Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Conservatism for the Black Community

Well, since my friend Brett is plugging me as the answer to Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson's demand that Republicans give a damn about blacks, I'll dust off the blog, which has been too much neglected of late, and throw together a policy agenda.
As long-time readers know, this is a topic I've been thinking hard about for several years. But tonight I only have time to slap some things on line, without supporting my recommendations with my wonted statistics.
My purpose is, on the one hand, to show that conservatism has much to offer the black community, especially the urban black community. (I think about 60% of black Americans live in cities, and a large part of the other 40% have those black urban communities as their center of gravity.)
On the other hand, I'd like to show that conservatism has nothing to fear from outreach to blacks. There is an unfortunate perception that outreach to blacks means giving up on conservative principles: pandering, etc. But one of the points of the following policy agenda is that outreach to blacks is a matter of applying conservative principles to forgotten issues, not a matter of giving up on conservative principles. Thus these arguments attempt to be thoroughly conservative, not only because I believe that conservatism is true, but also in order to show that conservatives need not abandon principles to reach out to blacks.
Blacks left the Republican party of Lincoln, to which they were beholden for about seventy years, in response to outreach by FDR in the 1930s. FDR drew their attention to the fact that the GOP took their votes for granted, and won for his party eighty years of 90+% majorities among a population that forms some 14% of the country. Were the GOP to reclaim even a significant part of this population, I think liberalism would be politically finished in this country.
So, without further ado, a preliminary Conservative Policy Agenda for the Black Community:
1. Public transit. Buses are a big deal for urban folk, especially for poor urban folk. And in my experience riding buses in many cities, even very white cities like St. Paul, Minnesota, bus ridership is overwhelmingly black.
Almost everywhere, buses are a government-run monopoly, and (not surprising to conservatives) a lousy one. Riding the bus means paying too much, for a crowded, bumpy ride, with unpredictable schedules that make life very hard for the urban poor. And, by the way, for us urban middle-class folks, a good bus system would be an awfully welcome alternative to driving and parking in the city. Moreover, the government monopolies have been directly used in some places -- New York, for example -- to put out of business bus companies directly started by blacks for blacks in underserved communities. This is intolerable.
De-monopolize the buses. Maybe -- maybe -- provide some government oversight to make sure people don't get fleeced. But otherwise, unleash private enterprise to create better buses, better routes, and better schedules, and let people so inclined run buses to serve underserved communities. Government buses are bad for blacks.
2. Legal reform. I recently got a mistaken traffic ticket in Newark. It took me no fewer than three three-hour court appearances before the judge dismissed me, without a trial. If I had had a lawyer, I could have gotten it done in fifteen minutes. If I had had money, I could have just paid the ticket. And if I hadn't had a white collar job, I would have lost a lot of money sitting there in court. This is an unfair burden on the poor, and there is nothing conservative about mismanaged courts.
Follow the lead of Gov. Mitch Daniels in Indiana (who, by the way, got 20% of the black vote in a year when Indiana's blacks voted over 90% for Obama) and streamline all public offices. Waiting in line at the DMV hurts poor people more than rich people. Waiting in line at the court hurts poor people more than rich people. Figure it out. I don't know how, but figure it out.
3. Decentralized policing. Urban black communities have two police problems. One is that there's too much crime, and the police aren't successfully stopping it. The other is that the police feel like foreign forces. No wonder, when even cities like Newark, NJ (53% black) and Washington, DC (56% black) have white police commissioners. Even where police commissioners are black, residents can be forgiven for feeling hopeless when all crime-fighting is put in the hands of a distant bureaucracy. When a community cannot police itself, it feels, on the one hand, helpless, and on the other hand, occupied. People are less inclined to police their own communities when they are treated as outsiders by the police. And, let us not fail to mention, police officers routinely speed through our communities in a way that makes very clear how they feel about local populations.
Here's a right-wing answer: arm the people. Condi Rice once said, of course she supports the Second Amendment: she grew up in Montgomery, where her father and the other men of their community guarded their block against white supremacists. People should have the right to defend their community. Fathers who want to defend their families should not be left defenseless against lawless drug dealers.
While we're at it, let's restore the old system of private detectives, where individuals can decide for themselves what crimes to investigate, instead of leaving all policing in the hands of a centralized bureaucracy.
4. Forget drugs. Drugs are a symptom, not a cause. Socially, they are a symptom of hopeless communities. Economically, they can seem like the only option for young men who can't get better employment. I don't think we should legalize drugs; they are really bad for young men, and disproportionately hurt black men. But neither should we make prosecuting drug dealers a main focus; this is just whack-a-mole. Benign neglect.
5. Cut taxes for the poor. Conservatives like to talk about how high taxes discourage work. I agree, but this applies to the poor, as well as to the rich. The Payroll Tax, a silly device designed to make it look like Social Security is a private investment, not social welfare, amounts to a 15% tax on income under $104,000. Higher income doesn't have this tax at all. (Oh sure, half the tax is "paid" by the employer -- but it comes out of his payroll, and thus means less money for workers: either lower pay, or fewer jobs.) What that 15% means is that, for example, income between $8,375 and $34,000 is taxed at 30% (15% income tax + 15% payroll) while income between $104,000 and $171,850 is taxed at only 28%. Income between $34,000 and $82,400 is taxed at 40%, while the very highest tax bracket pays only 35%. In other words, because of the payroll tax, lower-income brackets actually pay higher marginal tax rates. That's insane. And it kills jobs.
Let us not fail to notice, also, the effect of benefit phase-out. The Earned Income Tax Credit, which supposedly helps lower-income workers, plateaus at $5,657, then phases out as a person's income rises from $16,420-$43,279. This amounts to an additional 21% tax on earners in that bracket, because for every dollar earned, they lose 21 cents of benefits -- bringing them to 61% taxes. I have been in this position, and calculated whether it's worth it to work the extra hours. And I have heard black youths discussing the same thing on the street of Washington, DC. Insane. A similar thing happens as welfare and SSI benefits are phased out for even lower-income earners.
I have proposed a system in which these benefits are not phased out, but are matched by a high flat tax, a combination which amounts to a graduated income tax without benefit phase-out. Anyway, something's gotta give. If it's bad for the rich to pay 35% income tax -- and it is -- it's far worse for the poor to pay 61%.
6. Abolish the property tax. In Newark, where my wife and I are presently trying to buy a home, property taxes are so high that, with a typical 30-year mortgage, taxes are half as much as your mortgage payment. For example, if I pay $1,000/mo to the bank, I also pay $500/mo to the city. That means fully 1/3 of my buying power is killed with property taxes. What's most asinine about this policy is that it kills property values. Buyers are worried about their final payment, not about what portion goes to taxes: I'm going to buy a $1,500/mo house, whether that $1,500 goes to the bank or to the city. So, even more than with income tax, property tax just ends up eating itself: every time you raise property taxes, home values plummet to adjust.
This makes buying in the city kind of a stupid idea. And that is bad, above all, for urban black communities, because it means that anyone who has the money to buy is given huge financial incentives to leave the community. Driving out the middle class is not good for those communities. It's not good for the people who are driven out, either, because many people actually want to live in the communities where they grew up and where they have social and cultural ties. Property taxes disproportionately hurt black communities.
They hurt renters, too, by the way. We're looking at buying a two-family home. It's not like our high property taxes have nothing to do with how much we'll need to charge for rent. And the same is true for big-money big-apartment-building investors: in order to pay their mortgage, they need to charge higher rent. Not many people can get into the low-end market when taxes are going to drive them out of business.
7. Cut it out about integration. Integration is a genocidal word (genocide = cide/killing + geno/race or ethnicity). Black culture is not a bad thing. We should not be looking for it to go away, or for black people to act more like "white" people. (Long-time readers know I think "white" is a horrible, ethnicity-denying construction.)
But, by the way, integration isn't conservative, either. Conservatives believe in local culture, in the rights of individuals and communities to pursue their own ideals. For heaven's sake, we're the party of state's rights! Conservatives do not believe in a government that smoothes out all differences.
The marriage between conservatives and integrationists in the GOP is a marriage of convenience, not of principle -- and it isn't very convenient. Tell Tom Tancredo to climb back under the rock where we found him, and let's get back to conservative principle.
8. Culturally positive free speech. In our current free-speech regime, public expressions of religion are verboten, but pornography is an essential part of freedom. This hurts cities the most, because cities are where you most see and hear your neighbors. No one should have a right to post pornographic posters, play pornographic music, or show pornographic films in the neighborhoods where we read our children. And we should be able to practice our religion in public. This is what city life is all about. I think we underestimate how much the current idea of free speech undermines the cultural life of the city.
9. Support mothers. Everyone knows the black family is in trouble -- so is the white family, we're just a couple decades behind in our decline. How about policies that give money to mothers to help them raise their children? How about tying money to mothers, so that fathers have an economic incentive to stick around? How about giving up on the sickening rhetoric of "welfare queens," and the horrific idea that women have babies just to get money from the government, and realize that there is no stronger bond, and no more socially useful bond, than that between mothers and their children? If a poor mother wants to work less so that she can be at home with her children, society ought to make that possible.
10. Education! Obviously. Our schools are failing our children -- and they are, overwhelmingly, disproportionately, failing our black children. Burn down the teacher's unions. Never let them hurt our children again. Give parents choice about their children's education, because (as the teachers incessantly say, but never allow us to realize in policy) there can be no education where parents are not invested. And realize that, in the city above all, school choice make sense, because it's easy for kids to get to schools. And, for heaven's sake, quit the boloney where we think only secularist education is allowable: if parents want their children to be sent to schools that support their values, even their religious values, government has no place denying that right to poor parents.
Those are just a few ideas. The point is, conservatives have lots to offer the black community, but have been too afraid to think about issues that disproportionately affect the places where black people live.