Walter Russell Mead - Two milestones in the long, painful decline of the blue social model were reached this week and reported, of all places, in the pages of the very éminence grise of the monde bleu: the New York Times.
The first was a piece of national and historical news: The Census reported that waves of blue state blacks fled the stagnant job opportunities, high taxes and rotten social conditions of the mostly blue northern states to seek better lives for themselves in the south. The second milestone was local and literary: Bob Herbert, for many years the only regular Black columnist on the New York Times‘ op-ed page, has written his last column before stepping down.
The Census story is a shocker. First, according to the Times, the Blacks leaving tend to be the “younger and better educated”. Second, the three states Blacks left in largest numbers don’t just include snake-bit Michigan; the other two are Illinois and New York. Within those states, Chicago and the city of the New York (widely considered among the most successful cities in the country) are the places Blacks are deserting. 17 percent of the Black flight from Big Blue is from the Empire State; after almost a century of trailblazing social policy, New York State has succeeded in creating the most hostile environment for Blacks in the country.
It gets worse. One would think that the Blacks who choose to stay in the cold, unwelcoming North would cluster in the cities where more liberal and humane governance models mandate such generous policies as “living wage” laws and where all the beautiful features of the blue social model can be experienced at full strength.
But one would be wrong. Blacks across the North are fleeing the urban paradises of liberal legislation and high public union membership for the benighted suburbs. The Times interviewed a professor to get the straight scoop:
“The notion of the North and its cities as the promised land has been a powerful part of African-American life, culture and history, and now it all seems to be passing by,” said Clement Price, a professor of history at Rutgers-Newark. “The black urban experience has essentially lost its appeal with blacks in America.” [bold italics added]
When whites leave failing blue cities and states, the pundits call this racism: all those white Californians fleeing Nancy Pelosi’s utopia for less ambitious jurisdictions where ordinary people can do things like get jobs and buy homes are clearly pathetic trailer trash hicks too dumb, too selfish and above all too racist to understand the gloriously multicultural blue beauty of California today.
So what are we going to call the young, educated Blacks making similar choices? Dumb cracker racists?
The failure of blue social policy to create an environment which works for Blacks is the most devastating possible indictment of the 20th century liberal enterprise in the United States. Helping Blacks achieve the kind of equality and opportunity long denied them was more than one of many justifications for blue social policy: it was the defining moral task that has challenged and shaped American liberalism for the last fifty years.
The Census tells us that in the eyes of those who know best, these well intentioned efforts failed. Instead of heaven, we have hell across America’s inner cities. Blue economic policy has cut the creation of new private sector jobs to a trickle in our great cities, while the high costs of public union urban services (and policies that favor government employees over the citizenry at large) impose crippling taxes and contribute to the ruinously high costs that blight opportunity. All the social welfare bureaucracies, diversity counselors and minority set-asides can’t make up for the colossal failure of blue social policy to create sustainable lower middle class prosperity in our cities.
Most Blacks of course still vote blue at the ballot box, but more and more of them are voting red with their feet. They are betting in massive numbers that southern Republicans will do a better job of helping their kids get good educations, police their communities more fairly (see this article, where NYT columnist Charles Blow blames the Black flight from New York on the racist police), offer more affordable housing and create a better business climate. Over time, this is going to affect the balance of power in Black politics and pull the Democratic Party (and the national consensus) to the right. Reapportionment is already pulling political power toward the South; New York today has fewer electoral votes than it did at the start of the Civil War and it is going to lose two more House seats in the next division.
The prophets of an emerging Democratic majority driven by demographic growth among Blacks and Hispanics should probably reflect that both southern and ethnic northern whites were once solidly Democratic too. As those groups became a little more affluent and moved into the suburbs, their ideologies and allegiances shifted; will Blacks and Hispanics be any different?
The retirement of one columnist hardly ranks with the migration of a people, but the end of the Bob Herbert era at the Times should not pass without comment.
Bob Herbert was a columnist for the New York Times for eighteen years (NYT)
Many readers, even true blue liberals who accept the New York Times editorial board’s view of the world lock stock and barrel, gave up on Bob Herbert years ago. You never had to read Bob Herbert to know what he thought about any topic, and his takes on events were always earnest and moral, and usually unrealistic. As the country’s enthusiasm for conventionally liberal approaches to social problems faded along with our ability to pay for them, Herbert sounded less and less like a prophet calling us to help the poor, and more and more like a voice of resigned despair: Cassandra unheeded. As time went on, fewer and fewer people bothered.
Predictability was no special vice of Herbert’s; it is the nemesis of any columnist (and blogger, alas) as one applies the same political and cultural sensibilities to the news of the day. Paul Krugman is at least as predictable as Herbert, but he is more fun to read: Herbert’s prose, like the lectures of a Methodist Sunday school teacher, lack the edge that Krugman’s hatred, rage and contempt for his opponents give to his columns. Herbert is a good and decent man but goodness, decency and predictability often translate, sadly, into dullness in prose.
By its lights and in the context of the times, Bob Herbert’s column was a passionate advocate for the poor and especially for the Black underclass. We need more of this today, especially as budget woes will increasingly limit the ability of governments to pay for conventional liberal programs aimed at the poor.
But doing that job, and advocating effectively for the poor and the lower middle class, is going to take more intellectual creativity and political boldness than old style liberalism can now offer. Keeping Walmart away from the people who need its low prices the most is hardly a triumph of social engineering and now more than ever, knee-jerk liberalism is the enemy of the poor.
To begin with, advocates for Blacks and the underclass have to understand that the interests of poor children have to be put ahead — way ahead — of the interests of teacher unions and school bureaucracies. More generally, the urban underclass and lower middle class will never find opportunities until cities figure out how to deliver decent services at a viable price: the high taxes and tangled regulations of our big cities are walls that emprison the poor more than protecting them.
This is true even though the poor don’t pay income tax. Sales taxes (and crushing ‘sin taxes’ on some of the pleasures they enjoy and perhaps need most) cut into their disposable incomes. Sky high property taxes jack up their rents. High wage scales for unionized public servants, inflated by collective bargaining madness and the generally high cost of living and elevated tax levels in blue America, mean that the poor get less from the state: fewer (and often, worse) teachers, fewer cops on the beat, fewer firefighters, fewer and more crowded health services.
Worse than all this, small business is crushed by high taxes, intrusive and often irrational regulation, which means that new jobs aren’t created and new businesses don’t start. That reduces demand for workers in the neighborhoods that need jobs most; it also curtails the ability of inner city residents to develop the entrepreneurial skills and experience that could fuel the rebirth of the Black middle class.
Disaster is too kind a word for what the blue social model has (inadvertently) built in America’s cities. No wonder that to be young, gifted and Black today means fleeing the consequences of blue social policy as fast as you can.
Serious advocates for the poor in the 21st century will share many of Bob Herbert’s concerns. The scandalous state of our criminal justice system is one of them. We pay far too much to imprison far too many people and the shocking conditions in our prisons are a standing reproach to our entire society. Our wholesale confinement of non-violent drug offenders to prison is a gross miscarriage of justice and an inexcusable misallocation of scarce resources; our failure to protect the weak and the vulnerable in our prisons shames us as a people.
The answer to many of the problems of our poor people is not “less government.” Often, what is needed is smarter government that uses the immense power of technology to give people faster access to better services at lower cost. In some cases, such as policing the border to prevent further mass illegal immigration, more effective government is needed to ensure that American citizens are not undercut in the labor market by desperate illegals. (On the other hand, federal immigration policy should hold the doors wide open for educated professionals and entrepreneurs who can help us lower health care costs and keep our high tech industries vibrant.)
Historically, government mistakes — like the construction of huge public housing complexes that turned into crime factories — have cost poor people as much or more than government neglect. Honest government would help, too; corruption and bribery are all too common in cities where the poor above all depend on the honesty and competence of government authorities to protect them from unsafe working and living conditions.
Queensbridge Houses in Queens, New York – the largest public housing project in North America (Wikimedia)
In some cases, tighter regulations more rigorously enforced are part of the answer. It’s clear that organizations like ACORN and Planned Parenthood (perhaps less as the result of national policy than of rogue employees) have taken advantage of lax regulation to exploit the poor and have failed their duties of public trust. The huge volume of Medicare and Medicaid fraud diminishes the resources available to help the poor while often also lowering the quality of the care they receive. There are many organizations that have built large businesses at the poorly-regulated and often profoundly corrupt intersection of government funding and urban poverty. For the sake of the poor, those organizations and their political connections need to be regulated fairly, transparently — and vigorously.
There are some areas in which a modified Bob Herbert-type agenda is needed. Massive investments in urban and regional infrastructure would help bring economic development to poor areas — although dropping Davis-Bacon requirements on these projects would mean more jobs for more people and more infrastructure at less cost for taxpayers.
Herbert probably wouldn’t like this, but a sensible effort led by government but with lots of input by employers could reform the accreditation and credentialing system and set up reasonable and appropriate regulations that would allow inner city residents, among others, to benefit from vastly cheaper educational services. Instead of complaining about the inadequacies and poor performance of some for-profit educational companies, we should be moving forcefully to establish the regulations and oversight that would allow these companies to flourish and grow — while protecting basic consumer rights.
Beyond this, moving aggressively toward giving education for business and entrepreneurship a more prominent place in our basic K-12 curriculum can help prepare urban minority America for the new economic realities sweeping down upon us all. Whether it is to equip minority school teachers to organize, manage and lead charter schools, or otherwise to provide the skills and promote the outlook necessary to help people start businesses, this kind of education is vital if Black, inner-city America is going to have a chance in the 21st century.
None of this represents some kind of neo-Confederate, anti-government agenda, and all of it is necessary for the social and economic recovery of our blighted inner cities and the construction of a stronger and more entrepreneurial Black (and for that matter, white) middle class. But ultimately we have to face the limits on the ability of government to solve the kind of human problems that blight our inner cities. These are social problems that have to be solved by social engagement. Synagogues and churches outside the inner cities have to form partnerships with inner city churches to operate charter or fully private schools. The focus of activism to help the poor should NOT [note to readers: "not" inadvertently omitted in original draft; sorry for the confusion] be a movement to persuade politicians to pass laws (and raise taxes) to hire more bureaucrats and write and enforce more regulations. We need a movement for the poor that persuades Americans to put their own time and treasure on the line by getting involved and helping out.
Americans ultimately have to accept the reality that you can’t eliminate poverty by hiring professionals with postgraduate degrees and six figure incomes to sit in downtown offices and engineer policy solutions to urban ills. Poverty in a society like ours is a human problem and it is solved one human being at a time, usually through person to person contact: above all the parent but also the teacher, the preacher, the mentor, the entrepreneur who helps the lost and the overcome find solid ground on which to stand and build a life.
As Blacks flee the citadels of blue thought, and as the paladins of blue like Bob Herbert move toward retirement, the problems of the inner cities and the underclass are still very much with us. Top down solutions and bureaucratic interventions have at best a limited utility in this new environment; it is time for a national re-think and a national re-engagement on the problems of race, poverty and class.