Thursday, April 30, 2015

Fixing Our Cities

Over the past several days, my blog and my attention have been dominated by the mess in Baltimore. Like everyone else, I have watched events unfold there with a combination of sadness and anger. But mostly, I have been overcome by a sense of hopelessness, the idea that the problems in our cities are simply beyond remedy. My son, after reading one of my blogs, made this statement: “OK, so liberal policies haven’t worked. What’s YOUR plan?” His question has hung in the air ever since. It is one thing to point out the clear failures of others, another thing entirely to offer up a reasonable alternative. I have thought of little else since.

What follows is the result of all of this introspection. I must state up front that I’m no social planner, I have no particular training in urban studies and certainly, I am no politician. So, I have no idea whether the solutions I’m about to offer would actually work. My ideas aren’t immune to that worst nightmare of all central planners, the law of unintended consequences. Still, these are a start, if for no other reason than to provide me with a sense that our problems might in fact have a workable solution.

I should probably point out that most of the problems of the inner city have their origins in the erosion of the family, an unintended consequence of a whole host of policies which had loftier intentions. Despite the fact that most of America's big cities have been run almost exclusively by the Democratic Party for the past 40 years, I will endeavor to discuss these problems without assigning blame because frankly, at this point it doesn’t matter whose fault it all is. It just needs to be fixed! The question then becomes, are there policies that could be brought to bear that would encourage the re-establishment of the family structure, and are there policies that we could eliminate that discourage intact families from staying so?

So, without further delay, here’s what I would do if I were King to attempt to fix our cities.

1    1.     End the War on Drugs.

By any measure, the War on Drugs has been a colossal failure. We have spent a fortune, made criminals out of two generations of mostly black men and accomplished no significant public good. This war has been fought almost entirely in the inner city and the vast majority of those in jail for drug crimes are black. This despite the fact that white suburbanites have prodigious appetites for everything from pot to heroin, and without white customers willing and able to pay, the drug business would be in serious trouble. One has to ask the question, what societal good is accomplished by arresting a twenty year old for smoking a couple of joints and saddling him with a criminal record and jail time? Are his prospects of finding gainful, lawful employment helped or hurt by his time being locked up with a thousand other hardened criminals? And before you start lecturing me about how horrible a problem drug addiction is for society, check yourself. There’s no chance in hell that pot smoking is more injurious to society at large than alcohol abuse. How many people get killed by people driving while high compared to driving while drunk? How many pot smokers get all hyped up on cannabis and then go home and beat their wives?

I’m not a drug user and I would strongly discourage anyone I know and love from becoming one, but the only thing the War on Drugs has accomplished is removing millions of black men from their homes, and from their neighborhoods, creating the very fatherless homes that conservatives lament.

2.  Replace welfare with a jobs program.

Yes, yes, I know what all of you House of Cards fans are thinking, “He stole that idea from Frank Underwood!” No, not exactly. Well, maybe…a little. First of all, what I’m about to propose will sound strange coming from someone as Libertarian as I am, I know. Secondly, I am very aware that the government has shown itself to be pathetically inept at “creating jobs” so I concede that this idea has more holes in it than Swiss cheese. But, hear me out.

FDR’s famous New Deal did not bring this country out of the Great Depression; that would have been World War II and the beneficial impact of placing the entire nation’s industrial output on a war footing. However, the jobs that the government did create accomplished something quite profound. They transformed, in the public imagination, the notion that they were not on the public doll…something for Americans of all races in the 1930’s would have been anathema. Instead, men like my grandfather, who worked on the Civilian Conservation Corps that built the Skyline Drive, were able to hold onto their pride as working men. When they cashed their government paychecks it was for services rendered, and that allowed them to be in full possession of their dignity.

By contrast, the checks that keep most inner cities barely viable are in exchange for nothing. In fact, the more dysfunctional your life becomes the bigger the check. Accordingly, I propose putting every able-bodied welfare recipient to work as a requirement of receiving government assistance. If we are committed to spending money on welfare, why not allow its recipients to earn it. What kind of jobs would these be? Frankly, I don’t know. But you can’t tell me that a nation that put a man on the freaking moon can’t get the smartest people from business and government together and figure this thing out. How about cleaning up the streets, block by block? How about replacing burnt out empty lots with gardens, not ones planted by a bunch of do-gooder college kids, but by the people who live next door?

Of course these make-work jobs are temporary. But make-work jobs are infinitely better than no job. To provide more permanent, sustainable employment, we will need to consider….

3.  Repealing NAFTA.

Back in the 1990’s I was a vocal supporter of the free trade movement. Nafta was a bi-partisan policy that was initially pushed by Republicans but ultimately passed by Bill Clinton. I thought at the time that the benefits of free trade would far outweigh the negatives. On the positive side, I thought that we would all benefit from lower prices on practically everything, and I was right. Witness the rise of giant retailers like Walmart and Costco who sell us adorable clothes for toddlers at  everyday low low prices. But, I challenge you to go into your closet right now and see if you can find any garment that was made in this country. Chances are, you won’t, because we no longer have a textile industry, especially in the State of Virginia, the southside of which used to be filled with textile plants churning out everything from jeans to overcoats. Who used to work in those plants? Generally speaking, whites and blacks with high school educations or lower who despite their limitations could get a factory job and manage to enter the middle class. Where do they work now? Many of them don’t. But, not to worry, they get welfare and food stamps so, it’s all good. No…it is not!!

We manufacture nothing in this country anymore which may be fine for many people since that adorable Osh Kosh By Gosh jumper is on sale for $3.99, but for large segments of what used to be called the Middle Class, it matters greatly. It turns out that the noble idiot, Ross Perot, was right when he described that giant sucking sound as the sound of American jobs for the working classes heading down to Mexico!

Yes, many jobs that were shipped overseas have been replaced with other jobs in industries that were unheard of in the 1990’s and that’s all wonderful. But if you eliminate the jobs that working people relied upon and replace them with jobs that require a Master’s Degree in computer science, that’s not going to help Bubba and Leroy provide for their families. When we tell welfare recipients in Baltimore to “get a job,” where exactly do we suggest they go to look? Nepal? Because that’s where those adorable toddler jumpers are being sewn together by 12 year old girls working 17 hour days so we can have money left over for our pedicures.

And yes, I know that one of the reasons American workers aren’t as competitive as those elsewhere in many cases are the result of ridiculously generous and inflexible union contracts. But again, somewhere out there, there has got to be someone who can come up with some sensible compromises that can begin to bring manufacturing jobs back to America.

4.  Demilitarize Policing

No one appreciates the job that policemen do more than I do. These men and women work long hours doing a demanding job for embarrassingly low pay. The vast majority of them do their jobs well. But something has gone terribly wrong with policing tactics when video keeps surfacing showing three cops using violent force apprehending a citizen guilty of nothing more than selling loose cigarettes. The rules of engagement that encourage such extreme force have to be revisited. Our cops look more like members of some elite SWAT team than cops. Now, I know that Mayberry was a fictional place and that Sherriff Andy Taylor was a character in a television show, but who among us doesn’t long to be protected by a cop with the wisdom and grace of Andy Taylor, he of the empty gun holster. 

Yes, times have changed. Today’s criminals are meaner, and better armed than ever. Still, it’s hard to see the benefit of armored personnel carriers, tanks and strike forces loaded down with automatic rifles roaming the streets and think to yourself, “Aww…to protect and defend.” What jumps quicker to mind is, “Aww…to invade and destroy.” Something is wrong when hardly a week goes by without some cell phone video hitting the Drudge Report showing some officer somewhere beating the crap out of some unarmed kid…or worse. It makes a cynical person wonder how often this type of stuff went on before cell phone cameras became ubiquitous.

My advice? Dial it back about ten notches with the Dirty Harry routine. Start demonstrating some restraint and go back to reserving the rough stuff for guys who are committing actual violent crimes, not the poor slob who has a blown out back up light.

Ok, that’s my short list. It’s not perfect, some of it may not work. I have not addressed many other big problem areas like education, but it's a start.  And at least my son can't say I haven't offered an alternative besides the status quo.