from columns by
David Brooks


Newspaper items


index pages:

Without marriage, many are falling behind

Star Tribune Opinion page, January 27, 2007

It’s as if there are two invisible rivers of knowledge running through society, steering people subtly toward one form of relationship or another. These rivers consist of a million small habits, expectations, tacit understandings about how people should act and map out their lives.

Among those who are well-educated and who are rewarded by the information-age economy, the invisible river reinforces the assumption that childbearing is more arduous and more elevated than marriage. One graduates from marriage to childbearing.

But among those who are less educated and less rewarded, there is an invisible river that encourages the anomalous idea that marriage is more arduous and more elevated than childbearing. One graduates from childbearing to matrimony.


The people in the second river are falling further behind, and their children face bad odds. For them, social facts like the rise of women without men cannot be greeted with equanimity. The main struggle of their lives is not against the patriarchy.

The first step toward a remedy, paradoxically, may be to persuade people in this second river to value marriage less, to see it less as a state of sacred bliss that cannot be approached until all the conditions are perfect, and more as a social machine, which, if accompanied with the right instruction manual, can be useful for achieving practical ends.




text checked (see note) Jan 2007

top of page >
The GOP versus conservatism

from the New York Times News Service

published in the Star Tribune October 8, 2007

Modern conservatism begins with Edmund Burke. What Burke articulated was not an ideology or a creed, but a disposition, a reverence for tradition, a suspicion of radical change.

When conservatism came to America, it became creedal. Free-market conservatives built a creed around freedom and capitalism. Religious conservatives built a creed around their conception of a transcendent order. Neoconservatives and others built a creed around the words of Lincoln and the founders.

Over the years, the voice of Burke has been submerged beneath the clamoring creeds.



The world is too complex, the Burkean conservative believes, for rapid reform. Existing arrangements contain latent functions that can be neither seen nor replaced by the reformer. The temperamental conservative prizes epistemological modesty, the awareness of the limitations on what we do and can know, what we can and cannot plan.

Compare to:

René Descartes

The temperamental conservative does not see a nation composed of individuals who should be given maximum liberty to make choices. Instead, the individual is a part of a social organism and thrives only within the attachments to family, community and nation that precede choice.

Therefore, the temperamental conservative values social cohesion alongside individual freedom and worries that too much individualism, too much segmentation, too much tension between races and groups will tear the underlying unity on which all else depends. Without unity, the police are regarded as alien powers, the country will fracture under the strain of war and the economy will be undermined by lack of social trust.

American conservatism will never be just dispositional conservatism. America is a creedal nation. But American conservatism is only successful when it’s in tension — when the ambition of its creeds is restrained by the caution of its Burkean roots.

text checked (see note) Oct 2007

top of page
Success is just a lucky break? Not quite

from the New York Times News Service

published in the Star Tribune December 18, 2008

We know from experiments with subjects as diverse as obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferers and Buddhist monks that people who can self-consciously focus attention have the power to rewire their brains. Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons. This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses. If forced to choose, we would all rather our children be poor with self-control than rich without it.

It leads to resilience, the ability to persevere with an idea even when all the influences in the world say it can’t be done. A common story among entrepreneurs is that people told them they were too stupid to do something, and they set out to prove the jerks wrong.

It leads to creativity. Individuals who can focus attention have the ability to hold a subject or problem in their mind long enough to see it anew.

Compare to:

Sam Harris



text checked (see note) Dec 2008

top of page
Amid chaos, what good are the usual solutions?

from the New York Times News Service
published in the Star Tribune January 19, 2009

Once, classical economics dominated policy thinking. The classical models presumed a certain sort of orderly human makeup. Inside each person, reason rides the passions the way a rider sits atop a horse. Sometimes people do stupid things, but generally the rider makes deliberative decisions, and the market rewards rational behavior.

Markets tend toward efficiency. People respond in pretty straightforward ways to incentives. The invisible hand forms a spontaneous, dynamic order. Economic behavior can be accurately predicted through elegant models.

This view explains a lot, but not the current financial crisis — how so many people could be so stupid, incompetent and self-destructive all at once. The crisis has delivered a blow to classical economics and taken a body of psychological work that was at the edge of public policy thought and brought it front and center.

In this new body of thought, you get a very different picture of human nature. Reason is not like a rider atop a horse. Instead, each person’s mind contains a panoply of instincts, strategies, intuitions, emotions, memories and habits, which vie for supremacy. An irregular, idiosyncratic and largely unconscious process determines which of these internal players gets to control behavior at any instant. Context — which stimulus triggers which response — matters a lot.

This mental chaos explains how people can respond so quickly and intuitively to so many different circumstances. But it also entails a decision-making process that is more complicated and messy than previously thought.

For example, we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices.

Note (Hal’s):
I think this assessment is valuable, and I favor the underlying philosophical position. Nevertheless, application to the present economic climate does miss aspects which were, in fact, well addressed by traditional economics. The downturn was triggered by the discovery that a great deal of the economy was invested in unrepayable mortgages, and this had been achieved by deceiving both debtors and their eventual creditors. It’s undoubtedly comforting to explain the whole mess as a consequence of the limits of human knowledge, but the effects of concealed information are well known both to classical economists and to professional con artists, including those selling the mortgages.

— end note



Mechanistic thinkers on the right and left pose as rigorous empiricists. But empiricism built on an inaccurate view of human nature is just a prison.

text checked (see note) Jan 2009

top of page
Empathy in the court, along with order

from the New York Times News Service
published in the Star Tribune June 2, 2009

The American legal system is based on a useful falsehood. It’s based on the falsehood that this is a nation of laws, not men; that in rendering decisions, disembodied, objective judges are able to put aside emotion and unruly passion and issue opinions on the basis of pure reason.

Most people know this is untrue. In reality, decisions are made by imperfect minds in ambiguous circumstances. It is incoherent to say that a judge should base an opinion on reason and not emotion because emotions are an inherent part of decisionmaking. Emotions are the processes we use to assign value to different possibilities. Emotions move us toward things and ideas that produce pleasure and away from things and ideas that produce pain.

People without emotions cannot make sensible decisions because they don’t know how much anything is worth. People without social emotions like empathy are not objective decisionmakers. They are sociopaths who sometimes end up on death row.




text checked (see note) Jun 2009

top of page
Is there really hope for civility?

from the New York Times News Service
published in the Star Tribune January 15, 2011

Every column, every speech, every piece of legislation and every executive decision has its own humiliating shortcomings. There are always arguments you should have made better, implications you should have anticipated, other points of view you should have taken on board.

The truth is fragmentary, and it’s impossible to capture all of it. The world is more complicated than any human intelligence can comprehend.



You may write a mediocre column or make a mediocre speech or propose a mediocre piece of legislation, but others argue with you, correct you and introduce elements you never thought of. Each of these efforts may also be flawed, but together, if the system is working well, they move things gradually forward.

As a result, every sensible person feels a sense of gratitude for this process. We all get to live lives better than we deserve because our individual shortcomings are transmuted into communal improvement.

This is where civility comes from — from a sense of personal modesty and from the ensuing gratitude for the political process. Civility is the natural state for people who know how limited their own individual powers are and know, too, that they need the conversation.

But over the past few decades, people have lost a sense of their own sinfulness. [...]

So, of course, you get narcissists who believe they or members of their party possess direct access to the truth. Of course you get people who prefer monologue to dialogue. Of course you get people who detest politics because it frustrates their ability to get 100 percent of what they want. Of course you get people who gravitate toward the like-minded and loathe their political opponents. They feel no need for balance and correction.

text checked (see note) Jan 2011

top of page
Whom to blame if the sky does fall

from the New York Times News Service
published in the Star Tribune September 28, 2011

[...] the ideologues who dominate the political conversation are unable to think in holistic ways. They pick out the one factor that best conforms to their preformed prejudices and, like blind men grabbing a piece of the elephant, they persuade themselves they understand the whole thing.

Many Democrats are predisposed to want more government spending. [...]

Many Republicans, meanwhile, are predisposed to want lower taxes and less regulation. [...]

Both orthodoxies take a constricted view of the situation. If we’re stuck with these two mentalities, we will be forever presented with proposals that are incommensurate with the problem at hand.

When you are confronted by a complex problem, don’t try to pick out the one lever that is the key to the whole thing. There is no one lever. You wouldn’t be smart enough to find it even if there was.

Instead, try to reform whole institutions and hope that by getting the long-term fundamentals right you’ll set off a positive cascade to reverse the negative ones.

text checked (see note) Jul 2012

top of page

Background graphic copyright © 2003 by Hal Keen