David Brooks, inequality, and red shirting

David Brooks put out a column this week titled The Opportunity Gap. Like most David Brooks column, it was exceedingly shoddy and concluded with the professional centrist appeal that has come to define Brooks. There are a variety of empirically refuted theories he floats out in the piece, but I wont pursue them here. Nonetheless, his piece does invite conversation about the nature of equal opportunity inside the United States.

The United States is a deeply unequal society, both in terms of condition and opportunity. David Brooks even admits this. The question is what exactly causes this inequality. The evidence behind the conservative obsession over single parenting is scant at best. The best explanation continues to be that being born rich provides a pretty good background for becoming rich, while being born poor does not. The background factors that go into this are numerous and well discussed elsewhere.

One such factor that does not attract as much discussion as it should is the extent to which rich parents game the system. I wrote briefly about it before, but more should be said. Rich people rhetorically obsess over equal opportunity, and understandably so: equal opportunity is the institutional characteristic that is supposed to legitimate their massively unequal benefits.

I suspect that rich people genuinely support equal opportunity in the abstract and in general, but that commitment falls apart when it comes to their own children. That is, rich folks support equal opportunity for other kids, but unequal opportunity for their own. In aggregate, this poses basic problems for the entire institution of equal opportunity. Ultimately, such an institution reduces down to individual actors. If every individual actor supports equal opportunity only in the abstract, but works around it when it comes to their own kids, then the institution does not exist at all.

One recent phenomenon illustrates this point the best. Apparently, significant numbers of parents — especially the rich — have adopted a new strategy to help their kids get ahead: hold them back from kindergarten for one year. Called red shirting, the idea is that by holding the kid back for a year, he will be a year more advanced and developed relative to his peers. As a result, the kid will be at the top of the class, and all sorts of cumulative benefits will accrue throughout the years, eventually culminating in better performance in sports, school, college admission, and careers.

What is so interesting about red shirting is that it is pure system-gaming. Lots of things rich parents do to give their kid a boost has the effect of harming kids with less resources just because many things kids compete for have finite slots. But at least most of those things — be it extra tutoring or test prep — does seemingly add some value to the world, i.e. it does make the rich kid do better in absolute terms.

The red shirting phenomenon is purely and completely positional. Its aim is not to make the kid better through extra cultivation. The aim is simply to place the kid among a pool of people that are just not as old yet, and therefore not as capable as him. The kid is not improved in the process of red shirting; he is just competing against people one year less developed than him.

As is obvious, this is not a solution that could scale. If everyone held their kid back, the advantage would fall apart. Nonetheless, the very premise of it is anti-egalitarian: the parent rejects equal opportunity in favor of tilting the system towards their own kid. I think the extent to which this kind of tilting goes on individually — even by those who abstractly love the idea of equal opportunity — is vastly under-appreciated as a cause of unequal opportunity. Instead of blaming single mothers for unequal opportunity, shouldn’t we looking at the millionaire mothers strategically holding their kids back a year?