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)

Status Emotions and Punishment

I haven’t written much about status emotions, recently, but I came across one of my favorite Facebook memes and remembered again how central it seems. I don’t endorse the misogyny here, but it perfectly describes the way that fundamental attribution bias transforms resentment into contempt, and thus leads, in my view, to both epistemic and moral error:

Funny Confession Ecard: Once you hate someone, everything they do is offensive. 'Look at this bitch eating those crackers like she owns the place.'

I’ve also been thinking a bit about the role of status emotions in our treatment of criminals in the US. It’s important to recognize when your differing judgments are leading you away from the common sense moral community, and punishment is one place that this seems to be occurring for me. Put simply, I just don’t see any good reason to disdain or show contempt for convicted criminals. This follows quite self-evidently from my claim that status emotions are immoral and unreliable. But this puts me outside of the mainstream society’s judgments about criminals, and I wonder if I’ve missed something, am wired differently, or am simply altering my intuitions in order to bite the bullet on my idiosyncratic account of the moral emotions.

Recall that Michelle Mason just assumes that some people are better than others in her account of contempt as a reactive attitude. But the genius of Strawson’s account of the reactive attitudes was that it allowed us to sidestep tricky metaphysical questions about agency and determinism. Mason does the same thing, sidestepping tricky metaphysical questions about personal identity and the persistence of character traits over time and context. Yet she doesn’t thematize the question of persistence or identity in the same way that Strawson thematized determinism and blame.

Blame and punishing seem appropriate, but what I notice is that the prisoners I teach are thoughtful human beings who are interested in the texts we’re reading. They are polite, respectful, and in my judgment genuine. Almost every day that I come to class, someone thanks me for the lesson. At the same time, they have criminal histories. Some were simply caught up in the war on drugs, but some of them allude to having done truly bad things; this is not just a matter of a self-selected group of victim-less criminals. And yet, that doesn’t seem like it matters to me. It doesn’t seem like it should matter: to my mind, they are due the same esteem as anyone else.

Criminals could be the perfect test for status emotions, if you set aside all your concerns about the US’s problems with mass incarceration, innocence and plea bargaining, the racialization of justice, and the war on drugs. Of course, we shouldn’t set those things aside when we’re talking about policy, but at a certain point you have to admit that some people really are guilty. If the claim is simply that they wouldn’t be guilty in a radically different society, we’re back to begging the question in Strawson’s original use of the reactive attitudes: in that case, determinism actually does matter, and these crimes were [over]determined and thus deserving of neither blame nor contempt.

I think we can preserve blame while jettisoning contempt: we resent the criminal for the harm they do, and don’t worry about determinism. We can’t disdain the criminal without assuming something like: “You are the sort of person who would have done that in a different context. I am the sort of person who would not have done that in any of the proximate possible worlds.” I doubt such assumptions are warranted. Perhaps I am wrong. But the policy debate that takes all those political-economic-racial questions seriously would otherwise shift to seeking better means of distinguishing the truly innocent, those whose moral and social status has been wrongly undermined, from the truly guilt, those whose moral and social status is rightly low. My claim is that there is no fact of the matter about trans-modal character, and that this is morally relevant to status.

Contempt depends on the fiction of the doer behind the deed; it disdains the sinner in addition to hating the sin. If someone admits to having committed a bank robbery or a murder, they’re still: (a) human beings, (b) autonomous agents, (c) members of my moral community, (d) capable knowers, and (e) subject to the same moral luck as all contingent creatures. Thus, they are my moral equal and ought to be my social equal as well: an intuition that reports otherwise is simply in error, no matter how many people share the intuition.

Here’s where it’s helpful to be a contrite fallibilist, though: does anyone who has the status hierarchy intuition also have a reflective defense of it? Macalester Bell doesn’t. Mason doesn’t. But maybe somebody does.

Res Publica: Philosophy, Scholarship, Work

In responding to my post on the topic, Peter Levine says of “public philosophy” that

I am not yet sure what it means or whether I want to be part of it.

To me, that is a major indictment. He then goes on to give a useful account of “public scholarship” that we can take as a contrast:

In general, the kind of public scholarship that interests me most is that which (a) involves research collaborations between academics and non-academics and (b) strengthens the capacity of non-academics. At its best, community-based participatory social science works that way: laypeople help define research problems and hypotheses, help collect and interpret data, and become more knowledgeable and effective as a result. This is different from “public scholarship” in the sense of scholarship that is well-known and accessible. It is also different from activist scholarship, because activism often implies an agenda, whereas public engagement implies a willingness to deliberate ends and means.

Much of what folks call public philosophy will not fit this bill, but frankly I suspect that this is the model we should strive for.

In part, Peter is inspired by John Dewey, in the sense that the goal of such collaboration is to help form a public:

it is desirable to turn a people into a public. Conceivably, a philosopher could help that transformation happen, which would be “public philosophy” in a Deweyan vein.

In part, too, I suspect Peter is channeling Harry Boyte’s conception of “public work.” Whereas Dewey (and Hannah Arendt) worry about the scholar overriding the public with her expertise, Boyte offers an account where our expertise gained through service and productive private enterprise is a virtue and a resource to be drawn upon in our lives. The goal of public life is not to bring us all together as amateurs, but to allow us to engage in a shared project.

Because we have a shared goal towards which progress is an unalloyed good, we need not demur over our talents and skills out of fear that we are trangressing on the equality that we hope to achieve. Instead, on Boyte’s view, we ought to seek ways to bring our professional skills to bear on public problems. This needn’t be textual scholarship on Hannah Arendt; it can be as simple as assisting with research, writing, analyzing statistical data, or facilitating fractious meetings. We don’t have to pretend that we’re only good for photocopying (although I’ve got some good techniques for scanning documents if you’re interested.) If we truly have nothing to offer as professionals, then we ought to ask whether we are studying “schmess.”

This conception of “public work” is a direct response to the anxiety that philosophers “engage with” rather than “consult for” social movements and organizations. While the rhetoric of “offering philosophical services” creates a distance that must be bridged, in practice our professional expertise offers us one of many intersections with matters of public concern. The tendency to downplay these skills, to present ourselves as the proverbial idiotes, private and unskilled in worldly affairs, is a large part of why we philosophers find ourselves, as Daniel Levine (no relation!) puts it: “unmoored and isolated from broader social currents.” This is surely a part of what Jerry Fodor has called the “masochistic metatheory,” that:

philosophical issues are the ones that nobody else cares about.

So long as we define ourselves by our irrelevance, I think we will find that we are.

The Middle Class is Losing the Race for Second Place

I think about inequality a lot. But I also think about the middle class a lot, which isn’t quite the same thing. Generally, my sympathies lie with the “least advantaged” or “subaltern,” but I also feel the pull of the American cultural commitment to the middle class.

There can be little doubt that we are seeing a dissolution of the middle class, and this often seems a tragedy. Indeed, my favorite financial guru, Elizabeth Warren, put it like this:

“A middle class where people are falling out and into poverty is a middle class that has less room to bring people up and out of poverty.”

And yet, data going back to 1970 indicates that more people are failing to remain in the middle class due to wealth than due to poverty:

the entire reason the middle class has “shrunk” is that more households today have incomes that put them above middle class. That’s right, the share of households with income that puts them in the middle class or higher was 76 percent in 1970 and 75 percent in 2010—two figures that are statistically indistinguishable. For that matter, I am not discovering fire here; Third Way made the same point in early 2007 (page 7).

As Third Way put it in 2007:

The bottom line is that the middle class is shrinking but not because the bottom is dropping out; it is because more people are better off.

Now, let’s be clear: the two middle quintiles of income will always be populated by 40% of the population, so in some sense there will always be a “middle.” But increasingly this group will not be a class.

Alan Kreuger defines the middle class “as having a household income at least half of median income but no more than 1.5 times the median.” And the incomes statistics suggest that it is increasingly difficult to tread water this close to the median income: either you sink below it, or you rocket above it. But compared to 1970, more people are rocketing above it than sinking below it. (As Warren points out, this is largely a matter of women in the workforce: a couple with two incomes is too rich for the middle-class, and couples and single folks with only one income are too poor for it.)

Many different kinds of inequality compete for our attention when we discuss the politics of fairness. For instance, as Tyler Cowen has pointed out, the difference between the top 1% and the rest of the top quintile is largely what has driven the growing inequality over the last thirty years:

the share of pre-tax income earned by the richest 1 percent of earners has increased from about 8 percent in 1974 to more than 18 percent in 2007. Furthermore, the richest 0.01 percent (the 15,000 or so richest families) had a share of less than 1 percent in 1974 but more than 6 percent of national income in 2007. As noted, those figures are from pre-tax income, so don’t look to the George W. Bush tax cuts to explain the pattern. Furthermore, these gains have been sustained and have evolved over many years, rather than coming in one or two small bursts between 1974 and today.

But this inequality is distinct from the inequality that has afflicted the bottom 50% of the income spectrum:

At the same time, wage growth for the median earner has slowed since 1973. But that slower wage growth has afflicted large numbers of Americans, and it is conceptually distinct from the higher relative share of top income earners. For instance, if you take the 1979–2005 period, the average incomes of the bottom fifth of households increased only 6 percent while the incomes of the middle quintile rose by 21 percent. That’s a widening of the spread of incomes, but it’s not so drastic compared to the explosive gains at the very top.

And even this may conceal accounting effects and the inequality that emerges as the US population ages and some among us become better educated. It is at least plausible that there has been no meaningful growth in the inequality of the 99% at all:

Attacking the problem from a different angle, other economists are challenging whether there is much growth in inequality at all below the super-rich. For instance, real incomes are measured using a common price index, yet poorer people are more likely to shop at discount outlets like Wal-Mart, which have seen big price drops over the past twenty years. Once we take this behavior into account, it is unclear whether the real income gaps between the poor and middle class have been widening much at all. Robert J. Gordon, an economist from Northwestern University who is hardly known as a right-wing apologist, wrote in a recent paper that “there was no increase of inequality after 1993 in the bottom 99 percent of the population”, and that whatever overall change there was “can be entirely explained by the behavior of income in the top 1 percent.”

What we see, then, is a world where the rich have gotten much richer and the poor and median incomes have been relatively stagnant.

I agree with Cowen that the first trend is largely driven by financial engineering (“going short on volatility” and expecting a bailout when those bets don’t pay off) that appears to be negative-sum: the very richest get richer not through work but through arbitrage and winner-take-all approaches to the markets, and they do so by putting the brakes on the rest of the economy. In other words, the problem is financial capitalism, and it requires a response rooted specifically in managing the banking, insurance, and real estate sectors of the economy. (This is the so-called FIRE economy.)

But what about the second non-trend? The largely stable infra-99% inequalities somehow disguise the “dissolution of the middle class.” Or do they?

Game theorists like to joke about the “race for second place”: if the winner realizes she’s winning, she has to slow down, which creates a weird disequilibrilizing competition. In decision-theory, this is called “satisficing” and it is opposed to “maximizing.”

Tyler Cowen refers to people who satisfice on income as “threshold earners,” a group that I certainly belong to:

It is also the case that any society with a lot of “threshold earners” is likely to experience growing income inequality. A threshold earner is someone who seeks to earn a certain amount of money and no more. If wages go up, that person will respond by seeking less work or by working less hard or less often. That person simply wants to “get by” in terms of absolute earning power in order to experience other gains in the form of leisure—whether spending time with friends and family, walking in the woods and so on. Luck aside, that person’s income will never rise much above the threshold.

There is plenty of evidence that the richest quintile is full of people who have enough and are unwilling to work any harder to get more. Consider exhortations to “chill” that are quite popular among the upper-middle class.

abandoning the quest for the ideal in favor of the good-enough. It means stepping off the aspirational treadmill, foregoing some material opportunities and accepting some material constraints in exchange for more time to spend on relationships and experiences.

These are folks who were competing for second place, and, having rocketed out of the middle class, have chosen to take more time off. This behavior certainly expands the income inequality between the richest 1% and the rest of the top quintile. But should it bother us?

Now, we all satisfice, i.e. chill, all the time: even the serial entrepreneur satisfices on non-monetary goods: she has a “good enough” marriage, a “good enough” exercise routine, etc. But we’re not proud of this in the same way that so many Americans are proud about being middle class. We don’t all brag about how we get away with giving our spouse “just enough” attention or how we’re “phoning it in until retirement.” Why not? Because we belong to a culture that doesn’t value income-as-such. But when you’re poor, money does buy a measure of happiness, so why do we take such joy in making less simply because we don’t need it? Resources in excess of need can always be given to those who need them more, either through voluntary charity or state-run cash transfers (i.e. taxing and spending.) To my mind, the reality of satisficing is largely selfish.

I suspect these little exhortations to “chill” are not in fact designed to change anyone’s behavior. Rather they’re a kind of self-congratulation. “Look at me! I’m rich and I don’t work very hard!” Last time I checked, the word for self-congratulatory idle rich folks? “Parasites.” In that sense, “medium chill” is just another way of saying “I got mine.”

Congrats! You won the genetic, educational, and financial market lotteries! You bought low and sold high! To say that the middle class is “losing the race for second place” is to point out that, despite their efforts to “chill” they just can’t help getting ahead. The problem is privilege, and structural inequality, and a changing global economy.

That’s why I tend to think that we ought not to worry so much about losing the race for second place through the enrichment of the middle class. We should focus on the poor, many of whom don’t even figure in national inequality numbers because they don’t live in this country: they belong to the “Bottom Billion” who live outside the US on less than $1 a day PPP.

Now, the strongest argument in favor of a domestic middle class (and a massively reduced upper class) is Elizabeth Anderson’s argument for “relational equality,” sometimes also called “democratic equality.” If we prioritize political participation over a more general account of capabilities, then we might worry less about the material well-being of the poorest and more about their capacity to participate as equals in the self-governance of our democracy. But I’ll save that for another day.

A Duty to Forgive?

Part 1: Forgiveness and the Problem of Irreversibility
Part 2: Forgiveness as a Manifestation of Divine Charity
Part 3: A Duty to Forgive?
Part 4: Prejudice as the Crystallization of Judgments
Part 5: Charity as a Flight from Politics
Part 6: Publicity without Politics

Arendt’s response raises interesting questions: “Of course I am prejudiced, namely against charity,” she wrote.

In her letter to Auden responding to the Falstaff essay, she retracted the equation of judicial pardon and forgiveness, not in the name of a private redemption to be found through conscience and Christian charity, but through the distinction between law and politics. For her to acknowledge a private possibility of forgiveness, she would have had to recant her account of forgiving as an act requiring a plurality. Yet here she does acknowledge that forgiveness does intervene in intersubjective relations like friendship or family life. Auden’s criticisms, she said, helped her to understand that the judicial pardon is different from the Christian conception of charity, which demands that the charitable forgiver efface distinctions for the sake of the individual: “I may forgive somebody who betrayed me but I am not going to condone betrayal ueberhaupt [‘above all’ or ‘as such’]… But charity indeed forgives ueberhaupt, it forgives betrayal in the person who betrayed — on the ground, to be sure, of human sinfulness and its solidarity with the sinner.”   (Letter from Arendt to Auden, dated 2/14/1960) A wife might forgive a husband’s philandering, for instance, but she cannot forgive philandering in principle, which is what Arendt claims that Christian charity demands: an in principle refusal to judge or to punish.

Most importantly, however, Arendt reiterates the necessity of the other: the philandering husband cannot forgive himself, because the one’s relation to oneself is insufficiently plural for an action to take place. Here, as in her discussion of friendship in the Lessing Prize address, Arendt suggests that family or friendship may sometimes qualify as a plurality, but insists that the philosopher’s two-in-one cannot serve.[i] In solitude or memoir, thought returns only the contradiction between promise and trespass, whereas a legal or theological confession offers itself to another to be judged. In the juridical setting, that other is the victim or the prosecutor; in the theological setting, it is the divine or a priestly intermediary. Continue reading A Duty to Forgive?