken home…

    • Hogan

      Or had a divorce.

    • Do worse than whom? Previous fatherless kids from poor neighborhoods? Divorce has meant that a lot of kids live with one parent, or another–are these “fatherless?” If not, what is embedded in this analysis is class above all.

      • Aimai, I ignored that for the joke that immediately sprung up.

        It would be interesting to see a study that crossfoots economic class of the family before and after a divorce with the success of the children against how many are truly fatherless. Plus, I’d love to see a sub-study that compares the death of the father with the divorce and isolation.

      • tt

        Brooks is probably referring to this paper. According to their review, boys do worse than girls in families without present fathers, and equal in families with present fathers.

        • Well, at least they mention economic status pre-divorce/separation. I just wished they’d followed that trend further

    • Rob

      Well sure, but they weren’t really Presidents since they were Democrats.

    • ajay

      In fact, one of the things that jumps out at you when you look at national leaders – specifically British prime ministers, in the research I saw – is how many of them were fatherless (or, in a small number of cases, motherless). Every PM from Spencer Perceval (1809) to Neville Chamberlain (1936) had lost a parent at an early age, with the exception of Ramsay MacDonald, who was a bastard. That’s way more than you’d expect for the general population. I don’t know if the same is true for US presidents…

      • Gerald Ford was our first divorced President (also changed his name). Clinton was our first child of divorced elected President, as far as I recall.

        Many of them fathered children out of wedlock, however.

        • Dirty Davey

          Nope. Reagan was the first president to have been divorced, and Ford the first to have had divorced parents.

          Ford was named Leslie King at birth. His mother divorced his father very shortly thereafter; when she then married a man named Gerald Ford, the child was renamed Gerald Ford Jr..

        • And to complete the record, Leslie “Gerald Ford” King was Betty Ford’s second hubby, making her the first divorced First Lady.

          Pretty obvious now that the moral (& other) decay of this nation started during the Ford Administration.

  • Many men were raised with a certain image of male dignity, which emphasized autonomy, reticence, ruggedness, invulnerability and the competitive virtues.

    He typed in his air conditioned home, while sitting on his ergonomically designed chair.

    • Vance Maverick

      More to the point, Brooks’s own mild, polite, quasi-scholarly rhetorical approach (and sheer volubility) is an example of what he pretends to regret.

    • In one of his vast spaces for entertaining. /Charlie Pierce.

  • brewmn

    If David could pull himself away from the Applebee’s salad bar long enough to actually experience the America he claims to know so much about, he would find millions of Ethan Edwards, their high-paying factory or trade jobs gone, yet getting up every day to go to work at, say, a big box store for a fraction of their former pay.

    They may not like it, but they do it, because, in spite of David’s condescending lament, they feel a responsibility to themselves, their family, and their society. And I’m pretty sure where they would tell David to shove his armchair sociologizing given half a chance.

    • delurking

      Yes. And often suffering humiliations Brooks has no conceptions of in the process. Wal-Mart’s method of fucking with people’s schedules in a deliberate attempt to quash worker initiative, for instance, is a prime example.

  • joe from Lowell

    I also can understand why Zimmerman was suspicious and why he thought Martin was wearing a uniform we all recognize. I don’t know whether Zimmerman is a racist.

    I can understand why someone could see a white guy wearing a suit and be suspicious. He’s wearing a uniform we all recognize, and the statistics about race and financial sector fraud are undeniable.

    Oh, wait, no I can’t. That’s racist as hell.

    • So if Martin had been wearing a Dolphins jersey, Zims would have given him a pass?

      I don’t think so…

      • JKTHs

        Certainly not if he was wearing a Patriots jersey and Zimmerman had knowledge of events 16 months in the future.

        • He must have been clairvoyant. He knew Trayvon was a thug and a punk, right?

    • ajay

      I can understand why someone could see a white guy wearing a suit and be suspicious. He’s wearing a uniform we all recognize, and the statistics about race and financial sector fraud are undeniable.

      Are they? What are they?

  • Bill Murray

    Your thesis is so wrong. Those can’t be the stupidest things I will read today because there is no way I’m getting out of the boat for Brooks or Cohen

  • Anonymous

    Most of the unreplaced job losses in the current recession are state and local government jobs – police, fire, sanitation, teaching, public works. A lot of these jobs require very specific skills and training, which are often non-transferable to other fields, or require building up lots of seniority to reach a decent wage. Any “analysis” of the current crisis of male unemployment that fails to acknowledge this most fundamental fact is just mental masturbation.

    • JoyfulA

      Not to mention all those housing construction jobs.

  • You see, if Ward talked to the Beaver because he decided it was damn well time to talk to the Beaver and not because June nagged at him, girls would still be girls and men would still be men and Opie would never sass Aunt Bea.

  • tt

    The reason why male employment hasn’t recovered is because the jobs men used to have no longer exist.

    That’s what is meant by “thanks to the communications economy.” Your explanations are complementary, not contradictory.

  • DanMulligan

    I know it is hard but I really think it is time to simply give Brooks what he so richly deserves — nothing. Just don’t read him. Ever.
    I know that my blood pressure has gone down 10 points since I refused to open any column by him or Friedman.

  • The elephant in the room that nobody is talking about is automation. I fear we’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg.

    In my career field I’ve seen navigators replaced by a GPS black box and we just retired that last of our planes that required a flight engineer.

    I hope to make it retirement before being replaced by a remotely piloted or even fully autonomous aircraft.

    • Well, MOOCs are the automation threat in higher education, every profession has one of these. No one wants to talk about what this actually means for people’s ability to live. We are just supposed to say technology is awesome and move on.

    • catclub

      Dean Baker has noted the many (but not you!) who go on to say that all this automation, killing jobs, will be combined with no one left to take care of the elderly.

      Always fun to write self-refuting statements.

      • I was thinking more along the lines of nobody left to buy stuff – which would tend to make having robots assemble stuff rather unnecessary, since there would be no customers.

        • Lee Rudolph

          Absent Asimov’s Three Laws, I see no reason to think that robots couldn’t become rather persuasive salesagents.

      • Dave

        Well, if the question is, do you want to wipe the shit off the ass of the gerontocratic capitalist class, or do you just want to get down and let them wipe it off on you, it’s not really what you’d call much of a career choice, is it?

    • LeeEsq

      Kevin Drum has been beating the stick about automation and what it means for society. Its one of his main issues.

      I think the problem is that automation is going to cause a radical shift in human society. The long assumption is that people need to work in some way in order to get the necessities of life and some extra luxuries. The details varied a bit but nearly all societies from hunter-gatherers to the more complicated, modern ones assumed that people need to work to live some point in lives. Automation is going to displace so much work that nobody is sure whats going to replace it and nobody wants to talk about it.

      • Right now, nothing is replacing it and we see the effects on working-class people, as well as the decline of the middle-class. This is a huge issue.

        • LeeEsq

          Its an elephant in the living room but I really think that anybody really wants to talk about it. The right and center don’t want to talk about because it undermines a lot of their world view. I’m not really sure that many on the left really want to talk about it either because they don’t know if they have answers even though they know its an issue. Certain factions might not like some of the implications of automation even if we can achieve a fair result in wealth distribution, mainly in terms of environmental impact and how people might want to live. Automation makes suburbia and ex-urbia more afforadable when combined with redistribution.

  • timb

    Work by David Autor

    As an attorney practicing Disability law, no one out side the profession will join in my self-professed jihad against David Autor.

    Autor is the mind behind the Planet Money jeremiad against the poor who claim disability benefits. He is the mind behind studies which tell rich people that poor people suck and there’s nothing that can be done for them. Hell, after his many studies showing how the Disability system is “broken” (due to laws passed in the 1980’s don’t ya know), SSA and NBER hired him to do a five year study.

    The dude is a right wing assbag and someone needs to stop his “research.”

    • timb

      Seriously, won’t anyone join my crusade against this guy?

      • Caroline Abbott

        I’m on the front lines next to you. The only good that I’ve seen emerging from Autor, Planet Money, and This American Life‘s misleading stories is an opportunity to speak the truth about both the people I serve and the system that barely keeps them alive.

        [Disclosure: I’m also an attorney who works with people with disabilities. Every time someone tells me that “those people” should just get jobs, I ask the speaker to hire a couple. So far, no takers.]

  • ed

    This is nothing more than the David Brooksification of “The Pussification of the Western Male.”

    • Sherm

      Well at least he might be a legitimate expert on that subject.

  • Sherm

    I especially liked the part where he states that “male dignity” prevents men from taking jobs which apparently undignified females are willing too take. If I’m ever out of work and have to rely on the wife to support the family be herself, I’ll just let her know that I’m practicing dignity rather than the law.

  • Mike G

    long-term shifts in American capitalism are to blame for what David Brooks would like to blame on culture.

    In David Brooks’ world, capitalism cannot be blamed for anything bad; it’s ideologically impossible. All failures must be assigned to the badness and moral failings of the masses.

    It’s never the fault of the people with all the money and all the power who make all the big decisions. You don’t ride a lack of talent to a cozy sinecure at the NYT by pointing out the faults in powerful people.

  • Rich h

    I’m not sure what is more disturbing, your inability to comprehend what Brooks actually wrote, or your vast ignorance of huge swaths of social science research.

    I teach social science research and methods at the university level and I have an assignment where I have students assess actual social science articles, a much more daunting task than dealing with a slight piece of Brooks’ ramblings, but if they approached the assignment in the manner you did this far easier material, I would have given them a D-. Constructing straw men so you can argue against whatever YOU want is an act of egotism, not intellectual acumen. It leaves me wondering if you are capable of doing better than college freshmen and sophomores.

    • So somehow you think a blogpost should be as precise as a term paper?

      Interesting. And yet, Erik’s conclusions are spot on from an economics POV. His deconstruction of Brooks includes an awful lot of “inside baseball” which you probably don’t get and I can’t be bothered to bring you up to speed, so may I suggest Google is your friend

    • timb

      Come on, David, have the guts to use your own name when commenting….after all, Bill Kristol does

    • idlemind

      I await your provision of actual substance and documentation for your claims. I’ve a feeling I’ll be waiting a long, long time…

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