Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Chasing Waterfalls

One of the latest "miracle stories" in education reform concerns Chicago's Urban Prep Academy.
Urban Prep Academies is a nonprofit organization founded in 2002 by Tim King and a group of African-American education, business and civic leaders. Its mission is straightforward: to provide young men with a comprehensive, high-quality college-preparatory education that results in graduates succeeding in college.
 And what do you know, it seems to be an incredible success.  A Google search provides pages of nearly unanimous journalistic praise:
"The school started with kids whose futures had been left for dead by their public schools: Only four percent of the school's incoming freshmen were reading at grade level when they arrived on campus. But by sending all of their graduating seniors to college, they've not only gotten these kids up to speed, they've allowed them to zip past every other public school in the entire United States."
I'm always skeptical about these stories because they are often difficult to verify. In other words, just going from the news stories, which are almost always terribly ignorant of the many factors that go into education, it's hard to get all the facts. That said, great things do indeed happen. Of course, they happen at public schools too. Much of what goes into success at poor school is often a synchronicity of school culture, good leadership, good staff, good organization, etc. But just because these occasionally happens, it doesn't mean it is a model that can be replicated. (Back to my analogy about giving soldiers resources if we want them all to succeed).

So, the first thing I always look at is selection; is it the case that certain types of families are being drawn to this school? Not all poor, black males have the same levels of social capital. I've taught many poor students at regular high school who simply refuse to show up to class, complete their homework, or even do work in class. When you call home, often times the parent simply says they don't know what to do.

From one story, Tim King, the head of the school:

Fortunately, King said, his students come from stronger families -- the kind of families that are smart and committed enough to enroll a son at Urban Prep.

I'm trying to find articles asking or answering skeptical questions about the school but there seem to be very few. Everyone seems to think it's some kind of miracle - proof that poor black kids can be educated! Yet what exactly are they doing different than other schools - many of whom have longer hours, strict dress codes or disciplines, yet have have been found on average to be marginally more successful at best.

Diane Ravitch's recent piece in the Times critized the hype around a few of these seemingly to-good-to-be-true school success stories.
Gary Rubinstein, an education blogger and Teach for America alumnus who has been critical of the program, checked Mr. Duncan’s claims about Urban Prep. Of 166 students who entered as ninth graders, only 107 graduated. Astonishingly, the state Web site showed that only 17 percent passed state tests, compared to 64 percent in the low-performing Chicago public school district.
My main skepticism in all this is not that educating the poor can't be done. But that it is incredibly hard, there are no easy answers, and - and maybe this my biggest concern - that if we fool ourselves into chasing after false-solutions - we are wasting time and resources that could be better spent looking for real, lasting solutions. I don't pretend to have the answers. But the history of education is rife with miracle stories that turn out to have been little more than wishful thinking, often peddled by some or another politician or advocate eager to sell the public on his particular brand of ideological magic.

Last thought: talk to anyone involve din educating the poor (all the poor, not just those with the highest social capital) at the ground level, and they will tell you the biggest problem is the student's family. How do we attack that problem? I have some ideas. But they are based on small-scale studies and projects. I'm not sure how scalable or effective they'd really be. But I'm convinced that's the key to closing the achievement gap.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Tyranny of Fantasy

Some ideas just seem so obviously wrong, that we don't even bother with them.  Yet history is filled with terribly wrong ideas that have become enormously popular, and had enormously terrible consequences for society.

Libertarianism is one such idea.  Having only a couple of decades ago been relegated to the fringes of American politics, it seems an idea that has gained enormous traction.  However, its impact seems less as a political philosophy or party on its own, but in the way in which it has taken root in the conservative movement more broadly, most importantly in the Republican party.  One of the candidates causing the most excitement in recent years on the right has been the libertarian Ron Paul, and to some extent his son Rand Paul.

There has always been a strange alignment between the religious right and the economic right.  Libertarianism, of course, doesn't mesh very well with religious conservatism.  This may be why it seemed to have gone under the political radar during the ascendancy and dominance of the religious right over movement conservatism in recent decades.

But society has also been changing.  Social mores have loosened considerably.  While America is still enormously religious, it has also become much more tolerant, to the point of gay marriage - homosexuality openly displayed approvingly in the media - seems an inevitable national right.  Libertarianism's embrace of social tolerance seems a growing fit with the country.

All the while, the conservative movement has only moved further to the right economically.  Even as economic inequality is at historically high levels, and tax rates are historically low, conservatism seems as angry as ever with national spending.  While military budgets have always been criticized by Libertarians, they seem to at least hold some solidarity with the "bare-bones" vision of the Libertarian state - police, military, maybe basic roads, etc. .  While social programs represent the worst sort of "redistributionist tyranny", defense spending - at least in pared-down form -  isn't an ideological anathema.

There are good reasons for why Libertarianism was always kept to the fringe.  Of course, its social liberalism never went over very well in puritanical America.  But its economic vision was also at odds with great American traditions of a healthy, robust government that actively provided services that Americans could actually remember having not existed.  Now, it seems, Americans are quite receptive to the notion that the many government services they used to accept as clearly reasonable and important, are at best wasteful, and at worst a threat to their liberty.

It is difficult to say what caused this change.  It was a slow process.  As social mores shifted, minorities became a larger part of American consciousness - as did their social despair.  The "southern strategy" capitalized on fears of the other, galvanizing resentment.  Manufacturing changed, as the factory model could be replicated overseas for a fraction of hard-won labor pay, American workforce became more fragmented.

Interestingly, I am suspicious it doesn't correlate perfectly with the rise of Rush Limbaugh and right wing radio.  They no doubt gave voice to something lurking in the American soul.  Whether for ratings, or necessity of the format, AM radio was able to fashion a rhetorical narrative, vision of conservatism at war with liberalism, that enraptured millions.  Their language - a mixture of overheated rhetoric, anger, and victimhood - slowly crept into the national conservative dialogue.

Opposition to "Big Government", AM radio's ultimate evil, at the feet of which blame for almost any conceivable social ill could be lain, came to define the Republican party.  No matter that big government often merely meant "things I don't like", it was an easily graspable and repeatable mantra that seemed to boil every possible American anxiety down to a single, eminently attackable bogeyman.

And the more single-minded and ideologically driven people became, having little to debate or argue than how to get rid of this beast, the easier it became to find solace in Libertarianism's utopian vision for what America could look like without big government.  For not content to simply attack government, Libertarianism has actual specific details: get rid of the departments of trasportation, get rid of FEMA, get rid of the EPA, get rid of the department of labor.  Heck - get rid of public schools, libraries, parks - maybe even roads!  With big government being the only real problem, its absence is the perfect solution!

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, an influential anarchist and member of French parliament, summed up the libertarian, now conservative impulse:
To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be place[d] under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.
—P.J. Proudhon, "What Is Government?", General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, translated by John Beverly Robinson (London: Freedom Press, 1923), pp. 293-294. 
This seems as good a place as any to take on this extremely unserious and absurd vision of government.

I have no doubt he was a very smart man. Yet of course, otherwise brilliant people often become so blinded by ideological fantasy that their ability to reason can fall apart. My favorite recent example.

So, the first logical fallacy - I'm not sure its proper name - but he is taking things that sometimes happen, or have a chance of happening, and stating that they always happen. Maybe this.

Maybe this. "The government says it wants to do X. X causes something bad to happen. Therefore the government does not want to do X.

Its just also riddled with inaccurate statements. "To be governed is to be fleeced"?

I wouldn't be surprised if we all shared some of the ideas contained within his incredibly broad and meandering rant. Is to be governed to be law-driven? Regulated? Sure.

It is also inevitably to be abused in some form, in that someone, under government somewhere will likely experience any of his listed laments. But that could be said of nearly any system. To be human, as such, is to be tortured, beaten, enslaved, raped, exploited, etc.

The irony of libertarianism to me - and maybe its grand failure/fallacy - is that it fastidiously picks over an area of government's specific failings, and then assumes that because without that area of government the failings would not exist, the absence of that area of government things will be necessarily better.

An example: Public schools are inefficient, etc. (private schools seem to be better). So getting rid of public schools will mean better schools. (see if you can find the glaring problem there!)

These criticisms always contain the concept of "liberty". When government, defined as tyranny, is imagined away, liberty is assumed to take its place. The opposite of tyranny is liberty, right? Yet this ignores the reality that tyranny comes in many forms - threats of violence, exploitative labor conditions, inequality, etc. Government is generally a response to that tyranny. Because it is not always perfect, does not mean that its absence is necessarily better.

For this reason, the existential rhetoric of libertarianism is a sort of continuous, hyperbolic dishonesty. Which has, it seems, completely washed over conservatism as well. There's a quality of cherry picking and relativism to the enterprise - in that likes are not compared to likes, and generalizations are used as first principles. Its all a bit sloppy and unserious.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Investing Wisely

When the issue of government programs, collectively known by the generally reductive and misleading label of "welfare state", is debated, an argument is often made that recipients of such government largess do not really "deserve" it.  There is on one level a principled case to be made for a distinction between the "deserving poor", and the undeserving poor.  Some people made all the right choices and yet were forced by circumstance into requiring help.  Other made very poor choices - often knowing the consequences, and find themselves at the mercy of a society that collectively mights as well be saying, "I told you so.

A problem thus arises in the necessity of having to try and sort out the supposedly deserving from the undeserving.  And it can be expensive.

But maybe this approach has it backwards?  Sure, there will always be the tendency to "mooch" as long as someone is holding out a hand.  But this can in large part be avoided at the start by policies that not only get at the root of what is driving people into the position of even having the option to "mooch" in the first place.  Without proper assessment of need - both at the individual and community level - "safety net" spending can be hugely wasteful.  Assessment-based, evidence-based policy allows use to not only make efficient use of our spending, but actually does something effective.  It does so by operating on what is the underlying driver of social dysfunction: Social Capital.

I've worked in a number of areas of social work and have always been surprised at how little various programs (by and large a patchwork of cobbled-together responses to various needs) work together.  For instance, right now I work with troubled teens at a continuation school.  As we are a public school, the biggest absurdity we face is trying to fit into the larger educational-reform agenda of accountability, standards, etc.  Making sure that Enrique is being taught Standard 2.d (what telescopes tell us about star cycles), takes priority over every other aspect of his life.  This, despite the fact that his dad is in prison, his mom is on meth, and he only goes to school because if he didn't his probation officer would throw him back into juvie.  Now, I would love nothing more than for Enrique to want to know about star cycles.  But there are *more pressing concerns* in his life.

A major need right now for us is to prioritize our responses to need.  We need to take a closer look at how we allocate resources to programs, with the goal in mind of finding out what forms of social capital will grant people the most leverage in their lives. It certainly isn't an easy question.  But it is one that will begin to pay off greatly in terms of social and economic dividends.  For instance, we know that the earlier we intervene in the lives of disadvantaged children, the more likely they will be to succeed as time goes on.  Cases like Enrique represent systemic failure, and a corrective response will likely be not only marginally effective, but a response that should not have had to happen. 

As it stands today, our school has only two counselors, for a population of around 300.  Mind you this is a continuation school and most of the students have severe emotional and/or behavioral problems.  The counselors spend most of their time on academic issues, with no time to realistically spend on the sort of counseling these children need, much less bringing their families into the picture, and attempting any larger corrective interventions.  With no ability to form much trust or bonding with students, the counselors must simply offer ad hoc support, and give parents the number of a local therapist.  They rarely hear back from parents in such cases, with certainly no communication between the mental health professionals and the counselors.

Which is where the teachers come in.  We are often times the only responsible, concerned parents in these children's lives.  We see them daily (well, when they decide to attend class), and form bonds that allow us to begin to have an impact in their lives.  Of course, we aren't trained counselors, nor do we generally have the time required to meet their needs.  A sad irony of our school is that because the student population is in such crisis, attendance is relatively quite low, which does allow us settings for interpersonal communication and guidance that would be unthinkable in a regular classroom.  At the regular high school, from where all of these students have come (after even less intervention), classes routinely reach 50 students.  I am fortunate in that, even though these are the "worst of the worst", I am able to work with them in groups that average 10-20.  Of course, as I say, this setting is far from ideal from the standpoint of intervention.  There is certainly no time for home visits, and no coordination of any other social service agencies that I am aware of.

So, starting early is best.  But as it stands, this rarely means much more than signing a kid up for head start, where the parent drops the kid off before heading to work.  Yet the levels of social capital in which the children are otherwise being raised are abysmally low.  Therefore, a system of intervention ought to be much more robust.  Parents ought to go through a much more intensive assessment process, with programmatic responses to their individual need (ideally starting at birth, with managed follow-ups).  This could be drug or alcohol counseling, job training, parenting classes, home-health visits, etc.  I think one of the most important things we could is literally send in "life coaches" to work with parents - to literally spend large amounts of time at the home, working with the parent to establish a more functional environment.  The amount of social capital we could be creating in the home could be extraordinary.  And in terms of cost, once you factor in the savings down the road, the initial expense would be quite reasonable.

This may sound radical, but in principal, it really isn't.  For the mentally ill or physically disabled, we spend large amounts of money on just this sort of thing.  What we are talking about with disadvantaged communities is not a physical disorder, but a social disorder.  We would be applying the same fundamental concept of intervention to social dysfunction as we do to physical dysfunction.  And the beautiful part is, while there are often no cures for physical disability, there is enormous potential in treating social dysfunction. 

Because in reality what we are doing is contributing to human development.  Social dysfunction is mostly due to a lack of appropriate development.  The process becomes all the more horrific when it is passed on generationally, becoming what we call (somewhat incorrectly) a culture of poverty.  Because, it isn't a "culture" so much as a lack of development in cognitive and emotional skills.  Of course people can't be successful when they lack the skills to leverage into what success means in the modern world.  This would be no different than if a blind person was never taught learned braille, or if an amputee was never given a wheelchair.  What we see over and over in poor communities is the result of this lack of social capital resulting in a lack of the development of human capital, and the subsequent tragic consequences.

Public schools are perhaps no better example of the ham-fisted approach society takes to this problem.  Already having been selected for relatively low levels of social capital by income and property values, poor schools are filled with disadvantaged children.  Yet the model we rely on for their success is fundamentally no different than at the wealthier school across town, where students were selected, again, for higher levels of social capital by income.  Yet the class-sizes are largely the same.  Aside from what title I money (federally mandated money for low-income students) pays for - mostly school lunches and maybe a remedial reading specialist or two, there is really not much of an intervention at all.  In fact, in terms of pure finances, wealthier schools have access to far greater fundraising capacity.  And this is largely due to the much greater levels of social capital in general.  Parents tend to be better educated, make more money, have fewer issues with drugs (at least that affect their life success), have more intact families, etc. This generally explains how they were able to afford to live in a better neighborhood and send their kids to "good" schools.  "Good" being a euphemism for a student population with higher levels of social capital.

The interesting nature of social capital is that it is exponential.  The greater the capital, the more it is leveraged into more total capital.  Inversely, the less the capital, the less it is leveraged, resulting in less total capital.  In this way, it is like other forms of capital, in which when invested (put to good use), they pay off in dividends.  When we expect people with low levels of social capital to see themselves rewarded with success, it is an absurd an expectation than as if we expected a small amount of money in the bank to pay out great dividends.  To extend the analogy to schools, a most schools' ability to pay dividends on its student population, in terms of student learning, is generally the same, as are two banks with similar declared interest rates.  Yet when we put more money in one bank, we don't put less money in another bank and expect it to perform as well.  "Garbage in, garbage out", as they say.  That's a terrible way to speak of children, but that's precisely how we are ultimately treating them when our policy interventions don't match the hubris of our rhetoric.

So if we truly care about intervening in these communities, we will approach them with an accurate accounting of their need.  Only then will be able to properly diagnose and respond to their needs in ways which are both cost effective and which produce overall increases in social capital.  Because the worst thing we can do is wait around for things to go bad, and then respond.  This sort of "emergency mentality" conflates the difference between treatment and preventative care.  Of course we must provide a safety net for those in need.  But we also need to respond to the issue of social capital disadvantage and its corrosive effects on communities and individuals.  What this will inevitably require is a more holistic approach, a sort of "social capital management", in which community needs are assessed and targeted for remediation.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Dining with the Rich, p.II - "Opportunity"

I think there are two related issues between the liberal and conservative perspectives on inequality and opportunity in America:

- the degree to which extant inequities in power structures tend to remain, if not solidify without intervention. In the extreme*, this might require revolutionary, literal redistribution of wealth. At the margins, it might simply means provision of quality libraries. The trouble is the massive squishy middle where there are a variety of interventions that can promote self-efficacy. Yet to be comprehensive and not tied to grab-bag charity work, a guarantee of equal access can be practicably made only by the government. The most obvious example of this is public education, which can then extend in terms of real efficacy to any variety of programmatic responses such as early childhood, parenting classes, childcare support, drug treatment, counseling, etc. (all of which of course must prove themselves but there is no reasons why they can't be completely effective in theory and there are indeed many such examples of effective programs).

*I'm thinking of countries where a kleptocracy has virtually impoverished everyone and must be removed by force.

- the degree to which opportunity is actually accessible to all. This is tied directly to the one I mentioned previously. We could tie ourselves in knots trying to determine how much self-efficacy any given adult individual has in America. But I think we can make some pretty assumptions based on a lot of very predictive data. The degree of efficacy results directly from an individual's human and social capital.

This however, would contradict your statement: "a middle class existence is within the grasp of everyone with a reasonable enough intelligence level." Clearly, the poor are not of below-average intelligence, at least to the degree to which their income is reflective of any marginal lower IQ.

The real problem lies not in IQ, but one's ability to realize their potential. To do this requires bringing all of the faculties to bear necessary to make the choices that will lead to success. For example, being in excellent shape is within most people's grasp. Yet why aren't they? It isn't that they are stupid. There are just too many competing factors involved in maintaining an excellent health regiment.

Returning to the larger issue of income, people are similarly confined by their capacity for self-realization. Yet this confinement is far more extensive and multi-faceted than mere habits of diet and exercise. For starters, there is a very close link between high school graduation rates and income. It isn't causal - it is certainly possible to be successful despite dropping out of school. But what the link does is point to the incredible power of other indicators that have already begun to act before citizens reach adulthood, and yet have effects that last their entire lives.

People simply do not magically invent their own capacity for habits of mind, etc. that allow them to succeed. These are skills that they have been able to develop over years, and upon adulthood can begin to leverage into success.

Now, it is all well and good to acknowledge this, and then seek ways of increasing agency in society, whether through cultural change, government intervention - whatever. But there are also systematic barriers - "channels" if you will - that provide sort of invisible scaffolding that allows some to reach higher, and leaves others more greatly marginalized and with fewer options.

So, these would basically fall into the realm of social capital. But, as opposed to structures like family or culture, which can be influenced by society at large, these would rather be more infrastructural, and within the larger designs of what kind of society we want to create.

One of the largest, most problematic of these structures is the unintended result of our system of property, specifically property values. What ends up happening is a clustering effect which ultimately has a profound impact not only on individual communities but society at large. When you have large degrees of inequality between neighborhood property values, you get communities with large disparities in human capital. In the rich neighborhoods you get selection for relatively well-adjusted*, motivated, educated, knowledgeable, intact families, etc. - basically high levels of social capital. Yet each point of social capital is not static. They build exponentially, leveraging one and another to to create a sum vastly more useful than its parts.

You can see where this goes with poor communities, where the same holds true, yet in reverse. There is a relative lack of social capital - education, worldly knowledge, motivation, psychodynamic integrity (mental illness, dysfunction,), etc., and each individual piece leverages against one another, building exponentially until the results become catastrophic. This snowballing of capital disadvantage has an overall effect of placing an active downward pressure on communities. Not only are there practical, day-to-day effects on activities, but stress levels increase, contributing to health and behavioral problems. If you think losing weight is difficult, try doing it with massive increases in stress hormones due to not being able to afford rent, getting laid off, your car breaking down, your kids fighting at school, your boyfriend running out on you, etc., etc. Any single lack in social capital advantage becomes extra burdensome in the presence of an overall lack. Whereas something like drug addiction or abuse in a wealthy community can be lessened in its destructive power by the presence of family cohesion, financial stability, in the absence of social supports, it can have much more dire consequences.

Of course, these are extremes. Most of us fall somewhere in between, possessing some mixture of the above. But this does not make any of the elements of social capital any less crucial to the understanding of how "opportunity" works.

Dining with the Rich

A common critique of theleft  is that they want to punish the rich, or that they are jealous of them - "Eat the rich" is a slogan they decry as emblematic of this supposed class envy. I suppose that could be true, but it would be hard to prove. 

Instead, I think a more serious response would acknowledge the usual claims about inequality. First, a large gap in incomes is usually indicative of other inequalities, such that income mobility - or freedom, in a real sense* - is limited. There could be any number of reasons for this, i.e. in typical post-colonial 3rd world countries ownership of land, wealth and access to power is distributed highly unevenly. Even in 1st world countries, there is a high correlation between access to social capital and wealth.

A second claim, and it largely follows from the first, is that tax structures should take into account this social capital dynamic, and assume that greater incomes were born from greater access to capital. Thus, tax burdens should be progressive.

Third, and this is somewhat separate from the concept of social capital, but it is simply true that those with greater incomes can afford to pay more in taxes without as considerable a cost to their standard of living. Because basic things like rent, food, utilities and transportation make up the largest portion of lower-income families' spending, taxes will eat into that much faster than they would upper-income spending - the bulk of which, at progressive rates - is concentrated more in luxury amenities and investment capital.

Because there are many things that a government does that will not be done in the private sector, it must generate revenue somehow. Income inequality, and philosophical beliefs regarding it would need to factor in. 

So those are just a few of the issues involved in the critique of income inequality, and policy response.  I have no doubt that envy does play some role in this - who does not want to live like a king?  Yet there is a difference between jealousy when things are perceived to be fair, and jealousy when things are not.  I suppose in an ironic twist, conservatism's philosophical apology for inequality might indeed provide a soothing rational and justification for those who might otherwise feel they are on the losing side of an unequal class structure.  Conservatism in this way would serve as a sort of  - to echo Marx - "opiate" for the pain of extant power imbalances.

(* The issue of freedom and liberty may be concepts that the left should be more vocal on, from a messaging standpoint. The right uses them to great advantage, leveraging their historical and patriotic import, and in no small way slanders the left as anti-freedom and anti-liberty. Yet the left could just as easily stand behind those terms in criticizing the right for the same thing, albeit for different philosophical reasons.)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Ethical Rhetoric

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563).
“Government takeover” has been a defining phrase for the right over the past few years.   But it is just the kind of sloppy rhetorical sloganeering that drags political discourse into the mud.

The truth is that “takeover” can mean any number of things. It can mean anything from a literal annexing of private businesses by the government, to a slight increase in the government’s presence in the healthcare market – the effect of which being to put the government in the position of driving some degree of health costs in the entire market. The former is entirely untrue, while the latter is mostly true. And basically the same can be said about government “takeover” of the banking or auto industries.

The problem is that when most people think of “takeover”, they think of the former. This is helpful rhetoric because while there is a kernel of truth to it, the claim can be backed away from as “hyperbole, while retaining all the demagogic punch and avoiding the impression that one is outright lying.

I suppose being a mealy mouth weasel doesn’t bother some people, but I’m not comfortable with it. Nor am I comfortable going one step further and offering for my defense the claim that “well, they do it to”. I suspect this is an Achilles heel of the left – not being as comfortable playing dirty.

However, in the end I imagine it is mostly about a conscious awareness of what we are doing. To the extent that the right is more comfortable playing games with language and emotions, I don’t think it is really a conscious choice to behave unethically. I think they simply aren’t as reflective intellectually in general.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Black and Academic

Glenn Loury and John McWhorter are at it again on bloggingheads.tv, this time taking Cornell West to task for simply not being serious enough.

I've had my share of problems with Loury and McWhorter (here, here, and especially here), although I suppose I've come to begrudging appreciation of at least Loury's particular eloquence (I did enjoy him here). The man can wax eloquent on a turd.

Which I guess leads to what is maybe my agreement: these two so often have so much to say, yet end up saying so little. The crutch they - especially McWhorter - have a habit of relying on is an oppositional schtick. They stake out an "unconventional position", yet then spend much time deriding what they have defined as "conventional". Yet much less is spent actually making a case for their unconventional position, allowing much of the argument to be assumed from the fact that it is merely in opposition.

I'm not sure if I heard either of them say this, and it may be a criticism beyond the pale for either of them to level, but I wonder to what extent their critique of West was about a sort of minstrelsy? They are both quite damning of what they refer to as his playing of some old-time civil-rightsy caricature. They both seem offended by this, and wish he wouldn't do it. They seem to think of it as a schtick, a performed routine that he puts on - no doubt to the benefit of a white audience.

Because, what about when he does it before a black audience (as he does)? What role is he playing there? In most academic settings, the form of expression is in sharp contrast to the the subdued, stiff-lipped, "serious", anal-retentive analysis we're accustomed to coming from "experts". And this is for the most part a white thing, right? (As most "experts" tend to be white). Interestingly, his last (first?) appearance on bloggingheads happened to be with a Robert George, southerner very interested in the Christian tradition, which especially in the south has a long history of just the sort of expressionistic style West demonstrates.

But before a black audience, his style is perfectly at home. What Loury and McWhorter seem to criticize as phony or contrived, suddenly becomes an exemplar of the great history of black ethnicity. In criticizing West, they too implicate black culture itself - something these two particular black men are no strangers to. In fact, the very conservative impulse that they have an affinity for has a long history of criticizing black culture, not just for the dysfunction disproportionately prevalent in its community, but for its expression of "otherness", and the way in which it seems to present a perpetual challenge to white European American cultural hegemony. In their quest to transcend race, they become susceptible to the conservative habit of downplaying its significance, having been made uncomfortable with the thornier issues it presents both at the micro and macro levels of social integration and political policy.

If one can say anything about West's core motivation, it is that it is a search for social fairness and human dignity. His academic career has been devoted to this question, specifically race, and how our society has struggled to "do right" by its citizens. I think it is fair to say that no small part of West's public persona has been as a charismatic champion, in the tradition of many great social leaders. No doubt this has meant a sacrifice in his thinking - there is little room for nuance in rallying the masses. In this regard, serious academic thought (not to mention the time required for heavy-duty scholarship), will inevitably suffer.

Yet in his quest to inspire the public, West no doubt has gained a spiritual eloquence. I don't mean this in any religious sense, but in that thought - we are discovering more and more - is not solely the domain of logic and reason. It is at least as motivated by emotion, informing things like empathy, conviction, ego, etc. The great efficacy of a leader is the way in which he or she is able to connect with an audience not only on an intellectual, but this "spiritual" level as well. And of course, doing so requires developing this skill within oneself.

The ultimate question then seems fair: to what extent are Loury and McWhorter offering up a "schtick" of their own? To what extent is any of us offering up a "schtick"? Sure, in the relative comfort of each of our established communities, it may not feel like so much of a schtick, and merely "natural" behavior. But one of the lessons of precisely the movement from which West is coming, not only civil rights but the profound self-reflection and deconstruction that peaked in the 60's, is that there really is no "natural". For what is "natural" about african-americans who took the names of their masters, were forced to live in oppression and cultural violence for centuries? What is "natural" about Barack Obama, who was raised in a relatively white family, yet is seen (and treated) as "black" by the rest of society? Many black radicals, along with many others, took this new relativistic understanding and then sought to upend things by explicitly creating what is "natural" for themselves - whether Kwanzaa, adopting African names or dress.

I think this was actually not so new. Because culture never really was "natural", especially when you live in the hostility of a white supremacist society that denies everything that is truly natural about you, and invents what is not. Despite this, the story of America is in no small part the story of black survival and cultural triumph. What happened in the sixties what largely a conscious discovery of what had already been going on since before the founding.

Loury and McWhorter make a reasonable enough case for the sixties "being over". But I think they strongly overplay their hand. There is a fundamental inertness and stubborn shamefulness to their critique. So what if West is a little over-the-top? The content of what he says, despite their protestations that it is not "deep enough" (ironic, coming from them), is as least as much strengthened as weakened by his emotional delivery. Because when he pulls into that "groove", so to speak, his torso rocking, his hands waving, his words falling into a rhythmic sync, he is tapping into a source of power and strength that finds its roots deep in the human soul, that which will never find expression in even the most complex and well-structured grammatical elocution. Combine this with a first-rate mind, capable of referencing the greatest of human works at the drop of a hat, from philosophy to poetry, to Judeo-Christian texts and historical events, you have a figure that anyone ought to be in awe of.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Getting Our Minds Out of the "Hood"

Mark Kleiman points to another example of the right's obliviousness to its own tendency towards racial cognitive bias.  He links to Jeffrey Goldberg, who has this to say about a Fox News feature on Obama's meeting with the president of Gabon:
This is psychologically fascinating: The mind of Fox Business host Eric Bolling, when confronted with images of President Obama meeting with Gabon's president, Ali Bongo, instantly recalls other black people who have met with President Obama, and comes to the conclusion that Obama feels deep love for black "hoodlums."

Racism is a beast.  Even in the past, when it was largely socially acceptable for people to be explicit about it, their motivations were largely unconscious.  Even when pseudoscientific claims began to be made in the late 19th century, it was nothing but an attempt to find evidence for pre-existing hatreds.  Did the Germans know why they hated the Jews so much?  Their conscious rationale was based on bizarrely fantastical assumptions.  So to with most forms of hatred - whether anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-minority, etc. 
If racists were conscious of where their racism came from, what motivated it, they likely would not be racist.
So, now we have the modern "politically correct" world, where everyone knows we shouldn't traffic in "off-color" assumptions, stereotypes, or any of the other forms in which hatred has historically thrived.  This has generally coincided with the understanding that racism, sexism, etc. are wrong and untrue. 
Yet what is it about modern society that is able to grasp how these hatreds are wrong, while previous generations were unable to?  Have we found some special evidence that has proven these hatreds false, that we can point to and agree on?  To some degree, I think we have.  Much of the evidence is less scientific - in terms of biological differences in race or gender.  (We are still working on evidence that homosexuality is not a "choice", even while claims that there is anything wrong with it even if it were have long been demolished.)  The "evidence" I think would largely come from the social sciences, and their work in laying out not only the historical roots of hatreds, and the idiotic viciousness with which they were perpetrated, but as well the psycho-social ways in which they were propagated. 
The most difficult task has been to show the ways in which hatred, which is ultimately wrong because of the pain, injustice and inhumanity it creates, has persisted despite - what we now consider to be obvious - its incompatibility with the universal human impulse towards compassion, tolerance and empathy.  How could otherwise rational and caring humans treat each other this way?  A good portion of the explanation for this has been the fact that historically oppressed (hated) groups had been marginalized and thus banished from cognition, where they would have been subject to natural human impulses to treat them with fairness.  Theoretical frameworks have been developed that try and explain this through the function of social structures such as patriarchy, class, ethnicity, religion, etc. - the interplay of social power and dominance being dynamics that alter cognition. 
Obviously, much of this is pretty high-order analysis, largely still confined to and emanating from academia.  In popular culture, aside from that which had been filtered down from universities, the main deconstruction of these historical hatreds came through the civil rights movement, which was certainly working with academia (and its student movements), but was also merely about the standing up to oppressive elements in society by the oppressed, for whom the hatred was very real and personal.  The oppressed had no problems with cognition (except in the case of that which had been internalized, although that was a serious yet less central problem).  Instead, it was the cognition of the oppressors, those in mainstream society that had been raised on stereotypes and other forms of unconscious hatred that had crippled their ability to properly process empirical reality.
It took a massive, multi-decade campaign of relentless, in-your-face protest both on the streets, in the media, in the arts, and likely most importantly, at dining room tables and backyard barbecues.  (The most practical results being, of course, change in the courts and legislature).  A good portion of the movement’s efficacy lay in shame. 
Because once it was accepted that these forms of hatred were wrong, that was only the beginning. The real work lay not in establishing what should have always been an obvious empirical question, but in taking on the popular mythologies and habits of mind that had always been the real levers and gears of hatred's propagation.  It may not have been understood as such, but what had to happen was a mass re-examination of cognitive bias.  For most, what this first meant in practice was an end to ethnic or sexist jokes.  However, it was not the joke itself, but the habit of mind that produced it.  It was the critical deconstruction of the idea that you could reduce someone's humanity so as to not only ignore it, but to twist an empirically false reality in such a way that you could find humor in it. 
Take for instance an old-fashioned joke about blacks being lazy and eating watermelon.  Both are empirically false, but behind them is the reality of centuries of racial hatred and oppression.  By laughing at the joke, you are reducing blacks' humanity, inventing realities about them that are wrong, then using that fantasy to punish and laugh at them, all of which is a propagation of their historical suffering - in that this is the precise mindset that apologized for and excused their continued oppression.  And you can replace that joke with any joke about women, gays, minorities, etc.
Now, then there was a backlash to all of this, generally known as "anti-political correctness".  Much of it was – and still is - likely motivated by defensiveness to the allegation that one is motivated by an unconscious hatred.  Because, once it became established that these hatreds were actually wrong, the cultural patterns and habits of mind were still there, whether people wanted them or not.  Many in society were essentially walking right into a sort of trap: a massive cultural transformation had just taken place which revolutionized thought, and they were now expected to monitor nigh-every word or thought they had.  In this context, cries of “thought police” were not entirely inaccurate.
Of course, there really were no thought police.  But there was intense pressure bearing down on individuals to change how they thought and spoke.  Yet how else would the transformation, the movement to end these inarguably evil patterns of historical discrimination, prejudice, oppression – all of which essentially being forms of group hatred, come to pass?  It would have to be messy.  There would have to be dispute over what was and was not an expression of hatred? 
Many felt that the charges level against them were unfair: how could some simple comment – mere words – a joke! – prove that one was what would come to be one of the most damning charges in modern life, a racist?  Well, now we’re faced with a definitional issue.  What is a racist?  A slave-owner was certainly a racist.  A Nazi was certainly a racist.  A KKK member was certainly a racist.  Uncle Bob, who openly referred to blacks as “ni**ers” was a racist.

But what about the coworker who merely said she was afraid to go into black neighborhoods?  What was she expressing?  What was she feeling?  Did she feel that black people were somehow more dangerous than whites?  Did she hear all the reports about black crime and assume that the neighborhood was more dangerous than it really was?  Was she subject to any of the many cognitive biases that we know contribute to false cognition about racial issues?
Add to this her genuine belief that she was in no way a racist.  The idea that she might be disgusted her!  Yet what if she was just a little bit wrong?  What if she had grown up with mistaken ideas, assumptions and prejudices about black people?  Maybe her view of race relations was informed by old patterns of racial bias and misinformation – yet she was consciously convinced, and firmly believed that racism was wrong?  She never took an ethnic studies course.  Sure, she watched Oprah and understood that much of our history had been whitewashed, groups marginalized.  But she didn’t have the “chops” to properly analyze every last one of her own views and assumptions before they flew out of her mouth.
And now she’s being accused of racism?  Well, this can’t be.  Because she’s not.  So what she said must not have been racist.  How could it be, when a non-racist person said it?   Everyone is just being too sensitive.  It is they who have the cognitive bias.  They have become so overtaken by their own white guilt that they are now attacking their own race.  In fact, it is they who are the real racists.  Why are they so obsessed with race?   Why do minorities get to make sweeping statements about whites?  This is reverse-racism!
Maybe some of what she is saying is true.  Maybe white guilt has driven people to be a bit too cynical.  Maybe some of it is simply rebelliousness – parents would surely attest to this among teenagers.  (How many charges of racism were made towards parents in the sixties, and dismissed as teenage rebelliousness?)
In the end, we don’t really know what lurks in the mind of every person.  We have a hard enough time knowing what lurks in our own minds.  But these patterns do exist: these biases, these prejudices and assumptions.  And we know that they have formed the backbone, the cognitive framework, for historical hatreds.  We simply cannot take them lightly.  We must investigate them and provide push-back when they are written off as harmless or insubstantial.  On their own, or depending on what exactly they are expressing, they might be.  Under examination, it may turn out that they meant nothing.  But it also might be the case that they represented a real instance of cognitive bias, some tendril of hatred, no matter how small.
One thing we must be very careful of, if we are to ultimately continue to make progress against what may be a universal human susceptibility to patterns of hate, is to avoid alienating the very people we wish to teach.  Because teaching is truly what we are doing, regardless of how we go about it.  Whether it is to politely suggest, or firmly denounce and shame, the ultimate goal is always to stop the behavior, to cut off the falsehood before it can grow any larger.
Many will say that the problem is mostly gone.  It has been decades now since explicit expressions of hatred have been considered shameful to the overwhelming majority of Americans (homophobia is just now getting there).  So too, one would assume, the practical consequences of hatred – that which effects people’s ability to acquire housing, employment, and otherwise live in society as equals.  Certainly cases of discrimination have dropped substantially.  We aren’t there yet, and it is an ongoing struggle, but most people seem pretty fair.
Yet are they?  One can be an avowed anti-racist, and still be subject to cognitive bias.  One can feel that all gays are perfectly nice people, but worry that there is still something “wrong” with them.  One can vote to limit their rights.  One can feel that blacks are no different than whites, yet have bad “cultural habits”.   One can then choose to avoid their application. 
More damning, one can fail to fully embrace attempts by society to rectify historical wrongs.  If one opposes more money for poor (read: black) schools, or welfare benefits, or healthcare – to what degree might cognitive bias enter into the picture?  Surely there are principled philosophical arguments to make against such endeavors.  But to what extent would opposition to such programs be informed by the presence of cognitive racial bias?  If one feels that blacks have a “culture of laziness”, then would one be less likely to support the provision of social services perceived to be offered to blacks rather than whites?  Surely they would.  Yet because this doesn’t mean that opposition to such programs is motivated by cognitive bias (the tendrils of historical hatred), as there are perfectly reasonable arguments against these programs (they are too expensive, ineffective, etc.), the determination of the extent to which their opposition is due to bias is extremely difficult.
Suffice it to say, because of the possibility that bias may still play a considerable role in politics and the structure of government, the stakes are quite high.  It is with this consideration that those who understand the fundamental role cognitive bias has played in historical hatred approach issues of race, gender, class, sexuality, etc. with heightened skepticism.  Furthermore, the skepticism increases when any are involved who are known to have an opposition to attempts by society and government to correct for historical patterns of oppression through regulation or social programs.  Precisely because it is difficult to know one’s motivations – whether principled or biased, it becomes all the more important to take a skeptical stance.  This is warranted by the mere possibility that one’s cognitive failings might be informing their determination of highly consequential social outcomes.  This is all the more true when the subject in question is not merely a voting citizen, but a public figure with a much determinative influence.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Markets vs. Morality

      David Brooks argues in his latest column that the main difference between the Republican and Democrat models for health care reform is top-down vs. bottom-up planning.  Really, argues Brooks,
"Politicians wave studies, but they’re really just reflecting their overall worldviews. Democrats have much greater faith in centralized expertise. Republicans (at least the most honest among them) believe that the world is too complicated, knowledge is too imperfect."
      Jonathan Cohn finds this merely new spin on an old Republican framing:
Brooks writes as if the key distinction between Democratic and Republican plans for Medicare is the way they would manage the program, with Democrats entrusting experts to make key decisions about where to spend money and Republicans entrusting consumers. But that’s not the most salient difference between the two approaches. The most salient difference is that Democrats would preserve Medicare's fundamental guarantee of health benefits at affordable prices. Republicans would not.
     I completely agree.  This is less about markets and more about morality.  One of the most irritating conservative mistakes is to compare private vs. government service without acknowledging the fundamental point of government services: to guarantee some standard of access to all. Private enterprise is pointed to as routinely superior in service – which it no doubt usually is. But be they roads, parks, libraries, schools or health care – they are not required to open their doors to everyone. Of course this is often less efficient, and normal market mechanisms won’t come to bear – but we make this sacrifice if we feel the service is of sufficient importance to provide to the public.

     Has “public service” lost its meaning?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Ivory Towers, etc.

Something I've never really understood is the relationship between college and socioeconomic status, particularly in the changing rates of college attendance over the past 50 years.

Today, college attendance - not withstanding the general drumbeat equating it with economic success - has come to signify upper socioeconomic status.  While it certainly has currency in the marketplace, I wonder whether much of the actual association with it has more to do with its socioeconomic correlates: family income & education, and individual motivation.  I'm not sure where, but recently I heard/read that the vast majority of Ivy League students come form families making over $200k a year.

College obviously signifies more than mere status.  You can reasonably trust a college graduate to have good reasoning skills, exposure to a modicum of historical thought, as well as some degree of intellectual desire.  However, much of this can have more to do with the family and peer groups within which one has traveled. 

If you go back 50 years, far fewer people attended college.  Yet there still would have been family and peer groups that produced individuals with what we now associate with college education.  Sure, they didn't take college-level courses - yet they no doubt were still voracious readers and possessed the critical-thinking skills that allowed them to make daily social interaction and personal reflection a higher-order experience.

An interesting question might be what effect has this increased college attendance has had on social segregation, in that individuals with proclivities towards higher-order thinking and intellectual curiosity could now self-select into more rarefied social groupings, organized at least by economic affiliation, if not by shared cultural interests formed in no small part by college-going cultural communities.  This would be seen in the "college-town" phenomena, where veritable islands of higher-order* cultural progressivism and experimentation existed within a larger geographic sea of traditional and conservative norms.

*My use of "higher-order" here is damning (as much to myself as anyone).  I accept the conceit that higher equals better, or at least more important - to a degree.  Because what I mean by "higher" is a meta-analysis that can only come from increased consciousness both of past and present.  A sort of cultural geometry exists that literally requires amassing perspective and increasing "viewing angle".  I tend to be what you might call conscious-ist: I generally feel that increased knowledge and awareness is a good thing.  I suppose there is a good deal of the Platonic ideal in this judgement.

Interestingly, this may really now be getting at the root of class and cultural resentment.  Because the idea that "higher is usually better" implies the reverse, that lower is usually worse.  So what then to make of that which is derived from lower-order knowledge or thought?

Well, maybe I ought to back up a moment.  To be clear, I am only talking about knowledge/consciousness/awareness, not action.  It can certainly be the case that pure reliance on knowledge itself can limit one's expression, and even one's acquisition of more knowledge; "just because you can play all those notes, it doesn't mean you should".  I think one of the great things to come out of cultural postmodernism has been the embrace of the "low" as a legitimate form of expression.  Yet the crucial difference is the meta - the knowledge that the "low" is merely one form, relative to its position, and that other forms exist.  It is the knowledge that is important, not the action.

One of the lessons post-modernism has taught us is that the high is also relative.  It is here that power-dynamics come in to play.  The platonic ideal of those in possession of the light of truth must question how they came to possess it, and instead of self-congratulation, holding themselves in high regard, be humbled by the task of uncovering how it came to be that they came to find the light while others did not.

There is a great deal of bitterness on the right and a sense that the left - the "liberal elite" - looks down on them.  It is an interesting notion because it is partially true, but works both ways - do not these aggrieved people look down on the left?  I think there there are a couple of things going on here.  First, there is a definite positional, hierarchical relationship between the cultural values being debated.  (As I stated before, if we're talking about degree of knowledge/consciousness of the relative nature of truth, the left's position can literally be said to be geometrically "higher".)

Second, there is an economic implication for power dynamics - "learnin'" - that goes back to the dawn of civilization.  There are the haves and the have-nots of knowledge/consciousness.  Furthermore, the "knowledge haves", to the degree that they have insinuated themselves into any system of elite intellectualism (whether through schooling or social organization), have traditionally been white collar, or at least not involved in industry of brute strength.  Their contemplative natures represent - so goes the perception, with a good deal of truth - a sort of social luxury, or frivolity.  To the have-nots, they seem little more than peacocks, parasitically lolling about in a land of abstract ideals, while "real" people do all the heavy lifting.

This is no doubt true.  Yet it is also false, and suffers a revanchist motivation that obscures proper cognitive analysis.  Because first of all, there have always been individuals that are more interested in intellectual pursuits, while others more interested in that of the physical, or socially important.  It is literally true that these folks will not possess the same consciousness of a particular subject, and thus have less "expertise".  But we all can't be surgeons, or auto mechanics.  Civilization is built on a division of labor.  Second, intellectual pursuit is also the backbone of civilization.  And while Plato argued that an intelligentsia run affairs of state and culture, democracy has completely rejected that notion.  Certainly our founders were incredibly learned men, and spent most of their time in intellectual pursuits.  It is virtually agreed upon by all that true democracy requires an educated public.  Can there ever be too much education?

And so today we have a situation where higher education has never been more democratic.  Interestingly, most of the voices you hear decrying this actually come from the right, ironically seeking to make education more exclusive.  And yet higher education is overwhelmingly liberal - at least its professors are.  And so to is its export of ideas - filtered out not only through graduates, but through papers and policy groups, as well as through journalism, which relies on its massive bank of credentialed "authorities" for expert commentary, not to mention the college-educated journalists themselves.

This dynamic - academia and journalism - works as one of the great engines of social reflection and progress.  The mission of both entities is explicitly one that is progressive in nature, in that it seeks to critically analyze and reflect on knowledge, seeking to create more in the process.  There is a reason it is called "higher", not "lower" education. 

Is it no wonder then, that its resulting formulations and conceptions of our world would be innately progressive?  William F. Buckley once wrote both in defense and statement of conservative principle (and I'm paraphrasing), that we have solved most of the major social problems.  A better argument for intellectual complacency would be difficult to make.  He said this also, I believe, around forty years ago - a time I would hope most people would not really want to return to.  Certainly we have in many ways become worse-off, but there is no clear way of saying that this was the result of progressive social inquiry.  To be sure, we certainly wouldn't want to be better of [I]not knowing[/I] certain things about ourselves.  Yet I wonder if that statement may not be more controversial than I give conservatives credit for.

It is a general given nowadays that there exists a large split between the right and left on intellectual vs. anti-intellectual lines.  There is certainly much evidence of this in the rhetoric of politicians, as well as pundits.  I imagine that the right isn't opposed to what it feels is genuine intellectual pursuit, but merely opposes what it feels is a take-over of intellectual institutions such as the press and academia by liberals, hence a "liberal elite".  Yet this opens them up to criticism that their critique is less substantive, and more an irrational rejection of real truths that these institutions have uncovered, which align with left-wing values.  Because of course, as with the tendency for conspiracy theories to thrive in cognitive blind-spots, if established authorities are existentially suspect, and claims they make that might give dissonance to one's prior belief, it is perfectly logical to dismiss them as "biased". 

Ironically, this opens the door to a form of relativism, albeit a factual relativism - not the moral relativism that the cultural right has always criticized the left for.  Interestingly, factual relativism requires the denial of facts, while moral relativism denies absolute, metaphysical authority.  (Moral relativism in practice is actually incredibly rare: most simply argue that morals are relative to human culture, and not that no morals can ever exist.  I've actually never encountered anyone who believes the latter).

In the end, the right-left, socio-economic, cultural split may have more to do with cognition than anything.  Rates of college attendance aren't much different on the right and left.  Given the degree to which college professors, as well as journalists tend to be liberal, one might assume that the conservative response is simply to discount these authorities - relying on a cognitive model that reduces their authority.