Brooks and Krugman

Oh, sweet God…  Bobo has decided to take it upon himself to educate us all on “The Nature of Poverty.”  He informs us that our efforts to fight urban poverty will continue to fail unless we change the fundamental lens through which we view the problem.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “I was wondering when we were going to get tough on victims. They’ve had it easy for far too long, and it’s good to see Mr. Brooks taking them to task.”  Prof. Krugman, in “Ideology and Integrity,” says if character is going to be a part of the 2016 campaign, let’s make sure to focus on the right things.  Here, FSM help us all, is Bobo:

Lately it seems as though every few months there’s another urban riot and the nation turns its attention to urban poverty. And in the midst of every storm, there are people crying out that we should finally get serious about this issue. This time it was Jon Stewart who spoke for many when he said: “And you just wonder sometimes if we’re spending a trillion dollars to rebuild Afghanistan’s schools, like, we can’t build a little taste down Baltimore way. Like is that what’s really going on?”

The audience applauded loudly, and it’s a nice sentiment, but it’s not really relevant.

The problem is not lack of attention, and it’s not mainly lack of money. Since 1980 federal antipoverty spending has exploded. As Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post has pointed out, in 2013 the federal government spent nearly $14,000 per poor person. If you simply took that money and handed it to the poor, a family of four would have a household income roughly twice the poverty rate.

Yet over the last 30 years the poverty rate has scarcely changed.

In addition, American public spending on schools is high by global standards. As Peter Wehner pointed out in Commentary, in 2011 Baltimore ranked second among the nation’s largest 100 school districts in how much it spent per pupil, $15,483 per year.

The Sandtown-Winchester area of Baltimore, where Freddie Gray lived, has not lacked for attention either. In the late 1980s, Baltimore’s then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke decided he would make the neighborhood a model of urban restoration. He gathered public and private actors like developer James Rouse and Habitat for Humanity. They raised more than $130 million and poured it into everything from new homes, new school curriculums, new job training programs and new health care centers. Townhouses were built for $87,000 and sold to residents for $37,000.

The money was not totally wasted. By 2000, the poverty rate in the area had dropped by 4.4 percent. The share of residents who lived in owner-occupied homes had risen by 8.3 percent, according to a thorough study by The Abell Foundation. But the area was not transformed. Today there are no grocery stores in the neighborhood and no restaurants. Crime is rampant. Unemployment is high.

Despite all these efforts, there are too many young men leading lives like the one Gray led. He was apparently a kind-hearted, respectful, popular man, but he was not on the path to upward mobility. He won a settlement for lead paint poisoning. According to The Washington Post, his mother was a heroin addict who, in a deposition, said she couldn’t read. In one court filing, it was reported that Gray was four grade levels behind in reading. He was arrested more than a dozen times.

It is wrong to say federal efforts to tackle poverty have been a failure. The $15 trillion spent by the government over the past half-century has improved living standards and eased burdens for millions of poor people. But all that money and all those experiments have not integrated people who live in areas of concentrated poverty into the mainstream economy. Often, the money has served as a cushion, not a ladder.

Saying we should just spend more doesn’t really cut it. What’s needed is a phase shift in how we think about poverty. Renewal efforts in Sandtown-Winchester prioritized bricks and mortar. But the real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.

Jane Jacobs once wrote that a healthy neighborhood is like a ballet, a series of intricate interactions in which people are regulating each other and encouraging certain behaviors.

In a fantastic interview that David Simon of “The Wire” gave to Bill Keller for The Marshall Project, he describes that, even in poorest Baltimore, there once were informal rules of behavior governing how cops interacted with citizens — when they’d drag them in and when they wouldn’t, what curse words you could say to a cop and what you couldn’t. But then the code dissolved. The informal guardrails of life were gone, and all was arbitrary harshness.

That’s happened across many social spheres — in schools, families and among neighbors. Individuals are left without the norms that middle-class people take for granted. It is phenomenally hard for young people in such circumstances to guide themselves.

Yes, jobs are necessary, but if you live in a neighborhood, as Gray did, where half the high school students don’t bother to show up for school on a given day, then the problems go deeper.

The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology. Until the invisible bonds of relationships are repaired, life for too many will be nasty, brutish, solitary and short.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

The 2016 campaign should be almost entirely about issues. The parties are far apart on everything from the environment to fiscal policy to health care, and history tells us that what politicians say during a campaign is a good guide to how they will govern.

Nonetheless, many in the news media will try to make the campaign about personalities and character instead. And character isn’t totally irrelevant. The next president will surely encounter issues that aren’t currently on anyone’s agenda, so it matters how he or she is likely to react. But the character trait that will matter most isn’t one the press likes to focus on. In fact, it’s actively discouraged.

You see, you shouldn’t care whether a candidate is someone you’d like to have a beer with. Nor should you care about politicians’ sex lives, or even their spending habits unless they involve clear corruption. No, what you should really look for, in a world that keeps throwing nasty surprises at us, is intellectual integrity: the willingness to face facts even if they’re at odds with one’s preconceptions, the willingness to admit mistakes and change course.

And that’s a virtue in very short supply.

As you might guess, I’m thinking in particular about the sphere of economics, where the nasty surprises just keep coming. If nothing that has happened these past seven years or so has shaken any of your long-held economic beliefs, either you haven’t been paying attention or you haven’t been honest with yourself.

Times like these call for a combination of open-mindedness — willingness to entertain different ideas — and determination to do the best you can. As Franklin Roosevelt put it in a celebrated speech, “The country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

What we see instead in many public figures is, however, the behaviorGeorge Orwell described in one of his essays: “Believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right.” Did I predict runaway inflation that never arrived? Well, the government is cooking the books, and besides, I never said what I said.

Just to be clear, I’m not calling for an end to ideology in politics, because that’s impossible. Everyone has an ideology, a view about how the world does and should work. Indeed, the most reckless and dangerous ideologues are often those who imagine themselves ideology-free — for example, self-proclaimed centrists — and are, therefore, unaware of their own biases. What you should seek, in yourself and others, is not an absence of ideology but an open mind, willing to consider the possibility that parts of the ideology may be wrong.

The press, I’m sorry to say, tends to punish open-mindedness, because gotcha journalism is easier and safer than policy analysis. Hillary Clinton supported trade agreements in the 1990s, but now she’s critical. It’s a flip-flop! Or, possibly, a case of learning from experience, which is something we should praise, not deride.

So what’s the state of intellectual integrity at this point in the election cycle? Pretty bad, at least on the Republican side of the field.

Jeb Bush, for example, has declared that “I’m my own man” on foreign policy, but the list of advisers circulated by his aides included the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, who predicted that Iraqis would welcome us as liberators, and shows no signs of having learned from the blood bath that actually took place.

Meanwhile, as far as I can tell no important Republican figure has admittedthat none of the terrible consequences that were supposed to follow health reform — mass cancellation of existing policies, soaring premiums, job destruction — has actually happened.

The point is that we’re not just talking about being wrong on specific policy questions. We’re talking about never admitting error, and never revising one’s views. Never being able to say that you were wrong is a serious character flaw even if the consequences of that refusal to admit error fall only on a few people. But moral cowardice should be outright disqualifying in anyone seeking high office.

Think about it. Suppose, as is all too possible, that the next president ends up confronting some kind of crisis — economic, environmental, foreign — undreamed of in his or her current political philosophy. We really, really don’t want the job of responding to that crisis dictated by someone who still can’t bring himself to admit that invading Iraq was a disaster but health reform wasn’t.

I still think this election should turn almost entirely on the issues. But if we must talk about character, let’s talk about what matters, namely intellectual integrity.

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