Sunday, October 31, 2010

Libertarian Indulgence

Quixote vs. Windmill
The essential problem with libertarians seems to be that they are over-cynical of government, and under-cynical of markets. So, they fail to appreciate the enormous good that government does, while under-estimating the enormous bad that unregulated business can do, or that will occur without certain government services.

One could just as easily make the case that business is just as dishonest as government. Of course, the nice thing about markets is they often self-correct for bad practices. But the nice thing about government is that is democratic, at least in the sense that publicly elected individuals create policy, hold the purse-strings and are accountable.

Sure, lots could (and does) go wrong with this arrangement. But I’m always struck but how Libertarians give themselves a pass on their Utopian ideals. Government is existentially corrupt, while markets are not. This always reminds me of the Utopian Marxists who are existentially opposed to markets, and have this quixotic fantasy about non-corrupt or perfectly capable government. You pin them down on specifics, and they get squishy – just wait until the revolution, when everything will work out. Ditto for Libertarians: just wait, after we destroy public education, social security, medicare, along with infrastructure, everything will work out.

Is it so hard to just agree that we need a mixed-economy; that markets are better for some things while government is better for others? This seems perfectly reasonable. And instead of wasting our time fighting grand existential battles, we can talk about specific programs and how to best achieve specific goals.

There’s an ad hominem air to much of the right’s side of the debate: the character of government is corrupt, so we must always react against it. But this is obviously not always true, so it is a logical fallacy to declare that everything the government does must be corrupt. There are many cases of the government either doing necessary things well, or doing necessary things that markets will not or can not do.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Because My Dad Came Back

A conversation I had with one of my students this week seemed to illustrate perfectly the sort of double-edged sword that is our broken immigration policy.  I can't actually vouch for any of his story being true, but it seemed perfectly genuine as he explained it to me.

"Armando" was born in the US -  San Diego, specifically, where his mother had explicitly traveled for the purposes of guaranteeing him papers.  They then returned to Mexico for some brief period, after which they moved permanently to the US.

Armando plays tough, but is a softy at heart.  He wears the gang clothes and talks the gang language (generally bragging about the fights and drugs he does).  Having ended up credit deficient at a continuation high school, his stubborn attitude toward schoolwork belies a healthy intellect and focus when he wants it.   His plan is to get his GED and move to Santa Monica, live with a friend and take culinary arts classes at the community college.

But like many of his peers, he expresses an ebullient contempt for the world.  "Life sucks," he says.  More specifically, "people suck."  Why?  "You can't trust 'em".  Recently his car was broken into and all of his expensive stereo equipment was stolen.  Life seems all daggers.

Armando was kicked out of the comprehensive high-school for selling drugs.  So he decided to take a year off and not go to school at all.  I asked him why he was selling drugs.  "For the money," he told me, explaining that he needed to help pay the bills.  "I had to after my Dad got deported."  I asked him if his mother knew where the money was coming from.  He had a construction job on the side and told her the money came from there.  But he isn't selling drugs any more.

Why not, I asked.  "Because my Dad came back".

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Brief Case for Progressive Taxation

 Matt Yglesias worries that progressive taxation won't distinguish between deserved and undeserved wealth.
The best possible policy remedy to giant, seemingly undeserved increases in CEO pay, is some kind of sharply progressive consumption tax. But then again that would be the best policy response to well-deserved increases in CEO pay as well.
I'm not sure I see a distinction.  I think a principled argument can be made that successful individuals rely on good fortune for their success (in that they were able to access both large portions of human and social capital, as well as a degree of simple luck). And given that society has a great need for government spending, not the least of which is to support agency in those who had the misfortune of lacking human/social capital and luck, asking the successful to return large portions of their income seems reasonable.

To the extent that they aren't willing to honor this bargain, given the assumptions I've just laid out about how they earned their income to begin with, they would be considered selfish, un-American, etc. Should they not accept my underlying premise, then their position is principled. However the burden is still on them to prove that their success was not in fact dependent upon good fortune (and to the degree that they admit it is, they are back in the position of being accountable for progressive taxation).

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Parent-Gap

"The First Family", Jean-Marie-Fran├žois-Xavier, 1864

The basic assumption underlying modern education reform is that teachers can make every student successful.  Anything less is the "soft bigotry of low expectations".  The obvious implication is that if you are teaching children who are not successful, then you at best have low-expectations, at worst are bigoted.  Well, OK maybe you just plain suck.

Unfortunately, this is a bunch of hooey.  No matter how high your standards, not all children will be successful.  Amazing teachers will do amazing things, but I call this the "Rambo Teacher Fallacy".  Just because some teachers are able to help more of their kids succeed, against all odds, it doesn't mean that all - or even most - will be able to.  Just like you wouldn't expect all your soldiers to be little Rambos, so to with education.

So why is this?  Why can't teachers simply do their job and have every child succeed?

Because we live in the real world.  I know that sounds trite, but here goes.  Generational poverty and property values pool citizens in ghettos.  Those in society most lacking in knowledge of how to be successful in life, and the resources to do it, are pooled together in neighborhoods.  Add in crime, drugs, failed marriages and a toxic, dystopian brew develops that can drive any kid straight into disobedience and hostility towards an authority he sees no reason to believe in.

I asked one of my students today why he felt his life was so terrible.  He told me he couldn't trust anyone.  Even his parents?  Especially them, he said.  "They kicked me out!"  I told him he must have done something to provoke them.  He admitted that he had gotten into a fight with his father and punched him in the face.  I hear stories like this over and over.  Sex, fights and drugs - lots of drugs.  The parents don't know what to do.

But let's back up a bit.  (We could go forward too, as many of them have already either fathered or given birth to their own children.  But let's keep things simpler.)  The disadvantage starts at birth, with socio-economic factors putting children at risk in numerous ways.  This blog has detailed many of them.  But suffice it to say that kids are coming into the education system severely handicapped.  This of course handicaps the educator, for whom it is often the best they can do to help the child simply be less unsuccessful.  There is only so much one teacher can do in a classroom of kids who need serious intervention. 

So what we're talking about here is a deceptively simple word: parenting.  One is reminded of Nanny 911, the reality television series that ran a few years back in which a professional nanny was brought in to cure a family's rotten kids.  The irony of course was always that in the end the real problem was with the parents, who were failing to provide clear boundaries, set expectations, be consistent, etc. with their children.  The parents always wanted what was best for their children, yet were at wit's end trying to understand how to achieve it.  It's easy to point a finger and say well, you should be doing this, or that.  But to the parents it wasn't.  And no, parenting doesn't come with an instruction manual.  A mother-in-law maybe, and those evil strangers who mistakenly think they have any business offering their advice.

But parenting it is.  And the strangest thing about the contemporary conversation on education is that parenting rarely comes into it.  Either parents are perfect angels whose children are victims of a dysfunctional system corrupted by lazy teachers and their unions, or parents may be complete monsters but there is "no excuse" and the only thing these kids need is "good teaching" and high-standards.

But parents aren't angels.  Poor children often come from homes with a lot of problems.  And while the parents are doing their best, their children are getting a lousy upbringing.  To deny this is to deny our collective responsibility in intervening and lending a helping hand to our fellow citizens.

And teachers can't make all these kids be successful.  A few might, under the right circumstances, with the right staff and leadership and support, and extra hours worked, extra yoga and meditation exercises, etc.  But the current model is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle.  It is fundamentally ill-equipped to do the type of massive socio-economic restructuring required.

I have not seen the film Waiting for Superman.  And therefore I know I should not speak of it.  But it is such a distillation of the current thinking in education reform, and so successful in driving the discussion, (and literally drove donations to my specific class project funding request on, which just bought my classroom a new LCD projector!).  But I can't watch that movie.  I've listened to the debates, watched the promos, followed the director's publicity.  But I just can't watch that movie.  I'm sorry for the dirty reference, but I feel like it would be like asking a Jew to see the new Leni Riefenstahl flick.  Or sitting through an hour of Glenn Beck.  There are only certain lengths to which one can go in life.

Fortunately Lanna Garon, a New York public school teacher went for me, and wrote about it in the Huffington Post.  She says it:
purport[s] to investigate the reasons for the failing American school system, but in fact ignore all social or economic factors but one: bad teachers. Furthermore, they tout charter schools as the holy grail of education reform, completely glossing over the fact that the vast majority of charter schools are not only no more successful (and in some cases less so) than their public counter-parts, but have at their disposal both more funding and a more active/supportive parent base.
 She goes on to explain the one big thing the film left out.  That's right, parenting.  In excruciating detail, she goes about explaining what exactly school teachers in poor schools are faced with from incompetent parents.  From their lack of presentation at parent-teacher conferences or back-to-school nights, lack of consequences for their children's behavior, failure to bring children to school on time or make sure they are adequately prepared for class, or - in the worst cases - to actively support their children's violent behavior.
Last spring, the principal of our school brought in 30 sets of parents to discuss a rash of fights in our corridors. She was told by several of the parents that the students SHOULD be fighting it out on school grounds, because then it's a "controlled environment" wherein security can break up the fight, as opposed to if it were to take place unsupervised off-campus. (No recognition of the fact that these fights waste students' and teachers' time, distracting everyone from learning, as well as the inherent problems of school violence.) We eventually found out that some of the parents had actually been driving their children around the neighborhood to beat up their rivals, even after pledging to work with the school to put an end to the conflict.
I had a student tell me this morning about the time she and her father drove out looking for the security guard who she felt had "disrespected" her, so as to exact justice.

Garon doesn't say any of this with any seeming glee or accusatory tone, as far as I can tell.  As a teacher of similar populations I can relate to everything she says.  And I know that these parents are all struggling with their own battles as well.  I can only imagine Garon feels the same.  I don't expect parents to behave any better.  I understand that there are very serious structural reasons as to why they do not. It is not a simple "choice".  My job is an educator is to take their children in and do my very best to educate and love them as best I can before they leave at the end of the day.

But I can't do it alone.  Very few teachers can.  And the longer we continue to ignore the real problems plaguing the broken corners of society, sweeping them under the rug of "teacher reform" and union-busting, they will only fester.  I don't know what all the answers are.  And asking me to have them all solved by 3pm every day when the bell rings is a bit God-damned too much.  When the children exit the building, off to who-knows-what, who-knows-why or who-knows-how, they are for all intents and purposes lost and forgotten.  At least until they show up at my door at 8am the next day.

I don't want to interfere into anyone's life.  I'd love to think that all parents can do right by their children.  But many can't.  And that's a problem for the rest of us - Lord knows it is one for them.  Not least the children themselves.  So when we look to leave not one child behind, let us look as well to the parents.  As a wise former principal of mine once illustrated with a powerpoint slide, a child's education is a triangle between the teacher, the school and the parent.  Leave one out and the whole system collapses.

Films like Superman can glorify the charters that take in the families fleeing the despair of the ghetto in which they live.  But more of a concern to me is the families left behind, whose parents never sign up for the lottery in the first place, and who seem to make their child's education a low priority.  These are the parents whose children are making our classrooms unbearable, whose children are taking up everyone's time because their problems are too big for one teacher to solve alone.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Can't We All Just Agree With Me?

I first heard of Amy Wax's book, Race, Wrongs, and Remedies: Group Justice in the 21st Century, during this diavlog between John Mc Whorter and Glenn Loury over a year ago, before which McWhorter had reviewed it for the New Republic. 

My thoughts on that were less than amused.  Now Wax is back and she's taking on Glenn Loury directly over at bloggingheads.

"The fundamental problem with urban education is political-economic organization, it's the unions, it's the work rules, it's the efficacy of the teachers in the classroom, and so on... it may also to some degree be the resources."
"Is it that the teachers are not trying to teach them basic stuff or is it that the students for whatever reason are just so ill-equipped when they come in... significantly behind... then to turn around and say it's the school's fault..."
Loury responds with the HCZ.
"They are significantly over-performing kids at parallel schools..."

Argghhhh... Here I am, agreeing with Wax! Well, it's no surprise. Conservatives have always blamed the poor.

But Loury essentially is trotting out the typically neo-reform BS about the failing urban school. Well, yes - but not because it isn't doing the best it can. It's going into battle severely under-prepared! Comparing poor schools to suburban schools is like comparing military operations in Iraq and Italy. Yet no one questions whether the troops are competent. They just send them billions of dollars and make sure the job gets done. (Go America!)

The HCZ is funded at 3x the level of regular schools, plus they have a selection advantage. KIPP does this with some extra funding, but mainly through selection advantage and teacher sacrifices. They're like the special forces - highly skilled but not scaleable for a massive campaign.

Conservatives are willing to blame parents, but can't see that the parents lack agency themselves. Liberals won't blame parents, but will agree to more investment in schools and other resources to attempt to repair the decay in social and human capital of the poor. Everyone blames teachers and the teacher-lover unions.

Wax is exactly right that this is massive. I'm not sure who has an answer for changing the behavior of the dysfunctional poor. But looking long-term (although it'll be here before you know it), we can do a lot of very effective things right now to both improve the lives of the poor, as well as put their children on a path to success. This starts pre-natal, goes into intensive intervention for high-risk families, cuts class sizes way down, extends the school day, and provides serious support services from health to counseling K-12.

In many ways it's literally the nanny state. But when you have parents not providing crucial services to their children, someone needs to step in and lend a guiding hand. And newsflash! - one teacher in a class of 30 students (most of whom have similar issues) ain't going to cut it.

Wax can yammer on all she wants about her just-so causality stories. I think it's complicated at the very least. In the meantime we need to act.

Bonus material: KCRW's To the Point with Warren Olney had an excellent little discussion on the current state of  education reform yesterday.  Definitely worth a listen...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Smart Phones and Smart Kids

A story in the Times looks at the increasing phenomenon of smartphone use by toddlers.  Iphones and touch-screen devices have been revolutionary in that their intuitive interface is accessible to young fingers, and a vast array of cheap and simple educational games can be downloaded.  The general tone of the story is typical - a number of anecdotal stories of parents who can't resist the utility of giving the phones to their kids, and then some finger wagging by experts.

"Dr. Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, a pediatrician who is a member of the academy’s council of communications and media, said the group is continually reassessing its guidelines to address new forms of “screen time".“We always try to throw in the latest technology, but the cellphone industry is becoming so complex that we always come back to the table and wonder should we have a specific guideline for cellphones,” she said. But, she added, “At the moment, we seem to feel it’s the same as TV.”
Jane M. Healy, an educational psychologist in Vail, Colo. said: “Any parent who thinks a spelling program is educational for that age is missing the whole idea of how the preschool brain grows. What children need at that age is whole body movement, the manipulation of lots of objects and not some opaque technology. You’re not learning to read by lining up the letters in the word ‘cat.’ You’re learning to read by understanding language, by listening. Here’s the parent busily doing something and the kid is playing with the electronic device. Where is the language? There is none.”
"Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University who specializes in early language development, sides with the Don’ts. Research shows that children learn best through active engagement that helps them adapt, she said, and interacting with a screen doesn’t qualify."
She's right about the research.  But in a common fallacy, she applies it incorrectly.  Children do learn best in certain areas of development through active engagement.  But many computer games offer a complexity of interaction that would be hard to replicate in the physical world.  Much like the reading of a book stimulates specific types of abstract thinking and processing that could not be replicated in the physical world, the computer interface allows for expansion of certain skills.  And because games are designed to be played alone, without help, they offer a facility that a physical game can't offer without adult guidance.

Now, the critique here is often that this sort of auto-facilitation lets adults off the hook.  Instead of engaging in crucial adult-child interaction, the computer becomes a cheap proxy.  But the difference ought to be recognized by degree.  If computers are being used as a complete substitute for parenting, then the child is being deprived.  But any parent who opts for such a radical substitution would not likely be inclined to effective parenting otherwise.

What is often left out of child-development analysis is the broad range of parenting that exists, especially across socioeconomic demographics.  Stories such as the one in the Times routinely ignore this piece of the picture as they narrowly focus on the headline-grabbing main event.  The children spoken of in the story are solidly middle class.  And comments by the experts are assuming that there is anything like a standard early childhood.

But we know that early childhood varies greatly, generally by SES.  Two children of similar ages but from different socioecomic or environmental backgrounds usually will have had vastly different experiences with language, cognition and higher-order thinking skills.  When I taught kindergarten in a low-SES neighborhood, most of the children came to school on the first day hardly even knowing what letters or numbers were.  Few had been read to on a nightly basis, and their exposure to high-level vocabulary and thinking skills was likely limited.  I can only imagine that had they the use of a smartphone with educational games, their academic skills would have been remarkably better. 

The same could likely be said for television viewing.  No doubt most of them watched television at home, but it tended not to have been the sort of educational or developmentally targeted programming found on PBS or Nick Jr., instead being the more commercial-driven fare found on other channels.  This is a direct reflection of the parent's knowledge - vague as it might be - of media and child development.  Content was essentially being edited for them.  No doubt this schism would extend to smart phones, although I know of no research on the subject.  That would have been an interesting story.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Another Post on Determinism and Political Science

Van Gogh's Deathbed View
In my opinion the free will vs. determinist view of consciousness is the sharpest dividing line between liberals and conservatives.

Now, I have yet to see any evidence of how such a thing as free will might look. In our scientific understanding of the world, there are fundamental forces and laws under which everything must abide. We see time as essentially a process of cause and effect. So why would the human mind be any different?

Thus, you have a theory that says every human action must have an antecedent; there must have been some impulse behind every new thought and action. So while one may choose from available choices, there are factors that act upon one's ability to know and choose from those options. So yes, a guy knows full well that stealing is wrong, and in theory could have chosen otherwise. But could he? What were his motivations? The area of his brain that was conscious of what he was doing somehow made - as brains always do - a rational choice, in the sense that it analyzed the set of options and took the one that made the most sense.

We all do this daily, right? Aside from those of us who are perfect, we are always fighting with our better angels to do the "right" thing. But our brain is operating on a pretty simple algorithm: make the choice that we want the most. So most of the time, to the degree that we have been acculturated properly to the social norms & common good, that desire for integrity will win over any selfish feelings, and what we "want" most of all will be what is "right". Most major social institutions have this inculcation of integrity as one of the top 2 reasons to exist. The family, the school, religion, government, etc. all are heavily oriented toward the maintenance of agreed upon values of human behavior.

But we often falter. When we do so, it is because our brain has made the selfish choice to not put the health of ourselves or society before some immediate personal gain. But this is entirely rational in the sense that the basic algorithm still holds: one will do what one wants the most. Unfortunately what one wants is not always what one ought to do. We are unknowingly being pulled toward one or another action either subconsciously, or simply through ignorance.

John Dewey talked about this a century ago in Democracy and Education:
"We rarely recognize the extent in which our conscious estimates of what is worth while and what is not, are due to standards of which we are not conscious at all. But in general it may be said that the things which we take for granted without inquiry or reflection are just the things which determine our conscious thinking and decide our conclusions. And these habitudes which he below the level of reflection are just those which have been formed in the constant give and take of relationship with others."

In this sense, the behavior is certainly a character flaw. But it is one that can be understood in a deterministic way. It doesn't make it right, or acceptable. It just is. We will likely never be able to entirely map the human mind, and likely never be able to cite the specific cause of complex human behaviors that involve inordinate amounts of biological processing. But every new step we take in neuroscience is validating the basic theory of mind that we do have: that our thoughts originate from brain tissue and are essentially the process of taking input, running it through an existing biological mechanism, calculating something we call "thought", and then acting on it.

If all of this is true, then we have two options in response to negative behavior: ignore it and hope it resolves itself on its own, or respond in such as way as to influence the individual and produce the best outcome we can.

Now, regarding social policy, as far as I know the conservative option is kind of both: ignore the behavior (unless it requires policing/locking people up), and hope that either people figure things out on their own or are somehow shamed into changing their behavior.

This seems to have been a complete failure on both counts. The behavior isn't changing. Some conservatives claim that this is only because of liberal welfare spending. But that's hard to buy. Very little "welfare" actually exists any more, and what there is is hardly dependence-inducing. Or, at least to the extent that it is, it in no way compares with the general deprivations of being so poor in the first place. No, the reasons for continued poverty are well known - family breakdown, institutional rebellion, violence, drugs, lack of human and social capital, generational neglect, etc. Compared to this, government dependence is hardly an issue.

Shaming doesn't seem to be helping either. Ask anyone who is poor and they'll tell you that it isn't fun. A good argument could actually be made that public shame is actually a contributor to many negative behaviors, in the sense that certain rebellious, spiteful attitudes toward traditional social norms often develop no matter how self-destructive they may be. A good example of this would be street gangs, and general hooliganism.(God, I feel really old saying that!). Remember, as a community, these are often people who spent the formative years of their live being told again and again that they were failures. They came to self-identify as such. And once one has lost all sense of dignity, why would public shame be a useful behavioral modification technique?

So, instead we've got devastating social and economic costs. Simply locking more and more people is obviously not a serious solution. Sitting around waiting for people to start acting better isn't working. Shaming certainly isn't working. That about exhausts the conservative repertoire.

Over on the left, we have a ton of ideas. Sure, they cost money. Why wouldn't they? But if they are effective, then the only question seems to be one of personal sacrifice. Actually, there is plenty of evidence for many targeted programs that end up saving a lot of tax dollars in the long run by increased productivity and reduced crime, etc. But regardless, if the issue is how best to get people to change, then you're either on board or you're not. And waiting around isn't working.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

School Violence and Real Teaching

 Mark Kleiman emphasizes that kids need to feel safe in their neighborhoods and at school:
"It also leads some of them to construct informal alternatives to state power for mutual self-defense. Alas, those institutions are also capable of collective aggression; we call them “gangs.” All the random psychologizing about how gang membership provides a substitute for the family misses its role in providing a substitute for the state. If we really want to shrink gang membership among juveniles, we might start out by making non-membership safer."
While I agree, I'm not sure sure this is an avenue that will bear much fruit in the long-term.  Many of his commenters throw up their hands and complain (again) about the failure of public education as an institution.  But we must remember that what schools are being asked to do - and rightly so, in my opinion - is take these broken children and offer them a chance at success.  And not just the victims, but the perpetrators as well.  Because are they not all victims in the end?
There is a lot of room for growth in how we fight bullying and violence in our schools.  The current reform norm via charters & NCLB have actually created an environment in which a lot less experimentation is possible. State mandates are often created by people who have little experience in actual education and it means endless wasted hours for those of us who want to make our schools better, distracting us with top-down bureaucracy that distracts from the business of site-level analysis and serious reform. But there’s of course some good too.

I work with at-risk gang populations at a continuation school and fortunately we have the benefit of small class sizes. I have students who are able to get the kind of one-on-one support that no comprehensive classroom teacher would be able to offer with 35+ students. That makes me just one more person in his(her) life who he knows cares about him and facilitates his emotional acculturation. This means that when he walks out my door to the lunch line he’s that much less inclined to react violently to a negative situation.

Obviously there needs to be sufficient policing. But the culture of a school (something incredibly hard to quantify) is possibly more important. There’s a ripple effect from violence, hate, anger, etc. that can overwhelm even the best security measures. In my own classroom, I know that things happen behind my back because the students are very good at not being seen. But through handling bullying and conflict appropriately, which often means directly in a smaller class, provides rich opportunities for improved student self-awareness and an orientation toward compassion. Students know what is wrong and what is right, but they often lack the tools to get through conflict in a safe and responsible way. A lot of gang/bullying/etc. behavior comes from a simple ignorance of appropriate responses to stress. 

Now, the fact that so many of the students are coming from high-stress homes, with few or no positive adult role-models, makes this process very fragile. And honestly, I’m not sure every teacher is cut out for the work, as it demands difficult to identify, high-level emotional skills. But there’s also little room in the day for this type of instruction, much less in any kind of serious, targeted curriculum – especially in high-risk neighborhoods where everyone is simply trying to survive academically and everything is focused towards reading & math scores. But school may be the only place many students will ever receive the type of moral leadership and emotional skill-building that they’ll need to be successful in life. It should be on the agenda of every school board and site administration.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

White Anxiety

There are structural reasons for middle-class unease.   Middle-class ethnic minorities have a much better understanding of this in the sense that through solidarity with the minority experience, there is intimate knowledge of the ways in which the economy can be an unfair mistress.  This is heightened by continued ethnic ties in which exposure to structural inequality is more frequently encountered.   Middle-class whites have less experience with this basic unfairness.  Middle-class job security isn't what it once was, and fewer careers can be guaranteed based on investment of time in college or trade skills.  To the ethnic minority, from communities never flush with social capital to begin with, this is nothing new.  There is an understanding of the role of social and economic privilege that whites are not as familiar with. 

This is constantly reinforced in the media and by the levers of power in larger society.  The upper-class people on television, civic and business leaders, or even those stepping out of luxury cars at the mall seem - at least from a distance - to be white people like them.  And in an ethnic sense they generally are.  Yet what is often unseen is the privilege that lurks behind their success.  While generational upward mobility does exist, more than often it does not and the "haves" will be found to have "had" much more often than to have "had-not".

The ethnic minority is much more comfortable with viewing socio-economic status dynamics through the prism of privilege, or social capital.  Good-faith attempts at success are nothing new to minority, or immigrant communities.  Nothing is ever handed to anyone on a silver plate.  By contrast, the middle-class white faces very legitimate economic anxiety, yet struggles to find a palliative narrative.

The Democratic party has traditionally stood for seeing economic troubles through a prism of privilege and structural inequality, which government can serve to mediate.  The Republican party has stood for seeing economic inequality as a personal problem the alleviation of which only free-enterprise can ever facilitate.  The latter view is one minorities tend to discount, largely prima fascie, in favor of the former. 

The Republican party has been able to offer the white middle class - its largest base of support, a story that attempts to bridge the gap in these radically different understandings.  Instead of asking the white middle class to blame itself (or larger inequality) for its own economic anxiety, it has created a structural bogeyman in the form of the "big government", which it claims through endless repetition to be the ultimate cause of all economic misfortune.  Because middle class whites do not have the same class solidarity and direct experience with structural inequality as do ethnic minorities, this narrative is able to find a resonance that it otherwise might not.

Famously coined the "southern-strategy", Republicans were able to go one further and appropriate racial grievance by not only fingering "big government" as the cause of economic unease, but also then pointing to government programs designed to help the least among us (who of course tend to be disproportionately minority) as the specific expenditures the taxes for which are costing the country growth.  The simple fallacy in this argument is the fact that these expenditures are dwarfed by programs such as defense, social security, medicare or public schools that are targeted towards the general public at large.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Magician in the Sky

Julian Sanchez tries to imagine an Agnostic God:
"How can you be sure you’re omnipotent? Perhaps you can accomplish anything you can imagine in your own corner of reality—a lucid dreamer can say that much—but there’s some greater reality you’re not even aware of in which, like the dreamer wakened, you’d have no such power. Or maybe even within reality as you know it, there are gaps in your power you aren’t aware of because you can’t even think of the relevant tests. The obvious response is that you’d know all these things because you’re omniscient—but of course, the same problem arises. How do you know you’re really omniscient? At most, there might not be any questions you’re aware of being unable to answer—but that’s hardly the same thing. The subjective feeling of omniscience might in fact be a symptom of a profound ignorance—being unaware even of the existence of those domains of knowledge you lack."

He wonders whether such a God might be able to offer us proof of his own omnipotence:
"It would require a good deal less than omnipotence to make a human perceptual system experience any demonstration of omnipotence you might care to suggest. So we might imagine God zipping you back to the dawn of creation so you can watch him summon all the galaxies into existence, then mold the earth and breathe life into the first humans, and so on. The trouble is that if you’re aiming for parsimony, the simpler explanation will almost certainly be that you’ve encountered a being capable of simulating all these experiences to your primate nervous system. That is, of course, a hell of a trick—a being who can do that is certainly pretty potent!—but still pretty far short of complete mastery over all space, time, and matter."
I’ve always imagined the reasonable response to such an entity would be, “OK, so how does he do it? (or, possibly more interesting, why?)”. At which point we’re back to square one, trying to understand the science behind it all.  It's one thing to levitate or turn water into wine.  But how does it work?  Or is the answer simply that "he can".  Sounds to me a bit too much like a magician refusing to reveal his secrets.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Cleaning Out the Old Souls

I was raised in the quasi-hindu religion of Rhada Soami Satsang Beas.  A tenet of the faith being the concept of karma and reincarnation, I grew up with my mother frequently telling me that I was an "old soul".  A childhood book I have fond memories of called, The Journey of the Soul, illustrated the mythology.  In one page a heavenly region was depicted as a sea of teardrop-shaped souls, themselves teary-eyed at the painful, sad thought of having to return to their next sojourn in some Earthy, corporeal form.  Another page showed the concentric circles of terrestrial life spiraling outwards, and upwards, from the lowliest plant toward the higher mammalian forms.  This hierarchical concept was illustrated again as a sort of golden ladder, with two small human children sitting playfully on the top rung, below them the "lower" orders, the classic lion and tiger - "kings of the jungle" directly beneath.

There is an intuitive common sense to all of this.  At its core it is about consciousness, or the ability of a life form to be self-aware.  It is obvious that humans are the most conscious beings on the planet, followed by other mammalian forms, along with a few other forms with highly-developed brains such as corvids (crows) or cephalapods (octopi).  However, it is obviously highly unscientific.  Of what did any of the gurus know of science?  They simply delivered "inspired" teachings, largely derived from religious cultural memes. 

While we can devise an objective measure of consciousness, we have a long ways to go before we come close to understanding what is really going on within the neural networks of the brain.  But there is a lot that we do know.  We know for instance that the brain goes through a period of intense cognitive development in the early years of life.  We know that environment is very important to the brain's growth.  We know that there are multiple areas of specialty within the brain, and that what we think of as one "thought", is actually the product of a diverse range of structures.  The brain is not only responsible for coordinating what we think of as conscious thought, but also a vast unconsciousness.  Our base emotions, such as anger, pain, joy, fear, excitement, etc. are all interwoven with conscious thought, pushing it and pulling it in different directions, sometimes making it entirely impossible.  Just imagine trying to contemplate your weekend plans while fleeing a burning building.

So consciousness arises from an impossibly complex organ, estimated to be made up of over a million miles of neuronal connections.  Douglas Hofstadter describes the ultimate result as a sort of "strange loop", in which the sum of our processing capabilities folds back upon itself, allowing for self-awareness.  Yet while a healthy human is capable of such a feat, most of one's day is spent not in a state of self-awareness, but generally focused on various external loci.  The act of making the bed, tying shoes, fixing dinner, repairing a car, etc. requires a level of acuity that would be impossible to maintain while completely self-aware.  This is best stated in degrees, however, as every task requires a specific level of mental engagement.  We've all likely had the experience of reading a book or driving our car "absentmindedly", suddenly realizing that we've gone an entire paragraph or block while seemingly completely lost in some abstract thought.

I profess no expertise in the theology of Rhada Soami Satsang Beas, or any other religion that espouses the concept of reincarnation.  But I do know enough to critique its core belief that any soul can be "older" than another.  There no proof of reincarnation, obviously.  But the concept of reincarnation through evolution of consciousness is deeply troublesome for some very pragmatic reasons.  Human conscious development is entirely dependent on biological and environmental interaction; your brain is a product of your genes, plus the environment you were born into, from your appearance as a zygote up through the parenting you received, the house you live in, the job you have, the friends with which you comport today.

Now, this presents a problem for reincarnation of consciousness.  If we are determined by the biological/environmental world into which we are born, then how is it that we gain anything from our experiences here?  If one were to live life as an abused child who grows up into a deranged sociopath, that would surely require a "do-over", the work of a very "young" soul.  And if one were to be born into the arms of a loving family, and encouraged to grow into a compassionate, intelligent, well-adjusted adult, that would likewise be the mark of an "old soul".  Yet how were these two different souls given any opportunity to do other than they did?  Were they somehow supposed to have been applying consciousness from past-lives to their present reality, and rising above circumstance?  Seems the child who was loved had a considerably unfair advantage, no?

In many ways this mythology mirrors that of those who have a libertarian concept of free will: we all make our own choices in life and must suffer the associated rewards and punishments.  Fundamentally, this view presents a classic authoritarian view of existing social power dynamics.  For in society there have always been winners and losers.  Those at the bottom are subject to downward pressures on their consciousness that those at the top will never experience.  Returning to the concept of trying to plan one's weekend while running from a burning house, the pressures placed on those at the bottom include access to nutrition, health care, education, dysfunctional family structures, etc., and generally make the evolution of consciousness much more difficult.  Underdeveloped and caught up dealing with numerous life-stressors, the brain is unable to expend precious resources processing higher-order meta-cognition.

And yet while the modern authoritarian might only view those with underdeveloped capacities for consciousness as responsible for their own earthly existence, those who accept the doctrine of  reincarnation of consciousness take it a step further and doom them not only to their fate in this world, but that of the great beyond as well.  In this manner of hyper-punishment and judgment they are not alone.  The Judeo-Christian faiths do them one better and imagine a literal hell from which there is no possible redemption.  And all this merely because they happened to be born out of the wrong DNA, the wrong uterus.

In my own life today I wonder how much I've internalized this variation on the concept of original sin.  How much do I hold myself up to an impossible standard of thought and action?  How much of my consciousness is in perpetual recoil from the idea drummed in to me as a youth that I was indeed an "old soul", apart and "holier" than my fellow man?  At some basic level, even the Christian knows that while he may be a sinner, there is salvation in Jesus Christ and that he will be rewarded for his labors with eternal peace.  The reincarnated are in a sense eternally condemned to wander the earth, ghost-like, never quite good enough, but always better than their neighbor.

I like to think that I've left all this behind.  And rationally I have.  But what length of that million-mile length of neurons is devoted to self-criticism and self-doubt?  There is no way to know.  Religion has an awesome power to shape one's sense of self, sending its insidious tendrils deep into the psyche and holding fast.  Ironically, my religious instruction in the evolution of consciousness now exists entirely in my unconscious.  Like the golden rungs of that hierarchical ladder, it descends downward into the very depths of my reptilian brain, churning levers I can only begin to comprehend.