Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Charter Schools: No, Yes, and Maybe

Students at a New Orleans Charter School
People with views on charter schools often seem to be divided into two opposing teams. Supporters tend to argue that charter schools can completely transform American education and provide a remedy for every real or perceived ill in our system of public schooling. Opponents portray the charter school movement as an unmitigated disaster. I think this polarization is odd because the evidence on charter schools is quite mixed.  Most recently, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) of Stanford University followed up an earlier 2009 study (which showed mixed results) and found (1) progress in the charter school sector has been slow, but generally better than among traditional public schools, (2) some charter schools show worse results than traditional public schools, but the percentage of charter schools showing better results has increased since an earlier 2009 study, (3) there are still many charter schools that have poor outcomes in general and compared to traditional schools, (4) charter schools have learning gains across the 27 states included in the study, even after controlling for student characteristics, (5) charter schools that had been included in the 2009 study showed modest improvements  since that time relative to traditional public schools, while outcomes for new charter schools looked similar to those in the earlier study, and (6) charter schools are especially helpful for low-income students, black students, and English language learners. This presents us with a generally optimistic view of the charter strategy and suggests that the strategy can be especially helpful for the disadvantaged, but it certainly doesn’t indicate that charter schools can cure every ill or that they free of problems of their own.

This report is particularly interesting to me because I have just published a short piece in the magazine Contexts, as part of a forum on charter schools. There, I point out that charter schools have presented many challenges in New Orleans, where charters now make up the majority of schools, but that educational results appear to have improved since the adoption of charters, and that the evidence, while inconclusive, suggests that the improvement is due to the charter system. I caution against expecting too much from this strategy, and suggest that local school districts should consider the setting and alternatives in deciding whether to turn to charters or retain traditional public schools.

The other authors in the forum, only one of whom favors charter schools, raise good points. Diane Ravitch, an educational expert whom I greatly admire, acknowledges that the effect of charters on educational outcomes is mixed, but takes a position of strong opposition because she sees charters as legitimizing the privatization of education and undermining the idea of schooling as a public responsibility. This is a reasonable concern. If we want schools to be controlled by local voters and the property-tax payers who provide the backbone of support for schools, then the removal of control from locally elected school board members, either by private corporations or by larger governmental entities, should give us cause. In the case of New Orleans, the introduction of the charter system followed a state takeover of much of the school district. However, given the disastrous state of the city’s traditional public schools and the staggering incompetence and corruption of local school officials, I’m inclined to say that both the state seizure of control and the charter experiment were warranted by circumstances. In locations with functioning  district administrations, I suggest that the voters and their elected officials should be deciding whether to retain traditional schools or try charters, and they should do so based on their own circumstances. Since the CREDO report indicates that charters work best in disadvantaged, minority school districts, these are the places that could benefit from charters. Where the traditional public school system is working reasonably well, radical experimentation is probably not desirable.

Michael J. Petrelli, executive vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham educational think tank, supports charter schools, which he believes can desegregate our schools. Others have also argued that charters can promote desegregation by giving whites and the economically advantaged programs that draw them in to minority-dominated school districts. Again, I would caution against expecting too much. It may indeed be the case that some middle class white, black, or Hispanic families will send their children to schools in districts with large proportions of disadvantaged minority members if this means superior educational opportunities for their children. But while we can point to individual schools in which this happens, we should recognize that it is extremely unlikely that there will be a large-scale reverse white-flight or reverse middle class flight to take part in charter schools. In most cases, no program, whether charter or magnet or other, can offset the consequences of concentrated socioeconomic disadvantage enough to provide incentives for those who can avoid this concentrated disadvantage. If a charter can bring in a more heterogeneous student body, that’s fine, but don’t count on it.

Linda A. Renzulli and Maria Paino, sociologists at the University of Georgia, base their criticisms of charter schools on the instability created by charter school closures, and they cite evidence from North Carolina that this state’s closures have been due to fiscal and administrative reasons, not for academic reasons. Again, this is a serious concern.  I’m not as confident as Renzulli and Paino that North Carolina represents the nation, but one does have to think about what the creative destruction of market economics means for students.  However, once again, there is no perfect system and we cannot judge a school strategy by pointing out specific drawbacks. Ultimately, the question must be whether students benefit, and the evidence does suggest that charter schools, with all their instability and shortcomings, especially benefit the most disadvantaged.

Finally, Chris Bonastia, a sociologist at Lehman College, takes a view opposite that of Petrelli and argues that charter schools share similarities with segregationist schools of an earlier historical period  and maintains that most charters today are highly segregated racially. Bonastia’s historical comparison seems far-fetched to me and I can’t see the connection between old segregationist efforts and contemporary charter schools. He is right that charter schools are generally segregated de facto, but this is because the charters largely serve the interested of localities where minority students predominate. In my comments on New Orleans, I observe that the district in 2011-2012 was about 90 percent African American and 85 percent low-income (as measured by free and reduced lunch status).  This is not in any way a consequence of charter schools: the public schools of New Orleans were almost entirely African American before the charter experiment. Similarly, inner city school districts across the nation, whether they have charters or traditional public schools, simply do not have enough white students for any kind of meaningful desegregation.  Bonastia laments the fact that “the choice of quality, integrated schools is rarely even on the table” for minority students.” Of course it isn’t. You cannot provide choices that do not exist. Given the demographics of American school districts, the real issue is whether charter schools offer minority students better options than they would otherwise have.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Obama's Accreditation Reforms for Higher Education

Irene White was kind enough to send me the link to her blog on President Obama’s accreditation reforms for higher education. As you will see if you look at her piece, she discusses how accreditation generally works now and then describes the main points of the President’s plan to increase efficiency. The article is sympathetic to accreditation and to the plan. I include the introduction and link here:
“In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama outlined several proposals to reform and improve higher education, including putting the brakes on the spiraling costs of college tuition. One method for achieving this, an initiative that has resonated with students and parents alike, is to make a school’s participation in certain federal aid programs dependent on it being affordable and effective. This new form of accreditation, linked hand-in-glove with the Department of Education’s College Scorecard has received broad public support.”  Read further

I thank Ms. White for sending this clear exposition. I have some initial thoughts on it. Most basically, I am somewhat uncomfortable with the dramatic federalization of higher education. I recognize, of course, that the federal government has long been involved in this area. The land grant colleges were created by federal initiative in the second half of the nineteenth century (and made possible the education of many people in my own family). The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, or GI Bill, in several iterations extended federal funding for veterans and encouraged the perception of college as a universal possibility. The expansion of federally guaranteed loans and programs such as the Pell Grant have provided a big source of tuition assistance over the past half century or so.  I would suggest that some of these developments may have had negative as well as positive sides. In particular, pumping money into the demand side may well have helped to push up tuition costs. But my greatest concern would be the centralization of educational policy. The funds for land grant colleges did come from Washington, but those colleges were always under the direction of the states. Now, we have not simply federal support for higher education, but an effort at central control and management.  Moreover, this is not coming from the legislature, but from the executive branch, and therefore seems to me like a further elaboration of what historian Arthur Schlesinger called “the imperial presidency.”

I’m not sure that accreditation now works exactly the way Ms. White describes (my own university went through the periodic accreditation ordeal not too long ago), but this is not because she has it wrong, but because accreditation still seems to be a site of debate and struggle over the processes and purposes of colleges and universities. Still, a number of the standards she identifies as requirements for accreditation I either view with skepticism or oppose. Most “mission plans” that I have seen are pure jargon and shibboleth. I’d respond to the putative requirement that “diversity is fostered and the program is inclusive” by observing that one can hardly find better examples of jargon and shibboleth than “diversity” and “inclusiveness.” Do these terms refer to rigorous non-discrimination against individuals or to conscious efforts to promote the incorporation of members of disadvantaged groups? This type of question is deeply political and accrediting agencies that push this sort of requirement run the risk of imposing political opinions on institutions and, by extension, on faculty members. I would say, further, that accreditation does not currently require faculty to “engage in public service for the alumni and the community.” If an accrediting agency tried to require something like this, I’d fight it. University professors should be experts in their academic disciplines. They are only “public servants” in the sense that teaching and research are services. To require that they serve the community in some way that an agency will recognize is to draft them into someone else’s social and political agenda. This would be not just inconsistent with academic freedom, but a violation of their basic right as citizens to make their own decisions about civic commitments. Finally, my experiences with “ongoing assessment” and “continual improvement” have made me extremely cynical about bureaucratic attempts to treat educational institutions as if they were factories using quality control standards to measure the students rolling off of the assembly lines. Given these views on accreditation, I tend to worry that making the process more efficient and centralized will just push us further down the wrong path.

I am actually sympathetic to some of the elements in the President’s plan, even though I don’t think that Educator-in-Chief should be part of this elected official’s job description.  I do think that the College Scorecard could be one of the more problematic suggestions. If the feds will give you more money for high graduation rates, this could well be an incentive for further watering down higher education to make sure that everyone graduates. Rewarding and penalizing institutions based on employment rates and student loan default rates raises a difficulty that we have seen in other federal education programs, most notably No Child Left Behind: it provides sanctions for events that are often beyond the control of institutions.

Early childhood education is one of the suggestions I view favorably, although (again) I am uncomfortable with its federalization. True, the effectiveness of the best-known program of early childhood education (Head Start) is debated, and the evidence on this is mixed.  But I do think that early education is beneficial and if you support increasing federal involvement in schooling, then this is a reasonable proposal.

The creation of STEM master teachers for high school students also sounds like a good idea and this could be one way that we could reinvigorate our undervalued vocational-technical training. I’ll have to repeat that I would favor doing something like this at the local level. I am also somewhat apprehensive about setting this up as a national “corps,” since I keep hearing plans to re-organize our whole society into “corps.” But well-prepared STEM teachers in our high schools may well be a good idea.

Ms. White links education reform to immigration reform. This is reasonable. Currently immigrants consist of two main occupational streams: the highly educated and high-skilled and the low-skilled with relatively little formal education. However, these two streams respond to demand. Immigration is educationally bifurcated because our economy is becoming bifurcated. This raises questions about just how education reform and immigration reform will fit together. Right now, we have a need for high-skilled immigrants because we are not producing enough high-skilled native-born workers. Presumably, if improvement in our educational system increased our stock of native-born skill, we would still need some high human capital immigration because of demographic trends within the U.S. But we would need relatively fewer highly educated immigrants. It is also to keep in mind that it is simply untrue that the U.S. economy needs only high-skilled labor, especially among immigrants. On the other side, demand draws in undocumented immigrants precisely because we have jobs in areas such as meat-packing, carpet manufacture, lawn care, agricultural labor, and construction labor that rely on low-wage, low-skilled workers. While this probably does drive down wages for the native-born at the bottom of the American economy (as economist George Borjas has argued), the cheap labor also means higher standards of living for the rest of us. So, on this side of the equation, the more we regularize the status of undocumented immigrants and encourage their upward mobility through the educational system,  the less we will need them and, as their wages go up, the higher the prices the rest of us will pay. Sympathy for hard-working immigrants does not change these types of hard realities.
I do wholeheartedly support the idea that we should reintegrate veterans and, since taking care of former military is clearly a federal obligation, I have no problems at all with this part of the plan.
Again, I thank Irene White for sending me the link to her thought-provoking article. I hope my off-the-top-of-my-head ruminations are not too rambling and raise some questions worth mulling over. Those who happen to read this should give her description of the Obama plan for education careful scrutiny and, of course, make up their own minds about this important topic.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Language Policy and Free Speech at Pima Community College

Today’s Inside Higher Ed reports on the case of Terri Bennett, a nursing student at Pima Community College who is suing the school for wrongful suspension and violation of her free speech rights. According to the article, Ms. Bennett objected to her fellow students’ speaking Spanish among themselves and in class, on the grounds that this interfered with her own learning.  She maintains that when she met with a college administrator, he called her a “bigot” and a “bitch,” and that she was then suspended.
The organization ProEnglish, a group that advocates English as an official language, is supporting Ms. Bennett.  On the other side, critics of the suit have characterized it as an attack on the education of Latino students.  A columnist for the Arizona Daily Star, quoted in the article, assails that organization, writing that "ProEnglish is speaking a language all right -- but it's not English. It's the language of The Code," she wrote. "The Code where 'our national identity' means white, not brown. Us, but not them. We all know who the 'them' are, wink wink."
Let me acknowledge that all I know about this case comes from this article and it is possible that there is more to it than appears here.  If Ms. Bennett, for example, repeatedly threw tantrums in the classroom whenever she heard Spanish or physically threatened a fellow student, instructor, or administrator, then the suspension would be justified. Nothing of the sort appears in the report, though.  On the basis of this reporting, I’d say they are two distinct issues in this particular case, and I’d draw a broader observation about debates over policy questions from it.
The first issue is that of Ms. Bennett’s objection to the use of Spanish.  An instructor can set language policy for a classroom according to the needs of the students. If the instructor decides that a multilingual or monolingual setting works best for a particular class, then the instructor can set the requirements accordingly. In order to do this, though, the instructor needs to listen carefully to every student’s concerns.  Neither Ms. Bennett nor any other student can insist that a particular language be spoken, but every each student’s preferences should be taken seriously. On the issue of whether fellow students have the right to speak Spanish (or any other language) among themselves, it seems clear to me that they do.  If this is inconvenient or uncomfortable for anyone, then, well, we all have to live with some inconvenience.
The second issue, though, is whether Ms. Bennett has the right to voice her views without insults or retaliation from the institution. On this point, assuming that the article accurately reports the situation, it is obvious to me that her lawsuit has merit.  No college administrator should ever call a student a “bitch,” and taking disciplinary action against someone for giving voice to an opinion is unconscionable.
The broader observation concerns how we respond to differing points of view, attacking motivations instead of considering arguments. The Arizona Daily Star’s characterization of ProEnglish is a more sophisticated version of the administrator’s alleged response to Ms. Bennett: scream “bigot” at anyone with ideas different from your own. I don’t support language regulation by legislators, but if you agree or disagree with me on this, you should base your response on reason, not on whether you think my opinion stems from my vicious or virtuous motivations and character.  Similarly, those who disagree with the public policy views of ProEnglish or other organizations need to base their disagreements on arguments, not accusations.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The World Until Yesterday, by Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond’s last two books aimed at accounting for the rise and fall of civilizations. Guns, Germs, and Steel offered a geographic and environmental theory of why complex societies arose in some parts of the world and not others and why Europe eventually dominated the globe. Collapse traced the fall of defunct complex societies and attributed their fate to human activities that led to environmental exhaustion. The characteristic that made these works interesting, the identification of a fairly simple pattern of causes and effects behind complicated developments across varied societies on a global scale, also made Diamond’s propositions highly debatable.
The World Until Yesterday is a different kind of book. It does rely on cross-cultural comparisons and the concern with development and its consequences are still present. But it does not indulge in the grand theorizing of the previous two books and it relies much more on Diamond’s personal experiences in New Guinea. He compares traditional societies, the foraging and simple horticultural bands and tribes that were the nearly universal forms of human organization for much of our existence, with modern, state societies. From the comparison, Diamond seeks to draw lessons about the relative benefits of the two social orders and to make observations about what those in state societies can learn from the others. The comparisons are often enjoyable, although not original.  The lessons seem worth considering, although I was frequently unsure whether or how these lessons can be applied to contemporary urban and suburban settings.
Diamond divides the book into five topical parts: on the division of space into boundaries in territories; on peace and war; on child-rearing and roles of the elderly; on danger and responses to dange;, and on religion, language, and health.  In the first part, Diamond makes it clear that “inclusiveness” is a modern value. Traditional societies, he observes, have behaved like tiny nations, only with much more heavily defended boundaries than any modern society. “They,” he writes, “divided other peoples more sharply into friends, enemies, and strangers than does even North Korea today” (pp. 75-6). Trade among groups and across frontiers has always existed, but in the traditional societies it has often taken the form of exchanges of gifts to establish social relations, rather than utilitarian interchange.
Boundaries are connected to another universal of human groups: conflict and warfare.  Here, again, modern state societies have the advantage. Diamond argues that although warfare among traditional societies has resulted in much lower body counts than has warfare among better organized and more technologically proficient groups, the foragers and horticulturalists also have tinier populations, so that the slaughter among tribes and bands has been proportionally greater than any of our most wide-scale modern assaults on human life. In addition, Diamond maintains that colonial domination brought greater peace to many of the older social forms and he quotes tribal members who were grateful for that imposed peace. This is a point that those obsessed with the evils of European colonialism should consider very carefully. He does believe that traditional societies can teach us something about conflict resolution, though. He uses the example of a case of negotiation and compensation in the accidental death of a child in New Guinea to suggest that sometimes traditional approaches can do a better job of re-establishing social relations than criminal or civil law. Diamond tentatively describes the “restorative justice” movement in the West as a way in which the better elements of traditional conflict resolution can be adapted to state societies. This was an intriguing recommendation, although I am unsure how applicable interpersonal conflict resolution can be in unavoidably impersonal social orders.
Diamond’s traditional societies differ greatly in their child-rearing. Some practice corporal punishment. Others don’t. Some allow their children extensive freedom, even allowing them to engage in dangerous activities. Many of them practice infanticide, particularly if they are nomadic and have to carry children. In general, though, Diamond finds that the traditional peoples give more on-demand nursing, have more physical contact with infants, use allo-parents (adults who act as parents to all children), employ play as a form of education, and have multi-age child play-groups.  We might profitably adopt several of these child-rearing practices, in Diamond’s view.  More physical contact with adults and carrying children facing forward might help the development of children. Allo-parents and multi-age play groups seem like useful practices, although I am not sure exactly how these could fit into the structures of our urban and suburban communities and our schools.
The traditional societies also vary in their treatment of the elderly. Some kill or abandon their elderly, usually because their environments require them to do so to survive. Diamond (age 75) does not recommend such practices. Others, though, cherish and revere their elderly. This is because older people are better at the types of things that require extensive experience, such as making baskets, and because older people can be very helpful in taking care of children. Most importantly, in pre-literate societies the elderly are valuable repositories of accumulated knowledge.  Diamond cites the shocked disapproval of individuals from several traditional societies who have learned of our abandonment of the elderly in nursing homes.  He suggests that we could make greater use of our own seniors in child-care (one wonders how many would jump at the chance) and cultivate the skills that come with age. As I read this part of the book, I found myself thinking about a possible future time when all of the computers go down, followed by a desperate search for ancient clerks who still remember the lost arts of manual record-keeping and filing.
Comparing dangers and responses to dangers, Diamond finds, not surprisingly, that different human societies face different types of threats.  Foragers and horticulturalists worry much more about wild animals, famine, and enemies. Those in developed societies worry about DNA technologies and the environmental effects of spray cans. Diamond believes that traditional people estimate their risks more accurately, perhaps because they learn about them first-hand, while information in developed localities may be filtered through mass means of communication. We tend to systematically underestimate the sources of our risks, generally failing to recognize automobile accidents as the single greatest threat to life that we face. Diamond suggests that we can learn from traditional societies how to be more realistic in assessing dangers and that we can adopt more of their “constructive paranoia,” a consciousness of low-level but continual dangers in everyday life.  
The section on religion, language, and health is the loosest, apparently throwing together topics Diamond wanted to discuss but did not know where to fit. I was least impressed by the chapter on religion, which largely repeats the speculations of evolutionary psychology on the social functions of religion.  In the chapter on language, he observes that small-scale, traditional societies have much greater language diversity and argues for the benefits of bilingualism and multilingualism. He makes some interesting suggestions for preserving disappearing languages and promoting multilingualism. Health constitutes one of the big differences between the two types of societies. While people in developed societies enjoy much longer life spans, their general physical condition tends to be much worse than that of the foragers. While the latter are more prone to communicable diseases, the former suffer more from non-communicable illnesses, such as Type II diabetes, which often derive from fatty, salty diets. Diamond believes we can improve our eating habits by observing traditional models. This may be a good idea, although it is far from original.
It remains unclear to me how the author’s advice would be implemented or by whom. Some of the lessons Diamond takes from his comparisons seem to be policy recommendations, such as restorative justice programs, while others seem to be suggestions for individuals, such as carrying small children facing forward.  Often, his advice seems good, but unlikely to have any effect. I doubt that the drivers who tailgate me and make angry gestures when I’m driving only a few miles over the already suicidal speed limit will adopt an attitude of constructive paranoia toward the ubiquitous perils of death by automobile.
Ultimately, the big difference between traditional and state societies of the most recent sort may be that post-industrial people believe, rightly or wrongly, that they can control and re-make their own environments, including their social environments. It would make no sense to most !Kung foragers or to  Diamond’s friends in New Guinea to compare and contrast the ways of their ancestors with post-industrial ways and pick and choose which life patterns they think work best.  To the extent that anyone asks the kinds of questions Diamond does, that person has already left the traditional behind. It may be that the contemporary attitude that everything can be re-designed and that world cultures make up a shopping market of lifestyles that we can mix and match is at least partly an illusion. In any case, the idea that our way of life is not handed down across generations (the etymological sense of “traditional), but can be questioned and examined lies at the heart of the break from tradition.
Jared Diamond

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Trial by Jury in Florida

"The jury decided WHAT?"
The “Rashomon effect” takes its name from Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film of that name. In it, four witnesses to the murder of a samurai and the rape of his wife give differing and contradictory accounts of the crime. The effect refers to the observation that truth is difficult to discern in a world of multiple perspectives, motivations, and personal histories.
If the truth can sometimes be elusive even with witnesses to an event, perhaps we should be cautious about claims to accurate understanding of a set of events reconstructed after their occurrence. In the recent Zimmerman homicide case in Florida, though, it seems as if everyone is convinced of the infallibility of his or her opinion and outraged that anyone else might interpret the events differently. Well, there has been a trial and the jury, after hearing evidence provided by both sides, has rendered the official decision.  Clearly, many people believe that this official decision was wrong. But legal verdicts cannot rest on unanimity of public opinion.
There are situations in which jury decisions should be re-evaluated. If, for example, the prosecution withholds exculpatory evidence from the defense in order to get a conviction, the trial process has clearly been corrupted. If bribes or fear of retaliation influence the jurors, this should invalidate their decision. But there have been no evident procedural violations in the notorious Florida trial. Those protesting the verdict are not, as far as I can tell, directing their protests against the manner in which the jurors reached their verdict. If the same jury had come to a different conclusion, the protestors would presumably be satisfied (although another set of people might be upset).  But you cannot have a trial in which the outcome you want is guaranteed. If you accept the trial as a method, as opposed to justice imposed by a mob, then you have to accept both the verdicts you think are right and those that you think are wrong, as long as those verdicts are procedurally correct.
At this point, there is a possibility that the Depart of Justice will intervene to bring a new set of civil rights charges against the acquitted defendant. I am not an attorney, but I believe that the DOJ could do this without technically violating the prohibition against double jeopardy, since these charges would be “new.”  While the DOJ might be able to do this under the letter of the law, it would be contrary to the spirit of the prohibition because the point of not allowing the same charges to be brought more than once is to prevent the authorities from going after someone forever or until they get a conviction. And those civil rights charges, if brought, would essentially be the same allegations dressed up a little differently, intended to retry the case in search of a different outcome.
The Martin family could also bring a civil suit.  Those who believe they have suffered damages due to the actions of another have recourse to the courts. If the family does so, then it will be up to the legal system to decide the civil case.  People marching, shouting slogans, and brandishing placards should have no influence on lawsuits or on criminal cases.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Egypt and the Paradox of Democracy

Casting Ballots

I am not an authority on Egypt. The only part of North Africa I have visited is the Maghreb, many years ago. I never achieved more than an introductory knowledge of Arabic, and today recall only a few phrases, the beauty of the writing, and the painful complexities of forming plurals. Everything I know about Egypt comes from books, journals, and (recently) the internet, mostly in the writing of non-Egyptians.  I do not intend to pose as an instant expert on that country.  Instead, my thoughts on Egypt involve the application of general principles of comparative politics to my admittedly superficial knowledge of the country.
In my previous observations on “the Arab Spring,” I was skeptical of the exuberant optimism with which many Americans greeted popular uprisings against authoritarian governments. Many of the countries in North Africa seemed to me to illustrate the situation known as the paradox of democracy. That is, forces opposed to liberal democracy were likely to come to power in any democratic elections, making democratization a self-defeating proposition. As Alexis de Tocqueville recognized in his analysis of American democracy, successful popular government rests on stable civic institutions.  Unfortunately, the civic institutions of Egypt and the countries in its region may not be conducive to full-fledged participatory electoral politics.
Egypt is polarized between secularists and adherents of political and social Islam. The latter possess the strongest and best-organized voluntary associations, mainly under the general direction of a single organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.  The secularists are numerous, but fragmented. Thus, the candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, became the legitimately elected leader of the country after the downfall of Hosni Mubarak. Because of his base in the Muslim Brotherhood, though, Morsi proceeded to concentrate power and to move the country toward the vision of the supporters of political Islam. The resulting opposition to him from the secularists and from the bureaucracy inherited from the Mubarak era intensified the polarization, which worsened the country’s economic condition, and a deteriorating economy, in turn, deepened dissatisfaction on the part of Morsi opponents and further exacerbated the polarization.
Although the civic institutions of Egyptian society are divisive, the country does have a strong and stable formal organizational institution: the army. By definition a hierarchy, the army does not easily lend itself to democracy to the extent that it is actively involved in government. The Egyptian military also adds another layer to the polarization because its leaders have historically viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as subversive. Following its coup d’etat against Morsi, the army is now siding with the secularists, but the ultimate interest of the military is order, not liberal democracy.
The most optimistic near future may be a staged democracy, in which the military directs elections and maintains control more or less behind the scenes. Note that in describing this as the most optimistic possibility, I am not expressing an ideology, but simply saying that I think that military-directed pseudo-democracy would be preferable to outright dictatorship by the army, the establishment of an authoritarian Islamic state, or a continual state of war in the streets. However, I don’t think that my preferences for Egypt matter. I am not an Egyptian. This brings me to the question of what stance my government should take toward affairs in Egypt.
Just as I don’t think my personal political preferences about a foreign country’s internal politics matter, I don’t think my government should seek to impose its preferences. While Americans have every right to be pleased if Egypt moves toward liberal democracy or disappointed if it moves toward some version of authoritarianism, the form of government in that nation is none of our business.  We are currently charged, with some validity, of being hypocritical in our rapid shifts of support for regimes supposedly in transition to democracy.  We would do better to avoid global proselytizing and to be clear, first, that the sovereignty of the United States ends at the borders of the United States, and, second, that our overriding foreign policy aim is the pursuit of our own national interests.  This would mean explicitly stating that we will recognize any de facto government in Egypt or any other country, and that our recognition implies neither approval nor disapproval. If we provide aid, it should be clear that this is not contingent on a foreign country’s adopting a political system that we find amenable, but on that country’s support for our national interests.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

In the Land of Invented Languages, by Arika Okrent

In college I knew a young woman who had studied the languages of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional world and taught herself to write elvish runes. At about the same time, I used to listen to the jazz-rock fusion band, Magma, led by eccentric French musician Christian Vander.  Vander’s lyrics were incomprehensible to speakers of French or English, but they reportedly told the history and mythology of an alien planet in that planet’s language, devised by Vander or, perhaps, revealed to him through interplanetary revelation. I also read a couple of instructional texts on Esperanto, achieving no conversational competence in the language, but acquiring enough to catch some of the dialogue in Incubus, the only feature-length film shot entirely in Esperanto, starring a youthful William Shatner.
I’ve always been fond of word games. Scrabble is the only board game I really like. Composing palindromes and limericks has helped me endure sitting through many a pointless meeting. Despite my attraction to wordplay and my early brushes with invented languages, though, I’ve never tried the grandest word game of all: making up my own language. That takes more perseverance and sustained concentration than I possess, so I’ll have to be content with spectatorship in that game.
If I weren’t already interested in constructed languages, I believe I certainly would be after reading Arika Okrent’s  delightful In the World of Invented Languages. Okrent draws us into this world with an anecdote about her own introduction to it through her exposure to the Star Trek language Klingon. Then, she traces the beginnings of modern efforts at language creation in the work of seventeenth-century thinker John Wilkins and a number of his contemporaries. As she describes it, the development of a universal philosophical language was a part of the Enlightenment effort to comprehend the whole of reality, and it arguably failed because that effort is beyond human capacity.
By the nineteenth century, the goal of language creation moved from capturing reality in classifications and toward communications.  One of the most curious and fascinating attempts was Jean François Sudre’s Solresol, composed of words built out of the seven notes of the musical scale, so that one could communicate by whistling or playing a musical instrument. 
Driven by the development of comparative philology, most of the constructed languages of the nineteenth century aimed at drawing on existing, mainly European languages to devise an auxiliary tongue that could enable to communicate across national divisions. The two main rivals were Johannes Schleyer’s  Volapük and Ludwik Zamenhof’s Esperanto. In Okrent’s telling Volapük was doomed at least in part by its creator’s refusal to abandon his beloved umlauts. Esperanto, by contrast, become the most successful of all invented languages, even if it does not appear to have contributed noticeably to Zamenhof’s aim of furthering world peace. I note that the spell-check on my computer accepts “Esperanto,” but not “Volapük.” Okrent presents Esperantoland as a worldwide community of charming eccentrics and I thought, after reading her description of Esperanto gatherings, that the world is a better place just for containing such people.
With the twentieth century came the third era of language invention, consisting of individuals working at the fringes.  Okrent finds a common motivation among many of those disparate language-welders, though. This was the belief that language was less a means of reflecting reality, as their Enlightenment forbears had believed, than of distorting reality, of giving rise to what C.K. Ogden called “word magic,” the tendency to confuse words with objectively existing entities. Some twentieth-century devisers of languages tried to overcome the word magic by creating languages that supposedly expressed fundamental truths through symbols that looked like or sounded like the ideas or objects they represented. Such languages would achieve clarity and, in theory, would be universally understood.  Blissymbolics, the invention of Charles Bliss, may have been the most influential and successful of these attempts because Bliss’s symbols found a use outside of his original intention. Bliss was inspired by his misunderstanding of Chinese written characters as pictographic. I was reminded of the Pound-Fenellosa thesis in The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, a fascinating little book that happens to be completely wrong.
Unlike nearly all of the other languages Okrent describes, Bliss’s symbols ended up having a practical use. They were discovered by a Canadian hospital as a way of teaching communication skills to severely disabled, deaf mute children in order to move the children toward reading and writing. Unfortunately, Bliss proved to be such a difficult person that he became the worst impediment in this application of his system.
The Whorf Hypothesis, also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, gave rise to modern philosophical languages. Benjamin Whorf had claimed that languages shape thought, so that varying cultural perspectives result from linguistic structures and classifications (I tend to think that the direction of causation goes the other way). In the 1950s, James Cooke Brown developed what he thought would be an empirical test of the Whorf Hypothesis, combined with some assumptions about the affects of word magic. If one developed a language guided by logic, would this make its speakers more logical in their thinking? Brown’s Loglan was intended to be just such a logical language.  Loglan did attract some adherents, but Brown’s possessiveness and paranoia led to the breakaway logical language of Lojban. Unfortunately, logical clarity and ease of use seem to be contradictory, so that contemporary devotees mainly study Loglan and Lojban, rather than actually use them for conversation.
At the end, Okrent returns to Klingon. Let me confess, at this point, that my favorite part of the latest Star Trek movie was the scene in which Zoe Saldana, as Lt. Uhura, attempts to negotiate with a group of Klingons in their language. The most wonderful thing about the Klingon language is its sheer pointlessness.  Created by linguist Marc Okrand to give verisimilitude to a fictional group of aliens, the language includes sounds found in all earth languages, but not together. Klingon speakers are apparently not drawn by the language’s ease, because its grammar is reportedly difficult. The attractions, as I understand them, are of two sorts. First, it is a kind of a linguistic puzzle. If it has no practical use, well, neither do crossword puzzles. Second, like Tolkien’s fantasy languages, Klingon is part of a complete fictional world, in which one imagines not only the creatures in an alternative universe, but the alternative world of words that their minds inhabit. Reading Okrent’s description of her efforts to learn Klingon did not make me want to take up the study, but it did make me see the people who do so as appealing characters.
I’m putting In the World of Invented Languages on my list of favorite books.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Young People: You WILL Serve the State

President Cowen at the Aspen Institute Summit
As Tulane University President Scott Cowen enters his last year before retirement, I want to acknowledge his contributions to the university. President Cowen is a talented and charismatic individual who has worked tirelessly for the institution he has headed since 1999. Although Tulane's recovery from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina owed as much to its faculty and staff as to any administrator, President Cowen did play an important part in this recovery. My appreciation for President Cowen's work and my respect for him personally, though, do not imply agreement with all of his projects and initiatives. Among these, probably the one I disagree with most profoundly and intensely is his support for universal national service.

The university's public relations outlets are trumpeting President Cowen's participation in the 21st Century National Service Summit at Aspen, Colorado. Along with other public figures, including New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, he is discussing the Aspen Institute's Franklin Project to establish a plan of action to create a national service program.  This plan aims to "link military and civilian service as two sides of one coin." It will do this by establishing five full-time national service corps. All young adults (aged 18 to 28) will be encouraged to serve at least a year in one of these corps, or in the military. The idea is to mobilize the citizenry in a unified (and regimented) system, directed by government in collaboration with educational institutions and other organizations, aimed at training people as citizens. They propose to establish this nation-wide system of regimentation through a Presidential Executive Order.

I find this a nightmarishly authoritarian image of the American future. The President will issue commands to redesign American society through a massive campaign of mobilization. Government will not be the product of freely associating citizens. Instead, government officials will organize and direct the civic training of individuals organized into corps established on the mandate of The Leader. Now, I'm not one of those accuses everyone he disagrees with of being a "fascist," but if there is any seriously considered public agenda in the United States today that comes closer to genuine fascism than the Franklin Project I haven't heard of it.

No one has to ask my permission to advocate any sort of policies. If President Cowen supports the top-down regimentation of American society,  he has every right to say so. But I do think that he should be clearer that this is only his personal view, not the official stand of his institution. On this issue, he definitely cannot speak on my behalf.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Did New Orleans School Reform "Damage" Community?

The New Orleans classroom of Jeri Hill (from the NYTimes article
Sarah Carr has an interesting article on the New Orleans school reform effort in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times. I believe she is correct in questioning whether improving schools can "fix" poverty-stricken communities. Her description of the current New Orleans school reform crusade as a "missionary pursuit" that may be unsustainable in the long run is perfect.  Both of these points echo arguments that my co-author and I make in our 2009 book Public Education: America's Social History.

Still, I think Ms. Carr is wrong in suggesting that the reform efforts in New Orleans have somehow damaged the community. In 2005, most of the city's public school children lived in low-income, single-parent families. Most of the working-age adults below the poverty level were not only out of work, but out of the labor force entirely. The violent crime rate in neighborhoods surrounding the schools was already skyrocketing. The school board was corrupt and incompetent. I cannot imagine what institutional changes could have weakened any further a community in this state.  While the civic society is probably not immediately bound for utopia, it is certainly no worse off because of charter schools and young educational missionaries.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life, by Jonathan Sperber

Nearly a quarter of a century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the specter of Karl Marx continues to haunt our presses and blog posts. Supporters and opponents present Marxism as a modern ideology and a coherent body of thought. Jonathan Sperber's Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life, argues that although Marx did intend to bring about a future different from his present, the German thinker was essentially a creature of that present. Drawing on the complete edition of the writings and Engels known by a German acronym as MEGA, a source that only became available after the end of the Cold War, Sperber maintains that Marx wrote in reaction to the events of his own day, that his thinking shifted over the decades, and that in basic assumptions Marx looked backward, in particular to the French Revolution.

This new biography is impressive for its detail and insight. Among other virtues, it provides an excellent portrait of Marx as a human being. Irascible, sarcastic, and prone to personal attacks on those with whom he disagreed, he was also a doting parent to his legitimate children and devoted husband (despite fathering an unacknowledged and neglected illegitimate son with the family servant). Dedicated to the cause of revolution, he was no bohemian, but struggled to maintain a bourgeois way of life for his family through economic hardship.

Sperber's two most valuable contributions, in my view, consist in the discussion of the role of the French Revolution in Marx's thought and in the description of the tension between Marx's Hegelianism and positivism. Until the 1851 coup d'etat of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte finished off hopes that the 1848 revolutionary movement would be a more successful and thorough repetition of 1789, Marx pinned his hopes on just such a recapitulation of history. Revolution in France would spark a continental revolutionary movement that would create unified republics in his native Germany and elsewhere, explode into another revolutionary war against reactionary Russia, and establish the rule of Jacobin terrorists. This new upheaval, though, would not lead to another Napoleon, though, but move onward to communism.

After the new Bonaparte seized power as Napoleon III, though, Marx moved away from his faith in the French Revolution as a strict model.  In The Eighteenth Brumaire, coining his famous phrase that historical events occur first as tragedy and second as farce, Marx attacked French radicals for seeing 1848 as another 1789. Sperber points out that lashing out against those who held positions that had been his own was Marx's usual way of changing his mind. Despite his abandonment of the French Revolution as the pattern for the future, though, throughout his life Marx continued to conceive of the coming uprising in terms of two stages, a liberal seizure of power followed by Jacobin radicalism. Thus, even after his rejection of the French Revolution as model for the future, Marx continued to look backward at the seminal event of the eighteenth century.

Originally an aspiring academic in Hegelian Germany, Marx saw history as progressing according to an internal logic. He famously believed that he had found Hegel standing on his head, since the master portrayed events as the working out of ideas, and put the older philosopher on his feet, by casting material relations among people within events as the driving forces of history's internal logic.  Still, Marx's theories came from deductive reasoning about the movement of history, not from inductive considerations of empirical observations. Sperber finds that Marx became more of a positivist later in his life and gave greater emphasis to economic facts and details. As a materialist, Marx was also drawn to the increasing scientism of his century. This positivism rested uneasily with Hegelian abstraction.

In particular, the tension between Marx's Hegelianism and his positivism affected his attitude toward the theories of Charles Darwin. While Marx was somewhat favorably impressed with Darwin, he was less enthusiastic about Darwinian evolution than later generations of readers have believed. Unlike many in his own time, Marx understood that Darwin offered no promise of progress: species change through adaptations to an environment. The species do not necessarily become higher or more complex. The revolutionary thinker tried to reconcile his own ideas of progressive historical stages with evolution by turning to obscure revisions of Darwinian thought. Only after Marx's death did Engels create the image of Marx as an uninhibited admirer of Darwin and as the equivalent for social thought of the founder of evolution.

Much of what we now know as Marxism began as the reformulation and codification of Marx's thought by his friend, collaborator, and supporter, Friedrich Engels.  When a mass labor movement took shape at the end of the nineteenth century, its leaders took over Engels's ordering and interpretation of Marx's vast body of work. These leaders then shaped Marxism as an ideology and a political movement.

In the last sentence, Sperber remarks that "Marx's passionately irreconcilable, uncompromising and intransigent nature has been the feature of his life that has had the deepest and most resonant appeal, and has generated the sharpest rebukes and opposition, down to the present day" (p.560). While Marx's oppositional personality did help to make him a symbol of resistance, I think those attracted to doctrines associated with him and those who have rejected those doctrines have been moved by more than the symbolism of character. Throughout his life, Marx sought to uncover a secret code that would be the key to understanding all economic and social relations. The idea that such a universal code is attainable and that it can be found in Marx's ruminations motivated Engels and subsequent adherents and interpreters. Related to this effort at discovering the theoretical key to human history, Marx attempted to reduce human interactions and relations to identifiable systems that could be replaced by other systems. Having found the secret of history, one could replace the messy reality of market transactions and pursuit of multiple group and individual interests with the ideal system of harmony and productivity. This commitment to an alternative realm, I think, is the reason that Leszek Kolakowski began his Main Currents of Marxism by deriving modern Marxist thought from ancient gnosticism. This pursuit of an another world has made Marx's work an appealing starting point for utopians. The goal of total change has also meant, though, that the tendency toward totalitarianism has been inherent to his legacy.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Racist America?

The World's Most and Least Racially Tolerant Nations
Many of my academic colleagues are dedicated to the proposition that the United States is racist to the core. That, in fact, is the thesis of the influential book Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations, by former American Sociological Association president Joe R, Feagin. The nation is so deeply poisoned with white supremacy, in this view, that the country must pursue a massive mandatory re-education program for whites and compensatory political, economic, and educational benefits for all non-whites.
This argument has always puzzled me. I’m aware, of course, that racial inequality is one of the fundamental dilemmas running through American history. I grew up in the South during the period of the Civil Rights Movement. But I have also lived and traveled widely outside the United States and I have continually been struck by the fact that the U.S. is actually more egalitarian and more tolerant in attitudes and practices than most of the other places on our imperfect little planet.
A couple of days ago, I happened on the map above, which, according to an article in The Washington Post, shows the world’s most and least racially tolerant countries.  This was the work of two Swedish economists who used data from the World Values Survey to see whether economic freedom made people any more or less tolerant. Apparently, they did not find a relationship between racial attitudes and economic freedom, but it is notable that “racist America” is, by their measure, one of the world’s most racially tolerant countries.
One can raise questions about the measurement. Attitudes are difficult to measure. I suppose one could also take the position of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, that racism is not a matter of attitudes, but of social structures, so that we have “racism without racists.” This ultra-radical proposition means that any statistical variation at all among groups, regardless of attitudes, is evidence of racism and requires the continual redesign of American society until a goal of complete categorical equality can be achieved.  Like Feagin, Bonilla-Silva has no real world, historical basis of comparison for his condemnation of American society.
This lack of a real-world basis for comparison, I think, is the reason that social critics are often so willing to portray what is arguably one of the world’s most open, inclusive, and tolerant nations as redeemable from its racism only by a regime of radical transformation, and also the reason they blindly believe that some such regime of transformation actually would create their fantasy of a “just” society. These critics are not judging the United States by the standards of world history or by the standards of existing nations. Instead, they judge by the standards of a “counter-system,” the perfect society that exists nowhere but in their own imaginations. Measured against Cloud Cuckooland we will always fall short.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Tamerlan Tsarnaev's Body: Rites and Rights

Mr. Tsarnaev
In an earlier post, I commented on some of the strange, logically and psychologically contorted responses to the Boston bombings, such as David Sirota’s  early “I hope the bomber’s a white guy” article. The weirdness apparently continues. Meghan Darcy, writing on Policy Mic, has accused the United States of being “barbaric” for refusing to bury Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
I don’t know if I agree that everyone “deserves” a place of burial, as Ms. Darcy has asserted. No such right can be found in the U.S. Constitution, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, or the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1793. Apparently, Ms. Darcy believes that her own sensitive feelings are sufficient to make assertions of universal rights and obligations.
Ms. Darcy
The bizarre part, though, is the accusation that the murdered was not yet buried because the United States refused to bury him. “There have been countless articles,” She writes indignantly, “asking why other countries and religions seemingly hate America … refusing a body burial and religious rites is a pretty good reason. But maybe that’s the new plan; maybe the U.S. hopes to deter future terrorists with the threat that if they die on U.S. soil they won’t be given a proper resting place.”  Let’s overlook her senseless suggestion that “other… religions seemingly hate America” (Is America a religion?  Can a set of beliefs and practices hate?) Let’s also overlook the fact that no critic of American foreign or domestic policy has ever complained about the unavailability of funerals for murderers in this country.  The claim that the U.S. has refused to bury Tsarnaev is clearly and obviously not only wrong, but ridiculous. The United States has never refused to bury anyone as a matter of policy or for any other reason.  The federal government has no authority in this matter.
At the time that Ms. Darcy wrote her piece, no city or town within the United States had agreed to accept the remains. This civic reluctance cannot be attributed to any pressure from the national government. Surely, since Ms. Darcy has such exquisite sensitivity on matters such as the civilized treatment of dead murderers, she should be able to extend a tiny bit of that sensitivity to the grieving people of townships in Massachusetts and elsewhere.  
An update at the top of her article informs us that someone has provided a burial plot and quietly resolved the problem of the unwanted body. Apparently, no representative of the United States interfered in any way with this civilized proceeding.
My point in writing this is not that one blogger shows a poor grasp of facts and an inability to think clearly.  Rather, I suggest that her craziness is symptomatic of a reflexive self-righteousness among some of our fellow citizens that leads them to cast aside reason and realism whenever they can find any excuse, however far-fetched, to preach against the evils of Satan America.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Boston Bombing and Blame: A Sense of Proportion

Lone Wolves
The bombings in Boston killed four people and injured hundreds of others, leaving some maimed for life. The surviving perpetrator has said that he and his brother committed this crime for the sake of Islam. It would be unfair for anyone to blame uninvolved Muslims for the actions of the Tsarnaev brothers.
Note the shift from the indicative mood to the subjunctive in the sentences above. Also, note that the first two sentences describe murdering people and ripping apart their bodies, and that the last sentence makes an observation about potential unfairness.  There is a big difference between a reality and a possibility, however likely that possibility may be in someone’s judgment. There is a huge gap between blowing people up and merely being prejudiced against them.
These distinctions are the reasons I find some of the responses to the bombings so astounding.  Before any suspects had emerged, David Sirota published an opinion piece entitled “Let’s Hope the Boston Marathon Bomber is a White American,” by which he meant a native-born non-Muslim. Sirota is presumably disappointed now, but he may be looking forward to another vicious attack on innocent people, perpetrated by a criminal or criminals more to his preference.  The reason for his hope was that white males, enjoying “white privilege,” are not collectively denigrated,” while Muslims are.
Now, for another point of grammar: the passive voice. White criminals are identified as “lone wolves” by some cultural perspective that supposedly floats through the disembodied American mind. But all Muslims (or members of other supposedly “unprivileged” groups)  are held responsible for the act of any one in this cloud-like collective view. Now, as far as I know, investigators describe the Tsarnaev brothers as “lone wolves,”  and I haven’t seen any lynch mobs in the streets.  If I did see one, I’d hold those in the mob responsible, not some free floating culture of “white privilege.” But there probably are people in the United States who blame the religion of Islam or Muslims in general, just as there are people in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia who see Americans in general as imperialistic evildoers. The latter appears to have been the perspective of the Tsarnaev brothers, and they would have had the political right to their prejudices if they had not chosen to express them through destroying innocent men, women , and children.
This bizarre focus on potential popular prejudices resulting from actual atrocity can be found elsewhere, as in The Chronicle of Higher Education article on fear of a backlash against Muslim students. Now, I certainly hope that this doesn’t happen. I don’t regard the nice people at the mosque near me as responsible for attacks on anyone. If others do, I deplore their prejudices. But let’s maintain a little sense of proportion.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Napoleon Chagnon's Noble Savages

If one of the purposes of a book review is to inspire readers to take up the original work, Elizabeth Povinelli’s sneering ad hominem attack on anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon a couple of months ago can at least be credited with contributing to my interest in obtaining a copy of Chagnon’s memoir, Noble Savages. I did not find any of the “self-pity” that provoked such contempt from Povinelli, a Columbia University professor of anthropology and gender studies. This charge struck me as very odd, in fact, because most of the book is an account of Chagnon’s work among the Yanomamö and of the development of his theories. Only at the very end does he discuss the unsupported charges against him made by writer Patrick Tierney and by some anthropologists. Even in that part of the book, I thought Chagnon’s defense of his work and his reputation was entirely reasonable and justified. As an outside who is not an anthropologist, I thought that Povinelli’s review simply supported what Chagnon and his defenders have claimed: that many in the anthropological profession, including Elizabeth Povinelli, don’t like Chagnon’s ideas and that they’ve responded by trying to discredit the man rather than rebut the ideas.
Chagnon with Yanomamo
Essentially, Chagnon attempts to draw inferences from his studies of the Yanomamö about the development of human societies. I do have some reservations about how much one can say about early human social organization through looking at contemporary tribal groups, particularly when the generalizations are based mainly on a single people in a fairly unique environment, the tropical forest of South America. To Chagnon’s credit, he does support his generalizations with some references to archaeological evidence. Still, how many differences there may be between a tribal society on the African Savannah or in Mesopotamia tens of thousands of years ago and a contemporary tribal society in Venezuela. Despite this hesitation, though, I find Chagnon’s theories extremely interesting and worthy of serious consideration.
The conventional wisdom about the development of human societies primarily concerns the interrelationship of technology and economics. In the “socio-cultural evolution” model, the earliest human societies consisted of hunters and gatherers, whose tools consisted of sharp implements for hunting animals and cutting edible vegetation. These hunters and gatherers were nomadic because they had to be on the lookout for food. Depending on the environment, the hunters and gatherers gradually learned how to use simple tools to grow food or how to domesticate and herd the animals, resulting in horticultural and herding societies. As the former developed more advanced technologies for turning up the soil, such as plows, they created a greater surplus, leading to more social inequality, the need to protect surpluses (or to grab those of others), and therefore to political societies and warfare. These agricultural societies lasted until factory production made possible the production of even greater surpluses.  The mystery has always been, though, why people would make the transition to agricultural societies, since these usually relied heavily on single crop production, so that most “civilized” people suffered greater malnutrition, in addition to more oppression by elites than their tribal ancestors.
The socio-cultural view has a great deal in common with Rousseau’s description of the development of society: complex societies derive from fencing off property and (early civilization at least) was a fall from a better and more egalitarian state. Chagnon, though, draws on genetic ideas of “inclusive fitness” to offer a modified Hobbesian view, with the Yanomamö as empirical evidence.  Tribal societies are basically kinship groups. Human beings have evolved to support and trust their kin because when people who share genes (kin) cooperate with each other, the shared genes are more likely to be passed on. Now, comes probably the most politically incorrect part of Chagnon’s argument: the related individuals who cooperate are mainly men who are related to each other, and they are cooperating in obtaining the means to pass on their genes, i.e., women. Chagnon argues that warriors in a tribal society don’t fight  over material resources. They fight to grab or keep women.
Tribal groups tend to form larger and more complex alliances, still based mainly on kinship, because larger sets of warriors have an advantage over the smaller sets in the constant warfare. Agriculture does not lead to population growth; population growth, for the sake of efficacy in fighting, leads to the development of agriculture as a means of supporting more fighters (and, presumably, more specialized fighters as differentiation increases). Chiefs and kings emerge because the larger societies can’t be governed by informal, kin-based tribal methods.
One of the reasons I find Chagnon’s views plausible, as well as interesting, is that when I look at human history, in the recent past as well as the distant past, I see that warfare has been a driving force in both technological development and social organization. I am not sure that bride capture was as exclusive a motivation for fighting as Chagnon suggests, even from Darwinian logic. People do need access to resources, and competition for available food supplies is one of the primary mechanisms of natural selection. Still, warfare usually does have sexual dimension, even in modern conflict. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Stiglitz Plan for Engineering Mobility

Joseph E. Stiglitz
In the review section of the Sunday New York Times, the economist and Nobel Laureate Joseph E.Stiglitz remarks that “study after study has exposed the myth that America is a land of opportunity.” We do not have equal opportunity in this country, he argues, because the probabilities for upward mobility vary among individuals starting life in different socioeconomic levels. He points out that only (his word choice) 58 percent of Americans born into the bottom fifth of income earners move out of that category and just 6 percent move from the bottom fifth to the top. This is less mobility than is found in most of Europe (without giving specific examples) and all of Scandinavia. This state of affairs can be reversed by federal intervention. Washington should make sure that all mothers are not exposed to health hazards and that they get prenatal care. The government should put more money into preschool, and provide all children with adequate health care.  On this last, the federal government should not only provide resources to parents, it should “incentivize parents, by coaching or training them, or even rewarding them for being good caregivers.”  It should give more money to poor schools and offer summer and extracurricular programs to poor students.  Finally, the federal government should make higher education more affordable, perhaps by an income-contingent loan program like Australia’s or perhaps by providing the free universal higher education Stiglitz identifies as the European system.
As one considers this argument, the first point to recognize is that the phrase “land of opportunity” can mean at least two different things. Historically, it has meant that there are no laws or official barriers preventing individuals from pursuing their own goals, whatever those goals may be. If one accepts this definition, then it would be entirely reasonable to respond that there is no “myth” at all.  The second meaning would be the one that Stiglitz accepts, apparently with less reflection than one would expect of a Nobel Laureate. This is that opportunity should be measured by statistical outcomes. Even if one accepts this definition, though, one might conclude that Stiglitz is engaging in hyperbole. He says, for example, that only 58 percent of those born in the bottom fifth move up. This means that a clear majority of those born at the bottom of our socioeconomic scale do achieve significant upward mobility. Moreover, by his estimates, one of every sixteen people born in the bottom quintile ends up in the top.  While that is certainly far from complete fluidity, it would seem to me to suggest that there is not just “some” upward mobility, but a pretty fair amount.
Since he doesn’t cite figures for Europe or say whether he is comparing us to Europe as a whole (including Southern Europe) or across specific countries, it is hard to know exactly what his basis of comparison is. It certainly does not make sense to compare a society as large and varied as the United States to the relatively small and still mostly demographically homogenous Scandinavian nations.
I do think it is probably the case that there is less mobility in the United States today than there was in the decades immediately following World War II.  Mobility in the post-war period, though, was a consequence of structural change in our economy driven by worldwide demand for American industrial products and an accompanying expansion of managerial and professional jobs. There were more places at the top for people to move into. Without that kind of massive structural mobility, a lot of people can move up only if a lot of people move down. Given that most families in the top fifth of earners sensibly and justifiably dedicate their efforts to ensuring that their own children do not experience downward mobility, I think it is impressive that one out of every sixteen individual born in the bottom layer is able to move to the top.
Early childhood education may be a good idea. Healthy neighborhoods are definitely good. But we should think very carefully about whether these are matters that citizens should resolve through their local administrations and associations or whether it would be a good idea to let the central government decide these matters for us through regulation.  On the issue of pre-school, we might want to reflect that the benefits of Project Head Start, a federal pre-K program that has now existed for almost fifty years, have been highly dubious and that it does not appear to have had much of an impact on the mobility statistics.
The suggestion that the federal government start “coaching or training” parents is more than a little creepy.  The anthropologist Lionel Tiger (a great name, but a real one) coined the term “bureaugamy” to describe the state of affairs in which government bureaucracy had essentially become the equivalent of a bread-winning spouse in low-income families.  Stiglitz’s suggestion would complete this process by making government a full-fledged and even dominant partner in the rearing of children.  This could make low-income children ultimately even more dependent on the government-parent and actually end up decreasing statistical upward mobility. Regardless of the outcome, though, we should ask ourselves whether we want the nationalization of children.
I certainly agree that higher education should not be as absurdly expensive as it is in the United States today. Arguably, though, demand-side subsidies for higher education have been one of the forces driving tuition costs up.  Stiglitz’s reference to “the near-free higher education system in Europe” struck me as extremely odd. The European Union has achieved uniformity on a few things, but higher education is not one of them. Each European country has its own system. Some of them that do provide near-free tertiary schooling, moreover, don’t do so for everyone who wants to study anything, but have highly tracked designs that direct people into industrial trades or university studies. This approach may have its positive side, but it certainly is not a prescription for social mobility.