Rats! It’s Deja Vu All Over Again

The controversy about rat-infested cities provokes a strong sense of deja vu, as a proposed federal rat eradication program was perhaps the turning point against LBJ’s “Great Society” back in 1967. A little background and the climax to this story from the first volume of my Age of Reagan:

Many poor urban neighborhoods have yet to recover [from the rise in crime], for it was precisely the poor, and largely black, populations of central cities who suffered most from this negligent criminology—the very constituency liberals thought they were advancing.  Blacks were two and a half times more likely than whites to be victims of crime in 1966, and this gap would widen over the next decade as black victimization in the inner city soared.  Charles Murray noted that “it was much more dangerous to be black in 1972 than it was in 1965, whereas it was not much more dangerous to be white.”  By 1970, social scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded, a person living in a central city faced a higher risk of being murdered than a World War II soldier did of dying in combat. But when Richard Nixon and conservatives called for a return to “law and order,” the phrase was attacked as “a code phrase for racism.”

Even among many Democrats, the Great Society was losing its allure.  Wilbur Mills, as we have seen, led the unsuccessful charge to restrain welfare.  But the surest signal that the political tide was turning against the War on Poverty came in the summer of 1967, when, just days after the Newark riot, Congress voted down Johnson’s proposal for a $40 million federal rat extermination program for the cities.  It was a typical expression of the view that social problems required a centralized federal solution.  Moynihan noted that there was no serious data on the extent of the rat problem in American cities.  “That wild rats should be controlled, no one would question,” Moynihan wrote, “but it was not unreasonable to ask whether yet another Federal categorical aid program—a few million dollars to be spread over a continent—was the most sensible approach.”

Fifty-nine House Democrats joined with 148 Republicans to vote down the rat bill. It was the rhetoric, and not the comparatively modest sum involved, that made this a notable episode.  Congressmen joked about LBJ’s “civil rats” bill, with a “rat corps” to be presided over by “a high commissioner of rats.”  “Mr. Speaker,” the typical speech went, “ I think the ‘rat smart thing’ for us to do is to vote down this rat bill ‘rat now.’” Florida Democrat James Haley suggested releasing “federally funded cats” in the cities instead.  The rat bill was successfully revived at the end of the year as a part of a bigger spending bill, but its ignominious treatment in mid-summer foreshadowed the growing revolt against the relentless centralization of modern liberalism.

P.S. When Trump acquired the dilapidated building that became his first major real estate deal—the Grand Hyatt Hotel on 42nd Street—he solved the building’s rat infestation during renovations by rounding up stray cats in New York City and moving them into the building. The rat infestation was eradicated quickly—without a government program!

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