Occam’s Butter Knife

July 24, 2013

Multiple Pages
Occam’s Butter Knife

With Barack Obama solemnly recounting for us last Friday how being black in America has personally burdened him, race is back in the news.

Actually, race is always in the news. Still, it’s worth using this particular intersection of inanity—during which the president and the Attorney General have made themselves look more foolish than Geraldo Rivera—to think through the most important question about race in the 21st century: How horrible would it really be if it became respectable to discuss racial realities seriously and intelligently?

The lesson that the prestige press tells us to take away from the Trayvon affair is that “profiling” (i.e., pattern recognition) inevitably leads to murderous frenzies. Some of the virulence of the media’s denunciations of George Zimmerman for putatively profiling stems from an underlying chain of logic in elite thinking that I find scary: If young black males really do tend to be more crime-prone, then…oh, no, the Nazis were right! So if Americans ever become embarrassed by the insipid political correctness we instruct them to spout, they will immediately thaw out Hitler’s cryogenically preserved brain and elect it president. Or something.

On the other hand, perhaps the media’s current War on Intelligent Thought is overblown for self-serving reasons? Maybe the New York media’s frenzy over the Sanford community-watch volunteer serves (more or less) unconsciously as a distraction from, say, the massive stop-and-frisk profiling of New York City blacks carried out by mayor Michael Bloomberg, who in 2011 alarmingly boasted, “I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh largest army in the world.”

The day before the president’s speech about the “historical context” behind the Obama Administration’s War on Zimmerman, Detroit announced bankruptcy. Should Detroit’s failure be assessed within the context of four decades of black rule, the first 19 years under the overtly anti-white Coleman Young?

Of course not. Some things simply aren’t proper to ponder.

“When the New York-Washington media obsess over how flyover America is a hotbed of racism and incipient Hitlerism, they are only projecting their own feelings about blacks onto the rest of the country.”

Thus, over the weekend, the liberal brain trust mulled over the contrasting fates of Detroit and another Rust Belt city, Pittsburgh, which after a long decline has started to regain population.

Now, a man from Mars would observe that Detroit is less than one-eighth as white as Pittsburgh.

From the 2010 Census:

• Detroit: 7.8 percent white, 82.7 percent black, and 6.8 percent Hispanic.

• Pittsburgh: 64.8 percent white, 25.8 percent black, and 2.3 percent Hispanic.

In case you are wondering, Cleveland, which seems to fall between Detroit and Pittsburgh in the economic-dire-straits rankings, is demographically middling, too.

There seems to be a pattern.

But noticing patterns is shamefully racist, the mark of a Zimmerman. Where will it all end? With helping to pull families out of overturned vehicles?

There’s no single factor that determines civic prosperity, but an all-else-being-equal analysis shows that demographics play a sizable role. Pittsburgh, for instance, is currently benefiting from the good luck of being involved in the fracking boom. Yet the city’s demographics are such that energy executives and engineers find it tolerable to locate there.

That Pittsburgh is doing better than Detroit shouldn’t require convoluted theories. In general, white families tend to be much richer than black families. Median whites have net worths somewhere between nine and twenty times greater than median blacks, depending upon the study.

Hence, it’s easier for a whiter municipality than a blacker one to extract enough in taxes to pay its debts.

But since racial profiling, even of cities, is presumed to be the first step to murder and, no doubt, only a short, hop, skip, and jump from Auschwitz, you aren’t supposed to notice even this blatant difference between Detroit and Pittsburgh. Thus, Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman concluded in his New York Times comparison of the two cities:

If you like, sprawl killed Detroit, by depriving it of the kind of environment that could incubate new sources of prosperity.

So the difference between Pittsburgh and Detroit doesn’t have to do with race, but with sprawl. Keep repeating the president’s invocation “Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?” until you are as Nobel-worthy as Dr. Krugman.

Responding to Krugman in Slate, Matthew Yglesias wielded Occam’s Butter Knife:

Paul Krugman writes about how the much greater degree of job sprawl in the Detroit area compared to the Pittsburgh area contributed to the substantial more severe decline of Detroit’s central city, and therefore hurt the region as a whole. Stepping back, though, I suspect you’ll find that this job diffusion is largely a consequence of the fact that Pittsburgh is home to two major universities—Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh—while Detroit has only Wayne State University.…

Sure, just as Portland, Oregon has become a hipster magnet due to the mighty economic engine that is its most famous institution of higher education, Reed College.

Similarly, red-hot Brooklyn features only a miscellaneous collection of obscure colleges.

This is not to say that having a Stanford or MIT around isn’t a nice thing, just that the arrow of causality runs in both directions. Consider Seattle’s University of Washington and St. Louis’s Washington University. The former was a typical state flagship school until Seattle got rich during the Microsoft years. Conversely, while the latter college has done much to raise its prestige over the last generation, its rise in reputation has had little perceptible impact on St. Louis’s overall downward trajectory.

For that matter, is the wealthy municipality of San Francisco rich because (pace Krugman) the city doesn’t sprawl? Must be, because (contra Yglesias) San Francisco is surprisingly lacking in top universities. Or is San Francisco rich because its sprawling hinterland includes that ne plus ultra of wealth-generating universities, Stanford, which is 35 miles away in Silicon Valley? But if San Francisco could be said to sprawl all the way to Palo Alto, couldn’t Detroit be said to sprawl to Ann Arbor, home of the formidable STEM programs of the U. of Michigan?

It’s puzzling.

But Krugman-Yglesias levels of wooziness about the most important difference between Pittsburgh and Detroit show their hearts are in the right place. You don’t get Richwined for being oblivious to the obvious.

What would happen if public discourse instead tolerated Occam’s Razor?

The first lesson we would learn is that it’s not inevitable that a black-run city will fall apart. Atlanta has had black mayors for exactly as long as Detroit. Yet—at least so far—Atlanta’s black Democratic rulers have done a decent job of working with Georgia’s white Republican rulers to not kill the white geese who lay the corporate golden eggs.

The lesson is that a black-dominated city has a much narrower margin for error.

In the 21st century, however, it’s increasingly the cities that have the largest margin for error—such as Washington, DC (your tax dollars at work) and New York City (your investment dollars at play)—that have most aggressively squeezed out poor African Americans.

It’s almost as if the national media obsesses over Sanford, Florida to distract from how their own gentrifying cities are boosting their personal property values by using Section 8 vouchers, police harassment, housing-project demolitions, and firing black teachers in the name of school reform to drive out black Americans. When the New York-Washington media obsess over how flyover America is a hotbed of racism and incipient Hitlerism, they are only projecting their own feelings about blacks onto the rest of the country.

The long-run reality is simply that poor blacks, who are our fellow American citizens and who comprise an integral part of our national history, will continue to be a hot potato that white regional elites will hand off to more naïve parts of the country.

For example, following the mechanization of cotton growing, mid-20th-century Southern leaders were not unhappy to see a sizable fraction of their black populations head North. Now, northern civic leaders such as Mayor Bloomberg and Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago are attempting to palm off their slum populations onto smaller cities.

This kind of cycling will go on for a long time. And that’s what politics are for: to allow negotiations over burden-sharing.

However, the clearest moral requirement of this process is that everybody across the country should be allowed to grasp the situation’s facts and logic. In contrast, what’s unfair is that those who control the press (such as, say, billionaire media magnate Michael Bloomberg) continue to slip a fast one past their fellow Americans under the blanket rationalization of fighting racist crimethink.

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