08 November 2005

Scoring Political Points Through Fire and Flood

Like many bloggers, I've been reading voraciously about the escalating outbreaks of gang violence in in France, and now elsewhere in Europe. I must say, I am utterly disgusted with the amount of political point-scoring that permeates the blogosphere (Left and Right), just as it does the international media (mostly Left) whenever disasters strike or "mistakes are made" by anyone in a position that requires them to make hard decisions that have real-world consequences. The world seems no longer to be inhabited by fallible humans, only by omniscient demons who seek to turn Our utopias into Their counterutopias.

In general, the level of analysis in the blogosphere is infinitely superior to that purveyed by the traditional broadcast media, but you sure as hell need a powerful, uh, "wastewater management" filter to find it anymore. During the political-point pachinkofest that was Hurricane Katrina, I just tried to tune it all out. The Paris riots are more difficult. They are pretty much a man-made (and, frankly, boy-made) fiasco, and not an act of God or Nature. There are many lessons to learn, whether or not they score political points.

My own fairly inarticulate political philosophy (to the extent I have patience for such matters) tends toward utilitarianism, pragmatism, or--better yet--experimentalism (or empiricism, synonymous with quackery in an earlier era, and even nowadays to proponents of Theory). Perhaps I could call it Dengxiaopingism, whose followers recite the ideology-exorcising Any-color-cat-echism. (Yes, I know Deng bloodily suppressed peaceful demonstrators, quite unlike those torching the French banlieues.)

In my ideal world, different nations, states, or communities would have the freedom and imagination to try different solutions to problems they identify, and we would all learn from the mistakes of others with whom we share similar goals. Sort of the political equivalent of bottom-up Quality Circles, endless tiny improvements, marginal revolutions. (Please, no major revolutions! They usually mean you have to chuck all received wisdom and learn every old lesson anew. Does this make me a "conservative"?)

In that spirit, I'd like to extract pieces from a thoroughly utilitarian, but far from unimaginative website, the Affordable Housing Institute (via Chicago Boyz), whose post on 7 November is entitled L'horloge orange, citing Anthony Burgess's 1962 novel Clockwork Orange.
In grim fulfillment of my prediction, the slums inside have exploded and the riots are getting worse: more places, more sophistication, more evil intent ...

Once failure cracks into violence, it spread like a hateful epidemic until it plays itself out, usually in a small-scale atrocity that shocks the mass of bystanders into newfound courage. But end the riots will -- the law will have the last word -- and when they are over, what then?

France's entire urban housing policy has failed, massively failed. The riots are proof.

In a world of scooters, cell-phones, and satellite television, no longer can poverty be isolated in high-rise blocks. No longer can the poor be kept ignorant of the riches next door....

Regardless of its founders' good intention, severe destructive income concentration is almost always the fate of public housing -- those people are put out of sight, out of mind.

When first envisioned in 1937, US public housing was a slum clearance tool: the housing was intended for truly working families, with income mixing and ethnic distribution. But whenever there is too little affordable housing, the tension arises, whom do we house?

Naturally, say the compassionate, we must house the neediest. Entirely understandable. But who are the neediest? Other than the elderly, whom most housing authorities separate in their own high-rise properties, the neediest are those who have no job. And who chooses to live with those who have no job? Those who have no practical choice.

The result, slowly but inexorably, is progressively more severe income concentration....

As in Old New Orleans, poverty was the distiller of an ethnic ghetto: it's not that Muslim became poor, it's that poor became Muslim....

Concentrated grinding poverty and idleness brew violence. You simply cannot warehouse young men in unemployment, welfare, isolation, boredom, and xenophobia, and expect them to learn anything else....

With all due deference to minister Sarkozy, violence is the solution to the problem of non-existence. Violence is heady stuff, intoxicating the more so because it goes unpunished and it is an inchoate revenge on all those who have more ...

Anger and hate are unfocused, but those who act on hate become demagogic clay to be molded into instruments of political terror....

This is not yet a political or organized assault on French society … but it could rapidly become one. Where there is free-flowing violence, there are megalomaniacs ready to use it....

In the coming days I'll post on what France's plan should be, and we can compare it with the political vaporware the esteemed prime minister proposes.
Read the whole thing. It's illustrated with quotes from the book and stills from the movie Clockwork Orange, plus a good variety of supporting quotes.

Another post about political calculations outlines a list of self-evident truths that are thoroughly utilitarian:
1. No program is ever created whose sole benefits are long-term. Every program must generate some short-term political benefits.

2. Pilot programs reduce political cost and political risk (because they give the experimenters permission to fail). Additionally, because pilots have a quicker payback, they fit better with the political cyclicality.

3. If you want macro change, you must drive away political cover because if elected officials can address an issue with political cover (which has minimal downside risk), they will prefer that to political commitment (fraught with political cost and risk).

4. Vaporware, no matter how patently absurd, is political cover for the weak-minded. This is why fluff vaporware is so harmful -- in a political Gresham's law, vaporware drives out policy reform.

5. Macro change seldom arises when things are merely declining. For macro change, things have to be truly desperate (this is why catastrophe is a precondition of fundamental reform). (FHA arose out of the Great Depression. HUD came about after the 1960's urban riots.) Hence the saying, "before it can get better, it has to get worse."

6. Sometimes the most effective step is a small increment that changes the political environment. Enough such small increments may tip the political arithmetic. This is a virtuous 'slippery slope.'

7. There are times when the political environment for change is hopeless. In such cases, it is better to do nothing other than create intellectual ammunition. Spending political capital on a gutless Congress is merely wasting effort.

8. Just as the seasons turn, so too do the tides of aggregate political capital and political risk tolerance. The closer an election looms, the more likely elected officials are to plump for political cover, vaporware, and nostrums. So if you want to make a major push, do it with plenty of time before the next election!

9. Sometimes your best champions are those grizzled veteran elected officials who have seen parliaments come and go but problems remain. Newcomers are blank slates, terrified of political risk.

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