Appearing Elsewhere: Achievement character; why marriage and babies don’t mix for the poor; and a review of the new Obama biography

Over the last couple months I’ve had a few pieces published in elsewhere that I want to share with you.

The first is a profile of Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at Penn, called “Character’s Content.”  Duckworth studies “achievement character”- the personality traits that correlate with success in school. She’s identified several traits as particularly significant-grit, self-control, delay of gratification- and her objective is to find a way to measure and cultivate these traits in students, particularly kids from low-income neighborhoods:

“Underachievement among American youth is often blamed on inadequate teachers, boring textbooks, and large class sizes,” she wrote in a paper titled “Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance in Adolescents,” which served as her first-year graduate thesis and was published in Psychological Science in 2005. “We suggest another reason for students falling short of their intellectual potential: their failure to exercise self-discipline … We believe that many of America’s children have trouble making choices that require them to sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term gain, and that programs that build self-discipline may be the royal road to building academic achievement.”

The second piece, “When Having Babies Beats Marriage” was published yesterday in Harvard Magazine and looks at the research of sociologist Kathryn Edin.  You might remember Edin’s work from a couple of posts I wrote earlier this year about the stereotype of ‘hit and run’ fatherhood among poor men.  In this piece I explain Edin’s surprising- and to my mind powerfully convincing- explanation for why marriage and childbearing have become decoupled at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder:

But even as low-income Americans view marriage as out of reach, Edin asserts, they continue to see bearing and raising children as the most meaningful activity in their lives. “One theme of Doing The Best I Can is that poor men really want to be dads and they really value fatherhood,” she says. “Both women and men at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder see having kids as the ultimate form of fulfillment”: given their bleak economic prospects and minimal hope of upward mobility, being a parent is one of the few positive identities available to them. Middle-class women have substantial economic incentives to delay childbearing (a woman who gives birth right after college earns half as much in her lifetime as the classmate who waits until her mid thirties), but those incentives don’t exist for poor women. As Edin writes in Promises I Can Keep, “Early childbearing is highly selective of girls whose characteristics—family background, cognitive ability, school performance, mental-health status, and so on—have already diminished their life chances so much that an early birth does little to reduce them further.”

And lastly, a review of David Maraniss’ new biography of Barack Obama that ran in the Christian Science Monitor:

This is the second time that Maraniss has tried to narrate presidential ambition and his first effort was surely an easier one. His 1996 biography of Bill Clinton, “First in His Class,” told the story of a born glad-hander with an insatiable desire for other people’s esteem. Clinton was complex and confounding as president, but the source of his ambition was easy enough to locate.

Obama’s ambition is more obscure. Maraniss seems to have tracked down just about everybody who ever knew the young Barry Obama, including his neighbors in Indonesia, high school classmates in Hawaii, college roommates, and old girlfriends. To a person they recall Obama as a nice guy – easy-going, private, smart – but never as someone who thirsted for greatness or even seemed uniquely equipped to achieve it. Many echo the sentiments of Obama’s first boss out of college, who said that Obama “did not stand out in any material way.”



Appearing Elsewhere: Review of The Big Short by Michael Lewis

My review of Michael Lewis’ new book The Big Short appears in the Christian Science Monitor this morning. If you’ve read Lewis before (Moneyball, Liar’s Poker), you know he can spin a good tale. The Big Short is no exception. The most rewarding aspect of the book, though, is that it provides a clear but comprehensive primer on the factors that caused the 2008 financial crash:

CDOs took the worst pieces of each subprime bond and recombined them into a new product that was meant to appear less risky than the sum of its parts. The gambit was like a meatpacker grinding together bits of bone and gristle and calling it top sirloin, and it worked because Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s – the meat inspectors of the financial world – were either asleep at the wheel or on the take, depending on your level of cynicism. Regardless, CDOs opened the possibility of an infinite regress of wagers – a bet on a bet on a bet – and enabled speculation in subprime mortgage bonds to reach the economy-destroying heights that it did.