Doing Business vs. Righteous Indignation

Sunday, July 18th, 2010

In moving from smoke-filled rooms to talk-filled rooms, our modern political system, Edward Banfield says, has become less effective in finding the terms on which people can act together and live together in peace:

The upper-class ideal recommends participation as intrinsically good, but unfortunately, the more participants there are, the larger the number of issues that must be dealt with and the greater the disagreements about each. The ideal also requires that issues be settled on their merits, not by logrolling, and that their merits be conceived of in terms of general moral principles that may not, under any circumstances, be compromised. In the smoke-filled room, it was party loyalty and private interest that mainly moved men; these motives alway permitted “doing business.” In the talk-filled room, righteous indignation is the main motive, and therefore the longer the talk continues, the clearer it becomes to each side that the other must either be shouted down or knocked down.

(From The Unheavenly City Revisited.)

Always Have Something to Say

Saturday, July 17th, 2010

In our modern political system, Edward Banfield says, the politician, like the TV news commentator, must always have something to say — even when nothing urgently needs to be said:

If he lived in a society without problems, he would have to invent some (and of course “solutions” along with them) in order to attract attention and to kindle the interest and enthusiasm needed to carry him into office and enable him, once there, to levy taxes and do the other unpopular things of which governing largely consists.

Although in the society that actually exists there are many problems, there are still not enough — enough about which anyone can say or do anything very helpful — to meet his constant need from program material. Moreover, the real and important problems are not necessarily the ones that people want to hear about; a politician may be able to attract more attention and create more enthusiasm — and thus better serve his purpose, which is to generate power with which to take office and govern — by putting real problems in an unreal light or by presenting illusory ones as if they were real.

The politician (again like the TV news commentator) can never publicly discuss an important matter with the seriousness that it deserves; time is short, ifs, ands, and buts make tedious listening, and there are always some in the audience who will be confused or offended by what is said and others who will try to twist it into a weapon that they can use against the speaker. Besides, the deeper a discussion goes, the less likelihood of reaching an outcome that the politician can use to generate support.

(From The Unheavenly City Revisited.)

Regulated by Talk

Friday, July 16th, 2010

Middle-class-ification has made public opinion more perverse, Edward Banfield argues, and more important:

Half a century or more ago, the basis of city and state political power — and therefore, to a large extent, of national political power as well — was the machine. The bosses who ran it kept themselves in power by dispensing patronage and by trading in ethnic, sectional, and party loyalties, and therefore could pretty well disregard public opinion when it suited them to do so.

Middle- and upper-class-ification rendered this system obsolete and brought into being one in which the politician, in order to compete successfully for office, has to combine offers of benefits to classes of voters (homeowners, taxpayers, and so on) with appeals to general ideas and conceptions of the public interest. Whereas the old system had promised personal rewards, the new one promises social reforms.

Accordingly, the smoke-filled room was replaced with the talk-filled one: “The amount of talk which is now expended on all subjects of human interest is something of which a previous age has had not the smallest conception,” E.L. Godkin remarked at the end of the last [19th] century, adding that “the affairs of nations and of men will be more and more regulated by talk.” But even Godkin, since he did not anticipate television, had not the smallest conception of the extent to which affairs would be regulated by talk in our day.

(From The Unheavenly City Revisited.)

A Chance to Flex Their Moral Muscles

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Edward Banfield explains how reasonable policy suggestions get dismissed as unacceptable, even repellent, because they do not seem morally improving:

It does not appear to be improving to a youth to send him to work rather than to school, especially as this is what is in one’s interest as a taxpayer to do. It does not appear to be improving to a recidivist to keep him in jail pending trial, especially as this is what accords with one’s feelings of hostility toward him. It does not appear to be improving to a slum dweller to say that if he has an adequate income but prefers to spend it for things other than housing he must not expect the public to intervene, especially as it is in one’s “selfish” interest that the public not intervene.

In reality, the doing of good is not so much for the benefit of those to whom the good is done as it is for that of the doers, whose moral faculties are activated and invigorated by the doing of it, and for that of the community, the shared values of which are ritually asserted and vindicated by the doing of it.

For this reason, good done otherwise than by intention, especially good done in pursuance of ends that are selfish or even “nontuistic,” is not really “good” at all. For this reason, too, actions taken from good motives count as good even when in fact they do harm.

By far the most effective way of helping the poor is to keep profit-seekers competing vigorously for their trade as consumers and for their services as workers; this, however, is not a way of helping that affords members of the upper classes the chance to flex their moral muscles or the community the chance to dramatize its commitment to the values that hold it together. The way to do these things is with a War on Poverty; even if the War should turn out to have precious little effect on the incomes of the poor — indeed, even if it should lower their incomes — the undertaking would nevertheless represent a sort of secular religious revival that affords the altruistic classes opportunities to bear witness to the cultural ideal and, by doing so, to strengthen society’s adherence to it.

One recalls Macaulay’s remark about the attitude of the English Puritans toward bear-baiting: that they opposed it not for the suffering that it caused the bear but for the pleasure that it gave the spectators.

Perhaps it is not far-fetched to say that the present-day outlook is similar: the reformer wants to improve the situation of the poor, the black, the slum dweller, and so on, not so much to make them better off materially as to make himself and the whole society better off morally.

(From The Unheavenly City Revisited.)

Why Public Opinion Is Perverse

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

Edward Banfield explains why public opinion is perverse:

An answer sometimes given is that in matters such as these it is generally dominated by the opinion of the well-educated and well-off. These people (so the argument runs) are indifferent to or downright hostile to the interest of the less well-off and the poor. In short, the “masses” are against the recommended measures because they have been misled by an elite that is looking after its own interests.

The trouble with this theory is that with respect to most measures it runs counter to the facts. The well-off are not benefited by an increase in the minimum wage or by any other measures that price low-value labor out of the market and onto the welfare rolls. They are not benefited by laws that keep children who cannot or will not learn in schools that they (the well-off) must support. They are not benefited by the making of sweeping charges about “white racism” or by crisis-mongering of any kind.

Public opinion is indeed decisively influenced in many matters by the opinion of the well-educated and well-off. But this opinion, which reflects the “service” ideal of the upper class, tends to be altruistic. And it is precisely this altruistic bias that accounts for its pervisity.

The American political style was formed largely in the upper classes and, within those classes, mainly by people of dissenting-Protestant and Jewish traditions. Accordinaly, it is oriented toward the future and toward moral and material progress, for the individual and for the society as a whole. The American is confident that with a sufficient effort all difficulties can be overcome and all problems solved, and he feels a strong obligation to try to improve not only himself but everything else: his community, his society, the whole world.

Ever since the days of Cotton Mather, whole Bonifacius was a how-to-do-it book on the doing of good, service has been the American motto. To be sure, practice has seldom entirely corresponded to principles. The principles, however, have always been influential and they have sometimes been decisive. They can be summarized in two very simple rules: first, Don’t just sit there. Do something! and second, Do good!

These two rules contribute to the perversity that characterizes the choice of measures for dealing with the urban “crisis.” From the President on down everyone (almost everyone) enjoys the feeling of exhilaration when a bold step is taken, and that enjoyment is no less when, as it almost always must be, the step is taken blindfold.

Believing that any problem can be solved if only we try hard enough, we do not hesitate to attempt what we do not have the least idea of how to do and what, in some instances, reason and experience both tell us cannot be done. Not recognizing any bounds to what is feasible, we are not reconciled to — indeed, we do not even perceive — the necessity, so frequently arising, of choosing the least objectionable among courses of action that are all very unsatisfactory.

That some children simply cannot be taught much in school is one example of a fact that the American mind will not entertain. Our cultural ideal requires that we give every child a good education whether he want it or not and whether he is capable of receiving it or not. If at first we don’t succeed, we must try, try again. And if in the end we don’t succeed, we must feel guilty for our failure. To lower the school-leaving age would be, in the terms of this secular religion, a shirking of the task for which we were chosen.

(From The Unheavenly City Revisited.)

Irish Immigrants versus Russian Jews

Monday, July 12th, 2010

Edward Banfield draws a distinction between the poor and the lower-class. The poor lack wealth. The lower-class lack patience — they seek instant gratification. This explains mortality rates in the 19th century:

Probably the lower-class poor died from want more often than did the other poor; certainly they died more often from syphilis, excessive drinking, accidents, and homicide. It is probably indicative of differences in class culture that, at the turn of the century, the life expectancy at age ten of the Irish immigrant was only thirty-eight years, whereas for the Russian Jew (who did not brawl or drink and whose religious observances probably had some hygienic value), it was a little more than fifty.

(From The Unheavenly City Revisited).

The Unintended Effects of Middle-Class-Ification

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

In The Unheavenly City Revisited (1974), Edward Banfield discusses the “race” riots of the 1960s, and he makes the point that the lower classes were no longer tied to the institutions that used to restrain them:

Racial discrimination, although obviously a factor, is not the main thing that cuts them off from these institutions; rather, what cuts them off is the changes that have occurred in the nature of the institutions because of the “middle-class-ification” of the population in this country.

In the last century, for example, the volunteer fire company gave boys and young men of the lower classes opportunities to express high spirits under conditions that were to some degree controlled: the firemen fought each other, usually for the ‘honor” of their companies. Today, of course, fire departments are run on a professional basis and are open only to mature men who have placed well in an examination.

More or less the same thing has happened in politics. Not so long ago party machines labored to establish claims on even the lowest of the low; the trading of jobs and favors in return for loyalty tended to create some sort of bond between the individual and the government. Now that the machine, precinct captain, and corner saloon have been replaced by the welfare bureaucracy, the nonpartisan election, and the candidate who makes his appeal on television, the lower classes no longer participate in politics and are therefore no longer held by any of the old ties.

Even in criminal activities there has been the same trend. Like fire-fighting and politics, the money-making kinds of crime (as opposed to “kid stuff”) are organized in such a way as to exclude — and therefore to exert no discipline up — the irresponsible and incapable.

Commuting Before Cars

Saturday, July 10th, 2010

Until fairly recently, everyone commuted by foot, and real estate in the center of the city was quite desirable. Early commuting technologies didn’t quite change that:

In the 1830s the large cities — New York, Boston, and Philadelphia — saw the introduction of omnibuses which were usually drawn by two horses and carried twelve to fifteen passenger at a fixed far over a fixed route. Because of high fares and low speeds commuting for more than ten miles from the city center was out of the question.

In the early 1850s a horsecar on rails appeared in New York. It cost less to operate and made more frequent stops. Until the end of the Civil War most of the larger cities had single routes which, if they ran more than a half mile beyond the built-up area, reached real estate developments owned by the transportation company.

The more propserous member of the middle class now tended to live in town houses arranged in rows: the terraced brownstone rows of the large eastern cities date from this period.

After the Civil War horsecar routes were extended somewhat, and during the 1870s and 18880s, when deflation reduced costs, manyof the lines were built out to about four miles from the city center — a journey of half to three-quarters of an hour.

According to David Ward (whose account has been paraphrsed in most of the foregoing), many of the extensions were initially designed to serve outlying hospitals, cemetaries, and parks. The Weekedn and holiday use of these lines sustained them until adjacent residential developments supported commuter services.
The first elevated steam railroads were built in New York in the 1870s, and twenty years later every sizable city had an electric trolley system.

From Edward Banfield’s The Unheavenly City Revisited (1974).

Tenantry Comfort

Friday, July 9th, 2010

In 1857 a select committee of the state legislature described the forces that were shaping New York:

As our wharves became crowded with warehouses, and encompassed with bustle and noise, the wealthier citizens, who peopled old “Knickerbocker” mansions, near the bay, transferred their residence to streets beyond the din; compensating for remoteness from the counting houses, by the advantages of increased quiet and luxury.

Their habitations then passed into the hands, on the one side, of boarding house keepers, on the other, of real estate agents; and here, in its beginning, the tenant house became a real blessing to that class of industrious poor whose small earnings limited their expenses and whose employment in workshops, stores, and about the wharves and thoroughfares, rendered a near residence of much importance. At this period, rents were moderate, and a mechanic with family could hire two or more comfortable and even commodious apartments, in a house once occupied by wealthy people, for less than half what he his now obliged to pay for narrow and unhealthy quarters.

This state of tenantry comfort did not, however, continue for long; for the rapid march of improvement speedily enhanced the value of property in the lower wards of the city, and as this took place, rents rose, and accommodations decreased in the same proportion. At first the better class of tenants submitted to retain their single floors, or two and three rooms, at the onerous rates, but this rendered them poorer, and those who were able to do so, followed the example of former proprietors, and emigrated to the upper wards.

The spacious dwelling houses then fell before improvements, or languished for a season, as tenant houses of the type which is now the prevailing evil of our city; that is to say, their large rooms were partitioned into several smaller ones (without regard to proper light or ventilation), the rates of rent being lower in proportion to space or height from the street; and they soon became filled, from cellar to garret, with a class of tenantry living from hand to mouth, loose in morals, improvident in habits, degraded or squalid as beggary itself.

Cited by Edward Banfield The Unheavenly City Revisited (1974).

Our urban problems are like the mechanical rabbit at the racetrack

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

Our urban problems are like the mechanical rabbit at the racetrack, Edward Banfield says, which is set to keep just ahead of the dogs no matter how fast they may run:

Consider the poverty problem, for example. Irving Kristol has pointed out that for nearly a century all studies, in all countries, have concluded that a third, a fourth, or a fifth of the nation in question is below the poverty line.

“Obviously,” he remarks, “if one defines the poverty line as that which places one-fifth of the nation below it, then one-fifth of the nation will always be below the poverty line.” The point is that even if everyone is better off there will be as much poverty as ever, provided that the line is redefined upwards.

Kristol notes that whereas in the depths of the Depression, F.D.R. found only one-third of the nation “ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” Leon Keyserling, a former head of the council of Economic Advisors, in 1962 published a book called Poverty and Deprivation in the U.S. — the Plight of Two-Fifths of a Nation.

Similarly, police brutality has gone from meaning cracking skulls to attacking personal dignity with unjustified questioning and searches:

Following Kristol, one can say that if the “police brutality line” is defined as that which places one-fifth of all police behavior below it, then one-fifth of all police behavior will always be brutal.

The school dropout problem is a more striking example:

At the turn of the century, when almost everyone was a dropout, the term and the “problem” did not exist. It was not until the 1960s, when for the first time a majority of boys and girls were graduating from high school and practically all had at least some high school training, that the “dropout problem” became acute.
Obviously, if one defines the “inadequate amount of schooling line” as that which places one-fifth of all boys and girls below it, then one-fifth of all boys and girls will always be receiving an inadequate amount of schooling.

From The Unheavenly City Revisited (1974).

American cities have frequently grown at fantastic rates

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

During the 1960s, the population of American metropolitan areas increased by nearly 17 percent, Edward Banfield notes — in The Unheavenly City Revisited (1974) — but this should not be cause for alarm:

American cities have frequently grown at fantastic rates (consider the growth of Chicago from a prairie village of 4,470 in 1840 to a metropolis of more than a million in fifty years).


Crime Is An Inner-Big-City Problem

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

In The Unheavenly City Revisited (1974), Edward Banfield notes how many urban problems only affect parts of cities:

Crime is a partial exception, but in Chicago (so the Violence Commission was told) a person who lives in the inner city faces a yearly risk of 1 in 77 of being assaulted whereas for those who live in the better areas of the city the risk is only 1 in 2,000 and for those who live in the rich suburbs only 1 in 10,000.

So, things are one order of magnitude safer in the suburbs than the city, and one order of magnitude worse in the inner city than in the good parts. I suppose that sounds about right.

The Price of Solving City Problems

Monday, July 5th, 2010

Not long ago, London introduced congestion pricing to improve traffic conditions there. New York City still hasn’t managed to do this. In The Unheavenly City Revisited (1974), Edward Banfield makes it clear that congestion pricing was already the obvious solution decades ago:

The “price” of solving, or alleviating, some much-talked-about city problems, it would appear from this, may be largely political. Keeping congestion at low levels at peak hours would necessitate placing high toll charges on roads at the very times when most people want to use them; some would regard this as grossly unfair (as indeed in a way it would be) and so the probabilities are that if any official had the authority to make the decision (none does, which is part of the problem) he would not raise tolls at rush hours for fear of being voted out of office.

A statement frequently used to alarm luncheon groups

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

In The Unheavenly City Revisited (1974), Edward Banfield shares a statement frequently used to alarm luncheon groups of the time — that more than 70 percent of the population “now” (c. 1970) lives in urban places, and that this number may increase to nearly 90 percent in the next two decades (c. 1990):

This is true in one sense but false in another. It is true that most people live closer physically and psychologically to a big city than ever before; rural occupations and a rural tyle of life are no longer widespread. On the other hand, the percentage of the population living in cities of 250,000 or more (there are only fifty-six of them) is about the same now as it was in 1920.

In Census terminology an “urban place” is any settlement having a population of 2,500 or more; obviously places of 2,500 are not what we have in mind when we use words like “urban” and “city.”

He goes on to note that the average population density of urban areas has dropped from 5,408 per square mile in 1950 to 3,753 in 1960, to 3,376 in 1970.

This led me to check just how dense the densest cities are today, and I was reminded that the densest cities in the world are largely in the Philippines, Indonesia, and India — with a few notable exceptions.

The 12th-densest city in the world is in France — and yet I’d never heard of it. That’s because Levallois-Perret is a suburb of Paris — a very dense suburb, with almost 68,000 people per square mile.

Manila, the densest city in the world, squeezes almost 111,000 people into a square mile.

I went down the list looking for New York City or Manhattan, but the only US city to make this list is  — Union City? Union City is a tiny 1.25 square mile sliver of New Jersey, just outside New York City.

This is clearly a game of definitions. For instance, Guttenberg, also in New Jersey and part of the NYC metro area, is the densest incorporated place in the US  — 56,000/sq. mi. Union City comes in second amongst incorporated places — 53,000/sq. mi.  New York City comes in fifth — with just 26,000/sq. mi.

If we break out the five boroughs of New York City, we find that Manhattan is indeed quite dense — 67,000/sq. mi. — but Manhattan doesn’t count as a city proper.

I also went down that international list looking for Tokyo. Not there. Its population density is just 15,000/sq. mi. Odd.


Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Devin Finbarr recently addressed the decline of Detroit and other cities by suggesting some reading:

The Slaughter of the Cities, Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism, Bridging the River of Hatred. Banfield is also a great source, and his books are free online. Check out the chapter in The Unheavenly City, “Rioting mainly for fun and profit”.

I followed the link and came across these Banfield-isms:

  • “Do no good and no harm will come of it.”
  • “Those who cannot learn cannot be taught; those who can learn don’t need to be taught.”
  • “If you don’t want people to find out about something, don’t do it.”
  • “Social scientists should never try to predict the future; they have trouble enough predicting the past.”
  • “A Unitarian is a lapsed Christian. I’m a lapsed Unitarian.”

The preface to The Unheavenly City opens with these words:

This book will probably strike many readers as the work of an ill-tempered and mean-spirited fellow.