Government Works

I read David Brook’s column yesterday and it’s sticking in my craw. So I’m going to write about it until I figure out why.

Brooks claims this is a column that will try to figure out “what government is and isn’t good at.”  To this end, he goes to observe the goings on at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and, more specifically, the workings of the program HUDStat, a program dedicated to collecting data on homelessness among veterans and how the programs for them are doing.

His conclusion is that the government is good at seeing the world “numerically and organizationally” but not good at seeing “the gritty and unpredictable way the world sometimes looks” to homeless veterans.

Let me repeat this.  David Brooks observes a government program within HUD dedicated exclusively to the gathering and interpreting of data, and then claims that the only thing the government knows how to do is gather and interpret data.

Oh, there it is!  I knew by writing about it I’d figure out what was sticking in my craw!  See, when I sat down, I was thinking to myself, gosh, David Brooks has written an interesting column, and, since I don’t really know that much, I like reading about how government does what it does, but there were one or two sentences that bothered me.  But now I see that the whole damn column bothered me, because it was so much conservative hypocrisy and blowharding!

And let’s go a little further here.  By not accounting for how “gritty and unpredictable” the world looks to a homeless vet, where is the government failing them?  I agree that the very fact of homelessness for veterans means that the government is failing them, but I don’t see how seeing the world in all its grittiness and unpredictability would help.

I would think the first thing to do in figuring out, on a national scale, how to help homeless vets have a less gritty and less predictable world, would be to gather data on what programs are there to help them and how good a job they’re doing of it.  For instance, according to the column, Indiana and Ohio are doing a pretty good job, and California not so much.  So now that you’ve gathered the data, you can look at it and say, “Oh, that’s because the case workers in CA are not being trained to recognize effects of PTSD,” or “That’s because there’s not really enough low-income housing in CA to get to all the homeless vets,” or “That’s because the case workers doing work with homeless vets aren’t specializing in it and they have too many other kinds of cases to really do a thorough job on homeless-vet cases.”  Or whatever.  I have no idea what California is doing that’s not as good, but I bet that HUDStat, in its gathering of data, is figuring it out.

So what does David Brooks think they should be doing instead?  Does he think it would be a better use of their time to hold hands with a bunch of homeless vets across the country?  Meet their mothers?  Pour them tea?  Furthermore, why does he think they don’t understand, on a personal level, the “gritty and unpredictable way the world sometimes looks” to homeless vets, and have chosen to work on this project as one method of helping them? They’re government service workers, and more specifically, they’re statisticians working on a statistics project for one program within one department.  They’re not novelists, and they’re not crime journalists (another group who sees the world in a gritty and unpredictable way according to Brooks) and this is their job.  I really can’t imagine what David Brooks thinks will help them more.

He concludes by saying “it was important to see the talent and commitment of real-life government works running a successful program – and to see the limitations inherent in government planning.”  But we don’t see the limitations.  At no point does David Brooks present an interview with a homeless vet, or a case worker, or anything that we could point to and go, “Yes, the gathering of data is not helping THIS person any, and it can’t possibly.”  And the way Brooks phrases that is so condescending, so “Oh, yes, you people are terrific, really, doing great work – it’s not your fault you work for an organization that can only fail.”  It’s all in the hyphen, that condescension, that “But let’s be serious – government sucks.”  And that condescension is not just directed at the people who work for HUDStat, it’s directed at his readers, too.  He promised he was going to take a serious look at what works and what doesn’t work in government, but what he meant was, “I already think government doesn’t work, so I’m going to write a column about that no matter what’s going on at HUDStat.  But let’s allow the readers to think I seriously considered it first.”

He also manages to get in a dig I don’t really understand about Democrats feeling more comfortable using housing vouchers to address housing problems but not education or health care problems.  I have to wonder if a) Democrats do have a problem using vouchers for this but it’s the system that’s in place and it’s more important to get people who need a place to live into housing than it is to carry out this political fight on their backs, and/or b) there’s something about housing vouchers that works better than education vouchers or medical care vouchers.  I don’t know the answer to this, but from the flip way David Brooks tosses this line in, which has little to do with anything in the column, I suspect that David Brooks doesn’t care about the answer to this.

Of course, what gets me is that I think David Brooks is funny, and a terrific writer.  Obviously I think the gritty and unpredictable thing is a good line; I repeated it several times.  I also liked in the first line him calling himself and others in his position the “commentariat.”  But that just messes up my Manichean vision of the world, damn it.


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