While the Romney video was making news, I was reading some recent research by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam. He recounts an interview with a woman given the fictional name of Mary Sue, who lives in a declining industrial town in Ohio. Mary Sue’s parents divorced when she was young. Her mother became a stripper and left for days at a time. Her stepmother beat her and confined her to a single room. Mary Sue told the interviewer that, for a time, her only friend had been a yellow mouse who shared the apartment.
Mary Sue went in and out of juvenile detention. One boyfriend burned her arms with cigarettes. Her current partner has two children by two other women.
Is such a story really explainable as a failure of personal responsibility? That seems both simplistic and callous. Putnam describes these social conditions as “depressingly typical” in America’s working class. He measures a number of growing gaps between poorer and more affluent Americans — gaps of parental time and investment, of religious and community involvement, of academic achievement — that widen a class divide and predict a “social mobility crash” for millions of Americans.
This crisis has a number of causes, including the collapse of working-class families, the flight of blue-collar jobs and the decay of working-class neighborhoods, which used to offer stronger networks of mentors outside the home. Perverse incentives in some government programs may have contributed to these changes, but this does not mean that shifting incentives can easily undo the damage. Removing a knife from a patient does not automatically return him to health. Whatever the economic and cultural causes, the current problem is dysfunctional institutions, which routinely betray children and young adults. Restoring a semblance of equal opportunity — promoting family commitment, educational attainment and economic advancement — will take tremendous effort and creative policy.
Gerson goes on to argue for a kind of conservatism that looks to improve civil society rather than retreat into a libertarian world.
A few thoughts:
1. Gerson brings up an important idea: simply removing unhelpful government programs doesn’t necessarily solve the larger social problem. In fact, there may be two issues at stake: a misguided program as well as the social problem. But simply doing nothing doesn’t necessarily rectify the problem either. For example, making certain kinds of discrimination illegal in the 1960s was a big step in the right direction. But, this didn’t immediately equalize the life chances for different groups, particularly those who had endured decades of legal discrimination. There is still work to be done on this front so simply acting like the new law or program has completely solved the problem is false.
2. Note that Gerson is not necessarily calling here for government to tackle all of these issues. Also, he brings up issues that tend to worry conservatives like the decline of the traditional family.
3. Is this what moderate Republicanism looks like?