December 15, 2009

Facilitating Opportunity Is the Path to Charity

Justin Katz

Reviewing Creating an Opportunity Society, by Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill, Duncan Currie emphasizes that advocates for the poor (and such) focus on the wrong measure of social progress:

Mobility, not inequality, is the key indicator of economic opportunity. The two are not necessarily correlated: If income inequality has gone up since the early 1980s, that doesn't necessarily mean income mobility has gone down. Indeed, a 2007 Treasury Department study concluded that "relative income mobility has neither increased nor decreased over the past 20 years." ...

[Haskins and Sawhill] advocate a three-pronged strategy for boosting mobility: Improve public education, encourage work, and strengthen families [especially by reining in the surge in nonmarital births].

This argument runs right along the line that divides the modern American left and right (at least those on either side who are socially conscious). On the left, the the thread across the three strategic issues is government-directed action. Not trusting the masses to contrive a fair system, progressives wish to utilize the Smart Class to lay out a plan that the government can then implement objectively. On the right, we're a bit less convinced of mankind's capacity, first, to comprehend all of the necessary variables that an all-encompassing plan must consider and, then, to collect and apply the dictatorial force necessary without corrupting those who must perform the implementation.

And so, focusing on the conservative side of the comparison, the keys to strengthening public education are liberty and choice — giving those closest to the children (especially their parents) as much room as possible to determine the best focus and structure for educating them. The keys to encouraging work are to maximize incentive by removing long-term handouts and to ease the path from concept to profit — removing regulations and other restrictions that keep prices up and competition down. The keys to strengthening families are to be clear about the ways in which various relationships are similar and different and, with an emphasis on cultural institutions, to encourage the behavior appropriate to each — or, conversely, to encourage those inclined to a particular behavior toward the appropriate relationship types.

It is patently false to accuse those who agree with the preceding paragraph of not caring for people in need. Indeed, it is long overdue for naturally conservative groups, such as the Roman Catholic Church, to take the longer view, which is more in keeping with notions of individual autonomy.

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Good short documentary about how progressive programs and regulations can hurt the people they are aimed at helping, especially the homeless:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Leaving people alone really can be the most compassionate option sometimes.

As a side note, the responsibility the people in the documentary take for themselves and their own situations is incredible. I was struck by the human dignity they managed to retain despite it all. Far cry from the herd animals progressives want to turn the poor into by making them totally dependent upon the state.

Posted by: Dan at December 15, 2009 7:14 PM

I suppose, if you want to put me into a box, I'm a "progressive" since I would like to provide all our citizens with adequate health care benefits, strengthen our public education and expand public transportation. But I have no interest in herding people or making them totally dependent upon the state. So, I am at odds with Dan's illogical leap equating social programs with herding.

Here is what Thomas Friedman has to say about attempting to talk to conservatives about our current economic mess:

Talk to conservatives about the financial crisis and you enter an alternative, bizarro universe in which government bureaucrats, not greedy bankers, caused the meltdown. It’s a universe in which government-sponsored lending agencies triggered the crisis, even though private lenders actually made the vast majority of subprime loans. It’s a universe in which regulators coerced bankers into making loans to unqualified borrowers, even though only one of the top 25 subprime lenders was subject to the regulations in question.
Oh, and conservatives simply ignore the catastrophe in commercial real estate: in their universe the only bad loans were those made to poor people and members of minority groups, because bad loans to developers of shopping malls and office towers don’t fit the narrative.

I would also like to object to Justin’s use of phrases like the “Smart Class” when speaking of progressive ideas. Such smarmy ripostes would never hold up in court, the objection being, “Leading the witness”.

Justin goes on in a similar manner, calling the Two Americas theme “shopworn”. Justin, I can take you to South County and show you a well-groomed cul de sac with $550,000 Mc Mansions and then drive you a few miles to a “project” which more resembles Guatemala than it does its tonier neighbors. Here are two Americas within spitting distance of one another, right here in South Kingstown, not in some “shopworn” never-never land. The community planned it this way. It recognized the two Americas and did its best to keep the apart. No economically integrated neighborhoods in our little suburban paradise.

Justin continues, "On the right, we're a bit less convinced of mankind's capacity, first, to comprehend all of the necessary variables that an all-encompassing plan must consider (Is Justin saying that the Right’s plans are partially encompassing, leaving the unencompassed part to the great unplanned and unknown) and, then, to collect and apply the dictatorial force (What dictatorial force? The one that says ‘money talks, bull s#@t. walks') necessary without corrupting those who must perform the implementation." Is Justin saying that the market does not corrupt? Let’s ask Bernie Madoff.

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at December 15, 2009 8:40 PM

Well, I'm not a "conservative" but a "libertarian" if we're going to all self-identify here, but I disagree with Friedman because it was actually a triple whammy of the Federal Reserve, the FDIC, and the GSEs that causes the housing meltdown. I don't deny that the actors were private in the end, but the incentives they were acting upon were anything but free-market driven, so who is really to blame? Bernie Madoff stole from people, I don't think any conservatives or libertarians would dispute that or have any problem with him being punished. Obviously in any sort of a world things of that nature will go on, it has nothing to do with the free market really.

If all you want is good public health care, public education, and public transportation, I don't think that in itself makes you a progressive, since many conservatives and moderates I know also believe in those things (well, maybe not health care, although some do). The real litmus test is whether your first thought when confronted with any sort of a problem is "we need to give government more power to fix this." If it is then you're in progressive-land.

Posted by: Dan at December 15, 2009 10:02 PM
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