Saturday, July 18, 2015

Oh Harvard, by your progeny ye shall be known.

An embarrassing article from Atlantic Magazine, The Destruction of a Black Suburb by Alana Semuels. In the past couple or three years, Atlantic has become more and more prone to running click-bait articles on race simply to attract traffic, and this seems to be one. Regrettably, the writer is not even good at making a bad argument. It is, to quote the famous Wolfgang Pauli, "not only not right, it is not even wrong."

It is shocking that a Harvard grad should, after eleven years of reporting experience, not be able to construct an even marginally defensible argument. Regrettably, it appears she has imbibed too much at the postmodernist well and sees everything through totalitarian eyes.

Semuels argument is:
How one of the first black suburbs in the country fell so far from its halcyon early days exemplifies how systemic racism hampered the goals of those who were trying to build a community there. The people of Lincoln Heights might have had their own suburb, but the world made sure they had little else. From the beginning, historians say, the town was doomed to fail.
As is usual in these cases, (see Sabrina Rubin Erdely), the author does not even deign to present two sides to an argument. There is the advocacy position of the author and there is nothing presented to contradict her assumptions. She doesn't seem to be aware that there are always other ways of looking at evidence and other interpretations. All the sources cited in the article are wedded to the idea that state level power structures and interests are to blame for the facts that
Home values fell 76.4 percent between 2007 and 2013, while home values in tiny Indian Hill, a nearby suburb, rose 27.7 percent. The elementary school is abandoned, and when the district put it up for auction earlier this year, with a minimum bid of $69,900, no one came forward to buy it.
Semuels is repeatedly angered by the fact that neighboring towns which are predominantly white are doing so much better. She never examines any other explanations other than that it must be systemic racism. It is not as if the Midwest has a shortage of townships and cities which have suffered from deindustrialization with which to compare Lincoln Heights.

The interesting thing not alluded to by either Semuels, or any of the commenters as far as I read, is that usually the most effective strategy is for the State or the Federal Government to help people relocate to where there are actual opportunities. Investing taxpayer funds in communities that are not willing or able to invest in themselves almost always results in wasted taxpayer dollars. There was a great example of this a few months ago from an excellent article in The New York Times, 50 Years Into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back by Trip Gabriel. I posted then,
The article is basically arguing that the War on Poverty has been lost in McDowell County (poverty rate declined from 50% in 1960 to a low of 24% in 1980 but has risen back to 34%. But
As coal mining jobs have declined over half a century, there has been a steady migration away from the mountains. McDowell County’s population is just 21,300, down from 100,000 in the 1950s. Those who stayed did not have the education or skills to leave, or remained fiercely attached to the hollows and homes their families had known for generations.
34% of those who remain are in poverty and that is not a good outcome but there is the matter of the seen and unseen. The article paints the picture that we have we lost the war on poverty but maybe we have almost won. Effectively, nearly 80,000 people have moved away from poverty in McDowell County to other locations (recognizing that to be a broad assumption and that not everyone who moves away also leaves poverty). Put differently, in 1960 there were 50,000 people in poverty in McDowell County and today there are 7,250. That is actually and clearly a huge improvement. Sometimes we let averages and relative measures hide the absolute truth.
There is nothing unusual that is happening in Lincoln Heights that is not happening all across The United States. It is Schumpeter's Creative Destruction in play. Semuels, blinded by her own progressive racism (always wanting to see things as solely the consequence of racism) fails to tackle the real public policy challenge. Looking at white McDowell county as an example of systemic decline, should the government be investing money (an activity prone to failure, to crony capitalism, and to corruption) in order to revitalize an area, or should it be providing funds to mitigate the decline (welfare of various forms), or should it simply provide funds to assist people to relocate to where there are actual opportunities? Strategies one and two have an extensive track record of failure. We do very little of the third strategy though it is the one most often adopted by individuals themselves as exemplified by the experience of McDowell county.

I could go through all the holes in Semuels argument, but I don't need to. The commenters do an adequate job (look at the most upvoted comments). This is not about race. This is about municipal incompetence and people wanting more than they are willing to pay for. Semuels is sufficiently indoctrinated that she is unwilling to look at the evidence that contradicts her argument because she wants to believe that
nearby wealthy towns seem to have little inclination to share services or revenues with Lincoln Heights. They were built, after all, not by sharing but by taking away. And they have little motivation to change that now.
This is the crude politics of simple avarice. I want what you have, I am unwilling to provide it for myself, and therefore I am going to make up arguments without facts to support my desire to take what you have created away from you. Oh Harvard, by your progeny ye shall be known.

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