16 September 2006

A Neo-Neocon?

That's what I've become, at least according to David over at 327 Words. He draws this conclusion from my increasingly militant stance on crime and antisocial behaviour, and contrast my views with his own more traditionally liberal and tolerant ones.

There was a time - albeit some decades ago - when David and I agreed on nearly everything, which does beg the question of why we argued incessantly. I suspect it was mostly a matter of semantics. Or possibly testosterone. Now we agree on very little and argue hardly at all. I'd prefer to think this indicates the deeper, more thoughtful maturity we've arrived at. Only the rude and vulgar among you will suggest it has more to do with declining testosterone levels.

People are correct when they suggest that I've become more conservative, though considering the out-on-the-outermost fringe loony-tunes leftist I once was, I don't think my rightward drift has taken me any further than the centre. I've still never voted for a Republican (though I will give careful consideration to Giuliani if he runs for President), I still believe in a much higher minimum wage, national health care, stricter environmental standards, massively improved public transport, and a host of other liberal pet causes. And in terms of Big Picture issues, my ultimate goal remains a free, peaceful and just society. Where I've changed is in the means I see most likely as being able to achieve that end.

Like most people of my generation, at least those who gravitated toward the hippie, New Left end of the spectrum, it became an article of faith with me that criminals were seldom to blame for their actions, that they themselves were victims of society, of poverty, poor education, unfair drug laws - you know the drill. The results of this attitude and the social policies which grew out of it are dismal to behold: an almost exponential increase in crime beginning with the 1960s and continuing until the 1990s, when politicians began reacting to public disquietude with lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key campaigns like California's Three Strikes initiative.

While I support strict enforcement of the law - within reason - I don't see this as a vengeful or hateful stance. In fact, I'm deeply disappointed that we don't offer more opportunities for education and rehabilitation to those we imprison. Not doing so seems not only inhuman and insensitive, but just plain bad business as well.

But just because our prisons are run badly, and just because many criminals end up serving longer and more onerous terms than might be appropriate doesn't mean I'm going to turn around and advocate that we tolerate the intolerable. And to me the intolerable means allowing a relative handful - perhaps no more than 1 or 2% of the population - to hold whole communities hostage.

Anyone who's lived in a large apartment building knows how one neighbour from hell can singlehandedly remove most of the joy of living from what otherwise might be a very pleasant home. And I'm not talking about major criminal activity; all it takes is one person or family who make noise all night, scatter rubbish in the halls, allow their kids to vandalise the premises and terrorise everyone else's children. The same principle holds true when it comes to neighbourhoods: one gang of petty thieves or dope dealers hanging out at the corner store casts a pall for blocks around. It causes established businesses to fail and new ones not to open, which in turn means less jobs and less money in the neighbourhood, making drug dealing and petty crime look like more attractive options, and the vicious cycle is complete.

Looking at it this way, I've come to believe that crime is responsible for poverty rather than, as the traditional liberal mantra would have it, the other way around. And I also believe we do a great disservice to the many perfectly decent poor people trapped in high-crime neighbourhoods when a misguided social conscience prompts us to allow a small number of thugs and hooligans to continue to prey upon that community.

I think an element of racism enters into it, too: liberals who have little or no real-life contact with members of minority races or cultures tend to judge the values of the whole community by its most egregiously visible members. They see the gangbangers on the corner and assume that's how all of "those people" prefer to conduct their lives, and then tacitly or explicitly urge the police to go easy on the thugs because "we don't want to criminalise minority youth."

The fact is that no one suffers from crime and disorder as much as minority communities (and I'm not talking just about race or colour here; poor and working-class whites are confronted with similar difficulties), and the ultra-tolerant attitudes of privileged elites who can afford to live in safe neighbourhoods can be seen as a brutal slap in the face to the many who aren't so fortunate.

My feelings have similarly changed about drugs and the role they play in crime. Like most liberals, I bought into the notion that it was was drug laws, not that drugs themselves that were the problem. Make drugs legal and cheaply available, I argued, and the addicts would no longer have to steal for their fix, and could begin living normal, productive lives. Well, much experience has led me to conclude that this simply isn't true. Alcohol and/or drugs play a role in the overwhelming majority of crimes committed. And not just the property crimes you'd expect a desperate addict to pull, but murders, assaults, rapes, the whole gamut, really. In my work with incarcerated alcoholics and drug addicts, I've been told time and time again how they were doing fine until they got high - crack, marijuana, heroin, booze, it doesn't really matter specifically what - and all of a sudden all their good judgement went out the window.

At the same time, many of these guys, now that they're off booze and drugs, have said that getting arrested was the best thing that could have happened to them, because otherwise they would have carried on that way until they were dead, spreading untold misery and destruction all around them as they went. Granted, they're some of the lucky ones; many more like them are simply warehoused in prisons and never get the medical and psychological help they need. But as I've already said, the injustice of keeping someone locked up without proper treatment is far outweighed by the injustice of allowing him to roam free and prey upon the innocent and the weak. If that viewpoint makes me a conservative or a "neo-neocon," then it's a label I'll accept; to paraphrase the not particularly tolerant Che Guevara, I try to remain in all that I do and all that I advocate, guided by feelings of great love.


dashap said...

Well said, Larry, although I don't think we disagree about nearly everything; I share your perspective on Bob Dylan, that's for sure.

Chuck said...

Still believe in the benefits of minimum wage? I could be wrong, but I think increasing the minimum wage is a sure-fire way to increase inflation which erodes any real purchasing power the recipients may have gained.

tim said...

Inflation is happening, even without an increase in the minimum wage, leaving the poorest of the poor in our dust. To not adjust it, at least proportionately with the current rate of inflation, is irresponsible.

Larry Livermore said...

Increasing the minimum wage by at least enough to keep pace with inflation is not only a moral imperative, I remain convinced that it's good business as well. When everyone, even at the lowest end of the economic spectrum, earns a decent wage, then they are able to afford to the products and services that they produce, which is not only fair (obviously), but creates more business opportunities and more jobs.

The only way the minimum wage is inflationary is if it is set inordinately high, i.e., at a level greater than the value of the work employees are doing. But since the minimum wage has been steadily declining in real terms for most of the last 30 or 40 years, I don't think we're any danger of that.

There are businessmen and economists who will disagree with me, of course, but my sense is that they're motivated by wanting to get away with paying cheap wages rather than by any solid economic theory.

Chuck said...

Why shouldn't we leave them in our dust? So long as they have the freedom to do something about it, I don't see any moral dilemma. People are only poor because they lack a skill that is valued by society. Thus, as long as people have access to opportunities to gain valuable skills then they can raise themselves from poverty. I know I'm opening myself up to the "not everyone has equal access to opportunities" argument, but if you're poor there is always SOMETHING you can do to pick up a new skill. If you choose not to, you get what you deserve.

Larry Livermore said...

If there were a completely free market with regard to labour, this principle might be more valid, but there are a couple problems that occur to me almost immediately. In the first place, business is now capable of exporting much of its labour needs, which makes it virtually impossible for workers to be competitive and still earn enough to live. Example: the XYZ corporation can pay $100 a month to a Chinese worker, which might be plenty to survive on in China, but an American worker might need ten times as much, considering the cost of living in his country. Not exactly a level playing field, is it?

Secondly, while you're correct that people have an obligation to take advantage of opportunities to better themselves through education or training, all the education and training in the world won't do a person any good if he or she dies of starvation or is too weak from hunger and/or lack of medical care to drag him or herself to class. Not to mention the unfortunate children of the underpaid worker; what have they done to deserve malnutrition and shoddy housing? Or should we bring back child labour so they too can get out there and better themselves?

Chuck said...

In regards to your first point, it's definitely true that a level playing field does not exist in terms of cost of living. Outsourcing isn't quite the bogeyman most people make it out to be though. If anything, it's the best cure we have for disparate costs of living around the world. On top of that, what do businesses do when they lower their costs (via outsourcing in this example) and thus generate more profit? Most of the time they expand and create more jobs. Now the nature of these jobs might change (as in the decline of manufacturing and the birth of info-tech/service jobs in the US), but that's the nature of any economy in any time period. Things change and people must adapt. It's much worse to try and keep things the same through artificial means (just look at Soviet Era Communism). That's really where my problem lies with the minimum wage. It has actually done more harm than good in the last fifty years. Before minimum wage laws really took effect in the early 1950's, young black males were equally employable when compared to young white males. Now, that doesn't mean they received the same pay, but their rates of employment were nearly identical. Unfortunately, there's a direct correlation between the institution of the minimum wage and the subsequent meteoric rise of unemployment among young black males. Simply put, businesses don't hire people who's productivity is less than what they're forced to pay them. Racist politicians in the first half of the twentieth century understood this concept well as they often explicitly advocated minimum wage laws for the purpose of reducing the competitiveness of blacks. For more evidence, look no further than Europe. They have much higher minimum wage standards than the US and their unemployment rates as a whole are much worse. Conversely, Switzerland and Hong Kong have no minimum wage yet their unemployment rates are miniscule. Politicians in the US haven't increased the minimum wage in almost a decade because they know it doesn't work, yet they fear the backlash of a full repeal. Instead, they let inflation do the dirty work.

As for your second point, I believe that falls under the sphere of public and private charity.

Larry Livermore said...

I agree that it's possible to tilt too far in the direction of a planned or command economy like the late unlamented Soviet Union, and that many European states have yet to learn this lesson. However, Britain, one of the few European economies that has been thriving in recent years, instituted a minimum wage for the first time in 1999, presently £5.05 ($9.45), and due to rise next month to £5.35 ($10.05). Despite dire warnings from business interests that this would lead to inflation and unemployment, neither has resulted, and profits have continued to rise, so much so that British executives have begun to receive US-style pay increases. Those who know me will know I have no truck with socialism, but it's not socialistic - rather, just a matter of common sense and common human decency - to point out that if a business can afford to pay its top officers many millions of pounds, it can hardly cry poverty when it comes to paying its other workers a basic decent wage.

It's worth noting that before the United States introduced its own minimum wage law in 1938, major economic depressions were a fairly regular occurrence; since that time, there have been recessions, but nothing to rival the social and economic disaster of the 1930s. Also, there have been many times in the past - the 1960s, for example - when the American minimum wage was much higher in real terms than it is today, and yet the economy, by almost any measure apart perhaps from executive salaries, was stronger.

Countries like Switzerland, though they don't have a statutory minimum wage, have a different sort of social contract, in which employers' organisations and trade unions collaborate to establish pay standards, with the result that they have an effective minimum wage more than double that of the US.

One perhaps valid criticism of the minimum wage is that it discriminates against teenagers and entry-level workers; Britain has addressed this problem by setting a lower wage for 18-21 year-olds and a still lower one for 16-17 year-olds. Although I had my doubts about the fairness of this at first, it is one possibility worth considering. However, if a society wishes to encourage its young people to join the work force rather than subsisting on government handouts or drifting into crime, paying them a sub-living wage hardly seems like an effective tactic.

I also agree that at times setting a minimum wage might appear to veer over into what you say should be addressed by "public or private charity." However, allowing businesses to pay wages that don't provide its workers enough to live on simply externalises some of that business' costs onto the public anyway. If workers have to resort to food stamps, or to the public health system or other social programs because they don't make enough money, the taxpaying public - including even those barely keeping their heads above water - has to make up the difference. True, you could argue that forcing businesses to pay a living wage in the first place constitutes a hidden tax on those businesses, but I'd maintain that it's both fairer and more efficient that way.