Ross Douthat and Changing the Subject

I saw this in my twitter feed today:

Here’s the article in question. I’m told Ross Douthat, in addition to having an odd name, is a reasonable fellow that reasonable people should read, if they wish be thought of as reasonable. The Conventional Right loves quoting him. Pseudo-intellectual poseurs like Ezra Klein often cheer him. Douthat’s presence at the NYTimes tells me he likes money more than being right, but there’s no crime in that. Pay me enough and I start writing paeans to Obama.

Still, experience says you have to treat the non-liberals in the pages of the times a little different than other people you read. They often employ an esoteric language that allows them to go unnoticed by the Cult, but point out inconvenient bits of reality. It’s a weird compromise and I really don’t know how these people do it. They say prisoners in the worst gulags get used to it in time so maybe that’s it.

The last time I followed certain of my colleagues into an argument about poverty, economics and culture, it took severalthousandwords to find my way back out. Thistime I’m going to try a briefer intervention, stressing again that I think conversationsabout policing are a more productive response to what’s happened in Baltimore than leaping up a level to the persistent right-left argument about the welfare state. But since that debate is happening no matter what, it might be helpful to describe a framework in which I think these arguments should take place, because quite often the two sides can’t even decide on where the argument should start. So here, for your consideration, are two premises about the last fifty years of American history.

One of the byproducts of having a religious cult take over your country is everything gets jammed into a binary model. The hive minded can only view the world in relation to the walls of the hive. You’re either inside or outside. Even those not in the dominant cult adapt to this framework.

1.) The modern welfare state has succeeded in substantially cutting our country’s poverty rate. This is a point that both right and left sometimes obscure, the right because it complicates a simple “we fought poverty, and poverty won” narrative about the Great Society, the left because it complicates claims that Reagan or Gingrich gutted welfare spending and crushed the fortunes of the poor. But the basic evidence seems very convincing: Whether it’s Scott Winship analyzing the numbers from the center-right or Harvard’s Christopher Jencks doing the same from the center-left, you can see dramatic reductions in the poverty rate since the 1960s, with various public programs, means-tested and otherwise, pretty clearly playing a substantial role.

This is a favorite tactic of Progressive types. “If both sides agree then it must be the truth!” This is a logical fallacy as there’s nothing in the premise to even suggest that both sides can only agree when they are right. Both sides are habitually wrong about all sorts of things so it’s just as likely that they are wrong now. Of course, the point of this bit of rhetorical jujitsu is to cut-off debate. Just accept it and shut up.

If you dig into the source material, they are very weak cases. Yes, our poor people are less poor and we have, during that period of declining poverty, spent trillions on poverty programs, but the causality is debatable. All anyone can say for certain is we spent a lot of money and all Americans are richer than forty years ago. In fact, the whole earth is richer.

2.) The modern welfare state has not succeeded in producing clear improvements in opportunity, mobility and human flourishing. Recall that the hope for the Great Society’s social programs, from the vantage point of 1964, was not merely to raise the incomes of poorer Americans. Their architects also aspired (to quote the chief of them) to make America “a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents … where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness … where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.” And if you try to translate these soaring hopes to quantifiable indicators, the impact of public spending has not been at all what was hoped. The poor have more money, but their chances at upward mobility are persistently weak and basically unchanged relative to several generations ago. Schools have more money, but academic performance looks stagnant and big racial gaps endure. Cities have more money, but crime rates are only now returning to the levels of the early 1960s, and today’s peace has been purchased by incarceration on a scale that would have seemed horrific (because it is) a half-century ago.

This was always the argument against anti-poverty programs. It is feature of progressive thinking to forget all of the arguments from the past. The primary argument against the Great Society was that handing people checks did not address their poverty. In fact, paying people to be poor would only keep them poor. Here we are fifty years on and Goldwater was right.

These two realities, taken together, do not necessarily point toward either a left-wing or a right-wing diagnosis of our situation. You can acknowledge both realities and believe that the key issues are all economic, that the welfare state just needed to be even stronger still (and various other economic policies more worker-friendly) to make up for the devastating impact of global capitalism on wages and job security and the devastating social impact of rising inequality. Or you can acknowledge both and believe that the programs themselves are often part of the problem, that they raise incomes but also increase dependency, encourage idleness, crowd out the basic institutions of civil society, and so on through the libertarian critique. Or you can acknowledge both and argue (as I have, occasionally) that the cultural revolutions of the 1960s go a long way toward explaining how the poor in our era can have more money but less access to other basic human goods. (And therefore, because those goods are connected to economic advancement, less money than they might have had absent those revolutions.)  Or you can talk, reasonably and non-ideologically, about the multiplicity of causes behind all broad-based social trends.

But I think just getting to the point where we could all agree that 1) public spending can make people less poor and 2) public spending hasn’t delivered on the Great Society’s social promises would be a big win for reasonable debate. Because that combination of realities, and the various questions that it raises, is why this argument exists, why it’s genuinely interesting, and why it isn’t going away anytime soon.

This last bit is a dopey version of what you see from conventional conservatives after a race riot like we had last week. It is a systematic and studied avoidance of unpleasant realities. Conservatives are so afraid of being called racists, they turn themselves into knots trying to prove they never for a minute noticed that all the rioters were black.

This tendency in the hands of progressives is aimed at shifting the focus away from the fact that they have been in charge for more than half a century and none of the prophesies have come true. West Baltimore is worse now than it was at the start of the Great Society. Acknowledging that means questioning the one true faith and that can never happen so let’s talk about something else.

1 thought on “Ross Douthat and Changing the Subject

  1. And nary a mention of lost opportunity costs for those trillions spent making little significant headway in the “war on poverty”.

    Nor any mention that the failure to bootstrap the poor socially is partially because the rest of society is not willing to sit still and be a static wealth target for people who intentionally choose to behave in less than socially acceptable manners, regardless how much treasure and how many social workers are sprinkled on them.

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