Thursday, May 30, 2013

Will Sinking All The Boats Make The World Better?

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a piece responding to my, er emm his commentators', critiques about his recent post arguing that social policies designed to "lift all boats", that is improve social conditions of all Americans, are inherently flawed compared to policies designed just to help certain racial groups.  The objection he highlights is quite similar to mine, what I said was:
What actually happened is the Supreme Court, in its infinite wisdom, decided to replace the system where states would have to expand access to Medicaid in order to keep their federal funds for the whole system of Medicaid, with a voluntary system in which states could opt out of expanding Medicaid but lose out on the large amounts of money that would come with expansion.  In short, a carrot and stick approach was turned into an all carrot approach and some GOP politicians decided not to opt for the carrot.

But these unfortunate side affect of a Supreme Court ruling is hardly the fault of "lift all boats" policies.  Indeed, Obamacare was changed from a "lift all boats" policy to an "ask GOP politicians to lift all boats" policy and the fact that some of them decided to say no is hardly the fault of Obamacare, it's their fault.
He argues that, "The courts are part of policy."  Of course they are.  But the point here is that a specifically designed "lift all boats policy" was specifically changed to something else, what I called an "ask GOP politicians to lift all boats" policy.  If Coates doesn't like this change his beef is with John Roberts, not the bill singed into law.  The policy was fine until it was changed, and became something else.

He then moves on to argue that the GI Bill, one of the policies probably most responsible for the creation of the mass American middle class in the 20th Century, was bad by pointing out that American society in the 1940's was rather racist, and so the benefits were not equally shared between blacks and whites.  This is of course correct, but giving one example from 70 years ago focusing on anecdotes about racist bankers and real estate agents is hardly cause for dismissing a whole category of successful public policies.  And keeping all American's poorer, black and white, after World War II would hardly have made a better world. 

My bigger problem with this whole argument is how one sided Coates deliberately makes it.  He categorically criticizes the policies that Liberals have used to make a better world since the 1930's as being fundamentally flawed, and then offers no alternatives of his own.  Quite frankly this is a lazy intellectual cop out.  The classic question of "well, what's your alternative" is a key question to ask in any policy debate, especially one that categorically dismisses a whole type of policy solutions.  Without it we can conclude that any political decision is wrong because any political choice, like any human action, can be labeled imperfect.

Furthermore, Coates ignores the fact that affirmative action, a policy that does focus solely on improving the lot of certain racial groups, has been tried in this country for almost 40 years now and it's failed to close the racial gap in wealth and could be a thing of the past quite shortly.  I'd argue this is because while noble in its intent, its never been very politically viable and has always been dependent on existing in realms where it is highly insulated from the opinions of voters, like universities.  This should be no surprise, as Rick Perlstein pointed out, Hubert H. Humphrey (civil rights hero AND champion of lifting all boats) foresaw this problem decades ago, and correctly predicted the problems it would cause for the Democratic Party in the age of Reagan:
And at a time when other liberals were besotted with affirmative action as a strategy to undo the cruel injustices of American history, Humphrey pointed out that race-based remedies could only prove divisive when good jobs were disappearing for everyone. Liberal policy, he said, must stress “common denominators — mutual needs, mutual wants, common hopes, the same fears.”  

Perhaps it's because he comes out of the world of journalism and scholarly books and I come out of the world of electoral politics that make us see the issue so differently.  He ends by accusing people like me of having a "religion of color blind policy."  If I have a political religion it's that I think the perfect should never be the enemy of the good.  His faith is that the imperfect good is inherently the enemy.

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