Friday, June 26, 2015

Charleston & the Limits to Reason

I have a PhD in Public Policy. So I am interested in what policies could actually affect a problem. Connected to that are questions of whether these policies won’t create more problems than they are intended to solve (as a small c conservative this looms large in my thinking). Because of my particular area of study, I’m also interested in the politics of the problem. That is, what are the solutions our political system can bear. It is a pragmatic, evidence-based approach - kind of like engineering.

When I discuss issues with friends who do not have this background, I am often frustrated because my thinking is rooted in the art of the possible and science of realistic. Most people, when they talk about politics are speaking from emotion. There is a terrible problem and something should be done about it. I consider the toolkit, which is usually limited, expensive, and not well-suited to the task.

Interestingly I just read a piece in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell that discussed this in the context of auto recalls and the exploding Ford Pintos. (I know Gladwell is NOT a social scientist, but rather a talented story teller - in this case that's the point!) Gladwell explains that engineers have to balance a range of tolerances and specifications in building a car, knowing that there are trade-offs - no car can be perfectly safe. At the same time, when there is an accident, engineers focus on the problem. In the case of the Pinto, a small car rear-ended at high speed by a much bigger vehicle has a very high risk of exploding and there isn't much to be done about that because of - well - physics. Unfortunately, when accidents happen this approach is usually not what people want to hear. Congressman Tim Murphy, chair of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations observed, "People don't care what yo know until they know you care."

In looking at politics and policy, I'm an engineer. The horrible murders in Charleston highlight the limits of my approach.

When Jon Stewart delivered his compelling remarks on Charleston, he observed:
And we’re going to keep pretending like, “I don’t get it. What happened? This one guy lost his mind.” But we are steeped in that culture in this country and we refuse to recognize it, and I cannot believe how hard people are working to discount it. In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive on are named for Confederate generals who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road. That’s insanity. That’s racial wallpaper. That’s — that’s — you can’t allow that, you know.

I have absolutely no fondness or romantic ideas about the Confederacy - change the street names, take down the flag!

But I also thought, wait, if having streets named after Confederate generals somehow caused this, then why aren't there a lot more of these kinds of murders? It is obviously all to easy to do (this is the same way I view the shibboleth of Islamic lone wolf terrorism - I’ve been consistent.)

It may be a dead on analytic observation, it offers exactly ZERO comfort especially considering the number of hate crimes, the huge legacy of violence against African-Americans, and the general and profound frustrations African-Americans face in the United States.

My analytical mind does not like to identify trends from outliers. I do big data for a living. You can get trends, but predicting what any given person will do is just not possible. This is an outlier, the overall trajectory for African-Americans has been positive. I can point a thousand examples of improvements big and small.

Yet I know that I'm speaking from a privileged vantage (I'm Jewish - but the impact of anti-Semitism on my life has been just about zip - thanks America!) 

For me to talk about positive trend lines, in light of the awful (and unknown to me) crap that African-Americans have to deal with on a constant basis is unhelpful and irrelevant.

I see the awful stuff Roof posted on Facebook but wonder if we want a society where we lock people up for saying stupid stuff on Facebook and being bigots - this has big implications. 

Of course, we don't seem to have trouble locking up lots of African-American men for not doing much of anything.

I read a few articles about the shooting that were long on passion and, I thought, short on coherence.

Thinking in terms of policy, I want to do stuff, but what? Preventing gun crimes is very hard in current political climate. Changing attitudes I support whole-heartedly, but it takes a long time. Improved schools or economic opportunities are great - we don't actually really know how to do these things. Political passion makes me nervous because things are promised that can't be delivered.

Yet as I read these essays - which continually cited the KKK which is basically defunct (and yes it was absolutely a terrorist organization in every sense of the word) and other injustices recent and not so recent - I saw. This is not necessarily a policy manifesto, it is a demand for acknowledgement. That what happened in Charleston is part of a long line of real crap that keeps dropping on African-Americans.

It is an acknowledgement that is well deserved. Taking down the flag is a nice gesture.

We are seeing the best possible response to Dylan Roof’s mad dream of inspiring a race war - an outbreak of comity.

This is all good, but my policy wonk re-emerges. This is where emotional politics make me nervous, because great things will be preached and promised. I like an inspiring speech as much as the next person, but I worry about what happens when reality intrudes.

African-American pundits have pointed out that they believe racism on an individual level has declined, but that institutional racism continues. These are knotty problems to fix. Reforming police procedures and the criminal justice system are excellent things to do. But they are highly technical endeavors that will then need to be adapted to the thousands of jurisdictions around the country. They will then need to be implemented. This will take time, there will be mistakes - some of which will be costly.

I doubt there is a politician that would not sincerely like to fix inner-city schools. It is easy to say we must roll up our sleeves and get to work. But hard work is easy. Trade-offs are hard. Fixing inner city schools will require resources which have to come from somewhere else. Where? (Read this piece on efforts to reform Newark’s public schools for a sense of why policy-makers and the public are leery of tossing money in that direction.) Even given resources, how will we actually achieve this? Inner city public schools did not reach their crisis state over-night. Are there clear paths to improvement and how can they be implemented given the existing “legacy systems" (as President Obama put it in his recent interview with Marc Maron).

I see the limits of reason, calculating but without vision. Emotions come from the root word of motion, they are that which moves us. If the tragedies of recent months move us to make change, so be it. But unfettered emotion too has its limits.

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