2005-10-13

One million people - no solutions

Leonard Pitts is an op-ed writer for the Chicago Tribune. Recently he has wrote a piece about the "Million Man March" in 1995.

For those of you who don't know, the "Million Man March" was an African American march of protest and unity convened by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan in Washington, DC.

In the article, Pitts, himself an African American, laments the fact that in the ten years since the march, the life of the Black man has not improved much:

Ten years later, over 65 percent of our children are still born out of wedlock.

Ten years later, we are still five times more likely to die of homicide.

Ten years later, still fewer than half of us own our homes.

Ten years later, we still marry less, go to jail more, die sooner.

Ten years later, the promises we made that crisp Monday in October lie fallow and unredeemed.
It's an interesting article. For all the promise and hype that accompanied the historic march, Pitts admits that, in the end, the result has been failure. While the event itself was notable, nothing concrete was ever achieved.

Yet 10 years later, here we are, still damned by numbers. Because change is not something you talk into existence. Change takes action.
I like the way Pitts talks here - he is honest and straight down the line. Ten years ago they had a get together in Washington where they talked big about lots of things. The problem is that big talk was all that it was.

I always appreciate this sort of candor. Critical self-analysis allied with aspirations for change is a sure way to avoid hopeless cynicism. It's one of those rare qualities in American culture that I can readily appreciate since it can only result in a desire for good.

Pitts, however, does not live up to this attitude as he continues the article. While he laments big talking and no action, he offers little in terms of practice. Why is this so? Because he is also infected with that most abysmal trough of American thinking - that the individual must act alone to change his or her life.

This is Pitts' solution to the problem:

But I also know that much of what is needed to fix our communities requires no white person's consent:

- Get educated.
- Seek a career, not a job.
- Don't make children you can't support.
- Understand that support means money.
- Understand that support means more than money.
- Marry the woman.
- Model manhood for your children.
- Save some money.
- Buy a home.
- Build a life.
"What's so wrong with this list?" I hear you ask. "Why are you criticising him for offering these fine solutions? Do you think such attitudes are wrong to have?"

I'll start with the final question - of course these are good things. Getting educated, seeking a career, being responsible when it comes to sex and relationships - all these things are good things that African Americans should be looking for. Heck - these things are good for everyone in society, regardless of their skin colour.

The problem is that listing off a bunch a great qualities and leaving it with the readers is not going to solve anything. If Leonard Pitts got in front of a black audience and listed off these things as things they should do, he would not be helping anyone there. He might as well be back in Washington in 1995 with the other 999,999 men who were talking big.

You see the problem is actually a very American one - it is based on the assumption that the individual, as king of his/her own life, is ultimately responsible for who they are and what they do. My criticism of such a belief may seem strange since many Americans hold this to be a truth that is self evident. Nevertheless, I will submit the fact that while the individual has responsibility for him/herself, the community also shares in this responsibility. In other words, responsibility is something that both the individual and the community has.

It is an American lie that the problem and solution lies solely with the individual. What this has led to in practice is a society that cares very little for the problems of the minority. People who are like this are likely to view a homeless man on the street and say "He should get off his ass and get a job." So when problems occur in a society - in a community - people can simply write off problem people as being lazy or stupid or both.

The reasons for this form of thinking have a lot to do with the influences of people like Ayn Rand, as well as the threat that Russian Communism posed during the cold war.

Rand's writings gave America (and the world) a uniquely American philosophy of life - one in which personal liberty is the ultimate in human achievement. I haven't read any Rand (my first exposure to her name was during an episode of South Park) but there is no doubt that Objectivism found a ready audience in American culture. Objectivism is behind a lot of political and economic thinking, especially in areas like Small Government, Supply-side economics and the "Starve-the-beast" practice of lowering taxation (advocated by people like Grover Norquist). The US Republican Party is heavily influenced by this sort of thinking.

Russian Communism, by being both a physical and an ideological threat, also influenced a generation of American thinkers. Communism, which advocated a completely state-owned and controlled economy, offered a viable alternative to the free-market practices of American Capitalism - especially between 1945 and 1975. Since the very philosophy of Communism was the power of the group over the individual, many opponents focused upon the natural differences between it and the American experience. Ayn Rand, of course, was opposed to Communism.

Please don't think that by speaking about the rights and responsibilities of the community that somehow I am advocating Communism - I am not. Communism failed for a number of reasons, the greatest one being that a centrally planned economy was unable to maintain increases in living standards, and was also unable to promote productivity, efficiency and innovation - characteristics that come natural to a free market economic system.

Communism was one social and economic extreme that did not work. Its focus upon community and society was admirable, but it did not create an environment that allowed individualism to flourish.

America, strangely enough, is at the opposite end of the spectrum. So focused is the nation upon the individual that social cohesion suffers. The negative results of this can be found in such social indicators as infant mortality rates, crime and incarceration rates and levels of poverty. America, of all western countries, is unique in having such a combination of dire social statistics.

Of course, I am comparing the US to "First world" nations, not the world generally. When stacked up against poorer nations, the US compares very well. Moreover, you may have realised that I have yet to speak about economic strength, an attribute that America excels in. Many would then argue that America's economic strength is due to its unique focus away from government intervention and encouragement of private enterprise. I would disagree at that point.

The fact is, of course, that America as a very rich nation has a great disparity between rich and poor. It is the poor that I am worried about, since they do not benefit from the economic wealth that is America. Besides, the last time I looked, America's constitution is not based upon 1 dollar = 1 vote (thus giving more power to the rich).

So what is needed? Communism? Forget it - it doesn't work. How about an even more Laissez-faire system? Forget that too - my argument in this essay is that it doesn't work either.

What is needed is an economic and social system that lies between rampant individualism and robotic communism. It is a system called Social Market Economics. It is also known as the "Third Way". It is an attempt to combine the rights and responsibilities of both the community and the individual.

It's at this point that we can learn from that great slogan of the French Revolution: Liberty, Fraternity, Equality. Notice that the three are intertwined - they are not supposed to contradict one another. Fraternity - brotherhood - does not contradict liberty.

Our society is a fraternal one. Even in the most capitalist and libertarian of places, there exists the bond of community. No one is therefore independent of one another - we all enjoy an interdependent relationship.

But what does all this mean in practice? It means that the homeless man on the street doesn't just have the responsibility of getting off his behind and finding a job - it also means that we have a responsibility to provide a societal structure that helps such a person in their needs. Some people write such structures off as "entitlement" - the idea that somehow people should think that society owes them. I believe that society owes people - and at the same time people owe society. So along with entitlement comes responsibility - one does not cancel out the other.

This is why it is so important for nations like America to channel economic resources towards bettering society. This means funding for education, especially the primary/elementary schools so that children are grounded in literacy and numeracy (thus giving them a foundation to build on in the future). It also means funding for a universal health care system, one that ensures that rich and poor alike are given free medical treatment. It also means funding for law and order, to ensure that law enforcement and the legal system have enough resources to operate properly.

And just how can America "channel economic resources?" It's the old "Tax and Spend" philosophy. People are taxed by the government, and then that money is used by the government to spend on health and education.

Conservative Americans, especially Republicans, would laugh at such a suggestion. "Government is not the solution" they argue "It is part of the problem!". I disagree. America has the most limited and hamstrung government in the world. It also has high levels of crime, infant mortality and other sad social statistics. I am arguing that both are linked.

Evidence for the success of such a system can be found in the Social Market economies of Western Europe. France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark - all these nations have large government spending and high taxes to pay for it. While not as "rich" as America, these nations are very wealthy compared to the rest of the world. Moreover their social statistics prove that such a system makes society a nicer and safer place.

But, as I have said before, many Americans will put philosophy before pragmatism. The fact that it works in Europe is of no consequence since Americans generally don't like Europe anyway. Such an attitude is madness, not to mention blind.

So if people like Leonard Pitts are going to make any impact on the poorer classes of America - especially the African Americans - maybe he needs to bite the bullet and call for Federal and State governments to spend money on health, education and welfare. He also needs to be honest about where such money should come from - higher levels of taxation (especially for the rich). Although a lot of people won't like it, the fact is that it will work - look at Europe.

One thing I have noticed as I trawl the left-wing blogosphere is that no one talks about these things. There are high levels of Schadenfreude over any bad news for their conservative opponents, but precious little ideas to counter right-wing philosophies. I have yet to see a left-wing blogger or commentator come out an argue for higher taxes and higher spending to make America a better nation. Maybe I just haven't seen anything concrete yet.

Nevertheless, evidence just keeps stacking up against right-wing economics. Poverty has increased in America since 2001 despite relatively high levels of economic growth and low unemployment levels. Hurricane Katrina exposed much that is wrong with the American way of life. Scandals involving business leaders have multiplied, calling into question the moral compasses of America's business executives.

And, of course, there is the fact that the lives of African Americans have not improved since the million man march in 1995. This fact alone convinces me that the American system just does not work.

There is one advantage with this, however. At some point American society will become so bad and so impoverished that someone will get up and say that enough is enough. Such a person will argue strongly for increased government intervention in the economy to ensure that the poor are cared for and given hope. They will also prove that the current system does not work, and that charitable giving, while noteworthy, is not going to solve anything. Such a person will be howled down by critics, but will stand firm. Hopefully they will begin to sway the minds of the nation, and begin lasting change.

And who is such a person? He has a name: Howard Dean.

Ha! Fooled you all! I was just messing with your minds with my reference to Dean!

Seriously though - is there a person in the American political landscape who would have this courage? I don't know of any myself, but time will tell.


From the One Salient Overlord Department

© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/



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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.

10 comments:

Ellen said...

This means funding for education, especially the primary/elementary schools so that children are grounded in literacy and numeracy (thus giving them a foundation to build on in the future).

I work in the public education system in the United States.

All the funding in the world will not help - if the students do not come to school.

We don't expect people to do something alone - we do, however, expect them to do *something*!

I also sat on the board of a community health clinic. Folks may not have card giving them universal health coverage, but health care is available for all. Period. Media coverage only tells what they want you to believe and the agenda of the liberals is universal health care - so guess what the media tells us?

I lived next door to a family of women - proud of the fact that three generations were living in one apartment and none of them had ever had a job. EVER.

Don't (DO NOT) ask me to give more of my money (in taxes) to provide for those who WILL NOT work - and are proud of it.

The safety nets are called "safety nets" for a reason - they are supposed to be there in case of emergency - not a lifelong system.

It's easy to sit an ocean away and take potshots at us. I live and have worked in the inner city of an urban area. I know.

One Salient Oversight said...

It's easy to sit an ocean away and take potshots at us. I live and have worked in the inner city of an urban area. I know.

You might like to look at my FAQ in response to people who criticise me for not being American.

I, too, have taught in my own nation's public school system - I am a high school teacher. I know what it is like to get up in front of classroom full of kids whose parents are criminals and drug addicts and who live on welfare.

So please do not lecture me from a position of ignorance. I say again - look at Western Europe. It works.

CraigS said...

Wheres the FAQ page?

CraigS said...

Moreover their social statistics prove that such a system makes society a nicer and safer place.

Could you pull together some stats for this?

CraigS said...

And who is such a person? He has a name: Howard Dean.

Mega-LOL! You crack me up OSO...

One Salient Oversight said...

Craig,

My FAQ page is under "OSO departments" on the front paqe: You can access it here

The United Nations Human Development Report is here:

pdf file 1.3mb

The CIA world factbook page on infant mortality rates and HIV prevalence is here:

Infant Mortality Rates

HIV/Aids prevalence

CraigS said...

I'll look at your stats when I get home. But I'm not at all convinced about how wonderful Europe is. Unemployment is an especially problem. You have probably read "Barbarians at the Gates of Paris"? Here is a grim quote -

Though most people in France have never visited a cite, they dimly know that long-term unemployment among the young is so rife there that it is the normal state of being. Indeed, French youth unemployment is among the highest in Europe

One Salient Oversight said...

I accept the fact that Europe is not perfect. They certainly need a dose of economic neoliberalism in some areas - notably minimum wage rates.

But you also have to understand that some parts of Europe are better than others. Austria and The Netherlands, for example, have lower unemployment rates than the US while still having a comparatively generous welfare system.

But it's when you start comparing social statistics - especially the UN Human Development Report - that the differences get shown up.

Unemployment is also quite a different status in Europe compared to America. In America you can be fully employed and still be in poverty.

Anonymous said...

Your 3rd way is not the utopia you think it might be. It is generally where leftists hide out to disguise their real ideology when it becomes obvious that it won't work. It is socialism by another name.

Please don't inflict us with what western Europe has become. It doesn't work over there. The economic system they are under is going to collapse one day.

I'm afraid we're going that way in the years to come anyhow. It's mainly the spiritual decline that I hate to see.

It is government welfare programs that largely create poverty; at least the part of poverty that is not self-inflicted. And it is done while enslaving the middle class. Here's a question: At what percentage of taxation does one become a slave? 50%? 70%? 100%?

Ending government involvement in welfare, education, and healthcare won't fix the problem, but would certainly roll it back.

BTW, I hold no brief for A. Rand, but I would take the trouble to read her before I critisized. Can you share the other ideas you have formulated by watching Southpark? If you decide to take this on, "The Fountainhead" is the better book.

One Salient Oversight said...

Please don't inflict us with what western Europe has become. It doesn't work over there. The economic system they are under is going to collapse one day.

It's sad to know that people have very strong opinions that are not backed up by simple facts.

Ignorance and arrogance - a deadly combination.