Sunday, May 17, 2015

Act One

In the end, the problem with pragmatism is that it slides into cynicism. And even if it doesn’t then metastasize into despair, it can create sense of futility. After a tip-off from a fellow Google+ user, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Million-Dollar Murray,” about homelessness and the “power law” distribution thereof. Picture a graph where, as you move from left to right along the X axis, the Y axis rises only slowly - until you come up on the far right edge of the distribution, at which point the Y axis suddenly rockets into the stratosphere. That’s a “power law” distribution. You see it in such things as wealth distribution in the United States or use-of-force complaints against police officers. And you see it in homelessness, where, as the article points out, most people who are homeless at some point are only in that condition for a short period of time. But then there are a comparatively few people for whom homelessness is a way of life - and that’s where all of the money goes. Removing these people from the streets and putting them into supportive housing would save us millions of dollars a year (assuming we didn’t redirect the savings into services for the less catastrophically homeless). And it would remove people from a situation that Americans are constantly decrying.

It is very much ingrained in me that you do not manage a social wrong. You should be ending it.
Philip Mangano, former executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness
Seems logical. I don’t know that I could find anyone who would sincerely say that a social wrong should be allowed to persist indefinitely. But before you ask yourself why we don’t seem committed to ending the social wrong we are confronted with, ask yourself what social wrong people perceive.

One of the important points that Mr. Gladwell makes about a problem with a power law distribution is a simple one: “But from a moral perspective it doesn’t seem fair.” Being in a difficult spot abd managing it to the best of one’s ability, so as to stay out of the right-hand spike at the end of the distribution means, when there are not enough resources to go around, not receiving the help that the hard cases get - even when the hard cases seem singularly disinterested in helping themselves. As a result, Mr. Gladwell notes, “Our usual moral intuitions are little use, then, when it comes to a few hard cases. Power-law problems leave us with an unpleasant choice. We can be true to our principles or we can fix the problem. We cannot do both.”
Thousands of people in the Denver area no doubt live day to day, work two or three jobs, and are eminently deserving of a helping hand—and no one offers them the key to a new apartment. Yet that’s just what the guy screaming obscenities and swigging Dr. Tich gets. When the welfare mom’s time on public assistance runs out, we cut her off. Yet when the homeless man trashes his apartment we give him another.
The pragmatic solution is a simple one. We simply jettison our “usual moral intuitions” around concepts of fairness and deserving. After all, these are not physical traits of the world around us. The world is full of unfairness, and bad things happen to presumably undeserving good people all the time. It’s part of the reason why so many people refer to the Just-World Hypothesis as a fallacy. Or, to be a bit more colorful about it, “Believing that life is fair might make you a terrible person(” There is a whole segment of religious study devoted to Theodicy, defined by Merriam-Webster as “: defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil.” We worry about the “goodness and omnipotence” of a deity, rather than our own commitment and effectiveness. Because instead, the common impulse is to reject Mr. Gladwell’s contention, and believe that, regardless of how great a gulf a neutral observer might see between following our principles and the solution to the problem, that they are one in the same thing - that close adherence to our principles of fairness and deserving will inevitably lead to the solution we want. Or, to be more precise, if other people were to adhere to our principles, they would solve the problem. It’s a brilliant strategy, one that allows for a self-proclaimed commitment to the issue, but that also places the responsibility in the hands of people who are in dire straits to begin with.

That idea isn’t going away any time soon, and the pragmatic thing to do is to understand that. But doing that means understanding that what we are doing now is futile. In doing a little bit for every homeless person in the name of being fair, we’re not solving the problem. And oftentimes, our standards of who we consider deserving are so stringent that we can hardly be said to be living up to our principles - after all, even when we’re not simply handing the keys to subsidized apartments to the chronically homeless, we’re not giving them to the person working three jobs, either.

The conclusion that one draws from Mr. Gladwell’s piece, one that Mr. Gladwell himself appears to draw, is that we’re not invested in solutions. We’re invested in our own comfort; we’re invested in making sure that we feel good about what’s going on. And we’re willing to pay a high monetary price for that - and for others to pay a high price in suffering. But that’s the way it is - it’s part of human nature. Right and wrong are often invisible to us. But we understand what feels right and what feels wrong, and with no other way by which to judge, we place our feelings at the top of our priority list. And so we find ourselves trapped in Solutions Theater, where the appearance of marrying “our usual moral intuitions” and workable solutions to the problem becomes a cover for the fact that none of it is real.

No comments: