Be Glad You Haven’t Read the Broken Logic of ‘Broken Bonds’

EspañolOf all the books and films I have reviewed, not one has challenged me as much as Broken Bonds, and not in a good way. Mitch Pearlstein’s 184-page effort, subtitled What Family Fragmentation Means for America’s Future, is so worthy of criticism, on so many levels, one feels like a mosquito in a nudist colony.

Broken Bonds. (Center of the American Experiment)
Broken Bonds. (Center of the American Experiment)

While the prominent endorsers on the dust jacket are unlikely to have ever cracked open the book, I read it in full, which was no easy task. Not only is the examination of US family decline written in a painfully confusing and incoherent manner, it lacks clear conclusions or viable policy prescriptions. Above all, Broken Bonds is a methodological nightmare.

One of my first bosses used to repeat to us aspiring economists the pitfalls of casual empiricism: loose assertions based on convenient, superficial anecdotes. Broken Bonds, however, embraces casual empiricism as its very foundation, and would give old Charlie of AIER a heart attack.

Pearlstein, and I am not making this up, personally selected 40 aging academics, community organizers, and opinion leaders — friends and largely like-minded individuals — to be survey participants who “definitely don’t constitute a scientific sample.” He then asked them a series of awkward questions, including such pearlers as “How well do we know and feel for each other?” The outcome constitutes a book of selected tidbits and block quotes from their responses, juxtaposed to his incomprehensible liking.

What wisdom someone is supposed to glean from this mess is unclear. In his own compelling words, “chances are much better than even that their evaluations of current circumstances are reasonably on target.”

Beyond the lack of precision, the book’s mishmash of continuously rotating characters is impossible to keep track of. One has little choice but to give up after a couple of chapters, resigned to thinking that who gave the opinions is less important than the content.

Naturally, the respondents disagree somewhat about why the family unit is in decline in the United States and what might be done about it, so there is need for some organizing. However, the narrative Pearlstein builds around their answers is riddled with inconsistencies and perpetuates the national obsession with race and the fallacious left-right spectrum.

Pearlstein, founder of the Center of the American Experiment, opines how extra-marital births and broken families are a threat to the liberal institutions and limited government of the United States. But then he trots out a range of central planners, including a former US Department of Education official, and touts an astonishing array of socialist proposals: “paternalistic and nurturing” education down to early childhood and for premarital couples, expanded tax credits per child, required work for welfare, and a “social marketing campaign.” One could be forgiven for thinking that negative social media contributed to the downfall of marriage in the 1960s and 1970s.

He even commends former-President George W. Bush for starting the federally funded Healthy Marriage Initiative, a boondoggle that continues to this day. I must have missed that and the Department of Education in Article 1 Section 8 of the US Constitution, which enumerates the federal government’s powers.

As you might guess from these hypocritical social-engineering proposals, the level of condescension in Broken Bonds towards the young and less fortunate is off the charts. Of the selected participants, there may not be a single one under 40 — the average was “possibly sixty-plus” — and the snippets read like obtuse retirees holding a pity party for their grandchildren.

This age shortcoming in the respondents leads to glaring blind spots. Pearlstein, for example, shares one respondent’s concern about Medicare bureaucracy, and speaks of his own experience: the “learning curve is steeper than anticipated.” Apparently the “complexity” of Medicare is the problem worth noting, not that it is an enormous unfunded liability and wealth redistribution away from the young, who are struggling to make ends meet and start families.

Gary Becker’s monumental work (1981), was the foundation of my directed study at Boston University on the economics of marriage. (Harvard University Press)

Similarly without mention or opposition, occupational-licensing barriers have exploded in the past half century — now applying to more than one in three workers — and they lock out many who seek to rise on their merits. Pearlstein notes the need for more “education, education, education,” but he ignores that higher education offers more signaling than human-capital value, and that US college attendance has already swollen to record levels (as has accompanying student-loan debt). Instead, how about a stop to arbitrary and protectionist regulation, regulation, regulation?

The saddest part of this book is that its premise is a noteworthy one: broken families do merit concern and will have long-term impacts. That is why it attracted me to begin with, and why The Marriage Motive by Shoshana Grossbard is in the mail (stay tuned).

However, with neither a grounding in family economics — as can be found in A Treatise on the Family by Gary Becker — nor a willingness to push back against politically correct policies of the nanny state, this examination goes nowhere. Worse, it leaves the reader more confused and misinformed of the problem than he was at the outset.

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