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December 08, 2004

inner city blues

Don Herzog: December 8, 2004

I wouldn't say that symbolic issues don't matter politically.  They clearly motivate people and it would be crazy to say that as a general matter they shouldn't.  But I sometimes ruefully think we are fiddling while Rome burns.  (I think gay marriage matters.  I think flag-burning, to invoke another proposed constitutional amendment that gets people excited, basically doesn't.)

Everyone knows the dreadful facts about the state of many inner-city communities:  unemployment rates running 30, 40 percent; lots of crime; broken families; dismal schools....  The litany goes on, and we know how to recite it, and nothing is happening.  And there are demographic problems in some of these cities:  the population of Detroit proper (not its wealthy suburbs) is down well over half from its peak, and it's very hard to run a decent city with block after block of vacant buildings.  As long as we can warehouse an astonishing proportion of young black men in the criminal justice system, as long as the thin blue line will guard those of us lucky enough to live elsewhere, we don't care.

So -- this is a serious question -- what can and should be done?  I don't know if Jack Kemp's proposed enterprise zones would have worked, but boy I would have loved to see some state experiment with them.  I think it is overstated to say that the Great Society was a failure, overstated too to quip that its real success was in hiring black Americans as federal employees and moving them into the middle class as bureaucrats.  The left is often ridiculed, sometimes rightly so, for ritually intoning "there ought to be a law" in response to one social problem after another.  Should there be new laws? or what?


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Posted by: Will Wilkinson

School vouchers might help very much. This is why urban leaders and parents want them. And the NEA is largely why these people are ignored.

Posted by: Will Wilkinson | Dec 8, 2004 11:02:17 AM

Posted by: honest interlocutor

and it's very hard to run a decent city with block after block of vacant buildings

Why are the buildings vacant? Why are there so many abandoned blocks, shuttered businesses, and dilapidated homes.

(1) It's not a safe place to own a shop or raise a family
(2) There aren't decent schools
(3) The tax burden is too high
(4) Duplicative and byzantine regulation make it too difficult to run a business
(5) Corruption and mismanagement make it painful to deal with the government

It might be a huge oversimplification and it certainly doesn't work "all the way down" but think of inner city Detroit as Iraq. For instance, despite all the good work done--unnoticed--by citizens throughout the year, every Halloween Eve ("Devil's Night") the city has an epidemic of arson. (Google it if you don't believe me.)

So what should be done? As in Iraq, security first. People will work through some pretty shitty conditions if you can guarantee the safety of their life and limb. Then, open up opportunities. Create an environment that's attractive to capital, business, and job growth. Cut taxes and regulation. Cut bureaucracy.

And for god's sakes, fix the goddamned schools. What creates improvement? Competition and innovation. The students of Milwaukee are lucky to have a thriving voucher program that gives poor parents a choice of schools, which is only the province of the rich in the current government monopoly system. The voucher program is wildly popular among parents--it's about to exceed it's cap of 15,000 students--and there's evidence that it's improving test scores.

An educated inner-city population will have economic and cultural opportunities that could not be imagined by previous generations who were left to languish dysfunctional, prison-like, monopoly public schools.

This is my modest proposal. Take it or leave it.

Posted by: honest interlocutor | Dec 8, 2004 11:07:31 AM

Posted by: Social Justice

Presumably, the influence of Leo Strauss is determined by capitalist interests which lead to the theocrat Ashcroft's suspension of our civil rights. This suggests that a minority of warmongers and apologists brings about an oil war masquerading as an endless crusade against "terrorism." As Norman Mailer pointed out, the unstated purpose of this war belies justifications given by the world's leading apologists for the final subjugation of the Middle East, beginning with the $90bn invasion of Iraq. Nevertheless, Donald Rumsfeld's worldview represents the crushing of internal dissent in order to propagate the end of any possibility of social justice in a reactionary state.

Posted by: Social Justice | Dec 8, 2004 11:07:36 AM

Posted by: Bernard

Don, the problem I perceive with this post is that you've highlighted a very broad and general area of concern (the state of inner cities) and proceeded to ask a question about what the state should do.

Conservatives, and others who are naturally suspicious of the state, prefer to explore specific solutions to specific problems, because laws with too general a scope are the ones which tend to come back to haunt us (the Patriot Act is an obvious example of a law the broadness of which alarms people of all kinds).

Now, if you break down the issue to more specific problems, we may still disagree over effective solutions, but we'll better be able to analyse the assumptions behind.

So, which parts of the problem do you think it's realistic for the government to try to solve?

Posted by: Bernard | Dec 8, 2004 11:16:41 AM

Posted by: SamChevre

The problems of the inner city; what would help?

First, extremely high crime rates are a huge problem. If you talk to people from the poorest neighborhoods, victimization by violent criminals is a routine part of their experience. Concentrating on the rates of imprisonment is a focusing on a second-order problem. I think this problem should be addressed in two ways. First, good policing (there are models of aggressive but neighborhood-based and respectful policing that have worked to greatly reduce crime) and a focus on harm reduction in policing (Project Exile is an example—aggressively prosecuting firearms possession while committing another crime). Second, reduce the incentives for young men to turn to crime as a livelihood. I think drug legalization would be a huge help in reducing inner-city crime; it would free the police up to focus on crimes with more identifiable victims, and it would greatly reduce the income difference between criminals and law-abiding citizens.

Second, dysfunctional family structures are a significant problem. The welfare system had some significant unintended consequences that worsened the problem of family breakdown. The welfare reform under President Clinton is a long-term benefit in this direction; rates of teenage pregnancy among the poor are down considerably since it was enacted. Increased efforts to structure social programs so that an involved father is an advantage, not a disadvantage, are probably in order. This area may also be one where faith-based programs are appropriate; although government support of religious efforts is worrying, religious communities are often the most effective organizations for strengthening people’s commitment to family and teaching how to negotiate the inevitable difficulties in a relationship.

Third, very poor schools are a problem. There are several sources for the bad results in inner-city schools, only some of which are amenable to legal correction. However, some of them are. First, a focus on methods of teaching which are proven to work IN SUCH ENVIRONMENTS would be very helpful. Structured, direct instruction in things like reading and math is critical in the early grades. (See Professor Plum for more.) Second, more latitude for schools to discipline students would make a considerable difference. (Full due process and full rights of free expression make a school much harder to manage.) Third, decentralizing schools in larger urban areas would probably help; currently, most school funding in big cities goes to a central office bureaucracy, rather than to teachers and principals. More responsibility and more accountability at the school level would help parents interact effectively with their children’s schools. Probably the best way of handling the whole issue would be school vouchers, with all schools having to publicize the results that their students receive on standardized tests; urban leaders have been asking for this for a long time.

Of these suggestions, most are local and state issues. The three areas in which federal laws are involved are legalizing drugs, structuring social programs (like TANF and the EITC) to reward involved fathers, and encouraging school vouchers.

Posted by: SamChevre | Dec 8, 2004 11:36:48 AM

Posted by: Bernard

As an addendum to my post above, the other frequent bugbear of (particularly libertarian) conservatives is that liberals (in particular, but also society in general) tend to seek the creation of new laws before asking whether there are any current laws and, if so, why they aren't working properly.

This patchwork approach to legislation creates unnecessary layers of complexity which make it harder in the future to work out what current legislation should do (and so strengthens the impulse to just create more).

Posted by: Bernard | Dec 8, 2004 11:37:36 AM

Posted by: BF

Well, I think that if we've learned anything, development policy cannot be constituted by microinitiatives meant to solve one problem or another when urban decay is a set of a dozen INTERRELATED problems. You can't JUST improve the schools because either: the kids still have to deal with other obstacles; or once they get the education they move away. You can't just build up a business district, because you need consumers to actually shop there and most of the reasonable jobs don't go to those who need them. Job training programs don't work because there's no one in the city to hire the unemployed. Revitilization initiatives, for the most part, even when modestly successful, really are a mixed bag.

Take Atlantic City for example, which introduced casino gambling in the late 1970s as a way to improve the city, which at the time was suffering from 29% unemployment. The casinos have done a lot of good. Unemployment is now around 11%, which, though still more than double the national average, is a third of what it was. They high school is actually pretty good. However, the slums are still there, crime and prostitution are still rampant, and many of the reasonably well-paying jobs went to people who moved in and built up the suburbs in the years following. Meanwhile, some residents get pushed out. The process is still ongoing, but the plan seems to be more stores and attractions.

There was an artcle in the New York Times Magazine (The Harlem Project, by Paul
Tough, June 20, 2004) about a man named Geoffrey Canada who has a holistic plan for urban revitilization. I would read it to see what I'm talking about.

So in response to your question, I think it requires more than just a law. It requires something approaching a Marshall Plan for our own inner cities. That does not mean setting up little dependent socialist pockets (as exist in the rural midwest). It means making them economically viable and self-sustainable again.

Posted by: BF | Dec 8, 2004 11:39:00 AM

Posted by: Matthew Dundon

Detroit needs to be given over the market, completely.

* repeal substantially all regulations affecting the building and operation of business,including, without limitation, the noxious madates on hiring and firing

* spin off each public school into a one-school private non-profit corporation, with absolute autonomy in admissions, hiring, curriculum, management, tuition and retention/expulsion.
Spin off the District into a for-profit educational services vendor. Give the entire (100%) of the school budgets to families in the form of vouchers spendable at any school (including, but not limited to, former public schools).

* sell off all public housing to the highest bidders, revoke all Section 8 vouchers, eliminate any form of long-term welfare

* create a cheap auxiliary police force, analagous to store security guards, who can stand on corners and have a much more effective deterrent effect than the smaller number of very expensive cops

Posted by: Matthew Dundon | Dec 8, 2004 11:39:06 AM

Posted by: Don Herzog

Well, the second-order problem is that all the low-level problems interlock in complicated ways. But I absolutely didn't want to ask what the state should do -- I wanted to be clear ("or what?") that a big part of this puzzle might be private action of various kinds. Some of us on the left -- think Orwell -- are suspicious of the state too.

I'm not violently opposed to vouchers, just concerned. My concern has nothing to do with the establishment clause. It's rather -- to connect up with Liz's comments on diversity -- that a democratic public isn't somehow magically given. If we want citizens to work out reasonable relations with people very different from themselves, if we want the common good to be more than a vacuous slogan, it is crucial that people learn to deal with people very different from themselves. And if -- a big if -- people would use vouchers to make sure their kids go to school with the like-minded, I'd worry about that. But this pales next to doing something about the crisis in the inner cities, where thanks to residential segregation the schools won't be that diverse no matter what. So if vouchers are part of a fix, fine by me.

But I doubt vouchers could be enough. What else?

Posted by: Don Herzog | Dec 8, 2004 11:40:45 AM

Posted by: Buzzcut

There is nothing wrong with the inner city per se. Look at what Giulliani did in 8 short years in New York.

Security is a big part of the solution. A respect for capitalism is another (a realization that businesses are not just an unlimited source of tax revenue).

It is not just economics. There are social issues involved. The disintegration of the black family is certainly one root cause of the state of the inner city. Or maybe vice versa. They are related nonetheless.

Posted by: Buzzcut | Dec 8, 2004 11:41:08 AM

Posted by: Jim from New Jersey

Nice work Don, exactly what I was getting at in my last post.

So this urban rot - in its present incarnation - has been occurring for 40 years approximately?

Well, did this type of urban blight ALWAYS exist among blacks (let's be honest, this is the group we're talking about). What I know about history tells me this most certainly did not always exist. The levels of incarceration and social ills were much lower. Poverty rates were quite high, but not necessarily crime.

Ok, if you agree with the preceding sentence, than ask yourself what has changed in the black community in the last 80 years. I think we can discard the right to vote as a precursor for the condition of these communities.

So what does that leave us? Well, I could do much worse by identifying Church participation rates in these communities (not the black population overall) and the rates of illegitimacy. After all, I always feared the police, but my REAL fear was what my father would do with me afterwards. That component is missing, right?

Bernard thought he was adding complexity and nuance to the subject with this quote:

"Now, if you break down the issue to more specific problems, we may still disagree over effective solutions, but we'll better be able to analyse the assumptions behind."

Do you really take this seriously? I understand you need to be polite, but let's be honest. If after 40 years of watching inner cities suffer, "analyse the assumptions" is what you're still doing, it makes taking you seriously much harder.

Here's an aside: one of the solutions heralded by abortion was the reduction in poverty levels through family size. Would you say Don, that this has borne fruit?

One irrefutable result was the reduction in the population of those inclined to vote Democrat. That population of unrealized Democrats continues to grow with every cycle, compound interest I guess for a hideous procedure.

Listen to the winners Don.

Posted by: Jim from New Jersey | Dec 8, 2004 11:45:54 AM

Posted by: S. Weasel

It is arguable, of course, that efforts to solve a less dire situation has resulted in this more dire situation. Subsidizing single motherhood, herding people into drab, ugly housing "projects." Add to that the decline in the quality of public schools (which I largely blame on teachers' unions), decline in churchgoing (I'm an atheist, m'self, but I certainly recognize the role of organized religion in socialization and reduced crime) and it seems to me that more problems come from the left than solutions.

Maybe if you'd left them alone, they'd be better off today.

Posted by: S. Weasel | Dec 8, 2004 11:56:58 AM

Posted by: Bernard

'Some of us on the left -- think Orwell -- are suspicious of the state too.'

Don, I'm glad. I think that my second post actually has the more relevant point in this case, because the problems I see in inner-cities mostly tend to be a combination of lack of respect for laws and inadequate enforcement (the two of which get locked in a reinforcing cycle). In this context, I don't see that new laws would help. I do think the school voucher option would solve a small but important part of the problem and I agree with whoever said that drug prohibition was a strong contributing factor (but baulk at the idea of blanket legalisation and the destabilising consequences).

As for the possibility of inward government investment, it all depends on the specifics again.

And Jim, I think you misunderstood my point. Breaking things down to specifics is a way to reduce complexity, not to increase it. Unnecessary complexity is a negative.

Posted by: Bernard | Dec 8, 2004 12:02:04 PM

Posted by: BF

Well, the question of improving education is different from that of improving the conditions in inner cities. Vouchers may indeed help children get a good education who otherwise wouldn't have, but once they get it, they leave forever. The rub is educating people for jobs IN the community, once they exist. It doesn't really matter for the purposes of this discussion whether of not vouchers work.

The real question should be: how can the market provide sustainable jobs, specifically for those in the targeted community. The situation we might want to avoid is attracting businesses with tax incentives that give jobs to gentrifiers or outsiders in burgeoning suburbs. Then we have a situation where someplace like Detroit is an economic powerhouse again, but the residents who needed help just get pushed out. There is such a thing as an economically deprived suburb.

Unfortunately, I don't really have an answer on how to accomplish this without using the state (not to say that the state would definately work. i don't have that much faith) For urban redevelopment to work, it would require certain things to happen in sequence so that people actually wind up getting jobs.

One thing to say about New York. Whatever you think Guliani acheived, he did so by putting more cops on the street, strengthening zoning laws in Midtown to push out certain businesses (strip joints, street vendors, and porno stores), and starting other state-sponsored initiatives. Now there are a lot of important businesses who have relocated to the area between Times Square and Columbus Circle, with AOL being the most recent addition. While New York as a whole is much better off, there is a lot of gentrification taking place (Williamsburg, Park Slope, Long Island City, and Jersey City, Hoboken(long ago gentrified), and others in New Jersey).

Posted by: BF | Dec 8, 2004 12:22:18 PM

Posted by: Zorkpolitics

Jim from New Jersey asks the right question: what has changed in the black community in the last 80 years?

Interestingly, SamChevre has the answer:
Second, dysfunctional family structures are a significant problem. The welfare system had some significant unintended consequences that worsened the problem of family breakdown. The welfare reform under President Clinton is a long-term benefit in this direction; rates of teenage pregnancy among the poor are down considerably since it was enacted. Increased efforts to structure social programs so that an involved father is an advantage, not a disadvantage, are probably in order. This area may also be one where faith-based programs are appropriate; although government support of religious efforts is worrying, religious communities are often the most effective organizations for strengthening people’s commitment to family and teaching how to negotiate the inevitable difficulties in a relationship.

With >65% of children being born to unwed mothers, there is no strong family structure in place. The dysfunctional family units fail to support the importance of education as a path up and out of the cities. I don’t know the details on Detroit, but here in NJ money has not solved the education crisis. In Newark schools spend ~20% more per student than the suburban schools, yet they accomplish little. There are elementary schools in Newark in which not one third grader passed the state competency test. On back to school night, it is not uncommon for a teacher to not see a single parent. Perhaps a joint school-church program to teach adults what they are suppose to do as parents and citizens would yield more results than continued expansion of social welfare programs

Posted by: Zorkpolitics | Dec 8, 2004 12:22:34 PM

Posted by: Craig Duncan

Well, one essential part of the solution is for suburban voters to start to *care* about the plight of inner city residents, rather than throw their energy into finding ways to separate themselves from the inner city. Alas, I've no magic solution this care deficit.

The other question is: if voters were to care about solving the problems, what feasible policies could they look to in order to reduce the problems?

There's surely no magic solution here either--especially not one that can be encapsulated in a blog post. So let me recommend a longer discussion of public policies designed to help those at society's bottom: Matthew Miller's *The Two Percent Solution* (Public Affairs 2003). In this work Miller addresses himself to the issues of inaccessible health care, failing public schools, miserable wages for low-end jobs, and the dominance of money in campaigns. He recommends a melange of policies: requiring health insurers to use "community rated" premiums plus tax subsidies to help low-income folks afford insurance; huge raises in pay for inner-city teachers but greater flexibility for administrators to reward better teachers and dismiss poor ones; limited school voucher trials in a few big cities; wages subsidies paid to employers who hire low-wage workers in order to enable employers to pay better.

I wasn't fully persuaded by all his recommendations (in particular, I felt vouchers needed more discussion than he offered, but I'm open to having more discussion). What makes Miller different is he's done the math (he worked under Clinton in the Office of Management and Budget)and he claims all his programs can be paid for by devoting 2 cents on the national dollar to them--which if done would still leave government smaller as a percentage of GDP than it was at the end of the Reagan era. He makes specific proposals regarding where to find the money. Plus Miller tries to identify potential common ground between Republicans and Democrats and come up with compromises that have something in them to appeal to both parties. (For more info you can visit Miller's website at www.mattmilleronline.com. He also has an NPR radio show one can access online.)

In today's climate, I'm not optimistic that Miller's ideas stand much chance, but I hope at least he can help to improve debate on these problems. He did get interviews with an amazing array of people: folks on the left like Bruce Ackerman and various union leaders plus folks on the right like Milton Friedman, William Bennet, and Mitch Daniels. I assigned the book in my political philosophy class--not to proselytize but to inspire debate--and students seemed to find it valuable. It is very accessible and written with great flair. Worth a look!

Posted by: Craig Duncan | Dec 8, 2004 12:31:30 PM

Posted by: matt

Here's what worries me about the claim that welfare is responsible for inner-city break-down: Europe has, in general, a much more generous social welfare scheme, but much less of a problem like that we have in the inner cities. (There are similar problems in some places, of couse, but it's less common and less wide spread.) Similarly, as the social safety net in Russia has turned to dust, real problems like those found in certain inner-city areas have sprung up there for the first time, really. So, there must be something lacking in that argument. Note also that in some European countries w/ very high rates of out-of-wedlock births, such as Norway, this is essentially no poverty, very little crime, and so on, so that can't be alone the reason either. I don't doubt that these are factors, but there must be others as well.
(Also, I'd like to see some data on African-American church attendence- I'd suspect it's easily as high or higher than that in successful white neighborhoods, so lack of church attendence seems unlikely to be a reason either.)

Posted by: matt | Dec 8, 2004 12:53:09 PM

Posted by: ZL


"Europe has, in general, a much more generous social welfare scheme, but much less of a problem like that we have in the inner cities. (There are similar problems in some places, of couse, but it's less common and less wide spread.)"

Have you been anywhere except tourist destinations in Europe in say the last ten years? Apparently not.

Posted by: ZL | Dec 8, 2004 1:03:07 PM

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

Craig Duncan writes:

Well, one essential part of the solution is for suburban voters to start to *care* about the plight of inner city residents, rather than throw their energy into finding ways to separate themselves from the inner city. Alas, I've no magic solution this care deficit.

This touches upon an important point: the reason people seek government solutions is that they perceive a problem not being addressed by private action.

What always struck me was the notion that if a person perceives an unmet need that's important enough to them, they'll go and work with others to fill it. I think of the Salvation Army's work with the poorest of the poor as an example of people who commit their lives to service. So it's possible. Whether you agree with the Salvation Army's Christianity or not, you cannot say they don't care or sacrifice for the poor.

Contrast this with the person (I won't characterize their politics) who feels deeply and empathetically for the poor, but is unwilling personally to go work with them poor, either at all or unless paid a professional wage (as teachers, social workers or other bureaucrats). They are often burdened with guilt over their own privileged status. Yet, these are often the people I see proposing significant government spending to pay others to do what they won't do, or to subsidize the cost of their doing it.

You cannot mandate or legislate care, and when people are providing services that involve a great deal of compassion, you will not get the same results from those who work merely for a wage that you will from those who work out of conviction. The simple example is the difference in care provided in nursing homes from that provided by family members or friends.

So, I'd suggest instead of proposing new government action in the inner cities, people focus on such matters as basic safety (policing) and then on going in themselves and doing what they see needs to be done.

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Dec 8, 2004 1:11:23 PM

Posted by: matt


In fact, I lived in Russia for two years, from 1999-2001, and traveled through much of Norway and the Baltics at the time. I've also been to the slummy sorts of areas on the outsides of Paris. A good friend of mine lived in the heart of LePen territory in France, and I regularly talked about it w/ him. And, I live in an "inner city" area in the US now. Am I an expert on this? No, but all the standard measure put, say, crime rates, violent crime rates, infant mortality, etc. much higher in the US than in Europe. If you disagree, I'd like to hear why. What are you getting at? Please don't think you know what you don't.

Posted by: matt | Dec 8, 2004 1:18:57 PM

Posted by: Ethesis (Stephen M)

Err, you can get serious inner city rot without any significant minority population at all.

In the late 70s, Salt Lake City's core started to reach terminal rot. It was interesting to listen to my law professors debate whether or not the rot could be cured.

But this was happening without any, er, minority issues. While the solution was interesting (Salt Lake had an important institutional stakeholder), the causes had nothing to do with minorities.

I think if both sides are going to communicate they need to get some things out of the shadows and into the light such as the assumption that minority communities are related to blight. That just isn't true. Inner city blight comes along just fine without any racial minorities to fuel it.

Posted by: Ethesis (Stephen M) | Dec 8, 2004 1:26:57 PM

Posted by: nick danger

Overall crime rates in Europe are significantly higher than in the US, and rising where ours are falling or steady.

As for what changes in laws would help, I can think of one right of the bat: eliminate some of the absurdly draconian gun laws that make it impossible for law-abiding citizens to defend themselves legally in their own homes. It should be obvious that criminals and ne'er-do-wells are already armed; the only thing these laws do is decrease personal security, one of the most likely reasons to leave the city.

Posted by: nick danger | Dec 8, 2004 1:33:28 PM

Posted by: jonathon martin


I think your response to Matt was perhaps a little glib. Europe has problems and some of its member countries have severe problems (Italy for example) but its successes must not be ignored. It simply runs directly contra to the evidence to suggest that welfare is a source of inner city degredation. The countries in Europe with the highest levels of welfare, that is the Nordic countries, have the lowest levels of poverty, crime and pretty much any other negative social statistic you care to mention.

Also, if you think the statistics don't meet the reality perhaps you should come to Scandinavia and then compare it to Britain (with less welfare, more crime etc.) and the US (even less welfare, three times as much serious crime and so on).

I would also like to make a brief point about schooling. Once again, we need to look at the countries that have been successful and what can be learnt from them. In the latest PISA international comparison it is Finland that comes top again with the other Nordic countries not too far behind. The US is near the bottom of the developed countries. None of the Nordic countries have voucher schemes.

Posted by: jonathon martin | Dec 8, 2004 1:39:00 PM

Posted by: S. Weasel

Matt, I think we have to start by defining our terms. "Welfare" is broadly descriptive of a number of government subsidies, including things like socialized medicine. Europe certainly has more of that than we do. Welfare in this thread is probably confined to those programs that give money to the inner-city poor in one way or another. I don't know how the rates of that particular narrow description of welfare compare among Western nations, but I'd be surprised if we were hugely outspent in that regard. Any time you pay healthy people not to work, you're creating great potential for mischief.

If you confine the statistics to cities only (which makes sense, as this is an inner-city thread), I'm not sure the crime rates are any different. I know 21st Century London scares the bejesus out of me.

Posted by: S. Weasel | Dec 8, 2004 1:45:39 PM

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

It may well be the case that the Nordic countries do not have vouchers, but in Norway (Oslo at least) virtually no one who can afford private schools sends their children to state schools. Likewise, they have a national medical scheme, but those who can afford it seek treatment from private practioners in England, Germany, or the United States. And crime, especially from the immigrant Muslim community, is a growing problem. A factor much overlooked in comparing countries such as the Scandanavians or the individual European countries with the United States is that they operate with much smaller and more ethnically homogenous populations. In those countries, there has traditionally been less of a gap than here in the social mores of the poor as compared to the working class population, even the population as a whole.

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Dec 8, 2004 1:52:33 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

I’m dubious about comparisons between, e.g., Scandinavia and the U.S. in discussions about urban poverty, education, etc. (As someone once quipped, we don’t have any problem with Scandinavian poverty or crime in the U.S., either.) More to the point, ethnically homogeneous populations where people tend to live generation after generation in the same neighborhood and so forth simply don’t seem to have as much difficulty discouraging negative behavior through purely social norms. It doesn’t follow that we can’t learn from them, but I think we have to be very careful what the lesson should be. Indeed, as European nations have themselves become more culturally and ethnically diverse and more mobile, it appears they have increasingly begun to suffer the same sorts of problems the U.S. has had for some time. Time will tell.

As for America’s urban problems, it may well be that cities in general are simply no longer vital to American society, or at least not as important as they once were. Economic incentives do produce results, and that works both ways. Subsidize roads and you permit businesses and their employees to move to the suburbs. Subsidize poverty (in the form of more generous urban welfare benefits versus rural welfare benefits) and you will increase the incidence of poverty in urban areas. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that eliminating or reducing welfare will, by itself, significantly reduce poverty. I am only stating what I take to be the truism that people respond to incentives.

I therefore do believe that enterprise zones and the like could be useful methods of reinvigorating cities. If nothing else, it would be refreshing to see the Left and the Right agreeing that none of their “one-size-fits-all” solutions seems to have worked so far and that states, cities and localities should be more free to address their problems as they think best. Indeed, I think that’s the basic idea behind federalism.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Dec 8, 2004 2:20:12 PM

Posted by: Shannon Love

Craig Duncan,

"Well, one essential part of the solution is for suburban voters to start to *care* about the plight of inner city residents"

It is not enough to care, you must also be competent, i.e. the programs you enact must actually improve the lives of the people you care about. Further, if you truly care, you must be able to separate your own ego from a program and be willing to admit failure and try something else. The Left has failed in both the areas.

It is very difficult to understand all the parameters of another person's life yet most Leftist social policy is based on doing just that. Having "caring" people in the suburbs try to make decisions that materially effect the lives of people in urban cores is a recipe for disaster no matter how well intended. In the 60's we accelerated the promotion of decision making up the political food chain in all areas of life. Local control was destroyed in education, crime fighting, business regulation etc and the effects were uniformly negative. All these things were done by well intentioned, caring, yet ultimately arrogant and incompetent people.

The best general solution to the problems to the urban inner cores is to stop treating the people their like lab rats and give them the power to make their own decisions. Voucher for schools, health care and other subsidized needs would be a good start. Let individuals decide.

Posted by: Shannon Love | Dec 8, 2004 2:41:52 PM

Posted by: Henry Woodbury

Ending rent control where it exists would be another good idea as rent control tends to limit both the number and types of apartments available. Real estate developers have no incentive to invest in inner-city neighborhoods that are rent controlled.

Even if ending rent control leads to gentrification, this isn't a bad thing. Gentrification brings more money into the neighborhood and thus new services and jobs will follow. Precisely because it is the inner city and population densities are quite high, those that are displaced will still be much closer to such potential jobs than they are to those in office parks and suburbs.

To balance this out, I'll plug public transportation. The neighborhood effects are significant, at least in larger cities, making public investment an arguable option even for small-government conservatives. Couple expanded public transportation with the delicensing of taxi cabs, and the ability of people to get to jobs would be much improved.

Posted by: Henry Woodbury | Dec 8, 2004 3:28:15 PM

Posted by: matt

The type of welfare coverage I had in mind in my earlier post include the sort that's quite typical in much of Europe- generous unemployment insurance, grants to mothers to help raise children, education coverage, medical coverage (poor health is surely a problem among the disadvantaged in the US- might fixing this play a role in healing the cities?) and so on. Note also that these are just some of the protections that have been shreded or eliminated in Russia over the last 15 years or so, at the same time that that country has had its social life torn apart.* Here's something to consider- Norway gives generous paid leave time to new mothers and also structures paid leave so as to encourage fathers to help in the rearing of new children. Maybe that would help? Who knows. It seems worth considering.
The commentors noting that a big difference in Norway and the other Scandinavian countries in relation to the US is the relative homogenous population of the former are worth taking seriously, too. It should make us sad and ashamed, though, if this was necessary for having concern and care for the less fortunate.
*(No appology for the soviet Union is to be found here- merely a statement of fact about some aspects of life in Russia.)

Posted by: matt | Dec 8, 2004 3:41:37 PM

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

The commentors noting that a big difference in Norway and the other Scandinavian countries in relation to the US is the relative homogenous population of the former are worth taking seriously, too. It should make us sad and ashamed, though, if this was necessary for having concern and care for the less fortunate.

The point about the more homogenous population was not about having concern or care for the less fortunate. Rather, it was to suggest that in those countries there is more general agreement on values and social mores -- not so much that people in Scandanavian countries are more generous to the poor because the poor look more like them, but that the poor share the values and traditions of society more than they do here.

As to Norway, I would point out that Norway could been as more analogous to Saudi Arabia than to the US, in the sense that the nation's wealth, and the generosity of its social welfare system, are made possible by its oil wealth, which is owned by the state. I have seen Norwegian society at all levels, from simple farm people to those closely connected with the royal family. With few exceptions, there really seems to be a 'Norwegian' way of looking at things that pervades all levels of society. Very decent people, but the socialism in Norway can best be described as the socialism of envy: "if I can't have why should anyone else" that does not bode well for growth. Before the discovery of oil in the North Sea, Norway was a rather poor country.

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Dec 8, 2004 3:55:54 PM

Posted by: matt


I didn't mean merely physically homogenous in relation to Norway. And I'd be happy to claim that it would still be a tragidy if its true that one reason we care less about the less fortunate in the US is becuase we think they have different values from us better of folks. I'd feel the same if, say, folks from the city refused to consider paying taxes to help fund schools, farms, highways, etc. in states like Wyoming or Idaho (my home state) that are net importers of federal money. If it's true that we need this sort of similarity to care about each other enoug to do something, whatever it may be, it's a serious problem for diverse countries like the US. I don't think it's true, but it migth well be.
Your obviously right about the effect of oil in Norway- but it's interesting that they decided to use the money from it as they have, no? And of couse Finland and Sweden don't have those benefits. I talk less about them only becuase I know Norway somewhat more.

Posted by: matt | Dec 8, 2004 4:03:21 PM

Posted by: Achillea

Getting back, for the moment, to the premise of lack of security being the main cause of inner city community blight. Speaking as some who has worked at various inner city schools for years, you can't put it off on african-americans. Pick any 'ghettoized' race and you'll encounter the same thing. You also can't put it off to lack of family roots in a given neighborhood. From what I've seen, living in the same place your grandparents did/do doesn't really make that much difference. While the absence of a positive mother and/or father figure does matter, it's not the whole picture. And note I said 'positive' -- simply being present is not enough, and may even be worse (a criminal father who knocks mother and/or child around is not only likely to badly socialize the child, but to occlude other, better examples which might exist outside the family).
What all the blighted areas of inner cities seem to share is a large number of young people (chiefly, but not entirely, young men) directing their energies into antisocial and destructive behavior. Which, while it explains why those areas aren't safe, doesn't answer why these young people are behaving that way. I think any proposal (or group of proposals, since I don't see any magic bullets for this) that hopes to rectify this situation is going to have to answer that question, and answer it correctly.

Posted by: Achillea | Dec 8, 2004 4:39:45 PM

Posted by: S. Weasel

If it's true that we need this sort of similarity to care about each other enoug to do something, whatever it may be, it's a serious problem for diverse countries like the US. I don't think it's true, but it migth well be.

Oh, wow...I just realized what you're saying. You've interpreted the statement that poverty is lower in countries that are ethnically homogeneous as an assertion that people don't care enough about those who are ethnically different to fund programs to help them. I'm pretty sure what prior posters meant was that unassimilated ethnic groups have higher hurdles to jump to succeed, because of language and other cultural differences.

This is why right and left have such a hard time talking to each other: your interpretation simply would not occur to me, and I nearly missed what you meant.

Posted by: S. Weasel | Dec 8, 2004 4:54:22 PM

Posted by: Matt

--S Weasel,

I interpreted it that way for a few reasons- one, becuase that's how the issue is looked at in the literature I'm familiar with (not that much, but the stuff I know.) But, in what sense are African-Americans, or Hispanic Americans "unassimilated ethnic groups" in the US? And, in Germany, where the decedents of Turkish guest workers are much worse off than most Germans (or so I've read- it's not my area of knowlege) the young are pretty well assimilated in that they have grown up in Germany, often speak only German, know only German culture, etc. but still are looked on as "other" and so treated worse. There seems to be a pretty clear patern that people care less about those not like them. This of the tying of welfare "reform" to pictures of "welfare queens" or "super preditor" youth and the like. My questions are whether this is necessary, what can be done about it, and what it says for politics.

Posted by: Matt | Dec 8, 2004 5:03:12 PM

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

Matt: my point was not that we need the similarity to care, but that many people want some sort of comfort that whatever we do as a result of caring will be used wisely: shared cultural values provides that sort of comfort. In the voluntary context, I'm much more likely to give money to someone who I'm comfortable will use it to buy a meal than someone I'm afraid will simply buy a jug of cheap wine, or a vial of crack. I think that's a normal human response and in no way tragic or deplorable. What's deplorable is thinking simply throwing money at a problem will make it go away.


What all the blighted areas of inner cities seem to share is a large number of young people (chiefly, but not entirely, young men) directing their energies into antisocial and destructive behavior. Which, while it explains why those areas aren't safe, doesn't answer why these young people are behaving that way.

The simple, but uncomfortable, answer is that these young people are behaving the way they are because the behavior is tolerated. It is tolerated by their families (whether intact or not) who do not immediately and effectively punish the first manifestations of antisocial behavior. It is tolerated by neighborhoods and the social welfare workers who excuse the behavior and try to defend the perpetrators when they're apprehended. It's tolerated by a school system that does not expel permanently those who are not willing to abide by the rules. It's tolerated by a judicial system that does not provide suffiently strong disincentives to criminal behavior. And, ultimately, it's tolerated by society that's afraid of the uproar that it thinks would ensue if the young thugs were taken in hand and punished at an early age. I agree with you that it's not essentially a racial question: it doesn't matter whether the young thugs are black, brown, yellow or white, they're still thugs who have to be dealt with firmly. Firm discipline and societal sanction agains the criminal behaviour at younger ages will undoubtedly lead to lower crime rates and safer neighborhoods.

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Dec 8, 2004 5:11:13 PM

Posted by: Paul

Hey folks,

I just got here from Ogged. The first headline I see is in all lowercase. Scrolling down, I see it is a habit.

And you guys are academics?

Thanks, but I fear I'm done already.

Posted by: Paul | Dec 8, 2004 5:14:30 PM

Posted by: S. Weasel

But, in what sense are African-Americans, or Hispanic Americans "unassimilated ethnic groups" in the US?

To the extent that they haven't assimilated.

My neighbors next door are Cape Verdeans. Hence, they are of largely African ancestry and their native language is Portuguese. The parents, who came to the US as adults, speak heavily accented English, but are perfectly understandable. Their children, who grew up in the US, speak ghetto mushmouth patois, Nowhamsayin? I can't understand a word of it. They're nice kids, but their biggest ambition seems to be being mistaken for outlaws. They've got no reason to adopt a prickly urban attitude. They grew up next door to me, for goodness sakes, and I haven't popped a cap in anyone's ass in ages.

The parents took a look at the American system and thought, "yeah, okay, I can work with this." The kids didn't. The parents have middle-class jobs and own their own home. I don't know what the kids' prospects are.

Sometimes assimilation is not a matter of how long your family's been someplace, but of how willing you are to work with the system. In this since, there were an awful lot of unassimilated middle class white kids in 1968. We're still trying to digest the bastards.

Posted by: S. Weasel | Dec 8, 2004 5:23:16 PM

Posted by: chris

I think lack of Homogeneity cuts both ways. Every parent is more concerned about their own kids than the neighbors kids and the more different someone is the easier it is not to care and contribute.
The flip side of this, is that the more different you are the easier it is to take without remorse. The taking can be cheating on welfare, slacking on the job, or robbery.
There was an article in the paper (Chicago Trib?) a few years ago about a town in Iowa with a very strong Church based welfare program. If you were needy you got better benefits from them than you did from Uncle Sam. The conditions were that: 1) You did not sign up for Government Benefits, 2) You met with a represenatative of the Church to help plan out how you were going to get back on your feet, 3) you attended Church so you saw all of the people who were paying your rent and buying your food,clothes etc.
They quickly discovered that when people put a face to those who they were recieving charity from they were more likely to work to get off of charity as opposed to when the charity was an entitlement from some "other" that they do not need to worry about taking from. I would assume that lack of homogeneity make the "other" even more remote and easier to take from with out remorse.

On a similar note, Charles Murray (of "The Bell Curve" fame), wrote in an earier book, "The Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government" that if you look at the walfare system it is designed by rich white guys and that if Teddy Kennedy ever found himself in Poverty it would be a great system for getting him on his feet. Since the backgroud of most people in the inner city is not the same as that of Teddy Kennedy the systems as designed does not work as well for them.

Posted by: chris | Dec 8, 2004 5:56:09 PM

Posted by: James B. Shearer

Jim from New Jersey asked what has changed in the black community (causing urban blight)in the last eighty years. One factor seems obvious, it has become easier for hardworking, competent and responsible blacks to move out of bad neighborhoods and many have done so. Naturally this will make bad neighborhoods worse.

Posted by: James B. Shearer | Dec 8, 2004 9:33:01 PM

Posted by: Ken Gorrell

I laughed out loud as I read "As long as we can warehouse an astonishing proportion of young black men in the criminal justice system, as long as the thin blue line will guard those of us lucky enough to live elsewhere, we don't care."

How about this: As long as an astonishing proportion of young black men prey on their "own people," i.e., people in their own neighborhoods, people of their own race, the criminal justice system and the thin blue line should continue to put such men in prison, protecting especially those who live in those same neighborhoods, suffer similar hardships, but manage to obey the laws.

The wounds of the inner city are mostly self-inflicted. When society finally reconnects rights with responsibilities, and hold citizens accountable, then we will be on our way to solving this systemic problem. But not until.

Posted by: Ken Gorrell | Dec 8, 2004 9:47:25 PM

Posted by: Jacob Rove

CRIMES OF THE RIGHT, the new explosive tell-all book by the best-selling author HOPE NEWMAN, hits the market with a bang!
This book unravels the truth behind the CIA, the BUSH/CHENEY, and Tony Blair cover ups. The most devastating terrorist act in history was not the 9-11, it was the rigged voting of million of ballots behind the scene. I heard the White House nearly prohibited the book’s publication. The author had to go to court to release it.
I think we should all buy a copy of the CRIMES OF THE RIGHT. This will send a message that they can rig our votes, but they can't silence us. CRIMES OF THE RIGHT, hard cover ISBN is: 0595665748. I bought my copy at barnesandnobel.com. You can also find it at amazon.com. Please help spread the word.

Posted by: Jacob Rove | Dec 8, 2004 10:08:24 PM

Posted by: TM Lutas

The formula for turning a large, reputably ungovernable city around has been well understood since Giuliani created the astonishing improvements in NYC. Every year that Giuliani style improvements are not put in place in Detroit and other failing urban centers is a huge shame. The idea of federalism is that you experiment and what succeeds is imitated, what does not, dies out. Is it that Giuliani has an (R) after his name that federalism has so badly broken down? There are people getting buried today as a consequence.

Posted by: TM Lutas | Dec 8, 2004 10:12:23 PM

Posted by: neolib

I live in DC and the enterprise zones - low or no sales tax, extra security, special groundskeeping and cleaning staff - are some of the nicest parts of the whole town.

I think the problem is that, at their heart, taxes take away from enterprise, employment and profit. Democrats have very strong influence in the areas you're talking about, and almost all of them have the high taxes. High taxes and inner city depression have a high rate of correspondence if not causality.

My suggestion is to cut the taxes, because that's been working elsewhere. But don't just cut it for the corporations and big employers, cut it for small businesses, hair salons, barber shops, auto body work, etc. Also, scale way down the zoning and licensing restrictions. Taxes and regulations are the two biggest blockades for getting a small or home business going because both raise the cost of starting and doing business.

The best example is from California, where one woman wanted to start an African hair-weaving business. She was fined for not getting her license and going to cosmetology school - even though the several years and thousands of dollars involved in cosmetology school had no classes on her style of hair-weaving or African styles at all.

A free-market advocacy group took her case and she won. Most people are not so lucky to get pro bono lawyers or to have a major corporation backing them. We need to really relax these restrictions, they keep lower class people out of the middle class like almost happened to the woman in the example (who came from very modest circumstances).

Who really cares if she has a cosmetology license? What's going to happen if thousands of unlicensed comsetologists run around the city - are people going to find their hair braided too tightly or the makeup applied too heavily? Come on. It's just silly. We need to lighten these restriction and let people open their own businesses.

The center-left should be way into this idea, since most center-leftists don't like corporations and big businesses. Trust me, zoning and taxes are not a problem for big businesses like they are for small businesses. Corporations get exemptions, extensions and amnesties all the time from these obstacles - and when they don't, the law of Economies of Scale means it's proportionally easier for them to afford the taxes or lawyers involved.

Business taxes, sales taxes and zoning/business regulations are regressive - they hurt the smaller guys much more than the big guys. It's too expensive for some small businessman to get a lawyer and sue the city for a variance or to hire an accountant to cover taxes and so forth.

Eliminate the burden on small businesses regarding taxes, zoning and regulations and I guarantee you will have made it much easier for low income people to become self-reliant business owners.

Posted by: neolib | Dec 8, 2004 10:49:11 PM

Posted by: Xavier

If so many of these people are unemployed and non-property owners, what's keeping them Detroit? If it's such a miserable place with no economic opportunities, why don't they leave? It seems that the city of Detroit is a failure, and I see no reason not to simply let it die.

Posted by: Xavier | Dec 9, 2004 12:27:48 AM

Posted by: Ram

One sizable part of the problem with our inner cities is that a bunch of low skilled American citizens need jobs.

Proposal: Get serious about ending illegal economic migration into this country.

Objection: There would be economic chaos!
Yes, in the short term there would be serious problems. The construction industry here in Dallas, Texas would be devastated. Remember though: many of these positions are low skilled and it probably wouldn't be hard to train replacements inside of a year. The skilled labor we would lose still would be considerable.

Objection: There are some jobs that Americans just won't do.
At first this strikes me as an insult (Saudi Arabia anyone?) - but rationally it is probably true too. Some jobs will no longer be economic. Those jobs will be eliminated, just like the thousands of other jobs through out history that no longer exist. I understand Australia doesn't have access to large numbers of agricultural workers and therefor of necessity their harvesting technology is often better than our own.

Objection: It isn't fair to citizens of other countries who want to work here illegally or 'immigration laws are inherently racist'.
There is no international human right to live and work in the USA. For folks in other countries who want to come here and become Americans we have a legal (& often imperfect) process. Anyway, what sense is it for a country to export it's most motivated, eager, risk taking workforce? "Times are tough in Chihuahua" seems to me like a problem looking for a more local solution.

Objection: It is politically impossible to enforce our immigration laws.
Sigh. Probably so. And the folks hurt worst by that fact are the ones who don't need the stiff competition for that bottom rung of the ladder.

As a conservative Republican, I'm glad my president is addressing this issue. Too bad his amnesty plan is simple capitulation.

Posted by: Ram | Dec 9, 2004 1:07:20 AM

Posted by: jonathon martin

"With few exceptions, there really seems to be a 'Norwegian' way of looking at things that pervades all levels of society. Very decent people, but the socialism in Norway can best be described as the socialism of envy: "if I can't have why should anyone else" that does not bode well for growth."

I'm not very comfortable with people bandying around terms like the socialism of envy (and nor would I be comfortable with people saying all capitalists are greedy). Speaking to my students in Finland they just think it's silly that in a rich country some people should have to struggle. It's not envy, it seems to them to be common sense. I fully accept that this may be a dogma but it's no more a dogma than arguments about freedom that are used to justify the great inequalities in wealth in the US. Both ideas could be put under tha label "that's just how we see things". Like it or not though, you have to have your head pretty far in the sand to say that great inequalities do not fracture society.

As to the Nordic countries generally, I accept that Norway is a freak because of its oil wealth. In fact all the Nordic countries have quite individual stories about how they became wealthy and I wouldn't deny that the level of welfare and thus taxation dampens entrepreneurship somewhat. I would also agree that the US should be careful about what lessons it tries to learn from those countries. That said, there is something to be explained be it to do with the culture or the structure of society or the institutions.

Taking Finland as an example, its successes cannot be put down to any freak factor like oil or avoiding wars (Sweden). It was crippled by war with Russia and Germany and had to assimilate 450,000 refugees into a population of only 4 million. They speak a terribly peculiar and isolating language. They are at the margins of Europe. Yet, in the last fourty years they have gone from being an agricultural society to a country with a GDP greater than that of Britain and even Sweden. They have some of the lowest rates of poverty in the world (I've never seen a homeless person). At fifteen, their children come top in the world for maths, science and literacy. They are the only country to beat the US this year in business competitiveness (Economist data) and they have the highest expected growth in the Eurozone. They also topped the rankings this year for the country with the least corruption.

There may be a non-transferable explanation for this but I don't think the fact it is a homogenous population really has enough explanatory power to rule out a more egalitarian welfare oriented system as a possible solution for the problems of deprived areas.

Posted by: jonathon martin | Dec 9, 2004 2:21:41 AM

Posted by: rumpy doppelganger

Proposal: Get serious about ending illegal economic migration into this country.

My main objection is that this solution doesn't address the real problem. The real problem is not a lack of low-paying, low-skilled jobs. There are surplus of those, particularly in places not in southern border states, like Detroit. The real problem is that taking a low-skilled job for low pay is less desirable for a large culture of inner-city residents than taking handouts for no work, or committing crimes for high pay.

Posted by: rumpy doppelganger | Dec 9, 2004 2:23:09 AM

Posted by: rumpy doppelganger

I work as an ADA for the Milwaukee County D.A.'s Office, so I see the breakdown every day. I work with these very people. But I have come to believe that the problem is not racial. It is not monetary. It is not even educational. It is ethical. You all have to realize that there is a culture, huge segments of entire generations, that honestly lack the very sense of right and wrong that educated people like us take for granted. You can ask them why they committed some crime, or made some poor decision, and usually it isn't because they couldn't think of the consequences. It's because they really just didn't understand that they were violating norms that we don't even think about not violating.

Boiled down: Hard though it may be to believe, these people have largely never been actually socialized to live in a peaceful, law-abiding society. Not by their parents, not by their schools, not by the state. They literally can almost be described as feral, and while they can have many children, they have absolutely no ability, nor inclination, to socialize their children.

This is distressing, because ultimately the state is extremely ill-equipped to socialize people. It simply lacks the tools to accomplish such a thing, even in a society less suspicious of government meddling than the U.S. I have no idea what the solution to this problem is, but I suspect it will be ugly from one perspective or another.

Posted by: rumpy doppelganger | Dec 9, 2004 2:35:09 AM

Posted by: anonymous

Your point eloquently illustrates from practical experience the point made earlier that the core problem of the violent urban subculture is that it is tolerated. And, your point that governments are ill-equipped to deal with the moral and ethical bases of the subcure is manifest.

Posted by: anonymous | Dec 9, 2004 5:54:02 AM

Posted by: Martin A. Knight

Congratulations Don Herzog. You've successfully started a thread that has actualized the raison d'etre of this website.

NOTE: This is because, unlike a lot of people on the Left, who simply assume that the Right doesn't care about issue X, and even if we did, any policy promoted by the Right on issue X is actually a secret plan to oppress the non-white, the non-straight, the non-female, etc. you asked for our opinions in apparent good faith, without questioning our motives and invited us to answer.

Posted by: Martin A. Knight | Dec 9, 2004 8:05:32 AM

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