Amidst all of this heavy discourse (and particularly in the wake of Grand Synthesis I), it’s nice to step back now and then and remember what it’s all in service to.

I’ve always walked my seven-year-old daughter to school and back home again, whenever my schedule has allowed. This year, I’ve been able to do both almost every day. We usually run into a group of six neighborhood kids (mostly second and third graders) at the park across which we walk to get to the elementary school. Together with my daughter, I dubbed them “the seven dwarfs,” which makes me, by default, Snow Whitehair. Sometimes we create running jokes together, such as singing our theme songs for both going to school (“Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to school we go. We learn all day and get no pay; hi-ho hi-ho hi-ho”) and returning home (“Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s home from school we go. We learn all day, and then we play, hi-ho hi-ho hi-ho”). They love to tell me about the things that are important to them, and I love to hear about it.

My daughter and I have an amazing relationship, full of laughter and stories and spontaneous games. When people talk about how difficult teenagers are (as a former high school teacher, I know both the degree to which this is true, and the degree to which it is highly variable, and more dependent on how adults handle it than some realize), I think about that relationship, and feel confident that, despite the inevitable challenges ahead, we have created a bond together that won’t simply be whisked away by the onslaught of adolescence. I worry about my daughter’s safety, but not about her future choices, because I already see in her a deep well of personal responsibility and goodwill to others that is only going to grow richer and deeper.

And that’s what this blog is really all about. Beneath the jargon and soaring rhetoric and complex analyses is a simple commitment to my daughter, and the other six dwarfs, and the other millions of children in the country and billions in the world. I’m less concerned about my welfare today than about theirs tomorrow, and less concerned about abstract values fluttering in the wind of patriotic rhetoric than about the human spirit that those values and that rhetoric are meant to serve, but often commit violence against instead.

When I see people defend the contributing factors to devastating violence and suffering with blithe disregard for the devastation and suffering itself, or react to news of violence with the hatred that only feeds it and increases it while simultaneously obstructing efforts to do what it takes to actually diminish it, I feel a deep, painful frustration that is visceral rather than academic, that is informed by the smiles and happy voices of “the six dwarfs” who accompany me and my daughter to and from school, that knows that the greatest tragedy of our existence is our own resistance to improving it, together.

I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even know all of the questions. There are legitimate areas of debate, and legitimate ranges of uncertainty about what works and what doesn’t, about unintended consequences and unidentified risks, about what degree of decentralization of decision-making, what balances along the spectrum of individual liberty through increasing levels and degrees of social coordination, best serve humanity, all things considered. But the degree to which we bury these legitimate debates beneath mountains of arbitrary assumptions, inflexible ideologies, unexamined platitudes, and truly abhorrent rationalizations for complacent indifference to the suffering of others, form together an on-going tragedy far more consequential than hurricanes, floods, terrorist attacks, and all other natural and man-made disasters combined.

Whatever we believe, whichever way we lean ideologically, we need to strive first and foremost to all agree to be, to the best of our ability, reasonable people of goodwill doing the best we can in a complex and subtle world. That should be our mantra —everyone’s mantra– everyone who wants to have some basis for self-respect. We need to shed our false certainties, unbind ourselves from our imprisoning platitudes, liberate ourselves from the rhetoric of division and enmity, and strive, with full recognition of the difficult reality within which operate, to work toward an improved quality of life for all people, all things considered.

That shouldn’t be a controversial notion.

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Many of the most pressing social problems we face are embedded in the loss of community, in dysfunctional families, in unaddressed behavioral and situational problems of children. Some consider these spheres of life to be beyond the purview of public policy, and too expensive to address even if government could or should be used to address them. I think this is mistaken on all counts, and more profoundly than immediately apparent.

First, the unaddressed (or under addressed) behavioral and mental health problems of children, and the unstable or unsafe family environments in which many find themselves, end up being extremely costly to society in the long run, both monetarily and socially. These under addressed problems are implicated in poor educational performance, delinquent and future criminal behavior, and a myriad of related problems that reduce individual productivity, increase economic and social burdens on society, and reproduce themselves generationally.

Second, our current programs tend to be piecemeal, reactive, and both fiscally inefficient and of more limited effectiveness than necessary. This is not a set of defects that we cannot substantially improve upon, and, in fact, there are many advances taking place right now which are doing just that. By placing ever-increasing emphasis on coordination among services and agencies that perform interrelated services for children and families in need, we reduce the costs of fractured and redundant services performed by seperate agencies with unconsolidated administrative costs. Those costs are far greater than providing oversight boards which help to coordinate and consolidate these overlapping services. By doing so, not only is the fiscal efficiency of providing services greatly increased, but also the outcome efficacy of these services, for when schools and juvenile justice agencies and mental health providers and child welfare counselors and others involved in addressing individual children’s needs are engaged in those efforts in better coordinated ways, all do their jobs more effectively, and contribute to a more effective regime of service provision.

Providing such proactive services more effectively, addressing the behavioral health challenges that so many of our youth face, helping to ensure that each child has a safe and nurturing permanent family environment in which to grow up in, and coordinating these efforts with both juvenile justice agencies and public schools, not only increases the present and future welfare of those children, but also reduces both the costs of reactive solutions to the problems thus avoided, and the costs to society of the problems themselves.

The costs of the relative failure of our educational system, for instance, are enormous, on many levels, costs that can be dramatically reduced through improvements in the effectiveness of our schools. And the enormnous costs of having the dubious distinction of being the nation, of all nations on Earth, with both the highest absolute number, and highest percentage of our population incarcerated, are perhaps directly tracable to our failure to address the childhood problems that lay the foundation for that unfortunate statistic.

Improving our proactive services to children and families is an up-front investment in our future, cultivating productive and well-adjusted members of society who contribute more to our collective welfare and less to our collective suffering. And even marginal gains on that dimension promise enormous future fiscal savings. It’s an investment we can’t afford not to make.

But the potential to improve the quality of our lives, and the prospects for our children, do not stop there. Increased community involvement provides one more pillar to the structure of improved support to children and families, increasing the vigilance with which problems are identified, the informal neighborly assistance and interventions with which they are avoided or mitigated, and the positive human capital with which child development is cultivated. Implementing robust community volunteer tutoring and mentoring programs is one easy step we can take to increase the strength of our communities, improve the quality of education our children receive, and provide our youth with a greater number of positive role models to emulate. In addition to such benefits are the benefits of increased informal mutual support in times of need, and just as an ordinary part of life, each of us helping one another out just a little bit more, because we have spent more time working together as members of a cohesive community.

There are no panaceas, and I do not mean to imply that the policy agenda I am outlining would solve all of our problems, would magically make all children well-behaved and studious, and all neighbors helpful. I am suggesting that, as always, we can do better or worse, we can improve on our current social institutional framework or not, and we can strive to increase the opportunities available to our children for their future success, and our improved shared quality of life.

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