Posted by: bkivey | 30 August 2011

Good Intentions and Magical Thinking

A guest editorial in the local paper, Ending Homelessness, takes the city of Portland to task for not doing enough to end the problem of the chronically unhoused. The Rev. Chuck Currie, most recently of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Salem, claims that the city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, adopted in 2004, is a dismal failure. He claims the failure is not in doing nothing, but in doing too little. While it’s true that the city homeless population has steadily increased since 2009, it’s also true that the stated increases of between 3% and 5% might fall into the realm of enumerative and statistical error. Still, if the goal is to reduce the number of homeless to 0, then anything less than a declining trend would constitute a policy failure.

Rev. Curries solution? In the finest statist/progressive tradition, he blames society for not throwing enough money at the problem:

To end homelessness would require a concentrated effort to eradicate poverty, a dedicated revenue source to build truly affordable housing, significant new resources to provide mental health care and alcohol and drug treatment, and a jobs program that puts people to work.

Well, hell, Rev., why don’t we just end disease and war and all the other ills that plague humans while we’re at it? But he’s not done yet:

If we just fixed the mental health system alone and moved every soul with a chronic mental illness off the streets and into stable housing, imagine the savings we’d incur with reduced hospital visits and far fewer interactions between those with mental illness and the police. Building affordable housing would create family-wage jobs in a tough economy and produce new tax revenues.Of course

Of course, no progressive screed would be complete without the ‘root cause’ shibboleth:

At the same time, we cannot say that we’ve ever addressed the root causes of homelessness, and the failure to end homelessness again and again leaves the public wary that the goal can ever been accomplished.

Oh no! It’s the root cause that’s the source of all our misery! Care to specify what that root cause might be, Rev.? Didn’t think so. Likely you have no idea. But it sure sounds good to the ignorant and unthinking.

It’s axiomatic that whenever someone says ‘We should’ do something, what they really mean is “You should give up some of your money so I can advance my political agenda and feel good about myself.” In the progressive world there are never any plans, just desires. ‘Eradicate poverty’, ‘affordable housing’, ‘significant new resources’, ‘jobs programs’, and ‘fixing the mental health system’ are not plans, or even really goals. They’re wants. I have yet to see or even hear of a desire expressed by a progressive that comes with an actionable plan that includes clearly defined methods, metrics, and timelines.

I suspect the reason for this is multifaceted. One reason is that deep down, even progressives have to know that what they want is impossible. Not very difficult: impossible. One of the primary dissonances in progressive thought is that they give no weight to the human factor. You can have all of the social programs in the world, and in this country, we pretty much do, and there will be people who whether by choice or mental defect won’t participate in them. After 5,000 years of recorded history, it’s safe to say that human miseries can’t be eliminated, only managed. The only real question is what non-zero level of misery one is willing to countenance. To think otherwise is to fail before one has started.

The second reason progressives won’t subject their desires to hard metrics is because they would then be accountable. One thing we’ve learned the past century is that accountability is anathema to progressive thought. If there’s a problem, it must be someone else’s fault. Progressives are fundamentally political animals, always seeking favor, never risking disapproval or rejection. I would wager that a goodly number of self-identified progressives only do so because they don’t want to alienate their social peers.

The third reason progressives won’t offer specific plans to deal with situations is because their power is in large part based on the misery of others. If a metric is achieved, then the problem is considered solved, or at least mitigated and manageable. Where then, is the progressive to derive their power, if the impoverished are no longer, if the marginalized no longer afflicted? One can make a strong case that in this country and in much of the Western world, poverty, as most of the world understands it, has been eradicated. A person or family with a car, modern household appliances, cable TV, a computer with access to the Internet, access to free public education, free or reduced price health care, and access to food may be many things, but please don’t tell me they live in ‘poverty’. Patrick Moynihan once famously noted that American society was defining deviancy down, but the progressive must needs continually define misery up.

I challenge Rev. Currie and others like him: if you really believe in what you’re preaching, show some committment. If you think homelessness is the serious societal ill you claim, and I won’t gainsay that opinion, then do something about it. I’m not talking about attending a benefit and writing a check. I’m not even talking about sitting on a council or making speeches to government bodies or filing lawsuits. I’m talking about the kind of committment where you open your church or your home to the homeless. Feed them, clothe them, shelter them. Help them get on their feet. Before you go asking people for a handout, maybe you should demonstrate your committment to giving others a hand up.

 ‘Hurricane’ Irene

I’m a bit of a weather junkie, so when a major storm threatens, I go right to the Internet to see what’s happening. I followed the progress of Irene on I noticed a couple of odd things about this storm. The first was that when it got close enough so that ground-based radar could get a good look at it, the storm was remarkably free of storm cells. I followed a hurricane last year and there were dozens of storm cells on the radar image. For Irene, there were very few.

The other odd thing was that at no point did any ground station, even those directly in the storm’s path, record anything near hurricane-force winds. In fact, most ground stations showed winds that would have embarrassed a strong tropical storm. Even professional observers failed to see winds of hurricane intensity. So the question is, was it really a hurricane, or a tropical storm, when it made landfall? And if it was a tropical storm, why did NOAA insist on calling it a hurricane? Were they afraid of damaging the storm’s self-esteem?

Other people have noticed the same thing. Perhaps NOAA felt that if they downgraded the system to a tropical storm, people wouldn’t take it as seriously. The storm did dump a lot of rain, but which would you be more wary of, a hurricane, or a ‘mere’ tropical storm.

I think conspiracy theories are bunk, but I expect NOAA to revisit the intensity timeline of the storm, and possibly downgrade it to a tropical storm prior to landfall.

Great Old Movies

Sunday evening is movie night at my house, and this past Sunday Too Hot to Handle was on the menu. This 1938 film starring Clark Gable and Myrna Loy (you cannot go wrong there) is a fun romp and illustrates some of the major differences between filmmaking now and then. One is that the leading man and lady come across as adults, rather than delayed adolescents. Myrna Loy was babe, and the costume designer did her justice in the film. And rather than the helpless female, she is shown to be a strong, competent woman, able to fly an airplane or interpret Morse code by ear with equal facility, and the match of any man she meets.

The main difference between the two eras is that  in most modern films the dialogue  merely acts  a bridge between set pieces; in this movie, and many others made during the period, the dialogue is the action. The characters talk quickly and articulately and you’d better be paying attention, because they aren’t going to explain the plot to you.

The one era isn’t better than the other, just different, but through the lens of time, the difference can be refreshing.


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