Ideology and Education

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

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

This is a striking chart:




The Enduring Appeal of Perversity Arguments and Unintended Consequences Warnings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going Negative: Angry Ads and Negative Partisanship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Man AND Rabbit: Naturalizing the Ethics of Belief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find happiness right where you are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complacency, Stagnation, and the Duty to Grow

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

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

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

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

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

The Steady-State Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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