Jodi Kantor notes in The Obamas that David Brooks of the New York Times is "the President's favorite pundit." In turn, I've been told on extremely good authority that Brooks is a regular reader of me. Being a covert member of the Steveosphere makes Brooks perhaps the most interesting conventional wisdom columnist, but also creates a lot of stress for the poor man. After such knowledge, what forgiveness? How do you triangulate your way to something that Obama will nod complacently over without totally boring yourself? How do you stay on TV, mouthing 21st Century platitudes, while knowing that a few people know you know?
This tension usually manifests itself in a couple of columns per year that only make sense under the supposition that I represent the conventional wisdom and that he's the man with challenging new ideas as he tries to dream up new epicycles to refute my Occamite slashes.
But then there's his new NYT column "Flood the Zone," the purpose of which is to eventually get around to gently criticizing Obama for his health insurance contraception stand. But, first, he feels he has to provide air cover for himself by trotting out all the shibboleths of 21st Century conventional wisdom.
And that part is just brutal self-parody, presumably driven by a certain amount of self-loathing. No, I didn't write this, but if you read it as if I wrote it as a vicious satire on Brooks, it's quite funny. So, there's no need for me to respond to it. It's self-detonating:
The essential truth about poverty is that we will never fully understand what causes it. There are a million factors that contribute to poverty, and they interact in a zillion ways.
Some of the factors are economic: the shortage of low-skill, entry-level jobs. Some of the factors are historical: the legacy of racism. Some of the factors are familial: the breakdown in early attachments between infants and caregivers and the cognitive problems that often result from that. Some of them are social: the shortage of healthy role models and mentors.
The list of factors that contribute to poverty could go on and on, and the interactions between them are infinite. Therefore, there is no single magic lever to pull to significantly reduce poverty.
The only thing to do is change the whole ecosystem.
If poverty is a complex system of negative feedback loops, then you have to create an equally complex and diverse set of positive feedback loops. You have to flood the zone with as many good programs as you can find and fund and hope that somehow they will interact and reinforce each other community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood.
The key to this flood-the-zone approach is that you have to allow for maximum possible diversity. Let’s say there is a 14-year-old girl who, for perfectly understandable reasons, wants to experience the love and sense of purpose that go with motherhood, rather than stay in school in the hopes of someday earning a middle-class wage.
You have no idea what factors have caused her to make this decision, and you have no way of knowing what will dissuade her. But you want her, from morning until night, to be enveloped by a thick ecosystem of positive influences. You want lefty social justice groups, righty evangelical groups, Muslim groups, sports clubs, government social workers, Boys and Girls Clubs and a hundred other diverse institutions. If you surround her with a different culture and a web of relationships, maybe she will absorb new habits of thought, find a sense of belonging and change her path.