For Education, Against Credentialism

Today I’ll be addressing a group of imprisoned students, university administrators, and prison officials to inaugurate the University of Baltimore’s partnership with the US Department of Education and Jessup Correctional Institution to offer Bachelor’s Degrees. We have a few tasks today, including inspiring the students and encouraging the officials that their support for the program is not a betrayal of their other constituents. Here’s what I plan to say:

It’s well-known that receiving a college degree improves life outcomes. The standard claim is that getting a Bachelor’s Degree is worth an extra million dollars in income over a person’s lifetime, but even this is hard to predict as the returns to education are increasing. In 1965, a person with a college degree only made $7,500 more per year than a person without one. This is called the college wage premium: in 2013, that college wage premium had increased to $17,500. Since it’s increasing, it’s likely that a college degree today will be worth even more than a million dollars over a lifetime.

What’s more, college graduates are healthier, have lower unemployment rates and shorter periods of unemployment. They are more likely to have happy marriages and less likely to be divorced; they are less likely to be incarcerated, and even live longer.

Thus it seems like a pretty good investment. But there is very little clear connection between studying Civil War history or the anthropology of upland Southeast Asia and doing the sorts of jobs that college graduates end up doing. What’s more, there’s a phenomenon called the “sheepskin effect” which shows that most of the college wage premium comes from completing school, rather than along the way. Half or even 90% of a college degree does very little to increase your income, while finishing that last course can make a big difference.

College, then, seems to serve more as a signal of ability and conscientiousness than as training in necessary skills. Employers are paying for smart and hardworking staff, and a college degree is a reliable signal of those qualities. And indeed in college campuses throughout the country we see evidence that this is true: no one thinks that a cheater or a plagiarist is “only cheating himself,” they worry that he has an unfair advantage. The grade matters more than the work, it seems, which is also why students seek out “easy As” and rejoice when class is canceled. And many students readily engage in “cramming” for exams knowing that they will not retain the material in the long-term. (I owe these examples to Bryan Caplan, though they now seem almost too obvious to attribute.)

Calling it “signaling” is mostly an economic exercise, but educational researchers can see it at work in different ways, all of which indicate that there is not enough emphasis on learning. Educational sociologists call it the “disengagement compact,” a bargain struck between faculty and students in which both agree: “I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone.” Teachers agree to be entertaining and undemanding, and in exchange students agree to pay their tuition without complaint and give the faculty good teaching evaluations. Both thus have more time for other endeavors.

I believe that imprisoned students do not have the luxury of the disengagement compact. If we accept the signaling theory then a period of incarceration is a severe signal to potential employers: it is a signal that you are more likely than not to go back to prison. At best, a degree serves to distinguish some formerly incarcerated returning citizens from the rest, to deepen the prejudice against some returning citizens in favor of others.

Thankfully, it turns out that people do sometimes learn useful skills in college. Education can be transformative. A rigorous liberal arts education that focuses on reading difficult texts, solving complicated problems, and writing and speaking clearly about matters of little direct concern can help teach the skills that employers want more than any other:

  • critical thinking
  • analytic reasoning
  • problem solving
  • clear written and oral communication

And research on college learning outcomes suggests that a liberal arts education can teach these skills so long as the classes require a lot of reading (forty pages a week), a lot of writing (twenty pages a semester), and the professor has high expectations of the students. Which is encouraging, because it means that we can break out of the merely competitive cycle.

I have a theory as to why this works, that comes from the educational advocate Earl Shorris. His Clemente course in the humanities inspired Bard College’s Prison Initiative, which inspired the US Department of Education, who took a chance on us here. In his book Riches for the Poor, Shorris argues that one major factor in poverty is the stultifying character of one’s problems and environment. Shorris offers the analogy of Native American hunting practices, where hunters would encircle their prey and then move in, creating anxiety and fear that aids the hunter in capturing stunned prey. Poverty and prison both offer similar “surrounds of force” whereby individuals are beset by so many forces (“hunger, isolation, illness, landlords, police, abuse, neighbors, drugs, criminals, and racism”) that they do not know where to turn.

An education in the liberal arts gives us the crucial pause we need to avoid confusion and find an escape route. The “pause” is a performative skill, like learning to fix a car or perform a surgery. Anyone could do it at any time, but learning to pause when we’re stressed is actually extremely difficult. We need to learn to reflect. And it isn’t just enough for a professor to tell you: “reflect!” Just as you can’t just tell an illiterate person, “read!” or a clumsy person who has never learned, “ride that bike! A highly rigorous and engaged liberal arts degree offers its students an opportunity to train in important meta-cognitive habits. Education is not something the teacher does to the student, it’s something the student does to himself, with the professor’s guidance.

To sum up:

Education may just be about signaling. If so, let’s signal loud and clear how amazing you guys are! But there’s a good deal of evidence that education can be transformative, even if your professors can’t transform you, exactly. You have to transform yourself with their help.

We will set out the guidelines. You will meet our (VERY HIGH) expectations. If the educational sociologists are right, this will give you an opportunity to develop the habits and skills that employers want and need. And if Shorris is right, maybe you’ll develop inner peace along the way. If you see a professor giving you too much slack, ask: does she believe in the transformative value of education? Or is he just here to collect a paycheck and hand out sheepskins?

Demand transformation.

The Progressive Case for the Welfare State: A Refresher

Many of my own fellow-travelers police progressivism in a way I sometimes find frustrating. It is de rigeur to chastise neoliberals and technocratic moderates for their lack of radicality. My work tends towards the technocratic/participatory divide around how policies should be made, and so I often don’t have strong policy preferences unless I’ve researched a question extensively. Thus I may be the wrong person to offer a common sense or standardized progressive defense of the welfare state, but I thought I’d give it a shot. Here goes:

Soft-core Case

  1. Taxes are the price of a good society. Many of the benefits that citizens enjoy are the positive externalities of our shared institutions, including safety net institutions. Thus, the wealth we earn in the marketplace is only partly due to our own effort, and largely due to social investments. Taxes are thus dividends owed for those social investments, and also the seed capital of future social investment.
  2. Private charity is laudable, but historically it has always come up short of real need. The welfare state responds to these failures of private efforts to ameliorate real suffering. Meanwhile, public provision of charity has been massively successful at reducing poverty and alleviating suffering. (The measures of poverty that claim otherwise assume away the goods and services supplied by safety net institutions.)
  3. The regulatory state responds to memorable injustices and documented depredations of private institutions and interests. Public regulation of industrial activity has helped to solve large-scale coordination problems, giving us cleaner air, safer drinking water, and lower mortality than countries who do not regulate those goods.
  4. It is no coincidence that the richest countries have more pervasive welfare states. Both serious poverty and large inequalities are inefficient for finding talented workers and ensuring that they are not excluded from sectors of the labor market that the rich might be tempted to monopolize.

Medium-Core Case

  1. There is a plausible case to be made for free markets: they tend to allocate resources more efficiently than alternative institutions when there’s a method for increasing the supply of that good. But free-market principles tend to fail where there are prospects of monopoly, including in situations of desperation where price-gouging becomes possible. Rent-seeking can happen both privately and publicly, but private rent-seekers tend to extract more value from those they exploit than public rent-seekers do.
  2. When users share a common-pool resource, they gain an incentive to maintain it, punish overuse and free-riding, and invest in future development. Economists have claimed otherwise for years, but eventually they gave Elinor Ostrom a Nobel Prize for her work showing that the so-called “tragedy of the commons” is avoidable.
  3. The safety net is properly understood as a common-pool resource, in specific, as a kind of infrastructure improvement. A functional public schooling system enhances human capital and makes workers more productive. A functional safety net for the very poor prevents the loss of human capacities to bad luck.
  4. Thus, there is good reason to choose mixed institutions (polyarchy) where markets and governments work together and in competition, with governments preventing the worst excesses of markets, and exercises of liberty (through exit, voice, collaboration, and innovation) preventing the worst excesses of governments.

Hard-Core Case

  1. We have stronger obligations to our fellow human beings than our moral psychology is equipped to recognize. The same part of our psyche that ignores the needs of strangers also hates other races and cultures. Group loyalties should be expanded as much as they can be.
  2. The nation-state partially corrects for flaws in our individual moral psychology. It generates the conditions under which we can recognize a limited set of our collective obligations that transcend our family and friends, making it possible to care for distant strangers, though not yet indiscriminately. We still feel stronger obligations to our co-nationals than to citizens of other countries; we have not yet discovered institutions that can produce recognition of cosmopolitan obligations. These obligations to co-nationals includes duties of care, reciprocity, and non-domination.
  3. Care and concern require us to seek both institutional arrangements and personal opportunities to engage with our vulnerable neighbors. Reciprocity requires that we ensure that capabilities and vulnerabilities are distributed in an egalitarian manner. Non-domination requires not just that we personally forgo interfering with each other, but that we reject institutional arrangements that allow other parties to arbitrarily and capriciously coerce our fellow human beings.
  4. Universal welfare programs, like universal infrastructure programs, are better at generating a shared sense of care, reciprocity, and solidarity.
  5. Universal programs are also more efficient than need-based programs. Universal programs don’t generate perverse incentives and poverty traps. Universal programs also don’t require resources be spent on civil servants to determine eligibility or investigate potential misuse.

Super Hard-Core Case

  1. Throughout much of our history, the state and private organizations have worked together to create conditions of exploitation. This includes colonialism, slavery, and the successors to slavery, and legalized discrimination against women, homosexuals, and indigenous peoples.
  2. Most large pools of intergenerational wealth are the product of those or other abuses, and most people earning above the median income are benefiting from that history of plunder as well. Other larger pools of wealth are primarily due to the financial sector which is propped up by the public regulatory state and through corporate capture of the state’s policies. Thus taxes and social spending are usually-inadequate efforts to repay those debts.
  3. Libertarians are right to note that redistributive efforts have usually failed to change the basic inequalities of distribution in our society, and that large regulatory states provide ample opportunities for regulatory capture and rent-seeking. But the answer is not to give up on reclaiming what has been expropriated, allowing the bandits to keep what they have stolen so long as they promise to raid no more! The answer is to redistribute more effectively, regulate more intelligently, and continue to target the ways that governments and regulators become captured by the interests of the wealthy.

I’ll note that I think the “soft-core” case is somewhat at odds with the “super hard-core” case, which is what often generates divisions between liberalism and progressivism. Yet I think this basically outlines my reasons for a commitment to the welfare state.

My friends who worry about moderate and technocratic ideological inconsistency are wrong, though. I think progressives should worry about governments, a lot. Governments do a lot of bad things, including a lot of things libertarians are good at recognizing and pointing out.

And really, this post was inspired by a libertarian. Over at EconLog, Bryan Caplan offers a “refresher” designed for libertarians who find Scandinavian welfare alternatives appealing. It’s a kind of intervention for prodigals. It works primarily as a reminder to those who are supposed to have known those things, but it works well. In a few short paragraphs, Caplan combines empirical claims about the efficacy of libertarian policies with principled objections (to borders and to the coercion of taxation.) It’s not exactly an argument: more a statement of premises, with an argument perhaps taking the form of a longer book like Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority.

Yet it’s still enough to provoke debate with other libertarians. And in my view, arguments with one’s fellow-travelers can be helpful for your collective projects. As is not-often-enough-the-case, we are currently contesting the nature of the progressive/liberal divide during the primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. It’s worth remembering our basic commitments to public and participatory institutions, as well as to just and competent government.

(Post updated March 8th)

Resetting the Moral Baseline to Resist Status Quo Bias

  1. “Everybody should give most of their income to humanitarian charities.”
  2. “All whites who don’t actively fight white supremacy are complicit in it.”
  3. “There is no alternative [to capitalism.]”
  4. “You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.”
  5. “Meat is murder.”
  6. “Abortion is murder.”
  7. “Murderers are people too.”

This list is an example of claims that we make to try to challenge status quo judgments about morality. They’re assertions (frequently contested) about what the moral baseline is.

I’m thinking about moral baselines because my friend Scu over at Critical Animal has a long post about them, wherein he evaluates the intra-activism debates over what the moral baseline ought to be in the animal activism community: veganism or activism towards the cause of eliminating animal exploitation and suffering:

I am worried about the rhetoric of moral baselines. The idea of baselines are clearly set to be exclusionary, and I worry that our movement is marginal enough as is, and that we have a tendency already to eat our own. I am further worried that it does not allow for flexibility and charitability in our discussions and debates over strategic, and indeed, ethical questions.

Scu here could be writing on prison abolition and reform as much as animal activism. My own post on this, Prison Abolition, Reform, and End-State Anxieties, raised much debate among my community of prison activists for precisely this reason: while to many people the reformer and the abolitionist are indistinguishably radical, there is a disheartening  tendency for reformers and abolitionists to fight rhetorical battles about the strategies and ends of the movement. Thus we are riven by rhetoric. To the abolitionist, this is because reform tends to reassert the status quo after superficial changes: the risks of complicity are real. To the reformer, though, this is unfortunate, because we could be more effective in solidarity.

Scu ends on the same note from Mckenna’s Task of Utopia calling for a detente through the focus on ends-in-view over end-states, so of course I think he’s right. But what does this tell us about moral baselines?

Much activism focuses on this question: which currently accepted practices are actually producing injustice? Call it the difference between the obligatory and the supererogatory. Some things are bad, some things are acceptable, and some things are affirmatively good. A lot of people think it’s important to settle where those lines are. In traditional ethics, it’s wrong to kill innocents, it’s permissible to choose whatever novel you like for pleasure reading, and it’s affirmatively good to give to charity. And to motivate change, activists must reframe those accepted practices as unacceptable: their goal is move some action or situation from the permitted to the prohibited. It’s easy to see this in action by simply looking to historical examples where previously accepted practices were overturned.

What’s hard, I think, is to consider which currently accepted practices are amenable to that treatment. Because the key to all this is that acceptability condition: to our grandparents, racial segregation somehow seemed ordinary. It wasn’t what evil people did: it’s what everybody did. And before that, slavery seemed ordinary! And just a few months ago, not letting gay people marry seemed ordinary! Meanwhile, today, it’s fairly ordinary for Black people to get killed for living their lives. Sure, there’s a nascent movement to change that, but right now it’s still accepted practice even as it’s being challenged: we know that #BlackLivesMatter is an unusual, unaccepted thing to say because it’s still not true–even though it should be. So anyone who is reasonably familiar with out policing culture can understand both the acceptance of that status quo and its rejection, and my readers are rooting for its rejection.

But what about the future? Could blogging be someday considered a terrible sin? (Doubtful, right? But maybe it will seem gauche or silly.) You can probably imagine that car driving will someday look pretty selfish, as may eating the flesh of animals (or at least those raised and slaughtered in factory farms.) These are possibilities, live options that we simply haven’t faced. I’d also like to think we may someday find mass incarceration to be atrocious, solitary confinement to be abhorrent, and the health and safety conditions in our prisons to be abominable.

And so the animal activism community is trying to redraw those lines. One version is: it’s wrong to eat meat, it’s permissible to hang out with people who do, and it’s affirmatively good to participate in activism around animal abolition. On the other version, though, it’s wrong *not* to participate in activism around animal abolition. Setting the baseline (prohibited) conditions so high is a rhetorical move. Prohibiting inaction is about making the community more exclusive–just as Scu notes. Communities have the right to do this, of course, but I think it’s where activism can start to fail. This goes beyond the left. You can see similar rhetorical inflation within the pro-life movement and among libertarians as you do among radical marxists.

(There’s also a strong deontic preference to prohibit acts rather than inaction; prohibited inactions run into defeasibility issues.)

The positive side of activists redrawing the lines of acceptability is that that’s how you get things like organized non-violence and other strategic decisions to stick. So if having non-vegans in the mix was a bad strategic decision for animal activists, then it’d be important to set the baseline there. If having quietist vegans who aren’t activists was somehow undermining the activism, it’d make sense to exclude them, too. I can’t speak to that question without more knowledge of animal activism than I have, but my suspicion is that that’s too restrictive.

What we know about social movements is that their efficacy comes when they are able to demonstrate WUNC: worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment. Unity, commitment, and numbers are always in tension: you need to get lots of people engaged, but you also need to keep them on message. You need to show others that the cause is so important that you’ll make ostentatious sacrifices to advance it, but you don’t want to scare potential allies away by making the sacrifices too great to bear.

Then, too, not all activists are social movement activists. You can be an activist by writing inspiring–and demanding–words. You can be an activist while also working inside of a regulatory agency. You can be a democratic professional. So pluralism–of means and ends–seems to be the most important baseline.

Is the US an Oligarchy?

"Get Money Out of Politics" by Flickr user Light Brigading
“Get Money Out of Politics” by Flickr user Light Brigading

Some things live forever in social media. In my circles, one article that comes up all the time is the Marten and Gilens study of legislative influence that is often interpreted this way: “US No Longer an Actual Democracy” or “Princeton Concludes What Kind of Government America Really Has, and It’s Not a Democracy.

Part of the problem is that I think there are serious political inequality issues in the US. But the study fails to prove it, and it’s been blown out of proportion in lots of disempowering ways. The study is basically a victory for the null hypothesis: on reflection, we don’t have much evidence that policies are determined by a single group.

Here’s how it works: the study compares the policy preferences of four groups: median voters, voters in the top 10 percent of income, business-oriented interest groups, and “mass-based” interest groups. Using data from survey responses, they note that policy outcomes more often correlate with the rich and business-oriented interest groups than with the median voter and mass-based interest groups. Case closed, right?

No so fast: It’s still the case that the best predictor of the success or failure of any policy initiative is the median voter. But the median voter and the 90% voter usually agree. When they don’t, the 90% voter usually either a) prefers the status quo or b) prefers the socially liberal position. And so over the last 20 years, the status quo has tended to win out (in aggregate) except when it is broadly favored by median and 90% voters or is socially liberal and favored by the 90% voter.

A lot of this paper depends on obscuring some important issues behind difficult math. Their R2 is .074; that’s actually, pretty close to random. It means that median voters, economic elites, and interest groups, together, determine 7.4% of the variability in policy outcomes! Almost all of that is elites and interest groups, it’s true! But when you’re dealing with such small numbers, it’s easy to get *statistically* significant results that aren’t actually all that significant in human terms. In 92.6% of the policy outcomes, none of these independent variables was predictive.

That means that no group predominates most of the time, but “US System of Government is 95% Democratic” doesn’t get people to link to your study on social media.

What’s worse is that most of my progressive readers will disagree with the policy issues that the median voter has lost on.

A Metafilter friend who looked at the SPSS file wrote: “Of the 1779 polls, 105 ended up with policy being what rich people wanted and what median-income people didn’t, out of 189 polls where rich people and regular folks disagreed. The only times there was more than a 20-point gap (ie 60% of rich wanted one side but only 40% of regular people did) were the 10 or so questions about NAFTA. The rest of the time it was a slight majority of rich people favoring something and a smidge under 50% of regular folks favoring it. 

Rich people got their way mostly on social issues — RU486 legality, IDX legality, gays in the military, various abortion/birth control restrictions. But also stuff like outright banning immigration for five years, the legality of public-sector strikes, outright bans on military or domestic aid to any foreign country, and so on.”

The median voter has sometimes been prone to serious mistakes or moral failings, as you can see. So the real title should be “US System of Government is 95% Democratic and a Lot of the Rest of The Time the Demos are Assholes and Deserve to Lose.”

Then, too, nothing in their data can disaggregate the top 1% or the top 0.1%, as the authors freely admit. It also doesn’t ask about the bottom 10% or the bottom 1%, which is a perspective I much prefer.

But that means that their conclusions regarding elite domination are even less well-supported. As a progressive I’m primed to suspect that very wealthy interests usually dominate: what’s interesting is how hard it is to prove what “everybody knows.” If you believe in their conclusions, then you should actually downgrade your priors on the basis of this study. Mostly, this is a study that demonstrates how hard it is to do serious empirical work on this question. It ignores selection bias issues like which policies pollsters poll on. (Hint: they tend to poll on popular policies that are not yet in place.) If there aren’t any polls on the vast majority of things affluent and median disagree on, we’d be in the dark about affluent influence. As longtime readers know, my favorite policy initiative is the basic income guarantee, but it’s very rarely polled and when it is polled, it’s fairly unpopular.

So I do think “median voters and affluent voters generally agree in polls” is the most significant finding here. Democracy may often lead to this confluence of elite and mass interests, either through propaganda or elite-deference to voters. Perhaps voters judge outcomes rather than policy inputs, so politicians aim to guarantee good economic and social outcomes even when these contradict the policy preferences that would have unintended consequences. Perhaps it’s even true that the petite-bourgeoisie still finds its class interests allied with capital most of the time. The real victims can’t vote, right?