June 22nd, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Don't Read Me Today.

I found two articles that I want everybody to read. They're the kind of thing I try to write, and never do quite this well. The first, and most important one is about homelessness, and the odds are about 20 to 1 that reading this article will make you question your assumptions, whether you're a liberal or a conservative. I knew most of the facts in this article, and had worked through some of the logic and philosophy, but I hadn't managed to get it as stark as this (from the end of section 3, emphasis added by me):
"Thousands of people in the Denver area no doubt live day to day, work two or three jobs, and are eminently deserving of a helping hand—and no one offers them the key to a new apartment. Yet that's just what the guy screaming obscenities and swigging [mouthwash] gets. When the welfare mom's time on public assistance runs out, we cut her off. Yet when the homeless man trashes his apartment we give him another. Social benefits are supposed to have some kind of moral justification. We give them to widows and disabled veterans and poor mothers with small children. Giving the homeless guy passed out on the sidewalk an apartment has a different rationale. It's simply about efficiency.

We also believe that the distribution of social benefits should not be arbitrary. We don't give only to some poor mothers, or to a random handful of disabled veterans. We give to everyone who meets a formal criterion, and the moral credibility of government assistance derives, in part, from this universality. But the Denver homelessness program doesn't help every chronically homeless person in Denver. There is a waiting list of six hundred for the supportive-housing program; it will be years before all those people get apartments, and some may never get one. There isn't enough money to go around, and to try to help everyone a little bit—to observe the principle of universality—isn't as cost-effective as helping a few people a lot. Being fair, in this case, means providing shelters and soup kitchens, and shelters and soup kitchens don't solve the problem of homelessness. Our usual moral intuitions are little use, then, when it comes to a few hard cases. Power-law problems leave us with an unpleasant choice. We can be true to our principles or we can fix the problem. We cannot do both.
and this, from the middle of section 4:
[These] solutions have little appeal to the right, because they involve special treatment for people who do not deserve special treatment; and they have little appeal to the left, because their emphasis on efficiency over fairness suggests the cold number-crunching of Chicago-school cost-benefit analysis.
-- Malcolm Gladwell, "Million Dollar Murray," New Yorker, February 13th, 2006.

If you have time after thinking about that one for a long time, read this article by the same author, about why Americans really do overwhelmingly prefer the most expensive, least efficient health care system in the industrialized world: "The Moral Hazard Myth," New Yorker, August 29th, 2005. I'd seen that one when it went around, but it being an election year, it's worth trotting out again.