Ms Rogers’ Neighborhood

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July 24, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston
Why are all these parents being arrested? That was the question raised by Ross Douthat’s recent column. It’s also the title of an article in The Week that Douthat links to in a follow-up blog post.* The author, Michael Brendan Dougherty, sees two causes.

1.  A decline of neighborliness (Dougherty borrows this from Timothy Carney, The Washington Examiner (here Timothy Carney, a columnist for The Washington Examiner ). Neighborly adults look after an unsupervised kid who might be in need. Un-neighborly adults call 911. The State is less flexible in what it can do.  Dougherty identifies the institutional and historical reasons that these agencies are quick to It use formal procedures and sanctions,

The state's guardianship functions were developed to handle only the most extreme cases of neglect or abuse. The incentives of those within these departments incline them to suspicion and dramatic intervention. “We only get called in an emergency, so this must be one.”


2.  The encroachment of the State into areas that once belonged to Family, Neighbors, Church,  or Community.

The two are linked in a vicious cycle. Because people are less neighborly, they call the State. But this gives greater scope to State agencies, consequently narrowing the radius of neighborhood control, which in turn makes people less able to intervene as neighbors.

There are some problems with this account.

First, does this handful of newspaper stories indicate a real problem. The “good parents arrested” theme certainly seems to resonate with middle-class people, though it is almost certainly less well-off parents who are more vulnerable to being arrested or having their kids taken from them by the state.  Even so, we have no idea how many of these cases there are. Besides, the newspaper stories report on the most egregious cases. If we actually tried to sort all state interventions into those we like and those we don’t, we would quickly find oursevles in murkier waters.

Second, Douthat is writing about policy (so are the others, at least implicitly). Policies are not perfect; they improve some things for some people, and make some things worse for other people. That’s why policy is political – it’s about who gets what. If a policy improves the lives of many children and parents but has costs for a few others, we’d say that on the whole it’s a good policy, and we’d try to tinker with it to reduce the bad parts. Yes, one is too many, but in most cases (wrongful executions and the death penalty may be the clearest exception), that’s not a strong argument for scrapping the entire policy.

You have only to spend a few days in a child welfare agency to see how many cases there are where state intervention, with all its flaws, is better than the alternatives.

Third, are we really less neighborly? Americans started wringing their hands about the decline of community as early as 1650. Since then, these alarms have been sounded periodically Right and Left.  In recent versions of this jeremiad (say in the last half century) the Right has blamed the government: by arrogating to itself traditional community and family functions, it weakened community. The Left blames the culture of capitalism: its emphasis on competition destroys cooperation.

Unfortunately for the community-collapse theorists (but fortunately for community), systematic evidence for this decline is hard to come by. For decades now, Claude Fischer has done actual research on the topic and has found little to support the image of a land once rich in community now become a nation of isolated and unneighborly individuals.  (See Chapter 4 of his excellent 2010 book Made in America.)

Dougherty’s personal recollection, with its echoes of Jane Jacobs, might be instructive.

Often during this time, and especially in my own neighborhood, I was being silently and unobtrusively guarded by a community of people, many of whom knew my name, and knew something of my mother's situation. When I scratched someone's car with my broken bike handle, I would be returned to my home, and the note explaining it would be addressed to my mother by name. Some of the nosy Italian ladies watched the streets, looking for gossip. But they could help a child who skinned his knee, or bring him inside for a few caramels and a soda if it was raining and the kid had left his key at home.

Where are those Italian ladies today? Probably at work.


The percentage of women who work outside the home has increased greatly – from about 40% in 1970 to about two-thirds today.  The rates for women with children are not much different from the overall rates.  Even women who spoke Italian at home are much more likely to be at work rather than keeping an eye on the neighborhood.  (For “Italian,” I used “speaking Italian at home” rather than “claiming Italian as their primary ancestry. ” If I had used the latter, the rates would have been very close to the rates for all US women.)

There are many reasons that more women have sought jobs in the paid labor force (one summary is here).  I doubt that a decline in “neighborliness” or “community” is among them.** But one possible consequence is the decline in the number of neighbors who are around in the daytime.  That’s not the only cause of changes in the who, where, and how of childcare in the US, but it’s an important part of this changing landscape*** of childhood.

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* In his blog, Douthat is responding to criticisms from “many liberals.”  But for some reason, of all the critiques in all the blogs in all the world, he wanders into mine.

** No doubt, some on the far right would argue that feminism poisoned the minds of American women and made them less neighborly and more selfish and ambitious, with the consequence that they abandoned their “natural” function of staying home and watching over the kids in the neighborhood.

*** That changing landscape is literal as well as figurative. Seven years ago in a post (here)about concern for children’s safety, I reprinted a map showing the shrinking, over three generations in the same Sheffield family, of the range that children would wander.  

Naming Variables

July 21, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Variable labels – not the sort of problem that should excite much debate. Still, it’s important to identify your variables as what they really are. If I’m comparing, say, New Yorkers with Clevelanders, should I call my independent variable “Sophistication” (Gothamites, as we all know, are more sophisticated)? Or should it be “City” (or “City of residence”)? “Sophistication” would be sexier, “City” would  more accurate.

Dan Ariely does experiments about cheating.  In a recent experiment, he compared East Germans and West Germans and found that East Germans cheated more. 

we found evidence that East Germans who were exposed to socialism cheat more than West Germans who were exposed to capitalism.

Yes, East Germany was a socialist state. But it was also dominated by another nation (the USSR, which appropriated much of East Germany’s wealth) and had a totalitarian government that ruled by fear and mistrust.  For Ariely to write up his results and call his independent variable “Socialism/Captialism,” he must either ignore all those other aspects of East Germany or else assume that they are inherent in socialism.

The title of the paper is worth noting: “The (True) Legacy of Two Really Existing Economic Systems.”  You can find it here.)

The paper has been well received among mainstream conservatives (e.g., The Economist), who, rather than looking carefully at the variables, are glad to conflate socialism with totalitarian evils.

Mark Kleiman at the Reality Based Community makes an analogy with Chile under socialist Allende and capitalist Pinochet.

Imagine that the results had come out the other way: say, showing that Chileans became less honest while Pinochet was having his minions gouge out their opponents’ eyeballs and Milton Friedman was gushing about the “miracle of Chile”? How do you think the paper would read, and what do you think the Economist, Marginal Revolution, and AEI would have had to say about its methods?


Nannies and States

July 20, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ross Douthat is puzzled. He seems to sense that a liberal policy might actually help, but his high conservative principles and morality keep him from taking that step. It’s a political version of Freudian repression – the conservative superego forcing tempting ideas to remain out of awareness.

In today’s column, Douthat recounts several anecdotes of criminal charges brought against parents whose children were unsupervised for short periods of time.  The best-known of these criminals of late is Debra Harrell, the mother in South Carolina who let her 9-year-old daughter go to a nearby playground while she (Debra) worked at her job at McDonald’s. The details of the case (here  among other places)  make it clear that this was not a bad mom – not cruel, not negligent. The playground was the best child care she could afford.

One solution should be obvious – affordable child care.  But the US is rather stingy when it comes to kids. Other countries are way ahead of us on public spending for children.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

Conservatives will argue that child care should be private not public and that local charities and churches do a better job than do state-run programs. Maybe so. The trouble is that those private programs are not accessible to everyone. If Debra Harrell had been in France or Denmark, the problem would never have arisen.

The other conservative US policy that put Debra Harrell in the arms of the law is “welfare reform.”  As Douthat explains, in the US, thanks to changes in the welfare system much lauded by conservatives, the US now has “a welfare system whose work requirements can put a single mother behind a fast-food counter while her kid is out of school.”

That’s the part that perplexes Douthat. He thinks that it’s a good thing for the government to force poor women to work, but it’s a bad thing for those women not to have the time to be good mothers. The two obvious solutions – affordable day care or support for women who stay home to take care of kids – conflict with the cherished conservative ideas: government bad, work good.

This last issue presents a distinctive challenge to conservatives like me, who believe such work requirements are essential. If we want women like Debra Harrell to take jobs instead of welfare, we have to also find a way to defend their liberty as parents, instead of expecting them to hover like helicopters and then literally arresting them if they don’t.

As he says, it’s a distinctive challenge, but only if you cling so tightly to conservative principles that you reject solutions – solutions that seem to be working quite well in other countries – just because they involve the government or allow poor parents not to work.

Conservatives love to decry “the nanny state.”  That means things like government efforts to improve kids’ health and nutrition. (Right wingers make fun of the first lady for trying to get kids to eat sensibly and get some exercise.)

A nanny is a person who is paid to look after someone else’s kids. Well-off people hire them privately (though they still prefer to call them au pairs). But for the childcare problems of low-income parents, what we need is more of a nanny state, or more accurately, state-paid nannies.

Charlie Haden (1937-2014)

July 12, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

At age 22, Charlie Haden was the bassist the original Ornette Coleman quartet.  He had already been playing for a couple of years with bebop pianist Hampton Hawes.  Ornette played music that, at the time (1959), was considered so far out that many listeners dismissed it as noise. (“They play ‘Some of These Days’ in five different keys simultaneously.”) Ornette became even freer, moving even further from the basic changes, and Charlie followed along.

Haden was also a very melodic bass player. That’s especially clear in his duo work with guitarists like Pat Metheny and Egberto Gismonti and pianists Keith Jarrett, Hank Jones, Kenny Barron (“Night and the City” is one of my favorite albums). He remained rooted in bebop, notably as leader of Quartet West (with Ernie Watts, the man responsible for my giving up saxophone). 

He had polio as a child in Iowa, and in recent years suffered from post-polio syndrome.

Here is a brief video made at the time Charlie recorded the duo album with Keith Jarrett, who does much of the talking here.