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March 15, 2010

The Unheavenly City Revisited

Edward C. Banfield

Banfield was a professor at the University of Chicago and later Harvard, a colleague of Leo Strauss and Milton Friedman, an advisor to Nixon, Ford and Reagan, and one of the foremost conservative lights of his day. He began as a supporter of FDR and the New Deal, but discovered the hollowness of the progressive agenda--and especially the subsequent Great Society--which convinced him that government aid to the poor, while making the givers of aid feel virtuous, failed to improve the lives of the receivers of that aid.

First published in 1968, it was later republished in its current form, and re-released in 1990 (though it is now out of print.) Notwithstanding, it is a brilliant and still relevant textbook on cities, their functions, their weaknesses and strengths. He demonstrates a pleasant, expository style, albeit offensive to those who refuse to consider his premises. Alongside that narrative is an explicit and rewarding, discursive description of labor markets, price, value, and much more. It unlikely as a current text since it is damning of progressivism, though that was not his express intent. The book is truly scholarly, though very readable, and based on solid econometrics backed by factual materials explaining failures of policy. It has become painfully and pointedly pertinent with the advent of Obama's inexorable return to these documentably failed pathways. The movement was set back a little by Reagan, but has reached its zenith and its breaking point in the last year . . . that of "hope and change."

In reading one has to keep in mind that progressive utopian confabulations, when subjected to empirical validation, are usually found wanting--their "visions" contradicted by the facts. Such disagreeable facts, however, are promptly buried and forgotten. "City" is the requisite reminder . . . that still, small voice which says "I told you so. Been there, done that," or "it ain't gonna work this time either," without quite saying it.

His "main points" are wrenchingly subversive of beliefs to which intelligent and well-informed people are wedded, and "without which their world would be unendurable." Owing to the nature of man and society--especially American culture--we "cannot solve our serious problems by rational management." Indeed, by trying we make matters worse. His observations, born out by the facts, are 180 degrees opposite the prevailing "received wisdom" of the policy wonks in the political class. It is frustrating to review those facts a generation or two later, during which time policies have not changed. Failure never causes the left to reflect. Obama himself has opined that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. Imagine what changes might be wrought if he actually studied this manuscript and gave it some thought, instead of reading words on a teleprompter.

Banfield explores the dilemmas which the anointed muddle through, as they remain convinced that these troubles are manifestly devastating and require their solutions. . . . and that they have them. He offers the example transportation, which is "certainly a problem as important as a head cold," but hardly worth getting greatly exercised over. He discusses myriad such, noting that solutions are not always necessary, or even possible, and observes that some are quite simply stupid. To a large extent our urban problems are like the mechanical rabbit at the racetrack, "set to keep just ahead of the dogs." We set our standards to stay ahead of performance, while problems are never nearer a solution. The quest for the perfect is the enemy of the good. In most situations "good enough" is good enough. Left alone, most inherently unmanageable situations resolve themselves.

Maddeningly, we continuously redefine poverty in such ways that the real and dramatic improvements are washed away. Without fixed standards nothing can be accurately or honestly measured. The poor today are infinitely wealthier than decades ago. Indeed our poor are well ahead of the affluent in many countries. Yet the fact that society cannot solve this conundrum . . . that the poor still exist . . . that other problems are "still without solution" only proves to progressives that "society" is guilty, and worse, is obliged to "fix it."

The cognoscenti worry that city centers are being depopulated, and the poor are ghettoed as the wealth moves to the suburbs. Yet, soon the peripheral properties become more valuable than the center, and "wealth" moves back--as indeed it does. Thus the elite are now worried sick about "gentrification," which destroys housing for the poor; driving them from the very homes the anointed deplored only yesterday. While it was unheard of in his time, we now have eminent domain taking the homes of prosperous people for use by businesses, reputedly to increase the tax base. Most of these properties are now razed weed fields, abandoned by developers after their acquisition, producing no revenue at all. Still, the wizened insist that it was "the rational thing to do." Really?!

From early times U.S. cities have had upper, middle, working and lower classes. Relative size has varied, but the basics didn't change. "Normal," as a class reference, was not that of the lower class, which was deemed pathological (and it still is, progressive do-gooders notwithstanding.) The dominant--normal--culture placed stock in forward looking virtues: self-determination, industry, thrift, and respect for law and order. The lower classes have always been present-oriented, living moment to moment, governed largely by impulse. Anything not immediately useful is without value. Good jobs may be offered as many remain chronically unemployed. Slums may be demolished, but the housing that replaces it, if occupied by the lower class, will be turned promptly into new slums. For so long as a city contains a sizable lower class little can be done about most of its serious problems. And the lower class cannot be fixed! It might, conceivably, be preventable amongst their offspring, but it cannot be repaired. Progressives, however, consider such "fixes" as might be possible to be unacceptable. People have their rights to do as they desire, irrespective of the predictable outcomes (which would certainly be improved if only the underclass would aspire to do as the cognoscenti insist.)

Poverty problems for the aged, the handicapped, and mothers with dependent children are different; they need order and some money to live decently. The "lower orders," by choice, live in squalor and misery even with adequate income. The same is true with housing, schools, vice, crime and rioting. Each is a different "poverty" problem, and the latter is insoluble, though liberal government has the perverse tendency to a.) believe in their ability to solve everything, and b.) to uniformly adopt the "very opposite" of those programs that one would recommend. Available measures of address commonly lie outside the bounds of feasibility. The proponents of particular measures are usually blessed with both myopia and tunnel vision: they can see only the immediate and direct effects that follow from the attainment of their objective. Long-run or indirect effects, especially ones pertinent to "background values," are invisible to them. Most often the elite are looking after their own interests, regardless of the apparent altruism. Public attitudes are heavily influenced by the "feelings" of the well-educated, but this opinion, reflecting the "ideals" of the upper class, and it is precisely this quasi-altruistic bias that accounts for its perversity. American governance is oriented toward the future and toward moral and material progress for the individual and society as a whole . . . values which the miscreant lower orders do not share (recall the silk purse and the sow's ear analogy.)

Risibly . . . or not . . . he observes that the early English Puritans attitude toward bear-baiting was not that it was evil because it was cruel to the animal, but that it was evil because it was enjoyed by the spectators. Likewise, the modern reformer wants to improve the situation of the poor, not so much to make them better off, but to make himself and the whole society better off morally. One needs to avoid the impulse for "doing good" from gushing incontinently into mass extravaganzas costing billions, without effect. Usually more harm than good is done, however well intended, and the expense is profligate beyond any ephemeral goal.

He discusses minimum wage (and its destructiveness), the value of mechanization (and its problems), "job creation" endeavors (and their risks), rent control, welfare, the relativity of poverty, gangs, violence, educational concepts, "mainstreaming" as opposed to getting "non-learners" out of the classroom (or at least the standard classroom), the problems of educational dictates, the modern worship of degrees for no reason beyond the supposed demonstration of determination, etc. "To force the lower classes to adapt to the practice of the upper classes is both pointless and harmful."

Myriad concepts and realities are discussed thoroughly and understandably. This is a text book, but it is masterfully written, and for the inclined it is well worth the time to read. It is a no nonsense, in depth analysis of virtually all societal problems within the city, and as relevant today as when it was written. Human problems, human nature and human endeavors do not change. One deplores Obama and his myrmidons who refuse read and reflect. It borders on insanity to approach the problems as we have historically . . . with serial and predictable failure. Some problems simply cannot be fixed. The requirement is that those without solution be identified and filed in the circular file next to the desk . . . along with those which ought not to be considered because the fix is more trouble, and usually more expensive than the problem.

Ah, yes, it'd be wonderful; alas it ain't gonna happen!!

Posted by Curmudgeon at March 15, 2010 2:18 PM