THE OP-ED DOJO.

THE OP-ED DOJO. Wandering through the nation's op-ed pages is like ambling through a dojo. Each writer has his own particular style, technique, finishing move. There's Tom Friedman, who rushes in with the Implausible Conversational Anecdote, links it to an Off-Topic Invocation Of World Travels, and finishes you with a Confusing Metaphor From Above. Or there's Maureen Dowd, who deploys Unfounded Personal Speculation mixed with Confusing Allegories till she's set up her killing blow: Insinuation of Character Defect. It's impressive stuff.

The deadliest op-ed columnist, however, is unquestionably David Brooks. He's the drunken boxer of the opinion page, luring you into a false sense of security with Banal Observations that comfort through Faux Bipartisanship until you're ready for the Illogical Conservative Conclusion. Today's column is an archetypal example of the master at work: a series of cogent critiques of Hillary Clinton's college aid proposals that effortlessly glide through research demonstrating their uselessness, a couple lavish compliments to Clinton and her team, and finally a conclusion that explains the only way to increase college attendance is to encourage two-parent homes, fundamentally reform schools, and increase church-sponsored mentoring programs. Funny thing -- this is exactly the rightwing's agenda! And yet it comes wrapped in such warm bipartisanship and elevated chin stroking that you'd never notice Newt Gingrich silently mouthing along in the background.

Comprehensive school reform and mentoring programs, however, will do little. Most research shows that the crucial period comes before the second grade, not after eighth. Indeed, by the time kids are seven, test score gaps have stabilized, and are unlikely to either widen or narrow for the rest of their schooling. Pre-schooling is where the gains are at, but you don't see Brooks advocating universalizing that leg up. As for two parent families, no one denies that universal marital bliss would be a boon on all fronts. But abusive or unhappy homes have their own problems. More to the point, single mother homes are often another way to say impoverished, or even black, homes. And one could far more easily attack the socioeconomic inequities afflicting these families than the currents buffeting their marriages.

Indeed, social class and family income overwhelmingly correlate with college attendance. Were Brooks really serious about increasing the educated class, he'd mention not martial structure, but the minimum wage, because pulling folks out of poverty and into more affluent environs increases educational attainment like just about nothing else. But he doesn't. Because that the secret of Brooks-fu -- distract your attention with a social problem that worries liberals, compliment the good intentions of progressives trying to solve it, dismiss their plans, and then offer up an evidence-free assertion that some rightwing policy would prove a panacea. Before you know it, you're on your back, staring up at the dojo ceiling, thinking that tax cuts really aren't such a bad idea after all.

--Ezra Klein

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