Sunday, May 28, 2017

Whose Property?

Samir Chopra, professor of philosophy at the Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, reminds us that property is a social and legal construct.

Property is not discovered; it is made, not by the act of mixing labor with supposedly ‘fallow land,’ as Locke would have had it, but by the scaffolding provided by the surrounding legal system.

So an agreement, designed according to what makes sense.  Of course, this "sense" gets rather complicated.

The simple story is that property should be fair, distributed according to one's desert.  However, how to establish desert?  If I inherit a million dollars, I certainly did nothing to deserve it, in that I played no part in its creation.  But maybe it is fair to respect the wishes of the deceased.  But what if they inherited it, and so on?

Let me toss another piece of wood into the fire: as a behaviorist, I can make a rather solid case that all of our actions in life are in a sense "inherited", in that they are entirely a function of our genes and our environment.  As such, any action we take to create wealth is inherited.

This may seem a fanciful stretch, even if you accept the premise that our actions are not our own.  Surely we must act as if they are.  As a practical matter, maybe this is true.  However, we certainly don't act this way at a societal level.  In criminal justice, people are judged to be responsible for their actions, and thus deserving of a range of punitive measures.  In our economic system, people are assumed to have "earned" their fortunes - or lack thereof.  As such, property is hardly given a second thought as the direct result of personal action.

If our actions are inherited, then all forms of property inequality (not to mention other forms of capital) are injust.  As a practical matter, remedying this injustice in a complex society is obviously no easy task.  History is riddled with horrific results of experimentations in equality.  However, it is also filled with examples of successes (public schools, libraries, parks, social security, medicaid, etc.).

Many of our political arguments are over the practical effects of social responses to equality - whether or not they would work, whether we can afford them, whether they have secondary negative effects and so on.  Yet, first we must establish whether or not there is a moral imperative, a problem to address.  And at this point, a good-as majority of the country simply disagrees with the premise that we inherit our actions, much less that social interventions might be effective.

(A strange irony is that many of these very same people view social interventions as having negative effects on motivation, which is a completely behavioral analysis, and would as such seem to agree with the premise they deny in the first place!)

Friday, May 5, 2017

A Couple of Bold Ideas for Education Reform

Unite States Housing Authority poster, 1940
Keith Humphreys has an important piece in the WaPo today highlighting the nuance of poor black communities with regard to violence and incarceration.
In his new book, Locking Up Our Own, Yale University Law School Professor James Forman Jr. points out that in national surveys conducted over the past 40 years, African Americans have consistently described the criminal justice system as too lenient. Even in the 2000s, after a large and sustained drop in the crime rate and hundreds of thousands of African Americans being imprisoned, almost two-thirds of African Americans maintained that courts were “not harsh enough” with criminals.....Through a compelling mixture of personal stories and wonky data analysis, Fortner and Forman document how African Americans have grappled with an anguished choice. On the one hand they want to protect themselves from crime, on the other hand they know that the more active and powerful the criminal justice system grows, the more African Americans will be caught up in it, some of whom will be subjected to grossly racist treatment.
As for Forman's policy recommendations - "expanded employment opportunities, improved housing options and better schools" - I'm not sure how far they will get into the problem.  Even if you had all of these things, the black community would still have a lot of difficult contingencies to reckon with.

Education always seems most meaningful to me, as you're getting kids while they're young.  But without a solid home, you're going to be spending a ton of money chasing maladaptive behaviors.  A lot of the so-called innovation we see in creating "good schools" is really about selectivity, as the parents who go the extra mile for their kids are exactly *not* the problem.  Instead, we want to target the overworked, stressed, dead-beat, angry, confused, overwhelmed, etc. parents.  These parents are not in a position to make good choices, they are barely able to keep it together as it is.  They won't be signing up for special charters, enforcing homework, looking out for their children.  And these kids are the ones who are the dirty little secret behind "bad" schools.

Traditional schools continue to fail them, with neither the funding nor comprehensive strategy to deal with them.  Charters just plain avoid them.

But they are the result of a larger economic system which segregates by property value.  Middle class neighborhoods populate schools with children of middle class parents and all the stability that represents.  Poor neighborhoods populate schools with children of poor parents and all the lack of stability that represents.

I have two ideas for intervention.  The first is to simply implement economic integration.  Each school must have a certain percentage from different socio-economic levels.  If you really wanted to get creative, you could create an SES scale that goes beyond mere income, and takes into account things like education, health, family support, issues, etc. (all of the the contingencies that go into supporting the development of a child).  Families would be assigned a score based on filling out a new card each year.  This would require a certain level of busing, which has its downsides.  But it would "spread the hardship" across our neighborhood schools.  There would likely be some downwards pressure from these struggling kids on the rest of the student body.  But there would likewise be upwards pressure from the rest of the students.  However, with this method, you're still not directly addressing the particular need of the student.  With a 30:1 ratio, and few other interventions, stressed out kids in stressed families who don't do their homework or get read to at night will still be highly at-risk.  The other way of going at this would be to incentivize economic desegregation by offering tax rewards to poor families who move out of poor communities and wealthier families who move in.  This brings up a gentrification worries for many, as ethnicity is so tied to income.  Personally, I wonder if actual economic desegregation wouldn't make the notion of gentrification irrelevant though.

A second option would be to forget busing, and focus on interventions at the local level instead.  Poor schools would get 10x the funds, the ability to cut class sizes by a half or even two-thirds.  Instruction and support would be much more differentiated to the needs of the individual student.  Similar to the IEP model for students with physical disabilities, every child would get an academic, "wrap-around" team to monitor performance both at school - and as would be central in this case - home.  On the television show The Wire, a so-called "Hamsterdam" experiment was invented, in which the police created a decriminalization block where drug users could freely use and pushers to sell their wares.  The idea was to end the violence of the trade, and allow the users to come out of the shadows where they would be able to be targeted by social service workers.  While poor, struggling families aren't quite drug addicts, I'm struck by the similarities, as well as our social response to their plight - which is a muddled mix of disdain, pity and victim-blaming.  Rather, these are fellow humans who need all of our help.  The bonus being, of course, eradication of a major source of social ill.

Both of these ideas are radical, but in my view more directly align with our values, and support fundamental notions of fairness in public education.  If we must have economic segregation in our capitalist economic system, then we must also reckon with the fact that we are going to be creating segregated economic ghettos, defined by their lack of resources and societal capital.