Life’s real value

2012/11/29 14 comments

The ever-interesting Eric McDonald has been writing a series of blog posts (one, two, three so far) criticizing arguments against assisted dying on the basis of “the sanctity of human life,” and further criticizing the very idea that life is “sacred.” Inspired by his conversation, I’d like to go considerably further, and argue that not only is human life NOT sacred, human life as such is not even valuable, or deserving of respect. Consider the coma patient whose forebrain is so much mush (for example, Terry Schiavo), but whose metabolic processes can be maintained artificially for many months or years. Consider the anencephalic infant born with no neocortex at all, and therefore no chance whatsoever of ever developing into a person, but nevertheless responsive enough to medical care to be kept alive — maintained as a functioning metabolism — for months, or even years. These beings are undeniably alive, and undeniably human, yet no morally sensible person would argue that their lives have any value that we should be concerned to preserve and protect. In fact, any morally sensible person ought to consider the preservation of such lives a waste of resources that should instead be devoted to some end that is actually worthwhile, like helping patients who might actually benefit from treatment. (Of course, the hullabaloo raised by the Schiavo case sadly revealed just how many people lack any moral sense, and which people are so lacking: religious conservatives.)

What such cases should tell us, if we reflect on them carefully, is that human life itself — “life” in the sense of the mere continuation of metabolic processes — is of no value at all. Not only is human life not sacred, it’s not even morally important. Or rather, to the extent that human life has value — to the extent that life is worth preserving and protecting — life’s value must necessarily depend on something other than merely being alive. This suggests that the problem with making moral arguments based on “the sanctity of human life” isn’t necessarily just the *sanctity* part: The failures of moral reasoning evident in those who strongly oppose assisted dying, euthanasia, and abortion seems rooted in the focus on the value of life itself. Replacing the “sanctity of human life” principle with “the intrinsic value of life” or “respect for human life” might not improve matters, because such muddy language still focuses on life, which is not valuable in itself. Better to cease all this foolish jibber-jabber about the value of human life entirely, and focus instead on what actually makes human life valuable.

We consider cases like those cited above to be tragic precisely because what we actually value about life has been lost (Schiavo), or has failed to develop at all (anencephaly). So what is it that we value? Simply put, it is not merely being alive that we value, but living our lives. The meaning of human life springs from our projects and activities, our relationships and commitments, our ongoing engagement with the life we make for ourselves. As Eric brought up in his first post on this subject, it’s the quality of life that truly matters. However, that immediately raises the question of what standard we should use for making quality judgments, for all judgments require norms. Any reflection at all should make it immediately and abundantly clear that no objective, external standard for judging the quality of a life could ever be supposed or imposed: No one else can actually live my life but me, so necessarily *I* must evaluate the quality of my life for myself — and the same is true for everyone. Thus it isn’t life that we ought to respect, but autonomy.

I would argue that any moral reasoning framed in terms of “the value of life” or “respect for life” — regardless of whether the value of life is called “sacred” or not — precludes (or at least occludes) meaningful consideration of the quality of life. What we ought to respect is human autonomy, for that is the only basis on which quality of life can be assessed. The value of each life can only be determined by the person who lives it. My life has value because I value it. If I ever cease valuing my life, perhaps because degenerative illness has diminished and will continue to diminish my capacity for carrying on the projects, activities, and engagements that give my life meaning and value, then no one can gainsay my judgment on my life’s disvalue. If someone murdered me, what would make their action immoral is not simply that they have taken a life, but that they have taken what I value without my consent. In contrast, what makes physician-assisted suicide the absolute moral opposite of murder is that the physician is not taking what I value without my consent, but is aiding me in discarding what I disvalue, and doing so not just with my consent, but at my request.

On this view, Eric was being redundant when he claimed, in his third post, that assisted dying “is about two things and two things only: intolerable suffering and choice.” Rather, it is about one thing, and one thing only: choice. Whether or not any given person’s suffering is “intolerable” is itself a matter of choice: No one else could conceivably decide for me whether my life is tolerable, for I am the one who must tolerate it. My life, my decision. It really is that simple.

I believe my conclusion here reinforces Eric’s criticism of “the sanctity of human life” as a moral principle: While I think that moral arguments couched in terms like “the intrinsic value of life” or “respect for human life” are potentially misleading because they put the emphasis on entirely the wrong value, such terminology at least leaves open the possibility of asking where the value of life comes from, or exactly what aspect of human life ought to be respected. Given that potential, such terms are not an absolute obstacle to sound moral reasoning based on the value that really matters, respect for human autonomy. In contrast, any moral reasoning which relies on the “sanctity” or “sacredness” of human life is inescapably pernicious: The very idea of “sanctity” can never escape the implication — indeed, the necessary presupposition — that what really matters is not what we value about our own lives, but what God values. And of course, “what God values” always and necessarily reduces to what religious authorities claim God values: Thus, any citation of the sanctity of life as a value that must be respected is not moral reasoning at all, it is authoritarian religious bullying. Fuck that noise.


Appealing to privilege is no longer a winning political strategy

2012/11/08 Leave a comment

Republicans lost their bid for the Presidency, and also lost two seats in the Senate. Republicans did not come close to losing control of the House, but when all of the vote counting and recounts are hashed out over the coming days and weeks, it appears that they will have lost 8 or more seats in a year when the states where Republicans controlled post-census redistricting (read gerrymandering) outnumbered states where Democrats controlled it 2:1. When a party LOSES seats in a year where they had the opportunity to re-draw districts in their favor in significantly more states than their opponents, they are clearly doing something wrong. (For some seriously nerdy wonkery on 2011 redistricting/reapportionment and how it theoretically should have helped Republicans, see here.)

Mind you, all of these losses occurred in an election year when the economy, in a word, sucks — which is normally bad for the party of the incumbent President.

That’s important data, but not the only data. It’s also important to note exactly where the Republicans held their ground or even gained a little since 2008: As Jon Stewart quipped Tuesday night, “Most of the Confederacy went for Mitt Romney.”

But I think the most revealing facts of all lie in the demographics: Romney earned 59% of the white vote, and lost every other race/ethnicity demographic by a large margin. (Reagan was elected when 90% of voters were white, and Romney would have won decisively with similar demographics — but only 72% of this year’s voters were white, a downward trend that will certainly continue for years to come.) Romney earned 55% of men’s votes: 60% or higher among white men, and much, much, much higher for over-forty, middle-to-upper income white men. But he earned only 44% of women’s votes, most of those concentrated among older, white, married women. (Unfortunately, I can’t find any access to exit polling raw data yet where the real demographic details lie: The link to the Sacramento Bee’s AP exit poll graphic only has categories like sex and race, not cross-correlations. Maybe I’ll dig into that data when it becomes available later in the week and update this paragraph.)

But this isn’t just about the Presidential votes and demographics. Two Republican Senate candidates who formerly had leads in the polls saw those leads evaporate and wound up losing on election day after they made comments exposing their real views about women. Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin lost in Missouri and Richard “Rape Pregnancies are God’s Will” Mourdock lost in Indiana. (INDIANA! The most consistently red of red states!) Mind you, they only lost because they happened to explicitly express in public the kind of reasoning that underlies the official Republican Party platform, which seeks to criminalize all abortions and makes no exception for women pregnant by rape.

Also, *every* vote on marriage-rights-related state ballots came down in favor of marriage equality for gay men and women. And voters elected our nation’s first openly gay Senator, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. And two women from religious minorities were elected as well: Senator Mazie Hirono (the first Buddhist in the Senate) and Representative Tulsi Gabbard (the first Hindu in the House), both of Hawaii.

There are a number of ways to interpret this broad array of results, but most of those explanations are partial and inadequate. For example, this broad pattern of voting does not simply indicate a rejection of the Republican economic policies that got us into our current mess, because that wouldn’t explain why white men believed Romney’s supply-side voodoo economics nonsense while other demographics rejected it. Nor would that narrative explain the thrashing of rape apologist Senators, nor marriage equality victories. Ditto for explanations about Republican intransigence and obstructionism in Congress: Why did only some voter segments see that as problematic? And what does that have to do with the differences in voting based on race and gender?

The one factor that unifies ALL these election results is this: Securing the votes of the privileged is not enough to win American elections any more. Political rhetoric and policy proposals primarily aimed at the socioculturally privileged are doomed to fail because the electorate has changed: the privileged no longer have the numerical dominance to go with their other relative advantages in life. Appealing to male privilege alienates women, who vote in ever-increasing numbers — so anti-choice extremism plays poorly with the electorate as a whole. Appealing to white privilege alienates both racial minorities *and* non-bigoted whites — so exploiting fear of privilege loss (Damned immigrants taking our jobs!) and appeals to racism play poorly with the electorate as a whole. (Of course, appeals to racism are generally veiled — but you don’t think white people imagine themselves when Republicans use phrases like “the culture of dependency”, do you? That’s just the 21st Century version of “welfare queens.”) Appealing to religious privilege alienates the ever-growing segment of the population that identifies itself as non-religious; appealing to heterosexual privilege alienates an electorate growing increasingly comfortable with diversity in human sexuality and gender expression; and so on and so forth.

The Republican Party has grown more reactionary year by year, and they don’t seem to be capable of switching that trajectory. Ever more extreme candidates win Republican primaries because the party’s infamous electoral “base” — which skews dramatically older, whiter, more Evangelical, and more male than the general electorate — dominates the primary process, but the narrow world view that appeals to those older white males has no appeal to the rest of the electorate: It’s a world view very clearly shaped by fear of change — and not just any change, but specifically fear of losing the privileges they enjoy with respect to women, gays, racial minorities, non-Christians, younger people, etc. Yes, Republicans continue to win in the parts of this country where white/male/Christian/heterosexual privilege is still socially dominant — the American South as a whole, and rural/suburban America to a much greater degree than urban America — but that’s just a matter of lag-time. That sort of sociocultural hegemony is tenuous, and slips away more every year, in every way.

In short, I think the primary lesson of this election is that appealing to privilege is no longer a winning political strategy. But I don’t think the collective sense of identity of the Republican Party allows it to do otherwise: At the most basic level, political conservatism is rooted in fear of change, and those who enjoy privilege have the most to fear from change.

Many sensible political commentators have talked about the same general ideas that I’m addressing here. (Nicholas Kristof at the NYT wrote one of the clearest.) However, all of the analyses I’ve read focus too much on pure demographics, and not enough on the more basic underlying facets of human psychology at play here: privilege and fear of losing it. Hispanic voters went for Bush in much greater proportions than they voted for Romney. Why? Yes, one could point to the strong correlation between Hispanic identity and conservative Catholicism & Pentacostalism, which almost certainly played a significant role in 2004 with its Republican anti-gay referendum get-out-the-vote strategy. However, Romney’s self-deportation rhetoric and immigrant-abusing legislation pushed by Republicans around the country surely encouraged this election’s Hispanic turnout and massive preference for Obama and other Democrats. Okay, then explain that! Why did Georgia and Alabama Republicans feel compelled to copy Arizona’s much-maligned state immigration law model — over the protests of their respective states’ influential farming lobbies — when they know damned well that Hispanics are a growing voter demographic? Why did Romney spout anti-immigrant rhetoric on the campaign trail? Republicans are compelled to prey on white voters’ fears because those fears actually exist — they genuinely do feel a nagging, not-always-conscious fear of losing their privileged position in American society, which they are actually losing — and conservative political consciousness is rooted in fear of change.

This leads me to think that Republicans simply CANNOT change in the sorts of substantial ways that would prevent their inevitable decline into political irrelevance — which would be wonderful, if only it changed anything fundamental about American political life. Unfortunately, both the Democrats and Republicans are thoroughly wedded to the interests of a loss-of-privilege-fearing segment of the populace which exercises influence wildly out of proportion to its numbers: the wealthy. I didn’t mention economic privilege above precisely because there is not very much difference between our two major parties in that respect. (Libertarians are thoroughly wedded to the interests of the wealthy, too, so don’t look to them for change.) And as long as that remains the case — as long as Democrats remain nearly as dedicated to serving the interests of the plutocracy as Republicans are, with the only differences lying in rhetoric (and perhaps a slight, still-to-be-demonstrated-with-real-action willingness on the part of Democrats to undo a miniscule proportion of the past three decades’ upward-redistribution of wealth through minor policy changes) — American political life will not change significantly. Yes, women’s rights and welfare are better served by Democrats, as are the rights and welfare of ethnic minorities, religious minorities, sexual minorities, etc. And that does matter, and I’m glad for it — especially if Obama gets to appoint a few more Supreme Court Justices. But if the interests of 99.9% of the populace remain subordinated to the interests of the 0.1%, those comparative improvements will ultimately be no more than bread and circuses, providing only a bit of distraction and a few minor improvements in some respects while the inevitable collapse of our society proceeds apace.

Categories: current events, politics

In which my opinion is solicited

2012/10/31 Leave a comment

Today I received an e-mail informing me that the “Faculty Advisory Council (FAC) to the [name of state-wide university system redacted] Strategic Directions committee has posted a NEW survey to gather faculty input into the strategic planning process,” and asking me for my input on said survey. This became the occasion for another of my frequent reflections on the sad state of higher education. I’m not sure the Faculty Advisory Council will find my responses particularly useful, but at least I found it therapeutic to write. And what’s the point of spending all that time writing a rant about the sad state of higher education if I don’t share it more widely than with some committee which will instantly dismiss it? Here, then, are my survey responses, with just enough quotations from the actual survey to provide context:

The relevant instruction: Please evaluate each topic area in light of what is necessary to enhance the [name of state-wide university system redacted] system.

Topic Area 1
Degree Attainment Goals Responsive to State Needs. This area includes: developing goals responsive to current and future workforce needs and the state’s changing demographics; assessing degree offerings in the context of current workforce requirements and anticipated state needs…

My response
All discussion of degree attainment goals must include simultaneous discussion of academic quality goals. The current nation-wide push towards performance-based assessment and funding too frequently reduces discussion of “performance” to wildly inadequate measures such as retention and degree attainment while ignoring the commensurate need to evaluate actual learning outcomes: Producing graduates with degrees means nothing if those graduates do not actually possess the knowledge and skills which their degrees are supposed to represent. Any performance-based assessment/funding model driven by measures of retention and graduation rates *without* including any measures of actual learning outcomes will by its very nature generate very strong incentives for lowering academic standards — the surest way to increase retention and graduation rates. In the absence of counter-incentives, university funding becomes wholly dependent on producing students with diplomas, and as a consequence such a university must eventually become no more than a diploma mill.

I also think we must be cautious about reducing “workforce needs” to oversimplified claims about the majors of our graduates. Yes, [state redacted] probably needs more nurses, and fewer lawyers. However, we must never forget that the primary and inescapable need of every democracy is an educated, engaged, critical-thinking citizenry — and that the primary responsibility of all educators is to help satisfy that need. An appropriate quotation I’ve seen often of late comes to mind:

“We’ve bought into the idea that education is about training and “success”, defined monetarily, rather than learning to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.”
― Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle

Less idealistically, surveys of employers consistently reveal that a majority of employers are more concerned about general qualities rather than specific job training for most positions they hire for, citing desirable employee qualities such as: problem-solving skills; the ability to work independently; the ability to think critically; effective oral and written communication skills; and basic numeracy. Most importantly, employers say they want employees who have learned *how to learn*, so that they can pick up the specific knowledge and skills needed to perform a given job, specifics that are almost never part of any academic program or major. These are all exactly the qualities that a broad liberal education is intended to inculcate, whatever the particular major — so let us not be misled into thinking that “responsiveness to state needs” requires us to set target numbers for specific majors, aside from recognizing the need to provide specialized training in certain technical fields like medicine, information technology, etc.

Topic Area 2
Strengthen Academic Quality. This area includes: strengthening admissions standards and university policies governing satisfactory academic progress; increasing focus on preparing graduates with the core competencies needed to success; improving academic advising to reduce enrolled time to degree; identifying the most effective ways to assess and assure student learning; and enhancing the use of technology in the classroom and in distance education opportunities.

My response
According to nearly every bit of research and analysis of higher education in the U.S. I’ve read for the past several years, generating a higher proportion of college-educated adults — especially (but not exclusively) in STEM fields — is considered a vital component of our future prosperity. If one of our goals is to increase the number of college graduates, we must increase the number of college students, so we cannot raise our admission standards across-the-board: Admitting MORE students necessarily means letting in more students who are less qualified than students we currently admit, unless American high schools start producing better-qualified students on the whole (which is not, sadly, something we have any real influence over). Our emphasis on academic quality therefore cannot focus over-much on the quality of our incoming students, but on how well we educate ALL the students we admit, even those who are less academically prepared for college.

Absolutely every honest person who has investigated the issue ought to admit that the single most effective way to improve the quality of education — to assess and assure student learning, to ensure that students actually acquire the core competencies required for success in their chosen field, to strengthen academic quality across-the-board — is to lower student-to-faculty ratios, both across the whole university and on a class-by-class basis. There are no technological fixes for having too few educators for too many students, and no plausible substitute for educators simply having more time and energy to spend educating each student by virtue of having fewer students.

Similarly, every honest person ought to admit that students don’t take longer to graduate than they did 10 or 20 years ago because they are inadequately advised, but because more and more undergraduates spend more and more of their time working at jobs other than being a student — because the cost of higher education has skyrocketed at a pace far exceeding inflation. Again, there is not and cannot possibly be any substitute for students actually having more time and energy to be students.

On every front then, the only effective way to substantially improve academic quality — and, therefore, improve meaningful academic achievement (rather than meaningless diploma attainment) — is to fight the long-standing, ongoing diversion of state funding away from public higher education. Any and every other method for strengthening academic quality is naught but smoke and mirrors.

Topic Area 3
Maximize Efficiencies. This area includes: continuing ongoing academic program review to eliminate unnecessary duplication and low-productivity programs; developing cost-effective tools and collaborative strategies to broaden convenient access to online courses and other distance education programs across the university and state; encouraging and implementing more shared services in areas where costs can be reduced and services improved; and strengthening space utilization practices.

My response (which cribs from something I said the last time a university committee asked for my opinion on such matters)
The massive defunding of higher education in the United States over the past few decades — in every state, although better in [state redacted] than in many states — has resulted in non-stop demands that public university administrators and faculty “do more with less,” year after year after year: If there truly ever was a time when increases in efficiency, redirection of resources to teaching from less central tasks, and other transformations of how we do things could improve student education even while reducing budgets, that time has long since passed. I can think of several ways I could improve my teaching this semester — more feedback on assignments, for just one example. But since I typically work on course preparation, in-class teaching, grading, and other basic teaching duties 50-60 hours a week as it is, I cannot imagine where I would find the time and energy to generate more meaningful and detailed feedback on assignments. (Hence my discussion of the importance of lower student-teacher ratios for academic quality above.)

Categories: education

Free speech is not anonymity, and vice versa

2012/10/19 3 comments

In which I comment at Butterflies & Wheels on the important moral distinction — which a large segment of the internet seems to have entirely missed — between the justification for protecting free speech and the justification for protecting anonymity.

Not that my comments at B&W are long, but here’s an even shorter version:

Freedom of speech neither includes nor implies freedom from the consequences of your speech. Nor should it!

Anonymity DOES include freedom from consequences; protection from consequences is exactly what anonymity is intended to accomplish.

That is why anonymity must logically and morally be much more limited than free speech: Protecting people from the consequences of their own actions should be limited to a very narrow scope, and it can only be justified where those consequences themselves are unjust (such as protecting a whistleblower from suffering negative consequences for advancing the public good).

People using internet anonymity to be assholes without consequences is NOT something we simply must accept in order to preserve free speech. Free speech is not anonymity, and anonymity is not free speech.

Averting American self-destruction

2012/10/14 Leave a comment

This Sunday NYT article focuses on the over-arching problem that will, in time, destroy our nation as it has destroyed so many in the past — unless we have the courage and foresight to fix the problem. What is the problem? Basically, this:

Extractive states are controlled by ruling elites whose objective is to extract as much wealth as they can from the rest of society. Inclusive states give everyone access to economic opportunity; often, greater inclusiveness creates more prosperity, which creates an incentive for ever greater inclusiveness.

The history of the United States can be read as one such virtuous circle. But… virtuous circles can be broken. Elites that have prospered from inclusive systems can be tempted to pull up the ladder they climbed to the top. Eventually, their societies become extractive and their economies languish.

That was the future predicted by Karl Marx, who wrote that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction. And it is the danger America faces today, as the 1 percent pulls away from everyone else and pursues an economic, political and social agenda that will increase that gap even further — ultimately destroying the open system that made America rich and allowed its 1 percent to thrive in the first place.

(I encourage you to read the whole thing.)

The problem is economic in character, but political in both its origin and solution. Here, I’m not so concerned about the details of the solution: We already know how to make our society more inclusive and less extractive, because we pursued political and economic policies that accomplished exactly that from the mid-1930s through the late 1970s. So the question is not so much how to do it, but who will do it?

The policies of the Republican party are in every way designed to make the problem worse rather than better, to further benefit the haves at the expense of the have-nots, to advance the extractive society and undermine the inclusive society. Anyone who thinks otherwise is deluded, and Republican political strategists put a great deal of effort into fostering such delusions. The current theocratic culture war, its predecessor the race-baiting “Southern Strategy,” the always-useful tactic of fanning fear and hatred of immigrants “coming to take your jobs,” bashing unions as job-destroying while promoting policies that destroy both unions and jobs — all these are just tools used to manipulate people into voting against their own economic self-interest.

Fortunately, the Republican party seems to be self-destructing, having lost control of their own tools of manipulation. Part of the problem is simple demographics: The segments of the population on which their tools work best are shrinking as a proportion of the whole. But part of their problem also seems to be self-created: Researchers on religion in public life (like the Pew Research Center) have consistently found that the rising tide of religious disaffection among young Americans is directly tied to their sense that the religion of their parents is too judgmental and too wrapped up in politics. In essence, the very culture war that the Republicans have promoted so ferociously and relied on to drive voter turnout since Reagan is turning the children of their “base” against them.

(Maybe the problem is that Republicans tend to read horrible hacks like Ayn Rand instead of true visionary geniuses like Frank Herbert. Certainly they should have heeded one of Herbert’s Bene Gesserit proverbs: “When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movement becomes headlong – faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thought of obstacles and forget that a precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it’s too late.”)

Unfortunately, what ought to be the opposition party has been turned into the more-of-the-same party by multiple corrosive influences which feed into one another: the perpetual campaign and fund-raising cycle, the lobbying industry, the revolving door between employment in government and the government-contract-seeking private sector (most especially the aforementioned lobbying industry). While policies advocated by the Democratic party do not actively promote the extractive society for the most part, they certainly do little to reverse the problem — and they never will, unless the party drastically changes in character. For the most part, Democratic party leaders studiously ignore the ever-growing gap between the haves and have-nots, or mention it for rhetorical purposes without acknowledging either [1] that it is a product of public policy choices (which it manifestly is), or [2] that different policy choices could reverse it (which we know from direct historical experience). For example, Obama’s plan to return taxes on top earners back to pre-Bush levels is trivial. The gap between the rich and poor has been growing since the mid-1980s, so the starting point for any sensible policy discussion would at least consider rolling tax rates on the wealthy back to Reagan-era levels — but no Democratic leader dares suggest such a thing. (Here are two very informative graphs connecting income disparity and top tax rates.)

Worse yet, there is currently no viable alternative in the American political landscape.

The Libertarians, for all their laudable stands on civil liberties (opposition to the drug war and the PATRIOT Act and so on), advocate the same regressive economic policies that Republicans do: Whether it is self-identified Libertarians or Republicans making it, the claim that unregulated laissez faire capitalism — if only we carried it far enough! — can somehow magically create a level playing field out of one that is manifestly un-level to begin with is not only unsupported by reasoning and evidence, but directly countered by all the historical evidence anyone has ever examined. It is an ideology held with dogmatic religious fervor, not a viable economic theory. Although they are usually explained in different terms, Libertarian economic policies are almost indistinguishable from Republican policies, and the same economics “authorities” are relied on by both. I was recently reminded by this article exactly how the economic ideologies favored by Republicans and Libertarians gained so much unwarranted respect and prestige.

(Short version for those who don’t care to read the linked article: The “Nobel Prize” in economics is not, in fact, a true Nobel Prize at all, but was created several decades later by bankers for the explicit purpose of promoting “free market” economic ideologies theories friendly to the extractive society, like those of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. In fact, Hayek’s academic career was basically over — because his theories were considered wildly implausible and completely unsupported by the evidence — until the turd-polishing faery dust sprinkled on his theories by winning a phony “Nobel prize” suddenly made him seem respectable. Friedman was a much more respected and respectable economist on his own merits before winning his faux-bel prize, for whatever that’s worth; however, he also deserves primary blame as the Reagan economic adviser most directly responsible for the policy changes that started our slide towards an increasingly extractive society in the first place.)

Because the Libertarians are as bad as or worse than Republicans in economic policy terms, and because Democrats are basically Republicans-lite on economics (and other policy matters, such as foreign policy and the drug war), the only genuine opposition to the extractive society in the U.S. lies in progressive politics — currently embodied in the Green Party and the Occupy movement. Unfortunately, American progressives have no political traction, and every progressive movement seems more hamstrung by ideological purity and practical incompetence than the one before it. For example, the Tea Party may be full of extremist lunatics, but they somehow managed to get a bunch of their favored candidates elected in Republican Congressional primaries in 2010 — something the Green Party has never managed to do, nor really even tried to do. Meanwhile, the Occupy movement — which looked for a moment like it might be a nucleus around which a progressive successor to the perpetually ineffective Green Party could coalesce — appears to have already dwindled to a small core of activists who don’t seem to have a clue about how to grow a movement, and spend more time infighting than strategizing.

As Rebecca Solnit eloquently (and acerbically) argues here, there is a relentlessly negative and emotionally immature undercurrent in the American political left that leads it to undermine itself. Unless American progressives grow up — unless they learn how to hold and pursue high ideals without letting the unattainable perfect become the enemy of attainable goods — they will never amount to anything. What they should be trying to do is take over the Democratic party from within like the Tea Party has taken over the Republican party, but without the Tea Party’s self-destructive commitment to ideological purity that alienates everyone but fellow extremists. Will progressives ever see the need to do this? Will they succeed if they try? I don’t know. But if they don’t try, they surely won’t succeed, and we will continue to recede further and further from the inclusive society, until our extractive society collapses in on itself, like all plutocracies eventually do.

Categories: current events, politics

Demanding the impossible

2011/10/27 2 comments

Apparently, the Faculty Senate picked the wrong day to ask for my input on a new initiative from the state legislature and board of regents. Below, find my response to this question:

2. Given increased enrollment and smaller budgets, how can we maintain and improve student success and retention?

We cannot. Improving student success and retention — especially when we are planning to let in more students, which necessarily means letting in more students who are less qualified than current students — requires more resources, not fewer resources. Even in industry, the efficiencies of large scale production have limits (the law of diminishing returns), and producing educated citizens is much more resource-intensive than producing widgets. The non-stop demands (throughout the country, not just in our state) that public university faculty “do more with less” have been going on for years: If there truly ever was a time when increases in efficiency, redirection of resources to teaching from less central tasks, and other transformations of how we do things could improve student education even while reducing budgets, that time has long since passed. I can think of several ways I could improve my teaching this semester — more frequent feedback on smaller assignments, for example. But since I worked 36 hours just in the first three days of this week, and don’t foresee working any less in the remaining two days and will also work over the weekend, I cannot imagine where I would find the time and energy to create and produce meaningful feedback on additional assignments.

The board of regents and state legislature can demand whatever they want — they can demand that faculty alter time and space, suspend gravity, and invent perpetual motion machines — but we cannot meet demands for what is simply impossible. When someone insists that you do something impossible, the only correct and sane answer is, “No.” Any response to their demands other than honestly telling them how and why their demands are impossible would simply reinforce their deluded conviction that they can create the results they want by simply insisting that the people and institutions they have power over produce them. Real-world results cannot be produced by fact-ignoring fiat, and hard problems cannot be solved by insisting that someone lower down the totem pole solve them — especially when that insistence is accompanied by a reduction in the resources available to carry out the work needed to fix those problems. Even the attempt to meet these impossible demands would be a gross disservice to all those additional students they expect us to educate with ever-shrinking resources, and to existing students whose education will be diminished by resources (and faculty members) spread ever more thinly.

I have no objection to performance-based funding. In fact, the strangest thing about this situation is that the concept of “performance-based funding” could not be more clear about the logical and causal connection between funding and performance — yet somehow the state legislature and board of regents keep insisting on more performance with less funding. It is a fundamental principle of ethics (my field of study) that “ought implies can,” which simply means that one cannot be obligated to do something that is not in one’s power to do. Surely at some level the powers that be must be aware of the self-contradictory nature of their demands, and that those demands cannot be met — but if they are not aware, that does not obligate us to nevertheless try to meet those demands. If we are obligated to do anything, it is to make them aware that their demands *are* impossible, and to explain why. In other words, we are obligated to educate them — which, after all, is our calling.

Categories: Uncategorized

Education IS a panacea. Sort of.

2011/08/30 2 comments

In this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, John Marsh argues with great clarity and insight that, as the title of his essay declares, education is not an economic panacea. I say his article is clear and insightful, and I’d go even further to say that the conclusions he draws are correct — but that there is a broader sense in which he is wrong.

While Marsh’s essay is well worth reading, it is also long — and since my own remarks won’t make sense without context, I’ll try to avoid tl;dr-inspired confusion by quoting the key paragraphs of Marsh’s conclusion:

Within the last few years, a number of critics have begun to challenge our unexamined faith in “college for all,” as one economist has put it. Unlike those critics, mostly conservatives, I do not argue that too many students are going to college (Charles Murray), that the United States has overinvested in higher education (Richard Vedder), that more young people should enter the trades rather than attend college (Murray, Vedder, and Matthew B. Crawford), or that since college teaches “few useful job skills,” a degree, as the economist Bryan Caplan puts it, merely signals “to employers that graduates are smart, hardworking, and conformist” (Murray, Vedder, Crawford, and others too numerous to mention). Nor, as other critics have begun to argue, do I believe that a college degree has ceased to offer a good return on a young person’s investment of time and money. As nearly every economist and journalist who has studied this manufactured controversy has shown, college continues to pay off. Even those like me foolish enough to major in English or some other supposedly irrelevant humanities or fine-arts discipline still earn, on average, more than those with only a high-school degree, and more than enough to offset the costs of tuition and forgone earnings needed to earn a degree. Indeed, today the starting salary for someone with a degree in English ($37,800) is higher than the average income of all those, including older and experienced workers, with only a high-school degree ($32,000).

Yet we find ourselves in an unusual position. The advice we would offer every halfway intelligent young person with a pulse—go to college—is not, I argue, counsel we can offer a whole generation of young people, let alone adults like those who might have enrolled in the Odyssey Project. An is (“Education pays”) is not an ought (“Everyone ought to get an education). Some people may escape poverty and low incomes through education, but a problem arises when education becomes the only escape route from those conditions—because that road will very quickly become bottlenecked. As the political scientist Gordon Lafer has written, “It is appropriate for every parent to hope that their child becomes a professional; but it is not appropriate for federal policy makers to hope that every American becomes one.” As Bryan Caplan has also put it, “Going to college is a lot like standing up at a concert to see better. Selfishly speaking, it works, but from a social point of view, we shouldn’t encourage it.”

Unlike others who argue this point, however, my concern is not with the inefficiencies that come from everyone standing up to see better but, rather, with the injustices that result. That is, my concern is with those who cannot stand up, those who, because of lack of ability, lack of interest, or other barriers to entry, do not or cannot earn a college degree. Insisting that they really should is neither a wise nor a particularly humane solution to the problem those workers will encounter in the labor market.

Nor is it a particularly feasible one. The U.S. economy, despite claims to the contrary, will continue to produce more jobs that do not require a college degree than jobs that do. A college degree will not make those jobs pay any more than the pittance they currently do. As some of my colleagues from graduate school could confirm, a Ph.D. working as a bartender earns bartender wages, not a professor’s salary. What will make those bartending and other jobs outside the professions pay something closer to a living wage—if not a living wage itself—constitutes, to my mind, one of the major public-policy challenges of the 21st century. Education, however, is not the answer.

In terms of educational and economic policy, we may have even put the cart in front of the horse. As it stands, we seek to decrease inequality and poverty by improving educational enrollment, performance, and attainment. A good deal of evidence, however, suggests that we should do just the opposite. Only by first decreasing inequality and poverty might we then improve educational outcomes.

And how, I challenge Professor Marsh, do we decrease inequality and poverty? The unrelenting growth of poverty and inequality in the United States over the last 30-plus years are the product of federal legislation, executive branch policies, and judicial decisions all purportedly intended to accomplish other goals, but which have in fact contributed to the trickling-up of prosperity to the top fraction of a percent of the population at the expense of the overwhelming majority. I could name many of the most harmful of these legislative, executive, and legal policies with ease: The inch-by-inch gutting of the National Labor Relations Board until unions have been all but neutered, no longer able to protect America’s workers from unrestricted corporate greed. The push for financial industry deregulation that not only allows but encourages modern robber barons to destabilize our economy for their own massive profit, with any costs redirected to the rest of us. The continued corruption of the political system by money, which has degenerated to the point where the position that money is speech and corporations are speakers on par with individual citizens is enshrined in law by Supreme Court precedent. And so on and on, indefinitely and appallingly.

The point of such a list is not simply to bewail how we got here from there, but to emphasize the fact that inequality and poverty are the direct (and indirect) consequence of public policy decisions, not some inevitable consequence of natural laws that public policy is helpless to prevent. And those policies are originated and enforced with the assent, or at least the acquiescence, of the American citizenry: We elected the legislators who passed these laws; we elected the presidents who enacted these policies; we elected the presidents who appointed and legislators who confirmed the judges who warped the Constitution beyond all recognition to protect those policies.

And why do citizens consistently elect those who betray them? Why do citizens again and again embrace the most outrageous lies of right wing demagogues who blatantly mislead them about what our most pressing problems are (stopping gay marriages and legislating mandatory pregnancy won’t help our floundering economy) and how they might be solved (spending cuts in a recession only worsens the recession and do nothing to create jobs; tax cuts for the rich have demonstrably and repeatedly failed to trickle down any benefits to the poor and middle class)? Why do citizens believe the implausible, unsupported, feel-good lies of purportedly left wing demagogues who talk about change but actually engage in more business-as-usual (illegal detention, torture programs carried out in secret bases in third world countries, unconstitutional invasions of privacy, and more of the same economic policies that have created the current crises)? Why, in other words, does the citizenry of the United States of America as a whole continue to be complicit in and supportive of their own destruction?

The answer, I think, is ultimately simple: Because they don’t know any better. For the most part, they don’t even know that it is possible to know any better, or how one might come to know any better. And the citizenry’s ignorance is not simply a matter of failing to grasp basic economics (although that is certainly the case) or lacking any real understanding of how government works (although that’s also true). The real problem is that it’s exceedingly rare for anyone to leave our education system — primary, secondary, and higher education, public or private — with any genuine skill in or even real exposure to critical thinking. Even those who do learn the basic tools of critical thinking — scientists, for example — are encouraged to apply those tools only in narrow and increasingly specialized contexts. By and large, anyone who manages to acquire the skills and the habit of critical thinking in a broad way does so more in spite of their education than because of it. To put it bluntly: We are, as a nation, an ignorant and gullible lot.

If bad public policies created the current situation, only better public policies can get us out of it — and those better public policies are not in the narrow, short-sighted self-interest of the plutocrats who currently hold the reins of power in this country. Those better public policies, therefore, only have a shot at being enacted if the citizenry actually recognizes and uses their ability to take the reins of power away from those who currently wield them for their own exclusive benefit — and our citizenry is, as a collective, clearly too ignorant and deluded to elect better leaders and hold those elected leaders accountable. (If you don’t believe me, check out the statistics on how overwhelmingly likely incumbents are to be re-elected no matter how unpopular Congress as a whole is during a given election cycle.) If we want better governance, we need a better citizenry — and a citizenry that is better in a very particular way: a citizenry that is capable of seeing through bullshit, capable of grasping and advancing their own best (individual and collective) interests. A citizenry, in other words,with the capacity and the will to think critically. We need a nation of doubters, not a nation of believers.

Of course, critical thinking is not a cure-all for ideological and emotional blinders of various sorts — but the lack of it guarantees the inability to see beyond those blinders. People without the skills and habits of critical thinking are ill-equipped to recognize emotional manipulation, rhetorical misdirection, and outright lies for what they are. As Thomas Jefferson would and did tell anyone who would listen, a well-educated citizenry is the foundation of a successful democracy — and he was right. We can only save our nation by fundamentally transforming public education into a process which not only teaches critical thinking skills in some narrow sense, but which inculcates an entire generation with the habits of asking tough questions and not settling for easy answers,

Unfortunately, our education system is also a product of public policy — and it has suffered immense damage in the past three-to-five decades, both as an indirect consequence of the growth of poverty and inequality and as a direct consequence of attacks deliberately intended to undermine it (like the misleadingly named No Child Left Behind act). From kindergarten through graduate school, the American education system has become increasingly structured in ways that enforce habitual conformity and acquiescence to authority rather than encouraging habitual doubt and questioning authority. (I’m not saying American education didn’t always have some tendencies towards enforced conformity and authoritarianism — it surely did. I merely contend that the tendency has been greatly exacerbated by education policy.) The corollary to Jefferson’s stance on education is that a mis-educated citizenry — in our case, a citizenry that has been willfully and deliberately mis-educated to a significant degree — is the foundation for a democracy on the road to disastrous failure and collapse.

Depressingly, I don’t have any answers. I don’t think widespread education reform is possible in the current corrupt and degraded state of our democracy, and I don’t think significant improvements to the current corrupt and degraded state of our democracy are possible without widespread education reform. Nevertheless, I think Marsh is wrong in a broader sense. He may be right that education is not the panacea for economic problems in the particular context that he addresses. But education IS the panacea for economic and other social problems in a broader sense. A genuinely educated citizenry — not just citizens who know more stuff, or who are better trained in specific job skills, but citizens who can truly think for themselves — would never put up with the self-serving, short-sighted, socially destructive policies that our elected officials (Republicans AND Democrats) have been inflicting on us for decades.

Eventually, when they are oppressed and humiliated for long enough, even the most ignorant and deluded populace will revolt against a sufficiently onerous burden of poverty and inequality. But those revolutions rarely result in a better society, as history amply demonstrates: Robespierre’s French Republic, Lenin’s (and later Stalin’s) Soviet Union, Iran’s current theocracy. As physicist and thoughtful political cynic Mano Singham commented earlier this very day, I cannot pretend to predict when or how this country will collapse in an ugly fashion — but I have little hope for any other outcome.

And on that cheery note, I will conclude today’s somewhat rambling thoughts.

Categories: education, politics, rants