On Friday’s Real Time with Bill Maher, the host argued with his guest Daniel Bessner about race, crime, and poverty. Bessner is an International Studies professor at the University of Washington and a Contributing Editor at the socialist magazine Jacobin. (Full disclosure: He’s also a friend and occasional collaborator of mine.)
Maher said that most murders in Chicago are committed by young Black men killing other young Black men, and asked why Black celebrities aren’t speaking out about it. Maher and another guest, conservative-leaning economist Glenn Loury, insisted that Chicago’s Mayor-Elect Brandon Johnson isn’t showing “moral leadership” by speaking out strongly enough about crime.
When Bessner argued that the key to a solution is a more equal distribution of material resources, Maher scoffed. Hasn’t the United States already spent lots of money on the “war on poverty” over the decades? “Throwing” more money at the problem surely won’t solve anything!
Maher has no idea what he’s talking about.
The first topic Maher threw to the panel was about gun violence. He mentioned several incidents, including some in Chicago. Bessner suggested that, while some of the other incidents Maher mentioned might have other causes, trends in Chicago—a city that’s been particularly afflicted by gang violence—were “more linked to social conditions, socioeconomic conditions, the disbelief that there is anywhere to go in terms of improving your lot in society.”
Maher immediately dismissed this. “You sounds like the Mayor-Elect.” Johnson, who recently won Chicago’s Mayoral election, is a Chicago Teachers Union activist well to the left of outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot or his runoff opponent Paul Vallas. During the election, Johnson was constantly accused by conservatives and centrists of wanting to “defund the police.”
It’s true that he made a few comments in 2020 that seemed to indicate support for a moderate interpretation of that slogan—redirecting some funds currently spent on “policing and incarceration” to other public services such as community health services that could reduce crimes linked to mental illness.
In more recent years, he’s shifted to a both/and perspective, touting both a “plan to address the root causes of crime and violence by increasing funding for youth employment programs and expanding mental health services across the city,” and a pledge to “solve more crimes by adding 200 detectives to the Chicago police department.”
The fact that he currently doesn’t advocate any sort of budget cuts to the CPD—quite the opposite—didn’t stop either Lightfoot or Vallas of accusing Johnson of being soft on crime, and Maher repeated that accusation on Friday.
Maher brought up a recent speech where Johnson said that, while he didn’t condone violence, he didn’t think it was “constructive” to “demonize youth who have been starved of opportunities in their own communities.” Maher said that sounded to many people like the Mayor-Elect was making “excuses for horrific behavior” and Loury interjected that it “sounded like that because that’s exactly what he was doing.”
This led to Maher and Loury agreeing that violent crime is fundamentally a question of “moral values.” Bessner said that he of course agreed that violence is morally wrong, but if you’re going to “approach it on the level of policy,” you need to “attack it at the level of socioeconomics, not culture.”
Maher and Loury would have none of this. Instead, they suggested Johnson needs to show “moral leadership” by condemning the violence more strongly. Most confusingly, Maher also seemed to want “moral leadership” from random celebrities who share the skin color of the perpetrators and victims, arguing that since most murders in Chicago are a matter of young Black men killing other young Black men, Black celebrities should speak out more to condemn that violence. (I wonder if Maher thinks that somewhere in Chicago, there’s a gang member who would stop shooting people tomorrow if only he knew that Chris Rock thinks that shooting people is wrong.)
Both Maher and Loury seemed to think that as things stand law enforcement in Chicago—and perhaps in the country in general—is going easy on criminals. And as Bessner kept bringing up economic factors, Maher dismissively said that the United States has already “thrown” vast sums of money into the “war on poverty.”
All of this made me wonder if Maher gets his news from an alternate dimension.
I agree—like everyone else does!—that violent crime is morally wrong. And I’m under no illusions that all crime (or even all violent crime) is caused by exclusively economic factors. Plenty of rich people engage in domestic violence, for example.
But it’s absurd to act as if the reason violent crime is so much worse in the United States than in comparably developed nations is that we simply aren’t throwing the book at criminals with enough force. We already have one of the very highest incarceration rates of any society in history. We certainly have a vastly higher incarceration rate, and a harsher system of policing and incarceration across the board, than many European nations that don’t come anywhere close to having comparable rates of violent rime.
Focusing on Chicago in particular, Johnson didn’t exactly ride into power—in an election, by the way, where he won the majority of the vote in the neighborhoods where street crime is the most serious—on a platform of legalizing murder. He wants to hire 200 more detectives. And the allegedly soft-on-crime Johnson isn’t even Mayor yet. Brandon Johnson being too nuanced about the causes of crime is pretty clearly not Chicago’s problem.
The evidence is pretty overwhelming that “throwing money at the problem” in the sense of distributing material resources more equitably throughout the population does dramatically alleviate the crime problem. Even modest increases in the minimum wage and the Earned Income Tax Credit have been shown to reduce recidivism, and there’s evidence that increased access to healthcare lowers the crime rate—not exactly shocking given the role of drug abuse and mental health issues in many crimes.
Beyond that, common sense should tell Maher that it’s not a coincidence that the number of people—of any racial or cultural background—who grow up in affluent suburbs and join gangs hovers right around zero.
It’s true that LBJ talked about a “war on poverty” well over 50 years ago and that some of the programs he created survived in the long term, but the idea that the US has been relentlessly waging such a war since then is a bad joke. What other President has even used that phrase? Around thirty years ago, Bill Clinton was saying the opposite—that “the era of big government is over.” And he followed through with draconian “welfare reform” that severely rolled back financial assistance to the poor.
That “reform” was never reversed, and the only major move in the opposite direction since then—Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which expanded access to healthcare—merely tinkered with America’s system of mostly private, for-profit healthcare. Even at its height, America’s welfare state was always a pale and stunted thing by global standards—and the absence of powerful labor unions and socialist political parties present in many other advanced nations has meant that there’s been nothing to check skyrocketing economic inequality.
There’s a reason why a countries like Norway and Sweden can have both a far more humane and rehabilitation-based criminal justice system than the United States and a tiny fraction of our murder rate. As a glance at the bloody history of these nations will confirm, it’s not because their cultures are innately more peaceful.
The truth is that the only solution to this problem is precisely to “throw money at it” by creating a more materially equal society where citizens have their needs met and have a sense of hope about the future.
I used to be a regular viewer of Real Time and Maher’s previous show Politically Incorrect. Friday’s show was the perhaps the clearest demonstration I’ve seen of the severe limits of Maher’s progressivism—at least on domestic policy issues.
Maher was popular with liberals during the 2000s when he gave voice to widespread anxieties about the Bush administration and the religious right. His relationship to that base has changed over the decades and these days some of his stances on the pandemic and the culture war have led many progressives to dislike him.
But the truth is that, as I’ve written before, his politics haven’t changed in any significant way. Like other rich California liberals, he’s always liked weed, supported gay rights (though he has been widely criticized for his transphobic rants), and thought conservative politicians were “idiots.” But that doesn’t mean he’s ever been a leftist in any deeper sense. If you want to hear old jokes about Sarah Palin reheated and served up as jokes about Marjorie Taylor Greene, watch Bill Maher. If you want to hear well-thought-out analysis of what’s wrong with our society, then—at least on nights when Daniel Bessner isn’t on Bill’s panel—you’re better off changing the channel.