Again, huge policy differences. Not huge outcome differences.
This is not to say that policy choices are meaningless. But we should be realistic about them. The influence of politics and policy is usually swamped by the influence of culture, ethnicity, psychology and a dozen other factors.
I don't live under the pressure of having to write a weekly newspaper column. It must be doubly difficult when your platform is contained within the esteemed pages of The New York Times. That having been noted as a qualifier: David Brooks' May 3rd piece, The Limits of Policy was for lack of a better word, just really stupid.
Brooks begins his spiral into fallacy land by arguing that government policy has little to do with the life outcomes of different ethnic groups. Moreover, there he alludes to the life chances of Swedes in Europe in the early 20th century as compared to those in the U.S. in order to deduce a claim about the relative advantages or disadvantages of socialized medicine. No, I am not kidding. This slippery foundation--like a drunk trying to ice skate on one foot--becomes even more untenable as Brooks spins a tale of race, health disparities, and social capital.
The big question Brooks is trying to engage is: What are the limits of national policy in terms of effecting the life chances of different groups of citizens? A fair question. However, playing not so quite in the shadows of his question, is a supposition that different groups of people, ethnic groups in this case, have different "characters." Problematically, this is a line of reasoning straight out of the racialist political ideologies of the late 19th century and such tracts as The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant which detailed the paranoia of America's "old stock" in the face of increasing waves of immigrants from the "lower races" and not yet fully "white" stock of Eastern and Southern Europe.
As is common to contemporary discussions of race and social mobility, the model minority myth makes an obligatory appearance in Brooks' account. He asks: Why do Asian-Americans do so well in all regions of the country? What is their secret? By extension, why do Blacks--and Native Americans--do so poorly. Of course, for Brooks this has nothing to do with government policy. Rather, it is all a function of social capital and a crude reading of the theories offered by Robert Putnam in the much cited Bowling Alone.
These comparisons are (and have always been) specious--the model minority myth is just that, a fable that conflates a whole group of people into one category. For example, is Brooks talking about the Hmong, Cambodians, Vietnamese, or Laotians--groups which generally do not fit that neat narrative? Or is Brooks talking about Japanese and Koreans, many of whom immigrated here as professionals with a significant amount of resources, both real and intangible, already in hand?
Ultimately, in his lamenting that government can do so little to impact life opportunities in the face of such primordial forces as ethnicity and social capital (what is really Brooks' way of saying "good" and "bad" culture) he ignores the role that government policy has played in creating systems of wealth, privilege, advantage and disadvantage.
For example, government policy both directly and indirectly created the urban ghettos in America's central cities and a two tiered system of citizenship until it was brought down by The Black Freedom Struggle in the 1960s. By extension, government support for affirmative action and a robust effort to end discrimination in federal hiring practices helped to create the Black middle and professional classes. Conversely, government programs such as the GI Bill and FHA loan programs created suburbia, as well as the wealth and prosperity enjoyed by the white middle classes of the post World War 2 period--opportunities that were by design and in practice all but closed to people of color. And most certainly, government policy created the alienation and poverty that are as common to the Native American reservations of the Southwest as they are to the mining towns of Appalachia.
In total, The Limits of Policy exposes one of the central contradictions of neo-liberal, center-Right, Conservative politics in this country. When the government policy works in your favor it is invisible, and one's successes are all one's own, the result of hard work, individualism, and "good culture." You can nurse at the succor provided by the Horatio Alger myth of rugged individualism. When government policy fails, it is because "those people" have "bad culture," somehow tied to race and blood, and that the solution is less government and not more. Your failings are all your own.
In this regard, the final paragraph of Mr. Brooks' piece is quite telling: "Finally, we should all probably calm down about politics. Most of the proposals we argue about so ferociously will have only marginal effects on how we live, especially compared with the ethnic, regional and social differences that we so studiously ignore."
Sorry Mr. Brooks. Race is how class is lived. And yes, policy has a great deal to do with that fact.