Monday, December 9, 2013

The Intractability of Poverty: Responding to David Simon and Andrea Elliot

 Two articles today engage with dire American poverty: David Simon's essay in The Guardian about “Two Americas,” exemplified by the Baltimore in which he lives and the Baltimore he dramatized in “The Wire,” and Andrea Elliot’s NYT article “Invisible Child” about a homeless 11 year old and her family in Brooklyn. I recommend both; but I want to append that diagnosing the issue is far different from treating it.

Simon’s central thesis is that capitalism only works when a) there is a social compact that we are obligated to help those less well off and b) when “[l]abour doesn't get to win all its arguments, [and] capital doesn't get to. But it's in the tension, it's in the actual fight between the two, that capitalism actually becomes functional, that it becomes something that every stratum in society has a stake in, that they all share.” He cites Marx in a general way to support the thesis but mostly just looks around America and notes that we’ve failed the “maybe 10 or 15% of my country [that] is no longer necessary to the operation of the economy.” I agree completely -but then he pivots to the suggestion that we need nationalized insurance. Here we part ways.

SImon is responding most directly to a caricatured version of conservative thinking that we have no obligation to help “them,” the people outside of our immediate worlds, defined however. (Of course when Romney literally bemoans that some Americans “believe that they are food,” perhaps it’s not such a caricature. To food? Really!?). That’s nice. I too would like to convince the libertarian body politic that if we let 15% of America starve, it will have bad consequences for everyone...but this is totally orthogonal to the more sophisticated conservative version of the argument. They aren’t arguing that we shouldn’t help poor Americans, but that a huge, byzantine welfare state creates perverse incentives, income cliffs at which it makes little sense to work, and, as Charles Murray puts it, if payments are linked to having certain problems, you’re going to incentivize having or showing those problems. Similarly, with health insurance, conservatives like Ross Douthat argue “that comprehensive health insurance is, at its heart, a deeply wasteful use of resources,” given the weak links between having insurance and health outcome, and that Americans are “much more likely to overconsume health care than to underconsume it.”

The point here is that it’s utterly possible to look at the same evidence Simon looks at, acknowledge that it’s a huge problem, and not at all think that Marx is the light to look to, and to in fact think that leftist solutions have heretofore caused more harm than good.

Elliot’s piece -- which I cannot recommend enough -- is much less political, except for a brief reference to Reagan-era cuts to homelessness benefits and to how the “traditional anchors” of the poor and middle class, “affordable housing and jobs that pay a living wage — have weakened as the city reorders itself around the whims of the wealthy.” I strongly disagree with this. I live in New York now. Various aspects of the city’s gentrification trouble me, and my place in it is a source of discomfort. But I for one am highly skeptical that you can tell a compelling story starting with preferable zoning laws for luxury high-rises and ending with an 11 year old who is homeless with two unemployed, formerly drug-addicted parents. (Perhaps at the margin, this story could work -- taxation on projects of certain sizes could be diverted to making shelters safe and clean -- but that’s amelioration, not central cause and effect). If you can tell such a story, by all means, please do. But we cannot assume it.

The story that makes more sense to me is that this problem -- “Two Americas”, one of them adrift, or Coming Apart, or whatever you want to call it -- is completely not specific to place but happening everywhere. The Times provides a great illustration of this last year with its phenomenal series on “The Lady Jaguars,” a rural Tennessee basketball team of troubled high school-age girls. The takeaway is that none of us have any idea what to do about this “second America,” where George Zimmermans see Trayvon Martins and immediately peg them as criminals, where just half of all births are out of wedlock , where lifespans of certain segments of the population have actually declined in the past 20 years, where the prison population seems increasingly unable to escape disciplining institutions.

And neither conservatives nor liberals have any idea what actually works and can be scaled up to an entire country. All we have are speculation, faith in our ideologies, and potential small-scale fixes at the margin. The issue is not that we haven’t yet implemented the right solution. it’s that we have no idea what the right solution is.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Goodbye D.C.

August 06 2013

Two years ago, en route to my AmeriCorps job as a teacher’s aide in a prison-like, failing elementary school, I caught the tail end of a disagreement between a citizen and a police officer in a subway station. ‘Leave the station sir’ the officer commanded, which the man did, walking up the broken escalator with me. ‘Fucking faggot’ he said.

A few days prior, A teacher at my school had lost her patience with a particularly trouble-prone 6 year old; when he resisted a nominal punishment for fidgeting, she picked him up by the scruff of his collar and threw him into a corner by himself, looming after like a low-flung bear, as if daring him to fight back. He snapped: “Faggot. Don’t touch me, ho!” The class took in a collective breath -- scared, with an echo of something less savory, anticipation -- and held silent, waiting to see an unwritten script play out: or maybe the next step in a dance that only I didn't know.

I’ve lost touch with the child and the teacher. But I thought of him one night soon thereafter when having dinner with my book club. I envisioned the slim possibilities for his future, how bleak they were, and started to lose my composure in front of an ex.

The other day, I ran into a college friend on the subway, talking to her NIH friends about the crazy things she had learned on a trip to Easter Island. I got off two stops later to board a capital bike share, now completely seamless with any subway commute I’d make: 3.82 miles; 25 minutes, almost entirely downhill, to my grocery store to buy vegetables. On the way out, I saw two men, one young and white and one older and black, arguing on their respective porches. 'Go back in your house sir' the young man said tiredly. 'I will not go back in my house!’ the other man said. ‘You think you can come here, and live here, just cuz you’re white.’ I walked away and talked to a white neighbor whom I hadn’t met but who had seen the altercation. We shrugged. We’ve already come. The country hit the skids, and D.C. thrives; it offered us jobs, built us Churchkey and Whole Foods, and then nods goodbye: my successors’ U-Hauls are already in the alley behind the house that I share with 6 friends. In two weeks I’m starting a PhD in political science in New York.

I make people cry more than I would like to. Two times in which I felt completely comfortable with my choices stand out; both times, we were better off apart, and I was sure I had done no lasting harm. It hit me recently that being right and feeling level with hurting someone aren’t the same thing. I still feel shaken when those memories resurface. I should aspire, I think, to do better than leaving no trace; I should try to leave people and places better off than I found them.

I cannot say I’ve done so for D.C. I have definitely left some of the friends I made this year better off: introduced them to other friends, to significant others, to bike trails and restaurants they’ve liked. Almost none will be here in 5 years. In some ways I’ve left no mark; In others, I have driven gentrification in a way that I am at best ambivalent about. Two blocks east from my row-home, in what was a rough area, a restaurant called The Mothership has opened up. On weeknights, you see us eating pierogies under Christmas lights. A friend’s mom joined him for Jazz in the Park last year and commented “Are there any adults in this city?” Perhaps not. Perhaps the only people who will still live in the NW in 10 years will wear slacks to work, jeans on Friday and drink Sangria in the evenings, while the SE decamps to PG county.

I’m gone, D.C. I’m going home. I can’t be the one you need. But I’ll remember you well. I walked to happy hour last week and ran into an acquaintance I’m quite fond of, on his way to the bookstore to prepare for the Foreign Service Exam. I biked to the National Science Museum in June with friends to view the largest nature photographs I’d ever seen. I walk up Connecticut and say, Starbucks: why not? I walk down 14th and watch the buildings rise.

I don’t know whose city it was. But it’s ours now. I still have to leave.

Also I used to write a travel blog. It's here.