Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Fault Lines

The self-help industry took off as a liberal cultural trend in the 1970s, but Mitt Romney and the Republicans have now infected the 2012 body politic with this philosophy.  Self-help, Mitt tells us, is the prescription for everything that ails our nation.  Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for yourself.  “We the People” has been replaced by “You the Person”.  Fostering “community” is code for forcing people like Mitt to financially support people like Obama.  The poor should help themselves while the rich help themselves.  A hand up is a hand out.

This concept of self-determination appears in a number of the GOP approaches to national issues:

·         Health insurance policies that include birth control coverage?  Not necessary.  What women need is some self-control.

·         Too many illegal immigrants taking low-wage jobs and robbing houses in your neighborhood?  Not in Romney’s America.  He’ll provide the incentive for the lawbreakers to self-deport.

·         Large banks that are too big to fail putting the global economy at risk?  Don’t bet on that being a problem much longer.  We’re capitalists and the banks can self-regulate for the greater good.

·         Spending too much of our national wealth on food stamps and benefits for the unemployed?  No worries.  Mitt will encourage a new era of self-reliance.

·         Childhood obesity?  Reduce waistlines through self-denial.  Social safety net?  Repeal and replace it with personal savings built through self-discipline.

·         Unions?  Groupthink that stifles your ability to self-actualize and achieve your greatest potential in productivity and earnings.  Unions strive for equity through shared mediocrity.

Rugged individuals built this nation and that’s the way forward.  Public policy solutions to problems of individual weakness are anathema to a free society.  We don’t need more teachers, we are told; we need more kids that aren’t too lazy to learn.  We don’t need more police; we just need harsher penalties to discourage crime.  We don’t need smaller sodas; we need to control ourselves.  This message that problems are the result of individual actors and individual actions resonates in a country imbued with the Puritan philosophy that we are all sinners and must punish ourselves on earth to achieve heaven above.  Look inward, young man – it is your fault.

Conservatives embrace another philosophy besides the Theory of the Self-Determination known as the Theory of Broken Windows.  Rudy Giuliani popularized the idea as a key component in his successful campaign to drop crime rates dramatically in NYC in the 1990s.  This anti-crime theory called for an all-out assault against graffiti, panhandlers extorting money in exchange for a clean windshield, and fare jumpers in the subway.  Giuliani and others believed that these minor infractions created an environment in which individuals felt safe to commit other more serious crimes.  If these environmental conditions were changed, criminals would no longer be empowered to commit crimes.  Fix the broken windows and crime will drop.

There are many reasons that crime dipped precipitously in NYC during Giuliani’s tenure but it was the vigilant application of the Broken Window theory in practice that is credited with driving crime rate so low so quickly.  In short, it worked.

What did that prove?  It was not that there were fewer potential criminals in NYC all of a sudden.  It was that fewer potential criminals were empowered by the external environment to commit crimes.  The sociological conditions and the physical conditions surrounding the individuals mattered.  It was not all just an individual’s fault, otherwise the absence of broken windows and graffiti would not have impacted crime rates.  The criminal who lacked self-control would act with or without the social cue to do so.  The surroundings mattered and the cues to commit crimes mattered.  Change the conditions and people acted differently.

When infrastructure investment is mocked as wasteful public works stimulus spending, think about the Theory of Broken Windows and add it to the list of things the Right was for before they were against it.  External physical conditions can affect individual behaviors and make them more or less likely to occur.  Blaming society’s problems on a collection of individual decisions without accounting for environmental context is not only wrong, it’s anti-science (not that being anti-science is insulting to modern day hard core conservatives).  Changing the context in which individuals make decisions may be a fiscally conservative position.

Context matters.

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