Friday, April 2, 2010

Changing the World

You have got to admire Nicholas Kristof, the tireless crusading columnist for the New York Times. He really does want to change the world and he's pretty sure we know how to do it. Recently, he did a column on the interventions needed to help this country finally eliminate or at least greatly reduce poverty. The two themes were better and more intensive early education programs and jobs programs that both train workers and give them special incentives to stay employed. Now, these programs are expensive so they are a tough sell. But if it can be shown that they really do make a difference in significantly addressing poverty (and in the case of early education, the proof is already pretty strong), isn't it self-evident that we need to find the money to launch such programs? As Kristof says, "I hope we consider schooling and jobs every bit as important as our multibillion-dollar surge in Afghanistan."

Well, what about that? Do we have the sense and the will to recognize that these programs, which most likely cost considerably less than these ill-advised military adventures, can have tremendous, even untold social and economic benefit? What is stopping us from moving ahead with some version of these programs? I fear it has nothing to do with their long-term effectiveness. Even if it could be shown without question that these programs do result in the good that has been claimed for them, they would lack the support they need. Why? Because we truly are stuck in an era in which ideology trumps effectiveness. If it smacks of government intervention or control, it has to be bad. That's a tragedy, because just about the opposite is the case historically. Without government, we would be a much less caring and humane and prosperous country. We still have a long way to go on these scores, but it truly is government that has helped us to become better. Until more of us come to understand that, we can never come close to conquering poverty. Moreover, it's not even clear to me that we want to. Until the will is there not just to use government benevolently but also to make a difference for this most neglected segment of our population, we can never realize our full potential as a country or as a people.

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