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.

What do Cuba and China tell us about Communism and Infant Mortality Reductions?

The first response to my last post was to point to Cuba’s low infant mortality rate; it is currently below the US’s rate. This seems like a refutation of the claim that competitive markets are a necessary condition for serious public health improvements.

There’s a propagandistic response to Cuba’s numbers, which I think is worth mentioning even if it’s still propagandistic: Cuba maintains its low infant mortality rate by strongly promoting abortions in any case of fetal abnormality. It’s really hard to establish the extent to which that is true, since only one researcher at the University of Oklahoma, Katherine Hirschfield, has claimed it while having her account sited in every case where Cuba’s infant mortality is discussed in the US media. But Cuba does have an abortion rate almost twice that of the US, so it may be a factor.

But Cuba’s pre-revolutionary infant mortality was already quite low: about 3.7% (37 under-five deaths per 1000 live births). These gains from the pre-industrial baseline were achieved under a pretty rotten colonialist capitalism. Thus, it seems to be the case the case that it’s possible to reduce infant mortality under a variety of economic systems. (Which is fine: we probably think too vaguely when we discuss these systems of communism and capitalism.)

I guess I’d add that Cuba does have free trade with everyone in the world who is not the US, so it doesn’t seem like a case of real protectionism. In fact, they actually export medical services in pretty significant ways, as well as benefiting from remittances.

The Chinese case is a more interesting one: the pre-revolutionary infant mortality rate was roughly equivalent to the background “natural evil” rate that I mentioned. Thus, the Maoist revolution drastically improved infant mortality! Through the training of midwives and later “barefoot doctors” rural infant mortality in China was brought from roughly pre-industrial levels (30% of live born children died before the age of 5) to roughly 70 in 1000 (7%) in 1978. That’s massive and worthy of serious praise. It’s also a serious challenge to the claim that only competitive markets can decrease infant mortality. The Chinese Revolution, in aggregate, was able to reduce infant mortality substantially: even including the Great Leap Famines which killed between 22 and 45 million people in three years (and likely increased fetal and infant mortality by similar levels), the gains are substantial.

Because I think capitalism is too highly specific, I often talk about competitive markets in the alternative. But the real key feature, it seems to me, is globalization: free trade with other countries. That is why I particularly balked at protectionism, without having much of a complaint about various ways to pay for medical services like single-payer plans or state-run hospitals.

Yet China reduced infant mortality significantly without free trade, and Cuba reduced it significantly with free trade. A long view obliterates any claim that infant health can be directly tied to any economic regime at all. On this, I was simply wrong, and glad to know it.

I started out to write a neoliberal theo-politics; rough and ready and trying to show where matters of relatively unchallenged beliefs about the world have led me. Challenges and data now force me to revise those beliefs. What could be more neoliberal and technocratic than that?

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?

Varieties of Inequality

I can think of at least six kinds of inequality:

Clothes are seen hanging outside a bus which has been converted into a dwelling for Lu Changshan and his wife near newly-constructed residential buildings in Hefei, Anhui province in China on November 12, 2012 (Jianan Lu/Courtesy Reuters).
Hefei, Anhui province in China  (Photo by Jianan Lu.)
  1. Inequality of income: different people receive different wages, either for different jobs or for the same job, as profits from capital investments, or as government subsidies, transfer payments, or private charity.
  2. Inequality of consumption: different people consume different products (i.e. the generic widget) in differing amounts and of varying quality. Some people have cell phones, computers, and tablet computers; some have just a cell phone; some people own no electronics. Some people have two homes, some are homeless, etc.
  3. Inequality of liberty: some people are subjected to more threats and interference than others. Some people can break the law, for instance by using illegal drugs, without consequence, while others are imprisoned and subjected to the whims and demands of institutional forces and individuals with strength or authority.
  4. Inequality of security: some people live more precarious lives than others. Some people are systematically subject to more frequent risks of loss, or have less assistance or fewer resources to fall back on should things go badly.
  5. Inequality of status: some people get more respect than others. Some people are treated with disdain and denied the prerequisites of basic human dignity. Some people are ignored and invisible, while others get more attention than they want from paparazzi and news media.
  6. Inequality of capabilities: some people have more beings and doings than others. Rather than more widgets and gadgets, some people have better access to the things that make a life go well: work, play, love, health, safety, an opportunity to be heard and make a difference, etc.

Now, potentially all of these inequalities might be troublesome, but when I think about political economy, I tend to think that inequalities grow in importance (and injustice) as they move away from nominal measures like “income” and towards real measures like liberty, security, status, and ultimately capabilities. Of course, the varieties of inequality are interrelated, but not always in a clear way. For instance, some people have high incomes but low security, like military contractors, some fishermen, and oil rig roughnecks who can all make six figure salaries by taking on inordinate risk of death or crippling injury. A wealthy person suffering from crippling depression might be consumption-rich but capability-poor. And we’ve probably all met or worked with angry low-level bureaucrats whose low status is combined with high liberty and security, which allows them to act capriciously and lazily without consequences.

In the famous aphorism of the “rising tide which lifts all boats,” John F. Kennedy suggested that it was possible that as the US progresses, the rich, middle-class, and poor states might all be better off in absolute terms even if they maintained their respective places. Subsequent use of the aphorism has generally added “even if they do not improve equally.” In the “rising tide” case championed by Kennedy, “relative” inequality would increase as the gap between rich and poor increased, while “absolute” inequality (i.e. poverty) decreased, as the poor became wealthier. But this suggests a seventh kind of inequality:

7. Inequality of growth: when a company or a country grows, some people get a larger share of the growth than others, either as a share of income, consumption, status, liberty, capabilities, or security.

Americans currently confront a situation domestically where the rich have made disproportionate gains in income and consumption compared to other classes, while the very poor experience severe losses in every category due to absurdly high rates of incarceration, lost life expectancy, increaased labor contingency, loss of meaningful participation in the political process, and many other factors. Yet while this inequality grows domestically, other inequalities are shrinking: Africa is growing again, and the the number of children who die each day from easily-treated poverty-related diseases has shrunk to half what it was a decade earlier. Some of the same factors that increased relative domestic inequality have reduced absolute global poverty. So this suggests that there are (at least) three different ways to measure inequality:

  1. The scope of the inequality: there is a difference between local inequalities and global inequalities, and on some measures and inequalities (for instance, status) the local matters more than the global, while sometimes it’s the domination or colonization of one place or group  by another that creates the problematic element in inequality.
  2. Inequality over time: for most of the world, each generation has been able to boast improved lives over the generation before. But there are times and places when this is not the case, and it may well not be the case in the future.
  3. Relative Inequality v. Absolute Poverty: Another important issue is that inequalities can be measured in relative or absolute terms: the “relative” measure is based on the difference between the most-advantaged and least-advantaged, or in some metrics between the extremes and the median. The “absolute” measure focuses on the actual levels of income, consumption, security, liberty, etc. which can rise independently or orthogonally to the difference between the best and worst.

In the literature, the last kind of inequality is often just referred to as “relative v. absolute inequality” but what really ought to concern us is when folks at the bottom face profound and multiple disadvantages. So when I think in terms of absolutes, here, I think we generally share the Rawlsian maximin intuition that we should confront and work to raise whatever the lowest-level of experience is, the floor or “bottom” that has become known as the situation of the “least-advantaged group.”

Civil-rights-leaders-want-Obama-to-talk-more-about-racial-inequalityAs for temporal and spatial inequalities, these are difficult issues indeed. Certainly there are Chinese cities where the environmental degradation is so bad that previous eras of lower consumption were actually better off; much the same may be true of European and American cities during our industrial growth spurts. We can think of the the inequality of growth as a problem that is primarily measured in terms of differences over time, but we also have to confront the profound differences between the growth levels in the US, Europe, and Japan, and the growth levels in Africa, South America, and Asia. There is growing confidence that these differences must be laid at the feet of poor institutional designs (hampered by colonial meddling) and cannot simply be explained by some form of exploitative expropriation of the developing world by the developed world.

There are broad measurement and aggregation problems with the more important kinds of inequality: it’s much harder to figure out how capabilities increase and decrease over time and populations than it is to measure income and consumption, even though measuring those is a very hard problem all on its own. Still, some theme have emerged. While there are some theorists who would not be ready to agree to the hierarchy of inequalities I’ve listed above, many justifications for libertarianism and classical liberalism rest on the assumption that the policies they advocate are best-able to achieve the maximization of the most important capabilities, securities, and liberties that I mention. After the work of Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, there may well be disagreements about measurements and priorities, but there really are fewer folks who doggedly hold to the view that consumption alone is the key to the good life and ought to be maximized. Strangely, even as more people pay lip service to pluralism, there is more and more agreement on matters of fundamental metaethical goals. I take that to be a good sign.

But various versions of the problem of inequality that circulate strike me as potentially mistaken. For instance, it’s true that, in terms of wealth and income, the very rich lost more in absolute terms than the very poor: individual investors lost billions of dollars. But they did not lose a corresponding amount of consumption, security, status, or capability. Those losses play an important role in suggesting that the very rich were as surprised as the middle-class and poor by the structural problems in the shadow banking system and mortgage-market, however: after all, you expect a fraud or a crook to have enriched himself, not immiserated himself. On the other hand, differential inequalities of growth and security suggest that a very rich investor might be willing to make a bet that will double or halve her income even if it will do the same thing the very poor for simply because of the way one calculates gains and losses when you are very rich. (This goes back to Charles Karelis’s work on the differential rationality of wealth and poverty.)

Public-sector unions as Public Work: The Case for Teachers

(This post is a continuation of Arendt, Antisemitism, and the Chicago Teachers’ Strike.)

Another way of thinking about public sector unionization is as an effort to force democratic public institutions to remain accountable to the professional standards and know-how of those who work within them. Citizens want better, more accountable teachers, yet they don’t know how to achieve this. Politicians are pressured to offer the politician’s fallacy:

“Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do this.”

Thus, they end up championing measures like high-stakes testing that masquerade as accountability while failing to supply statistically meaningful information about teacher quality. Without an advocacy group, Chicago’s teachers would not be able to convey this simple message: there may well be bad teachers, and the current system makes them difficult to fire, but the proposed measures won’t help us get rid of them. Instead, the tests will make teachers randomly fireable based on their bad luck in getting the wrong students, and as a result experienced teachers will learn to avoid contexts (like underserved students) that place them at risk.

The plan is assuredly bad, but it’s the best that a technocratic vision of our educational troubles can cobble together. Real technocrats ought to realized that we don’t actually have educational troubles, at least not in the sense that most people assume: our schools are the best in the world, and everyone knows it but us.

In education, it’s important to recognize that we do better than the comparative international rankings give us credit for. We do poorly in rankings that don’t acknowledge that immigration creates unique challenges, but such rankings are bound to prefer homogeneous and xenophobic places and I don’t think we should see them as any kind of model to emulate. If you divide our performance into two bands, one of immigrants and one of non-immigrants, and compare us to the same bands of other nations, we’d win both categories: we do better by our long-term residents, and we do a better job educating immigrants. The US outperforms Western Europe and Asia on PISA scores, if you account for the demographics of immigration. As much as the political rhetoric and in the US is quite xenophobic and there’s been plenty of backsliding in the last few years in various states, we’ve long been deeply economically and culturally committed to a kind of multiculturalism you won’t find anyplace outside of North America. (Canada is also awesome on this front, but Finland certainly isn’t!)

That’s right: we’re doing it the best it can be done here in the US, (though the pace of the quality increases are slowing.) Plus we educate more immigrants than any other country, to better effect. We’re ranked lower because we have more, lower-skilled immigrants, not because we don’t teach as well. What’s more, education is an important part of immigrants’ assimilation, and we’re better off to have those new citizens, even if it means we take a hit in the “overall” scores.

Why then do we seem to believe otherwise?

“Of course, the biggest myth that the media reporting of PISA scores propagates is that the American public school system is horrible. The liberal left in U.S and in Europe loves this myth, because they get to demand more government spending, and at the same time get to gloat about how much smarter Europeans are than Americans. The right also kind of likes the myth, because they get to blame social problems on the government, and scare the public about Chinese competitiveness.”

What’s worse, often times international rankings are used to try to show that American teachers aren’t performing as well as they ought to be. In fact, they’re dealing with so much more than teachers in other countries, and succeeding, but their successes are being inappropriately compared to the easy victories elsewhere and painted as failure. Gah!

We should still strive to improve. This will sometimes require teachers to change in ways they would like to avoid. But let us be clear that we’re in the position of improving on the best, which is more difficult than simply aping the behavior of those who are allegedly “ahead” of us. (Think of Apple: they’re in the lead, so there’s often no one for them to copy.) And we should always ask ourselves why something is the way it is before we try change it, lest our efforts at improvement merely make it worse. Teachers and teachers unions are certainly in this category! Remember Chesterton’s Fence….

Of course, the Democratic technocrats aren’t all wrong. Sure, poor students do poorly, but some poor students do more poorly than others, and the correlations suggest that some teachers are much, much better at helping poor students improve. That means we can’t just throw up our hands and point to structural racism and poverty, because teachers merit a share of the praise or blame for actually enacting that poverty and racism by exacerbating mediocrity or rising to the challenge. At the same time, discovering the traits that make teachers great doesn’t guarantee that we’ll have an infinite supply of folks with those traits. We need excellent doctors and scientists and politicians, too. If there’s not enough greatness to go around, what then?

Our ongoing strategy has been to shunt the most ineffective teachers to deal with the poorest students, with predictable results. But the reverse strategy isn’t likely to satisfy, either: rich people want their kids to have good teachers, too, and they can afford to pay for the privilege. If we believe that they’re really getting something for their money (and maybe we shouldn’t; maybe private school teachers are no better than public school teachers) then we ought to see what we can do to get it for poor and middle-class students as well.

I should just note that while the strike has been suspended, the Emanuel administration is trying to enforce a provision of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act that prevents teachers from striking on the basis of “workplace conditions” like retention and testing regimes, and instead mandates mediation for such matters. This provision was added as a part of the 1995 move to grant mayoral control of schools championed by Richard Daley. Even as a dedicated deliberativist and advocate of alternative dispute resolution, I can’t help thinking that such a mediation is unlikely to lead to the promulgation of a wise testing policy, which would be extraordinarily expensive and slow to design, evaluate, and implement. Even then, many teachers will never work with enough students in the average two-year period to generate statistically meaningful results. And yet the drumbeat for measurable excellence continues.

Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.