Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Solutions Close At Hand

If you haven't read Adam Gopnik's terrific piece, "The Caging of America" in the January 30 issue of The New Yorker, then take it from me--you've got to.

Not just because it's a brilliant description of the truly insane way in which our country approaches putting people in prison (and we do have more people in prison than any country on earth, or, as Gopnik reports, the 6 million Americans now incarcerated are more than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin).

And not just because it is another in a very impressive line of pieces published in The New Yorker over the last half dozen years or so that look deep and hard at a difficult social problem and analyze just how and why we got where we are, and what really can and should be done about it--from gang violence in cities to cost overruns in hospitals.

The reason to read this piece is that it is an absolutely perfect template for what this country needs now, more than ever: solutions that work for problems that matter.

And we need to avoid fads, superficial remedies posing as serious solutions, false correlations that fail to prove causality, and catch phrases from any source that sound a lot better than they actually are.

So what's Gopnik say?

That America is brutally over-prisoned. The data are ugly.

More than half of all black men without a high school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives

In the past twenty years, the money spent on prisons has risen at a rate six times the rate of spending on higher education.

He describes how we got here: two different schools of thought about crime and punishment.

He points out the 2005 annual report of the Corrections Corporation of America, the biggest private sector company to which prison management contracts have been given, and chillingly points out that the company discloses that, the only real threat to its continued profitability would be if the supply of convicted criminals were to decrease. In other words, as long as we have crime and punishment, capitalism will triumph.

But the piece really gets interesting, turns an intellectual corner, when Gopnik reveals that crime in the streets of American cities--New York, for instance--has gone done as the prison population has gone up. This, despite the fact that 30 years ago or so, most people had pretty much resigned themselves to a future where a certain level of urban crime was simply a given.

Gopnik asks, what's the explanation--and brilliantly comments on the side: "things that work interest us less than things that don't." Exactly!

So what is the explanation?

He draws from a new book, "The City That Became Safe," written by Franklin Zimring, first telling us how rounding up the usual explanations doesn't suffice: it isn't demographic shifts, or jailing super predators, reducing the number of unwed mothers, changing the culture of welfare, alleviating poverty, reducing discrimination. It turns out the much-trumpeted "broken windows" strategy didn't do it, nor did cracking down on "turnstile jumping."

So what's the answer?

"Small acts of social engineering, designed simply to stop crimes from happening, helped stop crime."

The police put more cops in places where crimes were known to happen a lot--"hot spot policing."

The police used a program of "stop and frisk" (which Gopnik acknowledges is controversial).

Another key, common-sense insight: "Criminal activity seems like most other human choices--a question of contingent occasions and opportunity. Crime is not the consequence of a set number of criminals," he writes. "Criminals are the consequence of a set number of opportunities to commit crimes."

Toward the end of his piece, Gopnik reaches some very smart, plain-spoken conclusions.

We rarely find that a miracle cure is what cures a horrible disease. Most of the time, it's a small, common-sense approach to a problem that yields an over-sized benefit. Want to drive down the incidence of disease? Try better plumbing and more frequent hand-washing.

Most of the time, with most of our problems today, the literature--whether in books, op-ed pieces, or video talks on the web--is filled with hand-wringing and hopelessness. We can't fix public education until . . . We won't be able to remedy our health care system unless . . . There's no hope for the economy without . . .

And most of the time, we already have the answers to these problems. Right in front of us. Simple solutions that yield real results. Petrie dish sized projects, experiments, programs that actually work.

Adam Gopnik's piece reminds us of three things, three important truths: we need to stop focusing on the intractability of problems, and instead look hard at solutions that work; we need to be driven by tough-minded pragmatism, hard-headed empiricism, not fuzzy-headed ideology, and insist on real data and honest analysis; and we need to think small, think close to the ground, think practical.

If we do that, we'll not only discover how we got so deeply into some of these problems, we'll also learn that we're a lot closer to the solutions than we give ourselves credit for.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb