The Corner

The Age of Hard Problems

I am reading Amy Wax’s fine book Race, Wrongs, and Remedies. Ms. Wax, a professor of law at U. Penn., takes on the still-dominant idea that black Americans are passive, helpless victims of huge, malevolent social forces. She comes at the whole issue from a legal perspective, arguing from analogies based on the law of remedies, one of her academic specialties. It’s a well-written and illuminating book; in my opinion, a valuable contribution to debate over social policies. I’m surprised it hasn’t got more attention.

Ms. Wax is especially convincing on the argument that society-at-large has done all it can be expected to do to remedy the wrongs of the past; that what she calls “remedial idealism” has run out of gas.

Underachievement, criminality, and family disarray … are increasingly unresponsive to any known policy interventions and persistently resist fixes imposed from without. Despite decades of programs, government has not discovered how to change entrenched patterns, make better choices for individuals, or induce people to grasp opportunities. Nor has it learned how to shape attitudes that bear on social success. Even well-thought-out, targeted programs informed by the latest social science research — such as intensive preschool education or dispersion of poor families into middle-class neighborhoods — have produced, at most, modest and transient results … No one knows how to ensure that others make good choices or engage in constructive behavior …

It happens that I interrupted my reading of Ms. Wax’s book to refresh my memory of David Loyn’s In Afghanistan, which I wanted to say something about for NRO’s Christmas books section.

[Do I have eccentric tastes in reading? These two fine books, both beautifully written and produced, each containing a wealth of insights on very important topics, have just ONE Amazon customer review between the two of them. Either one of them is 100 times better in every respect than Malcolm Gladwell’s latest burblings. Okay, back to your regularly-scheduled programming.]

Loyn’s book gives the reader a thorough grounding in modern (from 1808) Afghan history, and provides the kind of on-the-ground insights into the culture and politics of the place that you only get from a skillful and fearless correspondent who has walked the territory. It makes plain how knottily deep-rooted are that country’s problems, and how paltry are the chances of effecting any kind of transformation with less than a hugely-funded and doggedly persistent effort across several decades — an effort by comparison with which, our current Afghan policy is a mere transient breeze ruffling the surface.

And then, back to social policy — education, in fact. The education chapter in WAD (excerpted on NRO a few weeks ago) made sport of the notion, long since tested to destruction, that spending cartloads of money, above some basic minimum, does anything to improve results. Yet still, with a crazed persistence that can, surely, only arise from clinical insanity, the folly persists.

Item:  “The Ford Foundation today announced a new $100 million initiative to transform secondary education in urban schools across the country, saying it wants to help build the conditions and resources required to provide a great education to public school students …”Item:  “The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation announced this week that it will grant one of the largest privately sponsored school improvement programs in recent memory … Announced on Thursday, the $335 million investment will benefit teacher effectiveness, funding experiments in tenure, evaluation, compensation, training and mentoring in several large school districts and a handful of charter schools …”

Of the three specimens of “remedial idealism” here — the lift-’em-up-by-social-work cult, the counter-insurgency cult, and the education cult — I don’t know which one I regard with the deepest despair. They are of course all b-s, all excercises in futility; though Bill Gates is at least flushing his own money down the toilet.

Contemplating these different styles of idealistic flapdoodle, so representative of our time and its hatred of reality, it occurs to me that we live in an age of really hard problems.

Consider, for example, Dr. Barnado, who tackled the problem of destitute children sleeping on the London streets. He raised funds, established group homes, problem solved. Similarly with Islamist extremism of that time, which of course existed. The British in India dealt with it using just one portion of a modest volunteer army. You can’t exactly say “problem solved,” but nobody in London was losing sleep over it.

It’s almost as if we’ve cleared up all the clear-uppable problems and are left with a residue about which nothing can be done without colossal, committed interventions — interventions far beyond anything we are willing to actually fund, or even contemplate. When we were in the throes of “nation-building” in Iraq, I had approximately 1,000 arguments with Bushite friends & colleagues who at some point would say: “Hey, we did it for Germany and Japan, didn’t we?” To which my stock answer was: “Great! So let’s reduce Iraq’s cities to rubble, then drop two atom bombs on them!” That’s the kind of intervention that might solve a really hard problem. But of course, we are not willing to take those kinds of actions.

So many of our attempts at solving the hard problems of the 21st century assume that the methods of the 19th century will suffice. Spend a few million! Send an expeditionary force! Set up a new social-work bureaucracy! Negotiate a treaty! It may be, though, that in the grand-historical scheme of things, the social and geopolitical problems of 100 years ago were low-hanging fruit; that applying those methods to the problems of today is a sort of inverse of the old sledgehammer-nut metaphor — using a nail file to crack a coconut, perhaps.

Just some part-baked musings . . .