The Real World

THE REAL WORLD….I’ve read this Paul Krugman essay about Glenn Loury before, but Brad DeLong linked to it last night and it reminded me of how much I liked it. Especially this part:

On one hand, we all believe that individuals deserve to be judged on their own merits, not by who their parents were or what group they belong to. On the other hand, anyone who imagines that a child growing up in the South Bronx has the same chance to make it as an equally talented child growing up in Scarsdale is living in a fantasy world. So merely eliminating current racial discrimination might very well fail to eliminate the effects of past discrimination. Indeed, Loury argued persuasively that even a world of “equal opportunity” might “perpetuate into the indefinite future the consequences of ethically unacceptable historical practices.” If you find that prospect unacceptable, you must support some form of social engineering–which ultimately, no matter how you package it, means giving some people special consideration based on the color of their skin as well as on the content of their character.

In a better world, Loury would have spent the last 22 years devising policies ? working with other well-intentioned people to come as close as possible to squaring this circle, finding ways to eliminate the legacy of past racism with as little intrusion as possible on the colorblind ideal. But he has basically never been able to get off square one ? because at no point over the past two decades has he been able to find allies who are even willing to accept the reality of the dilemma.

This is typical of the polarization of political debate today: there is seldom any recognition that there can be more than one answer to a question.

Phonics or whole language? More prisons or inner city social programs? Kill the terrorists or work on improving their economies?

For almost any problem serious enought to deserve our attention, there are both short term and long term solutions. In the case of racism, for example, affirmative action is a short term solution that’s needed to fix an immediate problem ? but is entirely rejected by the right. Pursuing answers to “the internal social problems of the black community” (Krugman’s paraphrase) is a longer term solution ? but one that is entirely rejected by the left.

In many cases like this, the best answer is to pursue both courses. A common sense combination of phonics and whole language is the best way to teach kids to read. We need to lock up dangerous criminals and we need to give poor inner city kids more hope for the future. We need to kill terrorists who have us in their gunsights and we need to commit ourselves to helping poor countries reform their economies.

It sounds good on paper, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, not only is it frequently difficult, since there are conflicts between the short term and long term options, but it requires people of goodwill on both sides who actually want to solve the problem ? not just win ideological debating points.

Needless to say, it seldom happens in real life, and we all suffer for it.