Guest Voice: The Powell Doctrine and Social Programs
NOTE: The Moderate Voice runs Guest Voice posts from time to time by readers who don’t have their own websites, or people who have websites but would like to post something for TMV’s diverse and thoughtful readership. Guest Voice posts do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Moderate Voice or its writers. NOTE: Broken link has been FIXED on this post.
Today’s Guest Voice post is by Hunter Hatfield, currently a doctoral student in linguistics and cognitive science at the University of Hawaii with a previous M.A. in philosophy. In between these academic jaunts he spent a decade in the computer industry. He publishes the thoughtful weblog Goat Skin Pants.
The Powell Doctrine and Social Programs
By Hunter Hatfield
Hi, TMV readers. Any feedback on this post is most welcome. It’s why I’m writing it. Here you go:
Are social programs the liberal version of Vietnam, and possibly Iraq, in which the desire for limited warfare is sabotaging the outcome?
In other words, have the Great Society programs of the Johnson era or the New Deal gotten to a point where 1) there aren’t really any clear goals to achieve, but instead we just muddle along with no ability to “win”; 2) we see that poverty is just as bad (if this is true) as when we started, but we think we have to “stay the course” until someone comes up with something better? After all, the argument may go, we are doing some good. 3) We have thousands of social workers and government employees doing everything they can to help people in these programs, just like American soldiers were/are doing everything they could to help Vietnamese and Iraqis, but the system they are operating in is simply dysfunctional?
There are surely problems with such an analysis.
One problem is the idea that you might win over Homelessness or Hunger or Poverty. Such a goal is designed for failure, but, while failing to achieve World Peace, we often do feed actual hungry people and help the unemployed get jobs, and isn’t that far more important than conquering an abstraction?
But let’s say there is a kernel of truth to my analogy as well. If so, then perhaps they both have similar solutions. What was supposed to be the policy solution to prevent quagmires like Vietnam from happening again? The Powell Doctrine – Use overwhelming force; only go in when you have exact ideas on how to get out.
In short, decide exactly what you want to do and then throw everything and the kitchen sink at it. This doctrine seems to have worked decently well militarily until Iraq, at which point we ignored the idea in large part.
My question is: do we need to be applying the Powell Doctrine to social programs? Instead of choosing between small bits here and there, which we then apply across the U.S., choose some specific problem and then do everything you possibly can to fix it. Of course, as said, you can’t fix Poverty. But the Powell doctrine isn’t supposed to end all war either. It is, however, supposed to keep you out of ill-defined never-ending war.
So for a social program, you can’t cure poverty. But maybe you can choose one broken neighborhood and attack its problems like no one has ever seen. Take East St. Louis or the 9th Ward or “across the tracks” and go after it. Beautify the neighborhood, give tax breaks to small business, have Head Start programs in every neighborhood, find mental health treatment for the homeless who need it, triple the community policing, get drug treatment in there, engage every church and civic organization you can to participate in creating the solutions, build schools throughout the district, issue tough requirements on parents and teachers, and right on down the list.
Of course, you cannot do this in every single place at once. We’d all go bankrupt. But if you can truly “fix” a neighborhood in 5-10 years, based on some defined, community-supported goal before you started, then you can move to the next place. When East St. Louis supports itself, you don’t have to spend the money there anymore. Ironically, one drawback to such a solution is that people might start moving to that location to take advantage of the new schools and the tax breaks on business. But if people are now moving to the place most people were afraid to go before, then it seems you have succeeded. Time to find the next problem.