Wednesday, November 30, 2011


He asserted water to be the principle of all things...
- Diogenes Laertius, "Life of Thales" (tr. C.D. Yonge)

From the liquidity of accidents,
possibilities become events
that surge and crest in a necessary end                                                                      
in definition, where they begin again.
The waves reform and roll back to the sea
to lose themselves in that green mystery
in which the forms perform a constant dance
of the movements of necessity and chance.

The surface stretches away from where I stand
and curves around to another end of land
where, by rule of chance, you might now be,
or by law of hidden necessity.

The figures that dance across the water’s face
before us rise up from an unseen place
beneath the separations, beyond our sight
and leap for just a moment in the light.

I think they are the same figures, both here
and there, and that they appear and disappear
to you and me and join us in an instant
that waves away the thoughts of near and distant.

Distinct mythologies dissolve in sea,
as do the spaces between you and me,
so that the chances dividing us are only
undulations of necessity.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Perennial Immigration Debate Comes Up Again

Newt Gingrich’s controversial statement of support for qualified amnesty for illegal immigrants in the United States made me think about my own conflicted views on immigration policy. Philosophically, I’m sympathetic to the unimpeded movement of labor, as well as capital and goods, both across and within political boundaries. Realistically, I see our southern boundary as highly permeable and difficult to police.  I sympathize with those who came into this country, by whatever means, in order to better their lives and those of their families.  I recognize the economic contribution of illegal immigrant workers. While some have argued that these workers either lower the wages of native born Americans or supply rapacious employers with an exploitable work force, I see these new arrivals as responding to the demands of our current economic system. While native born Americans are constantly told by educators and government officials that everyone should be moving up into middle class jobs, our labor market has been opening up jobs at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. We need people to pick our fruit, weave our carpets, build our homes, and do a great many sundry jobs that require limited formal education but a great deal of flexibility. The products of all of these endeavors would be much more expensive for consumers if we had to pay the costs of native-born workers, assuming that employers could find sufficient numbers of natives willing to take insecure, difficult, low-prestige occupations.  In addition, the aging population of the United States means that immigration has become a prime source of youthful participants in our work force, and an important barrier against the demographic decline facing Japan.
At the same time, though, I think reasons for concern exist.  My philosophical support for free flows rests uncomfortably with my views on national sovereignty.  Every modern nation, as far as I know, maintains laws specifying rights of entry, residence, and citizenship. For the United States to declare that it cannot or will not try to maintain its boundaries would be a unique and unilateral surrender of its own national sovereignty, a strange kind of American exceptionalism. Enforcing our laws may lead to unfortunate consequences for some individuals, such as separating native-born children from illegal immigrant parents, denying educational opportunities to illegal immigrants who have grown up in this country, or uprooting those who have made their lives here.  But laws that are not enforced do not truly exist. And if we either unofficially ignore our laws or officially override them by periodically declaring amnesties, we make them meaningless and we do run the risk of communicating to the millions of people around the world who would like to come here that our borders are effectively open.
Completely open borders, however desirable in theory, can pose dangers for developed nations. Mexico is the place of origin of most illegal immigrants currently in the United States. Our neighbor to the south possesses cultural traditions that I find quite beautiful.  Unfortunately, Mexico also currently suffers from social disorder and violence. While these problems have so far spilled over into the United States only sporadically, there is a real danger of their conflicts contributing to our own as the distinctions between the two countries diminish.
Large-scale movement across the border, in addition, means that many residents will identify with a foreign nation or retain citizenship in a foreign nation. George Friedman’s work of prognostication, The Next Hundred Years, may have included a number of speculations that will turn out to be untrue, but his prediction that Mexico will in the future claim a version of extraterritoriality for Mexican-origin people in the United States seems to me plausible. No two sovereign nations ever completely share national interests, and extensive dual loyalties can create problems.
However virtuous cultural diversity may sound, it can have negative sides. The political scientist Robert Putnam, much to his own dismay, found that ethnic and racial diversity in communities is associated with low levels of trust, cooperation, charity, and voluntarism.  Immigration is a major source of diversity. If we encourage free movement across borders, we may be moving toward Balkanization, even while we improve the quality and variety of our restaurants. While this observation may be politically incorrect, it is also realistic.  Americans may not need to share ancestries, but we do need to be common cultural descendents of the American political tradition for this nation to function.
I’m detailing these issues to describe my own reservations about open immigration policy in general and about amnesty in particular. On the whole, I’m inclined, for reasons given in the first paragraph, to cautiously favor some version of amnesty as the best among bad options, but this would take us in a perilous direction.

Monday, November 28, 2011

On the "Cutting Edge" of Academic Decline

The late Philip Rieff once quipped that our modern universities are re-educating students who haven't yet been educated. My own university, Tulane, is about to take another step toward becoming a re-education camp with nice gym facilities.  A proposed "academic" program in Social Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation, strongly encouraged by the university administration, will probably be approved in the near future. It will offer a minor that will teach students how to become "changemakers." That doesn't mean they'll become experts in swapping dollars for Euros or Yuan at favorable rates. It aims to train them as activist cadres.  The proposal for the minor in SISE is explicit about its ideological goals. In a document consisting largely of buzzwords, shibboleth, and clichés, the organizers of this program describe the SISE "toolkit" as teaching intellectual, normative, and imaginative "ways of thinking and knowing." It identifies the "normative" portion as "social justice and ecological sustainability."
Contemporary academics do often think alike.  My discipline, sociology, may well be more intellectually conformist than most. But in most mainstream fields of study, the absence of free thought is at least de facto, rather than de jure. Now, we will have a program designed and openly intended to indoctrinate the students. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Teach for America and The New Orleans Educational Experiment

Today’s (12/27/2011) New Orleans Times Picayune includes a front-page article on John White, recently appointed superintendant of the city’s Recovery School District (RSD) and a prospective head of the State Department of Education, and Kira Orange-Jones, head of the New Orleans Teach for America office and newly elected representative to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). Both are alumni of the Teach for America program, which is prominent in the New Orleans school reform effort.  The newspaper asks whether New Orleans and its state are entering the “era of Teach For America.”
Although I have previously expressed skepticism about the amount of improvement we can expect in New Orleans schools, rising test scores provide some tentative empirical evidence that the city’s abysmal schools have shown somewhat better results under the reform regime that has transformed a majority of the city’s schools into charter schools and brought Teach for America volunteers into heavy participation in the school system.  Somewhat reluctantly, I favor both charter schools and Teach for America. I favor the former because they do tend to offer a wider range of educational choices to families and freedom of action and flexibility to individual schools. I favor Teach for America, and programs like it, because I don’t believe that our current credentialization bureaucracy does a very good job of selecting and educating teachers, because I don’t think that certification has any necessary connection to good teaching, and because I see enthusiasm as generally more productive than years in the classroom, which can lead to burnout as often as knowhow.
I say that I reluctantly support these kinds of endeavors, though, because in their present form they are contrary to the ideal of local community control over education.  Although the organizations behind some of the charter schools are located in the city, the schools are often heavily dependent on outside reformers.  Teach For America is a kind of domestic Peace Corps, aimed at bringing volunteers into low-income districts to provide the quality of teaching those districts are presumably unable to supply themselves.  Mr. White and Ms. Orange-Jones, as products of Teach For America, exemplify the missionary spirit of this corps.  I have no doubt that they packed substantial quantities of idealism, intelligence, and dedication in their carpet bags, but neither resided in New Orleans before coming here to take up their reforming appointments.
The New Orleans experiment in public education, in fact, emerges from an external takeover of the school system. In 2003, the state legislature passed a bill mandating that the state take direction of consistently failing schools away from the locally elected school boards. The bill was clearly aimed at New Orleans, since most of the failing schools in the state were here and most of the schools in the city were failing.  This legal coup had good justification. The schools in New Orleans were some of the worst in the country, and the incompetence of the school board was exceeded only by the corruption that landed former Orleans Parish School Board President Ellenese Brooks-Simms in prison in 2007. Ms. Brooks-Simms was the twenty-third Orleans Parish school board official convicted for malfeasance in office since 2003.
I do not believe that the inept and sometimes criminal school board made New Orleans schools so awful, although it certainly did not help.  The relationship between a bad elected body and bad educational institutions was what statisticians call “spurious.”  The underlying cause behind both was a community that had become deeply dysfunctional.  As I argued in my 2002 book, A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana, the problems of New Orleans were not simply due to poverty, but to a type of poverty that has become prevalent in other areas of the United States, especially in central cities.  This is an anomic poverty, characterized by the collapse of basic social institutions, most notably the family. Sky-rocketing murder rates give testimony to the city’s Hobbesian chaos. Over the past few decades, New Orleans has become a city that simply does not work.
The state takeover and the assumption of control by outside reformers were essentially acts of guardianship.  Guardians take over the affairs of those who are judged incompetent to run their own lives.  I think we need to recognize this fact as people debate the post-Hurricane future of the city. To attempt to re-create the New Orleans that existed on the eve of the storm would be to strive to return to civic failure.
Can outside direction bring a city to healthy independence? In fairness to the Recovery School District, its officials do generally say that they eventually intend to return the schools to a new and reformed Orleans Parish School Board. I am concerned that the tutelage will simply cultivate civic dependence, while continuing to undermine fundamental social institutions by maintaining a large part of the population as anomic wards of the state.  But given the current state of social decay, I do not see a good alternative.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Ortega y Gasset and the Schools of Buddhism

I’ve recently been re-reading Jose Ortega y Gasset’s La Rebelion de las Masas. I say “re-reading;” in fact, I read the English version, The Revolt of the Masses many years ago, when I was a teen-ager.  I don’t think the book receives the attention it should today. It is one of the best early recognitions and analyses of the phenomenon of the mass society. One bizarre error at the beginning of the book struck me, though.
In contrasting the “select minorities” who push themselves toward excellence with those of the majority who are content to have no outstanding qualities, Ortega y Gasset writes “[e]sto me recuerda que el budismo ortodoxo se compone de dos religions distintas: una, más rigoras y difícil; otra, más laxa y trivial; el Mahayana – “gran vehículo” o “gran carril” – y el Hinayana – “pequeño vehículo”, “camino menor”.  Lo decisivo es si ponemos nuestra vida a uno u otro vehículo, a un máximo de exigencias o a un minimo. [This reminds me that orthodox Buddhism consists of two distinct religions: one more rigorous and difficult; the other more lax and trivial; Mahayana, “the Great Vehicle” or “Great Way” – and Hinayana – “Small Vehicle,” “Lesser Road.” The decisive issue is whether we place our lives in one or the other vehicle, in the greatest of demands or in the least” – my poor translation].
This contrast fits Ortega y Gasset’s argument. Unfortunately,  he’s got the two major schools of Buddhism completely wrong.  The Gautama Buddha wrote nothing down.  Like Socrates and Jesus, he conveyed his teachings only by word of mouth.  As later adherents institutionalized these teachings, they interpreted them in different ways.  Not long after his death, these adherents called a council to organize and interpret his sermons and to compile a code for monks. Two more councils in the succeeding centuries continued the work. By the third council, held under the sponsorship of the great Buddhist King Asoka at Paliputra in the mid-third century BCE, diverging traditions of interpretation began to split the religion into the two major sects, one of which (Mahayana) came to predominate in the northern lands of China, Japan, and Korea (and is therefore sometimes called the Northern School), while the other came to predominate in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and mainland Southeast Asia (except for Vietnam, because of the Chinese influence in that country).
The differences between the two sects are complicated, but definitely have nothing to do with Mahayana Buddhism somehow demanding greater spiritual efforts of its adherents.  It obtained the title “Greater Vehicle” in somewhat the same way that Lenin and his adherents managed to get themselves labeled as “Bolsheviks” (“Majoritarians”) when Lenin maneuvered them into control of the Russian Social Democratic Party, while sticking the losing faction with the name “Mensheviks” (“Minoritarians”), in spite of the fact that the Mensheviks generally favored a more open and democratic party.  “The designation “Hinayana” was apparently given by the Mahayanists.  Adherents of the Southern School prefer the description “Theravada,” “the way of the elders,” in the belief that they keep an older and purer form of Buddhism.
The greatest difference between the Mahayana and Theravada Buddhists is that the latter tend to emphasis individual efforts at merit and insight, while the former place more importance on Bodhisattvas, who can help the great masses toward nirvana. In theory, then, the distinction would appear to be the opposite of Ortega y Gasset’s description.  In reality, of course, neither of these are religious disciplines of spiritual aristocrats. Both are popular, mass religions with millions of followers. I once asked a conventionally religious Theravada Buddhist friend in Thailand what he would ask if the Buddha came to him in a vision.  He thought for a moment and answered, “I’d ask him for the winning lottery number.”  Maybe we need to look outside of all large-scale institutions to find the true elites.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Market, Equality, and Abstraction

The primitive equality of humanity asserted by Rousseau and Marx seems to have been more than a philosophical speculation or golden age myth.   Without individual ownership of property, and no differentiation of labor beyond gender differentiation, humans in foraging, hunter gatherer bands had no systematic basis for systematically distinguishing among individual men or individual women.  Some may have been more persuasive or more powerful than others, but whatever prestige people held characterized them as personalities, not as social statuses.  Only the advent of settled village life brought the need for regularity and predictability in relations that brought well-defined leadership into existence.

Differentiated societies and the unequal statuses inherent in differentiated societies posed two options regarding the identification of individuals with their statuses. Either each human being was identical with his or her position in a society or each was in some sense distinct from the social position happened to occupy.  In its most radical state, the first option was total immanence. If statuses are positions in a system of social relations, then being completely identified with a status means being completely a part of the social world. The extreme of the second option was total transcendence. If one’s true self is not one’s place in society, then every individual is ultimately apart from the realm of extant social relations.

Caste systems have expressed one level of social immanence. According to the classic work of Georges Dumézil, still widely accepted today, the early Indo-European speaking peoples divided their societies into three fundamental categories of humans: priests, warriors, and herder-cultivators.  These three categories may still survive in three of the major Hindu castes of  brahmans, ksatriyas, and vaisyas.. The Hindu example may suggest to us that even in the immanence of a caste system there may be some transcendent level at which humans are equal.  If people can move from one caste to another through metempsychosis, then there must be some part of them that is not identical with caste. This is a theoretical transcendence, though, and it reinforces rather than undermines inequality.  Another way of putting this coexistence of transcendence and immanence in social life is that people may be seen as completely in the social order while they maintain an ultimate self that is completely outside of the social order.

In the canonical tradition of Europe, the dual existence of hierarchical social order and abstract, transcendent egalitarian individualism appears throughout the philosophical and religious traditions of Mediterranean antiquity.   Epicureanism, for example, taught that individuals should strive for a state of eudaimonia, or well-being, by pursuing the state of ataraxia, or freedom from trouble and anxiety.  While it did not challenge the social hierarchy directly, Epicureanism did encourage withdrawal from political and administrative involvement and it offered a private egalitarian alternative to public hierarchy by admitting people from all walks of life on the same basis as adherents.  The Stoics posited moral virtue as the path to eudaimonia and argued that each individual, regardless of social position, could pursue virtue. When the Stoic Epictetus was a slave, his capacity for the pursuit of virtue was the same as the later Stoic Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Being a slave or an emperor was accidental. In their true natures, or ultimate selves, both were equal in the pursuit of virtue. The idea of “nature” was the way in which both Epicureans and Stoics expressed their extra-social egalitarianism, since for both living in accordance with nature was the way in which people could live in a manner consistent with their true natures. The idea would become important for views about individual egalitarianism in early modern European, since it would be reinterpreted as natural law, but the concept of natural law was not just an inheritance from antiquity. It was an old idea that became useful and relevant for the interpretation of a new situation.

Out of the decay of the political and social order of the Roman Empire medieval corporatism had emerged. Christendom maintained the old extra-social, transcendent egalitarianism within a rigidly hierarchical system, in which each individual in the saeculum wholly identified with location, family, guild, and status. The old sociology of the three orders reappeared as the unchanging division into oratores, bellatores, and laborares. Within their all-encompassing statuses, people did not have rights, but privileges; literally, private laws that applied to them as members of corporate bodies.

It is difficult to trace the original causes of the breakdown in worldly hierarchy, but this breakdown clearly accompanied a development of enormous importance for the emergence of modernity: the rise of banking and investment between the fourteenth and the sixteenth centuries. Loaning money at interest encouraged entrepreneurial activities and stimulated the search for more efficient production of goods and spread of information. Finance, in other words, set the stage for the first Industrial Revolution, the beginning of which is conventionally dated about 1750.

One consequence of that revolution was the breakdown of the corporate order, and its replacement by what Thomas Carlyle, in widely used phrase, called the “Cash Nexus.” Relations between people in a market system became defined less by invariant positions and more by free-floating exchanges. As Bruce Mazlish argued in A New Science, the modern discipline of sociology grew out of responses to the transition to the Cash Nexus, either by “lamenters,” who bemoaned the loss of the old ties, or by “breakers,” who saw the old ties as chains and celebrated the liberation of individuals by the marketplace.

In my view, one of the most notable consequences of the rise of the free market system was the “immanentization” of the transcendent equality of individuals. By treating individuals as interchangeable units of production, the market abstracted them from their corporate settings. Previously, each one had a soul in another realm apart from present activities. In the fluidity of the market, no one could be wholly identified with present activities; each private individual existed apart from all socially defining connections. This, I think, was the root of our modern idea of rights: we share in universal rights to the extent we can be considered as pure abstractions, utterly outside our nets of social connections. John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice, pushed this assumption of individual rights as properties of abstract human entities to what I consider a strange extreme, essentially arguing that a just society would be one based entirely on individual rights and that individual rights can be identified by imaginatively stripping social beings of all their social traits and relationships.

Behind individual rights, then, lies the market economy. People have entered the realm of abstract rights and left the realm of immanent status to the extent that they have entered the market. Within the United States, the debate over abolition of slavery, was an argument about the replacement of a racial caste order by the Cash Nexus of a labor market (John C. Calhoun, then, was a “lamenter,” like Wordsworth).  Similarly, the women’s rights movement has proceeded with women’s movement out of the status relations of the home and into the labor market as abstract sexless entities. Census data show that only 15 percent of women aged 16 and over participated in the American labor force in 1870, but that this grew to just over a quarter of American women by 1910.  The urban setting of the new industrial America, shrinking families, and movement into the public sphere of the market economy meant that the complete identification of women with women’s roles began to weaken. In the minds of a growing number of Americans, women were becoming abstract beings whose rights and social roles entailed participation in an impersonal, rationalized society.

Like most Americans, I’m deeply attached to the idea of individual, equal rights. As Mazlish’s lamenters realized, though, the same abstraction that frees us can also leave us lost. The quest for authenticity from Rousseau to modern identity politics has been a desperate response to being reduced to abstractions. Further, human beings never really function as completely abstract, independent beings. What they can do even in the Cash Nexus of the marketplace depends on their upbringings and their social networks, so that there is always an element of caste within the market. Too great an attachment to the ideal of complete abstract equality, ironically, can produce heavy handed governmental efforts to “level the playing field” by searching for strategies to dissolve all benefits of social connection, and the further government pursues these kinds of strategies, the more it exercises control and undermines the independent equality of rights. “Starting from unlimited freedom,” proclaimed Dostoevsky’s Shigalov, “I arrive at unlimited despotism.”

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Race with No Losers?

In his commencement address to Howard University in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson introduced what would become one of the most widely quoted justifications for the use of racial preferences in education and employment. Johnson declared that achieving the freedom of all individuals to “share, fully and equally, in American society” was not enough. “You do not,” the President said, “take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” American society, in this view, is a competition, a race for high prestige occupations, for wealth, and for success in all of its many forms.  But races, whether “fair” or not, generally end up with contenders in first place, second and third place, and also rans, with at least one runner finishing dead last. We could, in the name of fairness, give our recently chained runner a good head start or even walk this competitor to the finish line before the starting shot and announce a winner. This would be an unusual and interesting athletic event.

Opponents of affirmative action frequently object to it not because they are against fairness but because they object to rigging the game. The objections are stronger than they would be in a footrace because the winners get those real prizes of widely desired jobs and good incomes. The response of the policy-making advocates of preferences has been to pretend, or to convince themselves, that the race of American life is one in which everyone’s a winner. Over the past half-century many Americans have decided that education is the track on which everyone can compete and end up at front.

In truth, though, like every race and every other competitive activity, the dash for educational benefits is a zero-sum game, just as the succeeding scramble for positions or opportunities in life will be a zero-sum game at any point in time. At my own university, the numbers of freshman admissions have been growing each year, so that we’ve been struggling to keep up with providing enough classes, but the numbers have still been limited in any given year. Everyone who gets in by definition deprives someone else of a spot.

Each advantage to one competitor of necessity becomes a disadvantage for another, a basis of discrimination. Footraces discriminate in favor of individuals with better training, greater inherent leg strength, and longer strides, and against those without those qualities. The more we try to compensate by giving head starts to those who (perhaps for reasons beyond their control) are weaker athletes, the more we discriminate against the better athletes and lessen their chances of winning the ribbons that will not go to everyone.

When we grant special consideration to any characteristic of competitors, we engage in intentional discrimination, not only for those with that characteristic but, by logical necessity, against those without it. Giving points for being non-white, poor, the first college applicant in a family, or having an unconventional sexual orientation must also mean taking points away for being white, non-poor, the scion of well-educated parents, or being heterosexual. Apart from the fact that these types of categorical discrimination are invitations for strategic self-misrepresentation (I think many of my fellow white Louisianians could reposition themselves as non-white with enough genealogical research), they also lead to some bizarre scenarios: Your parents worked hard to be successful or managed to make it through professional schooling, so we are going to hold that against you. We are going to mark you down because you prefer members of the opposite sex. Ultimately, though, we have to recognize that however we set the game up, it is not possible to simply pass around winning positions to a wider and more diverse set of players.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Jefferson-Adams and the Natural Aristocracy

The historian Gordon Wood, in his magisterial 1969 classic The Creation of the American Republic, observed that the ideal of equality was a formative part of early American culture.  For Wood, the early American attraction to goals of equality grew out of the unsettling experience of the Revolution, the severing of ties to the English hierarchy, and the rise of new individuals to political and social power during the bitter struggle for separation from Britain. The turmoil of the Revolutionary years did undoubtedly contribute to an American rhetoric and ideology of equality.  However, the ideal of a political body of equal individuals took such a strong hold because it emerged from a long historical experience before the establishment of the new nation and the ideal developed in the ways that it did because the historical experience both promoted dedication to some form of equality and presented that dedication with grave challenges and contradictions. The intellectual currents of the eighteenth century, including the egalitarian theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine, undoubtedly influenced the thinking of leading individuals in the American war of independence and the early republic. But the history and social setting of the period left them open to these kinds of ideas and created the need to reconcile thoughts about equality and inequality among citizens. 

By the time of national independence, the central political issue for most Americans was not the redistribution of wealth. It was whether the acknowledged and accepted inequalities of condition would subordinate some to others. Looking back to England, the citizens of the new nation saw that the hierarchy of dependence in Europe rested on inherited status. Thus, the great debate over stratification at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, the argument over the Natural Aristocracy, was in large part fueled by concerns about whether the “well-born” would be able to re-create and a European-style hierarchy of dependence in the United States. From this very early time, Americans readily accepted differences in wealth, as long as those differences resulted from each person pursuing an independent course. Wealth from the accident of birth carried the taint of Old World hierarchy and raised the possibility of replacing what we now call acquired status with ascribed. Definitions of the Natural Aristocracy were often complicated and contradictory, sometimes portraying the elite as a coherent social class to be balanced against other classes in maintaining equality and sometimes as a collection of individuals of talent. These differing definitions affected how people saw the members of the elite and what kinds of responses they advocated to keep inequality of condition from threatening the political equality of independent yeomen or middling town dwellers.

The idea of equality as the independence of landed freemen took on a quasi-mythical form in the thinking of Thomas Jefferson. Recognizing the importance of land speculation in creating inequality, Jefferson observed that “the greatest Estates we have in this Colony were made … by taking up & purchasing at very low rates the rich back Lands which were thought nothing of in those days, but are now the most valuable lands we possess” (Quoted in Linklater 2007, p. 27).  Jefferson saw little contradiction between great estates and equality because he understood equality as the absence of hierarchical dependence. Jefferson’s model of society was one of independent farmers, each working his own land. He believed that Saxon England prior to the Norman Conquest had been based on alodial law, in which land belonged to the person who worked it, and argued that American society should be a return to this old Saxon system (Jefferson 1950).  “In the model he envisioned, the political structure would be built up from the community based on the local ‘hundred’ or county with its own court and administration” (Quoted in Andro Linklater, The Fabric of America: How Our Borders and Boundaries Shaped the Country and Forged Our National Identity. New York: Walker & Company, 2007, p. 47).

Jefferson’s social vision makes it clear just how he managed to square social egalitarianism with a belief in the existence of superior individuals. All men (and Jefferson’s ideas did apply chiefly to “men” in the narrower sense of male humans) were indeed not only created equal, but would live in equal circumstances insofar as none were dependent on others for support or patronage because each controlled his own agrarian base. Some might indeed hold larger tracts, as Jefferson did, But this would not give larger land holders power over smaller holders.

American beliefs and concerns over equality as independence coalesced at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the phrase “natural aristocracy.” Today, we remember this phrase either as a point of contention in the struggle between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists over the adoption of the Constitution or a question of political philosophy in the late correspondence of Jefferson and John Adams.  The concept of the natural aristocrat was one of the most widely accepted notions in early social and political thinking about the creation of the American nation. Writing back in England, in the Wealth of Nations (Everyman’s Library,1954 [1776], vol. II, p. 118), Adam Smith attributed the American struggle to the desire of the “… the leading men, the natural aristocracy” of the colonies to manage public affairs.  In America, this elite management, taken for granted by Smith, came under scrutiny during the efforts to design a governmental structure following independence. Even those who were most sympathetic to an an English-style rank-ordering of society, who were often members of an elite based on birth, tended to accept an implicit and generally unexamined assumption of the situation later known as “equality of opportunity,” in which personal virtues and talents, not advantages of birth, would be the primary sources of preeminence.

Because American concerns were chiefly about hierarchy and dependence, arguments about unequal wealth and position in the early republic often concentrated on whether the most advantaged would employ power to subject others and become a true estate. A concentration of power could help to turn wealthier, more socially connected, and cleverer people into a European-style elite. This was the reason the Federalist-Anti-Federalist debate over the Constitution became a debate over stratification. It was a debate that broadened and deepened American thinking about social classes and produced a range of views, but always stayed close to the issue of what a generally accepted socioeconomic inequality meant for relations of independence.

John Adams took a complicated view of the natural aristocracy, seeing its members as sources of both danger and national political advantage.  To overcome the dangers of natural aristocrats to political equality, he proposed “to throw the rich and the proud into one group, in a separate assembley, and there tie their hands; if you give them scope with the people at large, or their representatives, they will destroy all equality and liberty, with the consent and acclamation of the people themselves [italics in the original]. They will have much more power mixed with the representatives, than separated from them. In the first case, if they unite, they will give the law, and govern all; if they differ, they will divide the state, and go to a decision by force. But placing them alone by themselves, the society avails itself of all their abilities and virtues; they become a solid check to the representatives themselves, as well as to the executive power, and you disarm them entirely of their power to do mischief” (John Adams, Letter XXXII, Massachusetts Gazette, Sept. 4, 1787, p. 4). Behind Adams’ political theory is a concept of stratification based on a categorization into the natural aristocrats and “the people at large.” Adams’s argument about restraining the natural aristocracy was an ingenious use of a common Anti-Federalist argument for Federalist purposes, since those opposed to a more centralized government often argued precisely that localized and diffused politics were needed to restrain the natural aristocrats.

With the successful adoption of the Constitution, the debate over the role of inequality in American life became less immediately relevant.  But looking back at this debate reveals some of the assumptions and ideas about equality and inequality held by early Americans. Americans did not all agree on their opposition to rank-ordered subordination, nor were they always consistent in their views. The elite Anti Federalists, in particular, often appeared to oppose centralization of governmental authority because they were inclined toward a kind of subordination, in which they imagined themselves, as local elites, better able than a distant authority to direct their own communities. This kind of anti-democratic localism would continue to be one stream in American social views, later appearing in the thought of John C. Calhoun and again among the Southern Bourbons after Reconstruction. Alongside this regional elitism, though, the Jeffersonian image of independent white yeomen continued to hold imaginations in the South.

The most common opinion was a general acceptance of human inequality, combined with the goal of keeping that inequality from becoming permanently institutionalized as hereditary aristocracy and restraining it from becoming a system of subordination.  The last important discussion of the concept of the natural aristocracy took place as an epilogue to the old debate at the time of the Constitution, in the letters of Jefferson and Adams in the Fall of 1813, the year after the two political rivals finally renewed their friendship. Writing on September 2, and commenting on a passage of Theognis, Adams raised the question of who are the “aristoi”  He translated this word, which means “the best” in Greek, as “aristocrats.” “Philosophy may Answer ‘the Wise and Good,’” Adams maintained, “But the World, Mankind, have by their practice always answered, ‘the rich, the beautiful and well born’” (Adams, in Lester J. Cappon The Adams-Jefferson Letters, Chapel Hill, UNC Press, 1988, p. 371).  Adams told Jefferson that “the five Pillars of Aristocracy are Beauty, Wealth, Birth, Genius and Virtues. Any one of the three first, can at any time over bear any one or both of the last two” (Adams, in Cappon 1988, p. 371).

Adams, then saw the inequality described by aristocracy as consisting of individual qualities, rather than inhering in social structure. Today, most commentators would probably classify being “well born,” having an advantageous family situation, as a matter of the system of positions into which individuals are born. Adams, though, writing at a time before sociologically thinking permeated views of the world, considered advantages of birth, personal appearance, and financial situation all as individual qualities. Moreover, he argued that the social assets that individuals possess outweigh moral and intellectual capacities.  Although Adams threw together different kinds of human inequalities, it is evident that Adams took a highly skeptical and critical view of social inequality, even while regarding it as inevitable.  The things that make people “the best” in a society are usually not the most constructive traits.  The suspicion of preeminence is consistent with the old Federalist’s earlier concerns with setting up institutions that can control and direct the political influence of the supposedly best people.
Jefferson replied to these thoughts on October 28. He recognized that Adams was lumping together different types of inequality as components of the aristocracy, and then assuming that the least desirable components would receive the greatest emphasis.  Jefferson responded by dividing the qualities identified by Adams into two categories: those belonging to the “artificial aristocracy” and those belonging to the “natural aristocracy.” “The grounds of [the natural aristocracy],” according to Jefferson, “are virtue and talents.” Bodily strength, he explained, was a primary ground of this natural preeminence, but modern weapons have rendered this obsolete. “[B]odily strength, like beauty, good humor, politeness, and other accomplishments, has become an auxiliary ground of distinction.” Jefferson did not make it clear why these other accomplishments should have diminished along with strength, although presumably gunpowder did not displace beauty or politeness in the same way that it displaced physical prowess. The artificial aristocracy, on the other hand, is “founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents” (Jefferson, in Cappon, 1988, p. 388).

Jefferson distinguished between the fundamental political rights of white men, which were equal, and their opportunities for leadership, which the author of the Declaration of Independence believed should be distributed according to virtues and talents.  Neither Jefferson nor John Adams was a social leveler. Both saw stratification as inevitable, and justifiable to the extent that it was the product of those virtues and talents. It is notable that Jefferson’s optimism about the natural aristocracy was based on his differentiation of inequality based on “virtues and talents” and inequality based on “wealth and birth.”  We can see in Jefferson’s interpretation some of the early traces of the “equality of opportunity” view that was gradually to emerge from the “equality of independence” perspective. The willingness to free the natural aristocrats from constraints came out of the belief that their superiority would be the expression of personal qualities. However, Jefferson also believed, as we have seen, that in a society of independent individual yeomen even political leadership by people of superior talents would not subordinate the general citizenry.

Adams, true to his old dedication to restraining the natural aristocrats, was much more skeptical of inequality. While he combined different kinds of inequalities, he also made a point that many social scientists would accept today: that the advantages that modern commentators might describe as “ascribed status” influence and can outweigh the advantages of “achieved status.” This did not lead him to argue for abolishing social inequality, but to continue his long-held support for finding ways to restrain and direct those at the top.

In the years that have followed this interchange between the two founders, Americans have tended to lean toward the Jeffersonian approach when they have seen a wide opening for virtues and talents, especially as opportunity became a greater part of the national understanding of the meaning of equality. When they have become more conscious of threats to the efficacy of individual virtues and talents, as in the Progressive Era, they have tended to favor the Adams approach, although fostering opportunity for achievement became a more common rationale for constructing political means of constraint.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Dream of Dried Fruit

Last night I dreamed of dried fruit.
Dreaming is one of the most fundamental human experiences. Some maintain that the division of life into the secular and the sacred, the physical and the mental, the realm of bodies and the realm of spirits derives from dreaming, when thoughts appear to move by themselves in their own incorporeal world. So, dreams give us shamanism, Parmenides, and Plato. Those of us who might be characterized as "ontologically challenged" and feel more comfortable with ideas than objects might be especially attached to our dreams. If I had my preferences, I certainly would rather be a disembodied spirit than an electrically charged tube of protoplasm.
The importance of dreaming for abstract reasoning, imagining future and counterfactual events, and story-telling might lie behind the fascination with the interpretation of dreams, from ancient books on oneiromancy to modern psychoanalysis.  There are modern researchers who maintain that all of this is fantasy and that dreams have no meaning. Those nightly images are nothing more than the brain's way of discharging unnecessary energies and connection, sort of putting out the garbage at night. Some claim, further, that the apparent narrative sense of dreams is imposed on the chain of images during sleep by the waking mind. I wonder about these kinds of reductionist claims, though. If we can tell something about people and societies through garbology, the study of the things they throw out, shouldn't'  we be able to understand minds by looking at what they discard? And if waking minds produce the associative coherence of dreams, then looking at dreams as reported phenomena should be giving us a good deal of information about those waking minds. The interpretation of the interpretation of dreams, then, might be a fruitful means of understanding entire cultures through a sociology of dreams, as well as a technique of examining individual psyches.
Of course, what it means to dream of dried fruit remains a mystery. I did wake up hungry.

Monday, November 21, 2011

College Degrees and Wages

Over the past forty years, the percentage of the American population with college degrees has gone up dramatically, from only about 16 percent in 1970 to nearly 30 percent today.  The gap between the earnings of college graduates and those without degrees has also increased somewhat, from a median income difference of $24,416(in  inflation-adjusted 2008 dollars) in 1970 to $25,885 in 2008. Therein lies a debate. Are we overproducing college graduates? Those who would answer "no"point to the continuing and even slightly growing wage gap. They maintain that the demand for people with degrees must be growing even more rapidly than the supply, and that the United States should therefore continue its efforts to put more sheepskins in more hands.

The problem is that the kinds of jobs that really do require advanced training really haven't been growing as fast as our pool of graduates. The production of degree holders outpaced the percentage of the labor force in professional and technical fields beginning about 1980. In addition, the growth of the undocumented immigrant population is, in part, a reflection of the fact that much of our labor demand is for workers in low-skilled, low-paid occupations.

So why are graduates still making more money? The answer is that credentialization makes relative rewards to credentials a self-fulfilling prophecy. As more employers in the mainstream of our economy use degrees as a gate-keeping strategy, it becomes essential to have a degree for any kind of job, even one in which nothing one supposedly learns in college is put to use. Having a BA becomes an entry-level qualification, and those without it tend to drop further behind, except in cases in which they have some specialized trade skills.

As a degree becomes an entry-level qualification, differentiation among degrees becomes greater. While any BA may have assured one a good job in earlier years, today the competition is between those with high-demand degrees and those with low-demand degrees. So, the relative economic value of a degree in English or philosophy goes down, leaving students to abandon those fields of study. Thus, at least part of the apparent decline of the humanities is paradoxically a result ot their having been put within reach of more people.