Work in Progress: Solving Social Problems, and Failing to Solve Them
Friday 31 December 2021
Lately I have been thinking a lot about how social problems are solved, but — perhaps counter-intuitively — I have been thinking about this most concrete of problems from an abstract point of view. I have observed on many other occasions that all the large cities of the west coast of North America — Vancouver BC, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles — share a now-familiar set of problems that have been sharply exacerbated in the past few years. These problems include, but are not limited to, crime, homelessness, substance addiction, housing prices, and ineffective governance. In some cases, perhaps all of these specific cases mentioned, these cities are grotesquely misgoverned.
I was watching a Youtube video about homelessness and I made a comment that when the people of these cities have felt enough pain, they will eventually take action to do something about the problem. Someone responded to my comment, implying that people want to solve the problem but don’t know how, and also implying that my comment was snarky and unhelpful. I responded again that the solution of the problem needs to be multi-pronged, by taking the problem apart into its constituent parts and addressing each problem at its root. Presumably this would mean drug and alcohol treatment for those willing to undergo treatment, the construction of affordable housing, the enforcement of existing laws, the cleanup of blighted neighborhoods, and so on.
I thought a lot more about this in subsequent days, and I realized that the kind of rational policy making that I outlined doesn’t really get at the root of the problem. It isn’t impossible to solve our problems by a piecemeal approach to complex, multi-faceted problems, but it certainly is difficult, and probably the wider success of any effort would rely on the success of solving other problems elsewhere, so it is ultimately an alignment of solutions across a geographical region, which implies something larger changing than merely solving local problems within a single urban area.
For example, in the unlikely event that Portland effectively addressed its problem of crime and homelessness, a lot of the problem would be displaced to Seattle to the north or San Francisco to the south. The entire west coast of North America would have to reform itself in order for a local solution to be more than a displacement of the problem to other areas (in short, what was once called “Greyhound therapy,” whereby the mentally ill were offered a bus ticket out of town, so they became another city’s problem).
The cities I have mentioned above are all subject to what may be called ideological capture, which is why I say that it is unlikely that Portland could solve its problems, even if that “solution” simply meant shifting a proportion of these problems to Seattle and San Francisco. Given the ideological capture of these city governments, even if the bums were thrown out and new administrations installed, the voters in these cities would pick exactly the same kind of people. The problem with Portland is not Ted Wheeler, but the voters of Portland who elect people like Ted Wheeler. And if a new government were installed that differed from the permanent government of the civil service, it would find itself unable to effectively undertake any initiatives because it would be blocked at every turn — something we saw at a national scale in recent American history.
If an urban region provided treatment for the alcoholics and drug addicts, provided housing for the homeless, empowered the police to fight crime, jailed criminal offenders, and so on, you would have created an on-going burden for the society that would only be likely to grow over time. For decades now there have been opinion pieces about the enormous US prison system, its obvious injustices, the problem it causes in turn, and so on. If you housed homeless people in inexpensive housing, even something as modest as the kind of miniature houses built by Habitat for Humanity, you now have villages of these inexpensive houses that have to be supplied, maintained, and policed. Even if the residents got treatment for their addictions, many would fall back into their lives of crime and addiction, and the villages of miniature houses would become concentrations of poverty and crime, like the “projects” of the mid-twentieth century, which were so bad in many cases that they were razed rather than repaired.
Is contemporary society prepared to pour the money and effort into keeping low cost housing safe and clean and unblighted? I doubt it. I have seen some reasonably neat miniature house communities, but one must imagine them greatly expanded in order to accommodate the current number of homeless in west coast cities (imagine how large such developments would have to be, for example, to house the homeless of San Francisco), and, in expanding to the necessary dimensions to solve the problem of homelessness, qualitatively new problems would emerge from these expanded lost income housing developments.
Say that we took increasingly abandoned covered shopping malls and turned them into housing for the homeless. There is plenty of space, existing heating and cooling systems, even multiple restrooms and the kitchens of the former food courts to feed people. It is easy to predict that a shopping mall filled with homeless people would rapidly go downhill, require increasing maintenance to remain habitable, and so becoming an expensive and self-perpetuating problem that did not really even solve the original problem it was intended to address.
We can see with the prison problem and the low cost housing problem that these problems have been simmering away for more than a half century, so they are nothing new, and in this more than half century the problem has gotten worse and no “magic bullet” solution has been found. Any solution to the problem would itself become a problem, because the root cause has neither been identified nor addressed.
Now let me shift gears to something that gets a lot less attention. One conversation that I repeatedly have with my mom is how the character of people who live in the rural countryside has changed in her lifetime. For my entire life I have heard my mom’s stories of the small rural community where I am now writing this newsletter. In the past, everyone farmed, so it was a farming community. Now, the people who own houses in the country almost all have jobs in surrounding small towns, so rural communities are little more than bedroom communities for commuting workers.
It is painfully obvious at times that people in rural areas no longer take the pride in their homes and property that their parents and grandparents showed. These rural properties used to be neat as a pin, with everything picked up, and the houses, while basic, were always spic and span. In the past, people had much less money, and far fewer consumer goods, but they took care of what they had, and they took real pride in their homes. Now there are many rural homes that look like the homeless camps in Portland. What connects the two is the shared lack of pride in one’s ordinary day-to-day way of life. Living in a tent encampment in Portland is bad, but it is little better to be living in a trailer next to a dilapidated, unmaintained house in rural Clatsop County.
The real question we should be asking is not how we get treatment to the addicted, homes to the homeless, or police to the scene of a crime, but why such a large and growing number of people have effectively checked out of society, caring so little about themselves and their communities that they would prefer to live in a tent, steal for money, and take drugs to numb the pain of existing, rather than follow the program that we once knew as the “American Dream.” In the American Dream as we once knew it, it was not the case that everyone got rich, or that everyone got as many consumer goods as his neighbor, but it was the case that everyone had a roof over their head, sufficient food and clothing not to look starved or ragged, and was able meet their basic needs. None of this was simply given. In exchange for these goods, one had to maintain a reasonably orderly life and one had to work. This was a social contract of sorts. The small number of people who opted out of the social contract did not threaten the social contact. Now, the number of people who opt out of the social contract do threaten the social contract. That is what has changed, though it is not the only thing that has changed.
The wealthiest among us are willing to pay a million dollars for a starter home in San Francisco, but they are also willing to step over homeless people in the streets, leave their cars unlocked and the doors open so that the pretty criminals don’t smash out the windows, and to look out every day over a once magnificent city — a city with a setting as beautiful as Rio de Janeiro — now blighted by tents, garbage, the homeless urinating in public, smashed and boarded up shop windows, and all of the other signs of a deeply dysfunctional city that cannot address the most basic problems of its residents. This is no way to live. I personally could not feel satisfied with my life, no matter how much I might be earning at one of the FLAAG companies (also called FAANG companies — essentially the same idea, even if the constituent companies are a little different), if I were stepping in human excrement on the sidewalks of my city.
I would argue that these individuals have vacated the social contract no less than those who live in tent encampments. I am not saying here that we need to “tax the rich.” Anyone who has done the most basic study of economics knows that only the wealthiest 20–40 percent of the population pays any taxes at all, since what others receive back in benefits more than offsets the taxes that they pay. I believe that one of the reasons that the cities of the west coast of North America have experienced ideological capture is because these wealthiest and most able individuals vote for local governments who say they are going to help the downtrodden of society, believing that their obligation to the society that made them wealthy ends there. Clearly, it has not worked to vote for individuals who made it a point to display their bleeding heart credentials. Cities so governed look like third world slums, not like the cities of the future we once imagined that we would inhabit.
My regular readers will have already guessed where I am going with this. All of the above that I have described is symptomatic of a failed or failing central project. With a growing number of individuals who feel they have no stake in wider society — whether these individuals are destitute or livin’ large — little or no stigma is attached to checking out from society. Society itself no longer really exists in any robust form; rather, we are a collection of deracinated individuals who live together because it is convenient. And when it ceases to be convenient, we drop it and do something else.
Social cohesiveness cannot be imposed on a society from the top down. We often implicitly believe the case to the otherwise, because the historical examples with which we are familiar are the later stages of societies when these societies enter into attempts to maintain an existing social order, which often does take the form of attempting to enforce order from the top down. In the long term this never works, though in the short term it can slow the slide of a society into decoherence.
One of the problems — certainly not the only problem, but a problem we could potentially address — is the size of mass societies, will tend toward anonymity and thus to isolated individuals connected to each other only through their abstract relationship to the government. Breaking up the largest political units into more manageable units would be one possible way to allow authentic central projects to organically emerge from regionally geographically unified populations. This won’t work with the US, unfortunately, because the social issues that divide us are (mostly) not geographically distinct. It might work with a population transfer like that which attended the division of British India into India and Pakistan, which was one of the most violent social upheavals of the twentieth century. I would expect it to be equally violent in the US, leaving deep scars that would not quickly heal. It is not clear that the price paid would be worth the gain, and it is certain that vested interests would oppose such a scheme.
And while planned Balkanization would not work in the US, it wouldn’t work in Europe either. Europe faces the opposite problem: in attempting to more tightly bind the EU together, it attempts to overcome the Balkanization that has generated history’s most savage conflicts. Thus planned Balkanization is a solution without a constituency. One could argue that this has worked, after a fashion, with the decomposition of the Soviet Union into its constituent parts, and at a lower cost than what India paid for its partition. Perhaps it might work as well in China as it did for the Soviet Union, but China has its own problems, defined by its own history, and these other parts of the world I have mentioned in passing are sufficiently distinct from the west coast of North America that what works here would not work there, and vice versa.