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.

Advice and Consent

“To what purpose then require the co-operation of the Senate? I answer, that the necessity of their concurrence would have a powerful, though, in general, a silent operation. It would be an excellent check upon a spirit of favoritism in the President, and would tend greatly to prevent the appointment of unfit characters from State prejudice, from family connection, from personal attachment, or from a view to popularity. In addition to this, it would be an efficacious source of stability in the administration.” -Alexander Hamilton, Federalist #76

There’s something a little bit weird about the role of the Senate’s oversight of Cabinet nominations. Say that a President X campaigns on policy Y, and she wins. Why should her nominee be rejected by the Senate for advocating policy Y? It’s a moment of legislative supremacy that requires additional explanation, and there’s little evidence that the Senate is more small-d democratic than the President, especially as originally envisaged. Some possibilities:

  1. The Constitution is wise, full stop. (Read no farther, heroic originalists!)
  2. Cabinet nominees may have policy agendas upon which the President didn’t campaign.
  3. As Hamilton says in the Federalist Papers, this can help uncover private corruption and conflicts of interest.
  4. This is an opportunity to tame the prince, and that’s always welcome in a system that overemphasizes the presidency.
  5. In order for the balance of powers to work to multiply rather than divide sovereign power, there has to be a lot of opportunities for confrontation and collaboration between the branches. The powers are best separated by repeatedly bringing the branches into contact.
  6. The Senate was supposed to be selected by State legislatures, so oversight of the Judiciary and the Cabinet is important for enforcing federalism and subsidiarity, which was a prerequisite for Union.
  7. The Cabinet has a dual role, working at the pleasure of the President but enforcing the laws enacted by the Legislature. So this is a moment where the Senate can force the Cabinet nominees to acknowledge that dual responsibility and protect against selective non-enforcement.
  8. Like many deliberative venues, nomination hearings require elaborate preparation. Merely educating himself for the Senators’ questions can better prepare a nominee for the policy challenges to come.
  9. It’s all a trick to give the Senate some share of the blame or praise for the Cabinet’s actions.
  10. It’s another stalling tactic in a Constitution that was designed to freeze government and enforce the principle that the government that governs best governs least.

What are some other possibilities?

  • Paul Gowder adds the remaining quote from Hamilton’s Federalist #76 (“He [the President] would be both ashamed and afraid to bring forward, for the most distinguished or lucrative stations, candidates who had no other merit than that of coming from the same State to which he particularly belonged, or of being in some way or other personally allied to him, or of possessing the necessary insignificance and pliancy to render them the obsequious instruments of his pleasure.”) and comments: “essentially to prevent the president from appointing cads and bounders.”

Margalit and Derrida on Forgiveness and the Skandalon

Avishai Margalit offers an interesting justification for the duty to forgive. The obligation to forgive the other’s crimes for one’s own sake “stems from not wanting to live with feelings of resentment and the desire for revenge.” (Margalit 2002, 207) Where Immanuel Kant holds that we owe it to ourselves as rational beings to be free from the pathological heteronomy of malice, Margalit associates this obligation to forgive with the obligation to preserve one’s own health: to fail to forgive is to imbibe “poisonous attitudes and states of mind.” (Margalit 2002, 207) In either case, the obligation to forgive is a special case of self-preservation and self-care.

Part of his reasoning is that Margalit wants to preserve the role of regret and to distinguish forgiveness from forgetting. His principle concern is memory and the obligation to remember past transgressions, so Margalit argues that we need to find a way to deal with past transgressions in a way that does not completely blot out their memory. As a religious practice, forgiveness models the divine absolution between the Creator and his creation and so requires two actors: the penitent, who remorsefully reports her crimes to the priest or to his Creator who already knows them, and the confessor, who judges her contrition and offers penance and the absolution of her sins. It is the transgressor’s act of remorse that ‘covers up’ her crimes. In undoing his past acts, the remorseful transgressor not only makes himself worthy of forgiveness, but creates a positive obligation in his victim. Quoting Maimonides, Margalit chides us that “it is forbidden to be obdurate and not allow oneself to be appeased.” (Margalit 2002, 194) But in converting the religious vocabulary of divine prohibition into a humanist dialect of ordinary duties and rights, he preserves the claim that forgiveness is a duty rather than supererogatory.

Focusing on the root ‘give,’ Margalit articulates the problem of an obligatory gift, but, pointing to the work of early anthropologists, concludes that some gifts are “intended to form or strengthen social ties between the original giver and the one who returns the gift.” (Margalit 2002, 195) On this reading, the original giver is the transgressor, who offers his remorse.

“I am claiming that the obligation to forgive, to the extent that such an obligation exists, is like the obligation not to reject a gift—an obligation not to reject the expression of remorse and the plea for forgiveness.”(Margalit 2002, 196)

To refuse to forgive is to refuse a gift, not an exorbitant gift, but an ordinary one, as when gifts are exchanged in what eventually appears as an economic transaction similar to any other commercial deal. The victim is obligated to respond in kind by granting forgiveness, in the name of “social ties.” Compare this to Hannah Arendt’s judgment of Eichmann: that no one, not even she, could be asked to “share the world” with him. For Margalit, the forgiver must exclude the forgiven act from all future judgments of her transgressor. The transgressor’s remorse covers over the past, but it still falls to the forgiver to resist peaking underneath the cover of forgiveness.

The metaphor of the palimpsest helps to illustrate this task: though the transgression is indelible and ineradicable, the forgiver nonetheless scratches it out. Forgiveness leaves an overwritten mark that can be deciphered, especially in light of further transgressions.

What does it mean to claim that such a pure gift is possible? To give remorse in expectation of forgiveness is like giving a gift in expectation of the return of a gift of equal or greater value. It is the economy of the gift, the obligatory mutuality of this “mutual release,” that troubles Arendt when she encounters it in Auden’s letter. My suspicion is that it cannot be obligated in the way that Margalit suggests: if forgiveness is to retain its capacity to begin anew, it cannot be subjected to this sort of calculation.

Margalit’s account mirrors that of another recent theorist of forgiveness, Jacques Derrida, who pushes this tension into a now-famous paradox to the debates on deliberation based on a similar paradox in the gift. (Bernstein 2006, Derrida, et al. 2001) Derrida juxtaposes obligatory forgiveness with what he calls impossible forgiveness. On the one hand, there are acts of forgiveness required by the regular and ordinary relations of friends or fellow citizens. We ask and expect forgiveness for lateness or when we brush past someone in a crowded space. To refuse to forgive in those situations appears as a provocation or an attack. When strangers deny each other this petty reconciliation, they are declaring hostility. When friends refuse to make allowance for each others’ foibles, they effectively dissolve the friendship. Insofar as we wish to avoid hostilities or preserve the friendship, we are obliged to trade remorse for this ordinary and expected gift of forgiveness. As such, ordinary reconciliation is hardly real forgiveness, just as an exchange of equally valuable goods isn’t really giving.

On the other hand, there is forgiveness that Derrida labels “impossible.” This is the skandalon, the unforgiveable act over which our efforts to forgive not only stumble but are absolutely incapable of making headway. Systematic injustices, massacres, torture, and acts of genocide all present themselves to us as candidates for forgiveness, but Derrida argues that these acts are not really within our jurisdiction to forgive.  Either because we cannot represent the dead victims or because the act itself is too unimaginably atrocious that it resists our efforts even to understand or the criminal’s efforts to encompass in meaningful remorse, forgiveness in these situations is impossible.

For Derrida, this is an aporia: forgiveness is impossible, because it is only really required when we face an unforgiveable transgression. Yet those unforgiveable transgressions are the only times when forgiveness is necessary. Anything less than the unforgiveable need not be forgiven, since such negligible acts can be simply reconciled, overlooked, or embraced as peccadilloes if friendship is to be possible at all. Since I must forgive minor transgressions, the only tests of forgiveness are precisely those acts that are beyond my capacity to forgive. Is it obligatory? Is it possible? We cannot know this a priori: we must wait and see.

As I see it, the limit of forgiveness is not within our voluntary power, an act of will, but rather in developing the capacity to imagine the act that we are trying to forgive. Thus the skandalon of forgiveness is an imaginative challenge, we stumble over it when acts are unimaginable, and we overleap it when our imagination succeeds. We make these imagined acts meaningful for others through poiesis: we create a world of meaning in which they are imaginable by marking exemplars, noting commonalities, and creating spaces of remembrance. The product of our work thus makes these meaningless deaths and thought-defying atrocities meaningful and thinkable. If you think about it from the perspective of un-consolable resentment, this is a crime akin to justification or exoneration.

This fundamentally creative act is ultimately what made Arendt’s work on Eichmann so troubling: not that she herself made him appealing or granted him mercy, but that by imagining the kind of character that could have helped commit genocide, it made that genocide forgiveable as it ought never to be. Whether Arendt forgave Eichmann or condemned him to die is then irrelevant: insofar as she created the conditions for forgiveness, she deserves repudiation and hatred. She used her imagination to make the impossible-to-forgive possible.

Going Upstream: Prisons and the Social Determinants of Health

A couple of weeks ago, I joined with hundreds of other students and scholars at Johns Hopkins for a conference on prisons and the social determinants of health. The star of the conference was this story:

One day three men were fishing in the river when they noticed a baby floating towards them. Two of the men jumped out of their boat to save the child, and the third brought the baby and the boat to shore to care for it. As they stood around comforting it, one of the men spotted a second baby floating downstream! As he ran back towards the river, he was shocked to see his friend turn and run upstream. “What are you doing?!?” he cried. “There’s a baby in the water!” His friend shouted back over his shoulder: “I’m going to find the asshole throwing kids into the river!”

It was repeated and referenced throughout the day; it is a story about root causes and priorities, and it’s quite appropriate in a public health context where there’s always a tension between treating the symptoms or identifying the etiology. “Going upstream” means looking for the systematic and institutional causes of the illnesses and deaths public health workers encounter every day. We have to save the babies in the water, but we can’t ignore how they got there.

What we heard time and time again at this conference was a curious mix of ideas and arguments: on the one hand, many of Baltimore’s and America’s worst public health problems could be laid at the feet of the mass incarceration of its least advantaged residents. The nexus of poverty and educational failures were closely correlated with racism and prisons, and these were closely correlated with premature mortality, disease, and lost capacities. Put simply: prisons are one of the primary mediating terms for the creation of disparate health outcomes for whites and blacks.

And yet: we heard from a number of scholars who tried to give us a window onto criminality and delinquency through the neurobiology of adolescent impulsivity or the experience of substance abuse and dependency. These scholars didn’t even mention these racial disparities, and so they seemed to offer us little hope of a connection between the putative objectivity of brain and addiction science and the clear biases in arrests, prosecutions, convictions, and incarcerations. We even heard from one scholar who spent a long time touting his credentials and then accused African-American men of “compensatory narcissism.” (What was *he* compensating for?)

by Flickr user John Watson

Each panel was punctuated by a student poet from Dew More Baltimore, and these sizzling lyrics gradually seemed to impress the speakers that they could not ignore race any more. As the day went on, we heard from Elijah Cummings and Eddie Conway. We heard from a group of formerly incarcerated men who ran non-profits working on reentry and job placement. And we started to hear more talk of solutions: ways to reduce the number of people in jail, divert juveniles from the school-to-prison pipeline, and deal with substance abuse issues. David Kennedy‘s work with SafeStreets is designed to reduce the number of crime victims, and as a side effect reduce the number of people incarcerated: this is certainly laudable work worthy of all the celebration it has received, but it’s not really about abolishing prisons so much as it is about better-managing policing to increase efficacy,  reduce costs, and mitigate harms. In that sense, it’s meliorist rather than abolitionist. It goes upstream, but does it go upstream enough? Or does it tarry there in the water because there are lives to be saved right now?

What I never heard was a response to Vesla Weaver‘s challenge from the beginning of the day: African-Americans who encounter the criminal justice system are increasingly socialized with a dual logic: they are held responsible for the outcomes in their lives, while being actively disenfranchised in the decisions that will affect the conditions that produce those outcomes. The language of personal responsibility is rampant, even in public health; yet we know that demographic and institutional factors will play a major role in shaping outcomes. Disenfranchisement is the ultimate “up stream” moment; building social capital and public health seems to require re-enfranchisement.

Of course, Weaver herself didn’t tell us how to accomplish that. And so I return to Elinor Ostrom: you have to create an alignment between responsibility and the power to act. Ostrom showed that institutions can “crowd-in” responsibility: those who will experience the consequences of an action have to be the ones who control it. Civic capacities are hampered by medical and social incapacities, but at the same time civic capabilities can produce better outcomes in medicine and the economy.

Right now, we seem committed to more expert management of disenfranchised populations, and so we continue to create the mismatched logic of powerless responsibility and unaccountable power. The alternative is to let the Dew More poets take center stage and ask the scholars to wait for the intermission.

What are the ruling ideas today? Is “College For All” among them? (Doubts-that-don’t-change-our-practices edition)

by flickr user ChrisM70
by flickr user ChrisM70

I’ve just finished an article on higher education and the liberal arts, and it’s full of hope and comes to some definite conclusions about particular ways that an education in the liberal arts is valuable. It’s out for peer review right now, which means that if the reviewer is googling phrases maybe she’ll find this, so I want to say up front: I believe in what I wrote there. But I also have doubts about the progressive push towards education for all, the idea that through education we can all shed the demands of material labor, or that the value (and cost!) of an education should be totally disconnected from its role is securing a job.

Automation v. Education

The Economist recently gave voice to this particular error in its article on how technology will increasingly be automating office workers out of their jobs, which will widen the already broad inequality between those who must compete with machines and computers, and those whose jobs cannot (yet) be reduced to an algorithm. Here’s how they put it:

The main way in which governments can help their people through this dislocation is through education systems. One of the reasons for the improvement in workers’ fortunes in the latter part of the Industrial Revolution was because schools were built to educate them—a dramatic change at the time. Now those schools themselves need to be changed, to foster the creativity that humans will need to set them apart from computers. There should be less rote-learning and more critical thinking.

Technology itself will help, whether through MOOCs (massive open online courses) or even video games that simulate the skills needed for work. The definition of “a state education” may also change. Far more money should be spent on pre-schooling, since the cognitive abilities and social skills that children learn in their first few years define much of their future potential. And adults will need continuous education. State education may well involve a year of study to be taken later in life, perhaps in stages.

Yet however well people are taught, their abilities will remain unequal, and in a world which is increasingly polarised economically, many will find their job prospects dimmed and wages squeezed.

What value, then, is an education, if it won’t prevent the technological obsolescence of our skills? Put simply: if there are going to be ditches (which are required for plumbing, among other things) then there are going to be ditch diggers, or ditch-digging-machine-operators, or ditch-digging-machine-programmers. The move to automation replaces many operators with a few programmers, enriching the educated programmer at the expense of the uneducated operator, and that’s the move that should concern us, since it violates a basic rule of maximin: the people hurt are both more numerous and more needy than the people helped.

The standard economic argument is that lower prices help the poorest the most, and that freedom from unskilled labor allows workers to do something more rewarding, something that requires an education but cannot be imagined under the current political economy that requires so many to dig ditches. It’s like the old joke:

An industrialist is visiting a construction site and watching a newly-invented steamshovel in its first job. The union foreman complains that its job could be done by a dozen men with shovels, each earning a decent wage. The industrialist retorts it could be done by a hundred men with spoons.

Usually I prefer state-level redistribution through a basic income guarantee, but sometimes I think it makes more sense to fight for higher wages for the folks doing the digging than it does to hope that everyone will be able to escape that life if they could only get a Bachelor’s degree or a PhD. That hope in education has an ideological function that exceeds its aspirational and inspirational effects.

Who is the Ruling Class?

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas…”

So wrote Karl Marx in the The German Ideology. I’m not entirely sure that there is a single ruling class in American politics, in the sense Marx articulated it, but if there is one, it’s the folks with Bachelor’s degrees, the modern bourgeoisie. We are often-enough regaled by politicians with solicitations to the “middle-class” or “working Americans” that we might be tempted to identify these groups as the ruling class, but about 60% of the population participates in the workforce, and exactly 60% of the population are in the middle three quintiles of income sometimes identified as the middle class. I would argue that these groups are too large to have conjoined interests or ideas.

On the other hand, we are sometimes assured that the very rich and very few (for instance, the top 1%) are in fact governing the US, and that the masses don’t perceive the truth of this dominance because of ideology. If I’m right about the college educated, then it’s much too convenient to limit the ruling class to bankers and stock brokers and identify neoliberalism as the ruling idea; if the traditional bourgeoisie still exercises a great deal of control, then even the very rich must still win over that larger group in order to maintain their wealth. Arguably the 99% v. 1% language of Occupy was a clever rhetorical strategy for enlisting the support of the larger ruling class with the interests of the proletariat. It may be that billionaires manipulate the agenda, but the baseline agenda the wealthy are trying to steer is set by the merely well-off.

Another possibility is that that larger class really does share class interests with the 1%, so Occupy was unsuccessful because the ruling class’s ideas can’t be moved by rhetoric if its interests are at stake. (As I understand it, this is Marx’s point: ideology is believing that ideas matter more than practices.)

Bourgeois Ideology

So what does that class (to which I and my readers probably belong) have in common?

  • We are college educated.
  • We work in offices, with computers.
  • We are employed, and if we are in relationships we probably cohabitate with our partners who are also employed.
  • We live in cities or “suburbs” which have been adopted by some metropolitan area.
  • We own our own home (though this may be changing.)
  • We often don’t live near where we were born, or in the same city as our families.
  • We are likely to work in education, health-care, technology, management, or the public sector.
  • Our careers tend to benefit from globalization.
  • We are predominantly white.
  • We have very little contact with police, prisons, or the criminal justice system unless we are employed by those institutions (which many of us are.)

If what I’ve described above is correct, then perhaps these would be the ruling ideas:

  • Education is for everyone, and more equal educational access will create a more equal society.
  • Office-work is difficult and valuable, and education ought to prepare us for it.
  • Jobs and workplace regulations are the primary mode by which the state ought to see to the public’s good.
  • Marriage is good for everyone; even homosexuals should marry.
  • Urban life is better than rural life.
  • The American Dream should require (and subsidize) home ownership even if that punishes renters and those too poor to afford a home.
  • Family ties matter less than economic success.
  • Education, health-case, technology, and the public sector are the “best” jobs and ought to be subsidized.
  • Globablization is good.
  • Race is irrelevant.
  • The criminal justice system should supply entertaining plot lines for movies and television, but it is not otherwise relevant. Probably most people in prison belong there.

To be clear, while I’m not advocating these ideas, I believe (or act as if I believe) many of them. If those ideas are fundamentally aligned with my class-interest, it would be more surprising if I didn’t believe them. It’s not simply a coincidence that those with the most power and influence in society never have their fundamental interests questioned in our politics. That’s what makes them ideological, that these aren’t partisan issues: no one contests the value of education or marriage, and very rarely do they contest the important of home ownership.

Another possibility is that the top 20%-30% of Americans are not members of some ruling class, that the class is either much smaller than that or that there really isn’t such a thing as as single ruling class any longer, just a number of different social groups that align themselves in ways that they can succeed and govern on some topics and not others. For instance, none of the possible ruling ideas I mentioned included things that are quite clearly also governing American culture and politics, like support for the elderly through Medicare and Social Security (unless you think the elderly are the true ruling class), or America’s military role in the world (unless you think the military is the ruling class). Ideas like meritocracy and personal responsibility, patriotism and faith are frequently rejected by the richest two quartiles, precisely because they conflict with the values instilled by higher education and urban life.

If those ideas are also “ruling” in some way, then we would expect that those who hold them would be the true ruling class if all ruling ideas must belong to the ruling class. Perhaps instead, ruling ideas come from all the classes. Indeed, other ideas aren’t even “ruling ideas” so much as deeply felt constitutional claims, like the important of markets and prices for mediating our economic interactions, the idea that personal property and capital property should be governed by similar rules, or the assumption that inequality can ever be justified by increased productivity or merit. These ideas no longer have their source in a single class, even if they once did, just as in some sense American’s deep commitment to the idea of democracy and one-person-one-vote is a classless idea, at least in the US.

(It should be pointed out that what I have just written in the last paragraph is almost precisely the position being lampooned by Marx in The German Ideology. Ironic, eh?)

At What Cost?

I worry that the cultural promotion of the value of education is ideological, often, because I both benefit from it and yet also regularly watch how “College For All” seems to be disadvantaging a lot of my students. My fellow progressives who rail against the false equality of opportunity that makes the poor think they will someday be millionaires ought to understand why college can’t be an exit from the working class for everyone. Sure, anyone can be a millionaire or good at college, but everyone can’t. It’s a meritocratic institution, not an equalizer, and very little of the so-called college wage premium goes to those who graduate from community colleges and unselective four year universities. The inequality is built into our political economy!

I mean no disrepect to my students, either. I don’t think it’s disrespectful to appreciate the priorities of those who are actually choosing between homework and subsistence labor, for instance, or attendance and childcare. I’ve only been working at an unselective institution for three years, after seven years at selective universities, and the difference is palpable. I watched one student’s children so she could take exams without leaving them accessible to her abusive ex. She barely passed, and we both called that a victory: she hadn’t had much time to study, and had to read her notes through a hell of a black eye. Was education really the most important thing to do for her? What did she learn that she’ll remember later?

What about the student who I have cried with because she is dying from cancer: her husband just left her because the chemo makes her not want to have sex, and all she wants to do is graduate before she dies? Or the student who discovered she was pregnant and came to me because she didn’t know what to do? Or my student whose brother was shot and broke down in class? Or my student who was followed into class and physically threatened? Or my student who thought she had to be a nursing major until she realized she was really good at philosophy, but is still majoring in nursing to be practical? Or my student who asked me to help him figure out how to transfer when he realized that the only way he’d get a good education in computer science was if he left us? Or my students who are also incarcerated?

Rights and Privileges

I’m not saying that they don’t deserve an education: they do! Those are almost all people who will have college diplomas or already have them. Most of them are women. They won’t dig ditches, but they will work in jobs that only require a college degree nominally, where the skills they’ve often failed to learn are irrelevant. The diploma will prove that they have grit and conscientiousness, and give them a leg up in a job market where signaling such things are necessary, but they, like most people, will not remember what Modus Ponens is or how the the Rawlsian original position is supposed to help us think about justice.

There’s a difference between saying, “Right now, you have more important things to do than your logic homework, and that’s okay,” and saying, “Because you are poor, you don’t deserve a college education.” My students in prison are much better academically than the ones who are free, just because they have the time to focus on their studies, and I think there is a lot of value in the work that we do together. But no Pell Grants means no credit, and a felony record means that the skills they learn may never be put to work.

Maybe there’s a difference between “deserving” and “needing” an education. Most people don’t need a college diploma, certainly not to do their jobs, and probably not to be good citizens. They need a union or a basic income guarantee or a social minimum or a citizen capital grant or workplace democracy. But increasingly the only people who still have unions and political power are the people who also have college degrees, and those of us in that group like to pretend that increasing subsidies for bourgeois students (our kids) will help the ditch-diggers, too. That’s a bit too convenient, isn’t it?