Saturday, March 16, 2013

Nowhere man

The Atlantic Magazine staff writer Connor Friedersdorf has a post up on Ezra Klein's discussion of Paul Ryan's budget proposal. As a Canadian who nether pays taxes to, nor does business with, the United States government, the outcome of this argument doesn't affect me, but the ideas about politics and political discussion do interest me.
Connor Friedersdorf argues that despite Ezra Klein's claims to base his analysis on pure data, he has, in fact, a political position. Further, he and by extension other writers need to make their ideological assumptions and biases clear, so the reader can evaluate the assumptions underlying the facts they choose to present. Mr. Friedersdorf cites one claim Ezra Klein makes: that Paul Ryan bases his budget choices on the belief that American federal involvement in the social safety net "strangles" or "muscles out" state, local, and community initiatives. He cites a long passage from The Economist which includes this:
Don't expensive federal guarantees make community and family charity both less necessary and less affordable? Hasn't the increasingly intense and comprehensive regulation of the health-care sector made free markets in insurance and medical services basically illegal? I'm not so sure it's unusual to think so.
As someone who grew up in and still lives in the kind of community that does supports its members, I reject this premise. In my neighbourhood, in Toronto, one of the homes of Canadian single-payer health care (and very glad to have it), I and my neighbours for a number of years have held a block party and yard sale in which proceeds have gone towards supplemental care for a child with cerebral palsy. Access to world class medical facilities does not diminish community solidarity. To the extent that government policies have caused community programs to shrink over the past forty years, aid to the dispossessed and guarantees of basic services have played a minor role.

I grew up on the water, spending a part of my teenage years as a watchkeeper on the sail training ship St Lawrence II. A group of local Kingston businessmen built this ship for the youth of the community, and in so doing created a spectacularly successful program. In a sense, when conservatives speak glowingly of community programs, they refer to success stories like this. But community programs like the Brigantine rely on local businesses deeply invested in the community, and with the resources to back up that commitment with cash. In a series of policies that began before the Second World War and accelerated dramatically after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, North American governments have fostered the growth of massive enterprises that have no ties to any particular community. Today, local business that exist have their margins squeezed by competition with Walmart and other big box discounters. Governments have indeed fostered the growth of these large scale businesses, and in the process, in the name of efficiency, have disconnected communities from their economic support. That, in my experience, has had more to do with the ability of communities to support their members than federal entitlements.

Ruins in Detroit
In a sense, this, too illustrates the weakness of an analysis that claims to have a basis in pure data: it ignores not the ultimately sterile matter of political or ideological affiliations, but both the richness of knowledge and the passion that springs from the lived experience that numbers do not capture. In the worst of the plague years, some political leaders wished the communities affected by HIV would simply disappear. The searing account by Garance Franke-Ruta allows us to understand the passion with which communities afflicted with HIV not only survived but broke through their oppression. No table of numbers will ever bring home this lesson. In the same way, to understand the absurdity of the assumption that gutting government support for basic human needs will cause communities to magically rally to fill the gaps takes experience of the way communities really work. Imagination helps, too. Consider the actual condition of too many American cities: does anyone really believe the poorest American communities have the resources to create great social programs if the national government would only leave them alone?

[edited March 17]

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