Monday, May 31, 2010

The Poverty of Kings

Robert Samuelson decries new federal poverty definitions as "defining poverty up".  His basic argument is that poverty should be defined as the ability to purchase life's necessities, that a model that accounts for society's relative wealth is irrelevant.
Although many poor live hand-to-mouth, they've participated in rising living standards. In 2005, 91 percent had microwaves, 79 percent air conditioning and 48 percent cellphones.

Jamelle Bouie calls this a "familiar canard":
what you have is another attempt to minimize the actual poverty of poor people by pointing to items that are actually necessary to surviving in low-wage service economy. Indeed, by the end of the piece, Samuelson is a step away from lamenting that the new poverty measures will force the government to do more to combat poverty, as if what we do now is adequate. 
Whether Samuelson would go that far or not, it is certainly the underlying rhetorical argument made from these sort of claims.  By this logic, the poor today are living better than the upper middle class 200 years ago.  Why, even King George never had a microwave! 

This is an old canard indeed. The concept is a sort of fuzziness in which the poor are not really very poor and that many of them waste their money frivolously.

While the former is certainly false, the latter is only partially true. There is the curious case of Rent-A-Centers. I’ve been in poor neighborhoods where 3 of them exist within a 2 mile radius. To a middle class person who has never had to live in filth, these seem a dreadfully short-sided consumption: borrow what you don’t have to pay for things you don’t need, at absurdly high interest rates. The businesses are exploitative in that they take advantage of poverty’s desperation and often co-existent ignorance of money-management skills. We assume we would never stoop to such lows.

But I wonder about this. Middle class people, whose resources allow them to get financing at lower (and more reasonable) rates, are not strangers to indulgent consumption. In fact, one might argue, that a new car, jet ski or fancy refrigerator are more indulgent than a couch that doesn’t have someone else’s stains on it, or a nice television to enjoy after working all day pumping gas, cleaning toilets or flipping burgers.

In the end, being poor makes irresponsible consumption that much more dangerous. When paying rent, buying groceries and – god-forbid – medical expenses puts one at the mercy of month-to-month existence, blowing $100 here or there can be devastating. But for a socio-economic population that already struggles with lower levels of the forms of capital it takes to be successful, this sort of spending error can only be described as yet another of life’s long list of unfairnesses.

To hear those who have been able to find success pile-on in this way – assuming themselves to be so God-damned superior – is always somewhat stomach churning.

The Dehumanization of "Illegals"

As part of Charlie Rose's ongoing Brain series, the most recent panel discussion involved negative human emotions such as fear and aggression.  What stood out to me at one point was during their dialogue on how aggression - a fundamental emotion in all animals - is regulated both by genes and environment.  And while early childhood development is very important, and negative experience at an early age can have lasting consequences, that the process is also ongoing through the establishment of social norms.  What peers and society deem acceptable provides a framework for one's own emotional barometer. 

So in Nazi Germany it was much easier for people to go along with the holocaust when their friends and neighbors seemed OK with it as well.  This sort of group think was perpetuated by a cultural and institutional rhetoric that viewed Jews and gypsies as subhuman, notably via language and imagery that compared them to "rats" who were "unclean", "breeding" and "infesting" Europe.  This language is common throughout historical examples of genocide.  In Rwanda, the Hutu referred to Tutsi as inyenzi, or "cockroaches".  This language, apart from the obvious negative association, also simply serves as an efficient way of dehumanizing and objectifying a human being.  If a person no longer represents one with whom one might reasonably empathize, it becomes that much easier to deny them rights, marginalize them, or even cause them direct or indirect harm.

It has been common and widely acceptable in America to use the term "illegal" to refer to illegal immigrants, itself a term  lending somewhat to human objectification.  "Illegals" are often spoken of solely in disparaging terms, i.e. their negative effects on the economy, crime, social spending, wages, and the rule of law itself.  The term seems to roll all of that bitterness and anger into one easily digestible phrase.  Conspicuously absent from it is any acknowledgment either of the fact that these are real people with real lives, or that a narrative might exist that provides any mitigation of the unlawful behavior. 

Combined with a tendency towards ethnic resentment and misinformation, the continued use of dehumanizing language and rhetoric to describe illegal immigrants has lead to increased racial resentment of Hispanics in general.  Heidi Beirich, director of research at the Southern Poverty Law center has described a dramatic rise in anti-immigrant hysteria
Nativists view Latinos as destroying American society and replacing it with an uncivilized and inferior foreign culture. Many also believe there is a secret plot by the Mexican government and American Latinos to wrest the Southwest away from the United States in order to create “Aztlan,” a Latino nation.
In Arizona, senate bill 1070 and its high support among white Americas has already demonstrated a profound willingness to tolerate higher levels of aggression towards Hispanics, historically an ethnic minority.  If this sort of dehumanizing rhetoric becomes even more normative, the possibility for increased oppression and even violence seems likely.

Friday, May 28, 2010


Jamelle Bouie points out that Americans have developed a tendency to rule out anything as racist that doesn't explicitly mention race. He describes ways in which laws can appear "colorblind" but in practice have very racist consequences.
Arizona’s immigration law is obviously not the same as Jim Crow, but it’s animated by the same basic idea of “colorblindness” — if something doesn’t explicitly mention race, then it can’t be racist. And the converse is also true, anything that mentions race is de facto racist, even if it’s designed to ameliorate racial prejudice.
He's right to say that the AZ law isn't quite Jim Crow, and I don't think Arizonans (and a majority of white Americans, btw) are looking for ways to discriminate against latinos, while Jim Crow was specifically designed to discriminate against blacks. His main point is that the effect of the law will indeed impact latinos disproportionately - and by effect, we should be clear we're talking about major civil rights violations.

The fact that white people are so willing to go along with this "sacrifice of rights" would be evidence of implicit racial bias.  This is exactly the sort of thing that is impossible to prove, yet falls into a larger pattern of not being as tolerant of latinos as other racial/ethnic groups: they need to assimilate, they don't learn the language, they have too many kids, they are lazy, they are criminals, they are a burden on the system, etc.

And that's not even illegal immigrants, who are spoken of in outright hateful terms and accused of things that are extremely unrepresentative.  Race theory predicts that the assumed proportionality of crimes increases the more a marginalized a group is.  So even if the same number of illegal immigrants steal cars as the rest of the population, when an illegal immigrant does it the crime is assumed to be more representative than it really is.  Psychologists refer to this form of cognitive bias as illusory correlation.

You know what really gets me about this whole debate though, is that I’ve yet heard an example of how this law might be prosecuted. For instance, what exactly would constitute “probable cause to believe that the person has committed any public offense that makes that person removable from the United States”, and arrestable without warrant?

I mean, unless you overhear someone say “I am here illegally”, what is probable cause? Can someone be ratted on? Can I call in an anonymous tip on my neighbors? Does that mean anyone can do that to me? And when the cops show up without a warrant they can arrest me unless I show them documentation?

Permanent Reaction

John Holbo at Crooked Timber points out that Jonah Goldberg has come up with an interesting metaphor for the way he feels liberal reporters create misleading, straw-men caricatures of conservative thought.  Colorfully, he describes the phenomenon as Conservatives in the Mist - where conservatives are looked upon as fascinating, although obviously pathetic creatures where attempts are made to understand their simplicities, while ultimately never really taking them seriously.
Like the real Dian Fossey, they manage to saunter into the leafy thickets of conservatism, and are welcomed into a band of gorillas. They hold out the equivalent of a banana or maybe a fistful of grubs for long enough and eventually we come sniffing around. We’re intrigued by the creature lavishing attention on us. And the reporter eventually begins to feel as though he has been accepted into the band. Eventually, we conservatives grow comfortable enough around them to return to our old patterns. We scratch and fight and do our gorilla things and the chronicler dutifully takes notes. The notes eventually make their way into an article for the New York Times or The New Yorker or Vanity Fair.
 Holbo assumes that Goldberg finds no parallel on the right:
It is also true – I take it this is Goldberg’s point, by implication – that there is no corresponding ‘Liberals in the Mist’ genre. Writers from National Review do not venture forth, attending academic seminars on John Rawls’ philosophy, or examining the inner workings of Acorn or the ACLU or the Sierra Club, in some spirit of bend-over-backwards interpretive charity and anthropological tolerance, which eventually bears fruit in the form of surprisingly favorable reports brought back to NASCAR-loving red staters, who turn down their Glenn Beck and Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh to peruse over whatever non-latte coffee product they favor. “Who knew? The people behind ACORN and the ACLU aren’t a bunch of America-hating, election-stealing traitors at all. True, they aren’t conservatives. But still, it’s quite understandable how … Conservatives should understand better the deep appeal of … We shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the arguments for … But still, in the end …”
Which is strikingly clear.  I've always been fascinated by how much more seriously liberals take conservative thought.  They tend to actually analyze it and rebut it on the merits.  I think this is due to what liberalism and progressivism are by nature: they are concerned with critical analysis of accepted wisdom and traditions, with emphasis on overturning what it views as inequity in power structures.  Conservatism is generally concerned with defense against change, especially against traditional structures.  Liberalism is about academic deconstruction and renewal through investigative reporting and social understanding, i.e. "tolerance".

The right generally has no use for why liberals believe what they believe, seeing only a generalized threat.  Holbo provides an example from an interview between William Bennet and Andrew McCarthy, author of Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America:
“Does Barack Obama want the imposition of Sharia Law?” (Tough, but fair.) And McCarthy answers: “No, I don’t know that he wants that.” (A fair question deserves a fair response.) But then, perhaps realizing the suspense is killing us – is Barack Obama going to turn out to be the Smoke Monster? – he tries to put the few pieces we’ve got together, come up with a theory. There’s obviously some sort of partnership, because …. But setting that aside, the basis for the ‘partnership’ [“a good, working partnership, an effective working partership between Islamism and the modern left” (minute 5)] is probably that Islamism and Barack Obama-style liberalism are both ‘transformative movements’: “in order to establish their respective utopias they need to push out of the way American constitutional republican democracy. That’s the biggest obstacle to both of them.

A lot of conservatives are just in a mode of permanent reaction. Conservatism is correct, so by definition any attack on it is false. So when they hear liberal arguments, instead of bothering to understand what they’re basing their arguments on, all they see is an unwarranted attack.

Liberals, indeed like children, just want to destroy their way of life and impose big government. So instead of each individual regulation or spending project being considered on the merits, its all part of the larger “agenda”. So liberals don’t really care about worker safety, gay rights, environmental protection, discrimination, etc. They just want to take over.

I think a fair case can be made that this is actually projection. Because on many of these issues, conservatives don’t actually want to look at the merits themselves. Instead they hew to their own agenda – which is free markets and small government at any cost. To those who think this way, it would make sense to see others as thinking the same way too.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hobbes, Locke and Perilous Zeal

Damon Linker has a good post up on the difference between liberal and tea party political philosophy:
Speaking broadly, modern government moves between two poles, each of which has a seventeenth-century thinker as its champion, and each of which is focused on minimizing a particular form of injustice. On one side is Thomas Hobbes, who defended the creation of an authoritarian government as the only viable means of protecting certain individuals and groups from injustices perpetrated by other individuals and groups. On the other side is John Locke, who advocated a minimal state in order to protect individuals and groups against injustices perpetrated by governments themselves. Taken to an extreme, the Hobbesian pole leads to totalitarianism, while the Lockean pole terminates in the quasi-anarchism of the night watchman state.
A couple of interesting thoughts are expressed in the comments following the piece.  One writes:
There have been Hobbesian states (Hitler Germany, Stalin USSR, Mao China, and of course current North Korea). As far as I know there has never been a real Lockean, libertarian (right wing) or anarchist (left wing) state.
 and another:
The tea partiers have no trust in, and actually fear, government and prefer the Lockean solution whereas the left fears an even worse condition if the powerful have no countervailing force (i.e., government) and prefer the Hobbesian solution

I think combining the two gives a good description of why the tea partiers seem so often crazy and incoherent. The left is no longer supportive of the strong Hobbesian, having foolishly supported communism in the past. The examples have illustrated why such extremity is dangerous, and have thus moved toward a much more moderate free-market/welfare, democratic socialism - witness public schools, medicare, medicaid, regulation.

Yet the tea party (and Republicans in rhetoric) have no strong Lockean example from which to draw pause. Thus their fantasies are endlessly indulged, while arguing anything less is tyranny. What I can't see is how this could be explained by anything other than either sheer ignorance or dishonesty. In the mind of a developing adolescent we forgive this as cognitive immaturity - incoherence is understandable. But for adults to be so delusional seems crazy at best and immoral at worse.

Because in the end, do we really need the Lockean example? Communism was in large part a response to the sort of tyranny that arises from the unfettered capitalism of the late 1800's. The assumed trajectory, having not yet witnessed any real Hobbesian check, was monopoly and social and environmental exploitation and degradation. The notion that a nightwatchman state would ever possibly get better at checking already rampant private abuses was absurd.

I suppose that this current forgetfulness and Lockean pining has only been possible after the incredible success of government in providing for such unprecedented equality. Hence the tea party movement's classic line "Keep government out of my medicare". All of which would tilt towards a paradigm of abject ignorance.  This isn't necessarily a damnation of moral character.  The left has certainly had its share of naive and ignorant enthusiasm over the years, often resulting in horrendous consequences.  What began with a cogent insight into difficult political questions took on a life of its own and the ensuing abstraction became a self-perpetuating monster.

But that zenith occurred nearly 100 years ago.  I'd like to think that society has matured since then.  Yet obviously the human capacity for zeal and Utopian denialism is as strong as ever.  One wonders what structural forces can ever hope to keep these destructive tides at bay.  I suppose it may take another 100 years to find out.  Or maybe we'll just be asking the same question.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Undercover Racism and the Compassionate You

Before sitting down to write my last post on racism, which ultimately evolved into quite the beast, I had been thinking a lot about the fundamentally incorrect way we think about racism in America.  It occurred to me that the discussion generally revolves around whether or not one is "a racist".  Since we've largely gotten to the point in society where we've established that racism is wrong, it's not only taboo to express it but to think it.  And while this is unquestionably good, it has in a way created a weird sort of space for racist thought to exist in a manner that is almost impossible to speak of.  As such it has become a sort of undercover disease.

Basically, most racism now exists as an expression of the unconscious.  It takes the form of subtle biases of thought, leading to prejudice and faulty assumptions about race and ethnicity.  People (aside from a very small minority of avowed racists) are no longer racist with a capital R, but expressers of racism.  They are not actual racists, but some of their behavior is racist.  Some more than others, of course.  And a good case could be made that we are all indeed subject at times to hidden racist biases that course through our hidden minds.

So the question ought not be whether one is a racist, but whether one's behaviors might represent an expression of unconscious racism.  One of the big stumbling blocks to dialogue on racial issues is a feeling that one must either be a racist or not.  So when accused of racist expression, the subject often feels as though they must either choose between being labeled as a "Racist", or not. 

Yet if we acknowledge that the unconscious is an integral part of the mind, and that it will inevitably acquire biases of many sorts, then racism is in many ways a natural outgrowth of this structure. 

No one could possibly function without unconscious bias.  We are biased towards helping small children, or those in need.  We are biased to fear dangerous situations.  We are biased to let our guard down with loved ones.  Unless absolutely necessary, we don't think.  We just act.  In his book, The Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam details just some of the many ways in which the human brain creates and depends upon biases throughout its life cycle.

Fortunately, we can learn to recognize our tendency towards bias and try and control it.  In many ways, what is commonly referred to as political correctness is our attempt to do this at the societal level.  Obviously, people have taken the concept too far, and created a harmful atmosphere of over-censorship.  But the essential tone of the movement is to try, as a society, to come to grips with our historical tendency towards bias that has unquestionably resulted in a great deal of oppression.  It is an acknowledgment that these biases exist in our unconscious and are, by definition, difficult to control.

The greatest opposition to political correctness has come from those who seem to deny outright that unconscious bias even exists at all.  Yet this is rather absurd.  It is one thing to feel insecure about one's knowledge of self, but quite another to deny the possibility that unconscious bias exists at all.  Now that we've moved beyond racism, they'll often argue, the matter is settled.  But is it?

I would argue that even decades ago, when racism was seen as perfectly healthy and normal, people were even less conscious of their bias.  Sure, if you asked them to own up to it they would oblige.  But if you asked them to explain it they wouldn't have a clue!  There have been attempts throughout history to provide some sort of legitimate, rational explanation - whether religious or scientific.  But this was ad hoc.  They were merely making up stories to justify these unconscious emotions and attitudes they simply felt.  The fact that they were so unaware of where their bias came from just made it that much more of an unconscious process. 

The civil rights movement was nothing if not dependent upon people taking it upon themselves to self-reflect and question their own traditional assumptions.  And just because today we as a society have finally decided that racism is wrong, it doesn't mean that our hidden biases have suddenly disappeared overnight.  The phrase "old habits die hard" may have never been so true.  We are humans and we are imperfect.  Each and every day we wake to face new challenges to our magnanimity, or compassion, our selflessness and kindness.  It doesn't come naturally.  It is something that takes steady, relentless work to maintain.  We can be thankful that we have realized that racism is our enemy.  But now we must do the difficult work of being vigilant every moment, and making sure we smite it when it slithers out from within.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Stood-up and Undelivered

Andrew Klavan sings the praises of "teacher heroes" like Jaime Escalante, and lambastes unions, which he feels are the only thing keeping the Escalantes of the teaching profession from dominating .
The National Education Association is the largest labor union in the US, and its sister union, the American Federation of Teachers, is also huge.  With their Democratic allies, they make the firing of bad teachers almost impossible and the work of good teachers heartbreakingly difficult.  Then, ironically, they trade on the good will generated by men like Jamie Escalante and by movies like Stand and Deliver, knowing that, in Democratic Hollywood, the anti-union sequel will never be made.
I'm sorry Mr. Klavan but this post is ridiculous.  Have you spent much time in different schools, watching actual teachers and administrators work?  Escalante was an amazing teacher.  There are many amazing teachers.  There are many terrible teachers.

But teacher's unions have little to do with this.  Most teachers I know do what they do more out of a passion for their job - to help children succeed - then any monetary reward.  No one goes into teaching for the paycheck.  To the extent that they are good or bad at what they do is nothing more than a reflection of their passion for the work, and unions are largely irrelevant.

Unions do give more protection for failing teachers than they ought to.  But they also give protection to the best teachers.  It's a bargain that, in my opinion, as a teacher who has worked in environments without union representation, ultimately serves children.

At the end of the day, the problem with "teacher hero" movies is that they give a false impression of the job.   Almost by definition, they portray "good" teachers as those who will sacrifice everything in their lives for their students.  Like other real people,  most of us have families and lives outside of work.  I have daughters and a wife that need my love and attention.  I have hobbies that I enjoy and that provide me fulfillment.  Working 9-10 hour days, plus weekend grading and planning already takes up plenty of that.  It is absurd for society to expect that its teaching workforce of over 3 million make such compromises.

But beyond the sacrifices, teaching is as much an art as a science.  Escalante and the best teachers are able to get so much out of their students because they happen to possess an ability to gain rapport and respect from their students.  This isn't something that you can just show up and follow procedurally.  Teachers are all effective and ineffective in their own ways.  They have different personalities which fit with different students, and styles of learning.  An excellent teacher in a suburban school might fail miserably at a poor school, where students generally lack preparedness and social skills to succeed at adequate levels.  It takes  a special type of person to reach these kids. 

The sad fact is that these schools the work is much more difficult (imagine the difference between trying to win a race with a lamborghini vs. a yugo!); there are fewer resources, and the stress levels are vastly higher.  This creates a market force that pushes more qualified teachers out of these schools, who end up being disproportionately staffed by younger, less experienced teachers who tend to struggle even more.  The environment at these schools is often a pressure cooker in which many complicated issues arise and unions can provide protection for teachers who are facing an environment ripe for abuse.

Just to give my own example, I worked at a charter school under no contract, with no union support and situations arose which were very harmful to the students and teachers, but there was no recourse because the teachers had no power to stand up to the corrupt and incompetent administration.  Redundant and pointless meetings would be scheduled at the last minute and take up valuable planning time.  Prep periods were canceled and classes were reorganized in haphazard ways.   Facilities were left in disrepair.  Crucial student services weren't provided and behavioral consequences were left unattended to.  The community was poor and had little knowledge of what to expect from a properly run school, and so there was no pressure on the administration from parents.  The school was receiving Title I federal funding because of the low SES status of the students, yet basic services such as free and reduced lunches weren't provided.  Afters-school tutoring or money for extra-curricular programs was never provided.  Teacher evaluations on 12 different grades  were performed by a single principle who spent barely more than 30 minutes in the classroom yearly.  There was almost no leadership to speak of.  Everything was top-down and teachers were rarely asked for input on basic programmatic decisions.  Firings were often seen as capricious and arbitrary when excellent teachers were removed while incompetent teachers remained.  Yet the principle wasn't even responsible for many basic decisions either: these came from out-of-touch administrators in corporate offices 2 hours away.

So would a union have made things at our school better or worse?  I think they would have been better.  Employees would have felt protected and thus had the courage to stand up for what we felt was actively harming the students.  The administration would have been held accountable.  Would any of us had worked any less hard?  That's literally laughable.  All of us could have worked much less than we did - we are professionals after all.  Because of the administration's reckless incompetence we simply had to work harder.  I know that if I had been given a prep period (instead of being forced to do yard duty) my instruction would have been improved dramatically.

But all of this is coming from an actual teacher.  I can sit down with you and tell you in detail about my job requirements and what I think is best.  The vast majority of people commenting on education are not, or have ever been teachers.  This doesn't mean they are necessarily wrong at all.  But it does mean that they need to be very wary about judging issues in a profession that they they know little about.

An Honest Redistribution

Arthur C. Brooks, president of conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, has a big piece in today's Washington Post decrying what he feels is an assault on free enterprise and honest labor.

Free enterprise brings happiness; redistribution does not. The reason is that only free enterprise brings earned success.
Earned success involves the ability to create value honestly -- not by inheriting a fortune, not by picking up a welfare check. It doesn't mean making money in and of itself. Earned success is the creation of value in our lives or in the lives of others. Earned success is the stuff of entrepreneurs who seek value through innovation, hard work and passion. Earned success is what parents feel when their children do wonderful things, what social innovators feel when they change lives, what artists feel when they create something of beauty.
Money is not the same as earned success but is rather a symbol, important not for what it can buy but for what it says about how people are contributing and what kind of difference they are making. Money corresponds to happiness only through earned success.
Not surprisingly, unearned money -- while it may help alleviate suffering -- carries with it no personal satisfaction. Studies of lottery winners, for instance, show that after a brief period of increased happiness, their moods darken as they no longer derive the same enjoyment from the simple pleasures in life, and as the glow of buying things wears off.
There’s a lot that is wrong with this, so I’ll pick just one thing.

The core of his argument here appears to be that redistributionist liberals would have people increase their incomes via state largess - literally in the form of cash payments -  instead of earning it “honestly”.

What would conservatism do without the tired bugaboo of welfare? Apparently redistribution, contrary to fact and policy, means “handing out checks”. Yet the reality is that redistribution simply means a progressive tax system that pays for services largely designed to increase human agency. Whether it's educating poor kids, providing medication and counseling to the mentally ill, drug treatment and prevention programs, day care for working single mothers, or healthcare subsidies and food stamps to the desperately poor.  Or hundreds of other services designed to empower individuals where they need it most.

None of this promotes dependence – a substitute for honest work. One might argue this with some success at the margins, but the vast majority of programmatic aid is a direct stimulus to human agency, resulting in compounded social (and moral) gains.  Of course, if all we were doing was throwing good money after bad, promoting dependence and fostering decreased human agency, it would be wrong. 

But progressives, in seeking to create a more just and egalitarian society, have no interest in such solutions.  In claiming that all we care about is one's bank account, Brooks is offering an absurd straw man.  If one truly understands the progressive agenda, it is nothing if not entirely focused on making sure that all people have the ability to achieve their dreams.  If only handing out welfare checks was all it took! 

Alas, the problems are far more complex.  Many mistakes have been, and will continue to be made.  But the last thing anyone wants is someone choosing to sit around on the dole when they could be attending college, doing work they enjoy, or starting their own business.  The unfortunate fact is that no one but the government has the power to step in and guarantee all citizens a fighting chance when the world seems to be against them.  Charities can help fill in the gaps here and there, but they can't do it all.  And if we are serious about a constitutional right to "a pursuit of life, liberty and happiness", then there are certain things that we must guarantee to our neediest.

Rand Paul Is Making Sense

Well, not to me of course.  But what he's done is very important.

He isn't saying anything that isn't entirely consistent with decades of conservative rhetoric.  For years all we have heard is how terrible the federal government is.  Regulations are evil.  Taxes are evil.  Progressive legislation and judicial philosophy is evil.

Now, what conservatism used to mean was that government had a tendency to be wrong.  Government wasn't necessarily wrong in principle.  Sure, the real crazies thought that.  But they were sidelined to the fringes of mainstream conservative thought.  Of course we had to have government.  It did important things.  The rhetoric was OK because it was merely hyperbole; it was useful as a bludgeon against the steady leftist march towards more social protections, environmental regulations and higher taxes.  But the intelligent conservatives knew that it could only ever be talk.  Actually following the rhetoric would be politically and practically insane.

But then something happened and the smart conservatives left the room.  Maybe they were drummed out.  Or maybe times changed.  But suddenly the voices of responsibility and reason were no longer there to keep the boat from capsizing.  Instead of being the hyperbolic froth above the ideology, the rhetoric became the ideology.  The tradition of temperance and moderation had faded away and all that was left was the crazy.

So, after the worst financial crisis since the depression forces the government to take drastic measures, bailing out the financial industry, then the auto industry, then pouring nearly as much into a Keynesian stimulus plan for economic recovery and stability - up pops the tea party, with the force of a thousand blustering AM radio jockeys and the FOX broadcasting corporation supplying a steady infusion of rhetorical red-meat.  Yet it is incoherent and preposterous.  Beyond the anger and recrimination, there is little substantive political philosophy.  Conspiracy theories are flung out left and right, and in the profound ideological vacuum, each seems as acceptable as the next.  The list is breathtakingly long: Birthers, FEMA camps, NAFTA superhighway, Socialism, Death Panels, Federal Reserve, Acorn, Secret Muslim, etc.  Each seems as plausible as the next because the ignorance at the bottom and and crazy at the top is so profound.  Medicare is something to be protected from the government.

And Rand Paul gets elected, claiming and claimed as the Tea party's first big success.

Sure, he wasn't the first nutter.  His father made sure of that.  But when Ron Paul talked about returning to the gold standard, pulling out of the UN or shutting down most Federal Agencies people mainly rolled their eyes.  I mean really, who the heck wants to try and understand fiscal and monetary policy?  But that was before.

Now people are really listening.  They want to find out what they really believe.  And by golly, he's telling them!  It turns out that if government is evil, and taxes are evil, and regulations are evil, then a lot of what we've been doing for the past century is really, well... evil.  It turns out that we can't make people pay taxes for the government to regulate private businesses anymore - whether they put rotten meat in hotdogs, pay their workers $3 an hour, dump sewage into the creek, or deny minorities employment.  I suppose you could add any number of other things to the list - things that we as a nation have fought very contentiously over for decades, but that now seem as American as apple pie.

These are Rand Paul's principles.  They are libertarian principles.  And they are now the principles of the modern conservative movement.

The nice thing about a democracy is that we get to elect our leaders based on what they tell us.  The problem has been that Republicans have been taking advantage of the fact that the public hasn't understood the difference between the rhetoric and the policies their party has supported - if often grudgingly - for the past century.  The trick was simple: just say one thing and do another.  One wonders if they were able to do this because their candidates were either ignorant of simple political philosophy or just dishonest.

Yet somehow this trick just didn't work so well anymore and for whatever reason they elected a man who wasn't afraid to make sense of what they have been saying.  Not only that, but he actually believes it.

So I say, "Good for you Rand Paul!"  An honest Republican for once.  "Don't let those handlers keep you down.  Preach it, brother!"  He's like a big bullshit magnet.  I just hope he can get as many of the other tea partiers to sign on with his brilliant plans so we can watch as many of them as possible get flushed down the drain when the public is finally able to see what enormous a-holes they all are.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Different District, Different Results

Matt Yglesias posted this chart showing demographic data from the NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment program.
The Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) is designed to explore the feasibility of using National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to report on the performance of public school students at the district level. As authorized by federal law, NAEP has administered the mathematics, reading, science, and writing assessments to samples of students in selected urban districts public schools.

 Yglesias writes:
You see here that Detroit’s schools aren’t just doing poorly because the city contains so many poor people. Poor kids in Detroit do worse than the average poor kid.
I think that's completely fair.  Even accounting for SES, some districts do vary wildly in their achievement levels. Modern testing does do a good job at emphasizing broad trends.

The problem then comes in what you do about it. The News Hour last night did a piece on Detroit that highlighted some of the problems. It could only go so deep in 10 minutes, but you got an idea of what you’re dealing with. In places like Detroit, the economic and social environment is just kind of disastrous overall. And the takeaway was that the leadership failed repeatedly to take the proper steps.

One thing is clear however is that all poor districts have both poor teachers and unions – the main new-reform bugaboos. So the fact that some districts do a lot better than others clearly shows that we need to be taking a more nuanced view of performance.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What is a "Christian Nation"?

 “Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant — they’re quite clear — that we would create law based on the God of the bible and the ten commandments. What in hell scares people about talking about America’s foundation of faith?  It is that world view that involves some people being afraid of being able to discuss our foundation, being able to discuss God in the public square, that’s the only thing I can attribute it to." - Sara Palin, on the O'Reilly Factor
It's a common, reactionary trope on the right that America is a "Christian Nation".  The defensiveness is in response to a perception that the left, by upholding secular values, is seeking by degree to infringe upon their Christian principles.  So when it is argued, say, that the ten commandments not be hung in a court room, or that we ought not to mention God in national pledges, or favor one or another religion (or even religion at all) in any other way, it is not to preserve everyone's right to spiritual respect, but rather an assault on their specific Judeo-Christian values. 

This position is not just paranoid, but intellectually dishonest. Instead of an attempt to hear the opposition's arguments fairly, a motive of aggression is being assumed where there is none.  We can all agree that the founders were Christians and that they derived much of their constitutional ideas from Judeo-Christian tradition. But that has zero to do with whether any of it is correct. The only reason any of it is still around is that we, as a democracy, have agreed to it. We finally figured out that slavery was wrong and so we changed that. Ditto with women's suffrage, etc.

The intellectually dishonest part is when conservatives play the "Christian Nation" card. Because they aren't saying anything contrary to what I said in the last paragraph - but they mean to. Because by "Christian Nation" they mean a specifically Christian nation, where biblical law has bearing on constitutional law. It's an appeal to theocracy. Yet they can't come right out and say this (at least publicly) because it's so obviously bullshit that they'll never get anywhere politically. So what they do is fiddle around the edges, weaseling in 10 commandments in the courthouse here, "under God" pledges there, all with the implicit intent of establishing the codification of biblical law.

The real question, when any one brings up this "we are a Christian nation" crap, is what does that actually mean? Because the founders were a lot of things that we wouldn't agree with today. That's why we have laws, and this is a democracy. We sort things out through reasoned arguments, not dishonest and hubristic declarations of half-true rhetoric. If you truly want this to be a "Christian Nation" - not a secular nation of Christians, Muslims, Atheists, Jews. etc. united under common law - then you have your work cut out for you.

We Don't Treat Education as an Equal Right

A common view among education reformers is that the problem is simply too great to really solve.  While dressed up in soaring language and promises - "No Child Left Behind", "Race to the Top" - actual policy  instead amounts to half-measures and marginal reform.  Marking yesterday's 56 anniversary of the Brown Vs. Board of Education, Education Secretary Arne Duncan stated:
We reaffirm our collective commitment to providing a high quality education to all children regardless of race or background so they can succeed in college and careers and prosper in life. Education is the civil rights issue of our time.
I would like to think that Secretary Duncan really believes these words.  He may, deep down, favor the type of paradigm shift in thinking and large-scale intervention that his soaring rhetoric would actually require.  Unfortunately, this sort of endeavor is not on the table in contemporary politics, and so he may simply be engaging in the politics of the possible.  But just because something is hard doesn't mean it isn't the right thing to do.  There are moral as well as economic arguments that it is worth it.

Opponents of early childhood intervention point out that there exists a sort of "drop off" effect, in which early gains are eventually lost as the child ages.  The two main problems with this are A) some intervention programs are much better than others, and B) you would expect to find a "drop off" when you have a reduction in services.

For instance, simply sending in crates of books to preschools might sound like a good idea, but without curriculum and implementation training, its a huge waste.  The quality of the program is everything, and there is a lot of evidence for programs that do work very well.  Low income kids tend to come in to Kindergarten well behind their middle class peers and from an academic standpoint, anything you can do to get them up to grade level before day 1 is incredibly helpful.

That leads us to the next problem: longevity.  Poor kids under-perform for a reason.  They have simply not had the exposure to facilitate adequate emotional and academic development.  Head start makes up for this somewhat, but once they enter Kindergarten, they are treated no different than middle class peers.  They have the same teacher/students ratio, same access to resources, and generally same facilities.  Actually, resources tend to be quite diminished, owing to the demographic and financial resources of different SES groups.  You see a drop-off because of what doesn't go on before and after school hours and in the summer months, as well as the simple fact that there is a high concentration of low-achievers bringing the classroom down.

So the obvious solution to this is start early - hopefully at birth, and fund programs with a proven track record of success.  It isn't really very hard.  You then continue to assess through grade school.  Resources are targeted according to needs, and not only standardized testing, but demographic SES is accounted for.  So, for instance, if you have high rates of drug use, crime, single or young parenthood, low family education levels then you allocate more resources for things like parent education, home-visits, after-school support and counseling services.

We have no problem doing this if a child has a physical or mental disability - special ed services are a right.  Yet we pretend that SES disadvantage isn't just as important a factor.  Sure, it's more difficult to assess than say, mental retardation, speech or vision problems, but is just as powerful.  Some kids who's father is in prison might be dealing with it very well, but others won't.  On average, it is just another risk factor.  We would never think of sending a special needs child into a classroom and expecting the teacher to provide them with an adequate education.  We should treat SES no differently.

If we were honest with ourselves as a society, we would recognize how powerful a factor SES is in child development and allocate resources accordingly.  It isn't because the effective programs aren't there, or they aren't scalable.  It's because we lack the political will, and the sociological and philosophical sophistication to deal with complicated social processes.  Ghettos are out of sight, out of mind.  So when budgets get cut on the backs of poor kids, no one really notices until the children develop into criminals, who we then blame for making "poor choices".  Well, it was really us who made the choice to ignore them for the past 18 years of their lives.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Privilege as Philosophy

Matt Yglesias points to a sort of glee with which conservatives have hailed Iraqi war veterans who, despite having been charged with crimes against detainees, are now running for congress.
Love of violence and brutality is deeply ingrained in the conservative worldview, which I think is what you can see here.
While I think this is true, it is also the sort of thing that liberals are always saying about conservatives, and that conservatives are always complaining about being accused of by liberals.  So it's important to look at where this accusation comes from, and why it is important.

Conservatives by definition have a much more closed view of what their group is. It is established authority – white, western, American, Christian, wealthy, heterosexual patriarchy. Because the group is so limited and narrowly defined, it is felt to be constantly under threat. As a movement, conservatism is, by definition, about exclusion. This creates a state of permanent fear. Look at all the issues they care about: free markets, abortion, guns, gays, religion, government… the common denominator is a fear that their group is under threat.

So you have a toxic mixture of groups exclusivity and existential fear. It is understandable that such a worldview would be highly susceptible to resorting to violence and brutality. Conservatism has been at the heart of oppression throughout history. It is no wonder they have little concern for possible infringements on the rights of Hispanics, Muslims, prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Gays, or possible Iraqi & Afghan civilian casualties. It is no wonder they demonstrate little concern for poor, minority children, whether in policy or media coverage.

Of course they will deny all of this, and make excuses that each is merely about policy. But the pattern is clear. Bill O’Reilly doesn’t talk about the “War on Christmas” for nothing. They don’t want to kill ethnic studies programs in Texas for nothing. They don’t oppose gay marriage or hate crime laws, call illegal immigrants “illegals”, hate welfare passionately, maintain that America is a “Christian Nation”, talk about bombing the middle east back to the stone age (joke that it’s already there), and generally belittle and devalue anyone outside their exclusive group for nothing.

The fact that they are so quick to deny this reality, and so defensive when anyone accuses them of acting on it, is evidence that they have a very limited knowledge of self. Any liberal who has been through an ethnic studies 101 class recognizes this as privilege bias: we tend not to notice, and to take for granted, the ways in which we benefit as members of the privileged group. Yet because conservatives identify this group as being superior, and see out-groups as a threat, they actively resist any critical self-reflection that might weaken their sense of superiority. When they decry secular humanism and moral relativism, what they are really talking about is any attempt to critically evaluate this group from an objective standpoint. They assume that the world revolves around them, and they want to keep it that way. When Sarah Palin refers to “real Americans”, she is unconsciously stating this bias. What she really means is white, Christian, heterosexual, patriarchy-identified conservatives; i.e. people just like her.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Fighting Hatred with Compassion

With  nativist anti-immigrant fervor in full swing, I felt like I needed some solidarity.  So I finally got around to watching Sin Nombre tonight.  It's a beautiful, epic, tragic movie, and clearly demonstrates the socioeconomic realities behind illegal immigration.

The main two main arguments for a harsher stance on illegal immigration are economic strain and simple criminality.  The first is contentious, but I think one can reasonably say that at current levels, illegal immigrants present - at the least - a zero sum effect on the economy.  The non-profit website has just released a convincing article that shows immigration actually having a positive effect on the economy.
Most economists and other experts say there’s little to support the claim. Study after study has shown that immigrants grow the economy, expanding demand for goods and services that the foreign-born workers and their families consume, and thereby creating jobs. There is even broad agreement among economists that while immigrants may push down wages for some, the overall effect is to increase average wages for American-born workers.
The second argument, that crossing the border illegally is a crime and justifies harsh measures to "crack down" on lawbreakers,  begs the question: what kind of crime is illegal immigration?  Every crime has a supposed cost, and presumably we would be able to place it somewhere on a spectrum.  If, say, jaywalking presents the most minimal type of crime, with a very slight penalty commensurate with its slight social cost, and murder presents the worst kind of crime, and the punishment reflects its high cost to society, what kind of crime is illegal residence?

This is obviously going to be a contentious assessment.  But surely we can hazard some guess.  It isn't as bad as murder.  It isn't really stealing from anyone - abstract notions of economic damage aside.  It is certainly trespassing in a sense.  But then only in the abstract, as no individual is directly bearing the burden on their own property.  The real crime can be thought of against the state.  Although unlike a traffic citation, or a permit violation, no direct harm - or endangerment is occurring.

Yet whatever the actual crime ends up being, the definitional punishment is almost absurdly harsh: deportation.  (Exile, for all intents and purposes).  As a punishment, this would be seen as an inappropriate response to all but the most serious crimes.  Considering that as a sole offense, an otherwise productive, honest and valuable member of society could be thrown out of the country for nothing more than standing on the wrong side of a line.

The characters in Sin Nombre undertake the journey to America for nothing more than access to its economy.  And for this they expose themselves to incredible levels of risk and deprivation.  Had they been lucky enough to have enjoyed the social capital to find rarefied social mobility in their home countries - all desperately poor economies - they surely would not have had to make the choice they did.  But what kind of ethical judgment did they face?  They could have stayed home, facing almost certain wretched poverty for themselves and their families.  Or they could have made what seems a minor and abstract transgression by sneaking into America illegally?

Who among us, would not jaywalk daily for such opportunity?  Or speed down highways?  Or lie on our IRS form?  Or act in numerous other abstracted criminal ways in order for a shot at making something of our lives - as well as likely those back home for whom our monthly remittance might mean clean drinking water, money for school, starting a business, or health care?

A third argument against immigration is the one that may be the most powerful as a motivating force, yet will never be spoken or admitted to.  It is simple nativism and ethnic bigotry.  Like the other arguments it is based in authoritarian fealty to cultural insularity and fealty to authority.  It objectifies immigrants in dehumanizing terms like "illegals", and makes no attempt to sympathize with their plight.  It makes no attempt to imagine what life might be like in their shoes.  It has been around since the founding of the country.  It is hypocritical in that it holds certain people to different standards.  It favors the majority and those with privilege.  It is dangerous: rather than loving or rational, it is fearful and angry.

At this point I'm not sure what there is to do but stand for truth and compassion, and solidarity with our brothers and sisters to the South.  We shall prevail.  Somehow.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Ethnic Studies and Marginalization

Arizona recently passed a law that among other things aims to remove ethnic studies courses from high schools.  House Bill 2281:
Prohibits a school district or charter school from including in its program of instruction any courses or classes that:
•Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
•Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
•Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
•Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

 Obviously, to anybody who has actually taken an ethnic studies course, this language in no way describes them.  Yet lest anyone doubt that ethnic studies programs are indeed the target, according to the Arizona Daily Star:
State schools chief Tom Horne, a Republican running for Attorney General, says the district's ethnic studies program promotes "ethnic chauvinism" and racial resentment toward whites.

People sometimes argue that, were ethnic studies programs to include white studies, they would be seen as racist. But this is a misunderstanding of the purpose of ethnic studies: to study the historical issues of oppressed groups. At the college level, this also includes women and gays. The reason it is important to study our interaction with these groups is so that we, as a society, may come to terms with our tendency to mistreat each other. This is a real phenomenon, and deserves attention.

To the extent that it emphasizes ethnic identity - what is wrong with that? As a straight white man I have no need to assert "pride" because it is inherent in the privileges I enjoy by default - society affirms my identity every day. The historical oppression of groups has occurred precisely because of their marginalization and disempowerment. What ethnic studies classes are doing is at worst simply adding what has been taken away, and at best providing us all an insight into how social structures and behavior patterns we take for granted ultimately result in the loss of freedoms for others. We are a nation rich in ethnic diversity and we ought to treasure the opportunity to learn to promote equality for all.

I could only find a piece of it, but Chris Rock does a great bit on the concept of false equivalency and social power structures.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Racism of Free Agency or, All You Need is Love

I've been thinking a lot lately about the meaning of the word racism, especially as it is commonly used.  There is an unfortunate tendency to think of racism as something you either are, or are not.   So people who are racist believe that one race is superior to another, and people who are not racist do not.   As a people with a profound history of white supremacy - only in the second half of the last century having actually removed legal racism from the books, this definition has served us well.  But times have changed, and the old, strict definition is holding us back.  It is very possible for people to consciously believe that white are not superior to blacks, yet still act in bigoted ways, showing prejudice & bias or supporting policies that are driven by racial animosity.

Racial attitudes have changed dramatically over the past 50 years.  The vast majority of white Americans no longer believe that they are superior to minorities.  They disavow their racist past and view Martin Luther King as a great American hero.  They teach their children to judge people by their character, not their skin color.  All of this would seem to be evidence that we, as a country have moved beyond racism.

In the 19th century, it was not strange at all to believe - publicly - that whites were superior to blacks.  Facing increasing pressure from reasoned arguments of enlightenment skepticism, appeals were made first to religion, and then to the growing field of science.  Passages were in found in the bible that seemed not only to sanctify the practice of slavery, but to elevate it to nothing less than God's work, as a way of bringing heathen Africans into the kingdom of heaven.  Slavery was a favor being done for blacks.

No sooner were the means available, then the frontiers of scientific understanding were put to the task of justifying not just slavery, but white supremacy in general.  As Carl Linnaeus laid the foundations of racial theory with his classification system, further efforts were made to then create racial hierarchies, with whites at the top, of course, and attribute negative qualities to the "African Race".

These narratives provided a sophisticated and coherent backdrop to white prejudices.  Blacks were viewed as indolent, slothful, savage, odorous, incapable of intellectual thought, and generally inferior in every way to whites.  They not only gave a reasoned explanation for the impulse of racial hatred, but contributed to its propagation.

Today these narratives are, thankfully, all but gone entirely.  Yet a new, more insidious narrative has taken its place.  Much like "intelligent design" has been an attempt by Christian fundamentalists to argue for a literal, creationist interpretation of the bible by wrapping it up in pseudoscientific claims, this new narrative seeks to explain persistent racial inequalities with appeals to reason.  Yet not only does it lack even a shred of evidence, the evidence against it is profound.

On average, African Americans aren't as successful as whites.  No matter which data points you look at - income, education, crime, health, longevity - whites are much more likely to do better.  These socioeconomic disparities exert persistent downward pressure on the black community, which has struggled for hundreds of years to achieve equal levels of opportunity in America.  The scientific explanation for this is that, as no real difference exists in the genetic intellectual endowments between racial groups, and as overt racial discrimination likely plays an insignificant role, these disparities exist as a complex process of socialization, creating "multiple pathways by which factors in the physical, social, economic, and family domains contribute to individual well-being;".  This process continues generationally, as disadvantaged children become disadvantaged adults.  Disparities in social capital become disparities in human capital, as emotional and cognitive deficits developed in relation to socioeconomically advantaged peers.

But an alternate explanation exists for these disparities, and is driven in large part by a desire to deny that society is at all culpable in the obviously tragic situation .  At its root, it is based in the age old conception of free will: that, apart from direct external forces, man is free to determine what choices he makes in life.  In this way he is responsible for his actions.  To the extent that individuals could have made better, more productive choices, they have only themselves to blame.  Society did not play any part in shaping their actions, and thus bears no responsibility for how events turn out.  So drug addicts, criminals, single mothers, drop-outs, janitors, etc. deserve no help from society, as they made their own "choices".

The first obvious problem with this explanation is that if social pressures are removed from the equation, there should be no disparities in life outcomes.  That is, if every man is a self-determined, rational actor, then no matter what sector of society you look at, you should see an equal distribution of outcomes.  If there is no genetic difference between white and black intellectual or emotional capacity, then how do you account for persistent socioeconomic disparities?

Compared to whites, blacks are more likely to abuse drugs, commit crimes, drop out of school, engage in unhealthy lifestyles, spend money unwisely, parent their children poorly, have children out of wedlock, and general display dysfunctional behaviors.  For a long time, liberals refrained from acknowledging this, as it seemed a confirmation of old racist notions about blacks.  Coming out of the civil rights era, it made more sense to focus on the direct racism that blacks were still experiencing, such as job and housing discrimination.  To admit that there was dysfunction in the black community seemed to affirm the bigoted notion that blacks were somehow genetically and/or ethnically inferior.  However today, although direct racism does still exist, it is obvious that there is still a high level of dysfunctional behavior in the black community.  And contrary to the notion that this is in any way an indictment of black genes or ethnicity, it is instead an indictment of America's continued failure to to properly rectify the legacy of poverty that it has created in the black community - either through direct discrimination or passive neglect.

Now, there is a principled argument that the reason Americans should not help the black community is not that they don't deserve it, but that the help would be at best ineffective, and at worst a hindrance to the development of intrinsically motivated self-reliance.  Yet both of these arguments fail dramatically.  Not only is there a need for actual alleviation of suffering in the short-term, but there is an enormous amount of evidence for programs that work to provide the necessary support for poor blacks to be successful.  Simple programs like drug-treatment centers, day care, health care and job-training provide immediate support that alleviates some of the burdens of poverty.  But more importantly, long-term emphasis on education can catch black children while they are still young and give them the resources they require to become successful.  Home nurse-visits, and parent education classes, combined with health care and learning environments tailored to maximized cognitive and emotional development can make up up for structural disadvantages at home and in the neighborhood.  Far from discouraging self-reliance, these programs seek to build-up the human capital that every child needs in order to be successful in life.

Yet all of this costs money.  We continue to rely on a model that treats all children as if they are equal.  We expect them to enter school equally as prepared, and make the same progress while there.  And we expect schools to deliver this progress with the same financial resources.  When they consistently do not, we blame the teachers or administrators.  And to the degree that we blame the families, we do so in a manner that discounts the struggles they face.  What we do not do, is take seriously these difficulties facing black children and their families, and seek to provide them effective support.  Why not?

One reason is that we suffer from "remedial fatigue".  We've seen good money thrown after bad.  We've seen failures at every level.  We've seen bad teachers and bad administrators.  We've seen parents that seem lost causes.  The problems can seem insurmountable, and a sense of hopelessness has a way of setting in.  Yet this doesn't change the moral imperative.  And it doesn't change the fact that there are programs out there that work.

But the other, more insidious reason for our social intransigence goes back to our stubborn insistence on the concept of free will.  We feel that the problems in the black community are solvable if only black people take matters into their own hands and change.  According to this model, any programs designed to help or support the poor are irrelevant.  Yet as I have tried to show, there is no evidence to show that people are not entirely dependent on their cognitive and emotional abilities, which in turn are dependent on social learning.  The problem with this view is not just that it is lacking in evidence, or in contradiction of reality, and generally reliant upon magical thinking, but that it leads to an acceptance of classic racist stereotypes and bigoted thinking.

It is a truism that all stereotypes have a grain of truth to them.  What makes them hateful is the way in which they are extended to entire groups and then used as ad hominem cudgels to enforce the superiority of one group or another, either for dark pleasure or political gain.  The racist stereotype of blacks liking watermelon has a kernal of truth to it: African Americans were originally southern slaves and both foods are common to the region.  But the stereotype goes beyond this and seeks to tarnish all blacks as having an almost animalistic, instinctive preference to one food type.  Further, the meme is associated with a tradition of negative portrayals of blacks where the food becomes a sort of secondary code for a larger, humiliating image of dim-wittedness, slothfulness, or sub-humanity.  Stereotypes such as this serve an important purpose in the past: they objectify the target as both different and inferior to the subject.  With blacks, they reinforced notions of white supremacy.

It is no longer the case that such crude stereotypes are acceptable in mainstream America.  Such blatant appeals to white genetic or intellectual supremacy are considered by most to be not just taboo, but wrong.  Yet what to make of the fact that blacks are more likely to indeed display many of the attributes that drove the old racist stereotypes?  To the extent that racial disparities still exist across socioeconomic groups, it is a fact that blacks are more likely to be lazy, ignorant, uneducated, violent, or untrustworthy than whites.  Yet this has nothing to do with genetics or ethnicity, and everything to do with group dynamics and socioeconomic structural inequalities.  Were history somehow reversed, you could easily see whites more likely to live in ghettos, committing crimes, dropping out of school, doing drugs, etc. 

In his book, The Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam points to a well-known psychological phenomenon known as illusory correlation :
the phenomenon of seeing the relationship one expects in a set of data even when no such relationship exists; when people form false associations between membership in a statistical minority group and rare (typically negative) behaviors. 

This explains the tendency of so many to accept stereotypical views of blacks.  Because a disproportionate number of blacks engage in negative behaviors, people are more likely to associate blacks in general with negative behaviors.   In seeking to debunk old racist habits, society has developed a culture of self-reflectiveness in which one is always on guard against one’s own possible biases.  The term “political correctness” describes the tendency of this self-censoring behavior to place unreasonable limits on free expression.   The inherent controversy within this term lies in its reliance upon a subjective interpretation of what is or is not reasonable.  To the extent that racism and bias are unconscious, they are explicitly not reasonable, as they arise from inaccessible areas of the mind.  To the extent that one accepts the idea of free agency, one also denies unconscious bias; to be free from predetermination is to be free from unconscious forces.  Thus, those most likely to accept free agency will also be the most suspicious of political correctness and the danger of accepting stereotypes.

If one believes that we are all truly free agents, it is not then unreasonable for one to become angry when those who are just as capable of making the right decisions as you, do not.  When looking at the behavior of blacks and whites, it would seem quite frustrating that blacks continue to behave so differently than whites.  The drugs, the crime, the delinquency, the poor parenting - all would seem inexplicable.  Why don't "these people" act more responsibly?  A common assertion among those who hold this view is to point to someone who appears to have had a disadvantaged life, and yet has managed to "do the right thing".  Instead of seeing this as a miracle of luck and circumstance, it is seen as "the exception that proves the rule" - that everyone, again, has the same level of free agency.

This sense of frustration is only compounded when blacks are then offered a disproportionate level of services by the government.  Considered undeserved or unwarranted, they are often referred to as "handouts", implying "something for nothing".  Even worse, when based on a progressive tax structure, these government resources are disproportionately coming from those - according to assumed free agency - who are fundamentally more deserving.  The moral question is clear: why should they surrender their "hard earned" wealth for those who choose poverty and dysfunction?

So as blacks are disproportionately behaving in frustratingly irresponsible ways, and seemingly being “rewarded” for it with sympathy and government services, this anger is directed disproportionately at blacks.  In the past, when racism was a seemingly natural perception of reality, religious and scientific explanations were invented to justify it's truth.  But today, an inversion of that dynamic has taken place.  Ironically, while the assumption of free agency makes racism an inevitable conclusion in the face of racial disparities, yet racism is seen as taboo, free agency is appealed to as a way of transcending any racist conclusion: whites aren't superior to blacks - they just behave that way; blacks could be better if they wanted to.  In this way, the free agency claim is a sort of "get out of jail free" card for racist indulgences.  One is free to think what one wants about black behavior - getting as angry and sanctimonious as one pleases - while still holding out the fundamental belief that blacks are still just as capable as whites.  They just have a funny way of showing it.

Yet if one sees black dysfunctional behavior, or any dysfunctional behavior for that matter, as the product of structural social forces that impede the development of healthy levels of human capital, the appropriate response is not anger but empathy and compassion.  For instead of a frustrating lack of explanation for why this behavior exists in spite of clear alternatives, the sociological narrative provides a coherent description of why certain behaviors are chosen over others.  Thus the crack addict, the prostitute, the abusive parent, the murderer becomes a victim of forces beyond their control.  And to the extent that any race engages in such behavior with disproportionate frequency, it is not due to their race but historical socioeconomic forces. 

For many, the suggestion that criminals are actually victims is a sort of blasphemy.  It seems not only ridiculous but an insult to any actual victim, as well as a denial of simple right and wrong.  But this is simply a failure to grasp the concept of socialization.  Firstly, "right" and "wrong" have nothing to do with it.  No one is saying that a crime, or dysfunctional behavior did not occur.  It is just that the chosen behavior did not originate with the individual.  Just as the tree which falls on a house in a storm was not responsible for any decision to fall, but was pushed by the wind, dysfunctional behavior is is result of sociological development.  Without ultimate free agency, the individual is little more than a tree.  To extend the analogy, we can think of an individual who has received a large amount of positive cognitive and emotional learning as a tree with strong roots.  Because possesses a high degree of human capital, he is more able to weather life's storms.  By contrast, the individual with relatively undeveloped human capital has much weaker roots and is more susceptible to being blown over.

The next question becomes what to do about those who, because of their dysfunction, present a threat to social well-being.  For those who present an immediate threat, we ought of course to lock them up.  This serves both as a deterrent and a protection from future threat.  The duration of punishment is certainly important, and apart from moral and practical considerations, we must keep in mind that the convict is himself a victim of circumstance.  To this end, society must be entirely concerned with the structural forces that bear upon each citizen. to   To the extent that poor parenting is leading to children without the adequate human capital be successful in life, we must intervene on their behalf.  There are many ways of doing this that serve not only to strengthen the child's development, but also that of the parent and, ultimately familial cohesion.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Free Agency and Government Intervention

In a recent NY Times column, Robert Frank argues for progressive taxation:
Suppose, for the sake of discussion, that we grant the libertarian premise that private pay systems provide the best ethical template for society’s income distribution. As closer scrutiny of that premise will make clear, the libertarian denunciation of income transfers fails on its own terms. 
He then goes on to make the case that private companies are actually highly redistributive in their pay structure, as higher productivity rarely translates into a proportionate increase in pay.  Whether this is true or not, the exercise seems largely irrelevant.

While I concede that as a practical matter, taking libertarians/conservatives on their own terms might be a wise strategy in the short term, it doesn't get us to what I think is the next fundamental conceptual transformation that society must undergo.

What is being taken on their terms is this: "an ideal world would be one in which well informed people could exchange freely with one another with no significant market frictions".  The key phrase here is "well-informed people", and it needs a bit of unpacking.  For there to be an equal "playing field", in which individuals perform transactions in which exchanges can be made freely, the individuals must have similar levels of "human capital".  This entails not just comparable levels of objective knowledge, but also everything else that goes into self-efficacy.  They must have similar cognitive and communication skills.  They must have knowledge of self and emotional and behavioral awareness.  In short, being "well informed" is everything that goes into being a productive citizen.

Our biggest problem in society today is that we don't grasp how important this understanding of human development really is.  We have a somewhat schizophrenic, incoherent view of humanity, in which on the one hand we value things like culture, parenting, education, and other social institutions, yet on the other we treat individuals as if they all possess equal levels of self-efficacy and free agency.  We assume that each individual determines his own choices - whether that is to create a run business or rob a liquor store.  We acknowledge that children do not have this sort of free agency, but when they reach adulthood, it is magically acquired. 

I say magically because there is no evidence for anything like free agency.  It is something we intuitively "know" exists, but all evidence points towards it being an illusion concocted by our conscious mind.  A quick debunking can be done, however.  If all adults have equal levels of free agency, we ought to see a random distribution of ability across all socioeconomic demographics.  Just as say, 20-20 vision, the ability to walk upright, or speak language is distributed evenly across groups, so to would behaviors that are purported to arise from man's free agency. 

Of course they do not.  In fact, one can predict life outcomes before people are even born, simply based on their mother's environment.  Things like neighborhood, environmental toxicity, parental education level, income, and others are very predictive of life success.  A child born in a ghetto is simply much more likely to have lower levels of self-efficacy, or agency than one born in a wealthy suburb. 

Libertarians and conservatives deny this reality.  Some might claim they accept it, but claim that there is nothing to be done - that government intervention won't help.  But this is simply not true, both for those who are currently experiencing the effects of structural disadvantage, as well as young children who could be thriving with adequate government intervention at home and at school.  Further, if we accept that free agency is a myth, then we accept that humans are socially determined.  This has consequences not only for our treatment of the less fortunate, but for the fortunate.  Wealthy people, to the extent that they benefit from social structural inequalities, have no right to their wealth.

Now, deciding what to do about all of this as a practical matter is quite difficult.  But before we can even begin that project, we must as a society come to terms with the transformative notion that free agency is a myth, and that true freedom lies in accepting our limitations as conscious beings.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Food for Thought

After watching this video of a fancy new railgun demonstrated at the Navy League Sea-Air-Space Expo, a simple thought experiment occurred to me.

The Harlem Children's Zone serves roughly 10,000 students, with an annual budget of around $70 million.  With this, they provide a wide range of services to their community, with each targeted towards increasing student achievement.  So far, 90% of their high school seniors have been accepted into college.

Defense-related spending for the year 2011 is expected to reach around $1 trillion dollars.  Simply taking the interest paid on foreign wars, conservatively estimated at about $100 billion dollars annually, we could theoretically provide the same level of success to 15,000,000 children.

The politics of poverty isn't about what we can and can't do, it is about priorities.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

IQ and School Choice

Charles Murray, infamous co-author of The Bell Curve (a book which comes to the conclusion that racial inequalities are the product of genetic intellectual inferiority), argues for "school choice" in the New York Times:
There are millions of parents out there who don’t have enough money for private school but who have thought just as sensibly and care just as much about their children’s education as affluent people do. Let’s use the money we are already spending on education in a way that gives those parents the same kind of choice that wealthy people, liberal and conservative alike, exercise right now. That should be the beginning and the end of the argument for school choice.

School Choice is a strange concept.  The argument is that parents in poor neighborhoods, which tend to have schools that on average perform lower, ought to be able to send their children to better schools, which tend to be in better neighborhoods.  We all talk of "better schools", when in reality we are talking about better neighborhoods, meaning those inhabited by individuals with more human and social capital, and are better able top support their children's academic development.  Although to someone like Murray, we are talking about neighborhoods largely selected by IQ.

If the specific goal of public education is to give every child a quality education, then we need to do that.  To the extent that kids in poor neighborhoods aren't receiving it because they go to school with other poor kids, then we need to offer them that - and not just the "squeaky wheels" whose parents manage to score a ticket out.  "Choice" has nothing to do with it.

I suppose a case could be made that, were we to simply shut down all schools in poor neighborhoods, a school choice system might be an interesting way to force socioeconomic integration.  But that isn't what is being proposed.

It is fitting Murray, who in the Bell Curve failed to account for the profound differences in language and cognitive stimulation that poor kids receive, which is entirely a product of the parent's lack of education, resources, etc., again ignores these environmental factors.  He does write that "cognitive ability, personality and motivation" come mostly from home.  But his lack of interest in addressing policy solutions to this problem is telling.  Based on his prior work, we know that what he really means by this is that those qualities are inherited. 

He follows this logic and seeks preferential treatment to the few parents who request transfers for their children, while leaving behind the majority of poor children whose parents decline transfer.  Because if home environment does not play a significant role in a child's development, then we are left blaming either the child's genes or the school.  In either case, Murray's support for school choice continues his conservative tradition of seeking to favor the wheat, and to discard the chaff.