Speaking of the restoration of the centuries-old Bourbon monarchy — following the massively convulsive interlude of 22 years between French Revolution and Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 — Talleyrand quipped, “They [the Bourbons] have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.”
On a smaller scale, the same judgment applies to the lessons learned (or studiously ignored) in a lengthy report released last week into the “underlying issues” behind the riots and looting that erupted in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson (pop. 21,200) following the shooting death of a young black man by a white police officer on Aug. 9, 2014.
Commissioned by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, the report is long on liberal pieties and dogma, including the advocacy of some policies that will only worsen existing problems, but short of practical suggestions for improving economic or social conditions in a close-in, big-city suburb that went from predominantly white to predominantly black in the space of two decades.
For example, the Ferguson Commission calls for expanded job opportunities for black youth. Who can argue with that? As the commissioners point out, for blacks aged 16 to 19, the unemployment rate (nationally) is 30.1 percent, compared with 15.5 percent for whites in the same age group. But then the report endorses calls for almost doubling the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
The adverse impact of a dramatic increase in the minimum wage on teenagers looking for their first jobs should be clear to anyone who stops to think about it. If a business is forced to pay $15 an hour to a worker whose true value to the enterprise is, say, $8 an hour, that amounts to a hidden tax of $7 an hour, or 87.5 percent, on the employment of that person — a tax that does not apply to people making, say, $20 or $30 an hour. Naturally, such a tax would encourage employers to invest in automation and concentrate their hiring on more skilled and experienced workers. As Milton Friedman put it, “The minimum wage law is most properly described as a law saying that employers must discriminate against people who have low skills.”
The commissioners call for concerted efforts to “enhance college access and affordability” through expanded scholarships and other means, but they ignore the biggest problem: poor test scores and a lack of readiness for college. In the Normandy school district — Michael Brown’s alma mater — 93 percent of students who took the standard college entrance examination scored below the national average. Normandy students taking the ACT test had an average score of 16 —not high enough to gain admittance to most four-year state institutions. It isn’t funding that is keeping these students from going to college. It is their abysmal K-12 preparation.
Predictably, the Ferguson Commission urges the state to invest in a universal pre-K program and move the compulsory education age down to 5 from 7. This would become a new (and hugely expensive) entitlement, while adding another layer onto K-12 schools that are not meeting the needs of low-income, African-American students (who make up 80 percent of Ferguson-Florissant students and more than 96 percent of students in nearby Normandy). How is expanding a broken system going to help anyone?
In its 198 pages, the Ferguson Commission Report calls for the expansion of a broad mix of other programs at multiple levels of government — ranging from food stamps and public transit to Medicaid and housing assistance — and it recommends a panoply of new programs to raise the awareness of police officers, teachers, and other public officials of the danger of unconscious or unintentional racial bias.
“In the 2011-12 school year,” the report notes, “14.3 percent of black elementary school students in Missouri were suspended, compared to 1.8 percent of white students.” It then adds, “Research suggests that some of the discipline gap may be attributed to teacher bias, which predisposes them to expect less of minority students and to discipline them more frequently and more harshly.”
However, the report makes no attempt to assess, or discuss, what part of “the discipline gap” — if any — may be due to other reasons — including the high incidence of low-income black children growing up in single-parent homes, with no live-in, working fathers.
Among the 189 “calls to action” contained in the report, one of the more startling recommendations is the complete elimination of all school suspensions and expulsions for disruptive behavior from kindergarten through third grade.
At the outset of the report, the commissioners give themselves a broad pass in describing their work as “a study of underlying issues — not an investigation of an incident.” They write:
This report is not in any way an investigation of what happened between Michael Brown Jr. and Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson on August 9, 2014, nor is it an investigation of the response to the uprising that followed. Other bodies have been responsible for those investigations.
For the record, it should be noted that Officer Wilson was twice cleared of charges of any wrong-doing in the death of Brown: First, by the Saint Louis County grand jury’s decision not to bring murder or manslaughter charges against him, and second, in an 86-page report by the U.S. Justice Department in early March which supported that decision.
Over the past 12 months, numerous newspaper and magazine articles have called attention to the widespread misuse of local police and courts in Saint Louis County (including Ferguson) as de facto tax collection agencies — imposing heavy fines and fees for minor traffic violations and other municipal code infractions while often jailing people for failure to pay tickets.
The Ferguson Commission report rightly condemns such practices (as did the U.S. Justice Department in a separate investigation of Ferguson Police Department procedures). In July, Gov. Nixon signed a bill into law that greatly limits the extent to which municipalities can rely on fines and fees to fund themselves.
On balance, however, the Ferguson Commission fails in its stated purpose of “outlining a (new) path to racial equity.” For the most part, it is a compendium of tried-and-failed liberal policy recommendations.