Walter Russell Mead and the Need to Think About our Inner Cities07-25-2011
My friend and Colleague Walter Russell Mead has recently posted an excellent essay to his equally excellent blog Via Meadia. Mead is a good friend of the Arendt Center and he will be speaking at the Hannah Arendt Center's Fall Conference, Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts. Our blog will continue to follow his posts.
The theme of his recent essay is the tragedy that is the American inner city. He writes:
The state of the American inner city is an unacceptable human tragedy, and the costs in money spent and prosperity forfeited create an unsustainable drag on the national economy at a time when we need all the help we can get.
Mead argues that while the Great Society programs had some positive effects, they have failed.
"We are spending massive amounts of money and conditions are getting worse."
According to Mead, the problems now are so deep and profound that we need radical new approaches to them and that the first step is "to break with the core assumptions of the catastrophically wrongheaded ‘best and the brightest’ of the 1960s." Towards that end, he writes, we need to be "Thinking less racially about urban problems." This is controversial, but it is also right in many ways. As Mead writes in Part II of his essay:
Racial problems in the US contributed to the particular history of the urban underclass and race can never be totally ignored in this country, but the inner city today is haunted by three serious problems, none of which is racial in nature: a lack of jobs, an advanced state of social disintegration and decay, and the presence of the illegal drug industry.
One of Mead's most provocative "solutions" is the need for "bad jobs" to return to the inner cities. The kinds of jobs that currently most Americans don't want and that we give to illegal immigrants, jobs "where people bang metal and use power tools all day long." The problem is that these jobs are often not allowed to exist because we have created health, safety, and environmental regulations that protect workers and make operating such small businesses too difficult and too expensive. Or, if they are allowed, the regulatory requirements are so extensive that it takes too long and costs to much to start such businesses, to they are outsourced to less regulated areas, leaving the members of the inner city without the kinds of jobs that they need. Mead is arguing that to save the inner cities, we have to abandon, or at least slacken, the protections of our regulatory state that, for many of us, are at the core of our self-image as a civilized society.
I recall conversations with some libertarians after Hurricane Katrina who criticized--often in racially tinged language--the fact that the residents of New Orleans waited for the Government to act and didn't rebuild on their own. I could only point out the obvious, that it was actually illegal for residents to rebuild on their own! That the government required permits, zoning waivers, environmental plans, etc., things that no self-reliant individual could muster. The point is that our cities have squashed individual self-reliance and small business in the name of safety and regulation. This is well-meaning and has benefits. But we must also recognize that it is squashing the path to economic self-sufficiency for those who cannot afford the lawyers and fees to start a business within the modern regulatory state.
Something has to give, and one of the real conversations we need to have in our nation today is whether we would rather have a clean and safe regulatory state with lots of unemployed workers supported by the wealthy, or whether we are willing to let people work in dirty,demanding, and sometimes dangerous jobs so that they can work themselves and their families up the economic ladder.
These are the serious questions Mead's posts raise. He asks us to confront head on facts that most of us would rather ignore—that our desire to have clean cities with shiny glass storefronts that look and feel suburban, that our desire to make our cities green and protect workers from dangers, and that our desire to impose strict building codes—have all, beyond their obvious benefits, made the cities unaccommodating to small businesses that the cities need.
Mead has been roundly criticized because he says that we need to, at times, see the problems of the inner city as problems caused by the progressive regulatory state; and, also, because he does not blame racism for the problems of the inner cities. Of course racism is still pervasive and debilitating. And yet, Mead asks us to confront other facts as well and then to think about them. He wants us to see that our well-meaning effort to make cities greener, safer, and more livable is also stifling the economic development of the cities and choking off the opportunities for dynamic small-business-led growth that is the best bet to break the cycle of underclass dependency in our cities. This debate is one we need to have, whatever the answers we decide upon. And Mead should be credited for his courage in helping to initiate that debate. In the spirit of Hannah Arendt, he is asking us to "think what we are doing" and to go back and challenge the basic prejudices and assumptions that underlie are not 50+ year effort to solve the problem of the inner cities.
You can and should read all three of his posts here: