Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Cost of Good Intentions

The Cost of Good Intentions: New York City and the Liberal Experiment was written nearly forty years ago.  It is full of municipal jargon and the names of city bureaucrats that have long been forgotten.  And I found it absolutely riveting.  It makes for cautionary reading for anyone who is interested in expanding government's commitment to achieving social change.

The book's central character is John Lindsay, New York City's mayor for the tumultuous period of 1966-1973. Lindsay was a figure of both probity and charisma.  He successfully attracted a new generation of talented reformers into city government.  He improved the management of many city agencies and helped fight corruption in the police department.  He worked hard to engage New York's black and Latino population; indeed, his outreach is credited with helping New York avoid some of the urban unrest that roiled other American cities in the 1960s.

Lindsay's great strengths were balanced by significant weaknesses.  Some of these weaknesses were characterological. According to Morris:

The puritan's vision of the universe as a constant struggle between good and evil infused Lindsay's first months in office...The New York Times reported his obvious pleasure in conceiving himself as "a lone figure at war with the power structure."...Lindsay's grandiose conception of himself and his powers struck seasoned insiders as fatuous, and certainly arrogant.

Lindsay was hardly alone in seeing the world in stark moral terms -- he was in many ways emblematic of his times.  Morris is sympathetic to the challenges Lindsay faced.  A veteran of city government himself, Morris understands that managing New York City in the 1960s and early 1970s was no easy task.  He also provides important context, framing how New York's performance under Lindsay compared to other American cities of the era.  (Spoiler alert: Not that bad!)

Morris' fair-mindedness makes his ultimate judgement of Lindsay, and Lindsay's project, all the more powerful:

The soaring rhetoric of Lindsay's first administration did not lend itself to easy translation into day-to-day measuring rods of performance and seems to have generated only confusion and hostility among front-line workers.  Not just Lindsay, but liberals generally began to expect very much more from government in the 1960s...the entire battalion of city agencies -- parks, welfare, police, housing, the anti-poverty programs, hospitals, even sanitation -- were to be part of a massive effort at uplift, a final breaking-through of the barriers of oppression and discrimination that prolonged the abject misery of blacks and Hispanics...It was a splendid vision, but one that was seriously flawed, and from a management perspective, positively damaging.  City government is for the most part a fairly dull and mundane business...The sudden call to lofty achievement was, for most agencies, simply muddling.

These are important observations for today's criminal justice reformers.  So is Morris' conclusion that many of the city's well-meaning anti-poverty initiatives "had a strong tendency to emphasize symbol over content, to value structure and participation over program results."  Getting the details of implementation right and winning over the hearts of minds of frontline government practitioners (or at least figuring out how to prevent them from sabotaging new ideas and practices that they don't like)  are essential to any serious effort to reform the criminal justice system.

Monday, January 15, 2018

A Dream As Yet Unfulfilled

This photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. hangs in my bedroom in Brooklyn.   Beyond liking the composition of the shot, I chose the photo for a couple of reasons. First, I was attracted to the intimacy of the image.  It does not capture King making a speech or leading a demonstration or meeting with world leaders, but rather hanging out in a hotel room reading the newspaper. For me, this is a reminder of King’s basic humanity; he was, at the end of the day, a normal person called to perform extraordinary deeds.

I also chose the photo for its historical significance.  King is pictured on the cusp of a major civil rights event: a march across the breadth of Mississippi that he undertook in 1966 after James Meredith (the man responsible for integrating the University of Mississippi) was shot by a would-be assassin. 

The Meredith March Against Fear was the subject of my college thesis, which argued that the demonstration was a pivotal event in the history of the civil rights movement – the moment when things began to fall apart.  Stokely Carmichael’s use of the slogan “black power” along the course of the march made national news, helping to expose a fault line between militant civil rights groups and those who were more interested in working with and within existing American institutions.

In many ways, Martin Luther King, Jr. was caught in the middle of this conflict.  King was both a radical and a moderate.  He was a fierce critic of American engagement in Vietnam and economic inequality at home.  At the same time, he never wavered from his commitment to non-violence and what he called “Negro-White unity.”  In my thesis, I wrote this:

King’s ability to avoid a retreat into bitterness and despair is testimony to the power of his idealism.  Throughout his life, King was motivated, in large part, by a sense of the possibilities of American democracy. He dreamed of creating a “beloved community” with a zeal that rivaled the Puritan longing for a shining city on a hill.  Although King would admit that the “the nation is sick,” he never abandoned his vision of American equality.  “In a real sense,” King said,

America is essentially a dream, a dream as yet unfulfilled.  It is a dream of a land where men of all races, of all nationalities and of all creeds can live together as brothers. The substance of the dream is expressed in these sublime words, words lifted to cosmic proportions: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This is the dream.

These are difficult days for those of us who still believe in the American dream.  Seemingly every day, there is a new assault on core American values like pluralism, tolerance, and civility.  All too often these assaults are coming from inside the White House itself -- the latest being the President’s denigration of immigrants from Haiti and other countries.  Republican Senator Lindsey Graham’s rebuke of the President was admirably succinct: “America is an idea, not a race.”

Just a few things I am thinking about on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Crisis Reading List

One of words that I notice being used a lot these days is "unprecedented" (usually with regard to some violation of long-accepted "norms").  I understand the logic, and the emotion, behind this phenomenon. After all, the past 12 months have seen a number of events -- Nazis marching in Virginia, the threat of nuclear conflict with North Korea, attacks on the media and other crucial civic institutions, etc. -- that have felt uniquely destabilizing.

Perhaps for this reason, my reading list for 2017 veered toward non-fiction grounded in crisis.  I started the year with The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. The Undoing Project is an intellectual history of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the two academics credited with creating the field of behavioral economics. Their friendship was forged in Israel in the 1960s and 1970s.  Even as he traces the arc of Kahneman and Tversky's career, Lewis takes pains to highlight the context that gave birth to their partnership: the sense of existential vulnerability experienced by Israelis during the early years of the country, which were marked by violence and conflict.

Next I turned to Thomas Ricks' Churchill and Orwell, a joint history of two legendary figures from England.  The context for the book is World War II, but Ricks seems to be writing with at least one eye on our present moment.  He lauds his two subjects for their shared commitment to truth over ideology and their willingness to take on political extremists on the Left and the Right.  In a way, it is a crazy book -- Ricks doesn't unearth any new historical material and his two central characters never actually interact with each other. But I thought the book worked on the strength of Ricks' storytelling and skill as a writer.  After reading the book, I saw that he went out of his way to credit his editor with helping him polish the manuscript.  Good on him.

I've written before about James Forman's Locking Up Our Own, my favorite criminal justice book of 2017, so I won't go into detail about it here, but it too describes a time and a place of crisis: Washington DC in the midst of the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.

My calamity reading list reached its apogee with Alwyn Turner's Crisis? What Crisis: Britain in the 1970s.  This was actually the second book I read on this topic, along with Andy Beckett's When the Lights Went Out: What Really Happened to Britain in the Seventies.  Both books offer a helpful  perspective on the current emergencies in the United States.  The winter of discontent...three-day work weeks...a series of disruptive labor strikes...trash piling up in Leicester Square...declining trust in government combined with a rise in political extremism -- the sense of a country coming apart at the seams was, I would argue, stronger in the UK in the 70s than it is now in the US.

I can't say that I have figured out some grand unifying theory or tidy set of lessons from all of these books.  But I have taken some (perhaps perverse?) comfort.  The times we are living through are challenging to be sure, but they are not wholly without precedent.  I am enough of an optimist to believe that better days are ahead of us if we can, collectively, summon the better angels of our nature. Best wishes for the new year.