George Pyle: Homelessness demands a Marshall Plan, not a Versailles Conference

The dumbest decision of a sometimes astoundingly dumb 20th century was what the victorious nations did after World War I.

Not content to have defeated Germany on the battlefield, the supposed best brains of the Western world assembled in the Palace of Versailles and took steps to make sure that nation remained beaten, impoverished, bereft, humiliated, ruined.

And somehow they were all surprised when the German people decided they were sick and tired of being beaten down, poor and hungry. Shocked that a nation that had once been among the most civilized of them all seized upon a plan to become the baddest SOB on earth and kill everyone who offended them.

The smartest decision of a sometimes incredibly smart 20th century was what the victorious nations did after World War II.

Instead of again tromping the life out of entire nations, demanding reparations from everyone who was unfortunate enough to live in a losing country, we spent a whole lot more money, on top of the money we’d already sunk into the war, to rebuild the conquered nations of Germany and Japan.

Through the Nuremberg Trials, we took great care to assess blame and mete out punishment to the individuals who were at fault, not the whole of the nation. Through the Marshall Plan, we moved to rebuild everything from highways and water systems to democratic institutions and economies.

And the faith of Democrats like Harry Truman and Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower was more than rewarded when Western Europe and Japan became, and remain, pillars of democracy and prosperity.

All this is a lesson of history that can often be usefully applied to much smaller situations. As we see in the ongoing failure of Utah to address its waves of homelessness.

Giving the last big push to deal with the homeless encampments in neighborhoods near Pioneer Park and The Gateway a military-style code name — Operation Rio Grande — was evidence that we were militarizing the situation. Which might have been fine if winning the war had been followed with a Marshall Plan sort of effort to win the peace.

But when arresting people lost its charm and the creation of three stunningly underfunded homeless resource centers proved unequal to the task, our leaders were surprised that problem didn’t just go away.

As reported in The Salt Lake Tribune just the other day, encampments of homeless are popping up again. Which should surprise absolutely nobody.

The economy is doing poorly, especially for those who were already on the margins, due to a combination of a global pandemic, a national failure to address that pandemic and a widespread denial — mostly found among Republicans — of the fact that pumping money into the economy, mostly from the bottom up, is the only chance we have of dealing with this.

Even without the coronavirus, the nation, the state and the community have been painfully slow to realize that the homeless human beings are not an enemy to be attacked by police but the collateral damage of a national and state philosophy that won’t fulfill the basic demands of civilization.

We won’t build enough affordable housing. We won’t raise the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour. We won’t follow every other nation in the civilized world in guaranteeing access to health care, a factor that stunts the growth of every family that is outside that privilege.

If we refuse to do those things, whether out of a desire to keep taxes low for the rich or a fear that acting decently only rewards laziness, we are going to have more than homelessness. We are going to have disease that spreads through a community from bottom to top. We are going to have generations of people without a proper education or any hope that going to school and going to work will make their lives and the lives of their children better.

The Utah Legislature — our own Palace of Versailles — is calling itself into special session Thursday to Do Something about the coronavirus situation and related economic woes. If its members aren’t willing to spend a ton of cash to pick our whole community up from the bottom, they really needn’t bother.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, once missed an opportunity to visit the Palace of Versailles when he couldn’t figure out which train to get on.


Twitter, @debatestate