From the Editors
We’re excited to announce a new feature. Beginning with this issue, BR will run a regular column by Claude Fischer, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Fischer is known for his work on social history, technology, inequality, and social networks. He’s also a powerful critic of fashionable ideas about trends in American social life reported in the mainstream media. His column, “Made in America,” will expose such claims to social scientific scrutiny.
In this issue Fischer examines the “culture of poverty” argument—the idea, now back in circulation, that the poor stay poor because of their values. The long-term poor are, Fischer observes, a very small group, and their values are best understood as adaptations to limited opportunities. The poor, to paraphrase Hemingway, are different from us because they don’t have much money. Correspondingly, the best policy is to expand opportunities, not to work on their values. (In a Web-only column, Fischer also challenges warnings—found in new books and the latest issue of The Atlantic—that technology is making Americans lonelier.)
Fischer’s column aligns closely with BR’s core mission: because ideas matter, they need to be taken seriously. And taking them seriously means testing them with fact and argument. Other articles in this issue are written in that same spirit.
In her moving autobiographical essay, Sandra Tanenbaum weighs in on the antidepressant wars. Both defenders of the drugs and opponents, she argues, are too focused on how people on average respond to medication, not enough on the experiences of individual patients. Anne Fausto-Sterling asks whether genetics research is the best way to address health problems that seem to correspond to race. And Glenn Loury subjects the legacy of James Q. Wilson to searching criticism. Wilson’s ideas about crime and policing had a powerful impact on our criminal justice system—powerful and profoundly damaging.
In every issue of the magazine, we test ideas with a debate. This issue’s forum focuses on the limits of markets. Leading it off, political philosopher Michael Sandel observes that our market system offers just about everything at a price, from wedding toasts to kidneys to college admission. But the spread of markets to all areas of life may crowd out moral virtues worth caring about.
At the heart of Sandel’s argument is the idea that markets are not simply efficient tools for achieving goals. They embody values. And the question we face—ultimately a political and philosophical question—is whether we think that those values ought to govern our lives.
—Deborah Chasman & Joshua Cohen