Tag: social engineering

Thursday Links

Race and Homeownership: Historical Trends

A common rationale for federal policies to expand homeownership is the desire to reduce observed racial differences in homeownership.  Receiving the most attention has been the gap in homeownership rates between white households and African-American.  The current homeownership rate for whites is 76.5%  (2007), while that for African-Americans is 54%, leaving a gap of 22.5%.

Limitations on available data have made observations prior to 1940 difficult (1940 was the first “Census of Housing”).  A new working paper adds to our understanding by constructing a time series back to 1870, using previous Census data.  The findings are quite surprising.

In 1870 the gap between white and African-American homeownership rates stood at an astonishing 48.8 percent.  As mentioned, this gap in 2007 was 22.5%, representing a 26.3 percentage point decline.  However, of that 26.3 narrowing, 25.3 occurred before 1910.  That is correct, almost all of the decline in the racial homeownership gap occurred before we had any national policies targeting said gap.  Given all the massive resources that have been devoted to pushing homeownership, it is somewhat surprising that these policies have made almost no difference in the racial homeownership gap.

Obviously homeownership rates in general, and by race, have steadily increased (until the recent bursting of the housing bubble), but these rates largely increased the same across racial groups.  We should also note that the vast majority, if not all, of the racial homeownership gap is explained by factors such as age, income, family status, wealth and local housing costs (see Coulson and Dalton forthcoming).  Given what little impact these policies have had, and their significant costs, it should be clear that we, as a society, would be better off abandoning efforts to socially engineer a specific homeownership rate, either for the population in general or by racial group.

Are Our Goals in Afghanistan ‘Fairly Modest’?

In an interview that aired yesterday on CBS’s Early Show, President Obama said his objective for Afghanistan is “fairly modest.”

On its face, the mission seems modest enough: “don’t allow terrorists to operate from this region; don’t allow them to create big training camps and to plan attacks against the US homeland with impunity.” In reality, such a policy is not modest in the least. A commitment to never allow terrorists to resurface not only serves as a convenient rationale to prolong the mission but also as an open-ended justification to intervene anywhere in the world without hesitation.

Moreover, the president claims that strengthening the capacity of a sovereign Afghan government will enhance America’s security, but the basis of this correlation is never explicitly clarified. It’s also unclear how promoting “a more capable, accountable and effective” Afghan government; cracking down on the cultivation of illegal narcotics; providing economic assistance to a Pakistani government that supports the very insurgents our soldiers are fighting; and enforcing Western rule of law is “fairly modest.” To imagine that we can create a functioning economy and bring major improvements to state institutions through some “government in a box,” social-engineering laboratory underscores the ignorance and arrogance of our government planners.

If indeed our goal is to monitor terrorists and prevent the creation of big training camps, rather than propping up a failed state, U.S. leaders should scale-down to a narrower counterterrorism mission that can assemble quickly and strike effectively and cheaply at “real” enemies.

Lately, it has become popular to endorse peace talks with the Taliban. After nearly a decade at war, any face-saving way out sounds intuitively appealing. But this policy prescription is not the panacea that it is made out be. Indeed, such a power-sharing deal may open a Pandora’s box.

For the U.S. and NATO, the red line to their nation-building endeavor is the Afghan constitution. Not only is this document the foundation of Afghanistan’s democratic political institutions (wobbly and imperfect as they may be), but it also enshrines the legal and political rights of the Afghan people we ostensibly seek to protect. For the U.S. and NATO to scale down its presence in Afghanistan–and because there is no assurance that the Taliban will adhere to these new political and social conditions–peace talks implicitly demand a third-party with the wherewithal to enforce the terms of any power-sharing agreement. Enter: a prolonged U.S.-NATO occupation of Afghanistan.

Unless the Taliban acquiesce to the norms introduced since the 2001 invasion, there is little to stop them from committing actions in flagrant violation of any shared agreement. In this respect, peace talks with the senior Taliban leadership must commit the residual presence of U.S. troops long after our official date of withdrawal.

In short, no agreement, law, treaty, or contract is self-reinforcing. And unless the United States is prepared to enforce the conditions of a power-sharing agreement, it should  renounce its commitment to spread the legal rights articulated in the Afghan constitution.

Weekend Links

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Neocons, Progressives, and the Impulse to Bully

Bart Hinkle makes some interesting observations in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the unfortunate similarities between neoconservatives and progressives. Progressives, he says (and of course they’re not really for progress, so they might better be called left-liberals), spent the Bush years criticizing “bullying,” “heavy-handed meddling,” and even “neoconservative theories of social engineering.” They preferred “soft power.”

Yet turn the subject to domestic policy, and what happens? Progressives eagerly embrace the use of coercive hard power to achieve their aims. Force industry to adopt a cumbersome cap-and-trade policy to reduce carbon emissions? Check. Force the country to adopt a health care “public option”? Check. Threaten people with fines and even prison to impose an individual mandate? Check.

So much for the concern about “social engineering” and well-intentioned but “heavy-handed meddling.” When it comes to domestic policy, progressives are just as eager as neocons are to embrace “expansive dreams” and “gargantuan plans.” Just as hopelessly romantic about what the threat of force can achieve. And just as arrogant about the rightness of wielding it.

After some more critical analysis of the inconsistency of the left, Hinkle concludes:

Of course, everything that has just been said about progressives could be turned with equal validity against conservatives of the talk-radio right – many of whom think Americans should push the rest of the world around, but leave one another the heck alone.

If only there were an alternative to heavy-handed liberals and heavy-handed conservatives…