On Friday David Brooks argued that costly big-government efforts to alleviate poverty haven't done much to improve conditions for those living in Sandtown-Winchester, the Baltimore neighbourhood where Mr Gray lived. "Saying we should just spend more doesn’t really cut it," Mr Brooks writes. "[T]he real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighbourhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition." Ingrained codes of behaviour have "dissolved", he argues, leaving residents of impoverished areas "without the norms that middle-class people take for granted."
Paul Krugman is very annoyed by this line of thinking, though he does not mention Mr Brooks by name. "It has been disheartening to see some commentators still writing as if poverty were simply a matter of values," Mr Krugman writes, "as if the poor just mysteriously make bad choices and all would be well if they adopted middle-class values." According to Mr Krugman, thinkers like Mr Brooks have it back to front. The decline in values Mr Brooks laments is plainly a response to a hopeless lack of economic opportunity for the working classes. "[I]t should be obvious," Mr Krugman avers, "that middle-class values only flourish in an economy that offers middle-class jobs."
This is an important debate, but it is not the debate to have now.
As much as they bicker, Messrs Krugman and Brooks both agree that just about any occasion can be used to mount a favourite hobbyhorse. Mr Brooks is ever on the lookout for a chance to push the all-important role of culture. Mr Krugman scans the horizon itching to point out "the devastating effects of extreme and rising inequality". Culture and inequality certainly have something to do with the Baltimore riots, but Baltimoreans did not suddenly take to the streets to protest their poverty. They rose up to protest an apparently fresh instance of a very specific pattern of injustice. . . .
It is, in fact, a problem of both culture and inequality, but not as Messrs Brooks and Krugman are in the habit of discussing it. It is the problem of an insular, truculent police culture and the grievous harm it has done to the citizens the police were meant to protect. It's a problem of inequality under the law. In 2005 more than half of Baltimore's black men in their twenties were either in prison or on parole, according to one study. This is largely the consequence of tactics in the "War on Drugs", including changes in sentencing guidelines, which have disproportionately hurt young black men. . . .
So why are Messrs Brooks and Krugman using the occasion of Baltimore’s protests to squabble over whether values explain material conditions or material conditions explain values? There's a soft bigotry — let's call it the "soft bigotry of lazy abstraction" — in their indifference to the specifics of Baltimore’s problems.