Welfare systems exist to reduce the worst excesses of poverty. When poverty increases during recessions, the welfare state is supposed to rush into countercyclical action, providing a firewall against a growth in destitution.
That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, it’s never been the case. In recent years in particular, the American welfare system has increasingly shed itself of this key obligation.
Inside a nondescript building on Polk Street in San Francisco's troubled Tenderloin district, an experimental court is trying to sort out the lives of the accused. Known as the Community Justice Center, the court regularly sees prostitutes, thieves, alcoholics, drug users and dealers, and mentally ill and homeless people primarily for nonviolent offenses. The average defendant has been arrested locally eight times. Instead of sending offenders straight to an overcrowded and expensive jail, presiding Judge Loretta Giorgi tries to connect them with social services that might finally end their downward spiral.
Watching Steven Soderbergh?s Che as Obama begins his presidency was a curious experience -- a chance to ponder both the power of personality and the seductive notion that change can be embodied in one individual. Ernest ?Che? Guevara was of a different moment, of course ? the Argentine doctor-turned-revolutionary was an uncompromising man more interested in blowing up bridges than building them, more interested in war-tinged rhetoric than that of service.
The human mind, we like to think, is an embodiment of perfection. For those with a religious inclination, our ability to think through issues logically, to construct narratives about our surroundings, and to recall events that happened decades earlier is proof positive of a divine hand at work. For the nonreligious, the mind is a secular miracle, an indication that, left to its own devices, evolution produces something akin to a Panglossian vision of the best outcomes in the best of all possible worlds.