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.)

The Progressive Paradox

Bob LaFolletteAt the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a broad consensus among reformers in the United States regarding the perniciousness of economic monopolies and winner-take-all politics. After that period of rampant growth and cronyism known as the Gilded Age, groups who had been disproportionately disadvantaged by political patronage and voter fraud began to organize their activities around the need for policies maximizing the inclusiveness and fairness of democratic procedures. This movement had a name: Progressivism. The goal was to improve the outcomes of democratic elections by creating mechanisms that would effectively hold representatives accountable to the informed interests and preferences of the electorate. This required both an alteration in the parties that supplied the representatives and the people who voted for them. The state-level changes included transparency requirements and anti-corruption oversights for elected representatives, suffrage and poll access reforms, while the political parties became quasi-state entities forced to submit their expenditures to public accountability, in exchange for which they received public funding. The electorate began to create spaces, both publically and privately funded, aimed at fostering broad deliberation prior to elections: Chautauquas, discussion clubs, and settlement houses like Chicago’s Hull House formed for the purposes of adult and immigrant education, issue identification, neighborhood organizing, and debate.

Peter Levine has argued that the accomplishments and pitfalls of the pre-Depression Progressive movement are best epitomized by Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette’s 1924 presidential campaign as the Progressive Party nominee. As governor and then Senator for Wisconsin, La Follette achieved singular victories in transparency, honesty, and accountability. “Until the last phase of his career, he spoke about little except political reform and generic rights for all consumers and taxpayers.” (Levine 2000, 22) Yet when the procedural reforms were enacted, they naturally created a situation which his successors used to enact substantive policies with regard to the regulation of industry (especially the railroads), funding (a ‘progressive’ state income tax), and to form environmental conservation agencies, complicated schemes for state life insurance, and agricultural subsidies. On the one hand, La Follette’s “political reform produced stronger, more efficient, and more representative government,” on the other hand, the electorate used  their increased involvement and accountability to demand “a massive increase in the powers of government, which (in turn) necessitated the use of expert administrators.” (Levine 2000, 25-6) In short order, the democratic gains were lost to a set of institutions who were no more accessible procedurally than their corrupt and exclusive predecessors, even as they were oriented, at least at first, towards the objectives of justice and the public interest arrived upon democratically.

The greatest irony of the American Progressive era is that the supremely democratic efforts of labor groups, community activists, and the deliberative elements of the public sphere accomplished unprecedented victories, but that these victories led to policy decisions that undermined the very democratic activities that made them possible. The potential for further ‘progress’ was dissipated as state-centric solutions to economic and social problems led to an increasing reliance on the institutions that make up what we now call the ‘administrative state.’ However, this is not simply a matter of kicking aside the ladder once we have ascended. The condition of possibility for future endeavors cannot be sustained without maintenance: public policies must appear, along with the officials who administer them, in public spaces where they can be understood, evaluated, and amended at will. This space must also be open for the appearance of unexpected individuals, encounters, and acts; the only thing that closes that space is violence.

The Progressive paradox was first identified as the ‘the curse of bigness,’ a phrase used by Louis Brandeis to describe the deleterious effects of the expansion and centralization of business and government. As organizations grow, they become increasingly inaccessible and procedurally rational. Their capacity to remain accountable to their constituents is inversely proportionate to their efficiency. Large institutions replace the public sphere, which provides opportunities for individuals to appear through deeds and speech, with a regulatory apparatus ruled by speech codes and language games. Expert bureaucrats rely on complicated schemes like insurance or subtle changes in promulgated regulations, which make it difficult for non-experts to engage as equals in ascertaining the relationship and judging their efficacy between policy measures and policy goals. We live in what Michael Sandel calls a ‘procedural republic,’ where both the forms of administrative power and the plural character of the citizenry prevent meaningful deliberation regarding the public good, which undermines collective action in support of thick cultural values beyond basic fairness.

Talk Ain’t Cheap

Deirdre McCloskey describes her project:

I have been trying for thirty years to revive the rhetorical tradition, and lately to introduce language into the economists’ models in which talk is cheap and therefore of no consequence.   On the contrary, sweet talk, persuasion, is one quarter of national income, earned by managers and teachers, police and lawyers.   Ignoring it would be like ignoring private investment — which is is fact a smaller sector than sweet talk.

When economists describe signaling behaviors, they’re usually trying to reduce the inefficiencies they produce. But signaling, “sweet talk,” is how we coordinate. We’re not “just” wasting time and energy signaling, we’re working together on shared projects. Many of the signals necessary for that collaboration must be costly or else they’ll be dishonest and our shared projects will be dissolved. For instance, when you could buy a bachelor’s degree and good grades, it no longer serves as a useful signal for allowing intelligent and conscientious workers to organize. Of course, many of my own complaints about the growth of “administration” are prone to the same criticism: paying bureaucrats to run retreats when there’s productive work to be done looks wasteful, but perhaps the alternative is a less-well-coordinated world. Maybe PowerPoint slides are all that stand between us and chaos.

What is the belief you hold that is most likely to be wrong?

Another way of putting this question is: how does your ideology and social setting blind you? One way to answer is to look at those beliefs that you have the most incentive to deceive yourself about. What are your biases? For instance, I’m probably not as smart or as caring as I think I am, because I want to be smart and caring and I’m going to be on the lookout for evidence in favor of those two beliefs and be tempted to ignore or discount evidence against them. But then, too, there is the Dunning-Kreuger effect, so who the hell knows? Whatever we think about these traits, we’re probably wrong, but in the banal way that everyone else is likely to be wrong, too.

I have something like my old prompt about books that changed your mind. Even if we’re conscious of the dangers of motivated reasoning and motivated rationality, we can still point to those beliefs that we hold that we see as the weakest, perhaps not because we hold them in an effort to signal ability or loyalty, but because we find holding those beliefs useful for orienting further inquiry. So here goes:

  1. Moral Realism: The belief I hold that is most likely to be wrong is a belief in moral judgments that track something objective or at least non-agent-relative. After all, it’s difficult to engage in normative inquiry without believing that our researches track something. Just as philosophers of religion tend to believe in God and astrologers tend to believe in the predictive power of the stars, ethical and political philosophers tend to believe in their thing, too. If we’re wrong on this (as thousands of relativist undergraduates have confided in me) then we’re unlikely to find lasting success. And there is certainly some reason to believe that we haven’t seen much in the way of progress in normative inquiry, despite recent trends like the line that runs through John Rawls, Derek Parfit, Philip Pettit, and Elizabeth Anderson.
  2. Character Skepticism: the second-most-likely-to-be-wrong belief I hold is skepticism about the existence of persistent character traits. I went to school with a generation of scholars who were significantly motivated by what they thought of as the deconstruction of the subject or the death of the author, so there’s certainly a sociological or network effect bias to my skepticism. With all the evidence accumulating that character traits like conscientiousness have a genetic component, it’s almost absurd to pretend that there aren’t some traits that persist over time and context. Still, I find that skepticism to be very important for my discussions of moral equality, status emotions, and the fallibility or person-oriented judgments, and so I persist(!) in holding it. (Even while I hold many people in great esteem for what I take to be their persistent habit of being right, wise, or good.)
  3. The Basic Income and the Value-Added Tax: I’m not sure I’m “most likely to be wrong” on BIG+VAT, but I do think it’s the policy advocacy position where my confidence in advancing it is the least-well-matched by the sensus communis. Call it the “largest gap between my estimation of the evidence and the general estimate.” This blog got its title by my mixed feelings about utopian theorizing, but with BIG+VAT I do feel a bit like a utopian. Even beyond all the naysayers, there’s even some recent evidence that consumption (which a VAT would disincentivize) is an important component in reducing poverty. This suggests one reason to prefer income redistribution over VAT, and so the whole edifice is certainly shaky if the right empirical evidence comes along.
  4. The Unimportance of the Middle-Class: I tend to worry less about the middle-class than the least-advantaged, which leads me to worry more about the unemployed than the employed, more about global workers than domestic workers, and more about those without a college degree than those who have credentials. But there are lots of good arguments in political theory for a vibrant middle-class, not the least of which is Elizabeth Warren’s claim that “A middle class where people are falling out and into poverty is a middle class that has less room to bring people up and out of poverty.” So I may very well be wrong.
  5. The Inefficacy of Charter Schools: I tend to think that charter schools are an anti-union boondoggle, that they are less effective than the public schools they replace, and that the cherry-picked evidence in their favor usually depends upon hidden selection effects or a resurgence of racial segregation. Even in the best cases, they seem to offer a model that would not scale beyond the single school which has lucked into success, and I’m heartened by the Stanford study that showed that charters were twice as likely to be worse than regular public schools than to be better than them. But of course, a charter school advocate would say that we ought simply to close failing charters, leaving us with some schools that are equal to public schools and some that are superior to them: at the margin, that’s a good deal. And, too, not all charter schools are for-profit market-oriented corporate monstrosities; there are some innovative experiments in common-pool resource management going on within the charter school movement. Perhaps it is better to let parents dissatisfied with their public school options take the risk. If we believe in pluralism, these experiments might be a better way to match differing childrens’ needs with settings where those needs will be met. I dunno: I’m glad I’m not in charge of  K-12 education policy in this country.
  6. Incarceration and Drugs: Like many progressives, I suspect that there is something deeply wrong with mass incarceration and the drug war. Most of the people I know seem to agree with all the constituent arguments against the way criminal justice is practiced in this country. We’re deeply embarrassed by the number and racial composition of prisoners here. And yet the system remains, and both engaged citizens and smart, caring politicians seem powerless to change it. Clearly, there’s some piece of this puzzle we just don’t understand.
  7. Meat Eating: I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t be eating meat, and certainly not meat produced under the inhumane conditions in US factory farms. Yet I seem to be completely akratic on this front; I believe I shouldn’t, but I do it anyway. I’m certainly wrong, one way or another, because my actions and beliefs are in contradiction. This is more of an anxiety over that inconsistency than a likely-wrong belief, though, so maybe it’s not completely fitting with the principle of the question.

What are you most likely to be wrong about?