Our Kids are Coming Apart, Part III

<Parts I and II>

Finally I’m finishing up with the two books and their proposed solutions to the problem of inequality of opportunity.

First, I think I mischaracterized Putnam’s position last time as being mostly due to developmental outcomes. A considerable amount of the book is about the decline in social ties both between the rich and poor and within low SES communities. High SES communities still possess an informal social safety net that was distributed in a more egalitarian manner a few generations ago. So for example, a high SES child that develops problems with addiction or depression has a much broader social well to draw upon for support. A low SES child with the same problems simply does not. Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone was about the general decline in social ties among Americans; what Our Kids shows is that this decline has not been evenly distributed.

What do these authors propose be done to remedy the divergence they’ve described? For Murray, as he put it in a discussion forum with Putnam, “I’m a libertarian…we don’t do solutions.” And that is the sense you get from his book. Perhaps surprisingly, the one concrete proposal he makes is for a guaranteed basic income for all Americans (of around $10,000/year) as a replacement for current welfare programs.

He also suggests that the successful should be more vocal about their cultural values. Not in a paternalistic way, but in a ‘City Upon the Hill’ way. If I recall correctly he frames it as “preach what you practice”. After all, one of the consequences of class segregation is that the poor don’t have much contact with the behaviors of successful people. In Putnams’ book, actually, there is a wrenching anecdote about one of the interviews where a low SES father asked if he could bring his children to the session so they could meet a real college graduate.

Ultimately, there is a great deal of pessimism in Murray’s view, stemming from his belief in the primacy of biology. Looking beyond Coming Apart to his whole body of work, we might sum up his view as thus: cognitive ability matters; genetics determines cognitive ability; culture/virtue can compensate for low cognitive ability; welfare programs disincentive ‘virtuous’ behavior. This makes his support for a GBI less surprising, since he believes that the current smattering of welfare programs have bad incentives while also believing that the poor should not be left behind in the new high cognitive ability economy.

Putnam has a more policy oriented plan. He argues for an expansion of the EITC and child tax credit (to add to incomes), strengthening food stamps, housing, and child care support, and an invigoration of center-based early childhood education: these all correspond to dealing with 1b) in my causal scheme.  For 2a), he suggests criminal justice reform (to reduce the breakup of families for non violent offenses), investment in failing schools (which I found odd, considering his own evidence suggests that schools don’t make much of a difference in life outcomes), and neighborhood reinvestment. In general, it’s a pretty standard center-left policy oriented program.

What I want to dwell on for the remainder of this post is this base assumption both authors make: that societal sorting by class is a given. It’s certainly a reality, as they both document extensively, but need it be so? It’s similar (and related to) to debates around income inequality: it is better to let the market ‘speak’ and address inequalities after the fact with transfers (EITC, EBT, and the like); or is it better to focus on making pre-transfer incomes more equitable through investments in education, wage policies, and so on (basically make less productive workers more productive so their market price is higher)? Likewise, is it better to allow people to sort themselves by SES into areas with vastly different wealth, cultural tastes, political clout, crime, etc, and try to mitigate after the fact? Is the degree to which this occurs in the United States natural, or have we created a system that led us down this path?

If there were a way to prevent sorting, we could cut the Gordian knot of biological and social factors that make post hoc solutions to SES heritability so intractable. I’ll consider two possibilities: One, that the sorting is inevitable and that it requires active pushback; and Two, that policies are the main driver of intense sorting, and that changing said policies will mitigate the issue.

First let’s deal with the idea that sorting is inevitable and requires active pushback. An example of a country that has actively worked to prevent sorting along ethnic lines is Singapore. In contrast with its neighbor Malaysia, which has a similar mix of Malay, Chinese, and Indians, Singapore has been largely successful in integrating its different races together (Malaysia remains very divided along ethnic lines and tensions continue to grow). The government has achieved this through a course of forced ethnic integration: housing has racial quotas, the parliament has guaranteed seats for minorities, and there are strong penalties (including jail time) for racially charged speech. While not perfect, by all accounts this system seems to work pretty well, but it requires a strongly paternalistic governmental system that runs counter to many conceptions of liberalism (in the classic sense).

Here in America, we have a (failed) example in the history of desegregation and the busing program that forcefully integrated school districts in the wake of Brown v Board of Education. The resulting implementations of integration were highly unpopular, possibly led to exacerbated sorting through ‘white flight’, and at this point in time school busing programs have been largely dismantled. Or to go further back we can look to Reconstruction, another attempt at forcing racial integration that failed.

Now, it could be the case that ethnic integration is a far greater hurdle than economic integration, in which case the growing disentanglement of race and class is a positive development, and the heavy hand of government isn’t necessary as a corrective. In this case, we could be in the second world described above, where bad policy is what has led to the status quo. What policies would these be?

My number one culprit, as I’ve mentioned before, is housing policy. I really think that outdated zoning laws, density restrictions, historic preservation rules, and the like are the source of a lot of America’s current problems. Additionally, the horrific redlining (both official and unofficial) of the past was a huge contributor to current segregation and racial wealth gaps. I don’t think it’s too crazy to imagine a past with more liberal housing policies and strict non discrimination laws leading to a more egalitarian present. But would it be enough?

Government attempts to reshape society should be viewed skeptically. We don’t have to look very far in space or time to see why. In general, I believe we should err on the side of less intervention and tend to prefer solutions that allow markets to play out naturally. What I worry about is the case of social problems that cannot be solved without coercion, as may very likely be the case with inequality of opportunity.

How can we, a priori, determine in what instances radical government intervention is appropriate? Can dramatically unpopular policies ever be justified? These are the questions we will need to grapple with as we struggle to keep our kids from coming apart.

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