Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Insidiousness of Government Solutions

The Atlantic has an article, American Murder Mystery, about urban planning that I find highly disturbing. Note all the angst about the findings. We all like to comfort ourselves as truth-seekers above all else, unlike those idiots in the past who bought into some large belief structure that caused them to think, say, heavy objects fall faster than light objects, or that Africans were sub-human., but I think there are just as many taboo truths today as there have ever been. The issue concerns section 8 housing:

Betts had been evaluating the impact of one of the city government’s most ambitious initiatives: the demolition of the city’s public-housing projects, as part of a nationwide experiment to free the poor from the destructive effects of concentrated poverty. Memphis demolished its first project in 1997. The city gave former residents federal “Section8” rent-subsidy vouchers and encouraged them to move out to new neighborhoods. Two more waves of demolition followed over the next nine years, dispersing tens of thousands of poor people into the wider metro community.

If police departments are usually stingy with their information, housing departments are even more so. Getting addresses of Section 8 holders is difficult, because the departments want to protect the residents’ privacy. ... Janikowski merged his computer map of crime patterns with Betts’s map of Section8 rentals....the match was near-perfect...She knew right away that this would be a “hard thing to say or write.” Nobody in the antipoverty community and nobody in city leadership was going to welcome the news that the noble experiment that they’d been engaged in for the past decade had been bringing the city down, in ways they’d never expected.

The idea began with Lyndon Johnson's Kaiser Commission on Urban Housing, which mistakenly believed that the private housing market created poverty, and the ills associated with it, by making housing too expensive. Thus, by reducing housing expenses via vouchers, and spreading the poor around the community, poverty, and the social ills associated with it, would fade away. That's the theory. It turns out, the main problem of poor people is not a lack of money, but the temperance, diligence, thrift and other bourgeois virtues needed to be good citizens and neighbors. They bring their bad habits with them, statistically.

Given that it took 40 years to document this, this means that any big policy started today, will probably not be amenable to empirical analysis in my lifetime. Less than the 70 years of communism in the Soviet Union, but same scale. That's the big risk to big top-down ideas.

But the insidiousness comes from the way the government, from federal down to city level, hid this data for decades because they didn't want people to discriminate against section 8 areas or their residents. This means, if they put a high concentration of people with high criminality next to your house, they didn't want you to know, based on the assumption that the poor's behavior was either due to a lack of housing (which section 8 addresses directly), or the 'stereotype effect' from people who see them as poor. But the theory was wrong, and so all those millions of people had to deal with this problem themselves, and if they asked questions in local papers, they were labeled racist, or anti-poor. I have seen this happen several times in communities I have lived in, where someone writes in an editorial or letter to the editor, noting that but for the residents from this part of town--where the section 8 housing is--school scores or crime in the city is pretty low. An onslaught of recriminations invariable ensues, and because of the difficulty in getting data, even though the author is saying what we all know to be true, he can not prove it, and so the public debate leaves him labeled 'racist', the modern day equivalent of being called a witch).

When we give the government the power to solve big problems, like poverty, or crime, and introduce some grand policy, the best approach is prudent incrementalism: make a variety of changes piecemeal, monitor them, share the experiences with the rest of the world, learn and modify. This is the balance between conservatism and progressivism that makes societies better. But the standard operating procedure of governments is to implement a policy in one big swoop, and then hide the data so no one can criticize it. If a business acted this way, it would be destroyed and pilloried. This is one of several reasons why I think minimizing the scope of government's function in society is a good thing, because government is not only inefficient, but it rationalizes dishonesty out of some greater good much more efficiently than any corporation can.


J said...

Public employees dont go out of their way to prove the failure of the policies that their political overlords forced them to carry out. In the name of justice, you cannot accuse THEM of dishonesty. And the intentions of everyone involved were pure and lofty, first they intended to improve the poor´s lives by providing affordable public housing, and subsequently, to destroy the crime-infested houses of horror these nice buildings have become. They tried to improve them by mixing them with middle class people, but it didnt succed. (As you wrote: They bring their bad habits with them, statistically.) What is your intention by criticizing them? You want to concentrate once more these unfortunates? If not in urban buildings, maybe in the countryside? in remote reservations? or the Liberian initiative could be tried once more? I dont know.

They bring their bad habits with them, statistically.

Eric Falkenstein said...

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and mixed with hiding data, I find this indefensible. Obviously, a program to reduce poverty and its related problems is beyond the scope of a blog post, but like busing, I think too many top-down bad ideas are kept alive because of a sincere belief that 'too much' information would be a bad thing, and I disagree with this.

Anonymous said...

Stellar post. Although I have to say the white text on the navy background gives an eerie tone to your posts, kind of like a goth MySpace page or something; then the white-backgrounded comments section reassures me.

AHWest said...

There is no such thing as "public housing". Such government housing is funded by taking the wealth of the productive, and giving it to the unproductive. I don't find that a "good intention" at all. When the government takes from some and gives it to others, why wouldn't these people think that it's all right to go do some "taking" from others themselves, (i.e. robbery)? Well, it looks like they do think it's a good idea. If it's morally right for the poor to eat the wealth of the rich, when the government grabs it for them, why is it wrong when they go grab it themselves? Impatience?

J said...

Eric, Sorry for my comment above. May be one reason for bad policies is that no one has thought of better ones? These are very difficult, maybe insoluble problems.