For Education, Against Credentialism

Today I’ll be addressing a group of imprisoned students, university administrators, and prison officials to inaugurate the University of Baltimore’s partnership with the US Department of Education and Jessup Correctional Institution to offer Bachelor’s Degrees. We have a few tasks today, including inspiring the students and encouraging the officials that their support for the program is not a betrayal of their other constituents. Here’s what I plan to say:

It’s well-known that receiving a college degree improves life outcomes. The standard claim is that getting a Bachelor’s Degree is worth an extra million dollars in income over a person’s lifetime, but even this is hard to predict as the returns to education are increasing. In 1965, a person with a college degree only made $7,500 more per year than a person without one. This is called the college wage premium: in 2013, that college wage premium had increased to $17,500. Since it’s increasing, it’s likely that a college degree today will be worth even more than a million dollars over a lifetime.

What’s more, college graduates are healthier, have lower unemployment rates and shorter periods of unemployment. They are more likely to have happy marriages and less likely to be divorced; they are less likely to be incarcerated, and even live longer.

Thus it seems like a pretty good investment. But there is very little clear connection between studying Civil War history or the anthropology of upland Southeast Asia and doing the sorts of jobs that college graduates end up doing. What’s more, there’s a phenomenon called the “sheepskin effect” which shows that most of the college wage premium comes from completing school, rather than along the way. Half or even 90% of a college degree does very little to increase your income, while finishing that last course can make a big difference.

College, then, seems to serve more as a signal of ability and conscientiousness than as training in necessary skills. 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.)

Calling it “signaling” is mostly an economic exercise, but educational researchers can see it at work in different ways, all of which indicate that there is not enough emphasis on learning. Educational sociologists call it the “disengagement compact,” a bargain struck between faculty and students in which both agree: “I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone.” Teachers agree to be entertaining and undemanding, and in exchange students agree to pay their tuition without complaint and give the faculty good teaching evaluations. Both thus have more time for other endeavors.

I believe that imprisoned students do not have the luxury of the disengagement compact. If we accept the signaling theory then a period of incarceration is a severe signal to potential employers: it is a signal that you are more likely than not to go back to prison. At best, a degree serves to distinguish some formerly incarcerated returning citizens from the rest, to deepen the prejudice against some returning citizens in favor of others.

Thankfully, it turns out that people do sometimes learn useful skills in college. Education can be transformative. A rigorous liberal arts education that focuses on reading difficult texts, solving complicated problems, and writing and speaking clearly about matters of little direct concern can help teach the skills that employers want more than any other:

  • critical thinking
  • analytic reasoning
  • problem solving
  • clear written and oral communication

And research on college learning outcomes suggests that a liberal arts education can teach these skills so long as the classes require a lot of reading (forty pages a week), a lot of writing (twenty pages a semester), and the professor has high expectations of the students. Which is encouraging, because it means that we can break out of the merely competitive cycle.

I have a theory as to why this works, that comes from the educational advocate Earl Shorris. His Clemente course in the humanities inspired Bard College’s Prison Initiative, which inspired the US Department of Education, who took a chance on us here. In his book Riches for the Poor, Shorris argues that one major factor in poverty is the stultifying character of one’s problems and environment. Shorris offers the analogy of Native American hunting practices, where hunters would encircle their prey and then move in, creating anxiety and fear that aids the hunter in capturing stunned prey. Poverty and prison both offer similar “surrounds of force” whereby individuals are beset by so many forces (“hunger, isolation, illness, landlords, police, abuse, neighbors, drugs, criminals, and racism”) that they do not know where to turn.

An education in the liberal arts gives us the crucial pause we need to avoid confusion and find an escape route. The “pause” is a performative skill, like learning to fix a car or perform a surgery. Anyone could do it at any time, but learning to pause when we’re stressed is actually extremely difficult. We need to learn to reflect. And it isn’t just enough for a professor to tell you: “reflect!” Just as you can’t just tell an illiterate person, “read!” or a clumsy person who has never learned, “ride that bike! A highly rigorous and engaged liberal arts degree offers its students an opportunity to train in important meta-cognitive habits. Education is not something the teacher does to the student, it’s something the student does to himself, with the professor’s guidance.

To sum up:

Education may just be about signaling. If so, let’s signal loud and clear how amazing you guys are! But there’s a good deal of evidence that education can be transformative, even if your professors can’t transform you, exactly. You have to transform yourself with their help.

We will set out the guidelines. You will meet our (VERY HIGH) expectations. If the educational sociologists are right, this will give you an opportunity to develop the habits and skills that employers want and need. And if Shorris is right, maybe you’ll develop inner peace along the way. If you see a professor giving you too much slack, ask: does she believe in the transformative value of education? Or is he just here to collect a paycheck and hand out sheepskins?

Demand transformation.

The Progressive Case for the Welfare State: A Refresher

Many of my own fellow-travelers police progressivism in a way I sometimes find frustrating. It is de rigeur to chastise neoliberals and technocratic moderates for their lack of radicality. My work tends towards the technocratic/participatory divide around how policies should be made, and so I often don’t have strong policy preferences unless I’ve researched a question extensively. Thus I may be the wrong person to offer a common sense or standardized progressive defense of the welfare state, but I thought I’d give it a shot. Here goes:

Soft-core Case

  1. Taxes are the price of a good society. Many of the benefits that citizens enjoy are the positive externalities of our shared institutions, including safety net institutions. Thus, the wealth we earn in the marketplace is only partly due to our own effort, and largely due to social investments. Taxes are thus dividends owed for those social investments, and also the seed capital of future social investment.
  2. Private charity is laudable, but historically it has always come up short of real need. The welfare state responds to these failures of private efforts to ameliorate real suffering. Meanwhile, public provision of charity has been massively successful at reducing poverty and alleviating suffering. (The measures of poverty that claim otherwise assume away the goods and services supplied by safety net institutions.)
  3. The regulatory state responds to memorable injustices and documented depredations of private institutions and interests. Public regulation of industrial activity has helped to solve large-scale coordination problems, giving us cleaner air, safer drinking water, and lower mortality than countries who do not regulate those goods.
  4. It is no coincidence that the richest countries have more pervasive welfare states. Both serious poverty and large inequalities are inefficient for finding talented workers and ensuring that they are not excluded from sectors of the labor market that the rich might be tempted to monopolize.

Medium-Core Case

  1. There is a plausible case to be made for free markets: they tend to allocate resources more efficiently than alternative institutions when there’s a method for increasing the supply of that good. But free-market principles tend to fail where there are prospects of monopoly, including in situations of desperation where price-gouging becomes possible. Rent-seeking can happen both privately and publicly, but private rent-seekers tend to extract more value from those they exploit than public rent-seekers do.
  2. When users share a common-pool resource, they gain an incentive to maintain it, punish overuse and free-riding, and invest in future development. Economists have claimed otherwise for years, but eventually they gave Elinor Ostrom a Nobel Prize for her work showing that the so-called “tragedy of the commons” is avoidable.
  3. The safety net is properly understood as a common-pool resource, in specific, as a kind of infrastructure improvement. A functional public schooling system enhances human capital and makes workers more productive. A functional safety net for the very poor prevents the loss of human capacities to bad luck.
  4. Thus, there is good reason to choose mixed institutions (polyarchy) where markets and governments work together and in competition, with governments preventing the worst excesses of markets, and exercises of liberty (through exit, voice, collaboration, and innovation) preventing the worst excesses of governments.

Hard-Core Case

  1. We have stronger obligations to our fellow human beings than our moral psychology is equipped to recognize. The same part of our psyche that ignores the needs of strangers also hates other races and cultures. Group loyalties should be expanded as much as they can be.
  2. The nation-state partially corrects for flaws in our individual moral psychology. It generates the conditions under which we can recognize a limited set of our collective obligations that transcend our family and friends, making it possible to care for distant strangers, though not yet indiscriminately. We still feel stronger obligations to our co-nationals than to citizens of other countries; we have not yet discovered institutions that can produce recognition of cosmopolitan obligations. These obligations to co-nationals includes duties of care, reciprocity, and non-domination.
  3. Care and concern require us to seek both institutional arrangements and personal opportunities to engage with our vulnerable neighbors. Reciprocity requires that we ensure that capabilities and vulnerabilities are distributed in an egalitarian manner. Non-domination requires not just that we personally forgo interfering with each other, but that we reject institutional arrangements that allow other parties to arbitrarily and capriciously coerce our fellow human beings.
  4. Universal welfare programs, like universal infrastructure programs, are better at generating a shared sense of care, reciprocity, and solidarity.
  5. Universal programs are also more efficient than need-based programs. Universal programs don’t generate perverse incentives and poverty traps. Universal programs also don’t require resources be spent on civil servants to determine eligibility or investigate potential misuse.

Super Hard-Core Case

  1. Throughout much of our history, the state and private organizations have worked together to create conditions of exploitation. This includes colonialism, slavery, and the successors to slavery, and legalized discrimination against women, homosexuals, and indigenous peoples.
  2. Most large pools of intergenerational wealth are the product of those or other abuses, and most people earning above the median income are benefiting from that history of plunder as well. Other larger pools of wealth are primarily due to the financial sector which is propped up by the public regulatory state and through corporate capture of the state’s policies. Thus taxes and social spending are usually-inadequate efforts to repay those debts.
  3. Libertarians are right to note that redistributive efforts have usually failed to change the basic inequalities of distribution in our society, and that large regulatory states provide ample opportunities for regulatory capture and rent-seeking. But the answer is not to give up on reclaiming what has been expropriated, allowing the bandits to keep what they have stolen so long as they promise to raid no more! The answer is to redistribute more effectively, regulate more intelligently, and continue to target the ways that governments and regulators become captured by the interests of the wealthy.

I’ll note that I think the “soft-core” case is somewhat at odds with the “super hard-core” case, which is what often generates divisions between liberalism and progressivism. Yet I think this basically outlines my reasons for a commitment to the welfare state.

My friends who worry about moderate and technocratic ideological inconsistency are wrong, though. I think progressives should worry about governments, a lot. Governments do a lot of bad things, including a lot of things libertarians are good at recognizing and pointing out.

And really, this post was inspired by a libertarian. Over at EconLog, Bryan Caplan offers a “refresher” designed for libertarians who find Scandinavian welfare alternatives appealing. It’s a kind of intervention for prodigals. It works primarily as a reminder to those who are supposed to have known those things, but it works well. In a few short paragraphs, Caplan combines empirical claims about the efficacy of libertarian policies with principled objections (to borders and to the coercion of taxation.) It’s not exactly an argument: more a statement of premises, with an argument perhaps taking the form of a longer book like Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority.

Yet it’s still enough to provoke debate with other libertarians. And in my view, arguments with one’s fellow-travelers can be helpful for your collective projects. As is not-often-enough-the-case, we are currently contesting the nature of the progressive/liberal divide during the primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. It’s worth remembering our basic commitments to public and participatory institutions, as well as to just and competent government.

(Post updated March 8th)

Resetting the Moral Baseline to Resist Status Quo Bias

  1. “Everybody should give most of their income to humanitarian charities.”
  2. “All whites who don’t actively fight white supremacy are complicit in it.”
  3. “There is no alternative [to capitalism.]”
  4. “You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.”
  5. “Meat is murder.”
  6. “Abortion is murder.”
  7. “Murderers are people too.”

This list is an example of claims that we make to try to challenge status quo judgments about morality. They’re assertions (frequently contested) about what the moral baseline is.

I’m thinking about moral baselines because my friend Scu over at Critical Animal has a long post about them, wherein he evaluates the intra-activism debates over what the moral baseline ought to be in the animal activism community: veganism or activism towards the cause of eliminating animal exploitation and suffering:

I am worried about the rhetoric of moral baselines. The idea of baselines are clearly set to be exclusionary, and I worry that our movement is marginal enough as is, and that we have a tendency already to eat our own. I am further worried that it does not allow for flexibility and charitability in our discussions and debates over strategic, and indeed, ethical questions.

Scu here could be writing on prison abolition and reform as much as animal activism. My own post on this, Prison Abolition, Reform, and End-State Anxieties, raised much debate among my community of prison activists for precisely this reason: while to many people the reformer and the abolitionist are indistinguishably radical, there is a disheartening  tendency for reformers and abolitionists to fight rhetorical battles about the strategies and ends of the movement. Thus we are riven by rhetoric. To the abolitionist, this is because reform tends to reassert the status quo after superficial changes: the risks of complicity are real. To the reformer, though, this is unfortunate, because we could be more effective in solidarity.

Scu ends on the same note from Mckenna’s Task of Utopia calling for a detente through the focus on ends-in-view over end-states, so of course I think he’s right. But what does this tell us about moral baselines?

Much activism focuses on this question: which currently accepted practices are actually producing injustice? Call it the difference between the obligatory and the supererogatory. Some things are bad, some things are acceptable, and some things are affirmatively good. A lot of people think it’s important to settle where those lines are. In traditional ethics, it’s wrong to kill innocents, it’s permissible to choose whatever novel you like for pleasure reading, and it’s affirmatively good to give to charity. And to motivate change, activists must reframe those accepted practices as unacceptable: their goal is move some action or situation from the permitted to the prohibited. It’s easy to see this in action by simply looking to historical examples where previously accepted practices were overturned.

What’s hard, I think, is to consider which currently accepted practices are amenable to that treatment. Because the key to all this is that acceptability condition: to our grandparents, racial segregation somehow seemed ordinary. It wasn’t what evil people did: it’s what everybody did. And before that, slavery seemed ordinary! And just a few months ago, not letting gay people marry seemed ordinary! Meanwhile, today, it’s fairly ordinary for Black people to get killed for living their lives. Sure, there’s a nascent movement to change that, but right now it’s still accepted practice even as it’s being challenged: we know that #BlackLivesMatter is an unusual, unaccepted thing to say because it’s still not true–even though it should be. So anyone who is reasonably familiar with out policing culture can understand both the acceptance of that status quo and its rejection, and my readers are rooting for its rejection.

But what about the future? Could blogging be someday considered a terrible sin? (Doubtful, right? But maybe it will seem gauche or silly.) You can probably imagine that car driving will someday look pretty selfish, as may eating the flesh of animals (or at least those raised and slaughtered in factory farms.) These are possibilities, live options that we simply haven’t faced. I’d also like to think we may someday find mass incarceration to be atrocious, solitary confinement to be abhorrent, and the health and safety conditions in our prisons to be abominable.

And so the animal activism community is trying to redraw those lines. One version is: it’s wrong to eat meat, it’s permissible to hang out with people who do, and it’s affirmatively good to participate in activism around animal abolition. On the other version, though, it’s wrong *not* to participate in activism around animal abolition. Setting the baseline (prohibited) conditions so high is a rhetorical move. Prohibiting inaction is about making the community more exclusive–just as Scu notes. Communities have the right to do this, of course, but I think it’s where activism can start to fail. This goes beyond the left. You can see similar rhetorical inflation within the pro-life movement and among libertarians as you do among radical marxists.

(There’s also a strong deontic preference to prohibit acts rather than inaction; prohibited inactions run into defeasibility issues.)

The positive side of activists redrawing the lines of acceptability is that that’s how you get things like organized non-violence and other strategic decisions to stick. So if having non-vegans in the mix was a bad strategic decision for animal activists, then it’d be important to set the baseline there. If having quietist vegans who aren’t activists was somehow undermining the activism, it’d make sense to exclude them, too. I can’t speak to that question without more knowledge of animal activism than I have, but my suspicion is that that’s too restrictive.

What we know about social movements is that their efficacy comes when they are able to demonstrate WUNC: worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment. Unity, commitment, and numbers are always in tension: you need to get lots of people engaged, but you also need to keep them on message. You need to show others that the cause is so important that you’ll make ostentatious sacrifices to advance it, but you don’t want to scare potential allies away by making the sacrifices too great to bear.

Then, too, not all activists are social movement activists. You can be an activist by writing inspiring–and demanding–words. You can be an activist while also working inside of a regulatory agency. You can be a democratic professional. So pluralism–of means and ends–seems to be the most important baseline.

Is the US an Oligarchy?

"Get Money Out of Politics" by Flickr user Light Brigading

“Get Money Out of Politics” by Flickr user Light Brigading

Some things live forever in social media. In my circles, one article that comes up all the time is the Marten and Gilens study of legislative influence that is often interpreted this way: “US No Longer an Actual Democracy” or “Princeton Concludes What Kind of Government America Really Has, and It’s Not a Democracy.

Part of the problem is that I think there are serious political inequality issues in the US. But the study fails to prove it, and it’s been blown out of proportion in lots of disempowering ways. The study is basically a victory for the null hypothesis: on reflection, we don’t have much evidence that policies are determined by a single group.

Here’s how it works: the study compares the policy preferences of four groups: median voters, voters in the top 10 percent of income, business-oriented interest groups, and “mass-based” interest groups. Using data from survey responses, they note that policy outcomes more often correlate with the rich and business-oriented interest groups than with the median voter and mass-based interest groups. Case closed, right?

No so fast: It’s still the case that the best predictor of the success or failure of any policy initiative is the median voter. But the median voter and the 90% voter usually agree. When they don’t, the 90% voter usually either a) prefers the status quo or b) prefers the socially liberal position. And so over the last 20 years, the status quo has tended to win out (in aggregate) except when it is broadly favored by median and 90% voters or is socially liberal and favored by the 90% voter.

A lot of this paper depends on obscuring some important issues behind difficult math. Their R2 is .074; that’s actually, pretty close to random. It means that median voters, economic elites, and interest groups, together, determine 7.4% of the variability in policy outcomes! Almost all of that is elites and interest groups, it’s true! But when you’re dealing with such small numbers, it’s easy to get *statistically* significant results that aren’t actually all that significant in human terms. In 92.6% of the policy outcomes, none of these independent variables was predictive.

That means that no group predominates most of the time, but “US System of Government is 95% Democratic” doesn’t get people to link to your study on social media.

What’s worse is that most of my progressive readers will disagree with the policy issues that the median voter has lost on.

A Metafilter friend who looked at the SPSS file wrote: “Of the 1779 polls, 105 ended up with policy being what rich people wanted and what median-income people didn’t, out of 189 polls where rich people and regular folks disagreed. The only times there was more than a 20-point gap (ie 60% of rich wanted one side but only 40% of regular people did) were the 10 or so questions about NAFTA. The rest of the time it was a slight majority of rich people favoring something and a smidge under 50% of regular folks favoring it. 

Rich people got their way mostly on social issues — RU486 legality, IDX legality, gays in the military, various abortion/birth control restrictions. But also stuff like outright banning immigration for five years, the legality of public-sector strikes, outright bans on military or domestic aid to any foreign country, and so on.”

The median voter has sometimes been prone to serious mistakes or moral failings, as you can see. So the real title should be “US System of Government is 95% Democratic and a Lot of the Rest of The Time the Demos are Assholes and Deserve to Lose.”

Then, too, nothing in their data can disaggregate the top 1% or the top 0.1%, as the authors freely admit. It also doesn’t ask about the bottom 10% or the bottom 1%, which is a perspective I much prefer.

But that means that their conclusions regarding elite domination are even less well-supported. As a progressive I’m primed to suspect that very wealthy interests usually dominate: what’s interesting is how hard it is to prove what “everybody knows.” If you believe in their conclusions, then you should actually downgrade your priors on the basis of this study. Mostly, this is a study that demonstrates how hard it is to do serious empirical work on this question. It ignores selection bias issues like which policies pollsters poll on. (Hint: they tend to poll on popular policies that are not yet in place.) If there aren’t any polls on the vast majority of things affluent and median disagree on, we’d be in the dark about affluent influence. As longtime readers know, my favorite policy initiative is the basic income guarantee, but it’s very rarely polled and when it is polled, it’s fairly unpopular.

So I do think “median voters and affluent voters generally agree in polls” is the most significant finding here. Democracy may often lead to this confluence of elite and mass interests, either through propaganda or elite-deference to voters. Perhaps voters judge outcomes rather than policy inputs, so politicians aim to guarantee good economic and social outcomes even when these contradict the policy preferences that would have unintended consequences. Perhaps it’s even true that the petite-bourgeoisie still finds its class interests allied with capital most of the time. The real victims can’t vote, right?

What are the ruling ideas today? Is “College For All” among them? (Doubts-that-don’t-change-our-practices edition)

by flickr user ChrisM70

by flickr user ChrisM70

I’ve just finished an article on higher education and the liberal arts, and it’s full of hope and comes to some definite conclusions about particular ways that an education in the liberal arts is valuable. It’s out for peer review right now, which means that if the reviewer is googling phrases maybe she’ll find this, so I want to say up front: I believe in what I wrote there. But I also have doubts about the progressive push towards education for all, the idea that through education we can all shed the demands of material labor, or that the value (and cost!) of an education should be totally disconnected from its role is securing a job.

Automation v. Education

The Economist recently gave voice to this particular error in its article on how technology will increasingly be automating office workers out of their jobs, which will widen the already broad inequality between those who must compete with machines and computers, and those whose jobs cannot (yet) be reduced to an algorithm. Here’s how they put it:

The main way in which governments can help their people through this dislocation is through education systems. One of the reasons for the improvement in workers’ fortunes in the latter part of the Industrial Revolution was because schools were built to educate them—a dramatic change at the time. Now those schools themselves need to be changed, to foster the creativity that humans will need to set them apart from computers. There should be less rote-learning and more critical thinking.

Technology itself will help, whether through MOOCs (massive open online courses) or even video games that simulate the skills needed for work. The definition of “a state education” may also change. Far more money should be spent on pre-schooling, since the cognitive abilities and social skills that children learn in their first few years define much of their future potential. And adults will need continuous education. State education may well involve a year of study to be taken later in life, perhaps in stages.

Yet however well people are taught, their abilities will remain unequal, and in a world which is increasingly polarised economically, many will find their job prospects dimmed and wages squeezed.

What value, then, is an education, if it won’t prevent the technological obsolescence of our skills? Put simply: if there are going to be ditches (which are required for plumbing, among other things) then there are going to be ditch diggers, or ditch-digging-machine-operators, or ditch-digging-machine-programmers. The move to automation replaces many operators with a few programmers, enriching the educated programmer at the expense of the uneducated operator, and that’s the move that should concern us, since it violates a basic rule of maximin: the people hurt are both more numerous and more needy than the people helped.

The standard economic argument is that lower prices help the poorest the most, and that freedom from unskilled labor allows workers to do something more rewarding, something that requires an education but cannot be imagined under the current political economy that requires so many to dig ditches. It’s like the old joke:

An industrialist is visiting a construction site and watching a newly-invented steamshovel in its first job. The union foreman complains that its job could be done by a dozen men with shovels, each earning a decent wage. The industrialist retorts it could be done by a hundred men with spoons.

Usually I prefer state-level redistribution through a basic income guarantee, but sometimes I think it makes more sense to fight for higher wages for the folks doing the digging than it does to hope that everyone will be able to escape that life if they could only get a Bachelor’s degree or a PhD. That hope in education has an ideological function that exceeds its aspirational and inspirational effects.

Who is the Ruling Class?

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas…”

So wrote Karl Marx in the The German Ideology. I’m not entirely sure that there is a single ruling class in American politics, in the sense Marx articulated it, but if there is one, it’s the folks with Bachelor’s degrees, the modern bourgeoisie. We are often-enough regaled by politicians with solicitations to the “middle-class” or “working Americans” that we might be tempted to identify these groups as the ruling class, but about 60% of the population participates in the workforce, and exactly 60% of the population are in the middle three quintiles of income sometimes identified as the middle class. I would argue that these groups are too large to have conjoined interests or ideas.

On the other hand, we are sometimes assured that the very rich and very few (for instance, the top 1%) are in fact governing the US, and that the masses don’t perceive the truth of this dominance because of ideology. If I’m right about the college educated, then it’s much too convenient to limit the ruling class to bankers and stock brokers and identify neoliberalism as the ruling idea; if the traditional bourgeoisie still exercises a great deal of control, then even the very rich must still win over that larger group in order to maintain their wealth. Arguably the 99% v. 1% language of Occupy was a clever rhetorical strategy for enlisting the support of the larger ruling class with the interests of the proletariat. It may be that billionaires manipulate the agenda, but the baseline agenda the wealthy are trying to steer is set by the merely well-off.

Another possibility is that that larger class really does share class interests with the 1%, so Occupy was unsuccessful because the ruling class’s ideas can’t be moved by rhetoric if its interests are at stake. (As I understand it, this is Marx’s point: ideology is believing that ideas matter more than practices.)

Bourgeois Ideology

So what does that class (to which I and my readers probably belong) have in common?

  • We are college educated.
  • We work in offices, with computers.
  • We are employed, and if we are in relationships we probably cohabitate with our partners who are also employed.
  • We live in cities or “suburbs” which have been adopted by some metropolitan area.
  • We own our own home (though this may be changing.)
  • We often don’t live near where we were born, or in the same city as our families.
  • We are likely to work in education, health-care, technology, management, or the public sector.
  • Our careers tend to benefit from globalization.
  • We are predominantly white.
  • We have very little contact with police, prisons, or the criminal justice system unless we are employed by those institutions (which many of us are.)

If what I’ve described above is correct, then perhaps these would be the ruling ideas:

  • Education is for everyone, and more equal educational access will create a more equal society.
  • Office-work is difficult and valuable, and education ought to prepare us for it.
  • Jobs and workplace regulations are the primary mode by which the state ought to see to the public’s good.
  • Marriage is good for everyone; even homosexuals should marry.
  • Urban life is better than rural life.
  • The American Dream should require (and subsidize) home ownership even if that punishes renters and those too poor to afford a home.
  • Family ties matter less than economic success.
  • Education, health-case, technology, and the public sector are the “best” jobs and ought to be subsidized.
  • Globablization is good.
  • Race is irrelevant.
  • The criminal justice system should supply entertaining plot lines for movies and television, but it is not otherwise relevant. Probably most people in prison belong there.

To be clear, while I’m not advocating these ideas, I believe (or act as if I believe) many of them. If those ideas are fundamentally aligned with my class-interest, it would be more surprising if I didn’t believe them. It’s not simply a coincidence that those with the most power and influence in society never have their fundamental interests questioned in our politics. That’s what makes them ideological, that these aren’t partisan issues: no one contests the value of education or marriage, and very rarely do they contest the important of home ownership.

Another possibility is that the top 20%-30% of Americans are not members of some ruling class, that the class is either much smaller than that or that there really isn’t such a thing as as single ruling class any longer, just a number of different social groups that align themselves in ways that they can succeed and govern on some topics and not others. For instance, none of the possible ruling ideas I mentioned included things that are quite clearly also governing American culture and politics, like support for the elderly through Medicare and Social Security (unless you think the elderly are the true ruling class), or America’s military role in the world (unless you think the military is the ruling class). Ideas like meritocracy and personal responsibility, patriotism and faith are frequently rejected by the richest two quartiles, precisely because they conflict with the values instilled by higher education and urban life.

If those ideas are also “ruling” in some way, then we would expect that those who hold them would be the true ruling class if all ruling ideas must belong to the ruling class. Perhaps instead, ruling ideas come from all the classes. Indeed, other ideas aren’t even “ruling ideas” so much as deeply felt constitutional claims, like the important of markets and prices for mediating our economic interactions, the idea that personal property and capital property should be governed by similar rules, or the assumption that inequality can ever be justified by increased productivity or merit. These ideas no longer have their source in a single class, even if they once did, just as in some sense American’s deep commitment to the idea of democracy and one-person-one-vote is a classless idea, at least in the US.

(It should be pointed out that what I have just written in the last paragraph is almost precisely the position being lampooned by Marx in The German Ideology. Ironic, eh?)

At What Cost?

I worry that the cultural promotion of the value of education is ideological, often, because I both benefit from it and yet also regularly watch how “College For All” seems to be disadvantaging a lot of my students. My fellow progressives who rail against the false equality of opportunity that makes the poor think they will someday be millionaires ought to understand why college can’t be an exit from the working class for everyone. Sure, anyone can be a millionaire or good at college, but everyone can’t. It’s a meritocratic institution, not an equalizer, and very little of the so-called college wage premium goes to those who graduate from community colleges and unselective four year universities. The inequality is built into our political economy!

I mean no disrepect to my students, either. I don’t think it’s disrespectful to appreciate the priorities of those who are actually choosing between homework and subsistence labor, for instance, or attendance and childcare. I’ve only been working at an unselective institution for three years, after seven years at selective universities, and the difference is palpable. I watched one student’s children so she could take exams without leaving them accessible to her abusive ex. She barely passed, and we both called that a victory: she hadn’t had much time to study, and had to read her notes through a hell of a black eye. Was education really the most important thing to do for her? What did she learn that she’ll remember later?

What about the student who I have cried with because she is dying from cancer: her husband just left her because the chemo makes her not want to have sex, and all she wants to do is graduate before she dies? Or the student who discovered she was pregnant and came to me because she didn’t know what to do? Or my student whose brother was shot and broke down in class? Or my student who was followed into class and physically threatened? Or my student who thought she had to be a nursing major until she realized she was really good at philosophy, but is still majoring in nursing to be practical? Or my student who asked me to help him figure out how to transfer when he realized that the only way he’d get a good education in computer science was if he left us? Or my students who are also incarcerated?

Rights and Privileges

I’m not saying that they don’t deserve an education: they do! Those are almost all people who will have college diplomas or already have them. Most of them are women. They won’t dig ditches, but they will work in jobs that only require a college degree nominally, where the skills they’ve often failed to learn are irrelevant. The diploma will prove that they have grit and conscientiousness, and give them a leg up in a job market where signaling such things are necessary, but they, like most people, will not remember what Modus Ponens is or how the the Rawlsian original position is supposed to help us think about justice.

There’s a difference between saying, “Right now, you have more important things to do than your logic homework, and that’s okay,” and saying, “Because you are poor, you don’t deserve a college education.” My students in prison are much better academically than the ones who are free, just because they have the time to focus on their studies, and I think there is a lot of value in the work that we do together. But no Pell Grants means no credit, and a felony record means that the skills they learn may never be put to work.

Maybe there’s a difference between “deserving” and “needing” an education. Most people don’t need a college diploma, certainly not to do their jobs, and probably not to be good citizens. They need a union or a basic income guarantee or a social minimum or a citizen capital grant or workplace democracy. But increasingly the only people who still have unions and political power are the people who also have college degrees, and those of us in that group like to pretend that increasing subsidies for bourgeois students (our kids) will help the ditch-diggers, too. That’s a bit too convenient, isn’t it?

Varieties of Inequality

I can think of at least six kinds of inequality:

Clothes are seen hanging outside a bus which has been converted into a dwelling for Lu Changshan and his wife near newly-constructed residential buildings in Hefei, Anhui province in China on November 12, 2012 (Jianan Lu/Courtesy Reuters).

Hefei, Anhui province in China  (Photo by Jianan Lu.)

  1. Inequality of income: different people receive different wages, either for different jobs or for the same job, as profits from capital investments, or as government subsidies, transfer payments, or private charity.
  2. Inequality of consumption: different people consume different products (i.e. the generic widget) in differing amounts and of varying quality. Some people have cell phones, computers, and tablet computers; some have just a cell phone; some people own no electronics. Some people have two homes, some are homeless, etc.
  3. Inequality of liberty: some people are subjected to more threats and interference than others. Some people can break the law, for instance by using illegal drugs, without consequence, while others are imprisoned and subjected to the whims and demands of institutional forces and individuals with strength or authority.
  4. Inequality of security: some people live more precarious lives than others. Some people are systematically subject to more frequent risks of loss, or have less assistance or fewer resources to fall back on should things go badly.
  5. Inequality of status: some people get more respect than others. Some people are treated with disdain and denied the prerequisites of basic human dignity. Some people are ignored and invisible, while others get more attention than they want from paparazzi and news media.
  6. Inequality of capabilities: some people have more beings and doings than others. Rather than more widgets and gadgets, some people have better access to the things that make a life go well: work, play, love, health, safety, an opportunity to be heard and make a difference, etc.

Now, potentially all of these inequalities might be troublesome, but when I think about political economy, I tend to think that inequalities grow in importance (and injustice) as they move away from nominal measures like “income” and towards real measures like liberty, security, status, and ultimately capabilities. Of course, the varieties of inequality are interrelated, but not always in a clear way. For instance, some people have high incomes but low security, like military contractors, some fishermen, and oil rig roughnecks who can all make six figure salaries by taking on inordinate risk of death or crippling injury. A wealthy person suffering from crippling depression might be consumption-rich but capability-poor. And we’ve probably all met or worked with angry low-level bureaucrats whose low status is combined with high liberty and security, which allows them to act capriciously and lazily without consequences.

In the famous aphorism of the “rising tide which lifts all boats,” John F. Kennedy suggested that it was possible that as the US progresses, the rich, middle-class, and poor states might all be better off in absolute terms even if they maintained their respective places. Subsequent use of the aphorism has generally added “even if they do not improve equally.” In the “rising tide” case championed by Kennedy, “relative” inequality would increase as the gap between rich and poor increased, while “absolute” inequality (i.e. poverty) decreased, as the poor became wealthier. But this suggests a seventh kind of inequality:

7. Inequality of growth: when a company or a country grows, some people get a larger share of the growth than others, either as a share of income, consumption, status, liberty, capabilities, or security.

Americans currently confront a situation domestically where the rich have made disproportionate gains in income and consumption compared to other classes, while the very poor experience severe losses in every category due to absurdly high rates of incarceration, lost life expectancy, increaased labor contingency, loss of meaningful participation in the political process, and many other factors. Yet while this inequality grows domestically, other inequalities are shrinking: Africa is growing again, and the the number of children who die each day from easily-treated poverty-related diseases has shrunk to half what it was a decade earlier. Some of the same factors that increased relative domestic inequality have reduced absolute global poverty. So this suggests that there are (at least) three different ways to measure inequality:

  1. The scope of the inequality: there is a difference between local inequalities and global inequalities, and on some measures and inequalities (for instance, status) the local matters more than the global, while sometimes it’s the domination or colonization of one place or group  by another that creates the problematic element in inequality.
  2. Inequality over time: for most of the world, each generation has been able to boast improved lives over the generation before. But there are times and places when this is not the case, and it may well not be the case in the future.
  3. Relative Inequality v. Absolute Poverty: Another important issue is that inequalities can be measured in relative or absolute terms: the “relative” measure is based on the difference between the most-advantaged and least-advantaged, or in some metrics between the extremes and the median. The “absolute” measure focuses on the actual levels of income, consumption, security, liberty, etc. which can rise independently or orthogonally to the difference between the best and worst.

In the literature, the last kind of inequality is often just referred to as “relative v. absolute inequality” but what really ought to concern us is when folks at the bottom face profound and multiple disadvantages. So when I think in terms of absolutes, here, I think we generally share the Rawlsian maximin intuition that we should confront and work to raise whatever the lowest-level of experience is, the floor or “bottom” that has become known as the situation of the “least-advantaged group.”

Civil-rights-leaders-want-Obama-to-talk-more-about-racial-inequalityAs for temporal and spatial inequalities, these are difficult issues indeed. Certainly there are Chinese cities where the environmental degradation is so bad that previous eras of lower consumption were actually better off; much the same may be true of European and American cities during our industrial growth spurts. We can think of the the inequality of growth as a problem that is primarily measured in terms of differences over time, but we also have to confront the profound differences between the growth levels in the US, Europe, and Japan, and the growth levels in Africa, South America, and Asia. There is growing confidence that these differences must be laid at the feet of poor institutional designs (hampered by colonial meddling) and cannot simply be explained by some form of exploitative expropriation of the developing world by the developed world.

There are broad measurement and aggregation problems with the more important kinds of inequality: it’s much harder to figure out how capabilities increase and decrease over time and populations than it is to measure income and consumption, even though measuring those is a very hard problem all on its own. Still, some theme have emerged. While there are some theorists who would not be ready to agree to the hierarchy of inequalities I’ve listed above, many justifications for libertarianism and classical liberalism rest on the assumption that the policies they advocate are best-able to achieve the maximization of the most important capabilities, securities, and liberties that I mention. After the work of Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, there may well be disagreements about measurements and priorities, but there really are fewer folks who doggedly hold to the view that consumption alone is the key to the good life and ought to be maximized. Strangely, even as more people pay lip service to pluralism, there is more and more agreement on matters of fundamental metaethical goals. I take that to be a good sign.

But various versions of the problem of inequality that circulate strike me as potentially mistaken. For instance, it’s true that, in terms of wealth and income, the very rich lost more in absolute terms than the very poor: individual investors lost billions of dollars. But they did not lose a corresponding amount of consumption, security, status, or capability. Those losses play an important role in suggesting that the very rich were as surprised as the middle-class and poor by the structural problems in the shadow banking system and mortgage-market, however: after all, you expect a fraud or a crook to have enriched himself, not immiserated himself. On the other hand, differential inequalities of growth and security suggest that a very rich investor might be willing to make a bet that will double or halve her income even if it will do the same thing the very poor for simply because of the way one calculates gains and losses when you are very rich. (This goes back to Charles Karelis’s work on the differential rationality of wealth and poverty.)