Resisting the Fatalism of the Behavioral Revolution

I love Peter Levine’s latest post, “don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic.”

“Tversky’s and Kahneman’s revolutionary program spread across the behavioral sciences and constantly reveals new biases that are predictable enough to bear their own names. […] These phenomena are held to be deeply rooted in the cognitive limitations of human beings as creatures who evolved to hunt-and-gather in small bands on African plains. Not only has the burgeoning literature on cognitive biases challenged rational market models in economics, but it undermines the “folk theory” of democracy taught in civics textbooks and widely believed by citizens and pundits.”

I think Levine captures something important about the literature on cognitive biases and heuristics: that they tend to put people in labs and poke them in such a way as to show the ways in which individuals are prone to mistakes. Yet this is widely known, and many of the worst mistakes to which individuals are prone are things we have developed solutions for in ordinary life.

“Behavioral science would have predicted the demise of the independent newspaper–but about a century too soon. In fact, “the press” (reporters, editors, journalism educators, and others) sustained the newspaper as a tool for overcoming human cognitive limitations for decades.”

As such, the lab work undermines methodological individualism but doesn’t actually help us understand communities of inquiry or institutions of knowledge-production. We are extended minds, always dependent on cognitive “prosthetics.” We depend on watches and newspapers and Google and our friends to remember and process information. And yet I think Levine is perhaps too optimistic about the possibilities of “prosthetics.” (One of Levine’s finer qualities is that he regularly make “too optimistic” seem realistic in retrospect.)

I think we should especially push on the idea that journalism is or has been a solution to cognitive limitations. The golden age of journalism was a short period of time marked by very low elite disagreement on major issues as they joined forces against communism and to first suppress–and then manage–the Civil Rights revolution for women and Black people. This cynical potted history of the trustworthy news ignores much–but so does the optimistic one.

I’ve always thought that the main power of the “behavioral” revolution was to give scientific precision and credence to insights from earlier philosophy, political theory and psychology, as well as parsing the size of effects and the disagreements between cliches that would often emerge. So sure: you can find a lot of Tversky and Kahneman in Francis Bacon, Adam Smith, David Hume, and Friedrich Nietzsche, but you can also find a lot in those authors that has been overturned or rendered more carefully in later work.

And the big insights about democracy’s weaknesses–the ones that go back to Plato and Aristotle–those didn’t go away in the middle of the 20th Century. They were perhaps suppressed by the Cold War abroad and the race war here at home, but something big happened when the demographic models for redistricting got an order of magnitude better in 2010 than they had been in 2000. And those models are just getting better.

What’s more, the behavioral revolution can also be used for good: I’ve repeatedly defended these insights when applied to criminal justice, for instance. And one of the most famous “cognitive bias” studies come not from the lab but from the real world. Danziger, Levav, and Avnaim-Pesso showed that:

“experienced parole judges in Israel granted freedom about 65 percent of the time to the first prisoner who appeared before them on a given day. By the end of a morning session, the chance of release had dropped almost to zero.

After the same judge returned from a lunch break, the first prisoner once again had about a 65 percent chance at freedom. And once again the odds declined steadily.”

This is the kind of thing that we might have suspected before. Any professor with a stack of papers to grade might have suspected they were more lenient after dinner, for instance. But this is definitive, real world proof of a problematic bias, a result of the behavioral revolution.

Ironically, it doesn’t actually make me very fatalistic: it gives me hope. I hope that Israeli judges are reading this and worrying about it. I hope they are taking snacks to work. I hope that parole lawyers everywhere are taking note of these facts and acting to protect their clients from these biases. New information about our cognitive limitations doesn’t have to make us hopeless. And really, that’s Levine’s point.

“Expanding College Opportunity in Our Nation’s Prisons”

For more than five years now, “expanding college opportunity in [one of] our nation’s prisons” has been my part time job, and it’s been my full-time job for the past year, since the JCI Scholars Program partnered with the University of Baltimore to offer courses towards a Bachelor’s degree in Community Studies and Civic Engagement as a part of the US Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative.

I visited the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor last week to participate on a panel with this title. I learned a lot from my co-panelists Erin Castro and Fred Patrick, but each of us were asked to prepare answers to the questions below so I thought I’d share those answers here.

If you had to describe the current relationship between higher education and prisons in one phrase, what would it be?

“Low hanging fruit:” College in prisons is the easiest and most obvious of a host of criminal justice reforms that we absolutely must be making and for which there is bipartisan support. We incarcerate 2.3 million people in the US, at a rate more than seven times higher than the global average. We’re not seven times more violent or larcenous than the rest of the world–perhaps we are seven times more racist, but even that isn’t clear any longer–so we need to fix this over-incarceration crisis. But for the time being, educating the people we incarcerate is almost literally the least we can do.

There is an eternal tension in higher education between the liberal arts and practical arts. Prison education programs often face this same tension. Based on your experiences, how has this divide manifested in prison education programs? Are there certain curricula that tend to receive broader support? How has this influenced your own work?

In the background here is that we don’t stop punishing people when they are released from prison. We continue to subject returning citizens to legal discrimination in employment, merely because of their status as previously-incarcerated.

There’s certainly good evidence that starting one’s own business is a good way to avoid employment discrimination. But most small businesses fail, and returning citizens face problems with raising startup capital that are just as onerous as their problems finding a job. 

In general, you can think of entrepreneurship as evidence that the ordinary labor market is absorbing workers too slowly: there is not sufficient labor market absorption for those currently unemployed, so they must instead go out and start small businesses of their own, taking considerably more risk with high rates of failure. We have not found meaningful work for many men and women, and we’re not willing to suspend our biases, and so we ask them instead to make their own.

Still, even in that context I see the liberal arts degree as superior. I think the data suggest that even for people who want a vocation, a liberal arts degree is the best investment. I’m partial to the philosophy major, myself: employment prospects and pay are better for the modal philosophy major than for the modal business administration major, because the liberal arts are techniques for problem solving, clear communication, and understanding difficult texts and situations. To achieve that, students need to learn to read hard books and write long papers for demanding professors.

Of course, the liberal arts are also–literally–techniques for freedom and for free people. So they’ve got that going for them, too, which is nice.

What are some of the ways in which prisoner education programs help prisoners identify and pursue educational opportunities upon reentry?

In some sense I think colleges have mastered a lot of the fundamentals of reentry because they are already basically institutions of ENTRY: colleges are pretty good at taking high school students and turning them into workers, and they’re also pretty good at preparing people who are accustomed to being dependents to live more independent lives. 

Our program at the University of Baltimore was built from the ground up with the ideal of having students transition from inside to outside while finishing their degree. Thus they’ll be able to use what is already a good transitional space, the university, to help accomplish that other kind of transition: reentry and return.

The audience today is full of current and future educators that may be considering how they can get involved with a prison education program. As you reflect on your own experiences, are there moments that stand out to you as particularly informative for those in the audience?

I started teaching a philosophy class and ended up running a program. There’s tremendous unmet demand among those 2.3 million incarcerated men and women for a college education. Be patient and persistent, recognizing the work comes before your ego, and find and cultivate collaborators.

We also have a lot of people here interested in research and policies that can shape prison education programs. What are the types of research questions the next generation of researchers should consider?

The GED test was once an important distinction, but it was basically devalued because it came to be associated with returning citizens, which is why they decided to raise the standards (to make it much more difficult and specifically to lower the pass rate) in 2014. Will something similar happen with our programs? Can we prevent that? 

Another important question has to do with selection effects. How much are we just finding the men and women who would have gone to university, if we didn’t live in a mass incarceration society? How much are we actually changing lives, adding value,” or changing the course of these men’s lives?

There’s very good reason–as Erin Castro reminded us during the panel–to look past the recidivism question: “We don’t evaluate a University of Michigan degree based on how likely its graduates are to later become incarcerated.” And while I do think that the recidivism statistics are awesome trump cards for the public policy debate, I would like to see my own program evaluated on other metrics, like student satisfaction, just as programs on the outside are evaluated.

Given the change in administration, should we be concerned about the future of the Second Chance Pell pilot program?

Of course we should be concerned! Yet Betsy DeVos has not, to my knowledge, commented on the Second Chance Pell experiment. It’s notable that she is also primarily devoted to school choice in K-12, which is literally modeled on Pell, a grant program that supplies school choice for higher education.

If this becomes a partisan issue, I don’t expect it to survive. But I’d like to think it won’t become partisan, that there’s still enough bipartisan support for this because it’s such low-hanging fruit, because the evidence makes it common-sense. If you’re committed to small government, you like prison education. If you’re committed to social justice, you like prison education. What else can you think of that the Koch brothers agree with George Soros about?

Hannah Arendt on Academic Freedom

We often say that colleges and universities deserve some sort of freedom from political interference. But for Arendt, freedom just is politics. The idea of freedom from politics is largely oxymoronic for her, and involves fundamental misunderstandings of the component terms “freedom” and “politics.” But of course, we seem to know what we mean when we use “freedom from politics” so these misunderstandings are obviously institutionalized in ways that are at odds with Arendt, such that it takes some excavation to determine how this divergence is possible, and whether we can adjudicate the disagreement:

“As long as one understands politics to be solely concerned with what is absolutely necessary for men to live in a community so that they then can be granted, either as individuals or social groups, a freedom that lies beyond both politics and life’s necessities, we are indeed justified in measuring the degree of freedom within any political body by the religious and academic freedom that it tolerates, which is to say, by the size of the nonpolitical space of freedom that it contains and maintains.” Hannah Arendt, Introduction into Politics.” The Promise of Politics (New York: Schocken Books, 2005), pg. 136.

The disdain with which Arendt articulates the justifications for religious and academic freedom in this passage is remarkable.  What seems obvious to us seems equally absurd to Arendt, such that she has to spell out our mistake: “as long as one understands politics to be solely concerned with what is absolutely necessary for men to live in a community….”

(She might as well write, “if you insist on starting from absurd premises, then yes, it’s true, absurd conclusions will follow….”)

She is not just exasperated that we are so devoted to universities and churches that we’ve set them outside of and above politics, but seems to believe that when we see the assumptions required we will reject them. (Loyal readers will recall this post on Christianity and the flight from politics.) For Arendt, politics is not merely about providing the bare necessities of communal life: if anything, communal life serves to provide the conditions of possibility for politics. But our communities are decidedly non-Arendtian: why should we accept that reversal?

Here, a brief Arendtian recap may be in order: she argues that the Platonic (née Parmenidean) ideal of freedom from politics is predicated on the belief that speech carried out before the many becomes corrupted or deceptive, while speech among the few can achieve truths “higher” than political freedom. We now regularly encounter these “higher” or “realer” truths: science, religion, justice, beauty, family, wealth, health, culture, morality, and happiness are all often celebrated as the true purpose of politics, those ends that politics must achieve but for which politics should be forsaken. So obviously Arendt is on to something in her diagnosis. But it’s thus striking that Arendt is nearly alone among political theorists and philosophers in claiming that the true purpose of politics is politics–the coordination of collective action–itself!

For this she is often accused of romanticizing the Greek polis. She goes so far as to say that many people and places have taken the “higher” purposes of politics so seriously that they’ve lost track of politics in the first place:

“Politics as such has existed so rarely and in so few places that, historically speaking, only a few great epochs have known it and turned it into a reality.” (Arendt, Promise of Politics, 119)

But I don’t think this is properly-speaking a romantic view of the Greeks, since the Greeks are to blame for losing track of the meaning and significance of politics (for themselves and for Europe too) when they built the Academy:

“In order for their institution to succeed, the few had to demand that their activity, their speech with one another, be relieved of the activities of the polis in the same way the citizens of Athens were relieved of all the activities that dealt with earning their daily bread.” (Arendt, Promise, 131)

Arendt has often received criticism for her view that politics is only possible for those who are free from necessity because others (slaves, peasants, capitalist workers) labor. She always acknowledge the horror of this dependency and exploitation, but it’s hard to ignore how elitist she sounds in those moments. Here she accuses those seeking academic and religious freedom of a similar kind of elitism: to turn politics into a means-to-an-end of something that cannot equal it.1

Universities are not, then, havens from politics, but in their purest forms they become hierarchical substitutes for politics. This helps to explain the kinds of inconsequential wrangling that often trouble departmental life: having determined that only academic merit can satisfy our fundamental political needs, we then get lost in minutiae in a fight for recognition.

And then there is the not-so-pure form: acknowledging that the university is partially shielded from politics, we retreat to it with a fantasy that Arendt diagnosed as an Archimedean (“Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I will move the earth”) whereby we desire to engage in politics without being engaged by it, to act on the world without being acted upon. The university becomes a place to engage in politics, to affect policy and act as a political agent, but one that is sheltered from the consequences of ordinary political spaces. It becomes a microphone or a platform with which to shout one’s projects without having to listen.

It’s this conception of academic freedom that both inspires and worries me. It inspires me because I’d like to think we can find some shelter from the political currents of the day to think through the problems that confront us and investigate matters that require it, and that when that thinking and investigation is done our fellow citizens should listen to what we’ve figured out. It also inspires me because the company of disagreeing friends is one of the major sources of joy in my professional life. (Recall: 1, 2, 3)

But it worries me, too, because governments fund these havens, and they are growing increasingly disenchanted with our work. And it’s only natural that when political actors recognize a source of influence in their communities–an unmoved mover that is both powerful and claiming shelter from power–they will move to capture the “commanding heights” of that influential position. An Iowa state legislator even proposed partisan balancing tests for new faculty. (And the backlash surrounding his Sizzler certification is ample evidence of the exclusivity and signaling role of college education.)

Now, a standard reply is that the university has earned its role as a place outside of normal politics by welcoming a diversity of viewpoints. We inoculate ourselves from the claims of partisanship by encouraging educated disagreement, and take a voluntary vow of nonpartisanship in exchange for that freedom. But this is no longer sustainable. It’s both at odds with the evidence of partisan affiliations, and at odds with the consensus-building towards expertise we expect from the sciences.

We really don’t and shouldn’t welcome a diversity of viewpoints on race and IQ, for instance, which is both reasonable (internal to the disciplines involved) given the methodological shenanigans required to justify white superiority stories, and reasonable (writ large) given the fact that pseudoscientific racism actively hurts our students and our society.

I am tempted to end on the idea that academic freedom debates are a part of local, nested norms of safety and collegiality and freedom-from-interference, such that there is no generic answer about academic freedom, but rather a set of internal institutional norms that get articulated and adjudicated in practice. But sometimes in all that sophisticated distinction-making and precise line-drawing, I think we miss the fact that universities are parts of society as a whole, inhabited by faculty and staff with multiple conflicting allegiances and communities of interest. We don’t need principles of academic freedom because we are discovering the eternal and unchanging truths of these systems, but rather we need these principles as simple coordination mechanisms. Sometimes we need to be able to say: “This is not what we do, this is not who we are.”

1. It’s worth noting here that most legal defenses of academic freedom either make a professor’s rights subordinate to the public welfare via the claim that unimpaired investigations into the natural sciences produce public goods (i.e. Sweezy v. New Hampshire) or treat academic freedom as a tacit custom that governs university contracts with faculty. (i.e. Greene v. Howard University)

Trump, Trust, and Civic Renewal

Here are three observations I take to be axiomatic:
  1. Citizens must trust their government if they are to invest it with responsibility.
  2. Trust between citizens is a good measure of civic capacity.
  3. Trust in institutions is a requirement for collaboration.

After the last few days, it seems obvious that we are headed for an alternative set of arrangements where a less trusting press and a less trusted Executive Branch part ways. I have a hard time seeing the upside of this divorce for progressive goals: since government needs trust to accomplish a lot of its goals, citizens with good reason to mistrust their government are very likely to respond by handing that government less responsibility. That will frustrate populists but not laissez-faire elites. Thus, less trust seems to be likely to increase the uptake of libertarian and neo-liberal ideas.

In some ways that’s the best case scenario: incompetence also lends itself to side deals and rent-seeking. We can end up with the minimal state via incompetence quite easily, but we could also keep the larger state but replace its technocratic reasons with pure regulatory capture and clientism. Think Tammany Hall or Mexico’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional.

Yet mistrust did not begin recently. Except for a brief moment of post-9/11 patriotism, the US Congress has rarely been very popular in the modern era. Meanwhile, other indicators of mutual trust among citizens that have recently been quite low are on the rise, like those charted by Robert Putnam and the National Conference on Citizenship, which found in 2010 that in 2008 and 2009 only 46% of Americans talk with their neighbors and only 35% of Americans participate in community groups and organizations. Yet that number is on the rise: a follow-up study for the year 2011 found that 65.1% of Americans did favors or helped out their neighbors, and 44.1% of Americans were active in civic, religious, or school groups.

I would be remiss if I did not point out at that the Women’s Marches on Washington and elsewhere in the US brought out more than 1% of Americans. That’s a mass movement by any standard, to have so many women and men marching on a single day. Every indication is that this was the largest organized protest in the history of the US. Organizing and expanding that group is a major task, but it is one that will both require and create trust.

All of this suggests a rebalancing of trust and energy that is not so much progressive as local and civic. What we’re seeing today is a loss of trust in traditionally trustworthy institutions. Yet I wonder whether this mistrust may have something like a pneumatic quality, where losses of trust in one place are matched by increases elsewhere. It’s possible in the worst regimes to destroy trust everywhere–this is one way that totalitarian regimes operate–but there may be some net-positive transfers at the margin in our as-yet democratic society.

This move to the local is sometimes equated with conservative ideology, because of the long-standing equation of states rights arguments with conservatism. But localism can work to the advantage of progressive cities, too, if the same principles are applied equitably. (They may not be.) More than anything else, the current political climate shifts the kinds of solutions for which our fellow citizens will reach. Rather than hoping to make change at the national level, we must organize our political lives around more local efforts. Rather than seeking assistance from state institutions we must organize and act ourselves.

I have seen four  specific projects suggested that I’d like to endorse:

  1. Replacing defunded programs: we should commit to privately fund programs cut by the Trump administration using any tax cuts that result. That means that if he follows through on the plan to cut school lunches or the National Endowment for the Arts, we should commit to meet the need. It will be much harder to replace Planned Parenthood, however, without state legislatures that can commit to meet any federal shortfalls.
  2. Replace lost federal regulations: The biggest cities rival many small countries as sources of carbon emissions and and as sites of action to slow climate change, so if the EPA cannot act, those cities must overcome free-rider problems to act on their own. If crucial aspects of the Affordable Care Act are eliminated, we should organize within our states and municipalities to replace them. If immigrants and refugees are threatened, we must protect them and act privately. The same goes for LGB (and especially T!) rights.
  3. Rejoin forgotten civic associations: I’m not a Christian, but atheism tends towards civic isolation. That’s why the first thing I did after the election was go to a Quaker Meeting. I also subscribed the New York Times after spending the last five years avoiding its paywall. And I’m signing up for Teen Vogue, too.
  4. Reinvigorate local party politics for both parties: Very few people participate in party politics. Very few people vote in primaries and local elections. Very few people trust either political party. It’s time to fix that. Here’s how Keith Ellison, candidate for DNC chair, describes one fix:

The real idea is not the big events. The real idea is the canvassing, the door knocking, the calling. Then the other thing we do is we continually ask people to help us. We’re asking people, “There’s a vote coming up. What do you think? There’s a vote coming up. What’s your opinion? Sign up on this petition. Sign up on that petition.” People are constantly feeling like they’re partnering with me as the member of Congress from their district.

Both parties can gain strength by becoming more inclusive and engaged. And when they do that, they’ll both serve their constituents–us–better. I continue to believe that partisanship has reduced our efficacy as citizens. But as the Big Sort continues, parties may be the best remedy for the harm they have done.