Thursday, March 30, 2017


Megan McArdle has seen the future and it's Mormons! She has returned from Salt Lake City to tell us that religious and racial homogeneity makes everything better. As does marriage, of course!

Utah is sparsely populated and its government is tightly intertwined with the LDS Church, which (as Chris Lehmann points out on his excellent McArdle reponse at The Baffler) is rich as fuck -- imagine Vatican City as a U.S. state. The Utah government spends big money on getting businesses to relocate to Utah, but, unlike in other theo-Republican states, a lot of money also gets spent on -- record scratch! -- social services, much of it directly by the Church rather than the government, via projects like "Welfare Square," through which Church elders give their pauper charges food that will "sustain human life, not lifestyle" so they don't get too comfortable.

How much is Church and how much is State? McArdle's kind of hazy on that:
Once I got there, I found that it’s hard to even get a complete picture of how Utah combats poverty, because so much of the work is done by the Mormon Church, which does not compile neat stacks of government figures for the perusal of eager reporters.
That's one of the benefits of small-government, big-religion -- no tedious supporting documents! Of course you could, if you were interested, find some government paperwork like the Utah Intergenerational Welfare Reform Commission 2016 report which would tell you that "the federal Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) is the primary funding source for Utah’s child care system." It also contains nuggets like "It is worth noting that participation in [SNAP, child care subsidies, Medicaid, CHIP, et alia] does not necessarily reveal dependence on public assistance." Big Government on the downlow!

But McArdle doesn't want to get into "sanitary, clinical terms" like economists use to describe this paradise because "these are easier to quantify than a dream, but also less satisfying." And she has found a Dream -- the best kind: The American!-- in Utah. Salt Lake City has more upward mobility than Charlotte, North Carolina -- there a person has a nearly 11% "likelihood of moving from the poorest quintile to the richest" as opposed to 4%. Why, that's almost like getting three lottery tickets for the price of one! And since the Church is doing a lot of the heavy lifting, she doesn't have to give Big Government any props.

But if you know McArdle, you know she can't quite come out and say the solution is to have everyone join this religion -- that would be blasphemous to Mammon. But she does suggest some ways we can replicate Utah's results. Naturally there's a lot of her customary marriage-makes-you-rich guff. And there's an element that's even creepier. McArdle finds the poverty discussions she has with the Utahns don't include any mention of race -- "No proposal was immediately decried as racist. Truly surreal to a Washingtonian and a recovering New Yorker," ha ha, amirite -- and intuits it's because Utah has very few black people, mainly because the Church spent years trying to keep them out.

She could have just moved on from there, but it's like she can't help herself:
This near-absence of racial diversity means that racism is largely left out of Utah’s conversations about economic inequality. That leads to some conversations around inequality that would be unbearably fraught elsewhere. When the poor people are, by and large, the same race as the richer ones, people find it easier to talk about them the way they might talk about, well, family members — as folks who may have made some mistakes and started with some disadvantages, but also as folks who could be self-sufficient after a little help from an uncle or a sister. It’s a very different conversation from “victim”/“oppressor” and “us”/“them”: a conversation that recognizes that poor people often make choices that keep them in poverty, but also that the constraints of poverty, including the social environment of poor neighborhoods, make it very difficult to make another choice.
If only we didn't have to deal with this "victim"/"oppressor" stuff! Then we could really talk, as if these people were members of our family (except, ha ha, come on).

Inevitably we get the Putnam Maneuver, the polite conservative's way of saying stick to your own kind:
It’s not clear that we can have those same sorts of conversations in the places that are still struggling more openly and frequently with the legacy of slavery, or the inevitable clashes that come from throwing a lot of different cultures together in a small space. The many benefits of diversity have been so frequently and thoroughly extolled that I need not rehearse the refrain here.
I mean, diversity blah blah blah, after a while you almost forget you're white.
But there has been a growing disquiet in recent years with diversity’s costs. About 10 years ago, public policy professor Robert Putnam began quietly pointing out that along with enhancing positive qualities like creativity, diversity also created conflict and reduced the level of social trust.

“In more diverse settings,” suggests Putnam, “Americans distrust not merely people who do not look like them, but even people who do.”

Utah’s willingness to help, and its ability to help, may arise from its homogeneity — a trait that won’t be exported to the diverse nation at large.
But that's okay -- soon gentrification will chase all the black people out of Petworth, and then D.C. can finally have better social services!

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