Thursday, June 28, 2012

Free Will as Hubris

Rubens' Arachne (1656), having angered Minerva
One of the trickiest things about the concept of free will/human agency is that if I am not my own original cause, why am I doing what I'm doing? For instance, how do I decide to act with integrity, etc.?  If I am not making my own decisions, then who is? 

Maybe what is "tricky" is the (wrong) habit of mind of thinking of ourselves not as social actors, but as individuals. Because once you say "I am acting as part of the social/biological (S/B) whole", then every action becomes more understandable. Because we are so woefully ignorant of the extent to which we are S/B caused, it is a priori easier to think of ourselves as individuals.

I've always wondered whether there isn't a lot of ancient - that which has been passed down in religious and cultural tradition for millenia - knowledge intuiting the idea that there is no individual, that there is only the social us. The idea might be that man's greatest delusion is when he stops thinking of himself as owing all that he is to his family, his neighbors, his community, his biological tendencies - to be silly, to be jealous, to be envious, etc.

I was just reading the Greek myth of Arachne to my daughters. In it, Arachne challenges Minerva, a God of crafting, to a weaving duel, despite the fact that as God of crafting, Minerva would have been responsible for all of Arachne's knowledge. When Arachne wins, Minerva is so angered that she turns Arachne into a spider.

If it is a fact that one's talent must come from S/B - in the myth's case, a particular God - then the claim that one's talent comes from oneself is the height of arrogance and lack of humility. "God", in this case, can be seen as a stand-in for the natural, objective world. To deny "God", would be tantamount to denying reality, saying 2+2=5.

To the ancients, without the conceptual framework for scientific naturalism, God could be seen as a stand-in for universal truths of reality.  I'm out of my depth, but could the myth of Adam & Eve be seen as a caution against expressing a similar arrogance, in that the forbidden fruit, the "knowledge" they ate was the idea that they were self-originating, as opposed ot S/B, and that this was ultimately an affront to reality?

I realize I'm stretching a bit, and maybe reading a bit much into it.  But this idea of the self/individual vs. the group seems a concept enormously central to humanity's understanding of itself, consciousness's understanding of its own limitations and spatial relationship with realty.

Monday, June 25, 2012


I never use cash any more.  Because debit/credit cards have become so ubiquitous, rarely has this been an issue for me.  I never have to deal with loose change, or folding an unfolding wads of cash, regularly replenishing the supply with trips to the ATM.  With a quick swipe of my card, my transaction is complete.  Somewhat of an introvert, I don't have to bother with rote pleasantries.  (I once had a job bagging groceries for a supermarket, and was always amazed at the way in which the cashiers had to have the same ridiculous little conversations over and over.  There was an intense sense that the customer and cashier were operating in two very different time planes; to the customer, the transaction was a sort of "button" on the shopping experience, while to the cashier it was a check-out version of Groundhog Day.  Groundhog Shift, maybe?)

All of which makes me candidate number one for data mining, the process by which companies collect digital information from consumer transactions for all sorts of purposes.  Big-name retailers keep tabs on what purchases are made by returning shoppers, analyzing their spending habits and adjusting their marketing accordingly.  Where things get really interesting is in the concept of using this data to infer the psychology and sociology of shoppers.  As the New York Times reported a few months ago, Target hires statisticians to device ways in which customer data can be leveraged.  One such employee described how Target might know if a shopper was pregant just by her purchases, and why this was so important.
“We knew that if we could identify them in their second trimester, there’s a good chance we could capture them for years,” Pole told me. “As soon as we get them buying diapers from us, they’re going to start buying everything else too. If you’re rushing through the store, looking for bottles, and you pass orange juice, you’ll grab a carton. Oh, and there’s that new DVD I want. Soon, you’ll be buying cereal and paper towels from us, and keep coming back.”
But this got me thinking the other day.  What if Target had access to all my spending data, from every purchase I make around town?  For instance, I purchased three bicycle pumps in as many years.  The first, I believe, was at Target.  When that one broke after a couple of years I bought one at Marshall's, which broke about two months later.  At which point I splurged and paid extra for a better quality pump at the local bike shop.  What if Target was able to track this data, and then analyze how many people were, like me, not finding what they wanted at Target (or Wal Mart, or the bike shop, etc.), and adjust their inventory accordingly?  Maybe Vons carries a certain brand of cheese that is really popular, and Target shoppers are buying Target eggs and butter, but skipping the cheese.

Consumer research information has long been available that can tell companies all kinds of things about what people are buying, why and where they are buying it.  But in theory it should be possible now for a company like Target to get a hold of actual individual point-of-sale transaction info.

For a price.  Ostensibly this would be a cash cow for the credit card companies, who could sell this information, presumably through third party data-mining specialists who could tailor it and package it up for big-box businesses.  One wonders just how devastating this would be for small businesses, already hit hard by POS fees, now signing up to be further cannibalized by corporations operating at scales they can't afford to compete with.

What really gets me though, is that I have no idea if this is going on.  Are there regulations against this kind of thing?  Is there language buried in my debit card contractual agreement I likely signed at some point when I opened up a checking account that basically forfeits my right to expect any kind of privacy?

I'm not reflexively opposed to data-mining.  Part of me thinks it is fascinating.  But part of me wonders what the unintended result is going to be.  In the meantime, we ought to at least know a bit more about where our data is going and who might be using it.  I can't be the first one to propose a system of such global access to one's credit card data.

Another So-Called "Turnaround" Flounders

Back in January 2011, during Obama's state of the union speech, he praised the amazing "turn-around" success of Bruce Randolph School in Denver, CO. 
Three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado; located on turf between two rival gangs. But last May, 97% of the seniors received their diploma. Most will be the first in their family to go to college.
I criticized him then for buying into the reform movement's political hype of successful models based around anti-union, anti-teacher rhetoric and hubris about "high expectations" with no real discussion of addressing the real problems high-SES schools face. 

Surprise, surprise, a year later new test results find Bruce Randolph School floundering.  Each school in Colorado is given a yearly score measuring the percentage of students who are academically proficient.  According to the Colorado department of Education,
"the Achievement Indicator reflects how a school's students are doing at meeting the state's proficiency goal: the percentage of students proficient or advanced on Colorado's standardized assessments."
In 2010, Bruce Randolph had a proficiency score of 25%.  In 2011, the score was 25%.  What do you guess it will be for 2012?  Is this what a race to the top looks like?

This doesn't sound like reform to me.  It sounds like just the sort of low standards the reformers are always criticizing.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Questioning the Social Good

The Spirit of '76, A.M. Willard
While looking back over some of my older posts (I'm considering using my currently unemployed status as an opportunity to publish my writings into something of a book), I came across an entry on the tendency of social spending to go to people not in our personal community, and thus "out of sight, out of mind".  I was reminded of how this is a perennial problem for progressivism, as not only must we make a case for the efficacy of these programs, but so too their moral necessity.  The merits of government action have a moral claim when they are felt to be worthwhile endeavors.  And they are worthwhile if they are providing a valued service.  We can all appreciate the services we experience directly, or can easily imagine to be necessary.  Roads, police, parks, libraries, etc. are all things that we can personally take advantage of.  A national defense, while more abstract, can at least be imagined to be important to the safety of ourselves and loved ones.  Yet what about a moral case for services that we will never imagine needing?

A moral appeal requires showing that the recipients of such social spending, the beneficiaries of our larger social largess, are themselves worthy.  Yet because of economic and social segregation, these are often people who are not a direct part of our communities.  To the progressive mind, ever conscious of inequality and social injustice in society, it is easy to imagine their plight, even if we do not live in their community.  We see a causal connection between a child raised in poverty and his likelihood of lack of success in adulthood, and argue that this is a social problem that requires intervention.

However, the conservative mind is much more likely to believe that it is the responsibility of the poor family to help themselves, and that it is not the moral responsibility of society to help.  Further, doing so would probably make things worse, either by wasting tax dollars better spent on growing the economy, or by creating a moral hazard problem in which the aspirations of the poor are dimmed and a culture of "entitlement" sets in.

Although as a progressive I am already biased against the conservative outlook, in my career working with the poor and needy, I have found little evidence to support conservative claims.  Indeed, have found them not only to be genuinely disadvantaged, but generally in situations in which but for government or private charity, their circumstances would be much more dire.  Neither have I found much evidence that a "culture of entitlement" has arisen because of social largess, primarily any such culture is the product of vastly larger forces at work than any pittance of social services on offer.  An individual with healthy levels of human and societal capital is not going to give up all personal ambition and choose a life of poverty for the chance to acquire free food stamps, child care, or a disability check.  While many individuals exist who no doubt could find more personal success would they just apply themselves, and instead rely heavily on government aid, they represent a very small portion of recipients, and in the absence of aid would still lack the human and societal capital to make much of themselves regardless.  Properly designed social programs are structured in such a way as to promote individual agency, rather than retard it.

But how to make this moral case to those who would not naturally align themselves with the poor and downtrodden, and who will rarely if ever directly experience their struggles?  Conservatism has become (to what extent it has always been, I can only guess) enraptured with the idea of government as a sort of personal market.  Instead of an institution that promotes the welfare and well-being of all, it is thought of as an institution that ought only promote the welfare of oneself.  Thus, the question becomes not "what is society getting out of government", but "what am I getting out of government"?

The model shifts from one of social insurance and shared sacrifice, to a personal, transactional ledger of goods and services rendered.  No better example of this exists in the movement towards vouchers and charter schools.  The question is posed as what is an individual getting for their tax dollars, as opposed to what is society getting?  Public schools have always been socialist in the sense that they are a provision of the government, guaranteed to all children, designed to maximize the social welfare of all.  Private schools, by contrast, operate in private, for the sole benefit of the individual, and without concern for the welfare of anyone else.  This is why we do not fund private schools with public funds - their purpose is expressly at odds with the mission of public governance.  If one spends public monies on private schooling, one might as well return all taxes and allow individuals to purchase parks, libraries, roads, police, etc.

The absurdity of this logic rests in the fact that public spending is fundamentally based on  a principle of social good, and the redistribution of what you might call social risk.  For instance, many people do not have children, yet agree to pay taxes so that other people's children are guaranteed an education, or so would theirs should they find themselves with young of their own - the risk being that any child should lack a proper education.  Likewise we all pay taxes for services that we do not directly consume, such as the paving of a street across town.  Yet we agree to such services in order to avoid the risk that any of us not have a paved road, or that should we drive down that road, it be paved for us as well.

This - the sharing of risk and mutual responsibility for fellow man - is a basic premise not only of democracy but of civilization going back millenium.  Even kings were obligated to provide for their people, lest the people become too dissatisfied and organize a rebellion.  The notion of democracy comes in when the people, not a king, demand to control how this risk is managed. For sure, the American revolution was fought expressly over the idea that taxes were being collected to pay for risks over which the people were given no claim of ownership.

Which is as good a place as any to bring up the Tea Party, a conservative movement founded in part with the Revolutionary notion in mind that taxes ought to be used fairly.  Yet to these conservatives, decked out in Revolutionary garb as they often are, the issue is not that the people are not being given say in how risk is managed (after all, the social spending they decry is passed legally, by elected representatives), but that they are be forced to risks which they do not approve of.  While the progressive sees the an injustice in the disadvantaged not receiving help from a society that has a moral responsibility to help them, to manage their their risk, the conservative Tea Partier sees an injustice in having to be held personally responsible for that social risk.  To him, driven by such long-standing distrust and anger at the government, the idea of social risk itself has increasingly been called into question.  In coming to view the government not as an institution entrusted to provide for the greater good, but rather as an institution unfairly taking from him and giving to others, he has come to question the very notion of social good itself. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Perpetual Underclass

Harold Pollack is reading Chris Hayes' Twilight of the Elites and is struck by his own status as an elite.
Members of our nation’s various elites are genuinely saddened by the accompanying human costs. Yeah, white papers are written. Hearings are held. Yet our society’s lack of urgency is abetted by the great social and economic distance between the families losing their lifesavings and the key public and private actors who will decide their fates. Too many of our national leaders behave rather as I’ve done, passing several empty houses on my street. I feel terrible for the affected families. I still scurry home, hit the web, and take solace in the ballooning value of my 401(k) supported by my tenured professorship. Pretty soon, I’m pondering other things.
 I've been increasingly concerned with the way inequality is structured into our labor force so as to perpetuate economic and socio-cultural segregation.  There are vast areas of the economy that is dependent on a labor force that requires little skill or education, is underpaid, has little opportunity for advancement, often lacks adequate healthcare or retirement benefits.  This paper has some interesting statistics. 

Garment workers listen to funeral service for MLK on portable radio April 8 1968

These are low-status occupations, employing people who higher-status, educated, higher-skilled workers will have only fleeting contact with.  They live in largely segregated "poor" neighborhoods rife with crime and dysfunction.  Their children's schools are thus concentrated with a student population that is difficult to teach, having in general much lower levels of human capital, and in constant, close proximity to social breakdown - incarceration, addiction, health problems, marginal employment, etc.

When I was in education school, the mantra was that "every child should go to college".  This is absurd on its face, and reflects the incoherent neo-liberal embrace of right-wing notions of meritocracy and social-Darwinist notion of organic sorting by talent and ambition; while the right believes implicitly in blaming the poor, the neo-left sees the problem only as one of technocratic scaffolding, and that proper social policy will lift everyone into the professional, learned, middle class.

Yet as currently designed - whether explicitly or by default - our economy demands a large low status, undereducated, underpaid labor force.  The right sees this as a sort of convenient sorting mechanism that allows the "cream to rise to the top" (ignoring of course the entire discourse of privilege and rent).  The neo-left, likely afraid of the radical implications of acknowledging this reality (as a challenge both to their sense of political pragmatism as well as personal morality - they are now implicated as an elite class), chooses to believe in a fantasy that all workers will join their children at university one day in a sort of bucolic, post-class progressive era. 

Obviously this isn't an easy issue to overcome in capitalism.  But neither can we pretend that there isn't a level of socio-economic exploitation imbedded in our economy that requires a disempowered underclass, and which perpetuates a maintenance of low levels of human and societal capital.  While many of the specific causal factors that drive this process are known, many are less clearly patterned.  Most epistemologically problematic is the role of culture and norms in poorer communities that place downward pressures on human capital acquisition.  For instance, the stunted development of social capital, in terms of trust, self and community efficacy, identity, the interplay of ethnicity and race, etc. are difficult to pin down.  In other words, to what extent does poverty itself - the experience of, the geography of - inhibit the development of behavioral capital?  To what extent, thus, does the *presence* of high-status elites and status inequality create an internalization of lowered aspiration?  Here, there is not even a direct exploitation of the underclass, but rather an indirect sort of signaling that solidifies attitudes. 

Ironically, one is reminded of the old conservative claim about progressivism contributing to a "culture of victimhood".  A progressive response is that victimhood has not been created, merely brought to larger social awareness.  Yet, to what extent might an unintended consequence be that - especially in light of larger failures of society to solve the underclass problem - this consciousness indeed contributes to a sense of powerlessness, hopelessness, and (pragmatically?) downward aspirations?

**edit** In case anyone might be wondering whether I would endorse the view that we ought to somehow cynically not raise class-consciousness in order to avoid any possible negative effects on the psyche of low-SES citizens, I'm merely wondering if there are indeed costs to class consciousness. 

As an atheist, I’m reminded of the studies finding happiness correlating with religion. It isn’t a case for believing in something just to feel better, but it makes one wonder about the role of psychology in all this. I do struggle, however, right now with what seem like such overwhelmingly intransigent economic dynamics of exploitation. At least with slavery, you could point to a simple biological fact and say, “this is wrong, let’s not do it”.  But wage slavery, generational poverty, systemic lack of access to human and societal capital are such a large part of our economic and social system. Bah… it’s summer and, like Harold Pollack, maybe I’m hit with the reality that my low-SES students have it so hard while I bask in the relative glow of my “eliteness” and I’m venting.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Economic Freedom vs. Self-Determination

Proponents of classical liberal free-markets base their vision broadly on the concept of economic freedom.  From Wikipedia:
The free market viewpoint defines economic liberty as the freedom to produce, trade and consume any goods and services acquired without the use of force, fraud or theft. This is embodied in the rule of law, property rights and freedom of contract, and characterized by external and internal openness of the markets, the protection of property rights and freedom of economic initiative.
This view is seen as incompatible with the modern welfare state, which requires levels of progressive taxation that are argued to be at odds with the rule of law (unequal treatment before the law), property rights (government "takings"), and freedom of contract (worker rights, regulations, minimum wage, etc.). 

Yet an underlying assumption of this view is that within this system of economic "liberty" men are free from privilege.  It takes a sort of tabula rasa view of social and economic interaction in which, free from all government constraint but the enforcement of private contract, men interact on a level playing field.  Yet this is clearly not so.  Let us imagine a story of how democratic capitalism has historically played out. 

Ninety percent of the land of a small village is owned by an elite aristocracy who raise their children in private schools and colleges, and control the employment of the villagers.  The villagers are free to borrow money from a bank operated by the aristocracy, and free to run their own businesses.  A few of the villagers have been able to be quite successful this way, even able to send their children to the private schools of the aristocracy.  However, the private schools, important as they are in the development of human capital, largely function to perpetuate the exclusivity and privilege of the aristocratic grip on positions of economic and political power in the village.

Is this a picture of economic liberty, or a picture of injustice and inequality, in which one's birth determines one's lot in life?  Sure, it is possible for a child to be born to a poor villager, and yet rise up to find success and entry into the aristocracy.  But this is by far the exception, not the norm.  And because of the structure of compensation and economic freedom in the village, positions of employment are defined by stark skill and wage differences.  Geographic areas of the village have developed, distinctly segregated by the occupation and education level of the residents.  There is clearly an inequality of agency to the degree that those well born have much more of it.

Proponents of economic freedom will notice that there is a marked inequity of human agency in this village; it does indeed matter to whom one is born.  And yet, they will argue, the system is quite productive.  The wages of even the lowliest worker allow them to afford basic food and shelter and, in principle, to take advantage of opportunities for advancement.  Over the years their living conditions have improved, their amenities having become more affordable and plentiful.

Yet what about individual freedom to choose one's life path?  The traditional critique of class is that, to the degree that it is defined by an inequality of agency, it is immoral.  We implicitly recognize the right to self-determination as a fundamental, inalienable right.  Even if we are better off materially than generations previous might have been, without equality of self-determination, we cannot be said to be sufficiently free.  One is reminded of the benevolent monarch, who promises his people peace and prosperity - as long as they accept his benevolent rule.

Even though some, by hook or crook, manage to find self-determination, they are the exception.  A defining feature of this system is that self-determination arises out of what one is born into, in other words one's societal capital.  This privilege allows one better access to a stable home, a quality education, and all that which better facilitates their arrival into the aristocracy, petty or otherwise.  One's development as a man is determined in no small way by their place of birth in the class system, and it arrives unto him as a piece with consciousness itself.  It colors his expectation of what life owes him, of what he understands of the world, and how to best advantage himself and his family.

So, athwart economic freedom, I propose what you might call developmental freedom.  To the extent that economic freedom displaces developmental freedom, it need be hindered.  This hindrance is not arbitrary, but rather explicitly designed to promote developmental freedom, the freedom of self-determination.

Many will say that developmental freedom is something that cannot be imposed from outside, but that must arise naturally within oneself.  Yet from what we know about human development, it is highly determined by societal interaction.  If every man's development and self-determination were to arise naturally, it would not be constrained by class, and you would see equal levels of development across economic strata. 

But this isn't the case.  Different classes of people, when defined by income, education level and family background, have very different outlooks on life.  They have different cognitive styles, different interests, different areas of knowledge, and - most importantly - different parenting styles.  Among the very poorest, there are incredibly high levels of dysfunction.  Nearly half the American prison population are high school dropouts, and majorities were raised in homes with multiple risk-factors.  Levels of self-determination are highly correlated with socio-economic class.

If we truly value self-determination as an inalieable right of man, then we must seek to maximize it whenever possible.  To the extent that economic freedom limits self-determination, then we must seek to constrain it.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Party of Evil?

I happened to be reading Ecclesiastes this morning, and I was struck by the relentlessness with which not just wealth, but the creation of wealth was being condemned.  The story on this particular section of the bible is that it is a radically un-capitalist treatise.  One certainly has trouble reconciling our modern free-market system with lines like this:
I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. ...Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.
Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.This too is meaningless.  As goods increase, so do those who consume them.  And what benefit are they to the owners except to feast their eyes on them?
Now, Ecclesiastes is said to have been written by King Solomon, and kings can hardly be said to create wealth.  At least, not in the Republican sense.  Maybe all of this was the talk of a man's guilt over not having truly worked and created something.  After all, in modern times, according to the mythology of Democracy, Private Property and Meritocracy, every man can now rise to the level of king.  Maybe had the king really had to pull himself up by the bootstraps, then he wouldn't be complaining so much.

But that wasn't what he was talking about.  He was talking about existence, and the idea that meaning comes not from spiritual things but - in his case - a higher power.  The argument was that true peace in life is to look away from worldly things and towards spiritual matters.

But aren't the wealthy the job creators, the doers and growth makers (the dreamers of dreams!)?  How could we disparage such noble pursuits?  Well, there has always been a tension in society between the sacred and the profane, especially in matters of economic activity.  And there has always seemed to have been an understanding - at least among those whose souls have not been completely lost to greed and avarice - that there is something inherently wrong with inequality and completely selfish pursuits. 

Historically, it has always been clear that inequality was the direct result of explicit privilege.  Enlightened democracy has slowly been able to enforce some measure of economic justice.  But we seem to have come to point in history where half the American population - belonging to the Republican party - seems to believe that privilege has been eradicated to the extent that inequality is now merely a measure of individual worth. 

As Kevin Drum writes today,
Republican economic policy has always promoted the interests of corporations and the rich. Once upon a time, this wasn't even an issue of contention. Everyone knew it and acted accordingly. The GOP's great triumph over the past three decades has been to gull the American public into believing that it's no longer the case. Their success has been nothing short of astonishing.
Language like "Job Creators" illustrates this perfectly.  To be obscenely rich is now not only something admirable, but something positively charitable.  To attack inequality, and ask the rich to pay more in taxes is actually an attack on everyone else's chances at success - unpatriotic even.  Republicans have been able to sell ordinary, non-rich Americans that whatever policies are good for the rich are actually good for the country too - even if they end up being worse for the country in the short-term. 

And so instead of holding the rich accountable for their share, their social and economic responsibility, we are asked to treat them like kings, and instead force the common man to make all the sacrifices - less resources for schools, infrastructure, criminal justice, public works, etc.

Would King Solomon have approved?
If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still.  The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields..... I have seen a grievous evil under the sun.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Poverty of Culture

It is controversial today to speak of a "culture of poverty".  This stems out of a polarization around two notions, that the poor are victims of society and that the poor are victims of themselves.  But these two framings are incomplete.  I would argue that the poor are both victims of society and victims of themselves.

According to Wikipedia, the idea of a culture of poverty came out of the work of anthropologist Oscar Lewis in his 1959 ethnographic study Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty.
The people in the culture of poverty have a strong feeling of marginality, of helplessness, of dependency, of not belonging. They are like aliens in their own country, convinced that the existing institutions do not serve their interests and needs. Along with this feeling of powerlessness is a widespread feeling of inferiority, of personal unworthiness. This is true of the slum dwellers of Mexico City, who do not constitute a distinct ethnic or racial group and do not suffer from racial discrimination. In the United States the culture of poverty that exists in the Negroes has the additional disadvantage of racial discrimination. People with a culture of poverty have very little sense of history. They are a marginal people who know only their own troubles, their own local conditions, their own neighborhood, their own way of life. Usually, they have neither the knowledge, the vision nor the ideology to see the similarities between their problems and those of others like themselves elsewhere in the world. In other words, they are not class conscious, although they are very sensitive indeed to status distinctions. When the poor become class conscious or members of trade union organizations, or when they adopt an internationalist outlook on the world they are, in my view, no longer part of the culture of poverty although they may still be desperately poor. 
In decades since, this view has been criticized mainly for relying on the simplistic notion of the poor as a monolithic cultural group, and seemingly perpetuating the notion that the poor are to blame for their own lack of success.  Much of Lewis' thesis seems to argue that it is the attitudes of the poor that keep them from finding success.  This sort of dispositional narrative leaves out other causal factors, letting larger social forces off the hook.

However, it appears to me that Lewis actually got it half right, and that he didn't go far enough.  One of my main complaints on this blog is that in discussing poverty and disadvantage, we too often leave out the fundamental components of human development, and that these arise not organically, freely from human agency, but rather from social forces outside one's control.  There are dispositional, attitudinal problems among many of the poor.  But these are the result of other causal factors which work dynamically to create a system of oppression.  For instance, take the example of Rent-a-Center, the predatory lender of home furnishings.  There is no reason anyone ought to ever engage their services.  There is nothing that they have that is necessary enough to warrant such outrageous and usury prices.  Yet they predominate in low-income communities.  The poor thus are more dispositionally inclined to engage in dysfunctional behavior, to the extent that going to Rent-A-Center is dysfunctional.  Any number of other indicators of dysfunctional behavior can be found in much higher rate sin poor communities, which ultimately stem not from lack of resources but from an unhealthy disposition.

Yet this is not the end of our inquiry.  Many on the left bristle at even engaging in this sort of dispositional critique, specifically because the inquiry has historically ended here.  Right-wing notions of ethnic superiority, social Darwinism, class hegemony, and white supremacist apologetics have historically ended here.  The claim is that because it is well within the power of one to change one's attitude and disposition, the poor's failure to do so makes them morally responsible for their own lack of success.  The corollary to this claim is that the affluent have chosen their attitude and disposition, thus are morally responsible for their own success, and thus have every right to be rewarded for it.

Current right wing economic and social policy claims are rooted in this narrative.  Talk of affluent "job creators" and claims that low tax rates create growth by promoting the attainment of success through the reward of low tax rates assumes that disposition is the main driver of prosperity; if one has the right attitude, one will be successful.  Likewise, "rewarding" the poor with safety net programs is thought to create in them a dispositional aversion to hard work and positive thinking.

While disposition is important, it is only one factor of success.  But more importantly, it is not a first cause.  Human development is vastly more complex.  Human beings are unique in the animal world in how long we take to reach maturity.  Our societies have spent millennium evolving extensive social and institutional frameworks designed implicitly to develop in humans advanced productive capacities.  Modern humans are educated, moral, enlightened, critical thinkers capable of amazing contributions to our fellow man.  We are dynamic, ever-learning and evolving culturally and raising our children to do the same.

When we speak of "disposition" or "attitude", we are reducing vast quantities of human development into an absurdly simplistic shorthand for human agency.  The 22 year old human adult will have lived for 192,720 hours, 128,480 of them awake - a staggering 7,708,800 minutes of conscious thought.  That is the sum total of his interaction with the world - his conversations with parents and peers, his observations of the world around him, his cognitive calculations, his emotional internalizations, his lessons learned, his daydreams, his creative endeavors, his fears, his loves, his dreams.

All of this we call human capital.  He has built this human capital out of what I call societal capital - all that has existed in his world during those nearly eight millions of conscious life that has made him who he is, and has made him who he perceives to make of himself.  The concept of a self-made man relies on a notion of human agency that denies the very truth that permeates everything we know about the physical universe, that everything is preceded by something else, that is caused by prior events.  The notion of time itself is predicated upon this fact.  And yet we need not refer to physics for what ought to be common sense to anyone who has ever learned something knew, or learned how to think about something in a new way.  Every parents understands this basic reality, as we have watched out children growing and transforming before our eyes into complex individuals capable of - hopefully - behaving, thinking and feeling in appropriately advanced ways.  Our children are anything but self-made!  And when they reach adulthood, capable of making sufficiently decisions in a sufficiently independent manner, we are known to have raised them well.

Yet have we done this ourselves?  Are we self-made parents?  Of course not.  We were made - by our parents first, and then in concert with life experience and larger society.  We have internalized the culture that we ourselves have been raised in, and then transmitted it to our children.  The cycle thus repeats.

So when we see poor communities displaying what can be called dysfunctional or sub-optimal dispositions, who is to blame?  We all are.  There is no separation between them and us.  We, all of us, are inextricably caught up in one long chain of causality extant since the beginning of time itself.  Individuals can no more be held responsible for poor dispositions than for successful ones.  All that matters is the way we structure society so that to limit as much as we can sub-standard dispositions and elevate positive dispositions.

The question thus becomes how best to do this.  It surely isn't an easy question.  But it begins with the acknowledgement that we are all doing the best we know how to do, and that the issue is one of development, not simple choice.  The poor are not more likely to frequent Rent-A-Center because they choose to when they could have just as easily, like us, chosen not to.  Their choice was determined, as was ours.  The problem is not that their culture must be changed, but that they have not been fortunate in having received sufficient societal capital to build in themselves to develop adequate human capital, or what we might generally refer to as "culture".  They have not had the education, the access to family resources, the access to more affluent peer groups, etc. to develop what ultimately appears on the surface as "disposition".  Through larger structural forces such as economic and social segregation, they have been disadvantaged.  By finding ways to intervene and remedy these things, we will finally begin to tackle the problem in a real way, without having to either "blame" any one or pretend that poor behaviors don't exist.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Coldplay, Fugazi & McDonalds: The Politics and Science of Taste

Universal tastes and the importance of cliche

Friends of mine know that I tend to have pretty "interesting" taste in music.  Which, among this crowd, means I enjoy a lot of tasteless music.  These are people who would rather die than be caught with a Madonna cd on their shelf.  Or Foreigner, or Sara McLaughlin, or Iron Maiden, for that matter.  Which brings me to Coldplay.

But let us begin with cold cuts.

Anthony Bordain, travel channel food critic, is known for his appreciation of both the high and the low in culinary arts.  He seems to have an especial affinity for heaping piles of greasy meat.  Not exactly Michelin-approved fare.  But, as he might put it, the food is authentic, i.e. something created by ordinary people - not for mass consumption but whomever turns up at their particular bodega counter.  Now, this is actually a quite high-minded, multi-cultural and humanist recognition of the social and cultural nature of cuisine.  Bordain is not simply eating a spicy pile of goose thighs, but ingesting the dynamic interplay of the people of San Pablopalooka - their parents, grandparents, and relative's gastronomic peculiarity.

Fine.  But it isn't as if his palate is consumed by sociology.  He turns his nose up plenty, notably iguana ("tastes like pond scum"), and coal-fried eggs ("bits of charcoal in my teeth").  And when he does find something he likes, his praisings are confined to the actual entree, which he devours with considerable bacchanalian relish.  At the end of the day, he is still human, his salivary glands activated not nearly as much by anthropological charms as the biomechanics of taste receptors in his mouth and nose.  Food must largely be reduced to, well, food: it lives or dies by the particular dynamics of fat, salt, sweet, etc. that it signals in the the pleasure centers of the brain.

I listen to music in my head.  Quite literally, I mean, most of my music appreciation these days takes place between a set of headphones.  And while I've seen a good number of musical performances, enjoyed an album spun by a friend round his record player, and sung along to the stereo with a carload of travelers.  But my deepest experiences of music have generally come without distraction.  Even in social settings, my most transcendent experiences have been spent in a reverent solitude, mediated by the power of music to transport me away from the physical realm and into a quasi-religious state of pure emotional absorption.

Many people are not as enthralled with music as am I.  To each his own.  I'm honestly not a huge fan of food.  Oh, I like it alright.  But it's just never been something that affected me so deeply.  As I often like to say, on a scale of 1-10, the most sublime pizza might be a 9, but a frozen pizza straight from the oven rates a better than decent 6 or 7.  I'm also somewhat of a recluse, so I'm probably not interested either in devouring the cultural context of one or another "great little joint".  Food, for me, can indeed be reduced down to an awfully base, biomechanical level.  I wouldn't quite call myself indiscriminate, but maybe more semi-discriminate.

Mouth.  Open.  Food.  Enter.  Yum.

But let us return to music, where things will get much more complicated.  Not only am I a passionate music listener, and devoted entrepreneur of new musical experiences, but a musician as well.  Given my reclusive, anti-social tendencies neither has my music production been social.  Few have ever heard what I have made musically, but it has nonetheless been rather copious.  I have written and recorded four indie-rock oriented, full-length albums, as well as one pseudonymous rap album (if a bear has a pseudonym in the woods, is it really a pseudonym?).  I absolutely love music.

And I am discriminate.  There is much I desperately do not like.  Most music, probably.  Whole genres of music are uninteresting to me.  Bluegrass is certainly pleasant, but I get more stimulated watching cats sleep.  "World music"?  What does that even mean.  I think most Arabs these days listen to technopop.

No, give me originality.  Give me passion and challenge.  Give me darkness and experimentation.  Let Death Metal transport me to roiling seas of demons and rusted caves.  Let reverb and pedal effects wash over syncopated drum and drone of bass and snare.  Let plaintive, obscure lyrics launch existential projectiles over Elysian fields of gentle acoustic minority.

Everyone likes television.  Everyone likes porn.  They won't admit it.  These things have all sorts of political connotations.  Everyone, too, likes french fries and greasy meat.  Even from McDonalds.  Even Anthony Bordain.

Everyone likes resolving chord progressions.  Everyone likes harmonic dynamics.  Everyone likes a beat.  Everyone likes a pattern.  Everyone likes a well-written pop song, because they start with these things.  They are popular, because they end with them.  Pop songs are by their nature unchallenging.  They do little that is very new.  They take what has been done before, rework it, repackage it - maybe with different instruments, different singers, and different emphasis on different aesthetic elements.  But in the end, there is more that Britney Spears and Fugazi have in common than not.  Short, cyclical, rhythmic, dynamic pop songs.  Its just that Fugazi sings about masturbation as a metaphor for social discomfort, and Britney Spears sings about her ass.  Repeater, meet Hit me Baby One More Time.  Their musical choices highlight these priorities.

And so this gets political, as a difference in values arises.  Britney Spears gets airplay worldwide, with media marketing blitzes and corporate payola.  She is the epitome of the mass-market, corporatization of art, focus-grouped and merchandized within an inch of its life.  Fugazi listeners are after the antithesis of this.  They are the artistic equivalent of off-the-grid, hippie communalists, living their principles and giving the finger to all that has been cynically processed and delivered unto them in a attempt to spoon feed an habitually lazy lifestyle of uncritical consumption.  What underlies their appreciation of Fugazi is not merely its aesthetic charms, but what it represents.  Much as Bordain glorifies the meta-cognitive experience of "authenticity", so too do the anti-consumerist music fans glorify their music as free from the chains not of fast-food, but what you might call "fast music".

I get this.  Not only am I sympathetic, but I engage in it myself.  I'll even go so far as mark my aversion to corporate music as part of my identity, both as a self-image, but as a social signal.  My music in some ways represents my politics.  It also represents my socio-economic status as one who knows better.  My cultural/political critique reflects as well my lifelong grooming as a member of somewhat good standing among the cognoscenti , a person with superior, usually specialized knowledge or highly refined taste, from the Greek Gnosis, or knowing.  In the circles I have been raised to travel, knowledge for knowledge sake is one of the highest values.  As such, my ability to think critically - and digest subsequently knowledgeable indulgences - is a primary status indicator.  Fugazi is therefore an expression of individual, enlightened and cognitive discrimination, as opposed to populist, unenlightened, uncritical nondiscrimination.

Yet here we run into what I call the cheeseburger problem.  There is all that meta, analytical stuff.  But then there is the awesomeness that is the cheeseburger.  There is the cocaine-like drip of grease over one's lip.  Might we find a rhyme, in the cocaine-like dip of the hip?  As I write this paragraph, I'm listening to a duet between Coldplay's Chris Martin and Rihanna.  It takes discipline to not want to move my hip.  Very un-PC.

Coldplay is an interesting band.  A decade a go they shot onto the mainstream charts with Martin cooing about everything being yellow.  It was noticeable for its sly derivativity.  Apparently Martin himself called his bands music "limestone rock" as opposed, I imagine from "hard rock".   A respectably honest self-assessment.  An amalgam the bubble-gummiest bits of U2 and Radiohead, they are romance more than angst.  Pushing the envelope only ever so slightly, they certainly aren't afraid of staying within the lines.  And yet it cannot be said that when it comes to hooks - those oh so important and yet so hard to quantify and explain secret spices of pop sauce - they are experts.  No doubt hidden producers lurk like digital svengalis, refining and orchestrating whatever magic the band originates naturally and spinning it into even more sumptuous and digestible gold.  Maybe more than any other rock band in recent history, Coldplay are the perfect pairing of organic, "authentic" artistry and corporate discrimination.

Modern food corporations pay flavor factories to give their products perfect appeal.  Essences are scientifically extracted and mixed into precise morsels of consumptive bliss.  Glutamates and sodiums fold together into sensory bombs designed to flood the brain with oxytocin.  The same can be said for popular music.  To the extent that many strive for authenticity, much of the formula has already been accepted and internalized.  Fugazi is popular music, wrapped as it is in respectable and impassioned political statement.  The envelope is pushed, further indeed than Britney Spears, further too than Coldplay.  But it remains largely intact.  In a strange irony, to the extent that Fugazi's music represents the politics of authenticity, it gathers strength from the very brain bio-mechanics of musical pleasure that it finds co-opted by the creative hegemony of corporate music.  Fewer hooks, fewer patterns, fewer resolving chord progressions and Fugazi leaves the envelope for obscurity.

This tension between radicalism and moderation has always existed.  The radical argues for total purity at the cost of pragmatism, the moderate makes pragmatic concessions to acquire less corruption.  The hippie communalist who goes off the grid gives up the prospect of influencing the larger culture, carving out instead his own individual victory.  Maybe this is has its own unique power, gaining larger change in less direct ways.  Fugazi fans will never hear their music on the radio, but many corporate bands will have been influenced by Fugazi's values. 

I might be described as a moderate.  Maybe my enjoyment of Journey, Depeche Mode, the Smashing Pumpkins and Coldplay represents a moderation.  So too my enjoyment of frozen pizza.  But maybe my devotion to music runs so deep, my fascination so profound, that I feel compelled to honor every note without the petty intrusion of political, social intrusions.  Chris Martin may be kind of a derivative dork, but he means well, and it simply can't be said that his band doesn't consistently produce hook-driven music.

Or maybe, like an addict, as the King of Pop himself Michael Jackson once sang, "I just can't stop loving you."

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Importance of Resources

It has become commonplace to hear the claim that "class sizes don't matter".

A guest-blogger for Megan McArdle has an interesting piece on the necessity of parents of special-needs kids to lobby for adequate resources for their child's education - and how this ultimately becomes an issue of class, as wealthier parents can afford to successfully navigate the bureaucratic world of educational advocacy.  As a libertarian, McArdle, and presumably her guest, are no boosters of public education in general, in her mind no doubt making a false comparison between bloated, uncompetitive government inefficiencies and nimble, a la carte private tutelage.  But the criticism - that public schools are often not providing adequate resources for special needs students - is perfectly valid.

The guest describes a dynamic of education law that when a public school can't provide reasonably adequate services, the parent can lobby for what she calls a "shadow voucher", with which they can "purchase" the care elsewhere.  The guest argues that "malfunctioning" school systems often make it difficult for families to receive these vouchers.  The issue of class enters when you consider that this opportunity requires substantial financial - as well as human and societal - capital. 
In practice, as another manifestation of their failures, malfunctioning school systems will often fight with all the bureaucratic resources they can muster effectively against families who attempt to use the rights granted under IDEA to obtain services which differ from what the system is offering. Thus, families will often need to fight the malfunctioning school systems to obtain services for their special-needs children. Those fights are necessary even for wealthy families, as children with extreme needs require services which can outstrip even the ability of rich families to pay entirely out of pocket.
My family has lived this reality for many years. We have a severely autistic son who has attended private schools which offer intensive behavioral therapy ("Applied Behavior Analysis" or "ABA," which is the only therapeutic methodology for which much evidence of effectiveness exists) with a student-teacher ratio of 1:1, and has also been receiving extensive ABA and other related services after school. Those schools and related services have enabled our son to make what progress he has been able to achieve. They are also necessarily and extremely expensive. But every single year, we have to "sue" NYC (technically it's not a lawsuit in a court but an impartial hearing as provided under IDEA, but it functions in very similar fashion) to cover the costs of such a school and services when they invariably recommend services far below what is necessary for our son to achieve any educational benefit.
Where I become interested, is in the framing of adequate resources, and how its provision should be structured by the state.  Traditionally, vouchers, and their effective modern incarnation, charters, have operated off the principle that ineffective provision of adequate resources fairly requires the ability of parents to receive publicly funded educational services elsewhere.  Because of the rarity of special needs students, especially the specificity of many students' particular need, it is reasonable to ask whether a shadow voucher system makes sense.  One does have to wonder however, how it is that private special-needs schools would be able to provide much better service at similar levels of funding.  If the demand is there, why can't public schools provide similar levels of service?  My suspicion is that providing a 1:1 teacher-student ratio is unheard of in public schools purely for financial reasons.

In the case of general population students, where the needs are much less specific, there is no reason they cannot be served by traditional public school settings.

Proponents of vouchers/charters for general education argue that as a practical matter, students aren't receiving adequate education.  However, their argument is that the issue is not resources, but teacher quality.  Until such time as public schools are reformed, and adequate education is being provided, a family has the right to receive services elsewhere.  Opponents argue however, that the problem is not teachers, but rather resources, specifically the lack of funding for resources to disadvantaged community schools.  This places them in both philosophical and practical opposition, as the solution to teacher quality is not a matter of more funding, but bureaucratic structure - a problem appealing to free-marketeers and technocrats.

As I argue on this blog, the problem in education boils down to class, specifically that low-SES families have lower levels of financial, human, and societal capital, and therefore have a greater need for educational resources.  The problem is not teaching, but SES, and a response from public institutions that provides adequate resources to meet disadvantaged populations.  Making matters worse, high-capital families tend to raise enormous funds for their public schools, furthering the educational divide.

So, in our current situation, we face a similar problem with special needs students as disadvantaged students: access to resources.  Even if we implemented a voucher system, it wouldn't cover the cost of more services, but rather a supplement for those able to afford the cost of extra services.  In other words, a special carve-out for the affluent. 

What is interesting about the case for shadow vouchers is the indictment not of teachers, but of the somewhat nebulously termed "malfunctioning school system".  Obviously, special needs students - as the guest points out - have by definition special needs.  This is clearly backed up by research.  What is also backed up by research is the fact that low-SES students have special needs.  Why, when we do not blame teachers for inadequate provision of services to special needs students, do we do so when we speak of disadvantaged students?  What if, when faced with the proposition of teaching a class of developmentally delayed first-graders, we demanded more data and professional development, blamed "powerful unions"
and the quality of teacher programs, and insisted that calls for more resources was "making excuses"?

In a perfect world, every special needs child should receive adequate services, even 1:1 teacher-student ratios.  But disadvantaged students should also receive adequate resources.  They need aides.  They need smaller classes. They need tutors, counselors, mentors, parent trainers, and social workers.  Vouchers won't cover these costs, nor will equivalency funding to charter schools.  Hopefully, we'll one day realize that, like special education, disadvantaged populations face - one would assume definitionally - disadvantages that require special educational resources.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

SES and Parent Involvement

A post at NYC Educator points to the serious, often unmentioned problem of truancy and parent involvement.
"My school's intrepid guidance counselor and I spent yesterday making phone calls to parents--about attendance, Regents tutoring, and classes that students are still failing.  As you can imagine, there's a pretty strong link between that first item and the last one.  And while I'm sorry to keep harping on this subject, I can't deny that trying to cajole parents into doing their legal duty to educate their children is starting to wear on me and my guidance counselor partner in all this.

One young lady whose guardian was just here last week has already missed two more days of school.  Two other sets of parents have respectively broken nearly half a dozen appointments to come to the school.  And I teach high school, and it's May...and if not now, when?"
This is a huge problem.  Truancy is obviously the most blatant example, but it speaks to a larger problem of academic inclination in families..  There are a few things going on.  Some parents just don't care much for education.  Some parents don't know how to prioritize it.  Some parents are so busy with work that they must leave much of the parenting up to relatives, siblings, student peers or neighbors.  Some parents have developed relationships with their children such that they have authority in their lives.  For some parents it is a mix of all of these factors.

And this is all highly correlated with family capital.  In a 1987 paper , Lareau describes parent night at two schools of different SES make-ups, fictionally named Colton (low -SES) and Prescott (high-SES).(1)
Ironically, teachers at Prescott actually complained of too much parent involvement, and at Colton, too little.  Prescott parents were felt to sometimes get in the way, while Colton parents were not present enough.  At back to school night, Lareau describes the differences between teacher-parent interactions at the two schools.

At Colton, the interactions between parents and teachers were stiff and awkward. The parents often showed signs of discomfort: nervous shifting, blushing, stuttering, sweating, and generally looking ill at ease. During the Open House, parents wandered around the room looking at the children's pictures. Many of the parents did not speak with the teacher during their visit. When they did, the interaction tended to be short, rather formal, and serious.....

At Prescott, the interactions between parents and teachers were more frequent, more centered around academic matters, and much less formal. Parents often wrote notes to the teacher, telephoned the teacher at school, or dropped by during the day to discuss a problem. These interactions often centered around the child's academic progress; many Prescott parents monitored their children's education and requested additional resources for them if there were problems. Parents, for example, asked that children be signed up to see the reading resource teacher, be tested by the school psychologist, or be enrolled in the gifted program. Parents also asked for homework for their children or for materials that they could complete at home with their children.
Lareau's research mirrors my own experiences and those of colleagues in poor schools.  This issue speaks both to issues of the practical nature of poverty, in which it is often impossible for a parent to be as involved as they might want to be because of life circumstances.  However, parents who not only truly want to, but know how to be involved, will find a way.  More often than not, low-SES populations simply don't possess the human capital sufficient to provide the sort of involvement a child's education demands.

These are all situations in which there is little a teacher can do but work with the student when he or she shows up in class.  But that is obviously not enough.  How is it then, that we a society, might intervene in a way that secures for the child a proper education?

1 - Social Class Differences in Family-School Relationships: The Importance of Cultural Capital, Author(s): Annette LareauSource: Sociology of Education, Vol. 60, No. 2 (Apr., 1987), pp. 73-85