Foucault on School-Prison and Prison-School Pipelines

“So successful has the prison been that, after a century and a half of ‘failures’, the prison still exists, producing the same results, and there is the greatest reluctance to dispense with it.” 

Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 277

In my mini-review of Bryan Caplan’s polemic against education, I noted that he partly ignores Foucaultian arguments for schooling-as-discipline. But Foucault’s work is difficult to understand–though it’s actually written quite well–because it redescribes our ordinary world in terms that alienate us from what seems familiar. His understanding of schooling is dependent on his unfamiliar recasting of the prison as a site of innovation in discipline–techniques which ultimately had more value in the cultivation of good workers than in the punishment of transgression or the rehabilitation of criminal deviance. 

Consider these seven principles of penal reform:

  1. The purpose of penal detention is the transformation of an individual’s behavior.
  2. Prisoners should be isolated or housed together by the severity of their crimes, their age, and their progress towards rehabilitation.
  3. Both before and during punishment, penalties should be tailored to the individual prisoner’s progress and relapse.
  4. Prisons should be spaces of educative work, where prisoners are both required and allowed to work productively at learning or practicing a trade.
  5. Both prisoners and societies have a right to an education.
  6. Prisons should be run by subject-matter experts; professionals of high moral character.
  7. Upon release, former prisoners will continue to require supervision and assistance to complete rehabilitation.

These all sound reasonable, don’t they? Compared to our current prison system, they sound humane. And yet these principles were first espoused in the early nineteenth century, and have been reiterated periodically since then as if they were innovations. I pulled them from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (269-70). What’s taking so long? Why don’t we ever seem to achieve these ideals?

Discipline and Punish is a famous work on a major topic: it’s read widely and it’s one of the most-cited books in the social sciences. And yet its insight is both widely parroted and widely ignored–usually by the same people. One way to read the book is as a guide to sociological methodology: “the purpose of the system is what it does.” I also like the longer version from Dreyfus and Rabinow, quoting Foucault:  

“People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.” (187)

What ‘what we do’ does

Everything follows from that dictum: we know what we do, sometimes we even know why, but we are remarkably ignorant of what our collective intentions and actions do.

Do prisons reform criminals? No: the five year rearrest rate for prisoners is 76.6%. Even if we correct that for the technical parole violations that are basically a product of the system itself (and I’m not sure we should in this context–the system has to answer for those reincarcerations) the rate is probably around the 43% baseline that RAND uses to assess the efficacy of programs. (College in prison reduces that kind of recidivism.) 

Can prisons themselves be reformed? No: the entire history of prisons is a history of reform after reform, and we’ve been facing the same prison problems–and demanding the same reforms–for centuries. LITERAL CENTURIES.

What then is the point? Prisons produce criminals, and not in the “finishing school for crime” sort of way: prisons produce a whole realm of knowledge about deviance, delinquency, and criminality, but they also produce those deviants, delinquents, and criminals as the subject of research that must exist to justify our inquiry into them. As a byproduct, prisons also produce techniques for managing students, workers, and citizens, techniques that seem to have massively increased productivity and effectiveness, but have the prison both in their genealogy and their current function. In fact, it makes perfect sense from a Foucaultian perspective to say that the technologies of schools, workplaces, and politics are the true product of prisons, and prisoners are the waste byproduct, an unrecycled remainder.

Unschooling

If you want to have some fun in the classroom, tell students that the way schools function is a lot like a prison:

  • Students are grouped by their progress through a fixed curriculum, but can be advanced or held back due to individual assessments of merit or deficiency.
  • Everyone has a “permanent record” that records a mix of talent and achievement (where there is a lot of confusion over whether what’s really being assessed is innate or the product of the training).
  • Many of the most important skills we teach in school are “soft skills” like punctuality, sitting still for long periods of time, deference to authority, and self-monitoring one’s own projects and progress.

Ask an audience in the middle of a class or lecture how many of them have to pee right that moment: we hate being reminded of our embodiment in those moments, but we’ve almost all mastered sitting for long periods of time despite that fact. Urinary continence is a skill that schools can teach, even if there’s not much evidence students will remember their calculus lessons if they don’t use them.

Schools and prisons both produce individuality as a category for praise and blame, wages and good-time credits, centered in a body and a set of behaviors, yet accomplished through a network of interlocking institutions and supports. Schools and prisons make us into the kinds of embodied minds that we are–capable of having a biographical records, capable of taking responsibility for the success or failure of our own careers and rehabilitation. And yet schools are a lot better at this than prisons, which is why we now find ourselves back at the idea that prisons aren’t enough like the schools–the same schools that prisons helped us figure out how to create. You hear now of the “prison-to-school pipeline,” a line I’ve used myself.

This spring, Elizabeth Hinton name-checked Georgetown’s Prison Scholars Program in the New York Times in her argument that we should transform prisons into colleges and restore Pell Grant eligibility for all incarcerated students. I am wholeheartedly committed to those goals–a policy for which I believe there is strong bipartisan support. But the this will not solve America’s prison problem–and in many important respects it is an extension of the logic of the prison itself.

Prospects for Reform

The other major claim of Foucault’s work is that prisons are unreformable–they literally subsist on prospects of reform rather than ever actually getting reformed. And when we do “improve” prisons, we mostly do so by developing new techniques for controlling prisoners’ bodies and cultivating docility and compliance in them. As punishment has become more gentle, it has become more generalizable!

Foucault’s argument suggests that the motivations of early reformers like Beccaria and Bentham was less to make the corporal punishment common in that era gentler than it was to make it more effective at social control. I think this is generally unfair: Beccaria clearly has civic republican goals in mind, and is a forerunner of so many different civic republican and contractualist positions that he deserves the benefit of the doubt. But again one can be ignorant of the purposes to which our efforts are ultimately put. And on Foucault’s view the gentler punishments of work, solitude, and surveillance all create new techniques and disciplines for managing all sorts of people: soldiers, factory workers, students, and patients, for instance.

Instead of seeing the ultimate end of the punishment reformer’s work as creating more liberty by restraining the cruel sovereign, Foucault argues instead that reform steals the domination from the sovereign–who after all is using her power inefficiently–and appropriates it for the reformer. The reformer promises to do better–and creates an expertise and a field of knowledge with which to chart his success.

So to recap: reformers don’t fix prisons, they’ve been offering the same complaints for centuries. (The same ones we offer today!) Reformers argue for smoother and gentler punishment techniques. They promise to be punish better and thereby steal the sovereign’s monopoly on violence for themselves. They install themselves as experts and create a field of expertise to justify their exproporiation of punitive power. And they thus increase the dissemination of punitive and carceral logics, making both criminals and non-criminals worse off.

This Thing Called Abolition

Angela Davis and Joy James are my go-to writers on abolition, but Allegra McLeod’s essay on abolition is really useful for understanding the terrain, responding to various objections, and showing the reasons why “abolition” has a valence that “reform” and even “decarceration” lack. But it’s Davis who takes up the specific preconditions of prison abolition:

“In thinking specifically about the abolition of prisons using the approach of abolition democracy, we would propose the creation of an array of social institutions that would begin to solve the social problems that set people on the track to prison, thereby helping to render the prison obsolete. There is a direct connection with slavery: when slavery was abolished black people were set free, but they lacked access to the material resources that would enable them to fashion new, free lives. Prisons have thrived over the last century precisely because of the absence of those resources and the persistence of some of the deep structures of slavery. They cannot, therefore, be eliminated unless new institutions and resources are made available to those communities that provide, in large part, the human beings that make up the prison population.”

Angela Davis, Abolition Democracy, page 96.

So long as we want the kind of bureaucratized social control that depends on the various carceral techniques Foucault details, we won’t ever reform prisons. Short-lived reform efforts will give way to long periods of basic comfort with detention as the primary mode of punishment, just as they have reliably done throughout the era of the nation-state. Build a society that doesn’t require docility and we won’t need to have zones for warehousing the least docile among us. But until we do, prisoners will always be with us.

I find little hope in these prescriptions. But I think it’s worth noting that the entirety of mass incarceration in the US post-dates the publication of Discipline and Punish. Whatever has gone wrong in the US (and to a lesser extent in Great Britain) was completely off the table when Foucault was writing–and thus we could eliminate the “mass-” or “hyper-” modifier, set most prisoners free, and still probably preserve our carceral society unhampered by the deeper anarchist impulses that seemed to motivate Foucault.

Keep the social control, jettison the prison. It’s not abolition–but I agree with James Forman, Jr. that it’s taken forty years of concerted local efforts to build the racialized mass incarceration of 2.2 million people, and it’s precisely the history of those seemingly reasonable decisions that provide a roadmap for mass decarceration. We should be so lucky to have Foucault’s problems.

A mini-review of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education

“It was not until years afterward that I came upon Tolstoy’s phrase “the snare of preparation,” which he insists we spread before the feet of young people, hopelessly entangling them in a curious inactivity at the very period of life when they are longing to construct the world anew and to conform it to their own ideals.” -Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House

Bryan Caplan has long inspired me. We don’t share a political ideology, but his writing on child-rearing has often come at exactly the right moment for me. (His Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids helped me overcome a brief antinatalism phase, for instance.) His work on borders and immigration is less groundbreaking, but no less true, and in his forthcoming fun comic on the topic he and Zach Weinersmith will bring scholarly rigor and friendly advocacy to new heights. He’s obviously right that immigration restrictions are immoral and self-defeating—but no one is listening in this new age of nationalism. His latest book has fewer concrete ethical consequences—but it deploys evidence from educational psychology that has long puzzled me in service of a policy argument that has almost no chance of uptake, and so cements my view of Bryan as a careful and provocative scholar doing his best to tell the truth even when no one will listen.

Mini-Review

The argument in The Case Against Education is simple: most people don’t learn much of value to employers in their college educations. This is possibly also true even for some parts of K-12 schooling. Education instead is largely a mix of experience high-ability people would seek out on their own and an opportunity to distinguish oneself from other applicants in the resume rat race. The bulk of the book is a response to the various objections that are now forming in your mind.

You’d have to be pretty nerdy to be reading this, so the first step for evaluating the argument is to use a bit of empathy: forget your own experience in school, except the bad parts. I hated high school, but I loved college so much I took it as a career. Even then, I don’t remember a good deal of what I studied outside of my chosen field. And many of my fellow students were much less enthusiastic. So ask yourself:

  1. How much high school Spanish do you remember?
  2. Do you remember the titles—let alone the plots—of all the books you read in 11th grade English?
  3. What is ionization energy?
  4. Remember calculus? Can you solve a parametric equation today?

Perhaps you can answer half of these questions today without Google. That’s not a lot of retention. Whenever I get stuck in conversations on planes with people about the one philosophy class they took in college, they tend not remember much of the content. (“The cave, right?! Brains in vats? Veil of ignorance…. I hated that class.”)

Caplan summarizes well-established but little-known work in educational psychology on learning transfer which seems to show that mostly students don’t learn or retain much. Instead, a lot of education seems to combine three things, in some combination: an accumulation of habits, skills, and knowledge that we can call “human capital,” a costly and difficult signal that distinguishes us to employers, and a kind of consumption that is distinctive of high ability and high-income people.

I won’t say much about signaling as such: for Caplan, education provides future workers with an opportunity to create truthful, hard to fake resumes that demonstrate intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity. On his view, the time you spent acing classes you’ll never need proves you’re willing to play the game better than any personal statement could ever do. Of course that’s part of it… but how much?

The human capital model is the one we’re all thinking about when we recommend education. Education, we want to believe, makes you smarter, more capable, more knowledgeable, and more effective. Caplan seems to think that this is a relatively small part of what is going on in education. In the book he sometimes says human capital is 20% of education’s contribution to income, though he’ll also say it is 11% of the effect of education.

That’s because education is also fun, and especially fun for people who tend to earn high incomes because they are intelligent, curious, and conscientious. In that sense, education is like other high-class consumption goods: eating good food or taking fancy vacations, for instance.  In fact, the “fun” part of education rivals the signaling element. (He estimates ‘ability bias’ accounts for 45%, and signaling for 44%.) I’ve known many smart, curious people who retire from a successful career and go back to school. They’re not in school to learn and become more effective workers, but rather because education can be an intrinsic good with no instrumental value.

This is likely the case my progressive friends would make: you don’t study philosophy to be a better nurse or accountant or medical doctors—though there are ways that the critical thinking skills you learn may help you—you study philosophy because you’ve got questions about the nature of the universe, existence, death, justice, beauty, and truth. And the smarter and more successful you’ve been, the more you can enjoy learning about philosophy and literature. It’s an end-in-itself. Caplan seems to think that education as a high-ability consumption like backpacking in Europe or kite-surfing in the Caribbean—for kids wealthy enough to afford it on their own or retired adults looking to reflect on it all, but not for that time in your life when you’re trying to figure out your place in the economy.

I think we progressives should take Caplan’s argument seriously. But in some ways we already do: we’ve all read and shared articles like these: “Why American Colleges are Becoming a Force of Inequality,” and “Schools that accept ‘no excuses’ from students are not helping them.” Progressives are coming around to the idea that higher education is not a great leveler, and the segregated K-12 schools are increasingly a pipeline to prison rather than jobs for the least advantaged.

Our counterarguments often play up underfunding of state flagship universities, and so progressives often seek to double down on higher education with Bernie Sanders-style free college guarantees and increased spending. But at the same, we are increasingly aware of efforts to make schooling more regimented, disciplinary, and prison-like. We see that African-American and poor students are being shuttled towards “no excuses” schools while white and wealthy students find get play-based curricula, experiential learning, and above all a kind of caring and loving environment. Those experiences should tell us something.

Look forward to some future posts (or maybe someone will ask me for a real review) using my favorite sources: Michel Foucault, Paolo Freire, Pierre Bourdieu, Elizabeth Anderson, and John Dewey. But I put Jane Addams there at the top for a reason: it’s not just libertarians but one of the founders of progressive pragmatism who holds this view.

A review wouldn’t be complete without some criticisms: Caplan quotes Richard Arum and Jospia Roksa only once, and ignores their findings that the right kind of liberal arts education can increase critical thinking, problem solving, and analytic writing skills. He believes that this can only work for eager students, which are in short supply, and that most of the results of the Collegiate Learning Assessment can be confounded with IQ. His emphasis on IQ means that he also hasn’t properly evaluated the Foucaultian argument that schools produce large amounts of social conformity and conscientiousness, rather than merely measuring it. Finally, there is plenty of evidence that education plays an important signaling role for historically oppressed groups (women, African-Americans, and the formerly incarcerated). In fact, Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce just published this study, which is being reported widely with headlines like this: “Women need one more degree than men to earn the same average salary.”

Still, these objections don’t overcome the overall problems with education as it is currently practiced. Very often we see policy justification switches like the following: when the evidence from Quebec and Tennesse on early childhood education began to countermand the Abecedarian Project’s consensus view that universal pre-K could benefit poor children, advocates switched their arguments from the benefits to children to benefits to mothers’ employment. This kind of motte and bailey argument doesn’t have to be a total fallacy, since after all a policy can have many possible promising effects, some of which end up being disproven. But it’s more evidence against schooling as the accumulation of individual human capital.

(previously: What are the ruling ideas today? Is ‘College For All’; among them?Academically Adrift’s Methodological ShipwreckFor Education, Against Credentialism)

An Ostrom Reader

Lexington Press has recently finished publishing a four volume collection of the work of Elinor Ostrom and her husband Vincent–before that I do not believe the work has been gathered anyplace easily accessible. Since the price is astronomical–though well worth it for the serious scholar or scholarly library, I’m sure–I’d love to have a single-volume reader that collects the most important pieces, while perhaps leaving some of the more detail-oriented empirical and modeling work behind.

Perhaps one reason no such “Portable Ostrom” collection exists is that her work has been widely pirated online–claimed by the commons if you will–a fact that made the links below easier to find. Here are some things I might include in such a reader:

Ostrom frequently plagiarized herself and many of the links above have repeated passages and arguments. She thought that the public needed access to certain information about governance and skills at self-organization that we don’t teach in school, and that mainstream economics has actively undermined. She felt an obligation–which is now ours–to find some method for expressing these insights in less technical and more accessible ways.

Provoking pedagogically-effective discussion in college courses, with an example using Danielle Allen’s Cuz

Today is the first day of classes in my seventeenth year of teaching. I have taught a lot over those years–sometimes as much as a 5/5/1 (5 courses in Fall, 5 in Spring, and one over the summer.) My sense from that time is that the value of a philosophy course is largely not derived from excellent lectures on my part–but rather from an engaged seminar discussion. This is sometimes called “Socratic” but I happen to think that Socrates provided a terrible model for contemporary faculty.

Still, I think students learn more from what they do and say and write in the classroom than from what I do, say, and write. The kind of reading, note-taking, and preparation I do to give a lecture helps me understand material deeply–and it’s precisely that kind of reading and preparation that I want my students to cultivate themselves. In that spirit, I have developed a kind of “in-class” presentation which is both how I think of my own best classes, and also allows students to easily step into the role of “guiding discussion” themselves.

During the semester each student takes responsibility for a “provocation,” a written and oral project whereby they start off the class. This works best in small seminars under 15, but it can scale up to 30 with careful management. Each class period a student takes responsibility for kicking off our discussion of the reading with a short paper that briefly summarizes the argument, pulls a choice textual selection for discussion, and asks a provocative question or two, and then explains why this question meets three critera: (1) it is personally interesting to the student, (2) difficult to answer because it turns on a deep philosophical disagreement/confusion or rests on tricky empirical issues, and (3) important for directing further study and/or its answers will have implications for other relevant questions.

I always make sure to model these provocations for students myself, and indeed this afternoon I’ll be doing so using an article by Danielle Allen:


Danielle Allen’s “The Life of a South Central Statistic” is an excerpt from her book Cuz, which describes her cousin Michael Allen who was incarcerated as an adolescent for a string of robberies and thefts. Danielle Allen describes how Michael was locked up under the then-new three strikes policy in California (which also enhanced sentencing for carjacking) and how prison changed him—and how the relationships he formed there eventually led to his murder. Though he worked as a firefighter while incarcerated his criminal record kept him from taking firefighting up as a career upon release, and he fell into the drug trade. Though she lays some blame at the feet of the California legislature for meting out such a harsh sentence, Danielle Allen also describes the violence of organized drug trafficking as a “para-state” with twice the resources of the CIA operating in American cities to exploit and kill men like her cousin.

One of the more striking passages in the article is this one:

“California’s legislators had given up on the idea of rehabilitation in prison, even for juveniles. This is a point that critics of the penal system make all the time. Here is what they don’t say: legislators had also given up on retribution. Anger drives retribution. When the punishment fits the crime, retribution is achieved, and anger is sated; it softens. This is what makes it anger, not hatred, a distinction recognized by philosophers all the way back to antiquity. Retribution limits how much punishment you can impose.

The legislators who voted to try as adults sixteen-year-olds, and then fourteen-year-olds, were not interested in retribution. They had become deterrence theorists. They were designing sentences not for people but for a thing: the aggregate level of crime. They wanted to reduce that level, regardless of what constituted justice for any individual involved. The target of Michael’s sentence was not a bright fifteen-year-old boy with a mild proclivity for theft but the thousands of carjackings that occurred in Los Angeles. Deterrence dehumanizes. It directs at the individual the full hatred that society understandably has for an aggregate phenomenon. But no individual should bear that kind of responsibility.”

In the quoted paragraphs above, Danielle Allen seems to suggest that the political morality of deterrence is worse than revenge. Is the purpose of criminal punishment to prevent crime? Does this treat a person like an aggregate–a statistic–as she suggests?

This fascinates me because I am tempted to believe that the only reasonable use of state violence to punish is to deter worse behavior, but such efforts are often accused of dehumanizing the perpetrator. Yet revenge seems more dehumanizing, doesn’t it? Perhaps this is difficult to answer because the manifold justifications for punishment all speak to us at different times in terms of different crimes: when we see the individual harm to a victim we are much more likely to demand the satisfaction of our anger in revenge—but when we think about the ways that a deterrence theory might prevent some crimes from even happening it seems better than having more crime and more retribution for those crimes! I wonder whether there are techniques that could be used to combine these theories: perhaps there are ways that revenge is itself deterring—for instance it signals that crimes are unacceptable. But still there is more to deterrence than renaming revenge: for instance it might be the case that some crimes are difficult to prevent, while other crimes—which cause less harm overall—can be prevented best with really graphically shameful punishments. (For instance, perhaps slumlords are best deterred by being required to stand shamefully in front of their badly maintained buildings holding a sign indicating their violations.) There’s a lot of further study warranted here—and plenty of room for both empirical assessment and more principled philosophical exploration of the related themes.


This provocation barely touches the surface of the interesting themes raised by the article and Allen’s book. But it’s enough to get a conversation started, and I usually come prepared with four to six passages and questions like this for an hour-long class. Quite often I find that even students who are randomly assigned to provoke on some topic develop a semester-long fixation on the themes that arose during their provocation–just because the deep thinking and preparation required to write this short assignment and share it with others gives them a sort of endowment effect with those issues. Here are some more provocations on Allen:

  • Michael was technically a “violent” criminal but his victims weren’t really hurt. He was also a teenager, and perhaps less culpable than an adult in a similar situation. What should we make of his age in assessing his culpability?
  • Michael’s lover–and murderer–was a trans woman named Bree and there are all sorts of issues raised by her time in a men’s facility in California. Should Bree have been housed with women? What would have happened to Michael then?
  • Michael had a loving and supportive mother but her struggles with abusive partners may have contributed to his fate. Could she have done anything differently? And how do our public policies exacerbate these circumstances?
  • Some of Michael’s difficulties upon release are closely tied to the stigmas he faced during reentry. But others are tied to the fact that he fell in love with Bree while incarcerated–they are the results of the deliberate decisions of an adult man struggling to manage social expectations, economic needs, and an obviously abusive relationship with someone who he loved helplessly. What should we make of his story?
  • I find Allen’s discussion of the para-state endlessly fascinating and I wonder whether this is something that prison abolitionists should spend more time working on. Why does she name it a “para-state” and what should we say about the violence that arises from it? Does she partly exonerate the United States for its racist, mass incarcerating policies thereby?

Ideology and Education

Thomas Edsall has a good review of some recent research on polarization in the New York Times today:

The strength of a voter’s identity as a Democrat or Republican drives political engagement more than personal gain. Better educated voters more readily form “identity centric” political commitments to their party of choice, which goes a long way toward explaining the strength of liberal convictions among more affluent Democrats.

This is a striking chart:

 

 

 

The Enduring Appeal of Perversity Arguments and Unintended Consequences Warnings

James Forman, Jr. won the Pulitzer Prize last week for his book Locking Up Our OwnIt is well-deserved. That book–and his earlier work wrangling with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow–shows the ways that we have arrived at the wicked problem of mass incarceration through something much harder to disdain than evil scheming by distant elites. We did it to ourselves, and African-American political leaders did it with the full support of their African-American constituents.

Forman’s argument is sometimes conflated with that of Naomi Murakawa, who argued that it was liberals, not conservatives, who created mass incarceration by emphasizing the importance of safety over all other civil rights goals. According to Murakawa, when Lyndon Johnson championed the the 1968 Safe Streets Act which swelled the flow of federal dollars–and federally procured military equipment–into local law enforcement, it wasn’t just a capitulation to conservatives, but:

“part of a long-term liberal agenda, one that reflected a belief that federally subsidized police recruitment and training could become racially fair.” (73)

That is, according to Murakawa, Democrats didn’t adopt law-and-order rhetoric to respond to the policy entrepreneurship from Republicans that threatened to swamp them–they explicitly preferred more coercive and punitive state institutions so long as the men and women wielding the riot gear were racially diverse. By the mid-nineties, Bill Clinton wasn’t passing the 1994 Crime Bill because he got dragged there by Republicans, the Democrats lead the way–in fact the Senate version was sponsored by none other than Joe Biden. Murakawa’s conclusion is damning:

In the end, the Big House may serve racial conservativism, but it was built on the rock of racial liberalism. Liberal law-and-order promised to deliver freedom from racial violence by way of the civil rights carceral state, with professionalized police and prison guards less likely to provoke Watts and Attica. Despite all their differences, Truman’s first essential right of 1947, Johnson’s police professionalization, Kennedy’s sentencing reform, and even Biden’s death penalty proposals landed on a shared metric: criminal justice was racially fair to the extent that it ushered each individual through an ordered, rights-laden machine. Routinized administration of race-neutral laws would mean that racial disparate outcomes would be seen, if at all, as individually particularized and therefore not racially motivated.” (151)

James Forman’s book is quite different. Where Murakawa places most of the blame squarely on white Democrats, Forman places his lens on Black politicians in DC, and finds a very different dynamic. From the start, the story of the rise of racialized mass incarceration is a tragic story of reasonable and well-intentioned Black leaders fighting white supremacy and Black disadvantage with reason and evidence. They made deliberate choices that were well-justified and supported by their constituents. And incrementally, they made things worse.

DC’s leaders saw drugs like heroin as a scourge and heroin dealers as race traitors. They saw violent crime rising, and guns playing a major role. And they wanted Black police–because those were good jobs and because Black police officers wouldn’t be tempted to engage in racist practices. So they punished drug dealers and ultimately drug users. They punished violent crime and gun possession. And they did it with a Black-led and majority-Black police force. But still they ended up creating a majority Black prison population in our (I live in DC too) Black-led and Black-staffed prisons and jails.

Forman does the hardest thing in criminology and law: he adopts the stereoscopic vision that can see both from the perspective of those who fear crime and those who bear the costs of policing and prisons.* Black District residents know what it’s like to fear that their family and neighbors will fall into drug addiction or be the victims of gun crime. They also know what it’s like to fear that their family and neighbors will be terrorized by the police or have their lives derailed by imprisonment. And Forman is able to square those stories: see the victim’s fear and rage with one eye and the perpetrator’s circumstances and his community’s losses with the other. Alone, either perspective gives a flat, two-dimensional image, but together you get depth: three-dimensions of a wicked problem where values are always at stake but a way forward is possible.

The difference between Forman and Murakawa is that where Forman wants to tell a careful story about wicked problems and their double-binds, Murakawa seems to want to show up liberals (including Black liberal elites) as self-undermining and doomed to failure. This is Afropessimism at its best and worst: any efforts at racial equity are perverse and doomed to failure. I find such arguments deeply challenging when they come from non-white authors, which is why it’s important to me to think seriously about what a perversity argument is doing.

A perversity argument is any argument that claims that when we try to do a thing we believe is important, we will fail and make it worse, falling further behind as we try to move ahead. The actual use of perversity and unintended consequences arguments are often justified by some of the available evidence, as well as some of the speculative hypotheses: try to make someone love you and they will feel manipulated; create a minimum wage to help the poor and you’ll increase unemployment; try to reform the criminal justice system and you’ll just make it stronger and more pervasive; tell someone they’re wrong and they’ll sink even deeper into their error; try to engage in affirmative action to reverse racial discrimination and you’ll entrench stereotypes of inferiority.

Margo Schlanger’s 2015 review of Murakawa’s The First Civil Right has stuck with me for a while in part because I still occasionally hear people pushing the Murakawa line that Democrats and liberals are primarily responsible for mass incarceration, and thus can’t be trusted to reverse it. Schlanger has a great reading of Albert Hirschman’s work on reactionaries, radicals, and academics and our enduring love of perversity arguments:

Indeed, perversity arguments are appealing not only to reactionaries and the left-of-liberal left but to academics, irregardless of ideology. As Hirschman says, a perversity argument “is, at first blush, a daring intellectual maneuver. The structure of the argument is admirably simple, whereas the claim being made is rather extreme.” Perversity arguments are counter-intuitive, attention-grabbing. These are attractive characteristics for someone trying to stand out in a crowd of monographs. And sure enough, the attack on liberalism as perversely harming the disempowered has become quite fashionable in criminal justice in particular. Bill Stuntz is its most well-known (and least radical) author, but structurally similar claims have sprouted up all over, usually from the far left. These are arguments that prison conditions litigation causes an increase in incarceration, Miranda rights cause increased arrests, and so on. The claims are empirical—A caused B—but the arguments are usually a combination of ideological and hypothetical.

Perversity arguments feel smart and daring. They make you feel like you’ve seen a secret truth. But they also work to disempower and disengage. They paralyze us with fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Every step in the minefield of unintended consequences and backlashes is probably doomed, so the only safe thing to do is stand still. From the perspective of perversity helping hurts, loving hates, attacking strengthens, and truth-seekers lie. Nothing is what it seems, and everything must be viewed through a hermeneutics of suspicion that ends with a kind of paralysis or status quo preference.

But at the same time… sometimes everything is not what it seems. Sometimes our well-intentioned efforts do make things worse. If Forman is right, DC’s leaders were facing real crime problems in need of real solutions, and they built a tidy mass incarcerated city without ever seeking to do so. And his chapters on DC’s responses to gun violence, especially, strike me as importantly relevant to current discussions of gun control in the wake of the Parkland shootings.


*Another book that manages the “stereoscopic view” well is Danielle Allen’s Cuz.

Going Negative: Angry Ads and Negative Partisanship

It’s been twenty years since Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar published Going Negative: How Political Advertisements Shrink & Polarize the ElectorateAs Luke Skywalker likes to say, it’s impressive how every word in the title ended up being wrong. Or sort of: we’re more polarized than ever, but it probably wasn’t negative political ads that made us this way. And the electorate grew as a result.

Here’s what happened: some political scientists and pundits worried that negative campaigning was damaging the amicable concord of American politics. This is just one of those evergreen cycles of hot takes: once upon a time (the halcyon 1950s), the American Political Science Association worried the parties were too similar and cordial. Then all that changed in the hyper-partisan 60s and 70s. But by the 1990s, many voters reported that they wanted more civility in campaigns and positive messages from candidates again. So we saw lots of hand-wringing, and then  Ansolabehere and Iyengar provided the data to back those anxieties up: data from US Senate elections in 1992 seemed to show an inverse relationship between exposure to negative campaign ads and turnout, as well as a decrease in confidence in the electoral process. Similar results were shown experimentally in the 1990 California’s governor’s race and the 1992 presidential race.

Proponents of positive campaign ads seem to want a world where turnout is high and the tone of the campaign is hopeful and civil, and policy disagreements are discussed in high-minded and data-driven ways. People will turn out to vote from a sense of duty to study the issues and express their preferences between two (or more!) excellent candidates. That’s what I want, too. But that’s not how people work.

People are busy, and a lot of places have near-guaranteed outcomes because of state-level polarization, district gerrymandering, and urban “party machine” politics. So a lot of them don’t show up to vote if the outcome seems like a foregone conclusion. Over time, this can become habitual. One thing that can get disaffected voters back to the polls is anger at the other party. Perhaps this is why 55% of eligible voters cast a ballot in 1992, while in 2016 60% of voters showed up. In 2016, turnout was especially high in battleground or battleground-adjacent states with shared media markets and lots of negative campaigning–like Minnesota & Wisconsin, Maine & New Hampshire, and Colorado. Turnout was especially low in solidly partisan states like Hawaii and Texas, and with good reason: voters knew their ballots wouldn’t change the outcome.

We know the Alabama Senate campaign was so negative that the losing candidate still hasn’t conceded. Yet in a deeply red state in mid-December in an odd-year special election, expected turnout was 25%; actual turnout hit 40%. People–especially African-Americans–got angry. And anger got them active.

Why would anyone doubt that getting folks pissed off encourages them to participate? My suspicion is that this is a loyalty problem. A lot of civic engagement folks want to see more democratic deliberation with our fellow citizens, and all of the evidence suggests that cross-cutting political discussions increase bipartisan knowledge but require lots of civility constraints. If you think politics in primarily what happens in your community and with your neighbors, then federal and state politics will look like a distraction. Insofar as the loud, expensive advertisements for infrequent federal elections distract from the fundamental work of organizing communities, I am sympathetic.

Most people who care about federal politics are professionals, or do so the way other people pay attention to sports: they take a side and keep score. And negative campaigning pushes this framing, making not just campaigns but political life generally seem zero sum. Of course, campaigns are zero sum. (1) But politics and policymaking can be win-win. So it’s worth noticing that campaigns in the US have grown to encompass a vast selection of partisan politics. It seems that every professional politician implicitly understands Frances Lee’s claims in Beyond Ideology (based on this Journal of Politics article) that opposition parties in Congress act to block legislation supported by the president which could be interpreted as a “win” upon which he can campaign. Merely by adding an issue to their agenda, incumbent presidents create party-line opposition for (previously) non-ideologically-charged policies.

Obviously, we live in a time of negative campaigning. And that will likely continue to have all the negative effects the research predicts: increasing polarization and reducing cross-cutting political interactions. But as Diana Mutz worried in her Hearing the Other Sidethe opposite of civility is mobilization. And we’re seeing good evidence of that in the Women’s Marches and underlying organizing by women:

The Tea Party rallies were an impressive mobilisation but they pale in comparison to the recent women’s marches. Erica Chenoweth at the University of Denver and her colleague Jeremy Pressman estimate that the 653 women’s marches across the country in January 2017 involved between 3.3m and 5.2m million people. The best guess is that 1.3% of Americans marched. The researchers also estimate that another 6,400 anti-Trump protests in America between the marches and the end of 2017 drew between 2.6m and 3.8m participants. While the women’s marches were officially non-partisan, survey evidence suggests otherwise. Michael Heaney of the University of Michigan estimates as many as 90% of the women attending the march in Washington, DC in 2017 had voted for Hillary Clinton.

The marchers did not show up for civility positive messages: they showed up because they’re angry. Marching is not organizing; it’s not a substitute for winning elections, or passing laws, or making budgets. But I think it’s time to admit that negative campaigns work to increase engagement.

Some questions remain: does negative campaigning polarize the electorate, or is it a response to that polarization? Is polarization a good thing for helping to sharpen policy disagreements or a bad thing for undermining our ability to collaborate across difference? How should we interpret these questions in the light of possible partisan realignments? Can we at least agree that the other side is wrong?


1: Except in rare cases like the Alabama Senate race when even most Republicans were privately rooting against their party’s embarrassing candidate. They still campaigned for him though, just in case he won.

Man AND Rabbit: Naturalizing the Ethics of Belief

Philosophers sometimes pretend that truth-seeking is a foundational epistemic norm, and that everything else–especially ethics, politics, and culture–must be subordinated to it. CS Lewis put it this way in an essay on whether Christianity will make us happy and good:

“‘Can you lead a good life without believing in Christianity?’ This is the question on which I have been asked to write, and straight away, before I begin trying to answer it, I have a comment to make. The question sounds as if it were asked by a person who said to himself, ‘I don’t care whether Christianity is in fact true or not. I’m not interested in finding out whether the real universe is more like what the Christians say than what the Materialists say. All I’m interested in is leading a good life. I’m going to choose beliefs not because I think them true but because I find them helpful.’

Now frankly, I find it hard to sympathise with this state of mind. One of the things that distinguishes man from the other animals is that he wants to know things, wants to find out what reality is like, simply for the sake of knowing. When that desire is completely quenched in anyone, I think he has become something less than human. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe any of you have really lost that desire. More probably, foolish preachers, by always telling you how much Christianity will help you and how good it is for society, have actually led you to forget that Christianity is not a patent medicine. Christianity claims to give an account of facts — to tell you what the real universe is like. Its account of the universe may be true, or it may not, and once the question is really before you, then your natural inquisitiveness must make you want to know the answer. If Christianity is untrue, then no honest man will want to believe it, however helpful it might be: if it is true, every honest man will want to believe it, even if it gives him no help at all.”

To believe for instrumental reasons is to be a rabbit, not a man. Most atheists quite like this line by CS Lewis: he makes the stakes of theology and metaphysics clear. You either want to know what’s true or not–and the idea of instrumentalizing our beliefs for community or health or the cultivation of virtue or comfort is a deep transgression of our natures. Only a scared little bunny-rabbit would make such a mistake, and deserve our disdain for it.

It’s Lewis who is deeply wrong, though. Wanting the truth no matter what the consequences is almost impossible for most humans to achieve. Wanting the truth when it comes to matters of identity and community is bad for survival, and a lot of our the things we espouse are designed to signal to others that loyalty matters more than accuracy. We’ve discovered that a large portion of our cognitive capacity is devoted to monitoring our friends and neighbors and setting our beliefs in line with their expectations: motivated reasoning and skepticism help us engage in identity-protective cognition in all sorts of cases.

What then does an ethics of belief look like? I think it’s tempting to say that we should pursue the old ideals with this new knowledge: aim to cut ourselves off from the epistemic judgments of friends and neighbors, aim to hold every identity lightly enough that we can jettison it rather than protect it when the evidence turns against us. But for a variety of reasons I doubt that anyone–least of all professional skeptics and philosophers–can do that all the time or on a regular basis, let alone about the matters that will end up being most important.

For one thing, the only thing worse than epistemic in-groups is to be an epistemic exile: one important reason we need to participate in cultural cognition is because the patterns of epistemic deference and trust they engender helps us manage the firehose of possible sources of information. We need trust to know–even if we’ll also be misled into error by that trust.

Put another way, heuristics are not biases, because we can’t see the truth at all without some semi-reliable method. But this keeps the question of an ethics of belief alive, it doesn’t settle anything. There are still key moments when we ought to betray our identities in the search for the truth–but when? And just as importantly–how? And how will we know?

(related: Warning Signs: Beliefs that Signal Loyalty or AbilitySnark Polemics and Contrite FallibilismReason & Rallying)

Moana, Complacency, and the Enduring Appeal of Steady-State Economics

Even a cursory reading of Disney’s Moana suggests that it is built around a not-so-Straussian story of complacency and risk-taking. (Now try listening to it on repeat for a year because your four year-old loves it, and it starts to take on, like, layers, man.) Moana’s island is both a rich source of happy subsistence and under threat from a mythological enemy that seems like a clear metaphor for overfishing. Thus she constantly struggles with a desire for exploration that she feels duty-bound to discipline, and yet her failure to be dutiful is ultimately the salvation of her people as she learns to navigate the dangerous oceans beyond the safe harbor of the island.

You can find happiness right where you are

Like many Disney films, the ordinary storyline tells the fantasy story in reverse: in the ordinary A-story we see a culture suffering from stagnation and accepting the need for new discoveries and risks. In the supernatural B-story we see that the trickster god’s risk-taking is to blame for misfortune, and human piety is required to achieve a mythical overcoming of divine vengeance and the rejection of creativity and innovation in the name of divine–but soporific!–fecundity.

In the A-story, a group of Pacific Islanders end their nomadic wayfaring to settle in a reef-protected idyll that promises them a flourishing steady state. They develop traditions and rituals that ensure stability with minimal growth, which includes communal ownership of the means of subsistence, as well as rites of cultural passage that refuse innovation:

“Who needs a new song? This old one’s all we need.”

Yet this steady state is itself the result of great innovations: for instance, the villagers of Motunui have discovered uses for every part of the coconut tree and the taro root. And one of those innovations–fishing nets from the coir fibers of the coconut–threatens to deplete their local fishing stock. Over a long enough period the island has become unsustainable, slowly growing beyond its own carrying capacity. Yet the current chief, Moana’s father Tui, can’t see the need to return to their wayfaring traditions because he was traumatized as a child by going beyond the reef with a friend, who died in the unprotected waters. Moana’s rebelliousness thus finally meets with her  obligations as the future chief, and so she ventures out beyond the reef on her own to learn Pacific Ocean navigation techniques.

The B-story stars the trickster god Maui, who once stole the heart of a maternal creator god, Te Fititi, in order to grant her life-giving powers to humanity in the form of divine creativity and innovation. The care-giving Te Fititi is thus transformed into the vengeful volcano god Te Ka, who–thousands of years later–is blamed for the shortages on the island of Motunui. The B-story resolves when the heart of Te Fititi–the power of creativity–is returned to Te Ka by Moana, and Te Ka’s desire for vengeance is sated: restored as Te Fititi she becomes so complacent she literally returns to sleep. Here it is the desire for risk-taking and innovation that causes trouble, and the supernatural resolution comes from eschewing novelty for tradition.

Moana’s first encounter with Maui depicts him as coasting on the laurels of his earliest accomplishments (creating the sky, sun, and wind; inventing or discovering coconuts; stealing humanity fire like Prometheus) while trapped in a cave. Moana doesn’t appreciate these ancient achievements and demands that Maui return the heart of Te Fititi, launching a few picaresque adventures. Maui eventually teaches Moana wayfinding for the A-story, but along the way, Moana and Maui go to the realm of monsters to steal Maui’s magic shapeshifting hook from a giant crab named Tamatoa, another figure of complacency, who has mastered the art of fish attraction so completely he doesn’t need to do any work to feed, they just pour right into his mouth.

The stories thus resolve with the sacrifice of cosmological creativity in the name of mundane risk-taking: the volcano/nature goddess goes back to sleep, making it safe for the islanders to take moderate risks to navigate to new islands. The Motunuians political economy is shown its way to a new equilibrium steady state, nomadically moving from island to island in order to avoid depleting the resources of a single place.

Complacency, Stagnation, and the Duty to Grow

In a recent triptych of books, Tyler Cowen has been exploring a kind of generic theory of political economy that appeals to me. In The Great Stagnation (recall), Cowen argued that many of our recent economic woes were due to discovering that much recent growth had been illusory. In Average is Over, he argued that current long-run trends are all pushing towards increasing inequality. And in his most recent book, The Complacent Class, he spins the story of decreasing innovation and increasing concentrations of wealth as related: too few comfortable people are taking the risks that would lead to the next big economic (or political) revolution which would be disruptive enough to lead to major increases of overall wellbeing. (In a sense this is really a tetraptych because his free ebook of meta-ethics, Stubborn Attachmentsargues along the same lines that we have serious obligations to future generations to continue innovating.)

So: Cowen thinks most of our biggest economic problems are due to a lack of growth and invention. That’s not to say that the pace of novelties is decreasing, but just that few of these novelties are truly innovative in ways that would substantially change the quality of our lives. Computers seem like a big deal, but they haven’t been that big. They haven’t fundamentally changed the way our lives work as much as, say, the washing machine did. Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize for saving a billion people from starvation. Mark Zuckerberg just gave billions of people a distracting website where we can fight about politics and look at cute animal pictures. If someone masters self-driving cars and trucks, maybe that will be the kind of disruptive, physical economy shift Cowen says we are morally obligated to pursue.

But we’re complacent, see? We don’t take those kinds of risks anymore. We make off-color Twitter jokes, or rap musicals about the founding fathers, when we should be moving mountains. Elon Musk is a genius, and a weirdo, and a comic book villain, because that’s what it takes to start a new car company, send rocketships to space, and redesign the electrical grid around solar power. The rest of us don’t do that kind of thing because we don’t like risks. We don’t even move out of town for new jobs as much as we used to do.

If you buy Cowen’s argument in Stubborn Attachments then we actually have a kind of limited obligation to try to innovate, because compounding innovations are what will make the future better off than the present. (In philosophy we talk about this as the “intergenerational justice” question, or under the heading of John Rawls’ discussion of the “just savings principle.”) We are ourselves massive beneficiaries of past generations’ efforts to store up for their posterity the technological and artistic achievements of their own and previous epochs. We owe the future the same.

Cowen even bites the bullet in arguing that we should be wary of making prioritarian investments in the poorest or most needy members of the current generation if they come at the expense of slowed discovery and invention. (Often these goals are not at odds, but when they are….) But he’s clear that the bourgeoisie are the real problem, insofar as we bask in our current quite high standards of living without taking the risks that could lead to greater growth. For the most part, then, Cowen’s target is not the poor but the well-off.

The Steady-State Economy

Whenever I teach environmental policy or ethics courses, we spend some time with arguments like that of William Ophuls or Herman Daly or Wendell Berry. I’ve probably taught Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” essay once or twice a year for more than a decade. There’s even a utopian novel, Ecotopia, depicting a California that has seceded and voluntarily created a non-growth economy (with a dash of hippy free love that eventually sways the uptight unreliable narrator.) The gist of the arguments all boil down to this: perpetual physical growth is impossible on a finite planet. Too many humans, living too good a life, will eventually exceed the carrying capacity of the Earth. Or perhaps even worse: we’re already there! Life as the American middle class is unsustainable and will lead to our destruction.

So we need to either find our way to new planets or learn to live within the planet’s means. And given the near-impossibility of terraforming within our solar system, we might as well get used to the idea that economic growth cannot continue forever *now* and work to arrest it. The parts of our political economy that are addicted to growth need to be reined in, and that’s most of them. Apparently we need more farmers and fewer philosophers; more plumbers and fewer petroleum engineers.

Depictions of the steady state economy usually emphasize more egalitarian and communal cultural mechanisms. But my sense is that steady states usually depend on strict deference for authority and a lack of disruptive mobility. Abilities vary, but roles are assigned (as Moana’s is) by birth. What marks out stable societies is a clearer connection between cultural prestige, political power, and economic privilege. I think that’s part of the appeal that steady state political economy holds for cultural elites in particular; a community where our mastery of the seminar room will be rewarded with attendant power and wealth, and we won’t have to defer to stockbrokers who got rich by taking big risks with other people’s money. (I always associate this critique with Lynn Sanders’ “Against Deliberation” but there are other sources for this insight, including Karl Marx himself.)

The problem is that infinite growth does look impossible on a finite planet. Certainly we can sustain a little more growth, at least for a while. But the obligation to future generations may be to waste less electricity on Bitcoin mining and spend more time fighting for adequate policy responses to climate change! While Cowen might not disagree with those priorities, he certainly doesn’t seem to think that growth (understood as innovations and discoveries and cultural production) is limited. We’re not getting closer to any recognizable ceilings, for the simple reason that there are still diseases to be cured, technologies to be invented, and novels to be written. Even the rap musical about America’s first Treasury Secretary is still unfinished!

This is how I think about the error of the steady-staters: that they assume the old model of growth, where production and consumption occur primarily in terms of linear increases in resource use. This is what we measure, kind of, with GDP. But some kinds of innovation and invention are different: they create lots of value for lots of people without really costing a lot. A pill saves a life, and it only costs fifty cents to make; the pharmaceutical company will register some of those gains as profits contributing to GDP, but then the patent will expire, and it’ll SEEM like stagnation. But in fact, it’s a permanent increase in our shared wealth. More people live, but they live for cheap. (There are ways that this is supposed to be captured by the surviving worker’s productivity and the fall in drug prices is supposed to impact inflation measures, but it’s imprecise.) Growth is a misnomer: creating new things and ideas and experiences is the good bit. And there’s no reason to stop.

Aue aue
We are explorers reading every sign
We tell the stories of our elders in a never-ending chain

Aue aue
Te fenua, te mālie
Nā heko hakilia
We know the way

Loyalty, Research, and Prison Education

I’m in Dallas, Texas for the the National Conference for Higher Education in Prison. Today I’ll be presenting a paper from a larger project on loyalty and social science research methods which draws on an argument I first encountered in Peter Levine’s work. Here’s a link to the PowerPoint of my talk.

It is fairly typical for those who work in college prison education to have arrived at this work through exposure to extraordinary classes of incarcerated students. That’s certainly the case for me: the students in my first class six years ago were so inspiring that I’ve kept doing it ever since. In that sense, we are motivated by loyalty. This may make us good teachers, organizers, and activists. But there’s some question whether it makes us good researchers.

When we publish we are sometimes asked to fill out a conflict of interest form. A typical conflict of interest disclosure for social science journals will ask for potentially biasing obligations we may have incurred through financial incentives, but also about potential bias from non-financial relationship, including personal relationships with students and programs we have helped to build:

The authors whose names are listed immediately below certify that they have NO affiliations with or involvement in any organization or entity with any financial interest (such as honoraria; educational grants; participation in speakers’ bureaus; membership, employment, consultancies, stock ownership, or other equity interest; and expert testimony or patent-licensing arrangements), or non-financial interest (such as personal or professional relationships, affiliations, knowledge or beliefs) in the subject matter or materials discussed in this manuscript.

This Elsevier form is a typical one. It’s quite short compared to similar disclosure forms that people in​ government are asked to fill out. In addition to the obvious sorts of things–such as climate change skepticism funded by a coal mining company–the form asks us to share our “personal or professional relationships, affiliations, knowledge, or beliefs.” There are, I think, two kinds of implications for such disclosures:

  1. Mere knowledge of my “conflicts” is sufficient to warn the reader that my research may be biased.
  2. The sources of conflict go well beyond my paycheck, to encompass my friendships, my preexisting beliefs, and ultimately my loyalties.

The evidence seems to clearly suggest that (1) is false: we are not very good at discounting the assertions of experts even when we know they may be biased. (For instance, we do not sufficiently doubt a mechanic when we know that he may prefer an expensive fix partly because he stands to profit from it.)

But we think the implications of (2) are important for social scientists to consider.  Our affiliations, friendships, and loyalties ultimately dictate the choices we make as researchers, our commitments and priors as we approach evidence, and provide something like a “stopping rule,” whereby we keep researching until we find evidence to fit these preferences. (See literature on motivated reasoning & skepticism, and perhaps also cultural cognition.) Thus we are potentially “conflicted” or “biased” by the very relationships that motivate our scholarship

Consider what this can mean:

  • Education researchers usually enter the field with various preferred policy outcomes (perhaps related to race, gender, poverty, and unionization, but sometimes also preferred teaching environment). They know their work will be used by activists on both sides of various policy questions, and insofar as they continue to work in these areas they tend to want that to happen, whether it’s to promote universal pre-K programs, charter schools and vouchers, or protect collective bargaining and teacher tenure.
  • Medical researchers typically have culturally-specific loyalties to fitness and health–which can cause them to overstate the risks of overweight and obese bodies, as well as overstating the prospects for weight-loss.
  • Political scientists are usually well aware of the prospects for partisan bias–while ignoring their deeper affiliations to their own nation-state’s constitutional norms, such as judicial independence or bicameral legislature. Meanwhile political theorists often have a fundamental political orientation that guides them, like liberalism, conservatism, or even participatory–rather than merely representative–democracy.

I don’t think this kind of loyalty is biasing, though I’m happy to report it when required. In fact, I think it’s a kind of methodological superpower. Peter Levine expanded on this theme in a recent blog post, “Loyalty in Intellectual Work:”

“I’ve noticed that sometimes people expect me to endorse the underlying “theory of change” of a given field very strongly and are disappointed when I won’t. I usually cannot say that a given strategy or premise is the best one available, because I don’t really believe that. Instead, I think that a field or movement turns into what people make of it. So I see myself as a member who wants to make the movement as good as it can be, not as an independent scholar who has judged the movement and found it superior to others.”

Levine is a member in good standing of at least nine different scholarly communities and social movements, and as far as I can tell he has produced and disseminated useful scholarship in each. Yet he claims to have little attachment to the specific accounts of the world to which those communities seem to cling. This is only possibly because he rejects the cognitivist view of the joint endeavor: his loyalty is to the people, not the ideas.

On this approach, any active scholarly endeavor that is attached to, or feeds into, a political project on behalf of a group of people needs to hold its middle range theories relatively lightly. Our loyalties are to communities of practice and inquiry rather than to the reigning theory of etiology and efficacy that the community holds.

To me, this feels familiar. Prison education has a reigning theory of efficacy: the decreased recidivism rates of our incarcerated students. But there’s good reason to hold this view a bit lightly: our loyalty to incarcerated students themselves. If a particular theory of the efficacy of prison education is disproven, I don’t suddenly lose interest in working with prisoners. Indeed, I hope this happens frequently and rapidly in any field I participate in, because theories imply methods, and using the wrong method means we’re being ineffective.

Therefore, even though the body of evidence for prison education looks quite strong, it is not unassailable. We should anticipate that some of the most famous causal claims will come under fire, and we shouldn’t worry: we should seek new theories and work to clarify the old ones. Our loyalty is to the national community of incarcerated student scholars, not to the particular vision of education spelled out in the Three-State Recidivism Study or the RAND Study. I’d even willingly rethink the claims that Daniel Levine and I made in our own contribution to this literature given the right kind of evidence. Nor is our loyalty to particular students: the project of improving prison education nationally and ending mass incarceration has to take precedence over our loyalty to the men and women who are currently benefiting from the Second Chance Pell experiment, since this small group can make or break the program for the country.

Yet this is still a bias of sorts: we’ll always going to be looking for research that humanizes prisoners (thankfully, they are in fact our fellow human beings, so we’re unlikely to be in error there) and reduces our reliance on incarceration. If a strategy doesn’t work, we’re more likely to ask whether it can be tweaked or fixed than to abandon it.

And there’s good evidence that this is an important feature of social science research. One can evince a generic loyalty to a community of people affected by an overarching problem, but who are presented with conflicting narratives for resolving that problem. The researcher can then help adjudicate these explanations and theories of change. For instance, Kristie Dotson’s paper, “How is this paper philosophy?” proposes that disciplinary norms in philosophy departments and journals be altered to make room for work like hers by and in service of diverse practitioners. And in explaining her work, she celebrates the communities to which she belongs for inspiring it:

“I use philosophy to help support, generate and defend research, advocacy and activism that might change the current plight of Black people in the US, particularly promoting better conditions for Black cis- and trans* women, girls and gender non-conforming people. In other words, I am a Black feminist professional philosopher working in the service of Black feminist agendas.” (Philosop-her interview)

Loyalty to a community is not loyalty to a specific theory of change or efficacy, and in fact loyalty can motivate dissent from reigning theories in favor of alternatives. In prison education in particular, I think we need to worry about the sheepskin effect and the signaling theory of education: most of the college wage premium comes from completing school, rather than bit-by-bit along the way. That’s surprising: most skills are learned incrementally, and are beneficial in that incremental way. College, it seems, is all or nothing. Half or even 90% of a college degree does very little to increase your income, while finishing that last course makes a big difference.

Our anxiety should be that college seems to serve more as a signal of ability and conscientiousness than as training in necessary skills. The difference between someone who has a bachelor’s degree and someone who has 117 credits is quite small, in terms of knowledge. But the person who is unable or unwilling to finish his degree must have some incapacity or impediment. The degree is a signal that those elements are missing. Employers are paying for smart and hardworking staff, and a college degree is a reliable signal of those qualities. And indeed in college campuses throughout the country we see evidence that this is true: no one thinks that a cheater or a plagiarist is “only cheating himself,” they worry that he has an unfair advantage. The grade matters more than the work, it seems, which is also why students seek out “easy As” and rejoice when class is canceled. And many students readily engage in “cramming” for exams knowing that they will not retain the material in the long-term. (I owe these examples to Bryan Caplan, though they now seem almost too obvious to attribute.)

In this sense, then, we have to worry that prison education will, like education outside of prison, create a meritocratic hierarchy among prisoners. Rather than humanizing those behind the fence, it may sometimes have the effect of selecting a chosen few, “the exceptions.” So we should be willing to hold the various theories of education lightly.

  • Perhaps prison education is valuable because it enhances signals of employability, reducing the stigma of incarceration.
  • Perhaps prison education works to connect high status faculty with low status prisoners, and that association passes along cultural capital.
  • Perhaps prison education works by identifying and raising the profile of certain organic intellectuals among people who are incarcerated. Or perhaps it simply allows the Du Bois’s Talented Tenth to rise.
  • Perhaps education is a human right and we should ignore efficacy evidence for prison education.
  • Perhaps prison education in the humanities and liberal arts teaches students important self-regulation and conflict resolution skills.
  • Perhaps prison education provides important opportunities for deliberation over fundamental values which can lead to effective reprobation and rehabilitation of the moral injuries of a crime.
  • Perhaps prison education is a part of a larger process of reframing people who are incarcerated through the lens of deficits to seeing them as assets to their community.
  • Perhaps the soul knows no bars, and prison education is an important corrective to our overly punitive system of mass incarceration.

Loyalty requires to keep exploring these alternatives rather than rest easy with the RAND study. We’re better researchers because of it.