Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Debate Over Agency

Catherine Rampell of the NY Times finds some commentary from the president of Tax Analysts, interesting in that he makes a solid defense of the rich as not being wealthy merely because of luck but because of hard work.
I’m all for a progressive income tax system. And I’m all for a strong estate tax for the idle rich. But the people I know who are well-off work hard for their money. They worked hard in school and worked hard in business. They took risks, which weren’t backed by government safety nets. They created things. And, as they rose, they learned that there are some in this country who like to demonize success — even fear it.
Rampell writes:
But even if the word choice was not deliberately intended to provoke class warfare, it does seem to epitomize one of the key fault lines between liberals and conservatives: to what extent the wealthiest (as well as the poorest) members of society have earned, or rather simply received, their present fates.
I think this is right.  And I think it doesn't get near enough attention.  The deepest divide between conservatives and liberals is their very different views of human agency.  Liberals tend to believe that we are social creatures, largely determined by circumstance.  Conservatives tend to believe we are individuals who determine our own destinies.

But I think much of the confusion lies in the fact that both these sentiments can be true simultaneously.  We can be a society that is held responsible for the outcomes of its citizenry, who are then in turn held responsible for their individual actions.  The two - macro and micro - are inseparable, and part of a broad continuum of shared responsibility.  In much the same way as a parent is ultimately responsible for their child's well being, the child must be held accountable for their actions.

In this way, the rich may indeed have achieved their wealth through hard work and innovation, but their ability to do so was built upon a framework of agency that they were lucky enough to have had developed in them;  their desire to work hard was learned from some prior experience; their ability to take (intelligent) risks was likely due to a combination of learned intelligence and innate personality.  These are all behaviors that should be encouraged and rewarded (to a degree), but we cannot pretend that they originated in a vacuum, that there was not a vast array of human and social factors lining up in just the right way.  The individual simply cannot take complete credit for them.  The evidence for this is just overwhelmingly clear.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Obama Still Doesn't Get It

Speaking before a "large civil rights organization" Thursday, Obama attempted to address some of the push-back he has been receiving from those on the left who have found his administration's policies misguided.

From the Times:
"[Obama] said the “Race to the Top” program, which provides additional federal funds to local schools that meet administration standards — and a companion effort to overhaul the nation’s 5,000 worst schools — were ultimately aimed at giving good teachers higher salaries, more support, from supplies to smaller classes, and more training to provide them with career opportunities and financial rewards. About $4 billion is being invested in each initiative.
... All I’m asking in return, as a president and as a parent, is a measure of accountability. Surely we can agree that even as we applaud teachers for their hard work, we need to make sure they’re delivering results in the classroom. If they’re not, let’s work with them to help them be more effective. And if that fails, let’s find the right teacher for that classroom.”
My problem with Race to the top and Obama's other initiatives has nothing to to with a comfort with the status quo. I'm incredibly saddened by the continued failure of our public education system to close the achievement gap. But the reforms he champions are deeply misguided.

His operating assumption is that poor teaching is the problem. But this is simply not true. Students come to school with varying levels of human and social capital. Depending on socio-economics, one school might literally be twice as hard to teach at as another. That is to say, the teacher of one classroom of students might have to work twice as hard to bring those students to proficiency as they would at another. Of course, this is simply impossible for most teachers. We hear stories of truly amazing teachers who occasionally manage to produce these kind of results. But these are the Michael Jordans or Red Barons of their field. The fact is that it is unreasonable for us to expect teachers in overwhelmingly more difficult situations to perform at such a high level.

On top of this, determining teacher performance is, and always has been, tremendously difficult. Students are not widgets, classrooms are not production lines or monthly sales tallies. Schools are complex systems of human transformation. This isn't to say that there aren't bad teachers, or that it is impossible to evaluate them, but that it is complicated. Teaching is a profession that is as much an art as science. Poor schools tend to be the first place rookie teachers start and - as they are the most difficult environments - the easiest places to fail, thus either forcing many teachers to leave the profession altogether or to transfer out asap.

Now, what should we be doing *instead* of Race to the Top? If students have a constitutional right to an equal education, this should include a rectifying of any lack of human and social capital they might have had the misfortune of having received. Starting as early as birth, society should make it a priority to see to it that every child encounters the best possible environment we can help them receive. This might include home visits by a qualified specialist to monitor nutritional needs as well as intellectual and emotional support. It may involve parenting classes or child-care support. It might involve the establishment of more and better community centers in which both parents and children can enrich their lives, thereby increasing their human capital.

Upon entrance into school, the classroom should be tailored to each student's level of human capital. For some students, one teacher and 25 peers might be just fine (in higher SES neighborhoods, many children enter school with 3x the vocabulary and basic reading skills). But other students, with lower human capital, may require remediation and/or intervention. They may need an extra teacher's aid, a smaller class of 10-15 students, possible counseling sessions, extra language, support, etc.

The crucial step in real, meaningful reform to public education will be in recognizing that all students have not had the same life experiences, and that our schools should be organized accordingly. In this way, we will be truly meeting the needs of each student, and finally breaking the wretched cycle of poverty and dysfunction in America.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Grappling with Determinism

In a piece in the NY Times today, Galen Strawson takes on the question of Free Will and moral responsibility.  I'm in basic agreement with his fundamentally deterministic take. 
(1) You do what you do — in the circumstances in which you find yourself—because of the way you then are.
(2) So if you’re going to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you’re going to have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are — at least in certain mental respects.
(3) But you can’t be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.
(4) So you can’t be ultimately responsible for what you do.
The thrust of this argument comes in the empirical observation that everything we do has to have had either some biological or environmental origination, or simple chance.  Every choice we make is based on a prior choice, based on a prior choice, etc. - all confined within an interaction between our brain tissue and our environment.

I think the trouble we have with this is that we feel as though we have free will, or a choice in our own agency that is free from our past.  When we look at a set of options, we see nothing pushing us towards one or another and assume that we are originating a choice.  But the reality is that the great majority of our mental processes are unconscious.  We simply have no way of seeing every tiny droplet of unconscious impulse that churns within our psyche. 

I'm reminded of the idea that everyone believes himself to be "above average".  Similarly, few of us believe we are horrible people - destined to do bad things; or great people - destined to do great things.  Somewhat ironically, those most likely to think in these terms are the mentally ill.  Yet most great and terrible things are not done by the mentally ill at all.  They are done by people who were likely just living their lives and well, one thing lead to another.  If we think back on the best or worst things we have done, they were largely unplanned. 

From the heroic acts of kindness to the selfish acts of impulsive cruelty, most were likely done with little to no thought at all.  When we wonder whether we have free will, we tend to ask ourselves whether or not we could do some or another task.  Like, say, scratching our elbow.  The obvious answer is, "Why yes, I am in complete control!"  But rarely in life are we in such a zen-like state of perfect consciousness.  In fact, such an existence would be overwhelmingly exhausting.  Thank God for autonomous behavior  (I get much of my best thinking done while doing something else!).

The biggest trouble people have in accepting determinism is the idea that they might no longer in control of their lives, or that personal responsibility is impossible.  The simplest answer is: you never were, so what is different now?  We still have all the dreams and desires and flaws that we have always had. 

But doesn't life then become pointless, says the nihilist?  Well, it depends on what you thought the point was to begin with.  If you thought you were playing this really interesting game in which you were the supreme controller of your own universe, like a little God, maybe this is a bit of a let down.  But relax, aren't glad that you weren't really in control anyway?  Personally, I feel it's a considerable burden lifted.  But just in case you're feeling a tad claustrophobic, try this experiment: do something without causing it. 

OK, that's a little determinism joke.  You can't.  Whatever you do, or do not do, will have been determined already.  So even if you say, "FUCK THIS SHIT!" and run screaming naked out into the street you will only be someone who has decided to run screaming naked out into the street.  I guess it is kind of like the ultimate claustrophobic nightmare.  But hey, might as well get used to it, right?

This is getting long, so I don't have time to go into what determinism means for morality, or society at large.  Which is unfortunate, because I think that's when things get really interesting.  Another day!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Tea Pretense, P.2: Yes, It Is About Race

     Apparently the Tea Party is going to hold a summit on race July 31st in Philadelphia.
The rally, called Uni-Tea, will feature white and black Tea Party supporters in all-day event that will feature live music, a web cast and plenty of Obama bashing.
The site for the event features 13 speakers, with at least 8 speakers being persons of color.

    I’d like to see the Tea Party spend even a small amount of time addressing steps to end poverty in America and the achievement gap in our schools.

    I may be wrong, but my general impression is that they believe that A) poor people are the only ones to blame for their poverty, and B) the only way to “help” them is to leave them alone and let them solve their own problems, and C) any government help is only making things worse by creating a sense of grievance and dependence. Further, any attempts to point out racism are just a natural outgrowth of the politics of victimization, and the only racism that really exists any more is by angry minorities and the organizations that advocate for them.

    Is that about right? Well, its sickening, and wrong on multiple levels.

A) Poor people are the only ones to blame for their poverty 
    This is true to a degree. But there are structural problems that created it in the first place. Poverty tends to be generational. This means kids are getting poor parenting and education: having more kids: repeat. Geography isolates low property values, creating ghettos of dysfunction and distress. This means neighborhoods of kids with dads in prison, moms on drugs, no supervision, no college education or training, etc. Environmental hazards, such high lead content, have been found to reduce cognitive development in poor children. The educational system is no equipped to make up for what are essentially very low levels of human and social capital.

B) The only way to “help” them is to leave them alone and let them solve their own problems 
    This is clearly not true. From a safety net standpoint, absent health services and food stamps, people will be sick, starve, and die at higher rates. Charity has never been able to handle everything on its own. Talk to the charities out there today and they’ll tell you there is x, y, z they could do with more resources. From a skills standpoint, there is much we can do to increase human and social capital. From nurse home visits for young mothers, to early childhood education and parenting classes, to jobs programs and better city college funding, to health services that allow people to be productive, to nutritional help for kids and parents to learn how to take better care of themselves… none of this is possible without help. It’s mostly a matter of education on how to be successful.

C) Any government help is only making things worse by creating a sense of grievance and dependence.
    This has been a problem in the past – and arguably still is to a degree. But the vast majority of social programs do nothing to create dependence. What they are designed to do is to increase personal agency so that people are able to get their lives on a productive track. No one involved in social programs wants people stuck relying on government help. They are obviously so much more happy and productive when they can do things for themselves. It is no coincidence that the Tea Party is largely made up of people who have little contact or understanding with minority poverty – or any poverty – in the US. Because they are that much less likely to have witnessed first hand how social programs can help change peoples lives. This also explains how people can seem so out of touch and unconcerned with the real-life travails that people in this country are facing, people that the programs they disparage are designed to help.

    The Tea Party is conceptually built around the diminishment of government spending on social programs, specifically for poor minorities they feel are only “leeching” off the rest of America. Race is at the very core of their anger. It may or may not be directly, consciously or unconsciously, motivating them – as in, “I don’t like black people so I don’t support health care subsidies”. But to the extent that they are specifically motivated by a sense of injustice at having to pay for social programs that are disproportionately used by poor minorities, their stance takes a certain racial perspective. And it is one that actively delegitimizes the sense of grievance that minorities feel in seeing their communities continuing to fail disproportionately. It is no wonder then that the movement has been attractive to racists.
    One last thing on race: people are not either “racist” or “not racist”. People are mostly operating from unconscious impulses. Our intelligence and wisdom allows us to peek our heads into consciousness and control our lives. The percentage of people who are admitted racists is very small. But even they don’t understand why they don’t like minorities. They just do. It’s mainly unconscious response. Then there is the rest of us who, to varying degrees, are conscious of patterns of thought that are racist and wrong. We learn to control them and adjust our thinking accordingly. We never really escape it, but we can be on guard for it.

    To me, the scariest “racist” is the one who thinks he isn’t racist at all, yet hold all kinds of creepy unconscious biases and allows them to corrupt his thinking without any attempt at self-reflection. Many people are often indeed quite full of racist ideas. And they would recoil from the thought. But because they’re so afraid of being labeled a “racist”, they never have the opportunity to grow. It feels like that’s where we got stuck post-civil rights. There was so much confusion and acrimony, that we never learned how to have an honest and forgiving dialogue about unconscious bias.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Tea Pretense

   I recently came across a comment by someone sympathetic to the Tea Party movement. As outrageous as it sounds, they actually felt that the Tea Party was in many ways an underclass, although not what we normally think of as such, that is in any kind of socio-economic terms.  And that of all people, liberals were the least interested in helping poor Americans.  In a way, the commenter seemed to feel, while not any actual political alignment of interests, a sort of camaraderie with them.
    “You guys just kill me with your bleating about the underclass. You looooove the underclass, but you despise every single person in it. A bunch of rubes, a bunch of cheap votes. I have volunteered (that means working free of charge) hundreds of hours of my time as an EMT in a small jerkwater town plagued by poverty and meth. I’ve seen and smelled squalor you soft-handed pansies can’t imagine. I’ve repeatedly walked among criminals, crazies, and puddles of bodily yuck to help some human reject from society who was sick or hurt. I’ve foregone many a night’s sleep and risked infection with horrible diseases, just because it’s kind of a rush to be a small-time hero. By my hands and the strength of my back, I’ve done more to provide access to healthcare and reduce costs, than all of you put together with your holier-than-thou posturing and whinging.”

    I won’t bother posting my resume.  But I will say this. He's just described the real underclass pretty well. It’s a really sad situation. Yet how many of those poor people go to Tea Party rallies? How many of them are complaining about paying too much taxes, or that their health insurance is being redistributed to the sick? How many of them are concerned about too much government “help”?

    The reality is that these are the people the Tea Party hates! They are the ones that all the government spending is being directed at. They are the supposed constituency “pay-offs” democrats are supposedly after. They are the ones with drug problems, incarceration problems, mental health and behavioral problems, working for low pay and not raising their children well enough. What does the the Tea Party have to offer them?

    Nothing! A big fat, “Get lost you lazy losers!”, “Quit sucking off the government teat!”, and “Get a job!”. These are the people the Tea Party doesn’t want their taxes to go to. These people are who “big government” was designed for. It pays for their rehab, their childcare, their social security, their food stamps, their job training, their mental health services, their children’s free lunches and after school programs, their city colleges, their tax credits. These are the people that the Tea Party says would do better if we just left them alone, and let social Darwinism reign.

   Of course that doesn’t actually happen. People simply can’t take their medication anymore. Old people starve or freeze to death. Kids get raised by unfit adults. Children go hungry or eat candy for lunch at school. People don’t go to college. Kids don’t graduate from high school. Whether you think that these people deserve these services or not, they have effects.

    Because if they do deserve help, then we need to make sure we are providing effective services. I think we’re doing a pretty good job. I can make a strong case for most social service programs not simply creating dependency but in supporting people’s ability to take care of themselves. But what we can’t do is nothing.

    Because for every conservative who is out there selflessly sacrificing his time, there are plenty of communities struggling without adequate resources. Talk to almost any service provider and they will tell you that they can’t do enough because there aren’t enough resources. Take away government help and the delivery of services severely drops or disappears outright.

    But if they don’t deserve it – and this is what I think most Tea Partiers believe, then all this government spending on services does seem an awful waste. I think most would say that these people need to pull themselves up. As Glenn Beck puts it, “They need the freedom to fail.” Well, tell that to a 75 year old grandmother on social security. Tell that to a schizophrenic who isn’t under a bridge tonight because of the clinic down the street. Tell that to the diabetic who lost his job but can now find an insurance carrier who will accept him. Tell that to the child who’s got nothing to eat at snack time because his mom never made him lunch, and then who’s three grade levels behind and need some after-school support. Tell that to the single mom who works 40 hours a week while baby is with her aunt and still finds time to take an affordable night class.

    This may sound harsh, but when an EMT arrives at the scene of a disaster does he ask whether the victims need the “freedom to fail”? Well, poverty and dysfunction are also tragic disasters. It usually starts young and by the time they reach adulthood their course has been set. These people don’t need the freedom to fail, they need the freedom to succeed. And government is usually the only thing in their lives that has the power to help them. And no, they often can’t help themselves! Children can’t help themselves. Diabetics can’t help themselves. Single moms can’t always help themselves.

    So, this is why you won’t find any liberals at Tea Party rallies. Because we believe in helping these people, this underclass. We think its fair that society looks after the least among us. We think its possible to give people a hand up, and not just a “hand out”. If you want to get philosophical about it, we believe there are larger reasons for why this class exists. We believe there are structural inequalities at work. For the same reason we think it is only fair that the upper income white people at Tea Parties should redistribute some of their money so that it goes toward rectifying some of these inequalities. And if they don’t want to, then they should be forced to.

   You can call it fascism if you want, but I think that’s quite a stretch. The question is whether they really earned that income – that they really deserved it – or they just took advantage of a system that was rigged in their favor. Just because the structural inequality is complex that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Say it was something simple, like a monopoly. If one family in a town owned all the resources and profited from everyone’s labor, would it be fair to require them to pay a higher share of taxes to help pay for common services?

    So if it is fair the question is how far should we go. What is a fair rate? What is an effective rate? We had marginal rates of up to 90% in the fifties and people seemed to be doing fine. I think the reason conservatives dislike progressive income taxes isn’t that they think they’re bad for the economy. I think they simply find them unjust. Which is principled. But I hope I’ve at least made a case that they’re wrong.

    In the end the Tea Party loves to play the American underclass. Oh, these poor white Christians! The terrible racist Black Panthers! The terrible Shirley Sherrod oppressing white farmers. Obama’s hatred of whites. His hatred of Christians. It is all just really silly. But as for any real American underclass, they show little sympathy – even downright contempt. Let’s not even get started on illegal immigrants. 

    Now that’s an underclass.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Race to the Meaningless

The NY Times has a piece today on a principal who was forced to leave her position so that her poor, low-performing school could maintain eligibility for the Obama administration's Race to the Top stimulus funds.  By all accounts, it appears she had been doing an excellent job.  But:
under the Obama administration rules, for a district to qualify, schools with very low test scores, like Wheeler, must do one of the following: close down; be replaced by a charter (Vermont does not have charters); remove the principal and half the staff; or remove the principal and transform the school.
 The story illustrates, tragically, how a school can be doing everything right, yet still be considered failing.  The problem is that many schools simply lack the resources to meet the needs of their students.  Policies like Race to the Top operate from the assumption that no matter what kind of student population a school serves, it is expected to perform as well as any other.  This completely ignores the socioeconomic realities of student capital development.  As long as we continue to ignore it, our attempts at reform will be meaningless.

Forces of the Universe and Cats

A question I've often had is, "What is a thought?"  Where exactly does it exist?  Obviously it exists in the physical world, via physical interactions; a mind must make a thought, not a rock.  But upon what principles is it operating?  Maybe an example might help:
That cat is there.
Now we have something.  Light is shining off the cat and into my eyes.  I take that information and create a model that tells me a range of things: shape, color, movement, dimension, location, texture, etc.  I then fit it into a narrative of meaning: a small mammal with specific features, a pet.  I then recognize it among my memories: I have seen this cat before.  All of this and who knows how much more happen at the conscious and unconscious level - the latter making up the majority of the processing.

So all of this is thought and it is essentially a transference of electromagnetic energy from the cat into the photoreceptor cells of my retina.  These cells transfer specific positional data via the interaction of each photon/wave against the electron state of specific pigment atoms within the optical cells, triggering specific enzyme cascades that transfer that "data" into my neural network, or mind.  The photons' vast variabilities are then fed into my cerebral structures that process and re-process, at near-light speed, and eventually rise to the well-ordered simplicity of "thought".

Through fundamentally simple principles then, this process unfolds, involving the physical interaction of impossibly large numbers of particles.  The process by which we "think" is the realization of all of this activity:
That cat is there.
While the physics of it all is relatively straightforward, the trick is wrapping one's mind around how this all relates to consciousness.  If I take all of this information and a "thought" is created in my brain - how is it that I am conscious of it?  Douglass Hofstadter describes the brain as a fundamentally self-reflective instrument.  He points to Descartes' ultimate definition: "I think, therefore I am."  The first think one ever knows about one's self is that one is actually thinking.  One is able to have a thought, and then perceive it.  "Look - a thought!"
That cat is there.
 If one imagines capacity for reflection on a scale, Hofstadter says, at the furthest end - at one, say - you might have a simple device.  He uses the example of a toilet ballcock as having basically one point of reflection: when the water rises to a certain level, a valve is closed and the flow is shut off.  At the other end of the scale, you might have the all-seeing, all-knowing omnipotent god who's capacity for reflection is as limitless as the information available to him.  The human mind might be somewhere in the middle, some of us more than others possessing the cognitive and emotional skills to be able to process and reflect on information.  While the mammalian brain, or that of the corvid might rank relatively high, as we move down the scale, the brain gets progressively smaller until we reach animal systems that are largely autonomic, and then largely dependent on individual cell regulation.

In this way the human brain is simply an organ that is capable of taking in large amounts of data from itself and the environment and "fleshing" out meaningful metaphors that we are able to essentially live within.  These become useful narratives in that we are able to construct them out of past experiences, and then predict future events with great accuracy.  To the extent that we are social creatures, we are so in no small part because not only are we able to create this narrative for ourselves, but we are able to sort of geometrically place a similar narrative onto others.  And our cats.
That cat is there.

The Four Fundamental Forces of the Universe

Strong Force: Holds quarks and gluons together, and protons/neutrons residually.
  • 10−15 m range
  •  mediated by gluons, which carry charge
Weak Force: Causes certain kinds of radioactive decay.
  • 10−18 m range
  •  mediated by W and Z bosons, which carry no charge
Electromagnetic Force: Acts between electrically-charged particles.
  • infinite range 
  • mediated by photons, which carry no charge
Gravity: Causes objects with mass to attract one another.
  • infinite range 
  • mediated by gravitons (?)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Obama Makes History, Public Grouses

Kevin Drum points out that, with the passage of Financial Regulatory reform, Obama will have been the most successful Democratic presidents for decades*. Which he has mixed feelings on:
 Here's the good news: this record of progressive accomplishment officially makes Obama the most successful domestic Democratic president of the last 40 years. And here's the bad news: this shoddy collection of centrist, watered down, corporatist sellout legislation was all it took to make Obama the most successful domestic Democratic president of the last 40 years. Take your pick..... Still, if you're a liberal, this is the best you've had it for a very long time. Whether this is cause for cheer or cause for discouragement is, I suspect, less a reflection on Obama than it is on America writ large.
I think this is about right.   And I think Drum is right in blaming the American public for this situation.  Whether Obama could have done more on any his legislative victories is debatable, but the evidence that he has done so much is at least testament to the power of compromise.  What is undeniable is that he has basically faced complete opposition across the board from Republicans, and to some degree from conservative Democrats in his own party.  At the very least there were no easy votes among these groups.  To the extent that Obama made overtures to Republican bipartisanship, which was never genuinely reciprocated, the practical target was likely the persuasion of opposition in his own party.

It's always easy to blame the politicians.  But we must remember that we elect them, and they - for good or bad - generally do what we ask them to.  The current American reality is that voters are angry and confused, and apparently about as interested in progressive policy agenda as the members they have elected.  Our failure to solve our problems isn't Washington, it is us.  We can talk about campaign finance reform and structural changes, but current politicians must still work within that reality.

(*And this in the face of everything else going on.)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Taxation and the Meaning of Wealth

Someone pointed out recently that while Republicans generally claim to want to cut spending and taxes, the truth is that they increase spending while cutting taxes.

And they never want to cut defense spending, which could take relatively minor cuts (say, $100-200 billion) and we'd be swimming in cash.  The fact is that they don't like certain kinds of government spending.  Well, crikey, none of us do!  But liberals don't complain about government "stealing" our money, or out-of-control spending.  We simply demand tax increases to pay for what feel we need.

Those taxes fall disproportionately on the rich.  So, now we're back to the philosophical divide and resentment: if you believe you've "earned" your taxes, you should get to decide where to spend them.  And conservatives like guns.  So if you're a conservative, your values line up with those who are disproportionately paying for government.

The degree to which conservatives only support government spending they approve of, they feel it is their right to do so, as there is a progressive tax system and the rich should have more of a say.  That they decry non-approved spending as "stealing" or "corruption", it seems to go back to a sense of injustice over progressive tax structures.  Even though poorer conservatives pay no more than anyone else, and thus have no right to claim this injustice, because their spending preferences line up with rich conservatives, they "support the cause" so-to-speak.

What liberals need to do is forcefully make the case for progressive taxation.  This removes the injustice argument, and opens up the field for a case for the social spending we prefer.  Social spending which, coincidentally, is based upon the same assumptions as is progressive taxation - that is, egalitarianism and an economic philosophy that views wealth as relative to social structure and dynamics.  To the extent that the rich were able to profit off a social structure that allowed them to do so, their wealth cannot be claimed as entirely their own.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dialogue and Democracy

I've been troubled for a while by the suspicion that Americans are largely uniformed and uninterested in political philosophy.  Of those who even bother to vote, most seem to do so more out of tribalism than a real understanding of the differences between the two major parties, the difference between liberalism and conservatism.  As far as this goes, they likely really on intra-party/movement talking points, culled from friends and family with whom they agree.  The remaining portion of voters, the ones who take an active interest in politics, are likely the consumers of political news and information.  These people absorb the messaging and then pass it along to the former group.  These tend to be each party's "base", with more extreme views, and more of an interest in campaigning for particular representatives and issues.  They are very influential in essentially driving each parties narrative.

According to a 2009 Pew survey, most people get their news from television.

Now, if people actively interested in politics are going to be more influential among the wider population of voters, it is important to determine what kind of news they are getting.  According to the Pew research, the largest portion of news consumption (40%) by all Americans came from major cable news outlets.  I think it is safe to say that a large proportion of these viewers are going to be the politically active folks.  The survey didn't break down which portion of cable news people were watching.  Although much of the daily programming could be considered softer, more objective and less partisan news coverage, I think it's probably safe to say that a much larger portion of these news watchers are going to be political active, and paying particular attention to the partisan stuff.

So what you have now is a relatively small, but highly influential group of viewers digesting partisan news coverage, sharing it with peers, and then getting representatives elected and issues voted on that information.  Thus, the importance of the media in general, but major cable news outlets in particular.

Conservatives have long felt that most media outlets - the "mainstream" media has for a long time had a liberal bias.  While this is likely true, liberals have had their own critique that the media is biased towards established interests, which tend to be the powerful.  The reality is that - whatever the bias - the major cable outlets are having a substantial impact on political discourse.  In recent years, FOX news has taken a dominant place as the go-to news source for politically active conservative voters.  More recently, MSNBC has sought to carve out a similar niche for itself among politically active liberal voters.  Interestingly, the actual daily ratings for each news outlet are a very small segment of the population.  FOX news averages around 2 million viewers, while CNN and MSNBC average about a quarter of that.  Of the 2008 voting population of 130 million, this represents 1.5% and .4% of voters, respectively.

So like it or not, these news outlets, as small their audiences may be, have a lot of influence over what becomes politically important.  This is evidenced by the regularity in which talking points that come out of these outlets, whether from the mouths of politicians or pundits, seem to "take on a life of their own", and quickly enter the national conversation.  Therefore for those interested in a national political discourse that is reasonable, honest and well-informed, what goes on on these shows should be very important.

So where can you find reasonable political debate today?  Unfortunately, not many places.  This is basically what you'll find on news outlets:
  • Political horseracing (CNN)
  • One-sided, unreasonable polemics (FOX, MSNBC)
  • Airing of talking points (weekend shows, PBS)
  • Occasional references to political dischord (ABC, CBS, NBC nightly news)
Where is the back and forth, point for point discussion by reasonable partisans, where not only are principles understood in context, but parties are remotely open to new ideas?  Sadly, this doesn't really exist.  Whether it is because of constraints of the format (the rapid news cycle, lagging audience interest), lack of reasonable punditry or simple incompetence and disinterest, this just doesn't exist on television.  Even the shows in which the format was supposed to encourage two partisan sides to debate, the dialogue often devolved into both sides simply spouting talking points and partisan rhetoric, neither side interested in context or assumptions, or truly understanding the other's point of view.  The end result is that the public is no more informed, and in fact may have had their own misguided partisan views hardened by the increased acrimony they now feel as the "other" side seems ever more out-of-touch with their ideas.

So what is the antidote?  I'm not convinced that the format won't allow for reasoned debate.  I think there is  a strong audience for it.  Many people say they can't stand watching cable news because it is either A) dumbed down and uninteresting, or B)shrill and unproductive.  I think people inclined to be interested in politics have a natural hunger for engagement with the issues, and would love to see not only their side well represented, but the other side respond with genuine interest and understanding.  If a network really wanted to offer this format to their viewers, they could easily do so.  But first they would have to find capable pundits. 

Unfortunately, most on air pundits - either because they have been trained to do so or it is simply in their nature - do not engage in reasonable debate.  Chances are a new slate would have to be found.  Fortunately, the blogosphere is the perfect antidote.  While many bloggers may not be "ready for prime time", as it were, there are at least a great variety who are thoughtful, reasonable, and often quite expert.  They could be recruited quite easily, simply by setting up a skype connection you could have them broadcasting in minutes.  The added bonus of blogger punditry is that, while most will not have the sources that established pundits do, this would seem more of a benefit than a drawback.  Often times what passes for commentary is simply cynical insider horseracing on who has the advantage over who, instead of what is true and what isn't, or whether it should even mater.

A good place to start this model is a super vidoqo favorite,  While they do have a somewhat liberal bias in their selection of bloggers, they always tend to be reasonable, and they attempt to have good dialogues between opposing views.  In particular, their weekly show ("diavlog") The Week In Blog, hosted by Matt Lewis and Bill Scher, offers a great look into the development of political commentary on the internet from both the right and left.  While they generally don't get into philosophical debate, allowing the commentary to speak for itself, they do offer a broad analysis of where the political thought on the internet is at.  This format could be a sort of jumping-off point for a variety of more in-depth and substantive conversations on political philosophy.  At the very least, it would serve to diffuse the rampant misinformation and spin that currently dominate major cable news outlet programming.

As the nations seems more partisan than ever, with people literally geographically separating themselves along political lines, the opportunities for real political dialogue seem to be shrinking.  The effect this has on democracy is corrosive.  The citizenry is too caught up in acrimony to compromise, and begins to lose sight of what really matters.  Political thought becomes more easily manipulated, and echo-chambers grow stronger.  When faced with the big questions, we seem paralyzed by mistrust and cynicism.  Most people may never have more than a passing interest in politics.  But to the extent that their opinions are formed in tandem with the more politically active consumers of news and information, honest and reasonable political dialogue is more important than ever.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Case for Open Borders

We're stuck in an odd place in America today where immigration is concerned.  On the one hand, nearly everyone agrees that we must have closed borders, with selective admissions.  But the fact is that millions of illegal immigrants are already here, and many more are in the process of coming.  Building a truly secure border would require expensive fencing, cameras and patrol units.  Even then, there would likely be gaps.

So we are faced with tackling the problem via law enforcement.  Employers of illegal immigrants are targeted, and any illegal immigrants found are deported.  Yet this solution is difficult for various reasons.  Employers have many incentives to hire illegal immigrants.  They are plentiful, willing to work for little pay, and as illegal immigrants they are easier to exploit (poor conditions, safety hazards, regulations, etc.).  The immigrants have every incentive to work as they have risked all to be here.  Surviving without work is much more difficult. Dealing with state welfare institutions is either impossible or puts them at risk of deportation, as does any illegal activity.

From a human rights standpoint, every action targeted at illegal immigrants threatens American citizens who might find their rights diminished.  The balance of rights vs. security is an old and complicated one.  We must find a compromise between what rights we are willing to see sacrificed for every new security we agree to.  With the vast majority of illegal immigrants coming from the Mexican border, being a largely Hispanic population, new security measures designed to target illegal immigrants is going to affect Hispanic Americans disproportionately.  We see this in the new Arizona law sb1070 which places Hispanics in Arizona at much greater risk of having their rights violated.

A further complication, and one which may be the most tragic of all, is the issue of birthright citizenship and family dissolution.  Illegal immigrants often either bring their families with them to America, or have children once they are here.  If one parent is arrested and deported, the consequences to the family are severe.  In many cases the children might have been here illegally, possibly for most of their lives, and thus arrest and deportation means incredible burden. If a child has citizenship, the family is then faced with the prospect of how to secure for them the future they were guaranteed by law.

So this is where we are.  All of this is going on now, with no likelihood of change in the near future.  Profound resentment, especially in these economic times, has reached the boiling point.  The governor of Arizona is literally either making up stories herself, or repeating the lies of others:
"Well, we all know that the majority of the people that are coming to Arizona and trespassing are now becoming drug mules.  They're coming across our borders in huge numbers. The drug cartels have taken control of the immigration. … So they are criminals. They're breaking the law when they are trespassing and they're criminals when they pack the marijuana and the drugs on their backs.  I believe today and in the circumstances that we are facing, that the majority of the illegal trespassers that are coming in the state of Arizona are under the direction and control of organized drug cartels, and they are bringing drugs in."
"Law enforcement agencies have found bodies in the desert either buried or just lying out there that have been beheaded."
The range of serious solutions to the situation basically range from complete security at the border no matter the cost and draconian raids and round-ups, to a more liberal policy of "amnesty", in which there is a "path to citizenship" that illegal immigrants can pursue that allows them to continue living and working here.  The latter only differs from an outright open border policy in that immigrants are still deterred from entry at the border and businesses who hire illegal immigrants are penalized.  This policy has been used in the past, however generally on a case-by-case basis.

But I wonder whether we should even have closed borders at all.  My general outlook on life is to not believe in anything without a good reason for doing so.  Because many issues are so complicated, the authority of experts must often be trusted.  Other issues are less empirical, and more matters of philosophical principle.  Other issues are a robust combination of both - the experts disagree, and philosophical principle isn't unimportant.  As illegal immigration seems to fall into this last category, I feel comfortable taking the radical stance that what America needs to be doing is opening our borders to most anyone who desires entry.

According to Wikipedia, the main arguments against borders are as follows:
  1. That open borders are a threat to security and public safety.
  2. That, in prosperous countries, open borders would trigger  massive immigration, straining the domestic economy.That closed borders are necessary to protect the domestic culture(s).
  3. That closed borders help to prevent criminals from smuggling drugs, guns and other illegal items in quantities across the border.
  4. That closed borders make it more difficult to smuggle people across a country's border for the purpose of slavery, prostitution and similar criminal activities.
  5. That open borders are unnecessary in countries with legal avenues for immigration.

The only argument I see holding much validity is number 2.

On numbers 1 and 3, I see no real threat to public safety from open borders.  The vast majority of illegal immigrants are otherwise law-abiding, and criminals have not seemed to have been deterred much so far.  In fact, because increased adds to the price of drugs, closed borders may in fact increase violent crime.  On this front, a prevention program, possibly combined with legalization and taxation, that treats the problem of drug addictions seems a better, cheaper option.

On number 2, I'm not sure how much of a problem slavery and prostitution are.  I see no reason that simple law enforcement shouldn't be given this task.  Any gaps are likely already there, and the expense of a questionably secure border apparatus for solely this purpose seems inappropriate.

Number 5 isn't really an argument.

Now, it does seem reasonable to fear that completely open borders might trigger a mass-migration that the state wouldn't be able to handle.  But there are a number of reasons to doubt this.  First of all, if the labor market isn't able to handle them, the immigrants will quickly realize how limited their prospects are.  The only alternative is then to either make ends meet through illegal means or seek help from the state.  Neither seems a very attractive propositions for prospective immigrants.  The idea of relocating hundreds or even thousands of miles to engage in criminal activity seems an odd life choice.  What's more, illegal activity entails market pressures of its own.  The state is already quite stingy with welfare payments.  There seems no reason why it wouldn't still be able to require proof of citizenship for benefits.

A socio-economic and burden that does seem reasonable is the introduction of competition into the labor market.  Even assuming that minimum wage laws would still be enforced, numerous occupations would suddenly face an influx of foreign workers.  However, language and technical considerations would still give Americans an advantage.  The occupations most at-risk would be those in which these forms of human capital would not be required to the same extent.  This is the current greatest socio-economic impact of illegal immigration.  There is little reason to think that it wouldn't only increase were we to open our borders.

This is where I have the most difficulty finding my own moral perspective.  As a college-graduated, credentialed teacher, my job is in no way threatened by immigration.  I could see future immigrants receiving credentialing and posing a threat, but that prospect doesn't seem to bother me.  I know it may bother some, but I'm not sure whether I feel as though I have some God-given right to teach in America that any other equally-qualified candidate does not, regardless of citizenship.  I'm perfectly willing to accept that because I face no real threat from immigrant labor competition, I am missing some possibly persuasively principled argument.  But for now I can't foresee any.

As regular readers will note, I have a strong disposition towards viewing socio-economic achievement through the lens of social determinism; I believe the murderer is no more responsible for his actions than the millionaire.  Maybe as such, I see no difference between an American citizen and a Mexican citizen.  Why should an American have any more right to the American labor market than a Mexican?  If there is no existential threat to our entire economy (in which case open borders would become moot as we would all be doomed), the difficulties presented are zero sum: any net cost to American workers presents a net gain to foreign workers.

It is at this point that I think the conversation becomes about abstract notions of nationalism, and what it means to be a citizen.  I am entirely utilitarian in that I find the concept of nation-states compelling only in that they make sense in terms of practical governance.  Government needs to represent the people for whom it exists.  In this way the citizen gains access to democratic rights and privileges.  For instance, it would not make sense to allow foreign citizens from around the globe to vote in local elections. 

Foreign citizens need not enjoy every single right and privilege of citizens, but to the extent that it is practical for them to do so, they should be allowed them.  As I have argued thus far, there appears no practical reason why foreign citizens should not be allowed full access to labor markets.  In this way, foreign citizens would not be treated much differently than out-of-state residents.  We see no problem with accepting labor competition from any other state in the union.  Assuming there are no other social or economic costs, labor competition from foreign countries should be viewed no differently.

Alas, I'm afraid that there exists one last refuge in this argument, and it resides within the nationalistic notion of identity.  While many Americans no doubt cling to some form of unconscious bias towards some mysterious cultural quality of "American" that in their mind serves as a line of separation between themselves and non-citizens; that somehow by being an American citizen you are in some way different, and as such entitled to special privileges.  Obviously, any dark hatefulness under-girding this attitude is immoral.  No human life anywhere on the planet should be considered more worthy than any other.  To the extent that nationalism is used as the sole reason for valuing the quality of one life over another, the argument is really based in nothing more than personal greed and selfishness.

As has been pointed out many times before throughout our history, we are a nation of immigrants.  Implicit in this conception is the idea that human liberty transcends all boundaries, especially that of the nation state.  Inclusion in American society should require nothing more than an agreement to honor its rules and principles.  If the only thing that separates an illegal immigrant from a legal one is whether one was given permission from the state to enter, granting that permission to all simply removes that technicality.  As I mentioned previously, there is a necessary balance between security and freedom.  To the extent that the foreign citizen represents no threat to our security, either economic, social or political, they should be allowed all the freedoms citizens enjoy.  And that freedom includes the right to live and work here among us as equals.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Thomas Paine and the Debunking of Religion

I've been reading Thomas Paine's pamphlet, The Age of Reason, and am struck by how incredibly radical it still seems today.  Sure, times have changed (he wrote it in 1794).  What he would have thought of as "the church" in many contexts would now be more applicable to "megachurches".  But his fundamental debunking of religion, specifically Christianity, is as damning as ever.

A few good quotes:
On the bible as mythology
It is, however, not difficult to account for the credit that was given to the story of Jesus Christ being the Son of God. He was born when the heathen mythology had still some fashion and repute in the world, and that mythology had prepared the people for the belief of such a story. Almost all the extraordinary men that lived under the heathen mythology were reputed to be the sons of some of their gods. It was not a new thing at that time to believe a man to have been celestially begotten; the intercourse of gods with women was then a matter of familiar opinion. Their Jupiter, according to their accounts, had cohabited with hundreds; the story therefore had nothing in it either new, wonderful, or obscene; it was conformable to the opinions that then prevailed among the people called Gentiles, or mythologists, and it was those people only that believed it. The Jews, who had kept strictly to the belief of one God, and no more, and who had always rejected the heathen mythology, never credited the story.
 On the silliness of the creation story:
Why it has been called the Mosaic account of the creation, I am at a loss to conceive. Moses, I believe, was too good a judge of such subjects to put his name to that account. He had been educated among the Egyptians, who were a people as well skilled in science, and particularly in astronomy, as any people of their day; and the silence and caution that Moses observes, in not authenticating the account, is a good negative evidence that he neither told it nor believed it.
 On the misinterpretation of language:
All the remaining parts of the Bible, generally known by the name of the Prophets, are the works of the Jewish poets and itinerant preachers, who mixed poetry, anecdote, and devotion together--and those works still retain the air and style of poetry, though in translation.

There is not, throughout the whole book called the Bible, any word that describes to us what we call a poet, nor any word that describes what we call poetry. The case is, that the word prophet, to which a later times have affixed a new idea, was the Bible word for poet, and the word 'propesytng' meant the art of making poetry. It also meant the art of playing poetry to a tune upon any instrument of music.

We read of prophesying with pipes, tabrets, and horns--of prophesying with harps, with psalteries, with cymbals, and with every other instrument of music then in fashion. Were we now to speak of prophesying with a fiddle, or with a pipe and tabor, the expression would have no meaning, or would appear ridiculous, and to some people contemptuous, because we have changed the meaning of the word.

We are told of Saul being among the prophets, and also that he prophesied; but we are not told what they prophesied, nor what he prophesied. The case is, there was nothing to tell; for these prophets were a company of musicians and poets, and Saul joined in the concert, and this was called prophesying.

It occurred to me as I read how obvious it felt to me when I was young to critique the religion in which I was raised. This was no doubt due in large part to Hinduism and reincarnation being such alien concepts to my social network (although, in Santa Cruz, maybe not so much).  In my early thoughts, as I neared a conclusion that religion and God were human inventions, I came upon such arguments as I was able fashion alone.

Off the top of my head, I try and recall a few:
  • Infinite Regression: If God created the universe, then who created God.  Science faces the same problem.  But science doesn't invent an all-powerful entity.  It simply says we don't know. 
  • Suffering: There's no explanation for it. 
  • Multiplicity: There are so many religions, how could one possibly know which one is correct?  The vast majority of people simply follow that they were born into.
  • Ego: Humans love to invent things.  Our recorded history is nothing if not one big exercise in magical thinking.  This seems much better explained by the limitations of our complicated mind than evidence that one of these ridiculous stories happens to be true.
  • Evidence: There isn't any.

While I won't go as far as to say that religion is necessarily a force for evil in the world, I will say that it is largely stupid and unhealthy.  While many will find it comforting and helpful, and in many cases it is probably better than any practical alternative, it contains inherent procedures of thought that are at best constricting and at worst, deadly and oppressive.  On the whole describing it as in many ways a cancer upon the human race is quite justified.  While it has also been helpful, it is a habit that would be best replaced with a  more reasonable world view and program for living.

Thomas Paine was a deist, likely in the manner of what would later come to be described as pantheism.  I'm not sure yet why he chose to stop there.  Although writing two hundred years ago, he would have far fewer sociological and scientific resources from which to level a critique of the very notion of God itself.  But in his deism he was able to find all the goodness and spirituality he seemed to have needed.  It was in fact from a place of profound moral righteousness that he drew the courage to challenge the religion he thought was a source of evil in the world.

Atheists too often get stuck bickering with the silliness of religionists, instead of staking out new moral ground and claims of righteous humanity.  In the end, it will be this philosophical bedrock upon which future Atheists people will feel comfortable resting.  And what is more, the questions there seem much more interesting and challenging than arguing about whether one or another magical fantasy exists.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Justice and Retribution

The SF Chronicle reports:
A jury found former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle guilty Thursday of involuntary manslaughter, concluding that he did not intend to kill train rider Oscar Grant when he shot him in the back on New Year's Day 2009 but acted so recklessly that he showed a disregard for Grant's life.
There are questions as to whether this was an appropriate sentence, with many thinking he got off too easy.  Mark Kleiman agrees with the sentence and finds the retribution fair:
It’s good to see the people who otherwise condemn the pointlessness of harsh retributive justice making an exception in this case. Perhaps retribution is actually a legitimate function of punishment after all?
On what basis are we making a case for retribution? Who is he “paying” by his stay in prison?
Let me back up… I don’t believe in contra-causal free will, so he wasn’t ultimately responsible for his actions, in the sense that whatever impulses he was acting on were causing his actions. So if anyone should be “paying” for his crime, it should be the various factors that created in him the impulse to act as he did. But since that is a degree of knowledge that we can’t know, such retribution would be impossible. Retribution always seems to require causal knowledge that does not exist.

It seems then the only real question is one of utility. What deterrence does his incarceration provide to his future behavior, as well as other officers? Is he a danger to the community? And what level of rehabilitation is possible for him while imprisoned.

There is also the consideration of a sense of justice for the family. But if he was not ultimately responsible, their hurt, while understandable as a human impulse, seems misguided. If a tree falls on your house, whether or not you feel the need for justice, or revenge, and thus to chop it to bits, it seems misguided. Should you not be angry at the storm that blew it over? Or the low pressure and humidity?
All of this may seem too abstract. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t correct.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Child Poverty and Marriage

Reihan Salam disagrees with David Frum who writes:
America suffers much more child poverty [because of]... our much lower levels of social spending, which mean that poor families receive far less social support than do poor families in other countries.
Salam makes the case that a more important explanation is the rise in female-headed households, particularly in comparison to other wealthy countries.  He points to evidence appearing to show that a rise in female-headed houses has led to a considerable rise in child poverty.
"had the proportion of children living in female-headed families remained constant since 1970, the child poverty rate would have been 3.4 percentage points lower than its actual 1998 level."
That makes sense.  He then links to other apparent evidence that in Europe, where some semblance of familial cohesion is much more common, rates of child poverty are much lower.
"out-of-wedlock births are as common in many European countries as in the United States. But the estimated percentage of fifteen year olds living with both of their biological parents is far lower in the United States that in Western Europe. Even in Sweden, where nonmarital births are almost twice as common as in the United States, most unmarried parents raise their children together. "
I think this is reasonable, but the truth is that there are many factors.  The greater availability of social services in Europe would seem an important factor.  Furthermore, the marriage explanation doesn't take the place of Frum's analysis. 

It's kind of a chicken vs. egg thing.  Low-income marriage failure is inseparable from lack of social support and capital.  I think that marriage could be a large driver, but the lack of social support is a policy failure that perpetuates it.  The idea that poor unmarried European parents are staying together to raise their kid would seem to support this.  To the extent that a young man knocks up a female, and then is frightened by the idea of having to care for and provide for it, he would seem much less likely to want to stay around.  Again however, the social issues here seem very complex.

I'd like to say though, in thinking about corrective measures, that social spending seems the obvious choice.  You've presented evidence that would seem to blow any argument for deterrence out of the water; young kids are still having sex and not staying together.  So at a minimum, maintenance-level, providing pre-natal care, counseling, home-visits, paid-leave, etc. would all relieve significant burdens.

As a preventative though, the problem needs to be viewed as a deficit of human and social capital.  These young kids are making poor choices because of a lack of capital, which then buys them agency.  Generationally, the family becomes caught in a cycle of bad choices, which in turn leads to a depleted capacity for capital growth.  The state can, via targeted intervention, increase capital in mothers and then their children from ages 0 to 18. 

Not only is this an effective approach, but one that will pay for itself many times over in the long run.  Ultimately we can think of this as a human right, as every American child ought to be guaranteed a sufficient level of human and social capital so that he or she may have a relatively good chance to be successful in life.  If the parent is not providing the capital, then there is a strong case that the constitution mandates that the state step in.

How to Get Arrested for Being Brown in Arizona

With Arizona's looming implementation of the notorious sb 1070 law, which allows police officers to detain anyone they "reasonably" suspect is an illegal immigrant, the question has been just what "reasonable suspicion" might really mean.  The concern for possible civil rights violations revolves around a scenario in which a fully naturalized citizen is considered suspicious, and therefore must then be required to show proof of citizenship.  If you happen to forget your wallet, or otherwise fail to present proper ID, arrest and/or detention is implied.

I was able to find some specifics at the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board website.  According to the site, the following are considered valid proof of citizenship:
  • A valid Arizona driver license.
  • A valid Arizona nonoperating identification license.
  • A valid tribal enrollment card or other form of tribal identification.
  • If the entity requires proof of legal presence in the United States before issuance, any valid United States federal, state or local government issued identification.
It isn't hard to think of situations in which American citizens might be arrested and/or detained because they weren't able to prove residence.  While the bill explicitly prohibits racial profiling, the obvious fact is that light-skinned or otherwise ethnically non-hispanic looking citizens will not face the same level of risk at all.  So, there is little reason to think that a blond-haired blue-eyed Peter Anderson might be mistaken for an illegal immigrant.

But the real question still remains: what does "reasonable suspicion" entail?  Does eating a burrito count?  Thankfully, the APOSTB website offers this help:


  • Lack of identification (if otherwise required by law)
  • Possession of foreign identification
  • Flight and/or preparation for flight
  • Engaging in evasive maneuvers, in vehicle, on foot, etc.
  • Voluntary statements by the person regarding his or her citizenship or unlawful presence
  • Note that if the person is in custody for purposes of Miranda, he or she may not be questioned about immigration status until after the reading and waiver of Miranda rights.
  • Foreign vehicle registration
  • Counter-surveillance or lookout activity
  • In company of other unlawfully present aliens

Location, including for example:
  • A place where unlawfully present aliens are known to congregate looking for work
  • A location known for human smuggling or known smuggling routes
  • Traveling in tandem
  • Vehicle is overcrowded or rides heavily
  • Passengers in vehicle attempt to hide or avoid detection
  • Prior information about the person
  • Inability to provide his or her residential address
  • Claim of not knowing others in same vehicle or at same location
  • Providing inconsistent or illogical information
  • Dress
  • Demeanor – for example, unusual or unexplained nervousness, erratic behavior, refusal to make eye contact
  • Significant difficulty communicating in English

So, basically, whatever the fuck the officer feels like pulling out of his ass.  "Gee, judge, I just sort of thought those shoes looked kinda.. you know... Mexican.  And he appeared to be nervous".

This is really scary.

Monday, July 5, 2010

It Takes a Village (of Non-Crazy People)

Sometimes we do things that we probably should not.  I probably should not have bothered watching conservative Jonah Goldberg spar with libertarian Will Wilkinson at Bloggingheads over the issue of patriotism.

On the subject of who it is we mean to share our patriotism with, Goldberg finds a way to work in his great She-Devil, Hillary Clinton for some liberal fascist pizazz:

There's a real irony in calling Hillary Clinton crazy here. A good definition of crazy is someone who stubbornly takes an irrational point of view and then blows it way out of proportion. Yet that is exactly what Goldberg is doing.  Clinton's quote:

"We as a country need to move to a society where there's no such thing as somebody else's child."

Now, his starting point is to take this quote out of context and attribute to it meaning that was never intended. This is deliberately unserious, and intellectually dishonest.

A serious interpretation of what Clinton meant is simply that we all need to share in responsibility for how children in society turn out, with the moral clarity as if they were our own children. This is an ancient progressive refrain, and one echoed in the book he likely got the quote from, It Takes a Village, which itself is from an old South African proverb. It is an expression of the oldest human experience, arguably from which all good laws come, of human brotherhood and empathy. I am my brother's keeper, etc.

A dishonest, unserious interpretation is that this phrase is scrawled on the signpost leading down the road to serfdom and tyranny. Clinton was expressing a crypto-fascist sentiment from which she was calling for a centralized state government that was going to take sons and daughters from their mother's arms, stamp them with a bar-code and make them wards of the state.

Goldberg then states,
"the simple fact is that because we are human beings, we will never be able to achieve that [crazy utopia]. And any attempt to achieve that, in any serious way, would create far more problems than it would solve."

Now, correct me if I am mistaken, but every child born in America is not only guaranteed a free 13 years of education, but is required to attend. Is this not an implicit acknowledgment that all children are, in a sense, our own children. In fact, there are many ways in which children are given constitutional protections that adults do not have, expressly because they are children, therefore not capable of granting themselves access to certain privileges, and if their parents do not provide said privileges the children will indeed be removed by the state.

Putting aside for a second the fact that we do all of this now, and having been doing so - sometimes hard-fought-for - for many decades, is Goldberg arguing that we should not be?

Because, in the end, why else do we not allow child labor, or require parents to feed and clothe their children, send them to school, etc., but for our explicit notion that - in some sense (and one I maintain Clinton is evoking) - "there is no such thing as someone else's child"? And to the extent that we are not doing enough on this front - and NCLB has shown beyond all shadow of a doubt that we are not - who could disagree with Clinton that we need to be trying harder?

For Goldberg to twist her words to his greedy, amoral and deceitful little ends is pathetic. And crazy.

Free Will and Responsibility

I recently came across a critique of determinism (or opposition to contra-causal free will, philosophical libertarianism) that followed an old line of thought on why we should believe in free will:
What are the implications of truly believing that one's behaviors are due to uncontrollable genetic impulses? Caught philandering or stealing? Instead of saying "the devil made me do it" I guess you can now argue that "it runs in the family." But what happens when people are no longer held accountable for their actions? Is society even possible if its rules cannot be observed? This issue underlies not only philosophical debates over free will and determinism but also the current trend toward our becoming a no-fault no-risk culture.
Now, setting aside the fact that this was written on a religious website that had an obvious theosophical interest in defending free will, it does provide an excellent example of a common line of thought.  One of the first issues people raise when their belief in free will is challenged is that the result of such thinking would not allow people to be held accountable for their actions.  If people are determined by biology and environment, then how can we blame them when they do bad things?

The first flaw in this argument is that it is illogical.  The question of whether or not free will exists is separate from any consequences that may result from its existence.  This is simply the way that reality works.  No matter how much we might dislike reality, we can't choose what to believe or not to believe based on our discomfort.

The second flaw is that determinism does not necessarily mean that we can't hold people accountable.  Even if we know that someone is not ultimately responsible for their actions, we can still organize our society in such a way that certain behaviors are encouraged, while others discouraged.  For instance, even if a murderer is believed to have been created by a bad home life, a genetic disorder, etc., it is still in society's interest to keep them locked up.  This is not to say that there are not profound implications for a deterministic outlook.  Reward, retribution and punishment, fairness, equality and justice, all take on new meanings. 

One of the most profound meanings provides an interesting corollary to the argument of personal responsibility.  If free will holds individuals accountable, it fails to hold society accountable.  In turn, if determinism fails to hold individuals accountable, it does hold society accountable.  So if one believes in such a thing as "social justice", it would behoove them to decide whether they believe either in contra-causal free will, or determinism.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Obama vs. Teachers

Apparently the Teacher's Unions aren't too happy with the Obama administration.  For the last two years of his candidacy, Obama spoke before the NEA and the AFT.  Arne Duncan spoke before them the past two summers.  But this year
"no federal official was scheduled to speak at either convention this month, partly because union officials feared that administration speakers would face heckling"
 It's not surprising, considering how much Duncan's stated policy goals have essentially implied a form of union-busting.  It's no secret among such neo-liberal reformers that the only thing seeming to stand in the way of educational excellence is teacher's unions, which of course are "propping up bad teachers".  But this is sloppy thinking.

Davis Guggenheim, director of An Inconvenient Truth, takes aim squarely at teacher's unions in his new film Waiting for Superman on the failures of the American education system.  If reviews like this are any indication, his work will only reinforce misguided notions about what some of the real problems are. 
One interview subject, a teacher named Canada, is so effortlessly inspiring and simply noble that he may inspire your own kids to become an educator. The only place a man like this can make a difference is in a charter school, which (obviously) has a rather high enrollment list, and therefore its pupils must be chosen by lottery.
I haven't seen the film yet, but I'm assuming he's referring to Geoffrey Canada, head of the Harlem Children's Zone.  There's so much wrong with this interpretation that I'll just throw it out there as an example of the many problems union-bashing rhetoric leads to in public discourse.

Unions, as they represent teachers as a whole, have a vested interest that is going to sometimes stand in the way of dealing with poor performance.  But this is the trade-off you get for giving workers power through representation.  Any entrenched interest is going to have this problem.  This is the nature of power.  It corrupts.  If you take away unions, you have the problem of administrators abusing their power, and acting capriciously or in bad faith.  Their interest is going to be different than that of teachers, and so they're going to make calculations accordingly.

Both teachers and administrators (or politicians, or parents for that matter), can all claim to want "what's best for kids".  While that sounds nice, each has their own special structural dynamics based on how much particular authority and experience they have.  I'm reminded of an interview with Michelle Rhee, the controversial Washington D.C. superintendent who has raised much ire among teachers by pursuing an agenda of "reform" that many feel is unduly harsh and burdensome.  She essentially claimed to be "on the side of children", setting herself against the unions who presumably are not.  The statement was illustrative of why many describe her tactics as unsympathetic or "bullying".

There is some truth to the sentiment.  But being on "the side of children" can take many different forms.  An administrator could ostensibly require teachers to work an extra 10 hours a week, or do home-visits on weekends.  It might be good for children, but it would be unfair to teachers (it may end up harming children as overburdened teachers have less time for planning, etc.). 

So the framing is misleading.  An administrator has a lot of rhetorical sway in this department.  Because children are not cogs, the idea that teachers should be able to stand up for themselves - especially when it means making sacrifices that might take away from student education, seems to set them against the very students they are supposed to be educating.  But where does this end?  How many hours in the day are fair?  How much preparatory time?  How many subjects?  How many struggling learners vs. eager ones?  It's almost as if there ought to be some way for teachers to come together collectively and "bargain" with school officials...

So it's the classic story of worker organization vs. management, free labor markets vs. unions.  The trouble is that the unit of production is children - something everyone has a vested interested in.  And while society is finally waking up to the fact that not only do great achievement gaps exist in America along socio-economic and racial lines, and that their resolution is crucial to giving children their constitutionally guaranteed rights to equal citizenship, it is still having trouble understanding that the problem is simply too great to deal with effectively under current our educational regime. 

The common sense analysis would be to say that if children are failing, then the teacher is not doing their job.  But if teachers were the only issue, we would likely see student failure in relatively equal measure across districts and cities.  Yet like race and socio-economic background, student performance is highly correlated with geography.  Efforts at reform that do not take this structural inequality will only ever be looking at part of the picture.  And to the extent that current reform efforts are seeking to solve the education problem on the backs of teacher's unions, they are not only doomed to fail, but are dismissing the serious concerns of the very people who made the sacrifice to teach in the first place.