Sunday, August 19, 2012

Questions for Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni dips his little toe into the debate of education reform today, spurred to write after previewing the new film, Won't Back Down, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as a parent struggling to reform her child's poorly performing public school.  Bruni compares her to Erin Brokovich, with the role of evil, polluting corporation being played assumedly by evil, child-oppressing unions.  To my knowledge, the screenplay was not written by the late Ayn Rand.  Actually, according to Tim Walker at the NEA,
“Won’t Back Down” is funded in large part by Walden Media, the same company that bankrolled  “Waiting for Superman.” Walden Media is owned by Philip Anschutz, a right-wing billionaire who has a long history of supporting right-wing politicians and causes."
Bruni's meandering, naive attempt at objectivity references AFT leader Randi Weingarten and anti-Reform crusader Diane Ravitch.  However it is clear that he is in over his head, and ends by embracing his intuitions about Reform:
"....superior teaching, the need to foster more of it and the importance of school accountability. Who could quibble with any of that?"
Who indeed?  Except that this feeble straw man avoids all the difficult issues involved, and panders to meaningless hubris.

It’s always hard to know where to begin when responding to people who clearly don't grasp the fundamental issues in a debate.  The layers of flawed assumptions just seem to pile up, one on top of another. Much of Bruni's thinking is tautological, finding facts to fit his preconceptions.  So maybe the best place to start is simply to ask a series of questions designed to challenge his assumptions.

I've spent plenty of time on this blog going into great detail on all of this.  So I won't bother repeating myself (although that rarely seems to stop me).  But here are a few:

  • Why are poor parents at poor schools?
  • What makes a school poor?
  • Is it fair for poor parents to go to a school that is poor?
  • Is it fair for poor parents to live in poor neighborhoods?
  • Is it fair for poor parents to be poor?
  • Is it fair for us to consume goods and services that pay poverty wages?
  • Are accountability and better teaching going to solve these issues?
Everyone interested in the debate over education reform should think long and hard about each of these.  Hopefully, then they might have something worthwhile to say.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Moral Responsibilty vs. Moral Accountability

Stephen Horst gives a summary of his new book, Freedom and the Laws of Nature, which seems an exceedingly long wind up to a rather silly argument.  Claiming to pick no bone with determinist account of the universe, or human agency specifically, he instead merely wants to argue for the possibility of contra-causal, or libertarian free will.  In the main he seems to be claiming that an empirical view of a materialist universe is always limited to the laws we are aware of, and thus with a subject as difficult as the human mind, there indeed might be some as yet hidden explanation for free will.  Unless I mistake his case, it seems a bit like the "God of the gaps" argument, which, unable to show evidence for God whatsoever, endlessly seeks to allow for him wherever He might be imagined to be? Yet even worse, the "gaps" Horst finds are nothing less than the possible existence of laws yet undiscovered that would make free will possible. Could I say that the invisible unicorn beside me (which I just *know* is there) could well exist according to some yet unknown law - maybe of, say, unicornity?

But while I find that thesis boring, I found what he mentioned in passing, the discussion of free will with relation to moral responsibility, an important issue to parse. 
Since the time of Laplace, the idea that a law-governed universe must also be a deterministic universe has become a fairly common assumption; and as a result, free will and all that depends upon it have often fallen into doubt and disrepute. And chief among the things that seem to depend upon free will is the possibility of moral responsibility. It seems misguided, perhaps even nonsensical, to praise or blame people for doing things they could not help doing. And some have argued, in a similar vein, that one cannot have a duty to do something unless one is actually capable of doing it: in the words of Laplace's German contemporary, the philosopher Immanuel Kant, "'ought' implies 'can'". If this is correct - if ethical notions like duty and responsibility make sense only if there is free will - then determinism would imply that all such ethical talk is literally nonsense.

Destruction of moral responsibility is often the primary issue defenders of libertarian free will have with determinism; they fear that without it, society would crumble. If one is not accountable for their actions – either to be praised or blamed, then what basis do we have for a cooperative society of laws?  However, moral responsibility is different than moral accountability.  While it may be true that no one is truly responsible for their actions, we can certainly make sure that they are accountable to the extent that we determine is fair.
The idea of people acting with no sense of moral responsibility is an understandable fear.  But its answer I think is found in the resolution of an even deeper problem: if I am fully caused, and neither to be praised or blamed, what is the purpose of my existence; what sense is there in doing anything, either good or evil?

The bad news is that there is no ultimate sense in doing either.  The good news is that one has no choice.  Any choice one makes will have been caused.  So for those who think that the end of personal responsibility means the granting of freedom to do whatever one wishes, the reasons for doing so remain the same.  Refusing to go to work still means one will get fired and end up penniless.  Stealing from a neighbor will still cause them to suffer.  Climbing Mt. Everest will still fill one with the sense of awe and sense of accomplishment.  Being kind and loving to one’s family will fill them with joy.
So while none of these acts may have special cosmic significance, we can take comfort in the fact that we are in the end, simple human creatures, evolved to take certain pleasures in our worldly endeavors.  We might curse the limitation of our corporeal forms, but somewhat paradoxically, that curse itself is merely a product of circumstance; it too is fully caused.

But let us take a deeper look at causation, specifically that of morality.  The fear of the destruction of moral responsibility is a social claim.  That is, it has to do with the interaction of individuals within society.  The moral responsibility of a man on a desert island is irrelevant.  It is only when he comes into contact with others that moral claims begin.  His responsibilities lie in the dynamics of his relationship to others.  He has feelings towards them, and they him, regarding the effects of their respective actions.    
Moral responsibility is compatible with determinism if we think of it in this macro, societal sense, and place it within a utilitarian framework.  That is, we can say no one is himself responsible, but rather the norms and values society has designed for them to live by, which have emerged from the wisdom of history, define his responsibility. 

Through the centuries and millennia, humans have evolved complex cultural and philosophical norms so as to structure our societies with no greater aim than to maximize individual and group harmony.  Of course there have been great failures, and nothing like complete success has ever been achieved.  Each of us play our small part, and – like Adam Smith’s invisible hand – the group project steadily emerges.  All of it terrifically complex in largely incomprehensible, one man can neither understand all of it not affect all of it.  In this way, it is like the individual: terrifically complex, he neither understands himself entirely, nor affects the entirety of his own choices.  And just as society cannot be said to have free will, that is to say it is determined by and emerges from its antecedent participants (philosophers, politicians, journalists, public, etc.), so too is the individual determined by and emergent from his antecedent causes (thoughts, feelings, impulses, etc.).

And just as a society cannot choose to be anything other than what it is at any given moment, neither can man. If a fascist dictator comes to power, it will be because of specific historical and cultural circumstance.  Sure, an alternative course would have been preferable, but alas, it was not to be.  Thankfully, our human capacity of reflection provides some ability to learn from our mistakes.  This cognitive power is the mechanism by which humanity slowly provides itself an opportunity for moral responsibility, or, what might be better described as moral accountability.  Interaction on a global scale, over decades and centuries, we have the opportunity to right historical wrongs, thus holding ourselves accountable for what we hope will be a system of laws and political structures more conducive to what we perceive as having been lacking in the past.

So too, if no individual is truly morally responsible for his acts, himself a conglomeration of antecedent impulses, he will be held accountable for his actions to the extent that they interact with his fellow man.  Because of power dynamics, he may be more or less accountable (the dictator, for instance, or powerful boss, might have few around to hold him to sufficient account for what they feel he has done).  And here, social institutions provide the direct framework within which power dynamics are established.  Aside from whatever the individual’s personal sense of moral responsibility to his fellow man might be, his fellow man will have an opportunity to hold him accountable according to the structures that have been established in the society within which they interact.

When wildfires rage, they often do great damage to homes.  Of course, we do not for a second think that a lick of flame is morally responsible.  Yet neither do we allow the fires to rage unchecked.  We put them out as best we can.  We also take preventative measures, so as to reduce the possibility that wildfires will rage to begin with.  We do the same with our children.  Whether we see in them moral responsibility or not, we teach them to be caring, thoughtful and kind, hopefully so that they will grow up to be positive, productive members of society.  When they err, we hold them accountable, regardless of how they felt about their actions.  Some of us might feel the need to sate an appetite for revenge, and include that satiation in their desire for accountability.  But in the end, all that matters is that they be held accountable.  We want their actions to have consequences, regardless of what may or may not be in their heads, unless it might have bearing on the degree to which we feel they might act in the future, at which point its bearing only enters with regard to a more clear picture of accountability.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Dog Men

Andrew Gelman points to findings from sociologist Jay Livingston that, contrary to recent news, partisan Tea Partiers aren't actually all that that happy.

When I was younger, I used to listen to a lot of AM radio conservatives for the thrill.  What struck me more than anything, aside form the mendacity and childishness, was the constant sense of outrage and anger at the smallest things.  "Road rage" was all the talk then, but these people seemed in the grips of a sort of "life rage".   Resentments were directed at every little inconvenience in life.  From video store clerks, to bicyclists, to ATM machines, to women with "clipped hair", their ire extended even beyond things that actually affected their life in any way, to the mere presence of people who were different from them.  All of it, however, was an affront.

Much of this was group kvetching, no doubt.  One wonders how many of these people sustain such levels of anger and intolerance on a daily basis.  Yet I've met more than one person who seems perpetually pissed off at a world they feel is constantly slighting them.  True, they are sometimes left wing.  But my lunch rooms over the years have held more than one borderline Republican spouting off about damn  wetbacks or the need to round up gang-bangers and shoot them.

For some, I think, the anger is simply dispositional; they're going to find a way to put their belligerence into political thought.  Yet for others, ideology is a convenient narrative that provides a ready-made answer for life's dilemmas.   This can have quite a balming effect, whether or not it encourages free thought.

The problem with modern partisan conservatism however, is that the narrative is built upon a kind of utopian view of human nature that is largely superstitious and inevitably leads to resentment.  They believe, along with everyone else, that people ought to do "the right thing".  However, instead of seeing human behavior in terms of a dynamic interplay of complex social structures and nuanced choices, they tend to see things in black and white.  Everyone is assumed to have, at every second, a clear choice between doing right and doing wrong.  People are either smart, or they are "idiots".  

The problem with this worldview is that there is no explanation for human behavior.  There is therefore a constant sense of astonishment and lack of understanding.  How could he have done that?  What an idiot!  And because the answers are always clear - whether from the bible, tradition, common sense (their favorite kind of sense), there is no point in trying to explain oneself or God forbid understand someone else. 

Discipline is the order of the day!  Punishment arises directly from this sort of thinking as it treats human behavior as so simple as to need only threat of punishment to function properly.  If the bad choice is associated with discomfort, then the good choice will easily be chosen.  In  a subtle way, their view of humans is as quite primitive, almost dog-like.

As long as everything is going well, I imagine the modern conservative to be quite content.  The problem is that he must live with the rest of us idiots.

An original Pavlov dog, mounted (Pavlov Museum Ryazan, Russia)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Review of the Film "Home", A Documenting of Societal Failure and Unaccountability

"I can't save them from everything, but I try to do what I can."
SPOILER ALERT: This entry is about the film Home and contains many spoilers.

Yesterday I watched the documentary, Home, about the struggles a single mother faces in buying a new home and leaving the projects.  From IMDb:
'Home' follows Sheree Farmer, a single mother of six, as she tries to buy her first home, and get her kids out of the drug-infested, crime-ridden, and gang-controlled neighborhood in which they live. 
What is most fascinating about the story is how vividly it illustrates the depth of tragedy faced by so many living at the margins of our society.  Sheree Farmer is handed what appears to be a too-good-to-be-true gift from a community non-profit: the promise to subsidize a brand new house valued at $225k, offering a mortgage to her for only $125k - essentially a gift of $100k.  All she has to do is get her credit in order in a few weeks time.  Unfortunately, this proves too much for Sheree to manage.  Stressed beyond measure, she eventually gives up and stops returning the community non-profit liason's phone calls.

Sheree works for the VA, shuttling seniors to and from medical appointments, while taking care of six children at their home in the projects of Newark New Jersey.  Her first two credit issues are easily resolved.  She can afford payment on an outstanding medical bill.  A $1500 cell phone bill is forgiven, after she claims it had been stolen.  (Had it really?  We can only hope, for the sake of Sheree's moral integrity.  At another point in the film, her ex-husband denies her accusations that he physically abused her.  She also claims he became addicted to crack, and took to selling family groceries, including frozen steaks out of the ice box.  Was he such a monster, and she so blameless?  Under great psychological stress, could she sometimes "embroider" the truth a touch?)

But two other issues are more troubling.  Sheree recounts that, after her eldest daughter refuses to perform her chores, Sheree gets her belt and attempts to beat her with it.  The daughter grabs a mop to defend herself.  In the ensuing scuffle, Sheree begins to beat her daughter with her fists, and then calls the police, telling them her daughter is "out of control".  But they take Sheree to jail, charging her with assault.  After two days in jail, the court sends her daughter to live with her father, and forbids Sheree contact.

The final credit problem regards an old issue with her ex-husband, who, after Sheree bailed him out of jail, never turned up at court.  Sheree apparently didn't get notices from the bail bondsman (again, did she really?), who then incurred legal expenses as well as a fee for tracking down her husband, adding further charges to her bill.  This infuriates Sheree, who feels she is being punished for the bad deeds of her lousy ex-husband.  One can see the defiance seething beneath her skin, even after the bondsman offers to reduce her bill.  The community liason, just wanting to see Sheree to move on with her life and into a wonderful new home, pleads with her to simply pay the bail bondsman, even offering to loan her the money interest free.

In the meantime, Sheree is overwhelmed by family life.  A younger daughter has been fighting with a boy down the street.  She wants to go and talk with the boy's parents but her daughter claims not to know his address.  While driving the van at work (being filmed nonetheless), she tries to manage the care of her children over the phone.  One has taken sick and must be taken to the doctor.  Meanwhile, her ex-husband has suddenly decided to claim two of their children as dependents on his tax returns - obviously costing her thousands in tax credits.  Although he pays a couple hundred a month in child support, Sheree points out that her children are all truly dependent on her on a daily basis.

We don't know a whole lot about Sheree's life history.  She hasn't had much more than a high school education.  She's African-American and lives in Newark, NJ, a depressed city with high unemployment, crime, poverty, and low education.  She repeatedly expresses a sense of hopelessness, frustration, anger and defeat.  At one point she tells the camera "I just can't do it anymore, I just can't."   One thing you don't see is Sheree breaking down in tears.  One might imagine this is a luxury she simply can't allow herself. 

In the end, it is indeed too much.  She worries about the prospect of moving from what she knows.  Hanging on by a thread, how can one blame her?  An imagine comes to mind of a cat in a tree, cowering from the hand stretched out to rescue her.  Taking everything she has just to keep from falling, the idea of taking a leap into the unknown requires an extra level of strength.

The major fault lines in American politics are divided along the notion of opportunity.  One side sees it as something that might well exist, but that innumerable obstacles stand in the way of people realizing it.  These may be physical limitations - things like money for car insurance.  Or they might be knowledge-based - like not knowing the right forms to fill out or the availability of neighborhood resources (if they even exist).  But they are just as often psychological - things like trust, confidence, or self-control.  These psychological limitations do not appear out of nowhere.  They might arise from real skills never learned (the love of a family, a behavioral mentor), or simply continued, day-to-day knife-like pressures that fray at one's integrity and emotional health.

The other side of the political divide diminishes these limitations as mere inconveniences - at best tests which one must overcome.  They emphasize the abstract existence of opportunity, and assume that if it is not being realized, then it is the fault of the individual for not trying hard enough.  Attempts to offer help individuals who've been dealt a difficult hand are trivialized as "handouts", insults to the ability of an individual to take credit for his own accomplishments.

The two largest problems with this view is that it is, at its core, immaterial and without grounding in the natural universe, and that it is incoherent.  First, by assuming that every individual is free to realize available opportunity, it denies that an individual's agency is something that must be developed from a functioning social system.  But then, it claims that any effort to help an individual who has not had access to functioning social structures is itself a negative social structure, in that it ultimately limits individual agency by creating in them a sense of "entitlement" that fosters reliance on charity, as opposed to personal responsibility.

These two stances are incongruent.  Individual agency is either free from the causality of social structures or it is not.  If it is free from them, then charity could not limit agency.  If charity has an effect on human agency, as a negative social structure, agency is therefore dependent upon social structures.

My suspicion is that those who would stand by this incongruent politics would want to have it both ways, arguing that agency is only partly affected by social structures.  Yet this then begs the question of where a line is to be drawn between the determining effects on agency and that which emerges free from constraint.  Unfortunately when you look at the data on the development of human agency, it is consistently dependent on prior causes, namely social structures that facilitate its construction (the only way to truly take social structures out of the equation, thus isolating what might be left, is to observe a child raised without social interaction, an obviously terrible idea.)

One might say then, that a basic minimum of social structures are required for the emergence of this "free" agency.  Again, how might one untangle what is free from what has been learned?  And when we look at the data, every variable points to a cause.  I call these factors societal capital, in order to give this process of human development a theoretical framework.  Evidence supporting it is profound, while refuting it would be rather simple.  Just as the theory of evolution could easily be refuted by the discovery of relatively new fossils embedded deeply within a much older strata of rock (for instance, a cat skull found in 1 billion year old layer of sediment), my theory of societal capital could easily be refuted by a pattern of human behavior that does not conform to any known cause, seemingly existing outside the reaches of social structure causality.  Outliers are indeed sometimes found, but aside from themselves not being representative of anything like a pattern, there are indeed after further examination usually specific causal factors at work.

Sheree farmer is not anything like an outlier.  Her lot in life could have been easily predicted by social research.  This is not to say that nothing could have been different for her.  Rather, it is to say that things could have been different had social structures been in place for her.  The tragedy is that, despite the enormous hard work, compassion and dedication of the community non-profit, it was still not enough to overcome the extent to which the Newark community has been ravaged by societal capital depletion.  The larger tragedy is that in the upcoming presidential election, we have such a close race race between the conservative position, which would either deny much of what ails Newark and citizens like Sheree, as well as assume that the solution requires reducing even further our attempts to give them a helping hand, and the progressive position, which holds that the problem is access to societal capital, and seeks to hold larger society accountable for this terrible tragedy.

Friday, August 10, 2012

How Can Smart People Be So Wrong?

The Flying, Anchise Picci (1982)
This morning I was thinking about cases where otherwise smart people believe crazy things.  I wonder if the common variable isn't the degree to which they have a strong ideological "feeling" about something.  We've seen cases where enormously smart/educated people seem immune to facts - anthropogenic climate change deniers, vaccine skeptics, creationists.  In some sense, one wonders if their intelligence doesn't allow them to create ever more elaborate rationalizations.

I'm not sure what that "feeling" really is.  It's obviously an unconscious bias; it's as if their reasoning is a rope you follow along until you come to a dark cave, beyond which there is nothing but darkness.  This is the point at which conscious reason disappears.

Yet we can find interesting patterns when we zoom out and examine the larger context of their ideology.  There are correlations between the likelihood of specific beliefs and larger attitudes.  Religious fundamentalists might be the easiest to understand, because they have a scriptural interpretation that they insist is the final authority.  It becomes more difficult when dealing with something like homeopathy, or 9/11 "truthers" where there is no specific scripture they are required to obey. 

But maybe these two aren't so dissimilar.  What if we assumed that scriptural fundamentalism wasn't really about the text, but rather about a socially normative relationship between one and their community - friends, family, congregants, pastor, etc.?  We could assume the same about the homeopathist.  They too are following certain communal norms.  A striking commonality among these groups is how frequently they live in an insular world, in which they are rarely challenged.  And when they are, it is likely by someone who is an "outsider" to their special community.  Immediately, they are a "traitor to the cause".

So, I think we're getting to tribal and identity politics, which largely exist at the unconscious level. 

Maybe something interesting to think about is the individual who is allergic to these sort of ideological "feelings", those who seem to be reasonable and level-headed, better able to think objectively.  They too might live within insular communities, yet somehow don't feel the same strong sense of allegiance that promotes unconscious tribal bias.  How is it that they have been able to establish within themselves a sense of comfort with breaking tribal norms?  Do they have some special self-esteem?  Do they not feel the same fears?

In thinking about myself, I am objectively a pretty reasonable person - at least in terms of your standard political bogeymen.  I have a lot of nuanced views, and understand both sides pretty well.  But it is enormously difficult to self-analyze this stuff.  Reaching into one's unconscious is hard - where to even begin?  I'm sure I've got plenty of tribal bias.  And how much is any of it affecting my cognition at any given moment?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Parenting as Nihilism

The Thorny Path, Thomas Couture (1873)
This morning I stumbled across a real piece of work at the Awl by Amy Sohn, author of Run Catch Kiss, described thusly by Amazon:
"....a novel that will appeal to a very specific audience--fans of Amy Sohn; young college graduates who'd like to imagine it's really this easy to achieve notoriety in a city like New York; and readers who enjoy lots of name-dropping, club-hopping, and frank descriptions of sex and other bodily functions. Sohn includes several of Ariel's columns ("Stench of a Woman," for example, or "Smutlife") as well as the letters she gets in response. In between, Ariel and her cronies and assorted one-night stands hang out in places with names like BarF and BarBarella, and drop pop references to Gen-X movies and music. Sohn delivers it all up with moxie, making up for the novel's literary weaknesses by sheer full-frontal outrageousness."
Her new novel, Motherland, continues the rally.  Those reaching for the vomit bag will relate to Jen Doll's take-down at the Atlantic, responding to Sohn's labeling of her and her friends as "Regressives".
"Only last week, let's say, I went out and drank so much wine that the next day I might have regretted certain behaviors, or even forgotten them completely, only to regret them anew when I was reminded of them by others. Does that mean I am trapped in my teen years, or maybe my booze-guzzling twenties? Does it mean I have...regressed? 
What if, when I reach the age of nearly 40 and have children, if this happens to happen, I decide to go out on the town regularly, sowing my still-wild oats, with a bunch of other moms in a clique we give the name "Hookers, Sluts and Drug Addicts"? Does that mean I'm spiraling out of Benjamin-Button control...or just kind of an immature self-absorbed jerk who, maybe, has always been that way?"
I couldn't agree more.  Indeed, her cohort reminds Sohn herself of craven teenagers.
"My generation of moms isn’t getting shocking HPV news (we’re so old we’ve cleared it), or having anal sex with near-strangers, or smoking crack in Bushwick. But we’re masturbating excessively, cheating on good people, doing coke in newly price-inflated townhouses, and sexting compulsively—though rarely with our partners. Our children now school-aged, our marriages entering their second decade, we are avoiding the big questions—Should I quit my job? Have another child? Divorce?—by behaving like a bunch of crazy twentysomething hipsters. Call us the Regressives."
Being a good person is hard.  Being kind, self-less, caring, etc. requires reflection, listening, and sacrifice.  Assuming any of what Sohn describes is true (and anyone who has watched more than a few hours of reality TV will know that such depravedly inclined individuals indeed exist - what seems new is that you wouldn't expect to find them among the liberal arts crowd at Brooklyn co-ops), listening to tales of these relatively privileged anti-superwomen wallow in pathos and nihilistic hedonism at the expense of their children, and a surrounding society that could use less of their self-indulgence and more of their positive contributions, is a slap in the face to those of us who take seriously the notion that we have a duty and responsibility to give more back to society than we take away.

Yet in the end, the issue is one of consciousness, as these troubled souls seem to have lost their way and are still stumbling around the psychological halls of high school, somehow never having developed a spiritual wisdom that might allow them to transcend the bonds of a limited, narcissistic worldview.  As is true of decadence everywhere, this is the stuff of structural privilege in which norms can develop within a vacuum of moral consequence.  What has seemingly been removed are the mechanisms that ordinarily enforce positive social, community and personal values.

I suppose the rest of us can count our good fortune that more of the world doesn't look like Sohn's book.  At least not as far as I can tell.  And the world she describes is likely not as interesting as she would have us believe.  Like any reality show, editing is everything.  And like a roadside tragedy, people will want to watch, even fewer participate.   I think I'll pass.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Putting Free Will to a Vote

Un Regard Fugitif, Bluemenschein, 1900
A couple of recent "gaffes" in the presidential campaign highlight key differences in political philosophy of the candidates.

Obama got into trouble when he made the case that businesses rely on government infrastructure for their success.  This is obvious, especially if you imagine a country without a healthy, educated workforce, functioning roads, contract enforcement, etc.
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Romney more recently got in trouble when he attributed the relative economic success of Israel compare to Palestine to superior culture of the former.
Culture makes all the difference. And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things. One, I recognize the hand of providence in selecting this place.
There is a sense in which the remark was not intended to refer to ethnicity, and refer narrowly instead to a kind of culture which arises purely from human capital.  Yet even here we are stretching things absurdly.  If not ethnicity, nor societal capital that facilitates the creation of human capital through infrastructure (which Israel clearly enjoys in far greater levels), then to what are we appealing as culture?  As one commenter I heard put it quite nicely, what if instead Romney had been singing the praises of the superior culture of Manhattan as opposed to Long Island?  Offensive, surely.

The positions these two candidates are taking, in terms of what to emphasize in outlining a framework of social success, are rooted in fundamentally different ways of understanding human agency.

The progressive view is one that sees success (or failure) as determined by an interplay between the individual and society.  Basic human equality of talent is assumed, roughly believing that anyone can be highly intelligent and accomplished, given the properly nurturing environment.  This view is backed up not only by endless volumes of research, but as well by common sense.  Any parent can tell you that children are largely products of your own investment and teaching.  We speak of children "raised well", and from "good homes".

The conservative view is one that sees success (or failure) less as a product of the interplay between the individual and society, but rather as ultimately the product of the individual's free choice.  Basic human talent is not assumed, but rather there are those who have been clearly endowed with superior mental and behavioral faculties.  Environment is not the ultimate determinant, but rather it is the pure strength of individual free will that allows him the agency to rise above whatever circumstance life throws his way.  This view is supported by a troubling lack of research.  There are occasional outliers, but evidence shows again and again not only that individuals are determined by their environment in the aggregate, but that countless specific pathways to skill-building exist in which it is not individual choice but social exchange that fosters specific agency.

However, there is a sense in which this conservative view appeals to common sense.  Individuals do make decisions, and each of us clearly feel as though we are the agents of this process.  If I do not get up and exercise at dawn, who is there to blame but myself?  Conservative rhetoric is very concerned with the emphasis of personal responsibility, and sees progressive claims to the contrary as morally bankrupt.  Indeed, in our everyday lives, the concept of individual responsibility is quite useful.

Yet, how to rectify this sense that we have free will and individual responsibility with the enormous quantity of research seeming to prove otherwise?  How to rectify it with the understanding all parents have that they are largely responsible for their children's development into successful adults?

It might be helpful here to think about the small child, at the tender age of five.  While still young, she clearly is quite developed emotionally and behaviorally.  Her cognitive skills are very advanced, capable not only of speaking with an extensive vocabulary, but able as well to learn to read, write, count and do basic mathematics.  She is capable of knowing right from wrong, even if her emotions sometimes get the best of her.  And yet, when she errs, we recognize her actions as not entirely her own.  That is, after a long day, when she throws a tantrum when asked to clean her room, we understand that she is likely tired, and thus less in command of her impulses.  If it has been discovered that she has stolen a piece of candy from the grocery store, we realize it inappropriate to send her to jail.  The more thoughtful among us might take the opportunity to reflect on whether deeper psychological issues might be at work, such as resentment of authority or a lack of self-esteem that might be inhibiting the development of personal integrity.

In short, there is nothing in her behavior that we can truly call free will; every action she takes can be traced to her development in relation to her socialization.  Children are not automatons.  They are often quite ponderous and reflective.  Yet even though they make choices, children's decision making process is clearly rooted in their relative development.  However, having only been on the Earth a short period of time, it is much easier to trace their thought process back to their cognitive development over time.  Epistemologically, the problem is relatively simple; there are fewer variables from which to draw causal conclusions.

In adults, there is no reason to think the same developmental dynamic does not exist.  However, because of the much greater time spans involved, the epistemological problem of trying to tease out causality from their thought process to their development as humans is far greater.  We can, through reflection, get some sense of why we make the decisions we do.  But it is very difficult and imprecise.  This epistemological imprecision is responsible for the useful illusion that our choices are caused not by our extensive lifelong development as humans, but rather by what is commonly referred to as "free will", or the ability to make decisions unfettered by developmental growth.

As dynamic organisms with the capacity for incalculably complex organization and processing of external stimulus, the positing of autonomy in the form of a "self" is enormously handy.  Thinking of a child first learning to talk, it is not uncommon to hear them refer to themselves in the third person.  Their knowledge of self is quite accurately based in an understanding of their developmental powers as identified and posited by their parent.  They have basic desires, emotions and thoughts, and quickly learn that they as well have agency.

Yet who are they?  From where does this agency come?  It comes from something that we can call a "self", and helpfully assign a name to further designate it as something different and autonomous from its environment.  However, as anyone familiar with small infants can attest, their agency is still quite limited, and in most ways they are entirely dependent on both the physical and mental capacities of their parent.  As they develop, they develop more autonomy and agency, and learn to think of all this as their "self".

As they grow older and more sophisticated, as their powers of agency grow, it becomes more and more useful to think of themselves as "selves".  As teenagers, their powers of self-reflection and group awareness reach the point where they are able to truly transcend their immediate home culture and begin to imagine other world views and forms of living, and even incorporate them into their growing capacity for self-identity and conception.  By the time they reach adults, any single decision they make seems entirely removed from any cognitive, emotional or behavioral development they have thus far experienced.  In the abstract, it might make some sense, but in any given situation, there is only so much one can epistemologically know about why one is making a particular decision.  To the extent that it can be known, it might be useful, but it can also be a hindrance, as time is often of the essence and too much navel-gazing can become a liability.

And so we move through the world, live our lives as if we are autonomous selves.  We feel proud of our accomplishments.  We feel shame for our failures.  But even the most stubbornly convinced among us that we indeed possess a free will that originates entirely within ourselves realize that the degree of credit we can take for our actions, the degree of personal responsibility we feel, is in some proportion to the degree to which our actions were not determined by external causes.  The concept of the "self-made man" is defined by the extent to which one's actions are divorced from external determination.  For instance, as successful as one is in business, if that business was built and handed to him from his father he cannot take full credit for it.  He was not self-made.

Returning to the research, it is rare to find anyone who can be described in any sense as "self-made".  Whether the privileges are obvious, such as family inheritance, or more subtle, such as the commitment, support and love of a parent, there is almost always a rather clear causality involved in human development and success.  This is just as true for those who lives lives of desperation and tragedy.  A lack of privilege, or outright misfortune almost always colors the lives of those who society would term failures, such as drug dealers, criminals, or just your average, everyday jerk.  Poor role-models, abusive parents, or an otherwise unloving or unsupportive environment is almost always the story of the lives of these individuals.

Of course it is possible for individuals to overcome circumstance.  However, contrary to the popular myth of the self-made man, or he who by the boot-straps pulls himself up, this can only take place in an environment in which he has been able to both develop the skills within himself that allow him to triumph, as well as take advantage of structural leverages afforded him by the society in which he lives.  Both of these - the skill building and societal leverage - fall under the rubric of societal capital, an external resource.  The former requires an environment in which he is able to develop the proper behaviors, attitudes, habits, knowledge, etc. that allow him agency.  The latter is, of course, the environment itself which affords him opportunities to apply his amassed stores of human capital.

This is the larger narrative behind the respective ideologies that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney represent, the assumptions about how agency is developed and applied in society.  Obama, representing the progressive view, emphasizes the degree of social determinism in the development of every citizen.  Romney, representing the classical liberal and modern conservative view, emphasizes the degree to which individuals are able to transcend society and freely make of themselves what they eventually become.  Strange as though it may be to believe, the Romney tradition is highly allergic to the concepts of societal and human capital as dynamic, reinforcing aspects of human development and realization.  The Romney view would deny much of the extent to which human capital is dependent on societal capital, instead viewing it as something that an individual is able to manufacture from whole cloth.  Societal capital itself is likewise seen with diminished import, either in many cases its dismissed entirely as a factor, or its valance downplayed.

To Obama, the successful business man is not really self-made at all, but rather is privileged to have enjoyed environmental privileges - societal capital -  that have allowed him to experience success.  Obama would no doubt view inequality between Israel and Palestine and look for imbalances in things like education, roads, access to water, occupation, etc. to explain such disparity.  To Romney, a businessman is in most ways an island of self-determination, free from the constraints of both human and societal capital.  Thus his reference to Israeli culture itself seems a contradiction - would not culture be a clear description of the interplay between human and societal capital?  Yet in the Romney framework, culture, to the extent that we are not simply arguing ethnocentric bigotry, is not so much viewed as a causal factor, but a description of things as they are, the way one might look at a flower and describe it's beauty.  However, while the flower's beauty has a clear evolutionary purpose, its cause entirely traceable to its genetics, the Romney view of culture is owed to a profound faith in the free will of man, and therefor outside the ordinary realm of natural causality and the physical universe.  This was actually illustrated rather well in Romney's follow-up allusion to "providence" as having played a role in Israel's relative affluence. 

In the November presidential election, we face two competing visions not only of policy and values, but of deeper assumptions about the nature of human development and agency.

In Obama, we have the belief represented that a free citizenry, one with an equal chance at life success, depends on individuals having equal access to the societal capital that will allow them to build and then leverage their own human capital.  While this project is no where near finished, and will likely never be, government can play a highly effective role in guaranteeing access to at least minimum levels of required societal capital.

In Romney, we have the belief that a free citizenry depends only marginally on individuals having access to societal capital, that they are each perfectly capable of developing and finding ways to leverage their own human capital.  Government has grown much too large and invasive, and needs to do much less in the way of ensuring societal capital to individuals.

Ultimately, the vote will largely be about whether you believe that human and societal capital are highly dependent, as research has proven again and again, or that human agency is something that individuals can create from nothing, likely even more so when their faith is placed in the Christian God, a view for which there exists not a shred of evidence, and is counter to our most basic understanding of the laws of the universe.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Definition of Societal Capital

As I originally discussed here, when I discovered my usage of the term social capital was incorrect, I decided to try an coin a new term to better describe my intended meaning.

Societal Capital (n): the stock of resources a society provides a developing human so as to further their development of human capital, either through physical, cognitive or emotional nourishment, as well as bodily safety.  

Beginning in utero, and continuing through adolescence and adulthood, negative as well as positive factors can serve to promote or inhibit human capital growth, and societal capital represents the net of this developmental leverage.  Societal capital can be highly direct, such as specific vitamins and minerals that stimulate tissue development, or the presence of cognitively stimulating language and activities in the home.  It can also be more indirect and abstract, such as social services, access to libraries, neighborhood safety, or employment opportunities.