Thursday, January 28, 2010

Finger Pointing

My prospects for getting health insurance are pretty good in the future, considering I’m an experienced teacher with a Master’s degree; unemployed now but as soon a the local market opens up I’ll no doubt find employment. I also have chronic pre-existing conditions, which makes me uninsurable. So I feel like I have a dog in this fight.

And so while the president's agenda has a pretty big direct impact on my life, I’m still not clear as to why all the finger pointing at Obama. If politically feasable, he would have supported single-payer. But he’s stuck with where the Dems are at. As far as I can tell, the main complaint is that he isn’t “fighting” hard enough. But what the heck does that even mean? It seems like a straw man to assume he has so much theoretical power over congress.

I mean, look what it took to get Ben Nelson on board. What could Obama possibly do that would top that pay off?!! I’m all for arguing that he be more aggressive. But what is being argued is that Obama’s lack of aggressive influence on the process is largely what has kept the process not only from resolving but being less liberal to boot. This is simply not true.

What troubles me most is that this rhetoric feeds right into the ignorance of independents who don’t appreciate the real underlying liberalism of Obama, and so right him off as “another politician” in their reductionist and misguided understanding of American politics – and who thus end up voting for the Scott Browns of the world out of spite.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

iPad in the Classroom

Woomba jokes aside, Apple's iPad is tantalizing from an education IT standpoint.

I think a class set for $13,500 (30 x $450) would be an amazing opportunity.  That's still a steep price tag, but gradually rolling them out, at district volume prices might get you down to 1 cart/3 classrooms pretty quickly.  Sure, a lot of teachers might not be the best fit.  But the sort of closed-environment apps you could do on here would be amazing.  I've generally taught in lower income schools, everything from K to 12 and I could use these with every grade.  You usually can't count on kids having easy access to high speed internet outside class and so just the ability for targeted instruction ramps up dramatically.

The ability to set up custom content that targets ability would be incredible.  As you go up in grades, the ability spread gets worse and worse.  With an interactive textbooks the sky is really the limit.  You could do variable reading levels in science or history textbooks.  Assessment, both formative and cumulative could be in realtime, linked to parent emails.  Classwork could be tracked.  Rewards/incentives could be offered.  The possibilities for student-centered/driven instruction are really opened up.

The big difference between the tablet and the desktop/laptop is input.  Not only are they mobile, meaning they could be used in group-settings or field-work.  But they'd offer a broader range of tactile accessibility options.  Students are notoriously disorganized and the ability to save a notefile might be a real benefit to many students.  Being able to incorporate the tablet into instruction on a daily basis just frees up a whole range of options that wouldn't be practical when limited to shared lab use.

Cost and theft are definitely concerns.  But textbooks aren't really cheap either.  Weighed against the benefits, not the least of which might be teacher time spent waiting at the copy machine, I think less than $500 is pretty awesome.

But this is the kind of thing that requires real leadership on.  The more you put into it, the more it's going to work for your school.  With some bright IT folks, in touch with a good team of tech savvy teachers and administrators and there are a lot of really neat opportunities for even the most tech-resistant teacher.

Refreshingly Meaningful Education Reform

Ed Week has a story up on a new book out that analyzes 15 years of school performance in Chicago and comes up with... surprise, what we've been trying to do all along.  Apparently the 5 keys to a successful urban school are:
• Strong leadership, in the sense that principals are “strategic, focused on instruction, and inclusive of others in their work”;
• A welcoming attitude toward parents, and formation of connections with the community;
• Development of professional capacity, which refers to the quality of the teaching staff, teachers’ belief that schools can change, and participation in good professional development and collaborative work;
• A learning climate that is safe, welcoming, stimulating, and nurturing to all students; and
• Strong instructional guidance and materials.
What's interesting here is that, as the authors note, none of these are silver-bullet type solutions, but taken together, just a comprehensive picture of what good "culture" looks like at a school.  It isn't simply about a fancy new curriculum, high-powered teaching, more assessments, professional development, merit-pay schemes or any other new trick.  If anything, the key is a school administration that is able to deliver on a range of factors that go into making a school work.  But it is the sum of the parts, how they interact and build on each other that delivers the final result.

Anthony S. Bryk, an author of the book, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons From Chicago , is quoted as pointing out that if a school is weak in any of these 5 areas it will likely fail.  While these are largely generalities, and effectively creating each is not an easy task, it is a reminder that we can't reduce educational reform into easy, sound-bite-ready slogans.  If we don't look at the whole picture - the curriculum, teachers, assessments, administration, staff, community... all of it, we're setting ourselves up for failure.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Quit Yer Whinin'...

Obama dropped a bomb today on the progressive blogosphere.  Apparently plans are in the works for large cuts in non-defense spending.  Matt Yglesias describes it as
an effort to balance concern with a “massive GDP gap” in the short run and “very substantial budget deficits out over time,” the plan calls for the FY 2011 budget to be higher than the FY 2010 budget, but then for non-security discretionary spending to be held constant in FY 2012 and FY 2013.
Liberals are freaking out.  To you I say:

Oh, wah!

Obama has taken so much misdirected heat it’s sickening. Because the big tent democrats can’t be corralled this is somehow Obama’s fault? It appears the tea party pathology of needing to have complex problems require easy and false scapegoats is catching.

I’m not sure this is substantively anything more than political posturing. But the last fucking thing it is is acting like a Republican. Have you seen that party lately? At least the Democrats have saved us from financial ruin, staunched the pain with a stimulus (which is paying for my family’s health care right now via COBRA, Thank you very much), and attempted to put together a largely important bill to reform health care and carbon emissions. The fact that they can’t pass them is frustrating – but if maybe one or two Republicans stepped up we might have something.

The world isn’t perfect and neither are politics. So this isn’t a progressive’s fantasy – but Jesus, chill out and stare at this picture for a while.

Feel better?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

What You Really Think About Teachers

I'm not sure what people really think of teachers anymore.  On the one hand, you have a gracious acknowledgment of the implied dedication & sacrifice of the profession.  But on the other, you have endless public cries in anguish over what a terrible job teachers are doing. 

The fact that we now have reams of data linking poverty to education certainly paints a vivid portrait for many of ghetto schools as low-performing poverty factories.  Of course, even the brightest wonks have always had trouble with correlation vs. causation.

So in the end much of the ambiguity relates to one's expectations of what is actually possible through a public education system.  If you believe that with current levels of funding, the basic structure of education should be able to compensate for all other social effects, given some tweaking here and there - "an emphasis on rigor, discipline, etc.", then you likely appreciate the sacrifices teachers make but see them as standing in the way of a sort of utopia where similar proportions of children from all socio-economic backgrounds achieve success.  In other words, a class of largely inept, morally bankrupt and self-interested parasites of the state who only manage to survive via the red menace that is unionism.

However, if you believe that a social project in which every single child, from every background, is brought to a proportionally adequate level of self-efficacy by the age of 18 will inevitably require massive intervention by the state, because while children from some backgrounds will continue to do fine under the current, traditional model, others with backgrounds putting them "at-risk" for a variety of negative outcomes will not thrive in conditions of overcrowding, scarce resources, and overwhelmed teachers and administrators... then you will likely be thanking God that there are people who are either desperate enough or compassionate enough to put on a happy face and welcome the hundreds of thousands of daughters and sons who come to their doors each and every day and do their damnedest to help them succeed no matter how few people really understand what their job is like and how many people don't understand at all yet feel they have a right to weigh in because, well, they were all students once or have children of their own and so they must be experts in a field which is literally a microcosm of every god-forsaken political, social, psychological, philosophical or economic theory that has come down the pike since the dawn of human civilization. 

Or, you know.  Something like that.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Democracy: Sold to the Highest Bidder!

Today's supreme court ruling, treating limits on corporate and special interest contributions to political campaigns as necessarily violations of the right to free speech, makes the incredibly naive assumption that corporations operate under the same expression of political engagement as do common citizens. No matter how wonderful any private individual's talent for information dissemination, there is no comparison. Corporations are masters of public deception, or rather, they have loads of money to spend on people who are masters of deception, aka those whose business is to deceive - or to "conceive"... however you want to polish it.

For example, say I am coal company X, and have a rather large amount of toxic sludge to get rid of. Do I tell everyone about it - specifically my plans to dump it in some nice vacant wetlands? No, I simply create an environmentally friendly "group", say, "Americans for Wonderful Wetlands", and then have them take out ads selling the public on the idea that coal companies in general are wonderful and that protecting wetlands is really where their heart lies.

The philosphy expressed in today's ruling is profoundly naive. What these objectivist free-marketeers don't seem to realize is that people will do evil things if we let them. Especially large, unregulated corporations whose reason d'etre is making profit for short-sided shareholders. They are either incredibly stupid, or intellectually dishonest. Because history is rife with examples of unchecked moneyed interests doing really bad things. The history of regulation has been an overwhelmingly positive thing for the Americans, who otherwise would have been at the mercy of malevolent interests far more powerful than they could hope to take on alone.

Ayn Rand was absolutely right that selfishness and greed are good things on their face. But she always left a small caveat that destroyed her entire thesis: it must be in the hands of men who act responsibly. This is why libertarianism is not reality based. It rests upon a utopian fantasy in which power never seems to corrupt, and the disadvantaged are magically able to retain freedom against an ever-concentrating elite.

This is why Republican claims to populist solidarity are cynical and morally bankrupt. Look at the typical Republican! He revels in inequality - he takes pride in it! He pretends that he is what he is due to his own hard work but knows deep down that he is a superior, the fittest to have survived. He should feel no shame. He is a champion. Sure, if one defines populism as "everyone should be like me", then he is a populist. But if one defines populism as "doing what is in the interest of the people", then he is far from it. Repealing estate taxes are not populist. Prayer in school is not populist. Limiting malpractice suits is not populist. Vouchers are not populist. The flat tax is not populist. Eliminating social programs is not populist. Fighting against the right for workers to organize is not populist. Prohibiting gays from marriage is not populist. Racial profiling is not populist. Take any issue where power in the hands of the unrepresentative, wealthy or traditionally powerful few is solidified, and Republicans are for it.

In the ruling today, no one is pretending that expression will be more fair. No, the powerful interests with the most money will have more power to dominate, not less. But it is the principle that there should be no check on power - they call it "speech", but what is it really other than the solidification of one speech's power over another, via the purchase of delivery. The real anathema to this philosophy is the populist idea that there may be a point at which one man's rights might grow so great that they begin to take away from another. The roots of this impulse are authoritarian in the oldest sense, wherein the monarchist claim of "might making right" - the very epitome of what would become known as Darwin's naturally selective forces - was embraced as socially appropriate.

Our founders struggled to throw those old chains to the dirt, emphasizing not the old, lazy orders of generations of entrenched power, but instead the idea that every man must be born free. And yet they keep circling back at us like vipers, disguised though they be in populist clothing, pretending to represent the interest of the common man while tightening the old grip of class privilege, ignorance and political disenfranchisement. This is a sad day for America. I fear it may have to get much worse before it gets better. What have her is a massive shift away from democracy and toward a government vastly more corrupted and less able to do what it was originally intended to do: to truly allow freedom for all.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Road to King's "Other" Dream

On March 18, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, TN. He emphasized the importance of low-skilled labor. Famous for his "I Have A Dream" speech, King was no less passionate about economic justice.

So often we overlook the worth and significance of those who are not in professional jobs, or those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive. For the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician. All labor has worth.
At the time, these were the only jobs blacks could get. Times have changed, and as racism has become an unacceptable attitude among all but the most embittered populace, opportunities have opened up for blacks in every economic sector. Yet large gaps in achievement continue to haunt us, breaking down as they do along familiar racial lines. Simply removing racism is not enough when generational poverty provides a structural barrier to equal opportunity.

King spoke of a future in which the least-valued jobs are recognized as worthy of dignified pay. And yet today, in 2010, that future still seems a long way off. Union membership is at an all-time low, but even then there are broad segments of the workforce that will always be difficult to unionize.

Many people are finally realizing that education is the key to social justice. However many still don't realize how the structural issues involved in poverty undermine our best efforts at creating quality schools.

As an education graduate student, the mantra was always - "every child can learn", with the ultimate goal of "every child going to college". But this is somewhat of an absurd proposition. One only has to ask: "Who will clean the toilets? Who will operate the registers? Who will pump the gas?"

There are just too many areas of our economy that require relatively low-skilled service. And in a market system, where wages are relative, devalued labor results in low pay. Thus an underclass is born. Housing concentrates by income and ghettos appear, society stratifies. Wealth becomes cyclical as generations conglomerate around habits of position, influenced by family and peer group behavior.

Education can break this cycle, essentially by implanting the child into an artificially designed and coordinated environment conducive to success. The fact that this so rarely actually accomplished is testament to the enormity of the task, given its myriad components that all must be coordinated with perfect and sustained simultaneity in cities and states across the nation.

Of course one of the main barriers to this endeavor is finding the political will among the populace. This is what King was up against. Because it is fundamentally a narrative of inequality, it will always be an asymmetrical proposition: the haves must sacrifice for the have-nots.

And yet this concept is in direct opposition to the classic American narrative of individualist opportunity. Even as we know that children who grow up in poverty - more specifically, with a sufficiently harmful set of risk-factors - are categorically at a disadvantage and will reliably be much less successful, we still promote the idea that they are just as able as their advantaged peers to be successful. Our policies reflect this incongruity in thinking.

And so the ball is well towards the bottom of the hill. I suppose that the problem of who to clean the floors is a "good" problem to have if every child has the option to go to college. But we certainly aren't there yet. Until then, King's words on economic justice seem as distantly in the past as they do the future. Yet through his memory we continue the conversation.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Difficulty of Sainthood

I imagine very few of us are really moral, in the sense that we are making rational decisions about our lives based on what is always right.

Peter Singer's thought experiment on sacrifice illustrates this well: we in the first world make daily decisions that favor our own small benefit over less fortunate others who would experience vastly greater benefit, even though were we to face these individuals we would make the sacrifice in an instant. For those unfamiliar with his point, he asks you to imagine yourself witness to an ice-skating child falling through an icy pond, whose rescue would then depend upon you ruining your $100 fur coat.

I think the really moral thing for us all to do is to take vows of poverty and donate all our free time to charity work. The obvious response to this is that our pleasures serve as a reward, thus generating more overall behavioral efficacy. I think this argument is mostly lazy, and serves nicely as a convenient justification for immoral behavior. After all, losing our shoes and jumping into ice water would just as well diminish our reward-stimulus yet the moral imperative is as strong.

So then why are we not all more like Saints? What is it about them that allows them to possess such vigorous discipline and moral courage? And then, maybe, what is it about us that keeps us from acting saintly?

It seems very difficult to answer this question at the individual level. But at the larger, social level I think we can more reliably find structural trends, and possibly apply universal human behavioral patterns. I may not be able to see why right now, up until this point in my life I have rarely acted saintly. But I can find patterns in others with similar life experiences.

I know that the more comfortable and satisfied I am in my life, the more appealing the idea of sacrificing for others becomes. And much of my position in life is owed to the fortunate experiences I have had over the years. I have been able to learn sets of behaviors that generate for me the life results I desire. At the broader social level, similar experiences are predictive of similar capacities for self-efficacy. (Of course, sorting out causal relationships is enormously challenging. And any causal hypothesis, after identifying clean correlations, is dependent upon continued predictive strength.)

Yet getting structural factors involved in group compassion is complex. Determining social outcomes that support individual satisfaction in order to promote efficacy is part of it. There are also the cultural institutions that act as mechanisms for stimulating the compassionate response. Foremost among these would be the media as a way to deliver information. Then there would be the actual delivery of care, facilitated by NGOs and governments.

Depending on political persuasion, one might be more of an advocate for taxation as a way of embedding compassionate sacrifice into a governmental-social framework. This is dependent upon a choice of ultimate efficacy - broken both into belief in governmental efficacy and emphasis on a social contract specifically designating compassion by all member citizens. Others may opt for an emphasis on private delivery of services, either out of mistrust in government's efficacy or a de-emphasis on inserting compassionate sacrifice into any social contract.

In the end, we will all determine what is a comfortable level of sacrifice, even if, except for the saints among us, it is never quite moral enough. That sacrifice might look different for different people. It may take many forms, from the simplest act as smiling at a stranger, or volunteering at a soup kitchen. In our social behavior though, it is through our interactions that we experience compassion - as we communicate, then place ourselves in the minds and hearts of others, and then choose how to act towards them.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


There's an interesting coincidence of philosophical justifications among those who approve of torture. They tend to make the following arguments:

1)Because of the nature of their alleged crimes, they are beyond the rule of law. "These people are terrorists!"

2)The information they might have is worth the sacrifice of their rights. The "ticking-bomb" scenario.

These are two distinct philosophical positions. The legitimacy of each is independent of the other. While the two together form a more substantial case for torture, neither is dependent on the other for legitimacy. Either may be accepted regardless of the truth of the other.

For instance the gravity of the situation may not require the use of torture, even as the nature of their crimes overrides their claim of human rights. And likewise, if the information they hold requires the administration of torture, the nature of their crimes may not be sufficient to deny their rights.

Yet both are almost always accepted together. One would expect to find more people willing to admit that while one may be legitimate, the other is not. The fact that torture advocates are in near lockstep agreement on both counts, and frequently make the case for one or the other - while not directly refuting either argument, calls into question the intellectual honesty, and thus integrity of those who would appeal to the justification of torture on moral grounds.

On its face, one would assume that advocacy of torture would alone determine one's moral integrity. But the fact that not just one, but two very contentious propositions are so frequently argued together seems telling.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The American Vodou of Pat Robertson

By now we've all heard Pat Robertson's comments on Haiti:
"Something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. Napoleon the Third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you get us free from the prince'. True story. And so the devil said, 'OK, it’s a deal.' They kicked the French out, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free."

Something I've been thinking about these comments is how they might fit into our other social narratives about "terrible things", especially as Pat Robertson is a conservative, and how his perspective draws upon a broader trend in conservative thinking.

One critique of religion is that it arises from a human need for creating meaning out of the unknown. Thus you had early humans basically creating stories for phenomena that they had no system of knowledge to rationally comprehend. By creating reason where there was none, these stories would have been emotionally satisfying.

In the modern world, science has provided a rational structure for natural disasters. We have come to believe in a generally rational world, dependent on natural, not supernatural laws. So mudslides, earthquakes, volcanoes and other natural disasters are the effect of geological forces. There is no need to appeal to any God for a rational explanation of events.

Although in human affairs, the need for rational clarity still seems to be found wanting. People still wonder why men do such terrible things. Even as science has been able to pinpoint neural mechanisms that are responsible for much of brain function and behavior, we still seem wary to apply the same sort of mechanistic understanding to human action as we do to the rest of the world. When a tidal wave strikes an island, or a mountain lion attacks, we do not call them "evil". Yet this somewhat magical word is invoked frequently whenever an action is committed which we find ourselves asking "how could someone do such a thing?!"

In truth, we have no where near the theoretical sophistication in our conceptual framework of the mind that we do of natural events. So it is understandable that we still appeal to metaphysics for a rational explanation. But how rational is the term "evil"? There is a certain logic to explaining a flood by describing the anger of the Gods. Angry people do mean things. Yet to the modern mind this explanation is preposterous, in that, aside from the fact that it ignores material laws of nature, it assumes the possibility that there are magical creatures in the heavens with powers over the natural world. To the extent that we do not know precisely all the mechanism at work behind a flood - the exact way clouds form, or maybe the saturation of certain rock layers, the function of gravity, etc., we certainly know enough to be reasonably satisfied that a scientific explanation is sufficient. And when such events have devastating consequences, it this rational understanding that gives us comfort. Where in the past comfort was had in the form of appeals to magical stories for rational satisfaction, we now take comfort in the rationality of scientific laws. The story may be different, but the emotional effect is the same.

And now let's return to Pat Robertson. I would argue that his quest for a religious narrative is hindering his ability to to find solace. If a tree fell in a rainstorm and crushed your house, you would certainly be upset, but because of your modern rational understanding of science, you are able to take comfort in knowing that the world operates according to certain laws. And you just happened to be unlucky. You would experience loss, yet it would likely not occur to you to become angry and resentful of the tree that fell (it was not, of course, the tree, it was the wind, which came from the storm, which came from the heat and the cold and the water, etc.).

Yet if your house was burned down by a man with a can of gasoline, you would experience not only loss but profound anger toward the man who did it. You would likely want revenge - at least in form of justice, to see the man locked up in prison. Who would do such a thing?! There would be no clear chain of causality. You would be filled with unresolved questions - and then the sense of hopelessness at your inability to find answers. There is a good chance that asking the arsonist himself may not provide relief - as he may not even know (how many of us truly know why we do what we do?

A more simplistic illustration of this difference in emotional response is well illustrated by the sensation one has had in accidentally stubbing a toe on a piece of furniture. The anger and pain one immediately feels is only matched by the sense embarrassment after taking "revenge" on the thoughtless table leg by kicking it. The human mind can be truly idiotic.

Pat Robertson, instead of chalking up the tragedy of the Haitian earthquake to the rationality of perfectly knowable geological forces, is rationally compelled by his own fundamentalist Christian narrative to invoke the magical powers of the devil to explain the events. One must wonder whether he is introducing an added level of personal anguish. Remember, in the context of his comments, he was highlighting the historical nature of Haitian poverty - something much less explainable than fault-line earthquakes. While there are certainly many broadly agreed-upon narratives as to why Haiti has suffered such tremendous poverty, the specifics begin to become less clear as you delve in the the assorted political perspectives. At the most basic level, there will have been individuals who through their actions were responsible for events leading to the present economic conditions. There is a lot of human failure at work. And attached to this human failure is a sense of incomprehension. By invoking the devil, Robertson was seeking a rational answer not only to the earthquake, but also to Haiti's troubled past.

A principle belief of conservatism is in the free will of man, and therefore a high tolerance for both social inequality and retributive justice. If man is perfectly free to make his own choices, then he should suffer the consequences of his actions. Yet implicit in this philosophical assumption is the problem of causality. If man is perfectly free to act, then discovering why he does what he does becomes impossible: causality ends at his moment of action. Whereas in nature you can follow a clear line backwards through the infinite chain of causal connections, man is thought of as somehow arriving at his actions a blank slate. If man is successful it is because he and he alone achieved it. Social inequality is a simple matter of action versus inaction. If man does wrong it is because he and he alone did it. Retribution is a simple matter of following through on deterrence.

Yet because this philosophical narrative is implicitly uncertain, if man is "free" to act and thus the originator of causality, why he did what he did is unknowable - except through asking him, by nature an unreliable witness. Thus we have born the concept of "evil". What better way to define the difference between why a man does ill and why a tree does ill? The man is the magical originator of action, while the tree is simply the last domino to fall. And so while we can stand before the ruins of our tree-crushed house and feel no anger towards it, we feel compelled to lash out at the criminal.

Our level of emotional pain is in direct correlation to the uncertainty of causal clarity. And yet the philosophical assumption of free agency, a core assumption of conservatism, has this capacity for emotional anguish built in. As a liberal, while I may feel the impulse to react violently toward one who has done me wrong, I know that there - somewhere - is a perfectly good reason for why they did what they did. In a biological and cultural sense, they are no different than a tree in a rainstorm.

Maybe I am fooling myself. Maybe “evil” does exist, perhaps in some intra-dimensional plane accessible only to the powers of human cognition. But then again – would that not imply some manifestation of causality? Alas, scientific materialism is a tautological construct, in that truth must be truth. In the meantime I’m always thankful when I am able to console myself with the reminder, in the worst of times, that there is indeed a “reason for everything”. A scientific one, mind you, and one that includes my fellow man.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Haiti Needs Our Help

The situation in Haiti is obviously desperate. From the Haitian president, Rene Preval:

“Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed. There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them.”

Please donate what you can to one of the relief organizations on the ground. Our family is donating $25 to Oxfam.

The American Red Cross
"Red Cross sees immediate needs for food, water, temporary shelter, medical services and emotional support."

Partners in Health
"With our hospitals and our highly trained medical staff in place in Haiti, Partners In Health is already mobilizing resources and preparing plans to bring medical assistance and supplies to areas that have been hardest hit. In Boston, our procurement and development teams are already fielding numerous offers of support and making arrangements to deliver resources as quickly as possible to the places where they are needed most."

Oxfam America
"Oxfam has long experience in Haiti, and we're rushing in teams from around the region to respond to the situation where our assistance is most needed. Our response will include providing clean water, shelter, sanitation and helping people recover. Your donation will go immediately to the most critical needs in Haiti, and we will ensure that every penny is used wisely."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Moral Growth

Economics has always given me a headache - especially because despite being difficult, even the big boys get incredibly partisan. Someone has to be right, but one is skeptical when their economic theories seem to match up so nicely with their sense of social fairness and human behavior.

But one thing that is always particularly irksome to me, as a leftist, is the degree to which the right blames leftist policy for a lack economic lack growth. So you have a principled opposition to redistribution as being illiberal, which then just happens to be bad for economic growth. Those to me seem like two distinct problems. If redistribution was illiberal, yet good for economic growth, it would still be wrong. And likewise, if redistribution was necessary for freedom, but bad for growth, it would still be right.

Of course, the devil is in just how far one influences the other. If any policy is bad enough for growth, leading ultimately to a decline, then whatever freedom gained would be irrelevant. And here is where, I believe, the right gets its wedge in: the immorality of social inequity is always justified by the larger emphasis on growth - the rising tide and all that. And to the degree that the tide just doesn't rise high enough for those at the bottom to be considered truly free, well, that battle can be fought another day.
"Look at all the generational poverty!"
"Yes, but they have COLOR TVS!"
So here we have the "rising tide", the "trickling down", being philosophical gold. So much of conservatism's economic and moral construct becomes dependent upon the validityof this premise: not only is redistribution wrong, it is actively harmful to the economy. Redistributive social spending, while well-intention, is actually hurting people by dragging down the entire economy. At the far end of this spectrum, you get the wingnuts claiming that any day now the hammer and sickle will replace the stars and stripes.

But what would a moderate increase on taxation really do? We know for certain that it would be helpful to many struggling Americans. There are any number of ways to do it effectively. There are also many ways to do it poorly, but the fact is that concrete things can be done if we believe in the idea. (Much of the outrage over wasteful spending has more to do with the fact that it is unwanted then that it is poorly executed).

But what we do not know for certain is how much of a drag any of it really is on the economy. It may be unfair, or immoral, but does that make it that bad for the economy? If I steal from my neighbor, and invest the money in something that creates growth, I've just done something wrong for one person, yet something right for the economy.

We can argue all day about whether social spending represents a better investment than private business investment. But the two are not mutually exclusive. Considering how much better - from a left perspective - Europe is on social initiative, I'm pretty happy about the margins of real disagreement on who is better at growth. One thing is certain, Europe isn't painting a hammer and sickle on its flags any time soon.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Real Reid Gaffe, Pt. 2

To continue from my last post, Obama's response to the event, highlighting Reid's commitment to "social justice", says it all. He's referring to the liberal belief that the current state of racial inequity - in the classic words of former president G. W. Bush - "a history of racial discrimination".

Black achievement rates are much lower than whites. Some liberals say this is because of active discrimination. But even more say it's a little of that, but mostly a dysfunctional social system in which families, neighborhoods, and schools aren't providing the same opportunities for development for black children that white social structures do. And because liberals believe in socialization, we see this dysfunction as a result of our immoral, racist past. Thus it is our responsibility to actively redistribute resources into the black community to help build social capital.

Republicans have no such commitment to "social justice" because they define it differently. They see the current inequality as the fault of blacks themselves. They see our racist past as having no bearing on current structures. Thus they feel no obligation to make personal sacrifices, either at the personal or state level in order to repair a broken system.

It is a logical position. But it reflects deeper beliefs about consciousness and personal identity that would seem to give support to a racist perspective, even though not necessarily racist itself. I think most conservatives would love to see blacks do well. But they obviously are not.

So why is this? There are only three possible answers, and only two are available to the conservative: genetics or free choice. The third option is socialization, but that is a view contrary to the conservative philosophy of individual autonomy, and the embrace of which would require social ownership of individual outcomes - and any social ownership implies human rights and must lead directly to redistributive taxation. Genetics is racism, defined. So leaving that aside, the only available option is the mysterious notion of free choice. This would, one presumes, allow the individual to overcome any genetic or socialized determination within reason.

This is a fair enough position, granting the long and complex philosophical history of debate over free will. Its embrace by conservatives is not radical. And by doing so one is freed from many obligations to create a society in which certain freedoms are guaranteed, as long as those freedoms are the domain of individual, not social origination.

And so in the Republicans we have a modern conservative party that has little interest in social justice. In fact, it spends much of its time defending individual justice from the concept of social justice, as its logic sees misguided social obligations as a threat to the freedoms of those being compelled to sacrifice.

And of course, if one were a racist, the modern conservative movement would seem a sensible fit: blacks don't deserve our charity, just not because their self-efficacy is originated individually but instead because they're simply inferior. And so political aims become aligned. The tricky part, for those of us on the left, is parsing the difference.

Since racism has become almost unanimously seen as wrong, all but the most extreme racists hide their true feelings for fear of public outrage. And as any one who has spent much time trying to understand the racist mind and its historical expression will know, racism is a highly subversive and subconsciously driven pathology. Many people who in fact hold deep-rooted racist feelings will not admit to being racist, either to themselves or others.

One could then see how a liberal, who believes that black inequality is due not to genetics or free choice, but to socialization, and sees many parallels between racist and conservative thinking, would be skeptical of conservatives when they claim not to be racist. Of course it is perfectly possible that they are not. Yet it is also perfectly possible that they are.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Darwin & Meaning

Ross Doubthat wonders what all the fuss is about Darwin's bicentennial last year. I'm not sure what his own worldviews may be, but his tone seems generally dismissive of the degree of jubilation surrounding the occasion. For him, today's Darwinism is

"at once an unchallenged scientific paradigm and a wildly contentious theory of everything; a Church militant warring against creationists and fundamentalists and a debating society of squabbling professors; a touchstone for the literary intelligentsia and a source of secularist kitsch."

As a conservative, one wonders whether Doubthat isn't simply miffed that Darwinism has always been a nasty thorn in the side of the anthropocentric religiosity that buttresses his philosophy.

Personally, I find Darwin's synthesis of evolutionary theories profoundly spiritual, something I have difficulty finding elsewhere. Where in the past spirituality took for granted that the world was unknowable, modern man doesn't have this luxury.

Traditional forms thus seem like narcissistic self-involvement, or fantastical religious dogma. If the answer to the question "What is the meaning of life?" is "To continue asking the question", then Darwin has opened for a us a profound insight into not only where that road leads, but from where it comes.
(img: The 'Evolution' of Darwin - Peter Bond)

The Real Harry Reid Gaffe

So apparently in 2008 Harry Reid
"thought that Barack Obama could win the presidency because he was "light-skinned" and did not use a "Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."
Aside from the clunky use of the term negro – I think the analysis is spot on. Not to mention something that you’d find general agreement with in any Black Studies department. Americans are racist, white supremacists straight up.
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, and even as it is obviously not a good thing, it is understandable. The African American experience has, and continues to define us. It is an ethnicity that against all odds has persevered – holding on to its singular heritage, carrying with it both the dysfunction of genocidal brutality, and the wisdom and innovation of a people who have found ways to not only hold on to their identity but continually push the boundaries of what is culturally possible under centuries of oppression.
And America is what it is because of our racial history – both our greatest expressions of freedom and our worst savage excesses. Obama is an exemplar of this contradiction. He is what he is both because of and despite of who he is, and who we are. As a country we have been through so much, and from the beginning have reached for the highest rung despite it always being just beneath our grasp. As such our narrative has been one of epic triumph – and epic failure. The two define each other tragically. Even as we elect the first African American to highest public office, we have people casting the most vile and racist attacks – their seething hatred couched as it often is behind thin veils of humor.
As expressed in the words Obama himself reiterated, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice”, humanity is searching for freedom, even as it is far from there yet. There is no evidence that any such objective morality exists, but as defined by the basic human impulse to apply one’s own aspirations to those of his fellow man, our biological predisposition is indeed toward empathy and fairness.
Harry Reid is a leader of the party that, although having not always done so in the past, currently spends much of its time seeking ways to redress the imperfections of our past, expressed as they are in the social and demographic stratifications we see at present. Where its opponents see equality and freedom, it sees inequality and struggle. So it would stand to reason that he would see the historic achievement of Obama’s election in the context of a society still struggling to attain what it would ultimately like to see but presently finds itself incapable of adequately fulfilling.
Reid's remarks have been portrayed as out-of-touch, if not racist. Republican chair Michael Steele responded that
It's an old mind-set when you're using language in 2008 that harkens back to the 1950s and '60s...
Yet his own party almost unanimously holds the view that there exists little racism in American society today, and the little that does is irrelevant to the equality of opportunity that exists for all races. This despite the fact that we see large gaps in achievement between whites and blacks. What his party fails to do is distinguish the difference between the opportunity that exists and the means with which one is able to attain it. Therefore they make no distinction between the young boy growing up in poverty and the boy growing up heir to a fortune. That the two should be allowed by society to grow up and suffer two distinct fates is not perceived as an injustice as all by Republicans. Democrats on the other hand, see this as a grave misfortune, especially as it is a direct result of the immoral social arrangement of past generations.

And so the real gaffe here is not that of Harry Reid, intent as he is on creating a more just and equitable society, where all men are truly free to achieve their dreams. Instead it is the continuing gaffe of Republican thought that speaks of a hollow freedom in which all men are purported to be free, yet who in reality are born to live out lives of desperation and pain. It is a smothering gaffe that seeks to rewrite history while absolving guilt or responsibility.

As a fellow Democrat, Obama's response highlighted the difference:
I accepted Harry's apology without question because I've known him for years, I've seen the passionate leadership he's shown on issues of social justice, and I know what's in his heart.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Afghanistan Bake Sale

A while ago I wrote about "the evil corporate overlords who ostensibly profit from war put out propaganda via their media tentacles and party apparatchiks." I wrote that this is an unhelpful straw man put forth by tired liberal ideologues. Military spending isn’t simply popular because politicians are paid off. It has more to do with a political class stuck in tired thought. But we do have an extremely asymmetrical foreign policy budget. Military projects vastly outnumber the more peaceful, or at least non-violent ones.

Sure, it’d be nice if we didn’t spend our money foolishly. But before we get there we need to start by doing a cost-benefit analysis. (Shouldn’t that be up there somewhere with the golden rule?)

What’s so odd is that conservatives, for all their hatred of wasteful spending, think nothing of plunging cash into warfare. And yet one could make a reasonable case that, all told, war has actually made us considerably less safe. I don’t know if I would go that far personally.

But I would say that if we spent half as much money on so-called soft power we could see at least as much progress on national security. With the money left over we could have set up every major US metropolis with a version of the Harlem Childrens’ Zone and be well on our way to dramatically cutting prison terms, revitalizing our nation’s urban centers and seeing record increases in productivity.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

I Don't Understand My Fellow Americans

I don't understand my fellow Americans.

If many of them had their way there would be no justice system. There would be good-doers and evil-doers. Period.

The concept of "rule of law" to them is a joke. Our founding principles of fairness, nuance, tolerance and human dignity, subsequently substantiated by science again and again, are foreign to them.

It's as if there's this large artery of evil, pumping out anger, fear, pridefulness, resentment, and other reptilian emotions responsible for everything wrong with the world. And they just mainline it, along with the the xenophobes, the racists, the majoritarians, the theocrats, the homophobes, etc.

They got theirs. Good and evil. Black and white. Fuck everyone else.

Our prison system is a festering nightmare of cruelty. We can't decide whether to punish or rehabilitate, so we just let people rot - subjected to daily humiliation, brutality and threat of death. Then we wonder why recidivism rates are so high. To many convicts, life inside isn't so different than the outside - with it's "game" mentality, dysfunctionally anti-love and anti-life.

But we didn't really care about them before they went to jail. So why care now? We set them up to fail and then kick them while they're down.

The whole mindset of American conservatism makes me physically ill. The pomposity. The callousness. The knee-jerk assumptions. The cowardice. The narrow-minded ignorance. The hypocritical values. The selfish greed. The impatience. The failure to put themselves in the shoes of others. The uncritical embrace of tradition. The acceptance of inequality. The self-satisfaction.

Pieter Bruegel - The Seven Deadly Sins: Pride

So much of it can be chalked up to simple ignorance. But what about the college-educated conservatives? What about the ones that make it their business to understand the world? There are other religions. There are other types of people. There are other ways of viewing the world. Did they never read about studies of human behavior? Anthropology? Philosophy? Economics? Colonialism? Race relations?

Why is their view of why people do what they do so different from mine? Why is mine so much more concerned with systemic injustice? Why is theirs so concerned with deflecting blame? Why is mine reflected in every major faith's emphasis on humility, sacrifice, love and kindness, the least among us - while theirs in the absolute congratulation of the self? I'm a fucking Atheist and I know this!

The politicians represent them. The media feeds on their worst, most craven impulses (within FCC limits - an irony). But they live and fester on their own, seeping into the sunless nooks and crannies of darkened, blinded thought. Unconcerned with ever looking at the world in a truly fresh or objective manner, everything must first be passed through conservative goggles of "the free market & me".

Healthcare must be neither redistributive, nor bad for business or me. The free market couldn't have made it the way it is. And government will only make it worse.

Economic catastrophe couldn't possibly be the fault of a free market. Government couldn't possibly help. In fact, they must have caused it. The solution is a freer market.

The problem with education couldn't be society or a failure of the free market to meet social needs - it must be government and unions (organized labor). Although we can't exactly stop offering public education, right? I mean, they are children after all.

The problem with the criminal justice system can't be solved by supporting people before they go to prison, or helping them learn to be better individuals once they get there. The solutions is simply to lock more people up, for longer, and offer less support! (Oh yeah - and let's blame the cost on prison guard unions).

Who am I kidding. What problem in the world could not be solved by free markets and people "deciding" to do the right thing? If they don't, it's their fault. There are no social forces at work! You have a choice to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior and if you don't, you'll burn in Hell anyway!

Problem fucking solved.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Truth and Torture

Matt Yglesias asks:

At any rate, I would be interested to know how far the public—or how torture-loving conservative elites—would be willing to go on this. In a lot of ways terrorism cases strike me as unusually unpromising venues for torture. Something more banal like trying to get a low-level drug dealer to spill the beans on his supplier could really work. My view is that routinized deployment of brutality by government officials isn’t going to produce any systematic gains, so it doesn’t make sense to uncork this kind of treatment on Abdulmuttalab or Generic Drug Dealer X. But for torture enthusiasts is there anything special about terrorism suspects?

I've followed a similar logic with the support of torture. If any form of it is acceptable policy then there are surely plenty of applications. Every single argument I've heard for it could easily be applied to local law enforcement - gangs and drug cartels come to mind, not to mention kidnappers, murderers, etc.

And it could be done quite efficiently, with no lasting physical harm. I'm sure there are all manner of horrifically painful things you could do to a body. And we haven't even begun to study it properly. We could start running sophisticated tests on pain thresholds and procedural classifications.

In a recent New Yorker article on the conservative CEO of Whole Foods, Nick Paumgarten writes of:

a tendency, common among smart people, to presume that everyone in the world either does or should think as he does—to take for granted that people can (or want to) strike his patented balance of enlightenment and self-interest. It sometimes sounds as if he believed that, if every company had him at the helm, there would be no need for unions or health-care reform, and that therefore every company should have someone like him, and that therefore there should be no unions or health-care reform.

I think this beautifully describes the mindset behind pro-torture policy. Under the right circumstances (say, the ticking time-bomb) the right people (say, the patriotic armed forces) will do the right thing. While torture may in perfect circumstances be ethical, the world is not perfect. We will not always (ever?) know for certain whether a ticking time bomb really exists - or whether a suspect has information on an impending drug deal - or where a missing girl might be located.

This sort of black and white, reductionist thinking is, to use a favored word of the right, "evil". It distorts truth by redefining reality and erecting shadows. It makes rational debate impossible by changing the rules to fix broken logic. The rule of law and due process are thrown away because "these people are terrorists", yet how could they be defined as such without due process, unless one invokes a sort of alternate reality where circumstances are always perfect, where Lynddie England and her superiors do not exist.

There are rules of logic to dispatch this absurdity. The most basic is the axiom:
All x are z.
Y is an z.
Therefore, y is z.

And its negative:

All x are z.
Z is x.
This does not mean z is x.


All terrorists are suspects.
Mister A. is a suspect.
This does not mean Mister A. is a terrorist.

Now, having already made this error in calculation, the modern conservative returns to reason and makes the following logical determination:

Liberals want to treat suspects as if they are not terrorists.

This is a perfectly reasonable conclusion, ladled as it is upon a heaping pile of defecated sense. It would be as if I truly believed all dogs were vicious predators and accused you of unwise leniency in proposing they be allowed to roam freely in parks. This is a common error on the right. The starting assumption is incorrect, and yet logic is subsequently applied. So if all gays are dangerous & mentally ill, then accepting their lifestyle is surely unwise. If abortion is murder, than doctors who perform them are murderers. If every man makes his own lot in life, then the state should not interfere at the expense of others.

Unfortunately we as a society spend precious little time examining first assumptions. Instead, we argue past one another, infuriating each other in taking positions that seem highly illogical and thus incoherent. Yet what to do when so much of our wisdom is simply inherited and accepted with little understanding of historical context or philosophical underpinning? The degree to which one makes a critical examination of one's beliefs is the degree to which one comes in danger of being labeled an "elitist", defined of course in contrast to the populist, who in turn is defined by what is popular, not necessarily what is true.

The great American irony is that while we loathe authority because of its limiting of our natural freedoms, we find ourselves endlessly caught in a reactionary anti-authoritarianism that results in the limitation we seek to avoid. Our populism, fed by a media-political-complex, becomes itself an authoritarian limit on freedom. Current conservatism - a truest expression of this sort of populism - disdains the very authority that would seek to free us from ourselves. It disdains the government that might guarantee or freedom of opportunity. It disdains the university which might guarantee our freedom of thought. It disdains the media, which might guarantee our freedom of inquiry.

One might forgiven for wondering whether it disdains the very concept of truth itself. Recently, as part of an effort to debunk Darwinism on college campuses, Kurt Cameron (former television star and current evangelical figure) compared Darwinism to Nazism,

If you take Darwin’s theory and extend it to its logical end, it can be used to justify all number of very horrendous things.

What does this have to do with whether it is true or not? You can't decide when and when not to believe in truth. It just is, in all its ugly beauty. It may seem easier to believe that because it says being gay is wrong in the bible, that it actually is. Or that if you believe that a fetus has the right to life it does. Or that if you succeeded despite all odds than everyone can. Or that if a person is a terrorist suspect they are a terrorist.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Corporatization of War

A popular, long-standing meme among the more radical progressive is that war is almost always driven by profit and greed of those who stand to gain from its engagement.

Aside from being wrong, the cynical, self-aggrandizing view that all this warmongering from the right comes down to profit is unhelpful. It detracts from the real motivations, which are more nuanced, less clear-cut, and demand a more thoughtful engagement with the facts.

I suppose the argument might go like this: the evil corporate overlords who ostensibly profit from war put out propaganda via their media tentacles and party apparatchiks. The average American conservative, unsophisticated as he is, mindlessly gobbles it up, ignorantly seeing it as sound political policy.

While nifty for the plot of the next Cameron flick (penned by Moore?), it's little more than paranoid left-wing hubris. The reality is that there is a considerable tradition of principled philosophy and political logic behind the "war on terror" and the rest of its neoconservative manifestations.

The tradition is mostly utter bullshit - expensive, ineffective and ultimately makes things worse. The entire profile is explained more succinctly by Freud than anything even the brightest CEOs could cook up. With the cigars, the oil-rig SUVs, the football & FOX 24 metaphors, the faux-classical pretensions, the manifest destiny theocratic sanctimony, mommy's boy indulgence - its all such rich material for warfare that the fact that a few lucky companies might see a profit is mere icing on the cake.

There are certainly structural arguments for how the military-industrial complex makes war more of a viable, sexy option. But to reduce humanity's longstanding tradition of the glorification and rationalization of war into a simple symptom of capitalism is an insult to the project of eradicating for good our reliance on it as a retributive substitution for effective and ethical policy.

Top Ten Films of the 00's

*This list does not include films of 2009. I have not seen most of them - certainly not the good ones.

#10 - The Hammer

#9 - Be Kind Rewind

#8 - The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

#7 - The Inheritance

#6 - Stevie

#5 - Borat

#4 - City of God

#3 - Ghost Dog

#2 - Napoleon Dynamite

#1 - Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Runners up:

Royal Tenenbaums

There Will Be Blood


Pan’s Labyrinth

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Let the Right One In
The Band’s Visit

Spirited Away

The Wrestler