, , , , , ,

I’m getting to think that one of the best signs that Americans have no clue how to solve a major public policy problem is lengthy debate that has changed absolutely no minds whatever. If true, then Americans have no clue how to solve the urban poverty problems responsible for the Baltimore riot, and some totally outside the box ideas are urgently needed. Here are some I hope can get the nation started.

First, let’s stop obsessing about what’s mainly to blame for the degraded state of Sandtown and neighborhoods like it all around the country. Any environment this dangerous and dysfunctional by definition inevitably has multiple and deep roots. Why debate whether the main issue is terrible policing or high crime or drug use or family breakdown or rotten schools or lack of jobs or historic official discrimination (like mortgage red-lining)? Who can doubt that all these pathologies and misdeeds have played a part, and have often enforced each other? The main issue is what to do now.

Second, let’s stop kidding ourselves about the merits of the main current ideas on how to improve the Sandtowns of America. It’s not a lack of money; for example, Baltimore city spends more per pupil than all but one major Maryland school system. But it’s also completely unrealistic to think that largely free market solutions are the answer. No matter how much taxes or regulations are cut (or how many incentives are offered), viable businesses that can create good jobs simply have no reason to move into very low-income urban areas. In fact, given the crime and the shortage of workers with even rudimentary skills, productive capital has every reason to stay away.

Third, nonetheless, good jobs are clearly the best hope for fixing inner city problems. Individuals in solid economic situations stand the best chance of forming stable families, sending to schools children capable of learning from reasonably good teachers, and luring businesses to supply their needs. And if the private sector can’t plausibly be relied on to create these jobs, then it’s up to government.

Fourth, despite the limited middle-class employment opportunities currently generated by the U.S. economy for Americans with relatively low levels of skills and education, there’s a super-abundance of work for these individuals to do: It’s fixing the nation’s lousy traditional infrastructure and building out the systems of tomorrow.

As widely recognized – except on the libertarian or just-plain-angry Right – today’s rock-bottom interest rates mean that the money’s available without further stressing taxpayers. The economic payoff, meanwhile, is well established – in terms of not only more employment, but stronger current growth, higher productivity, and greater healthy future growth (which generates more tax revenues and therefore healthier national finances).

So there’s no good substantive reason not to launch an historically unprecedented campaign to rebuild America’s roads, bridges, airports, and ports; to maintain them properly once they’re repaired or refurbished; to increase their intelligence with high tech sensors and controllers and the like, and with all the power transmission systems they will require; and to bring the nation’s communications systems up to twenty-first century standards.

And there’s no substantive good reason not to offer inner city residents the jobs needed to meet this challenge at middle class wages, complete with generous benefits.

Conservatives will of course doubt that these programs can be run responsibly, and thus have made them non-starters politically in Washington. But truly functional and properly maintained traditional infrastructure, at least, is hardly rocket science, and the economic benefits would compensate for much of the waste. Just as important, these conservatives need to realize that the money is going to be spent anyway – and has been spent for decades. It’s gone to prisons, which are fantastically expensive, and which arguably worsen the criminality and threats to public safety they’re supposed to be reducing by serving as graduate schools of crime. And it’s gone to various kinds of welfare, whose track record is just as bad, but which most of the public apparently has decided shouldn’t be significantly reduced.

An infrastructure boom wouldn’t solve all of the economic problems besetting U.S. inner cities. But it would be a great start. So the choice seems pretty clear. Americans can keep hurling stale slogans at each other, and trafficking in magical solutions. Or they can focus on empowering their disadvantaged fellow citizens to meet a vital and staggeringly huge but technologically and managerially unexceptional national challenge. The latter is an obvious winner for all Americans – unless you belong to our hopelessly partisan political hustler class.