Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ferguson Distinctions

Now that the Ferguson, Missouri, tragedy is winding down, now is probably a good time to take stock of the situation. My sources are three articles: from The Militant (by Dan Fein), Socialist Action (by Clay Wadena), and Counterpunch (by Ishmael Reed). Except for Mr. Reed's piece (dated this weekend) the other two articles are old news, reflecting Trotskyist publication schedules.

Mr. Reed's piece is completely over the top. He headlines the (irrelevant) fact that Gaza Palestinians are tweeting instructions about how to hold an insurrection. Further, supposedly some St. Louis County policeman once worked in Israel. This, to Mr. Reed, makes for just stunning parallels between Gaza and Ferguson.

So let's count the ways how Hamas and Ferguson demonstrators are different.

  • Blacks are not lobbing random missiles into White neighborhoods.
  • Blacks are not advocating the mass murder of American Jews (or anybody else).
  • Blacks are not storing military weapons in apartment buildings.
  • The US military is not bombing apartment buildings in order to destroy those weapons.
  • Unlike Gazans and Israel, Black Americans are citizens, and entitled to full constitutional privileges.
Socialist Action repeats this particular slander, essentially accusing Black residents of Ferguson of being terrorists. They are not terrorists.

Indeed, far from being terrorists, Ferguson's Black residents are victims. First, Michael Brown (age 18) was shot and killed. That may or may not turn out to be a justified homicide in the law enforcement sense of the word, but it is in any event a tragedy. His family does not deserve the vitriol directed against them by some on the Right.

Second, there is no question that Ferguson's local government no longer serves the interest of its citizens. Both the city government and the police department are majority white, in a town that is now two-thirds Black. Megan McArdle convincingly explains why: the demographics of the community has changed dramatically over the last two decades. The police department, in particular, is unionized and they can't easily be fired. Further, just like college professors, police tend to hire their own kind. No question--Ferguson needs a different police department.

Third, law enforcement in America has clearly gone off the rails. Rand Paul (a Republican) is among the more prominent politicians to point this out, in a widely cited opinion piece in Time. Republicans have been loudest in advocating the repeal of punitive drug laws, of all sorts of nanny-state regulations, and of stupid laws that prevent honest people from earning a living. Some suggest that the average American commits three felonies per day. That may be an exaggeration, but Mr. Reed is absolutely correct when he claims that Black folks are disproportionately arrested. We need to stop doing that.

I watch Cops occasionally. One episode in particular disturbs me: an undercover cop arresting a Black teenager for drug possession. It's dumb, it's unAmerican, and that cop should be fired.

Fourth, I read somewhere (wish I could tell you where and when) that of 175 people arrested, only 7 were Ferguson residents. That is, the Black folks who live in Ferguson are civilized people. The looters, the rock-throwers, the gangsters--those come from outside the community. So in addition to the cops, Ferguson residents are being victimized by thugs. The thugs don't care that the QuikTrip store won't reopen, or that it might be impossible to buy a gallon of milk within the town. No--that's only a problem for the regular folks.

What Ferguson residents did do is exercise their right to free speech and for a redress of grievances. The "hands-up, don't shoot" demonstrators may be right or wrong on the issues, but they are NOT the problem. They are American citizens, and they have as much right to demonstrate as I have to write this blog. To the cops' credit, apparently they also understand that--they've only arrested 7 Ferguson people.

The Militant also gets it. Of the three articles, it is the only one that makes any distinction between honest citizens and gangsters. Socialist Action lumps them together, and Mr. Reed goes so far as to valorize the thugs--witness his favorable comparison to Hamas.

So what is the larger significance of Ferguson? One hopes that it leads to a change in our criminal code. We need a whole lot fewer felonies. The cops need to protect us, not harass us for non-crimes.

What most strikes me is that the unrest has not spread. Unlike 1967, there's no mass looting of stores in Black neighborhoods. That's because we have made a lot of progress on racial issues over the past half century. There is no reason to destroy your own neighborhood anymore (not that there ever was a very good reason).

Blacks and whites are different people. We may not always like each other. But it looks like we have mostly learned how to live together reasonably peacefully. I think that's progress.

Further Reading:

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Book Review: Conservative Insurgency

On the headline level Kurt Schlichter (author of Conservative Insurgency) and I agree. Limited government under constitutional law designed to enhance liberty for all citizens is the worthy goal of politics. But under the hood, I increasingly doubt Mr. Schlichter's dedication to that cause.

The book is a retrospective from 2041, describing how Conservatives vanquished Liberals and Progressives once and for all following the dark days of the Obama and (Hillary) Clinton administrations. Conservatives borrowed tactics from Lenin, Saul Alinsky, and Andrew Breitbart, steadily marching through the institutions to not only capture government, but the popular culture besides.

The Conservative Insurgency is descended from the Tea Party, but it has hopefully divested itself of the Stupid Wing (my term) of the Republican Party, of which Ted Cruz, Todd Akin, and Christine O'Donnell are exemplars. I'd add Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, and maybe even Kurt Schlichter to that list.

Mr. Schlichter fails on two counts. First, he disagrees with some fundamental, Libertarian principles, which cause me to doubt his dedication to Liberty. Libertarians believe in free markets, free trade, and open borders. Mr. Schlichter opposes all three.

Second, he's a utopian. As a former Trotskyist I'm totally familiar with utopianism, and am heartily repelled by it. Down that road lies mass murder.

Let's take the utopian dream first. Mr. Schlichter wants to abolish the EBT Card. He devotes a chapter to how welfare cheats are scamming the rest of us by shopping at Walmart. These people, he suggests, should be required to Get A J-O-B.

So let's see how that plays out. Take the city of Detroit as an example (other examples will include much of Appalachia), where anybody with any ambition, talent, and skill has left town. What you have left in Detroit are 600,000 people who are not only unemployed, but completely unemployable. Even if you reduced the minimum wage to zero dollars and zero cents, these people would be unable to find a job.

They are missing the basic skill set. Leave aside any technical skills or the three Rs--just consider things like, for example, being able to take shit from customers and still keep smiling. Or possessing a wardrobe that's presentable outside of the 'hood. Or an ability to defer gratification until the next payday.

Or having a reliable, cost-effective way of getting to and from work. The Liberals will have us build expensive bus and light-rail systems that will cost vastly more than any payroll is going to cover. I like Megan McArdle's suggestion--simply give a reliable car to inner-city poor people who are otherwise capable of working (there are probably a few).

Mr. Schlichter's strategy of hurling mean-spirited invective at them isn't going to help much. I would like to hear his ideas for a cost-effective way of enabling these people to hold a job. He offers none, so I'll volunteer some suggestions for him.

  • The machine-gun approach. Shooting 600,000 folks wouldn't cost much. It does raise a few ethical problems, but anything is justified for the sake of the Utopian Vision. Judging from his language, I think this is Mr. Schlichter's preferred solution.
  • Put them all in jail. It ruins lives, but that's not Mr. Schlichter's problem. On the other hand, 600,000 people x $30,000 to keep each one in prison for a year, and you need a lot of money. And that's just for Detroit. Not cost-effective.
  • Deport them all to Canada. That might work for Detroit, but I don't think it'd work for Appalachia or anyplace else in America.
  • Fund a whole bunch of make-work projects in the 'hood, like they did during the Depression. It'd be fake work supervised by a bunch of unionized, corrupt, federal employees. That's probably not even Mr. Schlichter's model of a utopia.
Sorry, but the EBT Card is the only cost-effective solution to this problem that anybody has thought of. Conservatives might win an election based on phony moral outrage--the pro-utopia crowd--but they'd lose the next one because there is no other practical solution. We need EBT Cards for the same reasons we need Social Security, the police, and the military. Those institutions protect us from the failings of human nature. And human nature will fail outside of any utopia.

In his diatribe against the EBT Card he goes off on a rant against Walmart. He thinks that Walmart invented the EBT Card, or something. In truth, Walmart lives in the reality-based community, rather than in some utopian-inspired pipedream. Their customers are the poorer half of Americans, and thus disproportionately they will use EBT Cards. The (Bill) Clintonistas take great credit for taming inflation during the 1990s. I don't give them any credit. Instead, the responsible party is Walmart, which by insisting on "Always Low Prices" improved the standard of living for all Americans across the board, especially for poor people.

Beyond that, Mr. Schlichter has apparently never lived in small, Midwestern towns, where Walmart is a staple for middle class families such as mine. His remarks are insulting.

But more--in the last half of the twentieth Century, 400 million Chinese were pulled out of poverty. Now I doubt Mr. Schlichter will consider the progress of such untermenschen to be especially noteworthy, but most of us will disagree. Indeed, it is one of the greatest accomplishments of the human race. Sam Walton (along with Norman Borlaug, Malcom McLean, and--yes--Deng Xiao Peng) deserves the lion's share of the credit. Without him, it would never have happened.

Beyond selling to poor people, Walmart's primary sin is that it's big. Per Mr. Schlichter, big business is bad, and small business is good. The only reason he gives is that small businesses are part of the Conservative constituency. In other words, they're future cronies. He advocates for crony capitalism--the only difference is that he'd choose a different set of cronies than the Liberals do. To my mind, this is a distinction without a difference.

A government thumb on the scale in favor of small business is as bad as the other way round. The government has to support free markets. Sometimes that will lead to big business, and sometimes small. Mr. Schlichter is right to oppose crony capitalism in principle, but he fails to do so in practice. He is against the free market.

He's against free trade. He opposes importing "crap" from China. So he supports higher prices and a lower standard of living for Americans. He's also against open borders, but that's the topic for another post.

So I don't see how this guy is a small government Conservative. He wants the feds to regulate labor markets, company sizes, trade, and immigration. This is what most people call Liberalism, or what I'd call disaster.

I'm being tougher on Mr. Schlichter than is fair. I actually agree with most of what he says. But he's a victim of either sloppy thinking, or instead he's caving to the Stupid Wing of the Republican Party. The book is entertaining and engagingly written. As a summary of political tactics it's well worth reading.

Further Reading:

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Book Review: A Troublesome Inheritance

This book about race and the human genome (by former NYTimes reporter Nicholas Wade) will neither shock nor surprise the reader already schooled in evolutionary psychology. I, for example, have read much of the antecedent literature, and little of the data was totally new to me (though I still learned a lot). The book is well-written and well-documented. The author is careful not to overstate his case, even while speculating beyond the hard facts.

The principle thesis of the book is that race (and more broadly, ethnicity) is more than skin deep. The book demonstrates--conclusively in my view--that there are genes that influence behavior, and that these are unevenly distributed among racial groups. One example that he describes in detail is the MAO-A promoter sequence, a variable piece of DNA that regulates aggressive behavior.

The book is very careful not to make too much of this. It's not as though there are "Caucasian genes" and "Asian genes." We are all one species, and the races have been separated for at most 50,000 years. At most the races constitute sub-species--such as dog breeds--but Mr. Wade won't even go that far. Instead, the phenomena is much more subtle, and not necessarily observable at the level of an individual.

Genes mutate through natural processes such as cosmic radiation, transcription errors, and whatnot. Most of these mutations are harmless, most of the rest are harmful or even fatal, but a few of them confer some benefit on the individual and his/her offspring. These latter will be propagated throughout the population.

When mutations are very beneficial, they sweep the entire population until 100% of all individuals possess those genes--we say they have reached fixation. Most genes that we have inherited from our mammalian ancestors, along with many human genes, have reached fixation and are common to all human beings. Those genes are what make us human.

But some genes are not so obviously beneficial--they confer benefits only under some circumstances. For example, the gene for sickle cell anemia is beneficial to those who live in malarial climates, but counterproductive everyplace else. It is thus most commonly found among West Africans. These genes do not sweep the entire population, but instead coexist with other variants of the same gene. These coexisting gene mutations are known as alleles.

So it would be easy to claim that White people have one set of alleles, while Asians another set. But that is also an oversimplification. Consider two alleles of a given gene--label them A and B. In Caucasians, allele A might be found in 75% of the population, while in Asians it may only be found in 40% of the population. Thus it's not that each race has a separate set of alleles, but the frequency of alleles varies between the races. By looking at the allele ratio for multiple genes (typically in the dozens) it is possible to determine the race of the individual to within 90% accuracy (i.e., an answer that corresponds to how the person assigns his own race).

So there is no question that race is inscribed in our genes. The second claim is that there are genes for behavior. This seems obviously true--certainly animal behavior is regulated by genes, and it would be strange if that weren't also true for humans in some degree. The elucidation of the function of the MAO-A promoters (among other genes) demonstrates this conclusively.

There are certain complex behaviors that determine social interactions. For example, how big is the circle of trust? A small circle consisting only of kin will predominate in tribal societies. A much bigger circle is necessary for urban individuals who participate in a global economy. However, there is not a gene for "trust." Instead, trust is regulated by a large number of genes, and can be modified by slight changes the frequencies of various alleles. These frequencies probably do not change by much--most people are fairly trusting--and we have neither identified any of the relevant genes, nor successfully measured the frequencies of the alleles. Still, it is a very reasonable hypothesis that evolution can modulate social interactions to optimize the individual's chances in their current environment. Jews, for example, have long lived in urban environments that put a premium on trust--that's why they're successful bankers. Australian aborigines, on the other hand, lived as tribal hunter-gatherers for 46,000 years, up until the arrival of Europeans in the 17th Century--their ability to function as global citizens will be much more limited.

The third thesis is that evolution happens fast. My Trotskyist friends, for example, have long argued that evolution takes "millions of years," and that within the timeframe of human history our biology was static. But with the advent of modern genomics, we know that evolution operates on much faster timescales. It is now possible to measure human evolution to within the last 3,000 years, and that limit is simply an experimental restriction. With better data (that we shall soon accumulate), there is every reason to think that measurable evolution can occur within a few centuries. This is especially true if the environmental driver is very strong, e.g., birth control.

So the claim of Mr. Wade's book is that people evolve to optimize their success in their environment. If that environment is cultural, then cultural traits will soon be inscribed in the genome. China, for example has existed as a unified nation under autocratic rule since 221 BC. That they will suddenly turn into a Western-style democracy just because a few McDonald's restaurants have opened up is surely a silly thesis. Behavioral traits such as conformity, obedience, thrift, hard work, and a large trust circle are likely not merely cultural phenomena anymore--they are part of the genetic heritage. Mr. Wade's book predicts that someday soon we will be able to prove that through an analysis of the human genome. I think he's right.

By demographic measures, the Han Chinese are the most successful people on earth. They are clearly optimized for their environment.

I'll add three comments of my own. First, people like my Trotskyist friends who claim that evolution stopped the minute human beings came along can no longer justify that belief on facts. Theirs is no longer a scientific opinion. Our ability to analyze the genome directly completely discredits that point of view.

Second, the public policy implications of this data are pretty small. It implies that efforts to change people's personality, either through education or economic motivation, will probably fail. Personality is substantially heritable, and the part that isn't heritable is not easily addressed institutionally. Schools can educate students, but they can't build character or instill good citizenship. Those traits depend on culture and genes, neither of which are amenable to schooling. Head Start failed, not because it was bad educational practice, but because it wanted to give its students a personality transplant. That goal was impossible.

Finally, moral claims are unchanged. To put it in religious terms, God Loves You. It doesn't matter what your alleles are--we are all created in the image of God. Or, in more secular language: We hold these truths to be self-evident...

Further Reading:

Friday, August 8, 2014

Left Labor's Lost Cause

My friends at Solidarity have published a heart-felt, honest, gut-wrenching document about how socialists should work within the labor movement. It offers a very pessimistic view about the state of today's class struggle, noting that "the neoliberal ruling class offensive is devastating the working class." They struggle to find some silver linings around which to organize for socialism.

The piece is an update on a much longer pamphlet by Kim Moody, a labor historian now based in Britain. Written in 2000, Mr. Moody's work defines the rank and file strategy for Left labor. That essay--already pessimistic--is veritably rosy compared to Solidarity's latest document.

The rank and file strategy is centered on the following ideas:
  • To support and help build fight-back efforts to reform and radicalize the union movement. "We build these rank and file groups, acts of resistance, and movements on their own terms, but offer an analysis of the roots of the problem and a bigger vision of how to address them when appropriate." This effort is referred to as unionism.
  • Build cross-union alliances, i.e., class-wide collaboration and solidarity.
  • Ally with community organizations, especially those designed to fight racism and sexism.
  • Build an independent labor party not beholden to the Democrats.
  • Build the socialist movement. Mr. Moody doesn't mention "vanguard Party," but that's sort of what he means.
Today's document acknowledges the value of the rank and file strategy, but claims it is no longer a practical enterprise. The unions have simply gotten too small for it to work. Only in the public sector is union "density" high enough that it is possible to build a movement entirely within the unions.

As an alternative, the proposal is to reverse the priority of Mr. Moody's list, and to begin organizing community organizations. Then (with luck), the efforts will redound back into the union movement, leading eventually to its rejuvenation. So where Mr. Moody hailed the efforts of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), today's Solidarity is more concerned with Occupy and Moral Mondays (which I've never heard of).

The collaboration with the unions should always be from the bottom up. That means the goal is to find rank & file union members who want to participate in these community struggles, rather than forming formal alliances through the leadership. Solidarity is thus friendly to what has become known as alt-Labor, though they'd probably not have it organized officially by the unions.

It won't work, of course. The plan depends on a completely mistaken view of how the economy works, and therefore how politics works. The proletariat as it existed in Marx's day, or even as it was in the last half of the 20th Century is simply not there today. We are all petty bourgeois now, and a political strategy that assumes otherwise is doomed to fail.

The chink in the armor is revealed by how Mr. Moody and Solidarity throw around the word neoliberalism. That expletive is supposed to explain everything--it's all a big plot by the evil capitalists to impoverish the working class. Solidarity describes the rap sheet concisely:
We are witnessing a sustained and historic assault on collective bargaining, the social safety net, pensions, health care, public education, indeed all of the mechanisms that protect workers from the raw discipline of capitalist labor markets. Governments at every level have joined the employer assault by implementing austerity policies that affect the broad working-class.
Mr. Moody actually brings some statistics to the argument:
Put simply this means that workers produce more value or wealth than they make in the wages and benefits that make up their standard of living. So, for example, in 1995 manufacturing companies made $5.39 of value added an hour for each $1.00 in hourly wages they paid production workers. ... 
So for each dollar capital paid to workers in the U.S., capital skimmed $2.47 in 1947, $3.23 in 1967, $3.73 in 1977, $4.64 in 1987, and $5.39 in 1995. This rip-off ratio grows in spite of the fact that hourly wages also rise. The reason the ratio rises is that productivity increases.
He cites no reference for this data, but I think he is calculating (total revenue)/($ paid to US production workers). This, of course, has almost nothing to do with profit--it's not a statistic that you'll hear about on CNBC. The reason for Mr. Moody's trend is very simple--the number of production workers has declined dramatically, and thus also the dollars paid to them. Google, for example, has no production workers, and therefore that ratio would be infinite.

Much of the decline in production workers is due to automation. Some of it is because production has been moved off-shore to China (and elsewhere). Accordingly, 400 million Chinese have been pulled out of poverty. Indeed, while (by some measures) income inequality has gone up in the US, it is sharply lower on a global scale. Neither of our articles mentions that fact.

If you believe Mr. Moody or Solidarity, you would think that everybody is substantially poorer than they were twenty years ago. But there is no evidence for that. There's been no decline in life expectancy. There's been no huge increase in hunger or homelessness. Today we have cheap cell phones, broadband Internet, and dramatically better healthcare. Food has gotten more expensive (as you would expect if you have 400 million new Chinese consumers), but restaurants have gotten much cheaper--and much better. Cars last for 15 or 20 years--no more planned obsolescence--and they're much safer.

There is just no way you can claim that we're all radically poorer than we were 20 or 40 years ago. Some people are poorer--government employees in Greece, for example--but in general the part of the world population connected to the global marketplace is richer than we've ever been.

So the premise is just all wrong. Austerity, cutbacks, recession, and this problem or that, have not had any material effect on our standard of living. No wonder there's no demand to "fight back." Fight back against what?

All the socialists have are some losers. They coalesced for a few months as the misbegotten Occupy Movement, an incoherent, drug-addled, apolitical effort that accomplished precisely nothing. And then they're all excited about the Chicago Teachers' strike. The teachers went on strike at just the right time--a few months before the 2012 election, forcing Obama's political machine to cave. It had nothing to do with organizing or struggling--it was a once-off anomaly.

The Chicago public schools have lost 17% of their enrollment since 2000. Some of that is demographic decline, but much is the trend toward charter schools. It's not the evil capitalists who are driving charter schools--it's parents from poor and minority communities who want more control over their children's education.

As Glenn Reynolds keeps saying, "sending your children to a public school is a form of child abuse." That's over the top, but the fact is that the public school system has failed. That may or may not be the union's fault, but they certainly haven't helped.

The union movement is dead. Full credit to Solidarity for recognizing that. But their effort to build an alt-Left Labor movement is doomed.

Further Reading:

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Stitched Up Snit

This post is inspired by a review in Socialist Action (by Christine Marie) of a book by Tansy Hoskins entitled Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion. Actually, that's a book I'd like to read. But the Kindle price is almost $19! And this for a book that is only 216 pages long.

I refuse to buy it.

The hypocrisy in this case is galling. Much of Ms. Hoskin's argument is about how the fashion industry destroys the environment, along with preventing people from reaching their true aspirations. And then they overprice environmentally-friendly e-books by a factor of three? What gives?

So I'm stuck with Ms. Marie's review (along with a better article in The Guardian). Her piece includes astonishingly meaningless sentences, for example:
Individual artists can create work that inspires dreams of a different kind of society, while, at the same time, the art system that abides that rebellion actually hides capitalism’s inherently destructive mode of functioning and its vulnerability to overthrow by the majority.
Liberation from our own alienation, retail therapy, credit card debt, and body image issues, Hoskins explains, can only be won collectively and in solidarity with garment workers acting in their interest worldwide.
 Judged from Ms. Marie's review, Ms. Hoskins' book makes the following claims.

The industry exploits workers.

This is certainly not true, at least not in China. Per capita GDP in China has increased by a factor of 14 since 1980. That means the average person in China is 14 times richer than they were 35 years ago. Never have so many people been pulled out of poverty ever before in human history--surely one of the greatest accomplishments of the human race. Even if it doesn't stick, i.e., if China goes into a prolonged depression, a decline of 50% (very unlikely short of war) still leaves them seven-fold better off than they were in 1980.

Similar statistics exist for Vietnam, India, and even Bangladesh--modest only by comparison to China.

Fashion is bad for the environment.

Ms. Marie points to the example of the Aral Sea, an inland sea destroyed by cotton farming in the--get this--Soviet Union. How that example discredits capitalism is not clear. But the larger point has at least a grain of truth, for there is no doubt that China, in particular, has serious environmental problems. Their environmental bureaucracy dates from Maoist times--again not much of a rap against capitalism.

The solution to environmental problems is to make people richer. Then they will have enough money to make the necessary capital investment in infrastructure to preserve the environment. Forcing textile workers to return to a life of subsistence farming--which is ultimately what Ms. Marie proposes--is not much of an alternative.

The consumer is a victim of "false need."

Leave it to socialists to determine what your needs are. You think you need new underwear? Well, forget it--you'll never get permission from the Underwear Needs Department. You can apply again in six months. 

Who the hell do these people think they are? Do they really think they have the right to disapprove of your wardrobe because they think you don't "need" it?

I've often wondered what happens to Dunkin Donuts after the revolution. Nobody needs a donut, so maybe they'd just close them all down. Or maybe all we need are plain donuts--none of the bourgeois, cop-attracting sprinkles. The only way I'll ever support socialism is if they appoint me as Commissar for Donuts for life.

Fashion designers are evil scoundrels.

Fashion designers are into waste, deception, exploitation, and profit. That's it. That consumers get cheap prices? Forget it--not important. That consumers enjoy having new things? Stupid consumers--they're consumed with false needs. That workers are able to earn a living? Nah! If only they realized how exploited they were, they'd be first in line to get back behind that old water buffalo. That there's a very sophisticated, home-grown dye and textile manufacturing industry in India? That's just awful. All of that should be regulated by Christine Marie--she absolutely knows what's best for Indian workers.

Socialism is for poverty. It will deprive you of your livelihood. It will deprive you of your ability to buy things you want. It will deprive you of your humanity. The only beneficiaries are the wannabe dictators like Christine Marie.

Further Reading:

Friday, August 1, 2014

Subway Values

Referring to break-dancing teenagers, sermonizing preachers, and homeless beggars, Louis Proyect writes
There’s probably nobody more opposed to being a captive audience on the subways than me. I have been riding NYC subways since they cost 15 cents a ride. When they were this cheap, they lacked air conditioning and were as noisy as hell, but you could at least be assured that you would never be forced to watch a musical performance, begged for spare change, or listen to a sermon.
And then follows a several thousand word essay about how efforts to stop this behavior is unjustified. Specifically, he is against the broken window theory or the tactics of the street crimes unit. Those efforts, initiated by past and present police commissioner William Bratton, ruthlessly pursue petty crime (e.g., break dancing on the subway) because it deters more serious crime. These efforts have evolved into the much maligned stop & frisk policy. Mayor DeBlasio campaigned on ending that, but has so far reneged on that promise.

Mr. Proyect opposes any variant of stop & frisk for three reasons:

  • It targets Blacks and Latinos, and therefore is racist.
  • Beyond this, the police are racist and target Blacks and Latinos just because they enjoy it. There are numerous incidents where people have been killed, most recently the imbecilic gentle giant, Eric Garner, who died in a choke-hold for illegally selling cigarettes.
  • Because of the decline in manufacturing jobs, there are no opportunities for young vagabonds other than to be beggars, hustlers and thieves.
For all that, Mr. Proyect doesn't claim that stop & frisk fails. It does work. The subway is a much more civilized experience now than it was 20 years ago. Today most subway fellow passengers are like Mr. Proyect or me--they are possessed of bourgeois values.

That is not a racial statement. I don't ride the subway as much as Mr. Proyect (maybe once a month or so). Most of my subway riding begins and ends in Queens, specifically Jackson Heights and Long Island City. I am frequently the only Caucasian male in the car--my companions are Chinese, Filipino, Colombian, Dominican, South Asian, and God knows who else. They speak different languages, eat different food, and sometimes smell funny. But they are all civilized people, and none of them are routinely rousted by the cops.

So what are the bourgeois values that make for a good subway rider? It's actually a simple concept--a person with bourgeois values has a positive net worth. That means they save and invest at least a small fraction of their income. People who invest in their children have bourgeois values. People who don't run up huge credit card debts have bourgeois values. People who take care of their apartment have bourgeois values.

I don't know where Mr. Proyect lives, but for the sake of illustration let's suppose he lives in a rent-controlled apartment. Now I'm against rent control as much as the next Republican, but that's not the issue. Our assumption is that Mr. Proyect plays by the rules as they exist, has lived in his apartment for a long time, and accordingly pays rent substantially below the market rate.

I will argue that he has an equity stake in his apartment. It's not the same as if he actually owned it as a condo, but the fact that the landlord can neither evict him nor substantially raise the rent is worth money. It's likely worth as much as my tenured professorship. Mr. Proyect (in our imagination) has acquired that stake by being diligent about paying his rent and following all the rules.

Predictably, he behaves in a way that preserves his investment. For example, I doubt he would pee in the elevator. Nor would he spray graffiti over the mailboxes in the foyer. He expects his fellow tenants to behave similarly--if they didn't the value of his investment would decline dramatically. Mr. Proyect, because he has positive net worth, is possessed of bourgeois values. I'll posit that the most anti-social thing he ever did on the subway was to turn on his laptop.

Yet in the housing projects (at least by reputation--I've never been there myself) some residents do pee in the elevator, and spray the whole place with graffiti. Unlike Mr. Proyect or my fellow subway riders, these people do not have bourgeois values. They have no equity stake, and hence no positive net worth. If you are willing to piss in your own bed, then how respectful will you be of public conveyances, e.g., the subway?

It is not a racial thing. I spent a year living in Kampala, and my Ugandan neighbors most definitely exhibited bourgeois values. Cleanliness was a national pastime. On the other hand, plenty of Whites can't cut it--see this article about Owsley County, KY. But New York is the richest city in the world precisely because the vast majority of its residents are civilized.

Some years back I attended a conference in D.C., and stayed in a hotel in Alexandria. My daily commute took me past a small park surrounded by many apartment buildings. It was the neighborhood park for thousands of people. But the residents were completely deprived of its use by the few dozen homeless men who used the place as their campground. The community's sympathy for the homeless had gotten the better of them, and hence they no longer had a community park.

So it is with Mr. Proyect and his vagabonds. He feels sorry for them, and thus is willing to overlook their brigandage. Perhaps he's right to feel sorry, but depriving the millions of civilized citizens the proper use of the subway they pay for is not the solution. So I'm down with the cops--it is their job to let civilized people (the vast majority of New Yorkers) live in a civilized world. The vagabonds need to be rousted out. Thank goodness Mr. DeBlasio understands that.

Unfortunately, the uncivilized minority are disproportionately Black and Latino. Now that's just a fact. It's an unhappy fact, and it clearly inspires racism, but stating facts is not in and of itself racist. One can argue why this is true, but it is true.

So--to quote the musical--are "they depraved because they're deprived"? Mr. Proyect thinks so--it's the lack of manufacturing jobs that's led to the decline of bourgeois values. Never mind that my co-riders from Queens remain civilized despite the same lack. Why can't the vagabonds be held to the same standard?

Still, while I'll let the cops (mostly) off the hook, there is much to blame on city government. They prohibit lots of honest professions that hurt nobody. Why, for example, are poor people not allowed to use their own cars as cabs? (The only reason is to protect the medallion owners.) Why is it illegal to sell food on the street without a license from the utterly obnoxious and useless Department of Health? (The only reason is to protect incumbent restaurateurs.) Why is it illegal to braid hair without a beautician's license? (So to protect the cartel.) Why is it illegal to open a daycare center without a special permit? (Because the teachers' unions want ALL the money.) For that matter, why is it illegal to sell individual cigarettes on the street? (Because crooked politicians want tax dollars from poor people.)

So there is no doubt that New York's government destroys economic opportunity and deprives poor people of a chance to earn an honest living. Economic liberty (which New York sorely lacks) makes people richer.

But I don't think poverty causes people to be uncivilized. Were that true, my Kampala neighbors would be the most uncivilized of all, as they were clearly not. People with bourgeois values retain that mindset in even the most desperate circumstances.

Mr. Proyect's vagabonds may deserve our sympathy. But they don't deserve the subway.

Further Reading: