06 July 2005

Communitarian Thinking

Communitarian approaches to problems are not communist. They don't reject private property, and don't necessarily even reject class divisions. What they do require, in essence, is looking at the big picture. A solution that creates as many problems as it solves is not a good solution. Communitarian thinking is the opposite of NIMBY thinking. The issue is not keeping a bad use out of your backyard, but recognizing that there are a certain spectrum of uses that must end up somewhere and trying to choose intelligently where they should go.

Atlanta's current public housing initiative is a good example of the difference between narrow problem solving and a broader communitarian approach. Public housing officials there want to evict single mothers than their children from public housing if they don't get a job or start an education program. This affects about half of the people in public housing. This is a powerful incentive that, if implimented will no doubt encourage a great many people to seek work or start education programs. It is also horrible public policy. This is a population of people who are bureacratically certified to be (1) unable to afford housing at a market rent, and (2) currently unemployed. They are people who, by definition, have no place to go and will instantly become homeless. Once they are homeless, finding a job will become that much harder. The solution is worse than the problem it is trying to address. Fortunately, the city council stepped in and delayed the program by six months, but it is a fundamentally flawed plan that flows from failing to see the forest for the trees.

This problem is by no means confined to the South. Our criminal justice system in the United States, everywhere, has a similar problem: Rampant recidivism. The vast majority of people who go to jail or prison will get out within a few years. The number of those people who go on to commit serious crimes again is huge. "More than 70 percent of offenders sentenced to at least 360 days are expected to commit other crimes" according to a recent study of the Denver jail system. Yet, we provide no treatment for offenders underlying motivations for crime such as substance abuse and mental deficiencies, nor do we provide preparation for release or post release supervision for people who commit misdemeanors which result only in jail sentences. Recidivism at the state prison level is a similarly high 40-50%.

Crime can't be predicted exactly, but it isn't hard to identify groups of people, like prior offenders (juvenile and adult), and unemployed high school dropouts, who are at very likely to commit crimes compared to the general population. We know this, and yet, we do very little to prevent these extremely high risk individuals from committing more crimes.

Health insurance is another case of narrow minded thinking. Individually, it is in the interest of insurers to make policies for single member groups more expensive, because those who are most sick are most likely to seek them out. But, in the aggregate, it is cheaper for the health system as a whole to have everyone insured, so that providers aren't overwhelmed with bad debt from emergency cases and so that people get cheap preventative care from low cost providers like an office based medical practice, rather than getting expensive care from emergency rooms once problems are accute.

Wholistic problem solving, problem solving that aims to reduce aggregate consequences, rather than isolated ones, is difficult. It is much easier to adjudicate individual contract disputes, for example, when the parties are all solvent, than it is when a party is bankrupt, so that any compensation paid to one creditor harms another by depleting a pool of resources insufficient to meet everyone's needs. But, at this stage in the development of the United States, problems that require wholistic problem solving predominate, because simpler problems have by and large already been solved satisfactorily.

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