David Brooks on the words we use

by on May 21, 2013 at 7:48 am in Books, History, Philosophy, Political Science | Permalink

Daniel Klein of George Mason University has conducted one of the broadest studies with the Google search engine [TC: the paper is here]…On the subject of individualization, he found that the word “preferences” was barely used until about 1930, but usage has surged since. On the general subject of demoralization, he finds a long decline of usage in terms like “faith,” “wisdom,” “ought,” “evil” and “prudence,” and a sharp rise in what you might call social science terms like “subjectivity,” “normative,” “psychology” and “information.”

Klein adds the third element to our story, which he calls “governmentalization.” Words having to do with experts have shown a steady rise. So have phrases like “run the country,” “economic justice,” “nationalism,” “priorities,” “right-wing” and “left-wing.” The implication is that politics and government have become more prevalent.

So the story I’d like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.

This story, if true, should cause discomfort on right and left. Conservatives sometimes argue that if we could just reduce government to the size it was back in, say, the 1950s, then America would be vibrant and free again. But the underlying sociology and moral culture is just not there anymore. Government could be smaller when the social fabric was more tightly knit, but small government will have different and more cataclysmic effects today when it is not.

Liberals sometimes argue that our main problems come from the top: a self-dealing elite, the oligarchic bankers. But the evidence suggests that individualism and demoralization are pervasive up and down society, and may be even more pervasive at the bottom. Liberals also sometimes talk as if our problems are fundamentally economic, and can be addressed politically, through redistribution. But maybe the root of the problem is also cultural. The social and moral trends swamp the proposed redistributive remedies.

Here is more, interesting throughout.

Andrew' May 21, 2013 at 8:13 am

Hmmm. To paraphrase Milton Friedman, we have small government in most every way except when it comes to pay the bill.

prior_apporval May 21, 2013 at 8:17 am

‘But maybe the root of the problem is also cultural.’

So, this won’t be another American Century?

And strangely, not a single mention of militarism – a mechanism which has distorted and destroyed a number of societies, generally through bankruptcy, both moral and financial, as the cost of maintaining that attitude is deeply destructive.

Wait, I can hear the chanting already – ‘U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!’ especially when we kill our enemies.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U-S-A!_%28chant%29#Post_9.2F11_usage

dearieme May 21, 2013 at 8:21 am

In Britain it is fashionable to blame all change that the speaker views as being change for the worse on MrsThatcher. But I’d think that far bigger effects came from the social and sexual changes referred to vaguely as “the sixties” and the extraordinary trade union misbehaviour of the sixties and seventies, culminating in our Winter of Discontent. For the US, what? Presumably first Civil Rights, then “the sixties”, plus the simultaneous Vietnam War, the protests about it, and the Great Society?

Andrew' May 21, 2013 at 8:38 am

Liberty is based on a kind of social profit-and-loss. We keep bailing people out.

Owen May 22, 2013 at 5:35 am

Sorry, but can you clarify that you believe our moral degeneration began when blacks and women started getting equal rights, and people started protesting against war in Southeast Asia? I won’t deny that trends like Brooks is suggesting–individualism, governmentalization, etc.–have been gaining traction over the last half-century. But when the moral bankruptcy of the status quo is revealed, it’s hardly surprising that those morals get discarded wholesale. The deck was stacked, and now it’s scattered.

mofo. May 21, 2013 at 8:22 am

“Government could be smaller when the social fabric was more tightly knit, but small government will have different and more cataclysmic effects today when it is not.” [CITATION NEEDED]

Jake May 21, 2013 at 10:37 am

I don’t think I agree with this statement either. Societies where people are more homogeneous in attitudes, values, and culture can function pretty well regardless of whether the government is big or small. Public policy will reflect widespread preferences and most people will be satisfied with the results.

But when a society becomes more heterogeneous across the same parameters, big government becomes like a hammer, always trying to pound square pegs into round holes. People resort to fighting over control the hammer, in order to protect their own interests, but what this society really needs is decentralization. This allows people to migrate and organize into sub-groups, which restores a more homogeneous order.

Alan May 21, 2013 at 8:24 am

David Brooks has been known to put a fact to use on occasion, if it should happen to fall conveniently to hand. I doubt that he has any idea that there are very smart people who study changes in language. These people are called “linguists”.

I wonder why he has not mentioned the decline in use of “steam locomotive” as evidence for whatever it was that he already believed anyway.

Brandon May 21, 2013 at 9:13 am

+1, exactly. You can see Brooks really revising his previous views based on this new “study.”

Evan May 21, 2013 at 9:14 am

This comment is perfect.

Thor May 21, 2013 at 9:38 am

You are amusing and your sarcasm is probably pleasing to you, but you don’t add much to the conversation. Name 3 historical linguists who study the kind of phenomenon, with a view to understanding how cultural and political practices have changed over scores of years, which you mention in your excessively vague expression “study changes in language”. If you think many linguists track semantic changes of this sort you are mistaken, and presumably this is why Brooks has looked at Klein.

As for Brooks revising his views, it is indeed hard to say on the basis on a short paper article. Presumably he thought that elites drove change, either through power or through being copied. Now it seems he is convinced that changes in our practices are in fact driven by broader, most certainly more amorphous and hard to pin down factors. He could be changing his mind a bit or he could be becoming more fine-grained in his analysis based on usage change in large populations.

Rahul May 21, 2013 at 10:01 am

Brook’s present word-frequency based methodology seems shaky. How much of this is purely a dilution effect? i.e. as new words enter our popular lexicon, older words obviously get used less often.

e.g. Using Brook’s technique it’d seem that over the last half century we’ve, as a society, lost our appreciation for even colors Red, Blue, Yellow and Green.

http://bit.ly/Color_Decline_in_Society

PS. For obvious reasons I didn’t use Black nor White

Urso May 21, 2013 at 12:02 pm

But doesn’t this reflect that we think about color differently? I assume this decline is due to an increase in interior designerese — blue is now cerulean, or aquamarine, or summer sky. (I’ve recently been paint shopping, so this is close on my mind.)

All those words are suggestive, and suggest something about the speaker, in a way that “blue” does not. It’s not saying that the color blue no longer exists, but that we’re thinking about it differently.

I will add that I’m extremely dubious of any claims based on google ngrams, which I seriously doubt the accuracy of.

Rahul May 21, 2013 at 1:51 pm

Which may be close to what I’m saying: “Evil is still evil but with just some other name”

Brandon May 21, 2013 at 10:27 am

Alan was being kind. There are *all kinds* of people who do this sort of thing–in sociology, in history, in political science, and elsewhere. Huge amounts of 20th-century “soft” science energy has been geared toward developing techniques of discourse analysis that track exactly the kind of thing discussed here. I’ll say it again–no one reinvents the wheel quite like economists.

Thor May 21, 2013 at 11:26 am

Alan is being kind? Kind of sophomoric. Look, I’m not saying he’s entirely wrong. That’s not exactly the issue. Read this sentence and tell me what intellectual content can be found in it, let alone interpretive charity, a kind of “kindness”:

“I doubt that he has any idea that there are very smart people who study changes in language.”

You can level a lot of charges at Brooks, but the piece in question is precisely about people (Klein) who study changes in language.

GiT May 21, 2013 at 4:50 pm

Klein doesn’t study changes in language. He opened up google ngram and did a completely naive analysis of word usage which look like the musings of a mildly clever/curious undergraduate.

JWatts May 21, 2013 at 1:49 pm

David Brooks has been known to put a fact to use on occasion, if it should happen to fall conveniently to hand.

+1

Bill Benzon May 22, 2013 at 9:35 am

At least one linguist, Mark Liberman at Language Log, has weigh-in on this effort by Brooks:

http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4641#more-4641

He also has some remarks about the (uncited) research behind Brooks. Color Liberman skeptical.

DanC May 21, 2013 at 8:24 am

Have government policies contributed to the social breakdown?

Andrew' May 21, 2013 at 8:47 am

Occam called to say “maybe.”

john personna May 21, 2013 at 9:15 am

There are a lot of “priors” on display in early comments. People ask if their biases are not valid, one way or another. If you *believe* government is the problem, it is easy to offer that as a coy question, or prior. But let me remind you of one recent mini-drama: the 32 ounce soft drink scandal. One side said we should do better via government, and the other side said “no one can tell me not to drink 32 ounces of sugar!” It was a prefect example of Brook’s observation. The perfect was not made the enemy of the good. The bad, in high consumption of empty calories, was demanded as a right.

We’d have a different right-wing if they advised a healthy diet and exercise, as prudent, wise, and what you ought to do.

Andrew' May 21, 2013 at 11:20 am

Fountain drinks are not the problem. Well, the government subsidized and mandated high-fructose corn syrup might be a bona fide bad, but fat people drinking fountain drinks does not make the fountain drink itself the problem, and economists probably wouldn’t recommend attacking the fountain drink anyway, nor the fat as many people are genetically capable of carrying fat, but the health problems themselves and the actual upstream causal chain. Bloomberg is just a hack.

Andrew' May 21, 2013 at 11:28 am

By the way, does that strike you as compassion? “Hey fat-ass, I don’t intend to lower the stress and anxiety (probably the real problem, btw) induced by this city, but just take away the one thing that helps you get through the day. Thanks! The Billionaire”

Would a ban on soft drinks even be effective at it’s goal of curtailing liberty? That is, will people actually consume fewer calories? See, it’s about 20% chaffing at the shackles but it is mostly complete disdain for this hack who wants to run for president.

The treadmill desk will do far more than mandating cup sizes…now there’s an idea!

john personna May 21, 2013 at 3:37 pm

The point is, and connecting with Brooks “words,” that the flip side of the ban is not presented as “virtue.” It is more often a “you’re not the boss of me” thing. I mean the truth is that if you keep drinking >32 ounce sodas every day and into middle age, you are looking at type 2 diabetes. Opponents of the ban should recognize that and say something like “we don’t need the ban, but we don’t need the soda either.”

Andrew' May 22, 2013 at 8:27 am

Except that that may not be true. Some people shouldn’t ingest a ton of calories. One relative has drank a 2-liter of Coke a day for decades without major health consequences…as if the government should micro-manage people based on health consequences that take decades to manifest anyway. And Bloomberg is a horror. You just need a better example.

Andrew' May 22, 2013 at 8:31 am

http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/manhattan/mike_unleashes_hail_storm_HMHlgCTlmYYBlH7Cu9iG6M#.UZyh7ouJqvA.email

This is one of those instances where I want to ask why you are missing this? Why does this douchebag have an audience that his pandering works on?

Andrew' May 22, 2013 at 8:40 am

Bloomberg aside, I think you make a good point and a bad point. I think the two-party system dictates that once Bloomberg stakes a position like he does the other side has to take the opposite side. Not that this is an example where any ground should be given, the system makes it that a “soft” position yields ground to the opponent.

Seth May 21, 2013 at 3:29 pm

“The perfect was not made the enemy of the good. The bad, in high consumption of empty calories, was demanded as a right.”

That’s a straw man. The argument against is that the world is a bit more complex to think that restricting the size of soda will actually reduce health care expenses.

I think it’s ironic, that the very people who want to make health care free for all are also the first ones to want to imposed the costs of the moral hazards they created (in the form of lording) back on the very people who they removed those costs from in the first place.

john personna May 21, 2013 at 3:40 pm

It might be a weak argument, but it has been given to me by opponents many times. It is not a staw man in the sense that I made it up. I experienced it.

BTW, I also opposed soda purchases by food stamps. I was told then also that such purchases were an important freedom. Wouldn’t it be sad if “the very people” who worried about health care costs also wanted to make sure sugar consumption was subsidized?

dead serious May 21, 2013 at 6:28 pm

Why, pray tell, is that ironic?

Right-wingers often want those on social programs to pay some sort of price for them: e.g. “workfare,” not “welfare.”

And I don’t disagree with that, as a left-leaner.

What’s better: free healthcare and a limitation (not a ban) on something that is innately horrible for your health, or consume all you want and die in a gutter?

Not that I agree with the 32 oz. ban, but in your framing of it it does make sense.

shrikanthk May 21, 2013 at 9:38 am

I think so.
The Welfare state dates back to Bismarck’s Germany in the 1870s. Even Social Security in US was introduced in 1930s – long before the cultural revolution of the 60s.

I doubt if either the sexual revolution or the decline of community in general would’ve happened at the same pace but for these social programs in place.

Charles Murray May 21, 2013 at 10:55 am

Yes. Read ‘Losing Ground.’

Rich Berger May 21, 2013 at 8:45 am

Do the US have more government because it has gotten worse, or have the US gotten worse because it has more government?

Brent May 21, 2013 at 8:55 am

Or more properly, did government create programs for everyone who had any problem, perversely causing the problem to get bigger?

Russell May 21, 2013 at 8:58 am

*I* can’t answer that question definitely, but the low-hanging fruit here is that well-meaning endeavors in the “WIC family of programs” have helped to make the role of the father redundant in certain socioeconomic groups.

Andrew' May 21, 2013 at 9:03 am

Sardonically ironic that it is in the acronym.

dead serious May 21, 2013 at 6:32 pm

Clearly it’s more ironically sardonic.

Actually I might go one step further and call it ironically and sardonically cynical.

Todd May 21, 2013 at 8:51 am

Stupid society and culture….changing without asking Brooks’s permission first!. In the future, please check with this dour Cassandra of a past golden age that never existed before you try anything else.

shrikanthk May 21, 2013 at 9:43 am

At no point does Brooks bemoan the cultural change that has occurred for better or worse. It’s just that both progressives and libertarians are overly sensitive and take offence at the slightest suggestion that the cultural changes over the past 50 years have caused certain forms of social problems.

Todd May 21, 2013 at 10:01 am

Yeah, he seems ecstatic that everyone is using words such as “tribe” and “collective” less. That’s why he highlighted a couple of studies of quantitative word usage to choose to “tell” his “story” of “demoralization”.

Randy B May 21, 2013 at 10:18 am

This moral, golden age always seems to be when minorities and women didn’t have full rights. The entire premise of that piece is crap.

Skip Intro May 21, 2013 at 12:48 pm

+1. It is ever thus.

jdm May 21, 2013 at 8:51 am

“Klein adds the third element to our story [...]”

“So the story I’d like to tell is this:[...]”

“This story, if true[...]”

Is it interesting throughout, or is it just a story? Journalists love stories, and I’m glad to see Brooks explicitly acknowledge that he’s telling one, but what reason does anyone have to believe it’s true, rather than just one of many possible stories that sound superficially plausible?

tt May 21, 2013 at 9:08 am

you lost me at “David Brooks…”

Bill May 21, 2013 at 9:48 am

+1 I’m just not in the mood to affiliate with this post either. Wonder what a linguist would find using MR as the database of words. Probably would find the word Krugman right up there.

Mark Thorson May 21, 2013 at 10:11 am

What’s the trendline on “mood affiliation”?

prior_approval May 21, 2013 at 10:43 am

Probably lower than ‘epistemic closure.’ And this link is not only free to read, it has no mathematics in it at all – because it uses logic – http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/closure-epistemic/

However, the author is no David Brooks – which is why the work is worth reading, if your tastes run towards epistemology, instead of seeing everything as being part of a giant game of just so story creation.

Thor May 21, 2013 at 11:34 am

And your point is what? That we should do more epistemology? Or be more epistemologically inclined?

I assume you are aware that if you poll a dozen epistemologists, you’ll get 4-5 different opinions on what their field is, let alone what theories are true about knowledge. In short, you are hardly likely to get unanimity about things like justification, belief, truth, and warranted assertability. There is a place for narrative and plausible stories. (Not saying Brooks’ is right, mind.)

IF you are only saying we should be more rigorous, fine, but then say it.

dbp May 21, 2013 at 9:19 am

“Government could be smaller when the social fabric was more tightly knit, but small government will have different and more cataclysmic effects today when it is not.”

Government has taken on many functions which used to be provided by other organizations, such as families and churches. Naturally, as it has made these institutions less necessary, it has weakened them. If government intrusion would gradually ebb, it stands to reason that the rest of the “social fabric” will regain its strength.

mavery May 21, 2013 at 9:53 am

Or maybe those institutions were failing at fulfilling those functions.

The trend towards being less engaged locally is not a new one nor is it caused by the size of the Federal government. People don’t read their local paper as much any more, and it’s not because they’re reading it on line. It’s definitely not because of ObamaCare.

TODD May 21, 2013 at 9:56 am

Unless government had to step in because families and chuches weren’t up to the task.

As just one example – a financial crisis in 1870 wasn’t such a huge issue as the majority of Americans were still on the farm and as such could provide for themselfes even with low crop prices.

However, with industrialization, if someone lost their job, they didn’t have as much to fall back on as a yeoman farmer.

mpowell May 21, 2013 at 12:50 pm

And people living on the farm used to have trouble getting enough food to eat during bad times. Great bargain there.

8 May 21, 2013 at 9:32 am

Sounds like the U.S. needs some Reaction.

Pat May 21, 2013 at 9:36 am

The third paragraph in the Brooks quote is a complete non-sequitor.

How in the world is the usage of social science terminology evidence that the US has become more individualistic?

Todd May 21, 2013 at 9:49 am

Yeah, but those social science terms apparently replaced group-think terms like “ice cream socials” and “buggy rides” and “white fountain only”….so, ….hell in a handbasket!

asdf May 21, 2013 at 12:32 pm

Women and minorities are often cited as the reason that the seeming utopia of the 1950s couldn’t be allowed to stand. So let’s ask how all those changes worked out.

1) Women have reported lower happiness in increasing amounts since the sexual revolution “liberated” them. If this was supposedly done for their benefit why is it making them so unhappy?

2) Black incomes are down the most of any group since the 1960s. The illegitimacy rate skyrocketed. The vast majority of blacks went from growing up with a father to growing up without one. Drug use and crime increased massively. I live in Baltimore, a black city, and it seems exceedingly obvious observing it now versus then that blacks are worse off.

There may indeed be changes in civil rights or sexual mores that are “good”, but the data seems to indicate that overall the changes in the ’60s that were sold as helping these two groups have actually made their lives a lot worse.

mpowell May 21, 2013 at 12:52 pm

Do not, whatever you do, look behind the door labelled ‘War on Drugs’!

asdf May 21, 2013 at 2:41 pm

Do you really believe the War on Drugs explains all the above? Do you maybe want to think that through and give a more thought out response?

liberty May 22, 2013 at 4:43 am

Wow. So, because some (notoriously slippery) happiness survey said that women are reporting they are “unhappy”, you think that women’s liberation and equal rights are a complete failure and women would like to be shoved back into the kitchen, return to marriages where they are beaten & cannot file for divorce, stuck in the house, not allowed to work, hey, maybe they were also happier before they got voting rights in the 1920s? You know what — let’s just take away all their rights and make them wear veils, then–like in all totalitarian societies–they are sure to report 100% happiness.

And, as for #2, your research is almost as sloppy and confused, but I would certainly suggest you look into the War on Drugs.

Brandon May 22, 2013 at 9:53 am

These simple folk were so much happier when they lacked equality. It was for their own good!

NPW May 21, 2013 at 10:00 am

Alternatively, we have become less individualistic, and we have turned our sense of right and wrong over to the collective. We are less morally aware, because individual and social responsibilities are inextricably linked. We have surrendered our sense of self to the collective and allowed it to determine our morals. It is a conflict of the dominate viewpoint for the Borg between the left and right, not individuals with a strong will and vision of purpose that gives a superficial sense of competition.

Much has been made of the individualism of the generations younger than whoever is making the observation. Individuals have morals that hold without the support of popular culture.

jdbosshog May 21, 2013 at 10:17 am

Best MR comment of the year.

Yancey Ward May 21, 2013 at 11:43 am

Exactly. A very concise and clear explanation of what I was having trouble putting into words below.

Thank you, NPW.

JWatts May 21, 2013 at 1:53 pm

That’s a far better hypothesis from the data that Brooks managed to come up with.

dead serious May 22, 2013 at 8:43 am

We have become less individualistic, and we have turned our sense of right and wrong over to the church/synagogue/mosque. We are less morally aware, because individual and ecclesiastical responsibilities are inextricably linked. We have surrendered our sense of self to the tenets of our faith and allowed it to determine our morals.

Benny Lava May 21, 2013 at 10:01 am

The NYTimes ran a more interesting article on the nature of changing languages as a reflection of changing culture here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/30/us/30iht-currents.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

As a rule I don’t read Brooks and don’t plan on it now. But his links between the declining words and the rising words seems facile at best. New words arise all the time why is that worrisome and why is it connected to old words that fall out of favor (btw words like faith and evil are still very commonplace, unlike say, hoary).

Rahul May 21, 2013 at 10:16 am

Lot of what Brooks reads deep meaning into what seem mere linguistic quirks. Is every modal that goes out of fashion a deep social trend?

e.g. Brooks claims that the decline in “ought” reflects demoralization. Well, can I interpret the corresponding decline in “must” as a decrease in authoritarianism / despotism and an increase in freedom?

http://bit.ly/Must_Usage

Urso May 21, 2013 at 1:51 pm

Maybe ought was just replaced by should?

GiT May 21, 2013 at 4:56 pm
Rahul May 22, 2013 at 12:21 am

That’s exactly what I mean. Modal auxiliaries are just not being used as often as a percent of all words.

shrikanthk May 21, 2013 at 11:28 pm

Maybe. However “ought” and “should” are barely synonymous.
“Ought” carries with it a strong implication of moral “rightness” whereas “should” is an relatively amoral word which is used when you want to make a suggestion of sorts.

Eg: You ought to go to bed early
versus
You should try turning in early

liberty May 22, 2013 at 4:50 am

I think this is sometimes true, but notice that you added the “try” to your “should” sentence — otherwise the two might have sounded to similar. It depends on the context. Let’s say that I am tired and/or have to wake up early.

“You ought to go to bed early; that way you will wake up fresh” – circa 1890

“Should go to bed early, dude; then you’ll be springy in the morning” – circa 1980

~ whatever, you get me point. Neither is moralistic.

shrikanthk May 22, 2013 at 7:19 am

liberty: I added “try” because it is added a lot more often these days than in say 1890.
I am not sure why so many commenters here are denying that the vocabulary change is indicative of a cultural change, for better or worse.

For eg : Fathers don’t tell their sons – “You ought to work hard. Get back to your bedroom” anymore. What you’re more likely to hear is – “Kid! It’s good to work hard at your age. Try not to mind it.

KevinH May 23, 2013 at 4:24 pm

But how do you know the implications of the word are even the same from time period to time period? And what about the meaning/use of the two dozen or so other related words ( http://thesaurus.com/browse/ought?s=t )? This is just a very shoddy form of data that no one should base anything more than a high-school sociology paper on.

R Richard Schweitzer May 21, 2013 at 10:10 am

“So the story I’d like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown,
which **government** has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.”

Here, in the use of the word **government ** is the crucial error in these concepts.

In this particular concept **government** becomes an organic living entity with intellectual capacities, motivations and objectives. No it isn’t! Further, there is no empirical evidence to support that conclusion.

Governments are mechanisms through which human relationships are conducted. Some may assert that there are greater “social” benefits to be attained through increasing the relationships conducted through those mechanisms, but they offer no empirical evidence only low opinion judgments as to what constitutes the preferred or desirable benefits.

Read: “A Servile Mind” by Kenneth Minogue

Ryan Langrill May 21, 2013 at 10:21 am

How much is the greater ‘individualism’ an artifact of modernity putting us into contact with people of more varied background than before?

Social trends, such as the urbanization, geographic mobility, and the internet, push us together with a greater variety of people than we would be exposed to in earlier periods. There’s also a greater number of backgrounds that people can have: In 1900 there was a relatively small canon, and the stories each person chose to consume was not all that different from that any other person chose to consume (especially taking into account informal, local ‘canons’ such as that diffused at the local church or bar). In 1960, there were three television channels which allowed people to consume only a few bundles of programs. Now, the stories that become inputs into our moral reasoning are widely varied, which means that the amount of commonality that someone has with any other person will be much smaller.

Overall, I don’t think that there’s been much of a shift in people’s ‘society vs individual’ orientation; people just see less of their own background reflected in each other person, which to them seems like a greater degree of ‘individualist’ orientation.

Yog Sothoth May 21, 2013 at 10:31 am

Wonder how this generalizes (or not) across countries. What about other countries with big states–Scandinavia, France and so on.

Squib May 21, 2013 at 11:34 am

A wise man once told me to beware of people telling stories…

Yancey Ward May 21, 2013 at 11:40 am

So the story I’d like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.

Sorry, I think it is exactly the opposite. We are less and less individualistic as time goes on, and it is because of this that we fob off increasing amounts of our individual responsibilities, including the formation and maintenance of morality.

Andrew' May 21, 2013 at 11:59 am

I’m reminded of Bill Burr making fun of the farmers calling the wild pigs a pestilence. Whatever humans are doing, broadly speaking, it is working.

Tom Braun May 21, 2013 at 11:51 am

What’s the control here? It sounds like he’s just cherry-picking words and comparing their trend lines at random. Not interesting.

Seth May 21, 2013 at 3:30 pm

+1 I agree.

Tom Scheinfeldt May 21, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Ted Underwood (UIUC) has a post worth reading that responds to these kinds of casual Google ngram surveys: http://tedunderwood.com/2012/08/25/how-not-to-do-things-with-words/ Here’s the long and short of it:

“The basic methodological problem … is that researchers have used present-day patterns of association to define a wordlist that they then take as an index of the fortunes of some concept (morality, individualism, etc) over historical time.”

GiT May 21, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Yep. The pitfalls of ‘reasoning by google ngram’ should be obvious to anyone other than people like David Brooks and stereotypical economists.

collin May 21, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Who said federal government was smaller in 1950s? Didn’t the government spend about ~20% of GDP most of which was blown a huge military? I think Brooks is being a little loose on ‘smaller government’

mulp May 21, 2013 at 1:49 pm

To conservatives, putting millions of people in uniform against their will is small government, because this creates a conformist society that is more egalitarian with a very high percentage of the population supportive of government because they were:
1. trained by government
2. employed by government
3. got a jobs because the were formerly employed by government
4. went to college thanks to working for government
5. moved to a new government jobs thanks to working for government
6. work for a government contractor supplying government workers
7. do research for the government
8. do research to sell to the government
9. justify bond issues to fund your project because Ike wants it

FDR and LBJ were typical of American pols who spread government far and wide so everyone got some of the benefit of almost everyone working for the government at some point. It was the small government folk that turned government into a weapon to punish political enemies. When every town had some government presence like a VA hospital or military depot or base or contractor or records section or repair depot or reserve center, the pols were working together to spread government around. But with the rise of small government conservatives, it because taking government out of of Democratic districts and making government in Republican districts bigger.

For Democrats, the cuts in the military budget through sequester are hardly noticed – the military bases got eliminated under BRAC in the wealthier liberal districts where the military wasn’t that welcome and not needed, with the functions consolidated in the places the military was critical to the economy, places where the people were poorer, and more enamoured of guns.

I think Virginia is especially interesting. It has benefited from from huge increases in the spending on a security state, plus has benefited from consolidating military functions in Virginia. But that has only increased the support for government because government has been the driver of growth in Virginia, turning Virginia bluer, especially as the network effect has brought in industry that is independent of the military and government. The concentration of population means a need for businesses and business services and employee training which attracts other businesses, diversifying the economy, and bringing the undesirables, the liberals and Democrats and immigrants.

It seems like conservatives have tried to separate government and military – that republican government – We the People – is foreign and alien, like the commies and Mao, while the military which is undemocratic run by a dictator – the commander-in-chief – is of the people and on “our side”, in sort of the kind of rationalization that turned the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.

The second amendment was really about spreading the military out into every community in the nation, and the concentration of the military into a limited number of States and communities runs counter to the attempted limits on standing armies in Article one and the intention of the second amendment.

JWatts May 21, 2013 at 1:54 pm

To conservatives, putting millions of people in uniform against their will is small government, because ….. blah, blah straw man argument, blah, blah

Rich Berger May 21, 2013 at 2:20 pm

Average was 17.6% of GDP and that included 2 years when the Korean War was active and expenditures were 19-20%.

GiT May 21, 2013 at 5:07 pm

It’s rather sad that this sort of “intellectual history as performed by idiots with google ngram” is taken at all seriously.

Kent Guida May 21, 2013 at 6:25 pm

Brooks is prarphrasing the Tocqueville analysis throughout. It’s the mores, dude:

“I am convinced that even the most favorable geographical location and the best laws cannot maintain a constitution in spite of mores, whereas mores can turn even the most unfavorable locations and the worst laws to advantage. The importance of mores is a common truth, which study and experience have repeatedly confirmed. It is a truth central to all my thinking, and in the end all my ideas come back to it.

I have only one thing to add on this subject.

If, in the course of this work, I have failed to make the reader aware of the importance that I attach to the practical experience, habits, and opinions — in a word, the mores — of the Americans in maintaining their laws, then I have failed to achieve the principal goal I set myself in writing it.”

DA, Vol I, Part II, Chapter 9

Becky Hargrove May 23, 2013 at 12:21 pm

I’ve wanted to make an argument against individualism being posed in such terms for a long time, and David Brook’s article gave me a chance to do so.
http://monetaryequivalence.blogspot.com/2013/05/imaginary-individualism.html

KevinH May 23, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Usually I like David Brooks and think he’s an objective thinker. However in this time he is letting his priors get in the way of reason. Crap science leads to crap interpretations.

Do an ngram search for many of the synonyms for ‘preference’: inclination, propensity, partiality

http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=inclination%2Cpreferences%2Cpropensity%2Cpartiality&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=

All that we’ve learned is that language changes….

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