Friday, December 31, 2010

The Invisible Radicals

Michael O'Hare appends a thoughtfully-commented post on education reform with a call for, well, what amounts to better teaching and more effective pedagogical suggestions.  Yet he makes what I think is a common mistake in the current reform debate: he raises the specter of the achievement-gap, yet then prescribes common educational practices which are routinely found in higher SES schools, yet less common in poor schools, as a substantial solution.  By emphasizing classroom instruction and ignoring the more powerful and destructive ways in which SES disadvantages children, he unknowingly promotes the very attitudes that have lead to a continuation of the achievement gap.

He begins his piece by making the reasonable observation that calls for instructional reform need not imply a devaluation of other efforts at reform.

"the instinctive, desperate, desire to believe that a problem has one solution–that advocacy of a reform or practice improvement must be hostile to other possible approaches–is a really big problem. If home environment, parents, and peers matter a lot for learning (of course they do!), trying to hire and train better teachers can’t make a difference, right? Wrong.  We can do lots of useful mutually complementary things to improve student learning at all levels, and being paralyzed with doubt because we might be pushing the third most efficacious of these rather than the first is just silly. "

This is a good point on its own.  But policy is political, and some ideas are going to be pushed more than others.  I'd say the emphasis on good vs. bad teaching right now is about 90% of the debate.  That is, it is assumed that we can close the achievement gap through figuring out how to get better teaching.  Just look at the Obama administration's policy agenda: charters, accountability, standards, pay for performance - all focused on the teacher.  Implicit in this overwhelming focus is an assumption is that most of the problem problem is in teaching itself.  It would be as if we we were riding a bus headed for a cliff and everyone was screaming that what we really needed to do is roll down the windows and reduce air flow with our hands.

In my view, the problem is much greater, and involves the larger and much more intractable problem of poverty and disadvantaged parents unable to properly support their children at home.  If you look at schools where kids are getting good support at home, "bad teaching" simply isn't an issue. But we don't talk about this anymore.  The left and right have converged around the idea that the standard model is fine, and all we need to do is tweak the teaching. 

Here's another metaphor: two mountain climbing guides each have a group of hikers he needs to get to the top of the mountain.  One group is properly trained, has the right gear, is well-nourished and excited to work hard.  The other group is poorly trained, has broken gear, malnourished, depressed and uninterested in climbing at all.  Should we give each guide the same resources, and expect them to take their hikers the same distance each day?  No, that would be silly.  If we were smart we would would still expect both to do their job (obviously), but we should find ways of supporting them and their hikers so that they had a chance in hell of actually making it to the top of the mountain. 

We mention pre-K in passing, and it is on the table.  But it is kind of the beginning and the end of the acknowledgment that SES plays a role in the achievement gap (pre-K is essentially intervention for the poor).  But the extra support ends when they enter kindergarten.  Suddenly it is is entirely up to the classroom teacher, with no extra resources, to take each severely disadvantaged kid and make adequate progress. 

What if we treated SES the way we treat special education?  What if we did an initial assessment, then targeted students for support services as a part of a legal mandate to take their disadvantage seriously?  This could mean anything from after-school tutoring to a one-on-one aid, to a social worker who acts as a liaison between the school and home, to home-health visits and parenting classes?  All of this of course backed up with extra funding.  We do it with reduced-price/free lunches.  We acknowledge an SES nutrition gap. 

But proper nutrition is just the tip of the iceberg.  What other risk-factors exist that affect academic performance?  There are many.  It's all in the literature.  But the problem is in assessment.  How do you determine the level of cognitive stimulus a child receives at home?  Or stress levels?  There are broad predictors such as parent education.  But how do you get at specific, targeted needs?  There are a variety of ways you can go - maybe routine home visits, maybe starting from birth, maybe a centralized system of sharing between case-workers, teaching staff, counselors and health workers.  The goal would be to treat the whole child and develop protocols for intervention that provide support for classroom instruction.

Due to cost, and - probably subsequent - philosophical intransigence, there just haven't been that many large studies of this sort of comprehensive approach to what I'd call "Student Capital Intervention".  There have been many small programs which provide rudimentary evidence for this type of thing being successful.  I think it is well supported in theory - we know that great gaps exist in family/neighborhood impact on development.  But we need more studies that tie specific treatment programs to academic success.  But these kinds of longitudinal studies involving multifaceted care are very difficult.

But ultimately, if we remember just what it is we are facing (large-scale poverty and social dysfunction), and what kinds of results we are expecting (equity in achievement by graduation), we will inevitably be faced with the fact that any serious reform will require a massive and radical reformation of what public education looks like.  The good news is that we are wasting countless hours and dollars on efforts that will produce marginal results.  So, if we were somehow able to shift all that effort into the kind of meaningful reform I've discussed, much of the cost will be offset. 

More money could also be found in a reworking of the tradition model of resource allocation.  So for instance, my daughter's school is largely a high human and social capital demographic.  Educated parents, intact families, reasonably affluent - all providing invaluable resources to the student population.  Not only is parent volunteerism high, but fund-raising routinely brings in roughly 30X that of a low-SES school.  So if we moved toward a more means-tested model, we could save considerably. (Of course, there might be considerable political push-back here.)

I'm not naive in thinking that this has a chance of happening any time soon.  But I do think it is inevitable as long as we are reasonably interested in closing the achievement gap.  Presently, it isn't even really on the radar.  But I think there is a great deal of "invisible support" for something like it, both from teachers as well as from researchers across the nation. 

Interestingly, it's a vaguely acknowledged piece of Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone, which spends around 3x per pupil.  Yet even there, he's managed to thread an interesting political needle between the teacher-reform crusaders and the human/social capital intervention models that target what research has found to be the primary driver of the achievement gap.  As it stands, indications are that the HCZ's success has had more to do with student selection than its smattering of support programs, which are far from the comprehensive regime I've argued for (most recipients of HCZ support programs aren't actually educated in its schools and whose academic outcomes are not being tracked in any kind of substantial way). 

Yet there is research that has supported the efficacy of similar types of programs, although much more work needs to be done.  Given that we are probably at least a decade a way from the realization that our current trajectory is destined for general failure, we'll certainly have time to lay more of the groundwork.  Interestingly, a few court cases have moved in the direction of finding constitutional support for the idea that students have a right to a proper education - leaving of course the proper policy path up to debate.  But a legal grounding will come in handy when we realize that more investment will be needed if we are to engage the larger and more difficult problem of SES and education.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Gucci Bags in Wartime

David Halperin and Katherine Mangu-Ward discuss the role of the government in higher education.  Mangu-Ward argues the libertarian position - that rather than a force for good in helping striving Americans achieve a better life through college by subsidizing student loans, the government is not only driving up the cost of college tuition, but devaluing the credential itself by over-extending it in the market.  What's more, it is doing inefficiently what private banks could do on their own.  (One almost waits for her to then start in on the dubious line about how these dumb "wannabes" don't deserve to college anyway.  But thankfully she resists).

A commenter on the interview defended her point of view, framing those who would argue for government subsidies as essentially saying this:
"Shut up and pay up so people like me can go to school for free."
Ignoring the absurdity that anyone is "going to school for free", the general idea is that the moochers are weaseling the rich out of their money by getting federal and state college subsidies.

I'll get right to the point.  Success is largely social determined.  This is so overwhelmingly born out in the research it's not disputable (although, be my guest).

So, social structures are thus leveraged by the advantaged.  The fact that there are large demographic trends in college admissions makes this a pretty obvious point.  If this is true, then who has actually received the subsidy, the poor kid from a crappy neighborhood or the rich kid who's daddy and mommy both graduated from college?

You can argue this sort of "redistribution" is inefficient (as Mangu-Ward does).  But that applies just as well to every "common good" service, aka that which is for the good of the society at large.  Schools, parks, military, roads, libraries, etc. are more efficient in every way except one: doing it for the public good.  Democracy requires legislation, accountability, etc.  Not to mention provision of service with the express belief in the right of citizens to some level of access.

So, public libraries have to spend more to clean up after the homeless people you allow in.  Police have to answer every 911 call.  Schools have to provide special services to the disabled.  And they have to do it all in conditions of incredible revenue uncertainty.  This can severely hamper asset allocation.  Much of the time government is spent in a mad scramble after a fickle public.

These sort of inefficiencies might be too high a price to pay for some.  But they should at least acknowledge behind the sacrifice.  We all have values and we seek to align our government along side them.  I happen to think that the mentally ill have gotten a raw deal in life and ought to receive the very best treatment society can pay for - at least while there are still luxury goods being consumed.  That's my America.

A better, more "values-neutral" position might be on an alien invasion (I imagine the prospects of being enslaved by a bloodthirsty alien race seeking to harvest our organs would be pretty universally uncomfortable).  So would we not want every last available resource martialed toward defending against the invaders?  Of course we would.  Gucci bags in wartime are most conspicuous.

OK, well maybe aliens are a stretch - but we only have to go back to WWII to see what a nation is willing to sacrifice when they feel the cause is worth it.  In that case, the only alternative was certain Nazi subjugation.  I can guarantee you that anyone foolish enough to raise a fuss about "big government" and insisting the war be fought by private armies because of their efficiency would have been given a swift kick in the arse.

Maybe I need to get very specific here: being enslaved by the Nazis is about as anti-freedom as you can get.  Especially if you're Jewish, right?  Death isn't very liberating.  And neither is totalitarianism or torture.  The point is that these experiences were so frightening that we were willing to sacrifice just about anything to avoid them happening to us.

How different then is growing up in poverty, or sleeping under a bridge because of the voices in your head?  Or how about being a single mom who can't afford childcare for her kids?  Or needing health insurance but not being able to afford it - or denied it because of a pre-existing condition?  Or being old and not having money to pay the heating bill?  Or even just not being able to go to college and better yourself because there is no practical way to do so without government help.  I've worked plenty of minimum wage jobs and they felt nothing if not oppressive.  There is always the trades, but even then, being forced into a lot in life that you were forced into choosing seems the antithesis of freedom at best.

Yet when the liberal response to these social problems is government intervention, the specter of "big government" is raised.  The basic premise being disagreed with is the specific quality of each form of suffering.  Nazis = bad, lots of death and rape = government intervention OK.  But poverty, food stamps, drug addiction = not really so bad, maybe they deserve it = government intervention not OK.

I think what is most troubling for liberals is that we see these problems as just being very sad and we feel a moral compulsion to respond in a way that no one should have to experience them, even if it requires paying for an expensive and possibly inefficient infrastructure.  The moral case is just that strong.

There are certainly philosophical principles that lead us here.  We don't believe, for instance that these people truly chose their fate, as many (all?) on the right do.  Neither do we feel that everyone should be given everything for free; it is hard to find a liberal these days that doesn't believe in a strong market system in which much of life is indeed ruled by the market.

But what liberalism is definitely not is a solution in search of a problem: that we aren't really concerned with social problems and just want more government for the fun of it - or to waste the money of the rich!  This would be akin to claiming the right wants to spend money on the military and war just for the fun of it.  Actually, one might say there is something sort of fetishistic about guns on the right.  Maybe one day the left will get food stamp Barbie.  I'm reminded now of the game Monopoly being so fun as a celebration of pure greed and competition.  Games involving empathy, humility and sharing - values glorified on the left - are few and far between.  (Ironically, Monopoly itself was popularized by Quakers and based on The Landlord's Game, a board game designed to show how rents "enriched property owners and impoverished tenants".)

And so, I suppose we've come full-circle - back to who owns what, and where we come from.  The evidence for distinct structural mechanisms for class-determinism in America is really unassailable.  Although many will continue to try.  The reason for this is clear: to acknowledge it would generate a considerable amount of cognitive dissonance within the right-wing mind.  If people are not freely choosing their lot in life, then a moral wrong is occurring.  In the end, it is all about liberty.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Propaganda Works

Santi di Tito: Niccolò Machiavelli

A recently leaked FOX news memo from 2009 shows explicit instructions being given for reporters to refer to the "government option" instead of the "public option".  Apparently this directive was informed by Republican pollster Frank Luntz who had found that people found the term "government" less favorable than "public".

Just goes to show how powerful propaganda is. The right has been relentless in their campaign to make government into a dirty word. If they were honest, they would say "certain types of government". But then they're starting to sound like Democrats - you know, acknowledging nuance, putting things in context, speaking clearly and without misleading and dishonest overgeneralizations.

But hey - it works. Maybe if we start talking about government libraries, government parks, government education, and government-works projects we'll really save the Galts some cash.

At the risk of going full-bore partisan here, let me just ask why the right seems so much more comfortable with dishonesty. As exhibit A let me just introduce basically every AM radio personality. "Lying" might sound too offensive, so how about a continuous stream of half-truths and mischaracterizations. And then there's the anger and hatred. It's been a while since I've stomached a listen, but I remember a lot of schoolyard name-calling, yelling, and endless ad-hominem attacks on "liberals": retarded, mentally ill, out to destroy America, etc.

I mean, when I meet people like that in real life, I get really creeped out. The general word for them is "A-hole" or "bully". So why are they so integral to conservatism's trajectory in the past few decades? We've got a few random people on the left who are comparable, but they're hard to find. NPR would be a much more accurate picture of what is driving left-wing debate. Although even there, the idea that NPR "drives" politics in the same way as a Glenn Beck or Limbaugh is kind of ridiculous.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Putting the Christmas Back in Christmas

As an Anglo atheist who is married to a Jewish atheist, with whom I share two daughters, my feelings around "the holidays" are complex. We both come from traditions of Christmas celebration - mine through agnostic/hippie/Hindu parents who were raised Christian, hers an agnostic Jewish mother raised non-practicing and father non-practicing Christian.

We both treasure our traditional memories growing up - the tree, the family, the food, the "spirit", the sense of peacefulness and kindness, the decorations, the music, the Santa, the frosty, the presents, etc. If we were to not engage in the ethnic rituals of Christmas we would be denying an enormous part of our culture. Yet as atheists, we obviously feel it is all just a mythology. We both actually love the concept of the baby Jesus, the manger scene, the wise men bringing gifts, etc. - all very bucolic and tender. But a mythology nonetheless.

So when I hear people speak of putting the "Christ back in Christmas", to the extent that I feel I am being addressed - or at the very least not addressed but consciously excluded, I'm offended. I feel I should have a right to celebrate what is a shared cultural ritual in the manner I choose - especially if I am not a part of the Christian faith and have my own worldview.  And let us not even begin to speak of what this means for my two daughters, for whom I hope Christmas to continue to represent the same joys it has always for their parents.

So, it is one thing for Christians to speak to other Christians about the place of the religious in Christmas - that is none of my concern. But when I am being told that I cannot celebrate my own traditions because they don't really belong to me, it feels oppressive. If the conversation is simply about whether we are becoming too commercial, then I'll probably agree. My feelings on the "true meaning" of Christmas are probably very similar to those of  most Christians. And if focusing on the religious element of Christmas helps Christians get back to that place, all the better. But I can come to almost the exact same place without the God-bits (if I thought otherwise, I probably shouldn't be an Atheist, right?).

I love that America is multiculturalism exemplified. I love it that we can all have our own traditions and find what is meaningful in our own way. I love it that America is explicitly not a "Christian" nation. I love it that to us, tolerance means not simply refraining from mistreating each other, but actively seeking to understand the world through one's frequently exotic neighbor's eyes, and trying to learn what the world is like to him. In this way, the "true meaning" of Christmas to me is exactly this - loving your neighbor, creating peace on Earth through humility, and emphasizing warmth and compassion.

As many have often remarked, "We should live each day as if it were Christmas". Let us also let Christmas itself be for everyone - Jew, Muslim or Atheist. Because as long as we are caring for one another, sharing and being joyful, that's what the spirit is all about anyway.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

FEMA Camps and Ego Death

Conspiracy theories have likely been around for as long as, well, conspiracies themselves.  And there is certainly no sign that they are abating any time soon.  But what drives some people into their clutches, while others merely shrug their shoulders, contented with more practical explanations?

There's a difference between being skeptical and inventing fabulous stories.  Occam's razor says: "selecting the competing hypothesis that makes the fewest new assumptions (aka postulates, entities) when the hypotheses be equal in other respects."  So while I am distrustful of the CIA, I also don't believe they faked the moon landing, built the pyramids in Egypt, faked 9-11, started AIDS, faked vaccine data, or are setting up FEMA concentration camps.  There are much simpler explanations for all of those events that rely on actual evidence and not wild conspiracy theories filled with fantastical scenarios. 

Wikipedia has a pretty good page on conspiracy theories.  My problem with them is that they always rely on an attack on authority or expertise.  Yet once you go there, the burden is on you to be an expert.  And most of us simply don't have the training.  So for instance, just about every engineer who has looked at 9/11 has said that it was the work of two jets.  The Truthers (9/11 conspiracists) usually say it's all a cover-up and that there were explosives.  Well, unless you are an engineer and understand the physics of skyscrapers, it's going to be pretty hard to have confidence in anyone. 

And that's the general gist of all conspiracy theories - almost by definition they require a massive conspiracy on the part of multiple government agencies, media networks, academic institutions, scientists or corporations.  Except for corporations, the others are just about the only real authorities we have.  And once you throw them out, you can make up anything you want.  Maybe 9/11 was caused by North Korea?  Or maybe Iran?  Or maybe the EU?  Or Pat Robertson?  Or aliens? 

But isn't the obvious answer that it was a group of people from Arab countries who are pissed off at the decadent West interfering in their affairs for the past 100 years, and with a fundamentalist ideology that glorifies violence?  Not only does it make sense, but it is backed up by an insane amount of evidence!

One of my students argued with me today because he watched a show on the history channel which claimed to have evidence that aliens helped all the pyramids get built.  It took me forever to try and debunk this crap that he thought was legitimate because it was on the "History" channel.  The main problem, I think, was that he didn't know how to distinguish legitimate authority from illegitimate authority.  To him, as he is also I think a creationist Christian, magical thinking was a normal part of life.  He had no real concept of what a legitimate authority might look like.  He didn't know that there are thousands of people who have studied this stuff for years, reading and writing papers on every aspect of what we do and do not know.  And that we need to be humble enough to respect the science, and not just rely on our whatever "common-sense" story we might be able to come up with to suit our particular desire for exotic mysticism.

I'm kind of interested in the psychology of pseudoscience and magical thinking.  There are many theories out there.  Evolutionary biologists propose that as a species, it would have made more sense for us to take any threat seriously, and in light of very limited knowledge of the natural world, inventing fabulous narratives would have at least provided a predictable explanation for future events.

Biologists and psychologists might say that as a practical matter, we live on faith and trust everyday, in the sense that because we can't think everything through at every second of the day, we rely on mental shortcuts - the apple I bite into won't be glass, if I jump I'll return to Earth.  And so we are biased toward making sense of the world.  But if something doesn't fit, we are predisposed to come up with an explanation.  In some larger manner, maybe magical thinking is simply a bias towards making sense out of complex or unknown issues. Of course, this could explain a dangerous over-reliance on traditional authorities as well as it could explain a tendency to seek an easier, if more magical or mystical, line of reasoning.

Or maybe the sociologist or political scientist might point to the propensity for people to hew to established ideological narratives, otherwise known as "group think".  Among certain groups, often more radical, this tends to operate within an echo-chamber.  The term "epistemic closure" has been used to further describe this process by which systems of knowledge can become self-limiting.  In interpersonal terms, we refer to this state as denial.  Somehow, the glaringly obvious is avoided, often by great feats of mental engineering.  Freud described denial as a defense mechanism, a way of protecting oneself from an uncomfortable reality.

But what then of the belief in fantastical explanations that do not hide uncomfortable facts so much as invent new ones?  One commonality among these ideas is that they seem to all seem to in some way give support to, or operate in tandem with, a suspicion of some established authority, or political opposition.  The theory provides two separate, yet mutually-reinforcing functions: it is first created by prior ideological assumptions, and then provides evidence to support those same assumptions. 

So for instance, Glenn Beck is paranoid about the government, and so he buys into secret FEMA concentration camps, which then provide evidence justifying his initial paranoia.  This may explain why these beliefs seems so difficult to debunk.  If they can act as assumption-affirming evidence, their destruction can act as the opposite, as to undermine original assumptions.  Of course, this is just as illogical.  Whether or not the government is not doing something is evidence of nothing.  The fact that the government is not operating FEMA camps tells you nothing about whether or not you should be paranoid about the government!

Returning to psychology, the concept of ego and identity might explain why a false-belief is clung to.  If one's identity is dependent upon one's ideological assumptions, then anything perceived as a threat to those assumptions would also be perceived as a threat to one's identity.  So, a false belief built upon identity-bound assumptions becomes a sort of fragile cathedral for the ego.  If the cathedral falls, so to does the identity. 

It's common fear to be afraid of death.  Back to Freud, he felt it one of life's fundamental drives, in direct opposition to that of sexual desire.  Although he also felt one's consciously expressed fear might really be an expression of some deeper repression.  I suppose distancing myself thusly would appear suspect.  But aside from the practical impulse to self-preservation, I've never really worried all that much about dying.  I have always had a difficult time understanding the idea of being motivated in any kind of profound way by something that seems so impossibly distant, or at least unexpected.

But a death I feel I can relate to is loss of identity, which may be as close as one might come this side of actual expiration.  One's identity is one, in many ways.  And the loss of a sense of self, while certainly liberating in some cases, would seem profoundly frightening, generally.  This fear then, would seem a powerful mechanism behind the attachment of identity to ideology.  The more one derives identity from ideology, the more this fear  comes under threat when the ideology is challenged, and the more the fear is assuaged when the ideology is promoted.

But why must identity be barricaded with false beliefs?  Is there some special urgency that inflates illogical or magical thinking, misguided ideas formed out of the deficits of haste?  This would describe the phenomena known as the "knee jerk" reaction, where intellectual response is less intellectual and more intestinal, emerging with valiant force from the misty domains of the unconscious.  While the reaction is rooted in a foundation of deep ideological conviction and logical coherence, the rushed response belies anything but almost Pavlovian reaction.  It may be more than a coincidence that the term "dog whistle" is used to refer to the subtle semiotics employed in political messaging.

Because it is here that the most devious tentacles of propaganda do their work.  With simplistic, cryptic suggestions, the submerged iceberg is resurrected, overwhelming the mind's rational, conscious capacity with that of the vastly more powerful and immediate unconscious response.  And it is here that dwells fear, anger, jealousy, revenge, pride, guilt, and self-doubt.  At any moment, an ideological semiotic trigger can employ each emotion towards a very specific and political end.  The propaganda at once raises the specter of these uncomfortable emotions, but then holds out the promise of deliverance from them via adherence to the ordained narrative.

Yet all of this seems too squishy; the unconscious is a black box and too easy to make up stories for.  While I feel I have made a reasonable case, I'm skeptical that there isn't much more at work as well.  For instance, many conspiracists are otherwise perfectly reasonable.  Some only go off the deep end on one or two issues - often those which they have some personal stake in.  It wouldn't seem they have a much larger ideological axe to grind.  Others are simply very passionate about politics and have somehow managed to worm themselves into a very odd corner. 

Among teenagers, conspiracy theories are a dime a dozen.  Their worlds bursting with imagination and possibility, yet rooted in a virginal ignorance, a sense of conspiracy is a welcome narratory foothold.  There is an excitement here, a feeling rooted in not the least of which a sense of anti-authoritarian discovery - a secret passageway under and out the family fence.  A magical sense of discovery permeates.  Like some holy grail, the gold at the end of the rainbow, the existence of elves - what should not be actually is! 

It is to this feeling, sniffed at as frivolity, that conspiracy debunkers remind us of the boredom of reality.  There is actually a good explanation, and it is dull.  The story involves no vast and elaborate networks, secret meetings or devious schemes.  The edge-of-your-seat thriller is actually a somewhat tedious documentary.  No one is going to buy the rights.  There is no revelatory found-footage.  There are no amazing turns of character.  No secret documents.  No smoking guns or deep throats.

For many this may seem a loss, a forced retreat in a cosmic pilgrimage to the Truth, a giving up on something worth fighting for.  Earlier this year, a man from Colorado went to Afghanistan "carrying a pistol, a 40-inch sword, night-vision equipment" on a private mission to kill Osama Bin Laden.  Clearly not operating reasonably, he nonetheless felt some profound calling to do what countless others and billions of dollars could not.  He was not going to sit around and twiddle his thumbs when there was a simple, clear, and honorable job to do.  No doubt he felt that to sit idly at home while his night-vision goggles and sword collected dust was somehow an acknowledgment of defeat.

For the conspiracy theorist, there is always a simple, straight line solution.  There are no complex individuals operating within complex geopolitical, social and cultural narratives.  There are no gray areas or reasonable disagreements.  There are no difficult problems with no clear answers.  Unfortunately, this just isn't how the world works.  Not only is the world an often times disorienting, confusing and complicated place, but humans are limited not only by simple minds, but by limited information.  If anything, this seems a powerful case for caution and humility.  Because chances are, strapping on your survival gear and going on a personal quest for magical treasures is going to lead to nothing but failure at worse, and greater confusion at best.

But who knows, maybe I was paid to say this...

Public Art

The controversy over the Smithsonian's recent censoring of an art exhibit has reopened the old debate over public funding of the arts.  For many, art is simply something the government ought not be in the business of funding at all.

A classic liberal response to this is that, by funding art, government is actually giving artists and the public more freedom. So in a completely private market, you would have a lot of forces in pushing down freedom in many ways through private capture of the process (recording industry, galleries, museums, venues, broadcast, promotion, etc.). Of course, these also create a good deal of freedom, as the market drives a lot of innovation and allocates capital to content creators.

But it can also push out innovation, or limit public access. If art is ultimately a commodity, the content can get pressed into "what sells". And if the means and mode of production is tightly controlled, "what sells" is often going to be dictated, rather than a natural expression of popular demand. (How much are Katy Perry or Nickelback genuine artistic expression, and how much are they contrived and highly-produced pop commodities?)

I'm certainly not arguing that all of this is necessarily bad. But, like most liberal concepts of government, the idea is generally that it can provide something additive. So you can still have the cheesy music and television, but that there is a place for public funding of the arts that provides a small amount of liberation from the shackles of market demands. NPR, public television, art grants are all examples of wonderful content that might not be able to survive - or at least not in as rich a form, were it not for government support.

I've known a number of people who play - I guess you would call it - avant garde music. They sacrificed a great deal for their art, knowing that it would never pay the bills. That's fine. But I'd make a principled argument that they should have been able to find some sort of financial support beyond what they were able to find. I'm not sure what this might have looked like, but in principle I don't think it's a bad idea. Geez, universal health insurance would have been great!

In the end I'd just place art in the same vein as a common good such as libraries or parks, that aren't served well enough by an entirely private marketplace. There ought to be at least some level of assistance. The artists and the public I think deserve it and are better off for it.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Getting Specific

In a post by Keith Humphreys at the RBC, I was referred to a study done on reducing incarceration offense rates.  Humphreys framed his original post in response by a claim from Supreme Court Justice Alito that, were  California to release 40,000 non-violent offenders as a response to overcrowding, there would be a definitive increase in crime rates.  Humphreys asks instead:

(1) “Are 40,000 prisoners who have served their sentence in a grossly overcrowded and inhumane prison system more likely to re-offend than are 40,000 prisoners who have served their sentence in adequately staffed and resourced prisons?”
(2) “If we had reduced the prison population by putting 40,000 low-risk people on their way to prison into high quality community correction systems instead, would the crime rate have been lower two years from now than it will after we have massed released 40,000 people who have spent years in grossly overcrowded, inhumane prisons?”.
I wondered whether the effects of incarceration  vs. more limited penalties (such as probation, parole, etc.)  had been studied.  My hypothesis would be that incarceration would introduce negative or criminal behaviors into many otherwise non-violent or relatively harmless offenders.  I was then pointed here.  The study's abstract:
The California Department of Corrections (CDC) has big problems. It houses more prisoners than any other state’s corrections system: 160,000 inmates in 33 prisons and over 50 other facilities. The costs are enormous, including an average of about $30,000 per inmate per year and about $150,000 for each new cell built. The prisons are also very difficult to run. Each year about 25% of the inmates engage in some form of misconduct serious enough to document, and 2.5% commit an offense that would probably be a felony in the outside world.
One of the ways in which the CDC attempts to make the best use of its resources is to assign
prisoners to facilities with varying levels of “security.” Higher levels of security place more
restrictions on inmates because greater human and physical resources are brought to bear. There
are higher staff to inmate ratios and physical surroundings that reduce the chances of serious
infractions. For example, in some high security facilities, inmates are housed one to a cell and are
only allowed into the exercise yard in small groups. However, higher security facilities are more
costly to build and run. It is important, therefore, to place each inmate in the least restrictive setting necessary to insure the well-being of that inmate, other inmates, and CDC personnel.
This paper discusses the implementation of a very large, randomized field experiment testing two
different procedures through which inmates could be assigned to facilities with different security
levels. By most any measure, the experiment was implemented in a textbook fashion and led to
useful results. The question addressed is how this success was achieved.
Reading the study’s emphasis on identifying more important placement factors, I was struck by how similar I’ve often thought our approach in education should be. In my opinion, the achievement-gap is entirely socio-economic, and our public schools are largely based on a model that doesn’t take SES into account.

Just as the study awarded inmates points for particular aspects of their situation, and then assigned them accordingly, so to ought a nimble educational system work. Students and parents would be given points according to levels of human and social capital (determined by assessment and analysis). Their score would then place them into a particular neighborhood school, or at the very least a special program within the school, that is then designed to target the child’s educational/psychological/social, etc. need.

This approach would present a number of challenges, but I think it would solve far more. I recently heard the term “pragmatic egalitarianism”. I would describe this model as such. Currently, we assume that every child can succeed (and that every teacher can help them achieve it), out of a false sense of egalitarianism. But the reality is that every child cannot succeed, owing to a plethora of known risk-factors that can be identified and predicted from with a high degree of accuracy. So our lofty intentions end up hurting a lot more children than we could have helped by implementing a more restrictive, albeit structured and interventionist approach. Done in the right way, schools targeting those with low levels of human and social capital would provide an incredibly efficient means of implementing crucial remedial and support services.

I suppose the great irony here would be the insight into a nimble approach to the public education achievement gap coming from an analysis of the department of corrections, especially as we know the strong correlation between low academic performance and incarceration rates.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Common Sense and the Common Good

As it appears that the Bush Tax Cuts are not going to be repealed, one is left to ponder the apparently prevailing argument: by allowing the wealthy to keep more of their income, they will drive economic growth.  The general "common sense" assumption behind this is that, as the most productive members of society, they will do the best job allocating resources.  A popular refrain on the right is that "I can spend my money better than the government". 

I don't know about you, but I don't know what common sense is. And honestly, often times when I hear someone say "common sense" it is followed by an opinion I find nonsensical.

So anyway, the assumption is that the wealthy are necessarily the most productive member of the economy. Kind of an insulting notion, right? First off, where did these people get their income? To take a crude example, are wall street bankers the most productive members of society - how much productivity does a billion dollar bonus equal? That's a lot of coal miners.

But maybe that sounds too much like over-heated class warfare. So again, does income represent a measure of productivity? In what sense? It seems that to be a driver of productivity, you are creating efficiencies in the market. Are all millionaires creating efficiencies in the market? It seems to me that in many cases they are simply capitalizing on a leveraged position.

For instance, if I own an apartment complex, and get income from it, my income isn't necessarily based on efficiency at all. Sure, I could be a better manager, and increase efficiency, which would hopefully result in increased profitability. But that is a separate economic argument. Plenty of money is made not by increasing efficiency but simply by taking advantage of an ownership of goods. What is more, what role do the renters play in this equation? Isn't the fact that they are all working countless hours in order to pay me rent a necessary component of my supposed efficiency?

OK, so anyway, that's my common sense on that. But next there's the question of whether upper income people will allocate their income "better".

First, the notion of "better" seems weird because most of what the government does is not to make money. In fact, we tend to like it to do the things that private business doesn't do specifically because there isn't money to be made in it. Things like public libraries, parks, roads, health care, public schools, safety inspections, etc. are terrible ways to make money. But they are invaluable to the common good, whether in total contribution to all or as safety nets to the most needy and vulnerable. (Amusingly, I always forget to add in military spending to these lists of common good expenditures - even if at 2/3 of a trillion dollars a year they should certainly qualify!)

But then there's just the question of whether they will even allocate that money at all. As far as I know, the wealthy tend to save more. And in terms of simple demand-side stimulus, less consumption - whether on groceries or diamond earrings, isn't a good thing.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Smile! You're On Teacher Camera!

The New York Times has a piece on the latest in education reform teacher-evaluation schemes: classroom cameras that record a teacher's performance in real-time.  Apparently Bill Gates is investing $335 million in the project.  Everyone seems roundly impressed with the value-added opportunities.
“Some teachers are extremely good,” Mr. Gates said. “And one of the goals is to say, you know, ‘Let’s go look at those teachers.’ What’s unbelievable is how little the exemplars have been studied. And then saying, ‘O.K., How do you take a math teacher who’s in the third quartile and teach them how to get kids interested — get the kid who’s smart to pay attention, a kid who’s behind to pay attention?’ Teaching a teacher to do that — you have to follow the exemplars.”
 So what's the problem?  More data = more knowledge = better results, right?

Wrong.  I can't argue with the notion that analyzing teacher performance in excruciating detail isn't interesting on a theoretical level, and may eventually lead to practicable findings for teacher training.  But it's a completely misguided exercise if the real problem is not effective teaching the lack of student capital.   The focus ought to be on making deeper, structural changes to how we approach the achievement gap, not fiddling with more teaching techniques.  Because at the end of the day, you still have one teacher with 30 kids who have severe disadvantages. 

By concentrating all our efforts on the teacher, we are ignoring the much larger issues confronting poor children, who are far and away those at the bottom-end of the academic spectrum.  Ultimately, teachers will only ever be able to do so much to solve such massive problems. 

I admire Gates' engineer-like passion for finding just the right algorithm.  But he is ignoring larger social forces that can't be wished away behind the classroom door.  Things like reducing class sizes matter.  Providing crisis counseling, parent support, after-school tutoring, etc. are just as important, if not more so than adjusting the teaching of teachers in poor schools - who happen to have the hardest job and will look the worst when compared with their peers. 

 In a different climate, I might see this as a fascinating and exciting opportunity for professional growth.  But the reality is that this is yet more education reform on the cheap: ignoring what really needs to be done by emphasizing the marginal instead of the foundational.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Party of Amnesia

In a recent bloggingheads conversation Michelle Goldberg made this remark to Rebecca Traister regarding Sarah Palin:

This is an interesting question and one I wish more on the left were interesting in taking on.  A commenter wrote:
She's young enough and grew up in a way to have basically been raised in a society that didn't buy into a lot of traditional sex roles and which could admire plenty of what people like Steinem did or have said.  So her feeling this way but having little knowledge of actually feminism as a movement is hardly surprising.

I was glad to see someone brought it up in the threads... the idea that the right has a knack for being on the wrong side of history and then developing a sort of amnesia in which maybe they were not only always on the right side, but at least, well, they are now and it's the left who's making the problem worse by always bringing it up!

Just recently I was debating someone who was seemingly convinced that racism has always been a bipartisan affair, evidenced by the southern democrats.  I think a lot of conservatives have this sort of whitewashed view of history, probably culminating in the idea that because Lincoln, a Republican, freed the slaves conservatives are the original civil rights pioneers.

This is absurd for a variety of reasons.  The two parties have stood for very different things over the years.  (I've always been baffled by this to a degree - if anyone can point me to some good writing on race and the parties, I'd be grateful!)  But I think the more serious way to follow race is through the prism of left and right, the concept of traditional power structures and the amelioration of imbalances (often via government).

So in this sense, the right has always been about favoring status-quo hierarchies, which happen to have been white, male, Protestant, heterosexual, etc. (these labels weren't pulled out of some arbitrary liberal hat).  And the left has been about challenging them. 

This is why my mother, as a hippie college student in the late 60's, traveled into the south to demonstrate solidarity with the struggle for civil rights.  She knew that it was also about something larger, which was also why she was wearing goofy clothes, using contraception, experimenting with drugs, and basically rebelling against the established social order of the day. 

That wasn't happening on the right.  More generally, that doesn't happen on the right.  It has become pat for conservatives to accuse liberals of group-think - the real conformists.  But while ideological captivity will always be found any movement, it's just silly to try and argue that the left isn't about subverting the dominant paradigm (remember that bumper-sticker?), and the right about hewing to it.

None of which gets at how conservatives are able to make the leap from active protesters of civil rights to amnesiac defenders of it.  The commenter is I think correct in identifying how defending tradition can lead one to embrace what has changed when a certain point of momentum has been reached.  But it still doesn't go far enough in explaining how this mindset can happen.

The commenter's example of Palin's relative youth providing her with a sort of innate privilege of feminism is good, and all she would need is to be ignorant of the fact that she owes everything she is to the left's insistence on challenging patriarchy.

But this isn't just Palin.  Modern conservatism as a whole seems to be completely ignorant of what the left has achieved for the concept of civil rights, and that the right was fighting them the whole way.  Everyone can't simply be that ignorant.  There must be deeper, structural reasons for this inability to deal with the reality of history.

For instance, there have been very few conservatives out there even interested in race, aside from as a reactionary politics in which race is "all in the past" and liberals are the only real problem.  But where were the conservative writers in the 50's, 60's, and 70's?  Suddenly, in the 80's we get the growth of the angry white male backlash - ala Limbaugh - and suddenly we're all OK and it's the liberals using race to "get votes" with welfare, food stamps, etc.

Yet meanwhile, for decades, the left had been plugging away.  Starting with rallies and marches - ala King, they then filled out academia in the 70's and 80's, making a systematic dismantling of race, gender, sexuality, etc. an institution in America (obviously the civil rights movement is much older, but this was breaking into the establishment).  Black studies, women studies, etc. all sought to put all of these forms of hatred and oppression under a microscope, seeing them as a cancer upon society and violating the nation's ideals.  They wanted to know what actually happened, why it happened, how it happened and how to stop it from ever happening again.

And the discussion continues.  Racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. are still alive and thriving.  The left believes it has many of the answers, and unfortunately for the right, the blame lies squarely at their feet, in a variety of ways.

The problem is that the right has no response, other than utter denial.  Yet it is a "dumb" denial, in the sense that they aren't really sure what the problem is.  The pat reaction is to simply accuse liberals of baseless attacks.  But this is their only option, because while they know racism and hate are wrong (well, usually. see: gays, immigrants, Muslims), they don't understand the historical nature of hate, and how it works.

This claim would be easy to refute.  Just show evidence of conservatives attempting to understand where hate comes from and how it operates.  Because the right has never been interested in doing this, and they certainly haven't taken the time to read the liberals who have, they aren't familiar with the basic theory.  In academia, everything from psychology, economics, sociology, to neuroscience has weighed in repeatedly, for decades.  A broad literature exists that has many of the answers. 

But to the modern right, you're either a racist or you aren't.  Racism is bad.  Not being racist is good.  But that's about the beginning and the end of it.  Aside from tortured narratives about liberals creating racism among minorities (ugh, that was hard to write), there is essentially zero discussion of the historical context or theoretical foundations - the where, why and how of hate. 

No unconscious memes or biases.  No cultural patterns or sociological pressures.  No economic systems of power.  No entrenched classes or power hierarchies.  Trying to have a conversation about race with those so ignorant of basic concepts is like talking to someone with their fingers in their ears.