Blow, Cohen and Krugman

In “Laquan McDonald and the ‘System'” Mr. Blow says recent killings by the police suggest that such violence has the implicit backing of society as a whole.  Mr. Cohen considers “Young Lives Interrupted” and says truth is more often the fruit of diligence than revelation, of discarding than accumulation.  Prof. Krugman, in “Inequality and the City,” says as the affluent flock back to the urban centers, there also needs to be enough housing for everyone else.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

I spent Wednesday night following a gaggle of protesters through the streets of downtown Chicago. The air was unseasonably warm, but the sentiment in the air burned with a rage and revulsion.

Disturbing video had been released of the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. He had been shot 16 times by Officer Jason Van Dyke. Most of the shots were fired when McDonald was no longer standing. Some entered through his back.

Shortly before releasing the tape, the Cook County state’s attorney, Anita Alvarez, announced Van Dyke would be charged with first-degree murder.

Broad discontent rippled through the crowd of protesters as people suggested a wide-ranging cover-up, from the $5 million settlement the city paid to McDonald’s family and its timing (it was reached days after Mayor Rahm Emanuel won a runoff re-election), the 400 days it took the prosecutor to bring charges even though the video existed, the silence of the other officers on the scene, and efforts to suppress the video itself. One young man with a megaphone led the protesters in a chant that went in part: “The whole damned system is guilty as hell.”

Truly, there are many troubling aspects to this case. But having covered so many of these cases in the last couple years, it strikes me that we may need to push back and widen the lens so that we can fully appreciate and understand the systemic sociological and historical significance of this moment in our country’s development.

While police departments definitely have distinct cultures, in a way they are simple instruments that articulate and enforce our laws and mores, which are reflections of our values.

The only reason that these killings keep happening is because most of American society tacitly approves or willfully tolerates it. There is no other explanation. If America wanted this to end, it would end.

The exceeding sad and dreadfully profound truth is that America — the majority of America, and that generally means much of white America — has turned away, averted its gaze and refused to take a strong moral stance in opposition. That’s the same as granting silent approval.

People try to pitch this as some sort of ideological argument, as an issue of blacks against the police or vice versa, but that is simply an evasion, a way of refusing societal blame for a societal defect: We view crime and punishment with an ethnocentric sensibility that has a distinct and endemic anti-black bias.

When black people are the focus, punishments seem to be more severe than when whites are the focus of the very same circumstances.

Let me give you one example of how this works: During previous drug epidemics — which were largely considered black and brown inner-city problems — lawmakers were falling all over each other to see who could be tougher on crime, in the process enacting racially skewed sentencing guidelines.

But, now we see a move toward sentencing reform, because as I noted in 2009: “According to the most recent data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, admissions of white teenagers to drug treatment centers for crack and cocaine abuse soared 76 percent from 2001 to 2006. Crack and cocaine was the only illicit drug category in which the number of admissions for white teens grew over this period, and in 2006 the number was at its highest level since these data have been kept. By contrast, admissions among black teens for crack and cocaine over the same period held steady. By 2006, white admissions outnumbered those for blacks by more than 10 to 1.”

Furthermore, under a headline that read, “In Heroin Crisis, White Families Seek Gentler War on Drugs,” The New York Times noted that “while heroin use has climbed among all demographic groups, it has skyrocketed among whites; nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white.”

Even presidential candidates like Chris Christie have rallied on the gentler side of the drug debate. In remarks that went viral, Christie lamented, “Somehow, if it’s heroin or cocaine or alcohol, we say, ‘Aah, they decided it. They’re getting what they deserved.’ ”

Where were these people when young black and brown people in the inner city were being steamrolled by the ridiculous War on Drugs and having the book thrown at them? You see, we as a society make choices about what and whom we value and ask police departments and judicial systems to put those values into action. Police shootings are simply an extreme example of our disparity in valuation.

This can be overcome, and occasionally has been, but it requires a transcending of self-interested racial tribalism, an ability to see the issue as an intolerable human cruelty rather than as an acceptable and even warranted condition of another, and that can be a high hurdle to clear in this country.

As long as people who look like McDonald are disproportionately affected, and those who don’t look like him are not, it is likely and even predictable, based on historical precedent, that the terrible silence of enough people will continue to sanction this carnage.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

The second paragraph of Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “A Way You’ll Never Be,” describes a cluster of dead Austrian soldiers encountered during World War I: “They lay alone or in clumps in the high grass of the field and along the road, their pockets out, and over them were flies and around each body or group of bodies were the scattered papers.”

That’s the whole paragraph, 37 words of telegraphic description. Yet the detail — the flies, the papers and especially “their pockets out” — captures the scene. Somebody has already looted those pockets. Hemingway was also a war reporter with an unerring eye.

Later in the story Hemingway writes of the “guns hidden under screens of mulberry leaves to the left of the road,” visible “by the heat-waves in the air above the leaves where the sun hit the metal.” With almost adjective-free economy, he has placed you there, in the carnage of a century ago, where the hot weather, indifferent to corpse of friend or foe, has “swollen them all alike regardless of nationality.”

Around the dead are “stick bombs, helmets, rifles, intrenching tools, ammunition boxes, star-shell pistols, their shells scattered about, medical kits, gas masks, empty gas-mask cans, a squat, tripodded machine gun in a nest of empty shells, full belts protruding from the boxes, the water-cooling can empty and on its side, the breech block gone, the crew in odd positions, and around them, in the grass, more of the typical papers.”

Show, don’t tell, goes the old writer’s maxim.

The papers — in this case prayer books, smutty postcards, and “letters, letters, letters” — stopped me. “There was always much paper about the dead,” Hemingway writes, “and the debris of this attack was no exception.” My late uncle, Capt. Bert Cohen of the Dental Unit of the Sixth South African Armored Division, 19th Field Ambulance, had said the same of the dead he encountered as he fought his way up the Italian peninsula in World War II.

I guess there won’t be any letters in the next war, just cell phones in the dust, the sand or the mud, their batteries dying.

Bert told me more than once of a column of Nazi dead he found on a bend in the Penaro River, north of Modena, on April 24, 1945. From his words and war diary, I wrote this description:

“Intestines of gutted animals ballooned from their carcasses. A squad of South African infantry marched through the ruins, bringing a bullet of mercy to animals that still agonized. One dead German in particular caught Bert’s eye: a blond, square-jawed young man with a long straight nose, hair flecked with blood and smoke, legs twisted grotesquely, abdomen ripped open, coils of gut spilling through a ragged gash into the dust, sightless blue eyes gazing at infinity. Beside the corpse lay scattered letters from the soldier’s mother in Hamburg. She wrote about Der Angriff, the Allied bombardment of the city that killed more than 42,000 people. Uncertain what to do, Bert returned the letters to the dead man’s pocket.”

Until his death last year at the age of 95, my uncle remained haunted by that single dead German and his letters. He dwelt on them as if he, a Jew from South Africa, might somehow have brought this handsome young man, Hitler’s model Aryan, back to life; and he wondered if he should have kept the letters to return them to a bereaved mother in Hamburg. He was a link in a circle that never closed.

I’ve been thinking of young lives interrupted, of the papers fluttering from the Twin Towers toward my Brooklyn Heights apartment 14 years ago, of the young Parisian who did not go to the Bataclan on Nov. 13 because his wife was pregnant and a dead friend who did, of the ways luck can run out. As a war correspondent I always thought you did not need good luck. You needed the absence of bad luck.

Perhaps if Bert had returned the letters he would have made a friend in Hamburg and seen something of the rebirth of that handsome city.

It seems, as we grow older, that we are haunted less by what we have done than by what we failed to do, whether through lack of courage, or inattention, or insufficient readiness to cast caution to the winds. The impossible love abandoned, the gesture unmade, the heedless voyage untaken, the parting that should not have been — these chimera always beckon.

What’s done is done but the undone is another matter.

David Bromwich, in The New York Review of Books, drew my attention to the Hemingway short story and wrote of the author’s “method of description that becomes a record of repressed emotion.”

There are too many words today, too much emotion, and too few letters. Truth is more often the fruit of diligence than revelation, of discipline than inebriation, of discarding than accumulation.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

New York, New York, a helluva town. The rents are up, but the crime rate is down. The food is better than ever, and the cultural scene is vibrant. Truly, it’s a golden age for the town I recently moved to — if you can afford the housing. But more and more people can’t.

And it’s not just New York. The days when dystopian images of urban decline were pervasive in popular culture — remember the movie “Escape from New York”? — are long past. The story for many of our iconic cities is, instead, one of gentrification, a process that’s obvious to the naked eye, and increasingly visible in the data.

Specifically, urban America reached an inflection point around 15 years ago: after decades of decline, central cities began getting richer, more educated, and, yes, whiter. Today our urban cores are providing ever more amenities, but largely to a very affluent minority.

But why is this happening? And is there any way to spread the benefits of our urban renaissance more widely?

Let’s start by admitting that one important factor has surely been the dramatic decline in crime rates. For those of us who remember the 1970s, New York in 2015 is so safe it’s surreal. And the truth is that nobody really knows why that happened.

But there have been other drivers of the change: above all, the national-level surge in inequality.

It’s a familiar fact (even if the usual suspects still deny it) that the concentration of income in the hands of a small minority has soared over the past 35 years. This concentration is even higher in big metropolitan areas like New York, because those areas are both where high-skill, high-pay industries tend to locate, and where the very affluent often want to live. In general, this high-income elite gets what it wants, and what it has wanted, since 2000, has been to live near the center of big cities.

Still, why do high-income Americans now want to live in inner cities, as opposed to in sprawling suburban estates? Here we need to pay attention to the changing lives of the affluent — in particular, their work habits.

To get a sense of how it used to be, let me quote from a classic 1955 Fortune article titled “How Top Executives Live.” According to that article, the typical executive “gets up early — about 7 a.m.. — eats a large breakfast, and rushes to his office by train or auto. It is not unusual for him, after spending from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. in his office, to hurry home, eat dinner, and crawl into bed with a briefcase full of homework.” Well, by the standards of today’s business elite, that’s actually a very relaxed lifestyle.

And as several recent papers have argued, the modern high earner, with his or her long hours — and, more often than not, a working partner rather than a stay-at-home wife — is willing to pay a lot more than the executives of yore for a central location that cuts commuting time. Hence gentrification. And this is a process that feeds on itself: as more high earners move into urban centers, these centers begin offering amenities: — restaurants, shopping, entertainment — that make them even more attractive.

We’re not just talking about the superrich here, or even the 1 percent. At a guess, we might be talking about the top 10 percent. And for these people, it’s a happy story. But what about all the people, surely a large majority, who are being priced out of America’s urban revival? Does it have to be that way?

The answer, surely, is no, at least not to the extent we’re seeing now. Rising demand for urban living by the elite could be met largely by increasing supply. There’s still room to build, even in New York, especially upward. Yet while there is something of a building boom in the city, it’s far smaller than the soaring prices warrant, mainly because land use restrictions are in the way.

And this is part of a broader national story. As Jason Furman, the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, recently pointed out, national housing prices have risen much faster than construction costs since the 1990s, and land-use restrictions are the most likely culprit. Yes, this is an issue on which you don’t have to be a conservative to believe that we have too much regulation.

The good news is that this is an issue over which local governments have a lot of influence. New York City can’t do much if anything about soaring inequality of incomes, but it could do a lot to increase the supply of housing, and thereby ensure that the inward migration of the elite doesn’t drive out everyone else. And its current mayor understands that.

But will that understanding lead to any action? That’s a subject I’ll have to return to another day. For now, let’s just say that in this age of gentrification, housing policy has become much more important than most people realize.


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