I withdraw today, a bit, from the endless flow of current events. Diverting as they are, my interest is tempered by my knowledge of the iron law of newspaper journalism: There will always be 126 column inches on a page, and there will always be printed as many pages as are needed to run all the ads sold for that day, even as the quality and importance of the journalistic material available to fill said pages varies. Corollary: Headlines vary in true importance from day to day, and not strictly in proportion to the size of their typeface; or, newspaper editors are fundamentally in the business of selling cars, furniture, TVs and clothes — only incidentally are they in the business of enlightenment, so don’t rely on them for it.
So I take the opportunity to reflect on some timeless topics that are close to my heart: the left’s endless faith in the inherent power of objects, and housing policy. Trust me, there is a connection.
Let us examine the first point. In some sense objects do possess inherent qualities and powers: a couple ounces of gunpowder will propel a hunting bullet with lethal force, or blast a limb off some hapless tourist in Central Park; a couple pounds of hay will feed a horse while doing nothing for a bullet (or a tourist). But mankind in general is prone to magical thinking, which includes ascribing overly extensive, supernatural, or volitional powers to objects which clearly lack them. The political left is especially prone to this; President Obama attributes, for example, almost talismanic significance to firearms when discussing criminal and terrorist violence. The entire Democratic caucus, it seems, has no shame in abasing themselves publicly and abjectly in their fear of a material Satan. Some observers will ascribe to such antics a more cynical motive: fear of the people who would carry such guns (White male Republicans and Black men, principally) and a wish to disarm — weaken — such people. But I think this is both/and: some are acting against targeted people in a calculated way, others are genuinely in thrall to magical thinking and fear the object itself.
Predictably, the left’s primitivism is not limited to guns. They fetishize a myriad of things; the item of interest to me today is housing. Now, a house does possess many inherent qualities and powers. It may have a sound roof which keeps out the rain; it may have well-insulated walls which retain heat in winter. But, as usual, the primitive left ascribes fantastic and extraordinary powers to a humble assemblage of bricks, mortar and wood planks: they believe a house can literally “shape a child’s future” and that it is a possible to “assess the impact of better housing conditions on student performance.” Get — better yet, have the government buy you — some new drapes and Junior’s SAT scores go up by 100 points. Or something.
There is a tiny kernel of truth at the bottom of this; that is, as rational men understand things, there is one principal way in which an otherwise acceptable-seeming house (i.e. not missing a roof, or unheated in the winter) can indeed retard the performance of a resident child: lead poisoning. The most serious source is deteriorated lead paint; small children can ingest the dust and flakes, which elevates lead levels in their blood and poisons their brains. There are other minor sources of lead around the home as well — old pipes and bad drinking water; contaminated gardens soils — but paint is the main one.
But the left’s focus on housing goes far beyond lead paint, fetishizing housing stock in general as both the cause of, and solution to, poor life outcomes of all sorts. “Poor housing conditions were also linked to higher rates of child abuse and familial instability,” found researchers at Case Western University studying Cleveland-wide records, so the solution, obviously, is not to focus on the one material item of scientific significance (lead), but to place “people into better housing” in general. Get new digs with better wall-to-wall carpeting and all of a sudden Daddy stops beating Junior and abandoning Mommy! And junior does better in school! Obviously! They are so fixated on their fetish that, ironically, they miss the point even when they collect the data themselves: “The amount of time a child spent living in housing units that were tax delinquent, in foreclosure, or owned by a speculator had significant effects on kindergarten readiness. . . One factor that seemed to have no correlation with a child’s kindergarten outcomes was living in a home with a low market value.” (Emphasis added.)
So after all this blaming of poor housing stock, it seems, once the facts are in, that merely being poor and living in a run-down house (ever see a cheap house in Cleveland?) will not stunt a child’s development. So what will? When you look closely, you realize it’s not the characteristics of the house per se, but the characteristics of the parents: tendencies to tax delinquency, foreclosure and child abuse.
What is really the most probable mechanism of causation? It is an old, cheap, worn-out house possessed by evil demon spirits which causes erratic parental behavior and backwards child development? Or is it erratic and irresponsible parents who cause a house to be poorly maintained, to go delinquent on its taxes, and to enter foreclosure, who, in their spare time, pass their genes and habits on to their children who develop cognitive and behavioral problems of their own? Would your answer change if I reminded you that intelligence is mostly heritable and mental illness can be tied to genetic markers?
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves: While a rational regard for the power of outside forces is important, so too is a rational regard for the power of human nature. Guns don’t kill people; it’s the finger that pulls the trigger. Yet having more guns in circulation increases the odds of the wrong finger pulling a trigger. Having more bad people in circulation increases those odds as well. Having more armed good people in circulation increases the odds the right finger will pull a trigger, ending a nascent attack. Perhaps it is possible to keep the wrong fingers away from triggers, while minimally inconveniencing the rest of us? I leave this as an exercise for the reader.
Similarly, provision of decent public housing is a laudable humanitarian goal; it keeps people warm, dry and safe. But good public housing doesn’t long stay good if the residents and managers don’t act to keep it that way. Public housing in Singapore and Chicago differs little in the arrangement of bricks and mortar, but vastly in the quality of the people living and working in each. Which is why Singapore’s public housing remains nice, while Chicago’s has politely been described as “hell” by the New York Times.
Modern leftists have regressed towards a primitive mindset: obsessed with totems, fetishes and assorted magical objects. These are signs of a religious faith in formation. Like most religions, this one springs from deeply-seated mental traits; it is designed to solve certain psychological problems, to explain certain inexplicable facts about the world, and to specify certain codes of conduct. It is superstition at its finest.
What psychological problems they’re trying to solve is a discussion for another time.