Arendt, Antisemitism, and the Chicago Teachers’ Union Strike

I am one of those ideologically-impure liberals that worries a lot about public sector unions. On the one hand, I favor workplace democracy and collaboration; on the other hand, I worry about the fact that as union membership has declined, the majority of remaining union members haved tended to be at the top of the income distribution and to have many other forms of cultural and social capital as well. A public sector union member gets input into the functioning of government as a voter, plus they get input into our government as a union member concerned about their own labor conditions. What’s more, public-sector unions are not all the same: to my mind there’s a difference between a teacher’s union and a police or prison guard union, and I’m not willing to be univocal in my support for both. Still, my bias is generally in favor of teachers: I am one, after all.

Caption BelowI recently read an interesting factoid about teaching: in the 1960s, 2/3 of all households had school age children. Today, only 1/3 do. Attempts to verify these have been unsuccessful, although the percentage has certainly been dropping for a long time along with the birth rate. (I also learned that 39% of Chicago’s public school teachers send their own children to private schools.)

Looking at the responses to the Chicago Teacher’s Strike, especially the way it pits centrist technocratic Democrats like Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel against old-school labor progressives, I suspect that the falling percentage of families with school-age children is part of the problem. Sure, everyone agrees that education is important, but fewer families actually have current need of a good education, and so for better or worse they have begun to look at the costs rather than the benefits of strong schools.

In my view, this decline allows an interesting analogy with Hannah Arendt’s account of the growth of anti-semitism in Origins of Totalitarianism, which itself is derived from Karl Marx’s essay on On The Jewish Question. Arendt argued that Jews had failed to take advantage of their political and economic power while it was still extensive enough to garner protection from the Christian majority. When their role as scapegoat creditors was centralized into big (non-Jewish) businesses and a few Jewish financiers, the long-ignored differences between Jews and Christians exploded to the fore, with genocidal results.

Arendt bases this theory on Tocqueville’s account of the downfall of the French aristocracy:

“the French people hated aristocrats about to lose their power more than it had ever hated them before, precisely because their rapid loss of real power was not accompanied by any considerable decline in their fortunes. As long as the aristocracy held vast powers of jurisdiction, they were not only tolerated but respected. When noblemen lost their privileges, among others the privilege to exploit and oppress, the people felt them to be parasites, without any real function in the rule of the country.”

Troublesome as inequality and oppression may be, inequality without the power to back it up is even worse. Arendt suggests that the Jews refused to occupy a designated space within the European political economy, instead “choosing” to remain aloof no matter which class individual Jews would otherwise occupy. (Of course, it’s not so simple, but to Arendt it seems that there was a coincidence between the Jewish desire for group survival and the nation-state’s interest in preventing assimiliation.) Yet according to Arendt this became a great problem when successful Jews sought acceptance and assimilation into the professions and intellectual elites:

“Central and Western European Jewries had reached a saturation point in wealth and economic fortune. This might have been the moment for them to show that they actually wanted money for money’s sake or for power’s sake. In the former case, they might have expanded their businesses and handed them down to their descendants; in the latter they might have entrenched themselves more firmly in state business and fought the influence of big business and industry on governments. But they did neither. In the contrary, the sons of well-to-do businessmen and, to a lesser extent, bankers, deserted their fathers careers for the liberal professions or purely intellectual pursuits they had not been able to afford a few generations before.”

Arendt called this “political ignorance” that blinded the Jews to “the political dangers of antisemitism.” Certainly they understood the costs of social discrimination; what they did not understand was the way this would morph under totalitarianism:

“Whenever equality becomes a mundane fact in itself, without any gauge by which it may be measured or explained, then there is one chance in a hundred that it will be recognized simply as a working principle of a political organization in which otherwise unequal people have equal rights; there are ninety-nine chances that it will be mistaken for an innate quality of every individual, who is “normal” if he is like everybody else and “abnormal” if he happens to be different. This perversion of equality from apolitical into a social concept is all the more dangerous when a society leaves but little space for special groups and individuals, for then their differences become all the more conspicuous.” (55)

To be unequal when equality is understood as equality before the law is a blessing; to be unequal when equality is understood as a social requirement for membership in the political community is quite a curse. The more that Americans attend to income inequality, the more they will worry about Wall Street bankers, certainly; but they also worry about the local inequalities, those they see at work in their own communities. Wall Street is far away for most Americans; yet everyone has a local government, and most Americans can observe that the cars that park in the teachers’ lot are nicer than their own, while simultaneously noting that teachers have shorter days and longer vacations.

For Arendt, the backlash of resentment comes when those with a privilege lose the power to enforce it. The aristocrats tried to keep their privileges without preserving the authority to organize their communities, and they lost their heads; the Ancien Régime gave way to the centrally-administered bureaucracy. Teachers are no longer trusted to evaluate their own success or failure; more and more of their lesson plans are legislated or provided by centralized textbook publishers. Fewer families depend upon teachers than ever before, and those who do have political power don’t trust the public schools in large urban school districts like Chicago, New York City, or Washington, DC. In these and many other ways, the job of teaching K-12 education is being de-professionalized, in large part because we’ve tried to demand that education solve all of our problems and it simply cannot.

Perhaps this comparison is not the right one, but what I notice is that labor solidarity is increasingly exclusive of the least-advantaged. Especially during times of increasing unemployment, I worry that solidarity with laborers will not include those most in need. Unions are no longer primarily sources of solidarity between the lower and middle-class and a means of stepping into the middle-class; now they are sources of solidarity within some elements of the upper-middle class, i.e. those who are well above the median income in the United States. In this sense, public sector labor unions appear to command economic power while failing to achieve the cross-class solidarity that would legitimize that economic power for those who are worse-off. The resentment that emerges, then, appears to be driven by the demographic constitution of the union itself. As Arendt pointed out, rights without the power to protect them are useless: when you need them, they’re not there.

Even as teachers are losing political power, it appears that the political power of labor solidarity has an unfortunate tendency to accumulate among those who already have it. In the US, the people who most need unions don’t have them: Walmart workers; nurses and home health aids; agriculture and construction workers. Meanwhile, the people who least need unions get them: folks with graduates degrees and guns. Soon, perhaps, it will just be those with guns who can prevent the legislative undermining of their rights to collective bargaining.

(Continued in the next post, Public-sector unions as Public Work: The Case for Teachers)

Where are the start-ups in the Liberal Arts?

Yesterday, George Mason University economists Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen announced MRU, a modular course design platform that they’ll be using to offer free and potentially paid courses in economics, online. I’ve learned a lot from their blog since I started reading during the run-up to the financial crisis, and I plan to at least look in on their first course on Developmental Economics. It’s not a massive open online course (MOOC for short), but it’s set up to enable them to produce MOOCs. Experiments in the MOOC future look increasingly promising. But where are the startup and experiments in radical de-digitization?

If you’re a college professor in the humanities, it’s hard not to see the recent flurry of for-profit and online education start-ups as a repudiation of your model for pedagogy. Even as the evidence accumulates that students are most likely to increase their critical thinking skills during an education that focuses on close reading, analytic writing, and high expectations, we see an increasing number of resources devoted to lecturing, a model for which the internet is only slightly better-suited than the VCR was.

At the same time, many in the humanities, myself included, have worried that what drives tuition is primarily administrative rent-seeking. We look at our salaries and at the salaries of the deans, and notice that we’ve been doing more work for less pay over the last few decades even while tuition skyrockets. Meanwhile, newly-minted PhDs flood the workforce looking for jobs. So why then do we continue to work for institutions that have been steering astray? It makes sense to talk about the oppression of the poor and poorly connected, but in what sense are the folks who literally dispense cultural capital capable of being oppressed by their labor conditions?

Oversupply of teachers and undersupply of institutional support for the right kind of teaching: looks like a recipe for a start-up!

The most fertile period for the development of new colleges in the US was the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War, when the 24 colonial colleges that existed before Independence were joined by more than 600 more. Many did not survive, but this was a period of intense educational experimentation and innovation. The land-grant universities aggregated and centralized much of this process. but colleges and universities were still being formed at a rapid clip: there are more than 4000 today. Yet how many new institutions are devoted to the liberal arts? The practices I associate with liberal arts teaching tend to be cultivated on old ivy-covered campuses rather than shiny new startups. Though many schools are called “liberal arts” they do not all make a full-time practice of that pedagogy. Perhaps the problem is demand: one of the oldest colleges, St. John’s, existed before the civil war, and today it adds just 250 new freshmen every year to its Great Books program. Shimer College in Chicago has 111 students total! But I think there’s room for growth (given the evidence and such a small base.)

For all the “massive” promise of MOOCs, they involve considerable capital and startup costs. Yet the teaching profession requires little more than books, paper, pens, and (maybe) trashcans. With folks embracing their own farming, canning, paper-making, and butchering, there ought to be some unmet demand for pedagogical nostalgia of the old schools: discussions under stoa, peripatetic dialogues, and sitting around a table puzzling out the meaning of a text. Maybe the next time one of these would-be online education innovators goes bust, we should give it a shot.

Season of Political Irrelevance Update

Weigel has predicated a lot on the conditional statement: “If you look at it right, then you’ll see serious policy.” But we don’t have any evidence for the antecedent, that the public or the media *will* “look at it right.” More to the point, I don’t agree that the waivers or tax loopholes are among the most important problems facing this or the next president. Effective tax rates are much too low on the rich, but the best solution isn’t better income tax laws, it’s a progressive consumption tax, which is not on the table.

The policy issues under discussion are partly unsubstantive because they’re subject to deep red meat divisions. They won’t be resolved; they’re designed to be perpetual. The stuff I want to talk about is stuff that a whole host of people from both sides could agree on, if they were allowed to spend the election talking about it. Elections are about drawing distinctions and offering a choice, but they’re also about parsing the electorate into roughly equal demographic slices. Policy is about taking the broad overlapping consensus and the best evidence and acting on that.

Over the next two years, there will be very little movement on the things we argue about during this election season. During the same time span, there will be a great deal of movement on the things we ignore this election season. That suggests irrelevance.

The Fallacy Fallacy [sic] of Mood Affiliation (Workplace Domination Part Two)

In his initial response to the the Crooked Timber bloggers, Cowen also suggests that he doesn’t like the “mood affiliation” of the CT bloggers:

I am not comfortable with the mood affiliation of the piece.  How about a simple mention of the massive magnitude of employee theft in the United States, perhaps in the context of a boss wishing to search an employee?

Cowens’ “fallacy of mood affiliation” is an interesting and useful attempt to describe a kind of sophisticated motivated skepticism that occurs when we evaluate evidence that counters our basically optimistic or pessimistic views of the world. When he first introduced it, Cowen described mood affiliations that caused people to misrecognize particular evidence regarding innovations or environmental effects because the particular evidence fails to confirm their preferences for optimistic accounts of future growth and environmental improvements.

But to those clear examples of the optimism bias, he added two other examples that are only indirectly related:

3. People who see a political war against the interests of the poor and thus who are reluctant to present or digest analyses which blame some of the problems of the poor on…the poor themselves. (Try bringing up “predatory borrowing” in any discussion of “predatory lending” and see what happens.) There’s simply an urgent feeling that any negative or pessimistic or undeserving view of the poor needs to be countered.

4. People who see raising or lowering the relative status of Republicans (or some other group) as the main purpose of analysis, and thus who judge the dispassionate analysis of others, or for that matter the partisan analysis of others, by this standard. There’s simply an urgent feeling that any positive or optimistic or deserving view of the Republicans needs to be countered.

#4 is also clearly a bias where in-group solidarity blinds us to evidence, and Cowen has written about this well in the past. It is not, however, an obvious “mood affiliation” except by analogy, and it serves a pragmatic purpose: you can only call your friends our for being biased so often before they stop being your friends.

#3, though, is neither a mood affiliation nor an optimism bias. We might call it an “unjust-world fallacy,” if we really need a name for it. However, I’d suggest we might want to avoid prejudicing discussions of what makes people poor with attributions of fallacies and congitive biases until we’ve evaluated the evidence.

Since “what makes people poor” is a hotly debated academic question, there’s a lot of evidence, and it pushes in multiple directions. (My own money is on some version of Buddy Karelis’s book, The Persistence of Poverty (pdf) though there’s plenty of room for poverty traps and marginal tax rate arguments.) People affiliate around these positions in many of the same ways that they affiliate around political parties. But there’s a serious dispute in the literature and the question really, really matters, so let’s not glibly reduce our opponents to fallacy-mongers here.

This is relevant to blogging about the workplace only because, by analogy, we’re supposed to believe that employees might be partly to blame for their domination in the same way that poor people are partly to blame for their poverty. But note, there are particular actions the poor engage in that make them poor: failing to finish high school, committing crimes, and getting pregnant out of wedlock are individual actions that primarily harm the individual who enacts them by reducing lifetime wages. In the workplace example, there just aren’t particular actions that workers engage in that justify their being searched or filmed while going to the bathroom (except maybe being unwilling to quit, fight, or unionize). Invading my privacy because somebody else has been stealing doesn’t really fit the kind of personal responsibility motif that Cowen was pushing in the original discussion of poverty. Plus, employee theft costs our economy about $15 billion, which is 0.1% of GDP, and that’s including serious embezzlement in addition to retail “shrink,” so it’s not really so big a deal as Cowen makes it out to be.

Mood affiliation concerns don’t appear to be relevant to workplace domination issues, they threaten to resolve into ad hominem and fallacy fallacy [sic] issues, so let’s drop them and look at the data and the arguments.

Exit, Voice, and Cheap Talk (Workplace Domination Part One)

Tyler Cowen returns to the issues of employer/employee domination today, but since I never blogged his first response, I want to start working through this debate from the beginning.

The Crooked Timber bloggers offered a lengthy list of workplace depredations, and then suggested that these depradations require government intervention in the form of workplace regulation. It’s a long and interesting post, and it takes a couple of stances that I strongly disagree with (against the Basic Income Guarantee, for one) but the attacks have mostly been focusing on the idea that worker mobility (quitting) is a better solution than workplace regulations that give workers recourse. This is generally described as the difference between “exit” and “voice.”

In his first response, which was off-the-cuff “due to travel commitments,” Cowen seemed to treat the issue as if all complaints about domination in the workplace could be treated in terms of worker’s “willingness to pay” for various protections, and that regulations might better be replaced with cash. This attempt to treat economic efficiency and liberty as interchangeable irritated many bloggers, who went on to call for the “Diaperization of the GMU Economics Department.”

Of course, this is silly, but worse, like most ad absurdum attempts at refutation, it’s non-responsive, as Matt Yglesias shows here.  If anyone actually thought that abusing faculty would increase revenue, they probably would do it, and academics with less bargaining power do experience some of the depredations that Henry Farrell jokingly described. I’ve personally had to work in open cubicles, under nosy supervisors, and with no air conditioning, and anyone who’s ever been to a faculty meeting or an APA keynote knows what it’s like to have workplace commitments require a strong bladder. (Maybe diapers aren’t such a bad idea… but no: never bite the bullet on an ad absurdum.)

We accept these dominations when they seem justified or when we don’t have a better recourse. The academic job market makes exit a very difficult proposition; mostly, we’re glad to be employed. The overall increase in administrators who find ways to tighten the screws on academic workers looks both bad and inefficient, but given that we’ve got one of the best jobs in the world, we often don’t complain very loudly.

What we need is a distinction between productivity-enhancing workplace rules and circumstances that merely enhance a manager’s ability to dominate his subordinates. In reality, many instances of manager-domination are actually productivity-reducing, and lots of businesses limp along at less-than-optimal productivity this way.

A firm that has *no* recourse mechanism will not realize that they are losing good employees to bad managers, but because recourse is sometimes expensive it may seem that firms are better off simply ignoring these problems. Yet I would argue that there are many pro-employee workplace innovations that reduce domination and increase productivity, yet are often not implemented. These are proverbial hundred-dollar bills on the ground, and the “pro-exit” stance taken by many of the Bleeding Heart libertarians and GMU economists looks, to me, like a simple mistake akin to the response “That $100 bill can’t be there; somebody would have picked it up!”

Cowen has already complained that this is merely a theoretical $100 bill, however, and that if I and the CT bloggers have real innovations of this sort in mind, we ought to either propose these innovations so that others may use them or keep them a secret and go start a business with them and make lots of money making the workplace more free. I intend to say more about specific proposals, but this post is already too long, so….