Warning: This won’t display well on a smart phone. Sorry
Anyone lucky enough to know me will already know what I did for a living. By training– some colleagues in other disciplines might dispute this–I was (and) am an economic historian. My principal field was Colonial Latin America, but I have stuck to Mexico. Why Mexico? Well, you can get there from here, whether here is Philly or San Antonio, where I currently reside. I’ve lived in Mexico for extended periods, although, sadly, not lately. I’m not going to go into being Latin Catholic, or wondering at the obvious disparities in income and wealth between two neighboring countries (no, not Canada, obviously) as source of interest or affinity. I like Mexico. I love Mexico City and will use any excuse to go. My closest friends all live in Mexico. And my colleagues, obviously, are all from Mexico. So that is my point of reference.
Unless you have been living under a rock for the last half century, you will know that Mexico has about an ambiguous reputation in the United States as the United States has in Mexico. You didn’t know some Mexicans don’t have much time for us? Welcome to my class. The fact that we grabbed half their country in 1848 (after starting with Texas in 1836) may have something to do with it. You didn’t know that? Well, I guess you didn’t get that far in American history.
This is September 13, 1847, when Gen. Winfield Scott hoisted Old Glory over the National Palace at the conclusion of his successful campaign Mexico City. Notice the furtive dudes fixing to throw rocks in the lower left. See, even then some of them weren’t too happy to see us. Sore losers. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the war was signed the following year. And we lived happily as Good Neighbors (“Buenos Vecinos”) ever since. Right. Well, not exactly. But you’d have to spend more time than you want with me to get all the ins and outs of this forced marriage, so we’ll pass on to the present, and to Ciudad Juárez, or just plain Juárez. Since it’s a pain in the ass the get accents into Word Press, we’re just gonna call it Juarez. It’s actually misspelled that way, but what is a wink and a nod between amigos (friends, you dig)?
Now, a lot of Gringos get most of their information from the tube. And Mexico doesn’t do real well in that department. Admit it. If you know anything about Mexico aside from Cancun (accent on the “u”, but hey) and Vallarta, maybe Baja, you probably know that lots of bad stuff happens there. They’ve been going commie forever (so I’m told), and an awful lot of the bad stuff comes specifically from this Juarez place, up on the border with El Paso, TX. Do you know where that is? I’ll help. The upper image is the border complex with El Paso the less densely illuminated upper half. You could think of Interstate 10 as the border (it isn’t), but it’s easy to make out as it snakes almost diagonally across the photo.
Murder City. Right? Says it all, right, Drug Lords, vice, sin, shoot outs, a killing field right on our border. Terrible, right? You didn’t watch “Narcos”? Well, I’m not saying it’s good, but it gets worse. Cause if you think you have a terrible image of Juarez from broadcast media, wait until you see what the State Department says about it. Now, this is official, and I haven’t edited a word of it. Read it (You may want to read the entire Mexico advisory, but, buckle up. I’ve never seen anything like this from our buddies at State). The link is below. I’m going to select just a part of it.
Reconsider travel due to crime and kidnapping.
Violent crime and gang activity are common. Most homicides are targeted assassinations against members of criminal organizations. Battles for territory between criminal groups have resulted in violent crime in areas frequented by U.S. citizens and U.S. government employees, including restaurants and malls during daylight hours. Bystanders have been injured or killed in shooting incidents. U.S. citizens and LPRs have been victims of kidnapping.
Sounds awful, right? Yeah, it does. But wait a second. Why focus on Juarez? Look a little closer to home. A lot closer to home, maybe.
Welcome to Philadelphia. City of, lolz, Brotherly Love. You really think it’s that much better than Juarez? No way Philadelphia could be as violent as Juarez. You’re right. The homicide rate is much lower (in Philly). But let me tell you, we’re working on catching up. I left Philly in 1981 and always wanted to go back. Now, forget it. You know all that stuff about how the rule of law doesn’t exist in Mexico. Dude, it doesn’t exist in Philly either. And that’s a fact. We’re already up to 416 murders in Philly as of October 7. And Juarez. Well, they got to 400 in June, but while theirs were going down, ours were going up. Convergence, big time. How can this possibly be?
Let’s start with the usual suspects, shall we? Of the fatal shootings, 91 percent involve males. 93 percent involve Blacks and Hispanics. 50 percent involve people under the age of 30. These are facts
So, those people are destroying Philly? Well, I guess someone could make the argument, but maybe the direction of causality is of some interest. I’ll admit, at this level of generality, it would be hard to frame a way of sorting out cause and effect, other than to say, well, is it possible (and I mean possible) that the converse is true? That Philly (or even something bigger) is destroying Blacks and Hispanics? If you’re really worried about even-handedness, maybe we might admit that both propositions are possible, because causality rarely runs in just one direction. This is just thinking about a city that I once knew very well, liked a great deal, and figured I’d eventually get back to some day. I very much doubt the latter at this point, so maybe all I’m trying to work out is why.
I recently read a very interesting and enlightening book by Anne Case and Angus Deaton. It is called Deaths of Despair. If you say I don’t have time to read a book, I’ll make it easy for you. You got an hour? I’m going to put up a link to Anne Case discussing their findings in a very accessible way. And then I’m going to assume that I can talk about about what they’ve found and why I think Philadelphia, too, is dying of despair. Race is an element, no doubt, but maybe not in the way we might think. This is not finger pointing. This is not racist. But it is a way of saying that we have met the enemy, and they is us. You don’t have to watch it all, because the last half is Q&A. You can skip the intro too.
I’ve put up two maps of interest. The top one is a 1932 map of property rating districts in Philadelphia. The cross-hatched area is Center City Philadelphia. The coral pink area is literally “red-lined,” or rated unsuitable for mortgage lending by a combination of the public and private sector (a very long story). The yellow areas are somewhat better. The rest is a go. Now look at the bottom map (sorrow for the blank space, but Word Press routinely defeats me). The red dots are real time fatal shootings. While it’s true that Central Philadelphia doesn’t look too hot, it’s where commercial activity is centered. You know, where the money is. If you look at the rest of the map, and compare it to the top map panel, you’ll see where the money isn’t–at least as far as mortgage lending is concerned. And look at Southwest Philly, the lower left. Lots of fatal shootings there too. Interesting. In case you wonder where the current festivities in that part of town originated.
The red-lined areas to the North of the commercial part in Philly are very striking.They are some of the roughest neighborhoods in the city today, and include places like Kensington, Harrowgate, Fairhill, Alleghany West–sort of generic North Philly for the outsider. The average annual incomes range anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 per head, assuming you have a job, or formal income. It is, in large reason, why over 20 percent of Philadelphia lives under the poverty line (For individuals, about $13,000–scale up to a family of three, you hit $23,000 more or less). And frankly, it is one of the reasons why Philadelphia has become so damn violent–the New Ciudad Juarez, if you will. It’s no accident, believe me, but it is awfully complicated. This is not some liberal bromide about society is responsible for its own problems–you know, blame society. know. Poverty causes crime. Uh uh. It’s not just that, I fear. You want a condensed version of Case and Deaton. Ok. By their logic , Philadelphia is slowly committing suicide, bleeding to death. It is a massive case of “deaths of despair.”
No surprise, but life expectancy at birth more or less reflects a similar pattern (darker green is worse: look at West (Haddington-Carroll Park, my “old” neighborhood, or one of them, at least) and Southwest Philadelphia as well. Get the picture: death by homicide (gun-style) reduces life expectancy. That’s not too hard to see, is it? Sort of intuitive. More guns, shorter lives.
What this has to do with Case and Deaton is, at first glance, not obvious. Their big finding was, more or less, if you went back to about 1930 and sorted by birth cohorts (basically people born in the same decade), something suddenly jumped out. Sometime for cohorts beginning around 1950, and getting progressively worse, life expectancy at birth for people without a BA (Bachelors Degree) began to diminish. Yup. Fall. After basically steadily rising for as long as we could figure out the data, the life expectancy of people without a BA started to fall. And not just any people. White people! Whoa. What happened to white privilege? Never fear, it’s still there for white people with a college degree. But for others, not so much. It also turns out, when they did the study, it did not seem that the same was happening to Black Americans (in passing, I should note a wry Doonesbury cartoon in which a Black Dude explains to his White friend that, in America, Blacks were always stressed out, so why should any new stressor affect them one way or another. Amusing, but I suspect no longer true.)
And what’s with college? Why should that give you some protection from deaths of despair? I thought college was death by debt, so isn’t Biden really helping people who are really already in better shape? Ah, that’s sort of the point that even progressive economists have been making for quite some time. You know, this is regressive (helps those who need it least), on the whole (that doesn’t mean for each individual). Don’t trust me. I don’t want to have too many links here, but
is, alas, based on evidence as opposed to partisan politics.
Any event, it’s clearly that university is a sorting device. In part it makes higher incomes possible. In part it keeps people out of jobs whose only qualification is a strong back, which have been rapidly disappearing in the United States since the 1970s (“deindustrialization” and globalization). And in part it opens people to a wider world, perhaps one in which the need for short term gratification is lower because there is a long term. Case and Deaton don’t run any fancy models to “test” their hypothesis, but that’s just as well. Sometimes that stuff obscures as much as it clarifies. Their argument comes down to the health care system, opiods, the erosion of social capital (unions, churchs, supportive kin groups) and the destruction of what little social safety net America had (and it wasn’t much, compared to Western Europe, for example). These things really began to impact–wait for it–working class white Boomers (sorry, I know the”Blame Boomers” meme makes for social-network influencers, but I’m more impressed by demographic work than some inane sloganeering on FB). You may say, and with reason, that a lot of cause and effect gets swept under the rug in the “deaths of despair” trope, not to mention the actual mechanisms themselves. I agree. But it’s clear they’re on to something. Correlation isn’t causation, but it isn’t not causation either. Maybe we should be looking harder, especially after the rise of the Fascist Right in the United States and the election of He Who Shall Not be Indicted. And unlike Deaths of Despair, that has a European parallel, right?
But what does this stuff have to do with Philadelphia, race, and the Demolition Derby of human life that claims more victims there even as I write this (oh, yeah, Go Phillies)? Case and Deaton explictly allude to something of the sort with the urban Black Community in the United States with the rise of crack cocaine in the early 1980s, but they sort of give the impression that peaked before the real thing got started. On the other hand, if you look at Philly, fentanyl, the gentrification of places like Point Breeze or Parkside and Brewerytown (as a service to the community–just wait until it hits Mantua), the deluge of guns–especially semi-automatics that can be suitably modified to get off dozens or rounds in no time (no match for the primitive Zip guns of my youth)–and the disastrous impact of Covid-19 on minority communities (and I have the feeling we’re just beginning to see the implications of this, let alone understand them), well, you can connect the dots. A lot of angry, rootless, anomic people out there. Acting out. With fatal results.
You can die all at once, or you can die a day at a time. You know, the choice is yours. People who have been treated badly enough for long enough will begin to behave very badly, which, if you mutter “Where is BLM now?” you well enough know. And because we cannot have a rational discussion of race in America (add that to taxes, climate change, the corruption of the political system by money, hey, take your pick), it’s almost impossible to say why are poor people who happen to be mostly non-white killing each other with such reckless abandon? I don’t think either political party is going to give you anything other than an opportunistic answer, and leadership, real leadership, seems to have gone the way of the rotary telephone. Bobby Kennedy is dead, in case you haven’t noticed. His killer is still alive. Ironic, isn’t it?
So, I watch my once-beloved home town bleed out, one murder at a time, a mix of opportunity, no future, and no social capital (you can’t blame a society that isn’t there, friend). I don’t say that Case and Deaton is the answer to why Philly is the New Juarez, but they have something to say. And no, the Phillies and the Iggles will not save the situation, the idiotic celebration of Red October in Philly notwithstanding. Time to grow up and face facts, if we are allowed to conceive of the world in terms of facts: brute, socially constructed, or otherwise.
By the way, I’m sorry if this is meandering, but I really don’t care. You want a refereed piece, with a nicely constructed argument, spend $1000 on a journal subscription. You get what you pay for.