Arendt, Antisemitism, and the Chicago Teachers’ Union Strike

I am one of those ideologically-impure liberals that worries a lot about public sector unions. On the one hand, I favor workplace democracy and collaboration; on the other hand, I worry about the fact that as union membership has declined, the majority of remaining union members haved tended to be at the top of the income distribution and to have many other forms of cultural and social capital as well. A public sector union member gets input into the functioning of government as a voter, plus they get input into our government as a union member concerned about their own labor conditions. What’s more, public-sector unions are not all the same: to my mind there’s a difference between a teacher’s union and a police or prison guard union, and I’m not willing to be univocal in my support for both. Still, my bias is generally in favor of teachers: I am one, after all.

Caption BelowI recently read an interesting factoid about teaching: in the 1960s, 2/3 of all households had school age children. Today, only 1/3 do. Attempts to verify these have been unsuccessful, although the percentage has certainly been dropping for a long time along with the birth rate. (I also learned that 39% of Chicago’s public school teachers send their own children to private schools.)

Looking at the responses to the Chicago Teacher’s Strike, especially the way it pits centrist technocratic Democrats like Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel against old-school labor progressives, I suspect that the falling percentage of families with school-age children is part of the problem. Sure, everyone agrees that education is important, but fewer families actually have current need of a good education, and so for better or worse they have begun to look at the costs rather than the benefits of strong schools.

In my view, this decline allows an interesting analogy with Hannah Arendt’s account of the growth of anti-semitism in Origins of Totalitarianism, which itself is derived from Karl Marx’s essay on On The Jewish Question. Arendt argued that Jews had failed to take advantage of their political and economic power while it was still extensive enough to garner protection from the Christian majority. When their role as scapegoat creditors was centralized into big (non-Jewish) businesses and a few Jewish financiers, the long-ignored differences between Jews and Christians exploded to the fore, with genocidal results.

Arendt bases this theory on Tocqueville’s account of the downfall of the French aristocracy:

“the French people hated aristocrats about to lose their power more than it had ever hated them before, precisely because their rapid loss of real power was not accompanied by any considerable decline in their fortunes. As long as the aristocracy held vast powers of jurisdiction, they were not only tolerated but respected. When noblemen lost their privileges, among others the privilege to exploit and oppress, the people felt them to be parasites, without any real function in the rule of the country.”

Troublesome as inequality and oppression may be, inequality without the power to back it up is even worse. Arendt suggests that the Jews refused to occupy a designated space within the European political economy, instead “choosing” to remain aloof no matter which class individual Jews would otherwise occupy. (Of course, it’s not so simple, but to Arendt it seems that there was a coincidence between the Jewish desire for group survival and the nation-state’s interest in preventing assimiliation.) Yet according to Arendt this became a great problem when successful Jews sought acceptance and assimilation into the professions and intellectual elites:

“Central and Western European Jewries had reached a saturation point in wealth and economic fortune. This might have been the moment for them to show that they actually wanted money for money’s sake or for power’s sake. In the former case, they might have expanded their businesses and handed them down to their descendants; in the latter they might have entrenched themselves more firmly in state business and fought the influence of big business and industry on governments. But they did neither. In the contrary, the sons of well-to-do businessmen and, to a lesser extent, bankers, deserted their fathers careers for the liberal professions or purely intellectual pursuits they had not been able to afford a few generations before.”

Arendt called this “political ignorance” that blinded the Jews to “the political dangers of antisemitism.” Certainly they understood the costs of social discrimination; what they did not understand was the way this would morph under totalitarianism:

“Whenever equality becomes a mundane fact in itself, without any gauge by which it may be measured or explained, then there is one chance in a hundred that it will be recognized simply as a working principle of a political organization in which otherwise unequal people have equal rights; there are ninety-nine chances that it will be mistaken for an innate quality of every individual, who is “normal” if he is like everybody else and “abnormal” if he happens to be different. This perversion of equality from apolitical into a social concept is all the more dangerous when a society leaves but little space for special groups and individuals, for then their differences become all the more conspicuous.” (55)

To be unequal when equality is understood as equality before the law is a blessing; to be unequal when equality is understood as a social requirement for membership in the political community is quite a curse. The more that Americans attend to income inequality, the more they will worry about Wall Street bankers, certainly; but they also worry about the local inequalities, those they see at work in their own communities. Wall Street is far away for most Americans; yet everyone has a local government, and most Americans can observe that the cars that park in the teachers’ lot are nicer than their own, while simultaneously noting that teachers have shorter days and longer vacations.

For Arendt, the backlash of resentment comes when those with a privilege lose the power to enforce it. The aristocrats tried to keep their privileges without preserving the authority to organize their communities, and they lost their heads; the Ancien Régime gave way to the centrally-administered bureaucracy. Teachers are no longer trusted to evaluate their own success or failure; more and more of their lesson plans are legislated or provided by centralized textbook publishers. Fewer families depend upon teachers than ever before, and those who do have political power don’t trust the public schools in large urban school districts like Chicago, New York City, or Washington, DC. In these and many other ways, the job of teaching K-12 education is being de-professionalized, in large part because we’ve tried to demand that education solve all of our problems and it simply cannot.

Perhaps this comparison is not the right one, but what I notice is that labor solidarity is increasingly exclusive of the least-advantaged. Especially during times of increasing unemployment, I worry that solidarity with laborers will not include those most in need. Unions are no longer primarily sources of solidarity between the lower and middle-class and a means of stepping into the middle-class; now they are sources of solidarity within some elements of the upper-middle class, i.e. those who are well above the median income in the United States. In this sense, public sector labor unions appear to command economic power while failing to achieve the cross-class solidarity that would legitimize that economic power for those who are worse-off. The resentment that emerges, then, appears to be driven by the demographic constitution of the union itself. As Arendt pointed out, rights without the power to protect them are useless: when you need them, they’re not there.

Even as teachers are losing political power, it appears that the political power of labor solidarity has an unfortunate tendency to accumulate among those who already have it. In the US, the people who most need unions don’t have them: Walmart workers; nurses and home health aids; agriculture and construction workers. Meanwhile, the people who least need unions get them: folks with graduates degrees and guns. Soon, perhaps, it will just be those with guns who can prevent the legislative undermining of their rights to collective bargaining.

(Continued in the next post, Public-sector unions as Public Work: The Case for Teachers)

There is no college bubble

Megan McArdle’s Newsweek cover story, “Is college a lousy investment?” is an odd beast. Parts of it are really great, and there are some very important observations throughout to which my colleagues and fellow progressives should pay attention. But the title, framing, graphics, and many of the arguments are just silly, which makes it a bit odd that she accuses others of “mythomania” (i.e. pathological lying.)

She says, for instance:

The price of a McDonald’s hamburger has risen from 85 cents in 1995 to about a dollar today. The average price of all goods and services has risen about 50 percent. But the price of a college education has nearly doubled in that time.

It’s just not true. The sticker price has risen dramatically, but the net price (what families actually pay on average) has remained fairly constant. What we have more of is price discrimination: families with more money pay more, as do students with better prospective income.

McArdle also claims that:

the amount of student-loan debt carried by households has more than quintupled since 1999. These graduates were told that a diploma was all they needed to succeed, but it won’t even get them out of the spare bedroom at Mom and Dad’s. For many, the most tangible result of their four years is the loan payments, which now average hundreds of dollars a month on loan balances in the tens of thousands.

These sentences are literally true, but deceptive when accompanied by the graphic that shows atypical students with larger than average debt. Students aren’t taking out a lot of loans per capita: there’s just more people taking them out than ever and there are some really egregious examples especially at for-profit colleges (which abuse the false sticker prices to extract high real tuitions) and in some professions, like law. The average college graduate has a small car payment’s worth of student loans, which they can pay off in ten years. The guy in the image with $75,000 in debt went to Georgetown and Harvard Law; he’s not typical, and he’s going to be able to pay that money back with those credentials. Certainly, in some cases, students without sufficient merit buy their way into superior colleges and universities, generally at private schools. But the students using debt to finance educations for which they are inadequately prepared and from which they’ll gain nothing are at for-profit institutions (which are absurdly expensive) and community colleges (which are cheap already and need to be better-subsidized.)

Still, there are things McArdle gets right: credentialism is a huge problem. We’re overtraining for a variety of skills that simply aren’t in demand. I don’t mean we have too many poets, I mean we have too many students majoring in business and marketing. And the degree treadmill has a cost: some of our smartest citizens devote all their youth and entrepreneurial energies to coming up with publishable papers, ways to impress their advisors, and grant-worthy research programs rather than getting to work trying to solve their communities’ and our nations’ problems.

It shouldn’t take a libertarian to remind us of that; after all, it was America’s preeminent progressive, Jane Addams, who warned us of the “snare of preparation“:

which… we spread before the feet of young people, hopelessly entangling them in a curious inactivity at the very period of life when they are longing to construct the world anew and to conform it to their own ideals.

Worry about the shift in college spending from instruction and faculty salaries to lifestyle and administration. Worry about the lack of good apprenticeships. Worry about youth unemployment, especially among non-college youth (that’s most of them.) But don’t worry for the poor folks who’re going to make a million more dollars over their lifetimes than their counterparts, don’t worry about Harvard-graduates with a bit of debt, and–for Münchausen’s sake!–don’t worry that we have too many poets. We need more poets, otherwise the pundits will bore us to death.

Mythomania about college, indeed.

Foucault on Education and Human Capital

From Foucault’s Collège de France lecture on March 14th, 1979 (in what the publisher has misnamed The Birth of Biopolitics despite the fact that that year’s lectures basically spelled the end of Foucault’s work on biopolitics and focused on the limitation of state control over the market):

What does it mean to form human capital, and so to form these kinds of abilities-machines which will produce income, which will be remunerated by income? It means, of course, making what are called educational investments. In truth, we have not had to wait for the neo-liberals to measure some of the effects of these educational investments, whether this involves school instruction strictly speaking, or professional training, and so on, But the neo-liberals lay stress on the fact that what should be called educational investment is much broader than simple schooling or professional training and that many more elements than these enter into the formation of human capital? What constitutes this investment that forms an abilities-machine? Experimentally, on the basis of observations, we know it is constituted by, for example, the time parents devote to their children outside of simple educational activities strictly speaking. We know that the number of hours a mother spends with her child, even when it is still in the cradle, will be very important for the formation of an abilities-machine, or for the formation of a human capital, and that the child will be much more adaptive if in fact its parents or its mother spend more rather than less time with him or her. This means that it must be possible to analyze the simple time parents spend feeding their children, or giving them affection as investment which can form human capital. Time spent, care given, as well as the parents’ education because we know quite precisely that for an equal time spent with their children, more educated parents will form a higher human capital than parents with less education-in short, the set of cultural stimuli received by the child, will all contribute to the formation of those elements that can make up a human capital.

The echos of Heidegger on standing-reserve are quite strong here, but I also think we see one problem with my attempt to resolve the teleological paradox in education yesterday.

What happens to care and affection when they are analyzed in terms of their human capital-formative effects? This is the other reason that humanities advocates decry the instrumentalism of education: the fear that things like art and history which have previously stood as pure teloi [telê?] will subsequently become mere means to an end. We have to be very careful if we are to keep the instrumentally-reflective stage from infecting or polluting the genuineness of the commitments and relationships that we learn on reflection are best-suited to achieving our guiding or ultimate ends.

And perhaps, too, being “very careful” will not prevent instrumentality from colonizing the life-world. The “helicopter parent” has simply taken the neo-liberal realization about care-as-investment to heart, and is “saving up” for the future.

Season of Political Irrelevance Update

Weigel has predicated a lot on the conditional statement: “If you look at it right, then you’ll see serious policy.” But we don’t have any evidence for the antecedent, that the public or the media *will* “look at it right.” More to the point, I don’t agree that the waivers or tax loopholes are among the most important problems facing this or the next president. Effective tax rates are much too low on the rich, but the best solution isn’t better income tax laws, it’s a progressive consumption tax, which is not on the table.

The policy issues under discussion are partly unsubstantive because they’re subject to deep red meat divisions. They won’t be resolved; they’re designed to be perpetual. The stuff I want to talk about is stuff that a whole host of people from both sides could agree on, if they were allowed to spend the election talking about it. Elections are about drawing distinctions and offering a choice, but they’re also about parsing the electorate into roughly equal demographic slices. Policy is about taking the broad overlapping consensus and the best evidence and acting on that.

Over the next two years, there will be very little movement on the things we argue about during this election season. During the same time span, there will be a great deal of movement on the things we ignore this election season. That suggests irrelevance.

The Season of Political Irrelevance

It is my considered opinion that the next three months will involve no serious deliberations regarding substantive public policy. Though readership and viewership for such matters will be at its highest, none of the things discussed will be discussed in a way that comports with public reason or with anything like the goal of exchanging reasons and evidence in the search for truth-tracking beliefs. Our best analysts, pundits, and public intellectuals will be busy with horse-race coverage and fact-checking the candidates’ claims. Worse, few of the matters discussed in highly rhetorical fashion, upon which our fellow citizens will be asked to make their determinations, will even be relevant to the public policy matters that ought to concern us most.

Here are the things I suspect we will discuss most:

  • Taxes
  • Jobs and the economy
  • The distribution of income and wealth
  • Globalization and outsourcing

Since none of these are under the control of the presidency, it’s absurd to stage the debates on these matters around the presidential election. And yet we will.

Since this is a highly cynical claim for a democratic political philosopher to make (well, not contentious among professionals) here are the things we ought to be talking about:

  • Climate change
  • Mass incarceration and its causes
  • Immigration
  • Regulatory agency capture by the financial sector
  • The proper size and role of the US military

Notice that all of these policies are administered by agencies under the President’s control. But perhaps even this is undemocratic. Accounts of politics that focus on leaders and the vertical measures of “greatness” are at odds with the pervasive sense of horizontality that ought to guide us in a democracy. Presidents are not the only political actors, nor even the most important: they perch atop the bureaucratic state barely able to steer it, using the reins merely to hold on to their office a bit longer.

Here’s Arendt in Reflections on Violence:

These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man—of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody. Indeed, if we identify tyranny as the government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done. It is this state of affairs which is among the most potent causes for the current world-wide rebellious unrest.

Still relevant, forty-three years later.