“Root Causes”

The Biden administration wants to find and solve the ‘root causes’ driving the flood of refugees to the US from the south, and has assigned that task to VP Kamela Harris.  More generally, liberals and ‘progressives’ like to talk about ‘root causes’ for all kinds of things: crime, for example: instead of arresting criminals, just solve the Root Causes of crime!

Someone needs to explain to these people the concept of ask why five times, and how that concept is properly implemented.  Example:

PROBLEM: There is oil on factory floor.  Why?

Looks like it’s coming from that machine over there.

ACTION: Clean up the oil. But then ask…
WHY is there oil leaking from that machine.

The machine has a bad gasket.

ACTION: Replace the gasket. But then ask..
WHY was the gasket bad?

Check out the condition of the gaskets on some other machines.
Looks like we’ve been buying inferior gaskets.

ACTION: Change the specifications so we don’t get any more of these. But also ask..
WHY did we decide to buy the gaskets that we did?

Uhh…they were cheap? Turns out the purchasing policy for supplies like this says “always buy the low bid.”

ACTION: Change the policy to give more weight to quality as well as price. But also ask…
WHY did the head of Purchasing ever approve a policy like this in the first place?

Maybe because his *incentive program* includes a big component for year-over-year reductions in supplies cost, with no measurement for downtime impact of bad items?

ACTION: Change the incentive program.
WHY did a one-sided incentive program like this get created and approved?

And so on. (There is nothing magic about the number Five)

But importantly, you don’t wait until you run all the way up and down the chain of causation before you clean up the oil on the floor before someone slips on it and hurts himself. You don’t go through analysis of why inferior gaskets are being purchased before replacing the gaskets before the machine loses oil again and shuts down or destroys itself.

Democrat politicians often act like they don’t understand these points, even informally and intuitively. Many of them really don’t, I think…but also, many of them just don’t care; accumulation of political power for themselves and their faction is all that matters.  Among their voters/supporters, though, there may be some who can be brought to understand the fallacies of root-causes-only thinking.

And, very importantly, if you pursue the chain of causation upward to enough levels, you are likely to find causes which are either beyond your ability to influence, or for which such influence has a very long time constant.  In the manufacturing example, for instance, you may be a factory manager in a large company with very little influence on the incentive policies that drive Purchasing to acquire inferior gaskets.  That still doesn’t mean you don’t need to clean up the oil and replace the failed gaskets, anyway.  In the Biden/Harris policy case, serious thought would show that the ability of American leaders to influence the policies, economic systems, and cultures of our southern neighbors is strictly limited, and what influence we can exert is likely to have a very long time constant. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to do anything about the border crisis.

17 thoughts on ““Root Causes””

  1. Fundamentally, this gets to the theory that poverty causes crime. In fact, crime during the Depression was mostly related to the era of Prohibition. This piece suggest that much crime was suicide. what an odd conclusion.

    Much of my own reading suggests that crime was low. Crime rates in the 80s and 90s suggest that permissive legal culture fosters crime. The Great Society did not do anything to reduce crime.

  2. The discerning American voter of a certain age understands that when a pol invokes the term “root causes” it means some combination of the following:

    -We are not going to attempt to solve the problem, which either directly benefits us or one of our constituencies, is an intentional result of our political strategy, or whose solution would require risk-taking and novel thinking that we habitually avoid because there’s nothing in it for us

    -If we respond with vague jargon to questions about serious societal problems, the media will take this as a cue to either pretend that we have answered the question or to change the subject

    -Fuck you anyway

  3. The “root cause” of people flocking to our borders is NOT global warming. Instead, the cause is two-fold: 1) the difference between the US economy and those of countries like Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala or Venezuela; 2) the relative ease of getting into the US without proper documentation.

    The US can do little about the messed up economies of our neighbors. For example, the explosion of corruption in Venezuela during 2 decades of Chavismo, a primary cause of the collapse of Venezuela’s economy, is for the most part beyond our control.

    Ease of entry is something the US can do something about. Note that in 2021 the southern border got flooded with undocumented people because they surmised that Biden would be more tolerant towards undocumented border-crossers than Trump. Which Biden has been, to the chagrin of many Democrats in states bordering Mexico.

    James Q. Wilson is probably the primary exponent against treating “root causes” of crime. From Wilson’s point of view, the criminal calculates that the more likely it is that he can commit a crime without any penalty to himself, the more likely he will commit it. No “root causes,” but pragmatic calculation.

    In Thinking About Crime, Wilson points out there are many behaviors that legislators have decided are best treated with punishment instead of dealing with their “root causes.”

    The sponsors of civil rights laws did not withdraw their bills punishing racist behavior because they dealt only with “symptoms” rather than with the life circumstances that were the true causes of racism. They rejected the view that “you can’t legislate morality” when it comes to denying blacks the right to vote or buy a home, and they were right to do so. Nor did most legislators accept the argument that one must first deal with the “root causes” of political corruption, commercial price-fixing, or marketing dangerous drugs. They instead set about changing corrupt, manipulative, and harmful behavior, and they did so—again, rightly—by increasing the risks facing people who engaged in this behavior. By devising effective policies rather than postponing action until causes had been eliminated, the advocates of these measures not only changed the behavior in question, they probably changed the causes also. I suspect that there are today somewhat fewer racists, bribers, price-fixers, and unscrupulous drug merchants than once was the case in part because people have been taught, by the law and its resolute enforcement, that such behavior is not only risky, it is wrong.

    Politicians talk about “root causes” when they have decided they don’t want to actually do anything about something.

  4. There is a simple answer to illegal immigration. Milton Friedman explained it years ago. Open borders and a welfare state cannot coexist. Back when Pete Wilson was Governor of California Prop 187 put the matter to a test.

    It passed bu a good margin, even in Hispanic areas.

    On November 8, 1994, California voters approved the proposition by a wide margin: 59% to 41%.[12] According to the Los Angeles Times exit polls, 63% of non-Hispanic white voters and 23% of Latino voters voted for Proposition 187; African-American and ethnic Asian voters split their voting equally for and against the law. Although non-Hispanic whites comprised 57% of California’s population at the time, they comprised 81% of voters in the 1994 general election. Latinos totaled 8% of voters, although they comprised 26% of the state’s population.

    Among those who voted on the initiative, 78% of Republicans and 62% of Independents voted for it, while 64% of Democrats opposed it.[13]

    Section 1 of Proposition 187 provides this introduction:

    The People of California find and declare as follows:

    That they have suffered and are suffering economic hardship caused by the presence of illegal aliens in this state. That they have suffered and are suffering personal injury and damage caused by the criminal conduct of illegal aliens in this state. That they have a right to the protection of their government from any person or persons entering this country unlawfully.[14]

    It woulds have limited illegals to emergency services.

    Judge Mariana Pfaelzer issued a permanent injunction of Proposition 187 in December 1994, blocking all provisions except those dealing with higher education and false documents, multiple cases were consolidated and brought before the federal court. In November 1997, Pfaelzer found the law to be unconstitutional on the basis that it infringed on the federal government’s exclusive jurisdiction over matters relating to immigration.[28] Pfaelzer also explained that Proposition 187’s effect on the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, the Congressional overhaul of the American welfare system, proved that the bill was a “scheme” to regulate immigration:

    Governor Wilson appealed the ruling, which brought the case to the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. But in 1999, the newly elected Democratic Governor Gray Davis had the case brought before mediation.[30] His administration withdrew the appeal before the courts in July 1999, effectively killing the law.

    The rapid decline of California dates from that decision.

  5. David, that’s a wonderful structure for good analysis.

    I’m not saying that isn’t the real deal and Gringo isn’t right, but the rule of law, the respect for property – land, goods, rights – can make any place (or about any place) livable.

    We have trouble exporting that but we might at least keep saying this over and over until some people say, well, yeah, and after a few generations it becomes wisdom and of course then a few generations later it is taken for granted and mob justice and riots appear (and maybe if we keep saying it, we’ll stop casually throwing away what we’ve learned).

    Also, I think Biden’s approach is even worse – money and force and corruption overpower many of the countries sending people to our borders – so Biden’s solution is to a) give them more money & b) make sure they have an even more lucrative opening on the border – human trafficking & smuggling made more profitable. Of course, Fast and Furious supplied armaments – though I suppose by now that is a small fraction of what the cartels have.

    And Kennedy’s right – multi-culturalism, open borders, generous welfare – even if we didn’t have those idiots out there preaching critical race theory, those three in combination would destroy our culture.

  6. Having been raised Roman Catholic, I must still mention my conclusion that the Central American and South American countries owe much of their dysfunction to the Catholic Church. It is often said that the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV sent the Industrial Revolution to England. The Spanish carried the concept of salvation after toleration of a miserable life to the Americas they colonized. The “Protestant Ethic” seemed to do better in the English colonies. Maybe it was the Mestizos that were unable to create a modern society. I don’t know and don’t know an example that refutes that theory. Brazil was the greatest consumer of human slavery from Africa, North America only received 3% of African slaves before the trade was prohibited. The Portuguese seem to have done no better at a modern society than the Spanish. Argentina was largely settled by Europeans but the Spanish curse finally overcame the English influence with Peron. Even before Peron, the country had a series of revolutions and military coups.

    France began to modernize significantly with the rise of Napoleon. Had he not been an example of megalomania, he might have brought that country successfully into the modern age. French medicine, for example, was far ahead of English in the early 19th century and only the Scottish Enlightenment brought England into modern science. Napoleon also broke the influence of the Catholic Church, which had come to resemble our present day tech billionaires in cupidity.

  7. Mike K….Rose Wilder Lane contrasted the differing colonial strategies of France and Spain, on the one hand, and Britain, on the other:

    “The Governments gave them (in the case of the French and Spanish colonies–ed) carefully detailed instructions for clearing and fencing the land, caring for the fence and the gate, and plowing and planting, cultivating, harvesting, and dividing the crops…The English Kings were never so efficient. They gave the land to traders. A few gentlemen, who had political pull enough to get a grant, organized a trading company; their agents collected a ship-load or two of settlers and made an agreement with them which was usually broken on both sides…To the scandalized French, the people in the English colonies seemed like undisciplined children, wild, rude, wretched subjects of bad rulers.”

    It seems likely that this difference would have long-lasting effects on social and economic structures.

  8. David, both the Spanish and French tended to send male only settlers who took wives from the native population. Allegedly, the Dutch did the same in South Africa and the settlers took Malaysian wives from the East Indies. I have begun rereading “Covenant” which may explain that story. The Boers seem to have done better than the French or Spanish but were never a large population.

    The Mestizos are much of the Mexican population and the Mexican class system seems to be one of Spanish heritage on top. Chile is as much a European immigrant society as Argentina but I do not know that much about the racial composition of South America.

  9. If not for Henry’s peccadillos, England would still be Catholic, and this “Protestant Ethic” idiocy would not exist.

  10. Anglicanism Protestantism.

    As Mike K notes, it was the more completely Protestant Scots that drove a lot of the British Enlightenment, and then you have the Dutch, Germans, and the Nordic Protestants making their mark as well. The English weren’t driving anything, and even did the US a favor by sending their Protestants over here.

  11. Christopher B
    As Mike K notes, it was the more completely Protestant Scots that drove a lot of the British Enlightenment, and then you have the Dutch, Germans, and the Nordic Protestants making their mark as well. The English weren’t driving anything,

    Yes, the Scots contributed a fair amount, but Au contraire, the English also contributed a fair amount- many more Dissenters than Anglican. As I am focusing more on scientific and engineering advancement than philosophy, you may not agree with my list.
    From C.D. Darlington’s The Evolution of Man and Society, and also Wikipedia.
    Table 32. Founders of the Scientific Revolution in Britain, born between 1620 and 1800*
    Person (Father ) Religion :Contribution
    John Ray (blacksmith Dissenter) :Founder of systematic biology and natural history in Britain
    Robert Boyle (Anglo-Irish Aristocrat):Boyle’s Law in Chemistry
    Robert Hooke (Anglican priest): elasticity, architect
    Isaac Newton (small farmer) secret Unitarian :Physics and Calculus
    Thomas Newcomen (Baptist minister): steam engine
    Edmund Halley (soap maker) 1691 denied Oxford position for religious (dissenting)views: astronomer
    Abraham de Moivre Hugenot refugee from France: probability
    Adam Smith Scots: economics
    James Hutton Scots but also descended from Newton’s mother’s family: geology
    Joseph Priestly (Unitarian parents): discovered oxygen
    William Herschel German-born Protestant astronomer:discovered Uranus
    Robert Malthus (gentry) student at dissenting academy(Warington) :Theories of Population and Diminishing Returns

    John Dalton (weaver) Quaker family :atomic theory
    Thomas Young (gentry) Quaker: light, elasticity, Egyptology…polymath
    Humphrey Davy(gentry) a Quaker saddler/instrument maker taught him experimentation :invented electrochemistry
    Michael Faraday (blacksmith Dissenter) :electromagnetism

    My addition to Darlington’s list:
    Charles Darwin (gentry) mostly Unitarian: evolution
    James Watt Scots at least in part: steam engine
    Alfred Russell Wallace Scots: evolution

    Nearly all of the above came from Dissenting backgrounds-Baptist, Unitarian, Quaker. Very few Anglicans. No Roman Catholics.

    In the colonies, Puritan minister Cotton Mather was a strong advocate for smallpox vaccination, incurring the wrath of Ben Franklin’s older brother.

  12. One thing Goetzmann used to note about the American settlement and American west was how you looked at the land – and a lot of that was what you wanted. If you came with a family from a nation that valued private property and personal rights, one that saw a couple as a unit facing the wilderness, you’d look around, be more flexible and results oriented in what you planted, what you hunted; a longer time frame in mind if you see yourself as starting a family. If you were a male who had come to make his fortune (then maybe go back home and using that fortune raise some rungs in an elaborate hierarchical regime) you took what you could and moved on. One made a permanent difference to the landscape and the other moved through it, one was committed and the other was not. I suspect religion had something to do with it – probably a lot. But all those things were intertwined. Settlements that saw women as partners were different than ones that saw them as trophies (or of use in barter).

  13. Ginny….”women as trophies”…reminds me of a song:

    South Coast- the Kingston Trio did that song. One year I requested Kingston Trio albums for my birthday. South Coast was included in the haul. From memory:
    His wife may have been a trophy:“I won my wife in a card game.”
    However, she became much more than a trophy: “My Heart died that night with my bride.”

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