Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Helping Fishtown (part two)

Yesterday I introduced Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart, which argues that Fishtown (that is, people without college degrees) is culturally handicapped from keeping up with Belmont (that is, people with college degrees).  But I criticized Murray’s policy proposals for fixing the problem – arguing that he probably doesn’t think those policies are any good either. 

I agree with him that culture runs deeper than policy.  But, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of society.  The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”  Both are probably true.  Politics can be used to help the cultural problem.

So here are a few policy proposals of my own:

First of all, accept the Fishtown/Belmont divide.  Instead of trying to get Fishtown kids into Belmont, try to help Fishtown kids themselves.  Yes, there will always be working-class kids who turn out to be better at school than all the kids from the educated classes; colleges and intellectual businesses should keep their eyes open for those kids.  But part of what Murray’s showing is that the class problem is intractable.  Murray sometimes seems insistent that working-class people can only be happy if we turn them into information-class people.  Boloney.

In fact – well, this shows I should read his books, instead of just reviews, since I’m probably missing his point; but since you probably haven’t read Murray's books either, my summaries can help us think even if they get Murray wrong.  In any case, Murray’s last book, Real Education (2008),  has been my greatest touchstone for this. 

He says (and backs it up with lots of sociological evidence), imagine a kid getting C’s in high school; the only thing he’s good at is Shop.  Somehow he gets dragged to the guidance counselor who tells him, (of course!) “you can do it!  You can make something of yourself!  You should go to college!”  So he spends four years taking enormous debt doing something he doesn’t enjoy and isn’t good at.  At the end, he gets a job in middle-management, sitting in a cubicle making very modest pay for doing something so soul-crushing that they make black comedies (the movie Office Space, the sitcome The Office) to make fun of it.  Whereas if his stupid guidance counselor had let him be a carpenter, he would have saved himself the four years accumulating debt, and gone right into something that pays better and has higher job satisfaction – and that he’s particulary good at and enjoys.  Shunting Fishtown kids to Belmont is bad for kids.  (And – a topic for another time – probably bad for our society, as it means we’re shifting resources from artisan products that make life more beautiful to an ever-increasing bureaucracy that makes life more stupid.)

So we should start by letting Fishtown be Fishtown.  Every subsidy means taking money from one group and giving it to others.  Even if the money ultimately comes from Belmont people, tax money sent to subsidize college educations is money they can’t spend paying carpenters (etc.) to build beautiful things. 

Yes, we should scold people who don’t work.  But also, we should recognize that building things – Fishtown work – is nothing to spit at.

Rick Santorum’s ideas for promoting factories are full of loopholes (they don’t help carpenters and plumbers, for example – and, see above, the carpenters and plumbers ultimately join all other non-factory people to pay for them), but Santorum’s on the right track: let’s find ways to encourage factories, and all other blue-collar work. 

Mayors and governors could stop insisting that every city be a replica of Silicon Valley.  Factories, everyone will tell you, made Newark stink.  But poverty, joblessness, and hopelessness make Newark stink worse.  Stop regulating out non-Belmont jobs, and start building public transformation (not trains, which are a boondoggle, but better buses) that help poor people get to work.  Cut it out with all the stupid money spent on ever-expanding freeways – essentially wealth-transfer from people who don’t drive SUVs in the exurbs to people who do.  Etc.  Realize (a) that when we subsidize Belmont, it is ultimately everyone outside – Fishtown people – who pay the bill; and (b) that Fishtown, if we could clean up its social problems, is a perfectly noble place to live.

Second: social conservatism.  A post for another day.  But realize that nothing is more destructive than the destruction of families.  Especially for the lower classes.  Pornography is not free speech, it is war on the family; “free speech” originally referred to political speech, the one kind of speech liberals want to hyper-regulate.  “Consenting adults” is fine – except that sex, of its very biological nature, constantly ends up involving non-consenting children.  As does marriage.  Sex and marriage are not about individual freedom, they are about the rights of the next generation.  Their nobility should be defended.  Who suffers most when they aren't?  The fatherless children of Fishtown.

So too the churches.  The rich -- perhaps! -- can lock themselves up in enclaves where the decline of public religion doesn't matter.  (In fact, rich suburban drive-through churches are a pretty poor substitute for the public reality that religion ought to be.)  But for those in Fishtown, who cannot so fully privatize their lives, the decline of public religion is also the decline of private religion.  (To the extent that there is such a thing.)  The attack on public expressions of religion is an attack, among other things on the people of Fishtown. 

Third: okay, fine, open some options for kids to get from Fishtown to Belmont, with education reform.  But realize, first, that children are always above all products of their parents.  Don’t try to trump the parents – but give them options.  Promote homeschooling – and recognize that homeschoolers are double-taxed, paying all the other costs every other parent pays; paying the same taxes to fund the rotten public schools; and paying the costs of materials to school their own children – including the salary of the stay-at-home mom “teacher.”  So at least let parents who school their own children opt out of paying for everyone else.  Give them (us!) the freedom to do it, and give them some of the money they are saving the state.  Education choice should not be limited to the rich.

If parents want to send their children to schools, give them the option to send their kids to good schools.  If parents want to ship their kids to the Belmont Public Schools, and their kids aren’t causing trouble, let them do it.  If parents want to send their kids to church-subsidized schools, don’t make them pay double to do it.  And, by all means, don’t let the teachers’ unions hold other people’s children hostage.  Parents should have the right to educate their children, whether it’s to ennoble their lives in Fishtown or to give them a shot at Belmont.

And finally, yes, as Murray says, find a way to subsidize those who are desperately trying to make ends meet -- but do away with the negative incentives.  Right now, if you want welfare, you have to quit work.  If you want the Earned Income Trap – I mean, the Earned Income Credit – you have to make sure not to make too much money, since they will take your credit away if you work too many extra hours to get your family ahead.  These are stupid, perverse, negative incentives.  Send every family with children a check, regardless.  Help them out.  Send every disabled person a check, regardless, help them out.  Don’t tell them that if they work they will lose their benefits.  The poor do need help, because it can be very hard to get started when you have no money at all.  But they need the checks not to be phased out, because phase-out is a trap to keep you stuck at lower income.

Imagine the single mother – the “welfare queen” of Newt’s welfare reform.  According to pseudo-conservative orthodoxy, she had children just to get rich off the welfare system.  Except, of course, that no one got rich off of welfare.  And children cost a lot of money.  And children are an enormous lot of work.  No, she wasn’t having children to get money.  She was having children to have a family.  (That she couldn’t keep a husband is a social problem that needs to be dealt with – but the problem is the lack of husband, not the children.)  Yes, welfare – or the hidden welfare trap that is the Earned Income Credit – lets her afford to raise a family.  But that’s a good thing.  The bad thing is that if she gets a job, she loses the money.  And the even worse thing is that the 1990’s politicians – including, I’m very sorry to say, Rick Santorum – decided that there’s nothing worse than a stay-at-home mom -- unless she's rich -- and they decided that instead of helping her to get out of poverty or to get and keep a husband, they would penalize her for being with her children.  Wrong solution.  Focus on the right problems.  Give her the money to help her out, and focus your reform energies on making sure she can rise out of poverty, take care of her children, and find a husband.  Giving her money -- guaranteed money, with no phase outs -- to help with her children is the simplest way to start.

Fishtown needs help.  It needs ways to escape poverty.  It needs a morale booster, after a couple generations of being told that its work is demeaning.  It needs economic help, after a couple generations of subsidies from Fishtown to Belmont (always ultimately paid by whoever isn’t getting the subsidy, even if the middle-man is rich people who can’t spend because they’re being taxed), based on a false American dream based not on family, community, and honest work but on silly ideas about how great it is to have a piece of paper claiming you got a college education and work at a cubicle in middle management.  It needs social help, including a deligitimization, in law and in culture, of sexual irresonsibility.  

But Fishtown probably doesn’t need a lawsuit against private companies that stupidly rely on an ever stupider bastardization of college education.