Wishful Thinking

Note to readers: Before reading this post, you might want to read the comment by Irwin Singer in the comments section in “A Time for Reckoning,” posted on July 3.

In comments posted on the blog a couple of days ago (“A Time For Reckoning”), my friend, Irwin Singer, made several contrarian and thoughtful points. His first major point was that it is wishful thinking on my part to think that Democrats, if they are in control,  will be able to make much of a difference since extreme poverty still exists, especially among people of color, despite billions of dollars spent by Democrats over the years on what Irwin sees as failed programs. Why should anyone think that things would be different now? His second major point was that the cause of poverty has more to do with sociological and lifestyle issues than government policy and that if three things happened among the people of color who are also poor,  this would go a long way to solving the problem: finishing high school, avoiding having (or fathering) babies out of wedlock, and keeping a first job. The implication is that bleeding heart Democrats are guilty of casting dispersion on hard-nosed realists whom they tend to demonize as racists or uncaring when these “conservatives” actually have a more accurate of understanding of the way the world is and what works and what doesn’t.

Irwin’s comments, I think, probably are representative of what used to be mainstream, conservative thinking and are not totally without merit. I, however, am Exhibit A of a bleeding-heart idealist. I plead guilty to wishful thinking.  However, while far from perfect, the “progressive” approach is the far better choice, compared to four more years of Trump. It stands a far better chance of at least softening the blow of poverty, racism, and inequality than business-as-usual or “benign neglect” as recommended by Senator Daniel Moynihan, who was the first to encourage this policy under Richard Nixon, as pointed out by Irwin. It also means we have a better shot at combating global warming.

I also realize that human nature, being what it is, the “rational” arguments offered by the “other side” often fall on deaf ears. I could cite some of the progressive accomplishments like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, minimum wage, civil rights and fair housing legislation, and programs like Head Start, SNAP (food stamps) and the Peace Corps, recognizing that while none of these initiatives is perfect, each one has done more good than harm. We have made “progress,” albeit too slow and far from perfect.

I also believe that a major driver behind increasing inequality and the civil malaise and unrest is  globalization, which has both good and bad outcomes. And we have not yet figured out how to deal with this.

And I certainly do not agree that we should ignore the root causes of why people behave the way they do. Some people were dealt a lot stronger hand of cards than others. It is not so easy to change human behavior.

But I also know the that I won’t convince those who have another world view. I have had a lot of friends over the years who were and are conservatives. I respect and honor them. Many of my clients in my affordable housing and seniors housing practice would certainly fall into this category. I had and still have great affection for many of these clients—mainly developers and non profit, faith-based, seniors housing corporations. They are good people. I understand where they are coming from. We can agree to disagree on questions of politics.

That Democrats have all the answers, however, was not intended to be the main point of my blog on “reckoning.” We don’t. The intended point of my blog was that the only alternative that we have to Trump is to elect Joe Biden as president and, if we are going to change direction of the country, to control the Senate as well as the House. No, it will not be perfect. Yes, mistakes will be made, and poverty and racism will not be eliminated. But under the Democrats, it will be far better than what we have now or what we will get with four more years of Trump. At least it will give us a shot.

So while I stand by my positions in “The Time For Reckoning” post, I also appreciate hearing views on the other side. But I will end with the same comment that I made on my “Reckoning” post. If Trump wins a second term….

God help us.


11 thoughts on “Wishful Thinking

  1. I read Irwin Singer’s comment with great interest. It brought to mind a resident of my small town Georgia home, Dr. Robert Tucker, a LaGrange native who is our age and retired. He was educated in the LaGrange segregated public schools and went on to obtain a degree in mathematics from Moorehouse and doctorate in education from Clark Atlanta University, both historically black schools. He is black.
    His career was as an educator in the Atlanta metro public schools. He retired several years ago and moved back here. By choice, he resides in a more challenged black neighborhood, eschewing the middle class professional one.
    I first ran across him when he spoke to our Rotary club three or four years ago. In describing his efforts to improve his own neighborhood, he made the following astonishing (to me) statement. I will paraphrase as it was a few years back. He said that no amount of government money or programs could solve “our problems for us,. We must solve our problems for ourselves.” At the conclusion of his remarks, a visitor from New Orleans, also black, congratulated him on the courage of his remarks, and then went on to opine that if he were to say such things in New Orleans he might find himself with a price on his head. That was astonishing too.

    I know he is active in the local affordable housing initiative as well as working to improve neighborhood safety. He also works with the public schools to encourage minority students from pre K through two years after high school.

    Some of my more liberal friends here have tried to work to improve the lot of the black underclass. ( Not all fall into that category.) The common refrain is that the color of their own skin is a significant hurdle in their attempts at meaningful results. There is simply too much residual mistrust.

    It is undeniable that half a century into the Great Society, the plight of the black underclass is as bad as ever. Blacks are afraid of police. They are also afraid of the nastier elements in their own society. Maybe what is needed is more Robert Tuckers.

    All that said, the nation’s number one priority right now is to show the door to the current resident of The White House.


    1. Jim, I agree with your sentiment about Trump and the example of Robert Tucker. All of my black friends are ‘Robert Tuckers.’ I indeed to follow up on the issue of ignoring this ‘reality on the ground’ later.

  2. Joe,
    I love this dialogue. Jim’s comments are spot on. With that said, I think we would all agree that four more years of Trump is not acceptable. If, for no other reason, he is not a good person – a narcissistic strong man, who uses divisiveness to hide his failings as a leader.

    However, we would be kidding ourselves if we believe that having the Democrats control the White House and both chambers will fix these problems. Throwing money at problems do not fix problems. The Romans demonstrated that two thousand years ago, as did our most recent legislation that provided billions of dollars to help small businesses – which, by the way, failed miserably.

    I am not a conservative, and I am not a liberal. I am a compassionate realist. Having grown up in poverty with a single mom with four kids on welfare, I can speak authentically on the subject of what it is like to try to climb out of the underclass. It is hard. And here is the kicker. I am white. I have the benefit of white privilege. Once I had a college degree and an MBA from one of the finest public universities in the United States, there was nothing, at least on the surface (I had even worked hard to lose my accent in college), that would indicate that I grew up as Poor white trash. I am just being blunt. I believe that if the color of my skin had been different, it would have been even more difficult – not impossible, just even harder.

    Two true stories to illustrate the difficulty of climbing out of the underclass due to systemic discrimination. The first illustrates social-economic discrimination and the second illustrates racial discrimination.

    We all know that getting a job as an investment banker is a moon shot out of poverty. These are the privileged elite who, although they work very long hours, are paid way more than they are worth. Those jobs are a ticket to financial success and security. When I graduated from business school, I interviewed for one of those jobs. Although I did not attend an Ivey League school, I was fortunate that my resume ended up at a firm who’s Head of Investment Banking had gone to the same school where I obtained my MBA. During my interview with the head of the department he asked me the following question, “What does your dad do?” I was immediately taken aback. What in the hell does that have to do with me? I gave him an honest answer. His response was, “We hire people like you.” Wow! I may as well have been black. They really did not hire people like me. Needless to say, I was not offered the job. Two years later, I ended up getting a job as an investment banker at the same firm!

    After several years at this firm, I was heading up the healthcare public finance group. In our associate pool, we had a black investment banker who was very good. Each group head wanted him in their respective group, including me. I also knew that this banker wanted to work for me. I approached my boss, who had become my mentor, and who I admire to this day, and asked if this banker could be put into my group. He said a decision had already been made to assign him to the municipal group because many municipalities that we dealt with had decision makers who were black. In addition, my boss pointed out that all of my clients were white and they may not feel comfortable dealing with a black investment banker. My former boss is a good man and has as much integrity as anyone I have ever known, and I do believe he was looking out for this associate’s best interest as well as the department’s. I made the case that we should not dictate this associate’s future based on the color of his skin and we should let him choose. After some thought, my boss agreed. As I knew he would, the associate chose to come work with me. For a short period, I wondered if maybe I had made a mistake. This associate would be working exclusively with white clients. And maybe by desiring and obtain the most talented banker, I had limited this young black man’s future. Although we occasionally had to deal with racism, I am happy to say that the associate became a protege, remained in the healthcare sector, and is now a very successful investment banker.

    Those two stories illustrate systemic discrimination. And it remains. I see it all the time. And many times it may appear innocent, like the situation with my boss. But in our desire to protect people, we sometimes limit them. Welfare had that impact on my mom. With an eighth grade education, there was no way my mom could earn as much as she was getting paid by being on welfare. In fact, she was incentivized to have more kids by the system. However, her choice came with a stigma attached – lots of shame. And if the government had thrown more money into the system, it would have been worse because they would have eliminated any incentive to get off of welfare, even with the shame attached.

    This goes back to the comments made earlier on what is needed by all who are in the underclass who wish to escape. It takes initiative, a social support structure, and education. Angela Duckworth, in her NYT best selling book, talks about her work as an educator in the Philadelphia inner city school system. She identifies Grit or perseverance, not intelligence, as the primary driver for some kids getting out. She has not figured out why some kids have it and some do not. I have my own theories about that, and it goes back to the importance of household.

    I am not going to belabor education. We all know how important that is. I will talk about social support structure. Mine came from two places – the Church and my peer group. Although no one in my immediate family or even extended family attended church, I began attending a local small baptist church due to its “Bus Ministry.” Starting in the seventh grade I began attending church, and soon thereafter, joined the youth group, and eventually the youth choir. My moral character began to change drastically – for the good. As a result, I began to hang around peers who were good people. This caused me to seek those same type of people in school, who happened to make good grades, and most of which, wanted to attend college. As a benchmark, at most, only 15 percent of the graduates from my high school at the time attended a four year college. Consequently, I had the desire and perseverance and the social support structure though church and peers to make education a priority, thus giving me a fighting chance.

    As much as we like to criticize our churches for being too conservative, they did provide a stable social support system that is not being replaced as they become less and less relevant. Somehow we have to find ways to give the underclass a sense being valued and an opportunity to contribute, and to hold them and the communities in which they live accountable. But unless we can also address systemic racism and social-economic discrimination, holding people of color and thir communities accountable alone will not fix the problem.

    And if the democrats decide to throw more money at this problem, I will borrow my friend Joe’s phrase:

    God help us all.

    1. John, I too say ‘thanks’ for your story. We need more truth telling and less cliches about what works and what doesn’t work. I’ve heard Angela Duckworth talking about “ Grit or perseverance, not intelligence, as the primary driver for some kids getting out. She has not figured out why some kids have it and some do not” and your observation that “it goes back to the importance of household.” Social justice starts in the home by bringing up children with values. And I agree with your observation that if the 2020 Dem candidate proposes/thinks that he/she can solve the problem by throwing more money at it, we’ve lost another battle.

  3. I would like to point out that a group of Detroit school children sued the state because the ‘education’ they were receiving did not result in basic literacy. Finishing high school in a system that does not teach students to read — and in schools whose appalling physical condition contributes to the inability teach or learn –will not get one far. In the end the students won the suit on the grounds that basic literacy is needed to be a citizen. So it depends where you throw money. Throwing money to improve the basic infrastructure of the nation — including its schools — and providing equal dollars per capita across all students in primary and high schools could make a difference.
    It is also a fact that for since Reagan there has been a systematic transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. Govenment policy has indeed taken money from the poor (and lower middle class). Government policy is what has created the huge wealh gap that currently exists: the top 1% owning more wealth than the entire middle class and the top 20% woning 77% of the nation’s wealth. This is a result of many federal policies, including tax structure (and loopholes) and the many Supreme Court Decisions that have given corporations the rights which ought to belong to people. Citizens United is only the latest of these. The wealth transfer is, ultimately, a result of the veneration of capitalism and the “free market”. As Picketty demonstrated, government policy does not keep it in check, capitalism inevitably transfers wealth from the poor to the rich. One way to “throw money” to the poor would be to substantially increase the minimum wage. I believe that would be one effective way to throw money at the problem.
    As to keeping a first job, a large portion of the Black and Latino population ends up in prison before they manage to get a job. This is a result of racism. I know of an example where some high shcool students (of color of course) were arrested for throwing “projectiles” against a building. The projectiles were snowballs. Would white kids in any middle or upper class neighborhood be arrested for throwing snowballs?
    If the children of the wealthy attended the same schools as children in low-income Black communities we would soon see changes in those schools. Why? because society would not put up with middle or upper class students being subjected to those conditions. We would also get some real data on the extent to which “sociological” and “lifestyle” patterns of Blacks were the problem. Busing, until it was abandoned, was a very effective way to assist Black and other poor children.
    Ultimately my point is that it should not bbe as much harder for children from poor backgrounds to succeed as it currently is. Harder, yes. But as much harder as our nation has made it? NO. The US now ranks 27th in social mobility. This is the scandal. This is what has to change. This is not just a result of the “lifestyle” of Blacks. This is a result of a combination of government policies (including policies that make it difficult to vote); Supreme Court decisions; and racism; and ultimately indifference to the lot of “others”. To some extent it is a result of the US Constitution;s emphasis on protecting property over people. We had to amend it to get any rights at all. Now these rights have been given to corporations. We gthe People do not even have a right to vote.

  4. Joe, Let me start by saying that, to save democracy and its institutions, we must do all l we can to get Trump voted out of office. Getting beyond that, let me state my point of view on racism as a cause of the black underclass explicitly: We will never solve the problems of the black underclass by focusing on racism. Indeed, shouting racism promotes the factually inaccurate view that we are a race-based society. This myth has been analyzed and rejected by, amongst others, Thomas Sowell (a black economist born in Harlem in the 1930s), whose books you might not have read. [In particular, I recommend “Economic Facts and Fallacies“ (see Chapter 6, p 172. RACIAL FACTS AND FALLACIES). He destroys all of the causal links associated with racisms and the black underclass. The facts are clear: we are an interracial society, blacks made great economic and social gains before the civil rights era laws; racism and discrimination don’t correlated, and much more. Preaching ‘end racism’ as a solution to the socio-economic problems of any ghetto minority issue (blacks, latinos, native Americans) reminds me of a cute metaphor: A person drops his keys in a dark alley, but searches for them on the corner where there is a street lamp.

  5. I actually actually agree with you on this. I recently told a (white) friend that I did not feel like a racist to which he responded that if I felt that way, I was worse than a racist. I pointed out that Embry and I had worked on the front lines of the civil rights movement, lived with a black family, and I have spent my entire career in assisting in building housing for poor people and old people, many occupied by people of color.
    “You are hopeless,” he replied.
    This prompted me to apologize today to an African American friend for us white folks who just don’t get it, to which she replied, “ Joe Howell, you are the least racist person I know. Stop this nonsense!”

    1. Joe,
      Having known you well since 1956, having been a schoolmate and fraternity brother through high school and college, and, for that matter, life, I would say that your black friend has it right. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you “get it.” But that is no sin or shortcoming. It’s tricky business to try to crawl inside another person’s skin and perceive the world around us as he/she does, especially when you come from radically different backgrounds.


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