Still Distracted, But Not Here

My online writing goes back to Usenet, early bulletin-boards and the pay service GEnie, but my public identity as an online writer really began a few years after “weblogs” began to appear on the early World Wide Web.

I began Easily Distracted in 2002 as a “hand-rolled” simple-HTML blog, following the inspiration of my student Justin Hall. In 2005, Swarthmore College‘s always-helpful and accommodating Information Technology Service’s office helped me move the blog to a college-supported WordPress installation, which allowed me to have comments as well as to interact more effectively with the emerging infrastructure of social media.

Between 2005 and 2021, I wrote over 1,000 posts here, though my rate of publication dropped off significantly over the last five years. There are a lot of reasons for that: I began to find the intensity and rapidity of social media disheartening, I often felt that by the time I had a ‘take’ on something it had been done to death already, and to some extent the tight commitment I had made in the development of this blog to a set of themes and a fixed tone had come to feel confining.

More importantly, I had begun to feel also that the fun of distractedness for me had curdled somewhat into something more dysfunctional. I needed to create more structure for myself in my public and long-form writing as well as to open up the range of my interests and commitments.

I have to decided to close Easily Distracted as an ongoing blog, though it will remain available as an archive (on a regularly updated WordPress installation). My online writing will now be available on Substack, under the title Eight by Seven.

Early in the history of this blog, a good friend who is a very successful author gently chided me about the fact that bloggers who were writing as much as I was then writing were killing his profession. I didn’t really see the issue then, but I do see it now (unfortunately after some of what concerned him has come to pass). I’ve had other invitations to come inside established publications and blog under their banner, but this has never really appealed to me. I don’t really want to feel tied to the editorial apparatus of an existing publication. Substack, on the other hand, feels like an opportunity to keep doing what I want to do, while also putting some value on it.

I recognize many long-term Easily Distracted readers may balk at a subscription cost (though I’ve set it at the lowest price Substack allows), and there will be some public entries over time. (All of them will be for the next two weeks, in fact). If you’ve appreciated my writing here over time, I encourage you to subscribe, if only to get a look at what I’m doing now.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Curse Your Sudden and Inevitable Betrayal

The question on my mind this morning is why anybody is loyal to Trump. We are reading today of how Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump forced the Secret Service to undertake an expensive rent in order to have a place for their security detail to go to the bathroom. They otherwise had to go a mile to Pence’s house or use a bathroom in the Obamas’ garage (until someone apparently left such a terrible mess in it that they weren’t allowed to any longer).

And yet there are suggestions that there are Secret Service agents who are personally loyal to Trump to a dangerous degree–agents who apparently bullied others into going maskless, one agent who broke with precedent and agreed to serve in the chief of staff’s office in the White House (e.g., left the Service)–to the point that Biden has had to specifically name agents that he trusts to guard him and his family.

Why is anyone devoted to Trump, willing to endure working for him? He betrays virtually everyone who works for him. He humiliates and belittles them in public, he ignores their professional advice, he undercuts the hard work of weeks in a second’s thoughtless impulsivity. He cheats people out of pay and benefits, sometimes knowingly as an act of vindictiveness, sometimes just because it’s just his basic method. He has no interest in or consideration for the personal lives of people who work with him or for him, no ability to show empathy. He plainly can barely remember the names of people that he’s worked with on a daily basis and yet he demands their constant attention and adulation.

It’s kind of a running joke among people who write and read comic books that super-villains hire henchmen who then they routinely dispose of, cheat of the proceeds, or use as cannon fodder. The joke is, “In the real world, nobody would ever work with the bad guys because everybody would know what comes next.” Wrong again! We’re busy talking about whether Trump is a fascist, but the other thing he closely resembles is in fact a comic-book supervillain. I wish I were kidding.

So why do the henchmen and henchwomen serve? Why would anyone in the Secret Service, with its reputation for professionalism, non-partisanship and detachment ever be loyal to a man and his family who force them to use portable toilets and to run to the Taco Bell rather than allot them one bathroom in a mansion full of bathrooms?

One answer is simple: because the loyalists see themselves as deserving of abuse, that they define loyalty as an abject relationship between the most powerful and the servants of the powerful. I don’t think that’s common, but there are people who think of themselves that way, who confuse humility with servility. Another is also simple: Trump is a beacon to desperate people seeking power for their own ends who (incorrectly, usually) calculate that somehow they will escape his mistreatment long enough to enact their own plans and who know that there is literally no other boss or enabler who would allow that to happen. (Betsy DeVos won this bet, so it’s not entirely impossible.)

Perhaps most important, though, is that Trump offers harbor to meritocracy’s cast-offs: to the incompetent, the mediocre, the fuck-ups, the losers. And also thus to the resentful and the equally vengeful: the people who believe they should be in charge and only the world has prevented that natural outcome from happening. E.g., he calls to his mini-mes: people who cut corners, who cheat their co-workers and their institutions, people who think they’re the real geniuses and everyone else the fools, people who think they deserve to rule the world. They come to him because they must–there is no upward path open to them otherwise–but for the same reason they’re not surprised when he casts them off and abuses them. They would do the same; they have done the same.

In the case of the Secret Service, that thought brings clarity as to why some agents might embrace the humiliations of working for Trump–because some agents were disciplined for their undisciplined and unprofessional behavior under the old boss. (Who, horror of horrors, was a black man.)

It’s all another path that we need to walk to understand the consequences of meritocratic understandings of social and economic hierarchy. That may sound too sympathetic to all of these people who have signed on with a supervillain, and I don’t really mean to be. The professionalism of the Secret Service is an admirable idea. Hiring the best-trained and most imaginative people and treating them generously as wonderful human beings sounds great. But just as we should know, do know, that meritocracy is a fiction: the richest, most successful, most promoted people are not by any means routinely the best, most talented, most competent, most humane people within professions and economies, we should know that the discard heaps of meritocracy include both people who’ve really fucked up and people who got shoved under a bus or two by some more cunning player–or people who zigged when the move of the day was to zag. The easiest way out is to stop allowing supervillains out of jail ever. But they might find fewer henchmen if we made sure that the requirements of professionalism were enforced equally and yet were also imagined generously, and if we didn’t build vast and dizzying heights of privilege, wealth and power in the first place.

It is rather hard, after all, to think highly of your own professionalism and accomplishment as a Secret Service agent if your job is to guard two staggeringly incompetent, feckless and corrupt people like Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump in a vast and sprawling mansion that you are not permitted to soil with your own feces. It must be hard to take pride in the thought that you would take a bullet to protect people who view you as a lowly and dirty servant.

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There’s Got to Be a Morning After

The major things on my mind this morning do not change regardless of what happens as the votes get counted in the United States.

The liberal-left coalition is not just weak in the United States, it is weak globally (in various different local meanings and configurations of left-liberal). When I say weak, that does not mean intellectually or morally wrong (except inasmuch as having a politics which is incapable of holding power to enact the will of a majority is a moral failure).

Why is this? Because it is a coalition. A fragile alliance of social groups that do not cohere at all in either their underlying economic interests or in their social experience. College-educated urban and suburban people with professional or white-collar jobs may frequently feel connection or devotion to the economic and social struggles of racial, ethnic or cultural minorities who are also not college-educated and mostly work in unskilled or low-paying labor markets. Vice-versa, those groups may recognize in educated, cosmopolitan elites some better chance to remedy or mitigate some of their mistreatment by dominant institutions of carceral or bureaucratic power or their forced marginalization within labor markets

But this alliance is much less strong than the educated elites frequently suppose, not the least because one of its enduring features is the inevitable sting of dependency by the marginalized on the patronage of a social class whose own power is variegated and waning in the evolving global economy of the 21st Century. The very small tier of the truly wealthy and thus truly powerful who now own much of the world’s property and capital share the cultural affectations of the college-educated (and crave on some level their approval) but they have little interest in alliance with anyone, especially not racial, ethnic or cultural underclasses created by the social regimes and colonizing power of the 19th and early 20th Century. So the professional classes who mostly live in large cities and surrounding residential suburbs are promising political and economic rewards to marginalized underclasses in return for electoral (or social) alliance but they frankly lack the social power to pay off those promises if the alliance itself cannot consistently hold on to the power of national and regional government.

Against this alliance, there is almost everywhere a far more socially coherent and tight-knit reaction which is almost everywhere not a national majority but often is a territorially dominant one in its strongholds of power. This reaction is called various things, all of them misleading but suggestive: conservative, populist, ethnonationalist. Some of its members are also college-educated and many actually work for the state and receive public pensions–and fiercely defend, in diverted and subverted ways, their access to the state as a redistributive mechanism and as an employer. But they are also some of them not college-educated, and many of them are in rural hinterlands or deindustrialized cities and towns, or in aging suburbs built in the postwar expansion of the mid-20th Century. In the white-collar world, they work for the college-educated urban globalizing cosmopolitans, who occupy leadership positions in their workplaces, both private and public. In the blue-collar world or in agriculture, they are brutally exposed to global movements of capital that can strip away jobs that may have been there for four generations or that may have only just arrived a decade ago.

These are people who live together, who know one another and are united in their resentments: resentment of people who are their bosses or owners of large companies, of national governments that seem captive both to the cosmopolitans and to distant international agreements and networks, of social and cultural changes that do not come from their own habitus and yet fiercely importune them to obey and behave. These are people who sometimes gain an intimate and familial connection to political authority because they are used as a wedge by a dominant ruler who needs to be surrounded by people the ruler can trust while lording it over cities of people the ruler hates and fears: superZezurus, kinfolk from Tikrit, Alawites. Groups who fear becoming one of the marginalized underclasses that they’ve been able to keep under heel in the past.

This reaction, visible everywhere around the planet in various forms, is socially coherent because it is territorially continguous (whereas the left-liberal alliance is dispersed, even in its centers of power, and has no sense of material proximity except in sites of consumption and in evanescent public gatherings) and because its resentments are well-founded. I do not say just or fair or morally right. But I can agree that people in deindustrialized cities, materially decomposing suburbs, in lower-managerial positions bossed or owned by pedigreed professionals, running small businesses that depend on the culturally protean consuming largesse of educated elites, in rural communities that produce food and boredom in equal measure, have some coherently connected reasons to resent their situation. And hence, even if they are not a clear majority of the inhabitants of a given national territory, are often able to mobilize a political response that either lets them capture the nation-state or lets them block the political will of the much more socially and ideologically fractured opposing alliance. And this reaction has no devotion to democracy, equality or liberalism. It will, if it seizes any system or structure that allows the use of violence and domination, gladly deploy them with little concern even for collateral damage to its own social redoubts.

Scholars have known for a long time that nations and nationalism are much less distinct from empires than it might seem. To some extent, they are empires that performed a level of political and cultural integration in the 19th and 20th Centuries that concealed their remaining, continuously reproduced forms of territorial difference and divergence. Western intellectuals in the late 20th Century liked to talk high-handedly of postcolonial states as divided by ethnic or religious rivalries that were a result of badly constructed boundaries drawn by colonial rulers and uncorrected by postcolonial inheritors. But I think now we are seeing those nation-states were not a defective variant of the main form: we are seeing that everywhere the nation is not what it seems and nowhere does loyalty to the nation create a fellowship that transcends other forms of territorial, economic and cultural affinity and alliance. And contrary to some of the sentimental weepiness in American public life this morning, it never really did. This is not a world we have lost, it is an illusion that has been popped like the soap bubble it has always been.

What a left-liberal alliance needs to go forward into some form of reproducible command over territorial sovereignty is a coherent foundational politics that does not depend upon viewing “explainers” on social media or does not require paternalizing sermons by the woke. It needs a politics that is felt in the bone and arises out of persistent affinities, that is made manifest and visible in every moment of our daily lives–a politics that can be spoken out of experience by anyone who subscribes to it and that has some hope even of circulating into some of the spaces of resentment that make our enemies, that fracture some of their coherence, perhaps by addressing at least some of what they resent or fear about the futures that the rest of us stand (often uneasily) with. It is not enough that what we testify to is true historically, true empirically, true scientifically. Not even remotely enough: we will go to our graves and our prisons and our exiles and into the overheated hell of a dying biosphere knowing our impotent truths and weeping at the barbarism of the reaction. What we need is a simpler promise of a better world, a good enough world, that the smallest child and the meanest man can see and explain and feel at least a twinge of possible devotion to. That simplicity is not where left-liberal politics anywhere in the world has been trending for the last fifty years. If we want the next fifty to be a time where our truths lead to the better possible worlds, we will need to change that trend.

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The Deeper Struggle

I’ve been grappling with the problem of what we now call “the Trump base” for the entire lifetime of this weblog, now 17 years going back to its original hand-rolled HTML version. I started this weblog during the administration of George W. Bush, when it was clear that the social formations supporting the conservative political project that had its first major rollout in the Reagan Administration had produced a deepening cleavage within the American nation-state and were in the process of rewriting institutional norms and processes at all levels of American life to intensify that project. Writing through the Obama Administration, I noted with dismay a number of times that the leadership of the Democratic Party, including Obama himself, seemed to not understand what was going on around them and continued to try and govern within the “Third Way” norms that Bill Clinton had represented as a replacement for post-New Deal liberal politics. 

The problem with politics-as-usual was that it misunderstood the depth and power of the social formation that had come into being through Gingrich’s “Contract with America”, through Karl Rove and the Koch Brothers’ projects of redistricting and financing local and state-level political organizing, through the Tea Party. Either the usual pundits and experts pronounced that there really was no red-and-blue divide, that we were still in reality a purple nation, or they said that all of what looked like a genuine social faction was just “astroturfing”, just a bunch of money producing a phony and performative prop politics that had no actual social underpinnings. Or, perhaps most disastrously, both liberals and progressives imagined that they could reach out to the conservative base and complete their education on various subjects: climate science, racial justice, democratic norms, economic policy, public goods and safety nets. That had some especially noxious paternalistic variants: “nudging” or “framing”, both of which proposed that people who know better could simply identify the mystical underpinnings of reactionary practice and hey presto! tame the savage beast. It had some especially naive variants: this blog was driven by attempts to have honest dialogues and create meaningful understandings with conservative readers in the hope that I and people like me would also be understood and listened to in turn, which mostly amounted to climbing voluntarily into a right-wing apparatus of profoundly self-aware tendentious manipulation and contributing indirectly to the moving of Overton windows.

So. Here we are then. The Trump base is both a product of this history and is something deeply socially real that will not disappear no matter what happens in November or its aftermath. It is long past the time to drop thumb-sucking security blankets like “astroturfing” . It is a highly immobile, now fully manifested social formation that is probably about 35% of the active electorate and maybe 25% of the residents of this national territory, distributed in concentrated clusters. (Much as liberal democrats and progressives are.) It basically has three fundamental cohesive propositions keeping it together as a base.

First, every poll, every election, every real manifestation of the base shows that its heart is the resentment and alienation of people without a college education against those who do. There are people with college educations in the Trump base, certainly, but some of them are people who share the resentment because their education is deemed of lower long-term value and some of them are people who have a high-value credential but have decided there is a better market return to be had in derogating the value of higher education. This is the sentiment that gives many progressives and liberals the most comfort: we feel safe in saying that of course it’s better to be more educated, that reality has a bias towards greater knowledge, that the economy is just changing and sorry that’s the way it is. I myself stand confidently on the value of my own expertise, the value of my own profession, and on the importance of the truths that modern knowledge systems so ably (and sometimes uncomfortably) produce. But in fact, if there’s anything that the majority of Americans who stand opposed to the Trump base should feel uncomfortable about, it is this underlying foundation of its existence. We should not be surprised: once upon a time, this is precisely why progressives questioned globalization, promoted unionization, worried about the commodification of higher education, and so on. Here and here alone we should be hearing a signal that our own deep political commitments mandate that we have to listen to: a signal of the accelerating marginalization and precarity of a large number of American citizens and residents. Not just because our politics demands attention to that kind of change, but because it now appears just to be a foreshock of what the economy of disruption now is doing to almost everyone else. Professional labor is now also being squeezed and derogated, small businesses are being bought and consolidated, property ownership is vanishing down the maw of limited-liability holding companies with no human names or faces, brick-and-mortar retail is being melted to slag in the furnaces of private equity.

Enough, however, with the sympathy. Because the grounds on which common cause could be made–or a liberal democratic politics realized in solidarity–are thoroughly poisonous and uninhabitable. And not by what we have done, unconsciously or otherwise. The second glue holding the Trump base is the most familiar and discussed in the liberal-left public sphere: white fragility and resentment. It is what prevents the Trump base from making common cause with the other victims of credentialism, the other laborers working in meat-packing plants and as itinerant hourly laborers. The base is held together by people who expected their own credentials or capital, their own social worlds, to be permanently overvalued less by the invisible hand and more by a white-sheeted thumb on the scale, to be always pegged to the Whiteness Index. To have whiteness always finish first in the race, regardless of the runner’s speed. That expectation is under real threat in 2020. It always has been even when white people happily sat for photographs in front of lynched black men, or when they held up souvenirs of the burning of Rosewood and Black Wall Street. Because white people who value their overvaluing have always known how damned unfair that was and have always expected that they would have it taken from them the moment they wavered even slightly in the violent maintenance of white dominance. Which the Trump base now furiously imagines the rest of white America did.

This brings me to my buried lede. The third and most important glue holding that base together is what we do not discuss nearly so much, if at all. We are glad (if also depressed and horrified) to talk about the white supremacy behind Trump and his supporters. We are smug if slightly uncomfortable about the education gap as a force, as long as we don’t have to dwell on its deeper implications. But the deepest and oldest glue makes us squirm. What we face in the Trump base is not people with whom we have disagreements on matters of discrete principle such as reproductive rights, church-state separation, taxation policy, Confederate memorials, you name it. If their commitments to those issues often seem remarkably mutable (not too many Trump supporters talking right now in the language of lite-libertarianism about big governments) and we howl that they seem hypocrites or inconsistent, it is because we do not understand what we’re talking about or who we are talking to. They are in fact consistent. They are not hypocritical unless we count that tiny subset of the Republican political class in Washington that is actually socially and even philosophically with the rest of us but who feel the need to conform to Trumpism. GOP Senators, White House press secretaries, right-wing pundits (mostly) and their ilk are not of the Trump base, no matter how much the enable it for their own careerist reasons.

What the liberal-progressive world largely doesn’t understand is that the 35 % of the electorate that stand with Trump no matter what he does (maybe a quarter of people resident inside the borders of the US) do not believe in democracy. It is not that they don’t realize that Trump is an authoritarian, etc., that democracy is in danger. They realize it and they’re glad. Mission accomplished. They have a different view of power and political process, of social relations. They are brutalists. Fundamentally they think power is a zero-sum game. You hold it or you are held by it. You are the boot on someone’s neck or there will be a boot on yours. They agree that what they have was taken from others; they think that’s the way of all things. You take or are taken from.

They do not believe in liberty and justice for all, or even really for themselves: it is not that they reserve liberty for themselves, because they believe that even they should be subject to the will of a merciless authority (who they nevertheless expect to favor them as an elect of that authority). We often ask how evangelicals who think this way can stand the notion of a God who would permit a tornado to destroy a church and kill the innocents gathered in it for shelter. They can stand it because they expect that of authority: that authority is cruel and without mercy because it must be. They simply expect authority to be far more cruel to others than it is to them. And they expect to be cruel with the authority they possess.

We keep thinking of this as a deformed or ignorant political sensibility, the product of sleeping through civics class. It’s not. It’s a fully-worked out, fully inhabited vision of human life and it has been with us for quite a while. It is not quite the Straussian or Randian vision of using esoteric deception to cover a project to retain power for a refined elite or scorning altruism as a weakness, though there’s some overlap. This is the full-on sentiment of what Berlin identified as the Counter-Enlightenment. Not that some people are better than others, nor even the favored “Dark Enlightenment” proposition that the masses must be governed by a superior ruler. Simply that what can be taken must be taken. It’s the spirit of Frederick Lugard (or any other imperialist of the early 20th Century) defending their project in the last instance, after all the humanitarian bullshit is shed like the dross that it ultimately was. “The natives have something we value–including their own labor–and we must take it if they cannot stop us from taking it.” It is the spirit that animated fascism in the first half of the twentieth century. It is what makes authoritarianism, whatever its ostensible ideological flavoring, possible, that some proportion of the people living under it are brutalists and accept the consequences of that vision of life–indeed, often yearn for it should it be temporarily overthrown or reduced in its power.

We are not going to ever be able to make peace with this view of human life, educate it, or find a way to include it in democratic process. If we do not want to be perpetually endangered by it, sooner or later we will have to violate our own commitments and basically have some controlled degree of brutalism towards the brutalism in our midst, some form of zero tolerance for it. The brutalists have been fond of saying when challenged or thwarted, “if you don’t like it, you can leave”; if something like a pluralist liberal democracy is going to survive, it has to start saying–and doing–the same. We cannot just limp past the finish line of November and count ourselves safe if we do so. Nor can we even argue for a strong policy agenda that will, if accomplished, bring unity. We can bring people in who feel uncertainly lost or who feel uncomfortable with particular fashions in liberal or left policy sentiment. There will be no peace nor justice nor democracy if we do not acknowledge that we live with people who rationally, coherently, meaningfully want none of that.

Posted in Politics | 26 Comments

Values Before Risk Assessment

Why is it a problem to place consideration of risk at the forefront of collective or institutional decision-making processes?

Imagine that you had an array of specialized individual consultants that you could involve, one at a time, in your personal choices. What would go wrong if you always chose to have a specialist in risk management be the first or dominant consultant you used in making decisions?

Suppose you watch a documentary on climbing Mount Everest. It’s an upbeat travelogue, so it doesn’t dwell on the deaths, the frozen mountain of shit, the crowding. You say to your consultant, “I find that really interesting. I’m really drawn to it. What do you think?”.

If your first consultant is a risk manager, they’re going to tell you about the high death rate from climbing Everest and about the immense expense of climbing Everest, which may threaten your financial solvency. You aren’t ever going to get a chance to think about what interested you.

Did your heart thrill at the thought of standing on the highest mountain in the world? Or did you just want to go to the top of a mountain, any mountain? Did you want a motivating goal to drive a fitness program in roughly the same way people buy lottery tickets just to authorize dreaming about being rich? Did you want to just see what it looks like down in basecamp at Everest? Or are you interested in Nepal and Sherpa culture?

You will not get the chance to ask what you valued in the thought of Everest in that initial inchoate moment of feeling. If you just want to get way high up in some scenic mountains and you don’t care how, the risk manager will have a useful answer for you after you have come to that conclusion. Go to Zermatt, get on the cable car to the Klein Matterhorn, and enjoy. If you want a safe hike, hike up to the Gornergrat and then go back on the railway. If you just need an imaginary goal for fitness, you don’t need the risk manager to step in and explain that trying to train too fast for climbing Everest will risk injuries–you need someone to design a fitness program that steps you up methodically.

If on the other hand, what really grabbed you was the idea of standing at the top of the highest mountain in the world, you still need to think without risk first. Why do you value that? What’s valuable about it? What awoke in you at that thought? Only after you’ve thought that through should you ask, “Is it worth it?” Because then you’re asking: might I die? Be seriously injured? Spend my entire life savings? Get stuck in a queue for three years running? Be dismayed because the vision in your head is nothing like the current reality of climbing Everest? The risk manager’s job is in theory just to lay out relative risks to you and leave you to think on it, but in practice most risk management is about risk reduction, never really about risk amplification–and yet, in some value-driven decisions, the risk is either necessary or even desired. A man set on flying in a wingsuit through a narrow rock arch is looking for something risky and difficult to accomplish.

So if you listen to that litany of risks but you haven’t gotten clear in your own head what was driving the thought of “stand at the top of the highest mountain”, you may get talked down into something like “Go to the top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire” when actually what you really should get talked into is “train for a peak in the Andes that’s less crowded but equally dramatic and challenging”, because you don’t mind the risk of death and you don’t mind the expense, you just mind the idea of standing in line with a bunch of other rich people looking at a mountain of frozen shit and some corpses that nobody wants to move.

Evaluating risk and liability should happen when we begin to act on decisions, not when we first envision them. Risk evaluation should not propose, it should only dispose.


I understand why “neoliberal” seems like a word that is so expansively pejorative that it may seem to have no specific descriptive value. But we need a word for a common form of organizational design and a common culture of shared decision-making that has dominated the 21st Century so far. “Managerial” and “technocratic” grasp parts of that form but have their own shortcomings.

What are the specifics of the form that I think is best named by the word neoliberal? I’m going to work up a definition here without a lot of reference to many of the excellent academic works that try to do the same, partly to clarify for myself what I’m referring to with the term and to open up other possible words or labels.

First, a strange intertwining of utopian self-description layered over both internal deliberative process and external communications with a private, confidential and protected work process that acknowledges problems, shortcomings, and the social realities within the organization and in the organization’s situatedness in the world, and yet is also curiously enough the space where the organization’s actual goals and mission can be discussed, sometimes in fairly idealistic ways. This may sound as if it only applies to higher education, but I think this is a reasonable description of law firms, hospitals, corporations, think-tanks, non-governmental organizations and so on. The gap between how an organization presents itself to the world and how its internal cultures of work function is not particular to our neoliberal moment, but that gap is now especially intense and disorienting. It has become all but impossible to speak forthrightly in ways that are visible, public and transcribed about the gaps between what an organization performs as its values and the ways in which values are inhabited and invoked in its actual practices.

Neoliberal organizations sometimes appropriate metaphorical framings of their internal processes and nature that do not at all match how they actually work or why they exist. Especially favored is talk of “community”–the “Walmart community”, the “World Bank community”, the “United Way community”–and to talk of “mission”. We need not understand these appropriations entirely cynically–their adoption and use is not often a coherent, calculated, top-down strategy with clear instrumental intent. But generally they neither provide clarity nor opportunity for reflection. Mission and community are invoked instead as a deferment of and disguise for hierarchy. Sometimes cynically, sometimes mournfully: many organizations that have fallen in line with neoliberal sensibilities and practices do so with a sense of regretful surrender to a way of being that is everywhere and nowhere at once.

Second, organizations subject themselves and all who work on their behalf to the agonies of incremental progress towards goals that are chosen because they can be measured concretely and analyzed quantitatively. The reasoning here is that values are often unquantified, complicated, arguable, so they cannot be used as a way to judge institutional or individual performance. Increasingly, even, values are replaced under neoliberalism by missions and goals (and stating those in measurable terms is increasingly favored). Why is the measurement of performance important? Because institutions compete with one another and must prove their worth in commodified terms to clients and customers. The better the performance on goals, the more valuable (not value-driven) the institution is. And employees are seen in competitive terms to one another and to the larger labor markets they were hired from. To justify remaining on the payroll, they must every year deliver incrementally more value in the accomplishment of the mission. These missions are never rendered as startlingly new or fundamentally recommissioned, so progress must always be now and forevermore incremental, because to have a year in which progress happens with sudden speed amounts to a confession of persistent past failure–and sets up an impossible futureward expectation. The point here is that neoliberalism in this sense despises the idea of the individual or collective maintenance of values, because that is something that might simply happen year in and year out, in stewardship or duty. The lighthouse is maintained so the boats do not crash in the storm: it doesn’t have to prove that it has been .5% more effective in navigational efficiency compared to most lighthouses and hence should be preferred as the lighthouse of choice. Neoliberalism abhors the language of values except as a way to manipulate people who still believe in vocation or mission into providing .05% more quantifiable output in the coming year–or accepting 1% less support for doing so.

Third, neoliberalism assumes and even often mandates the dissolution of public goods and accordingly also forces individual organizations to regard forms of large-scale collaboration on behalf of public goods as both improvident and illicit. Governing authorities within neoliberal institutions, whether boards, owners, executives or even in rare cases, larger collectives, understand their due diligence as applying nearly exclusively to a single specific institution and often insist upon or reinforce its sovereign distinction from other institutions. Institutions can join associations, but they do so much as nations might join international organizations, as permanently separate, autonomous and voluntary participants in associational bodies. Much of this is explained in terms of compliance with antitrust statutes or other laws, and indeed, under neoliberalism, this is the one form of relation that institutions acknowledge to public goods or the wider society: a need to comply both with governmental regulation (in letter, at least) and often even with quasi-legal codes or regulatory obligations that are envisioned as necessarily and undebatably authoritative. E.g., neoliberalism insists on the autonomy of organizations except in terms of domination by other organizations or in terms of contractual obligations (thought even those are frequently subject to complicated evasion and abrogation). Competition, yes; compliance, yes. Collaboration? Reluctantly if is perceived to be allowed, and never at the risk of asserting genuine collective interest in a way that creates bonds of obligation, reciprocity and desire. Older institutional infrastructures that do so are treated as undigested and troublesome fragments.

Fourth, neoliberalism thinks about resources in two primary ways: as something to be ceaselessly accumulated and as something to be regarded, seemingly paradoxically, as forever scarce. No neoliberal institution, whether company or NGO or university or local non-profit ever sits comfortably on available resources, even asset-based wealth. The organization must always have more, and the organization must always imagine itself as never having enough. That is so pervasive a disposition that it spreads readily to everyone who works for any given organization, all the way down to entry-level employees. No one imagines being custodians of a secure resource, spending it wisely as, in the older meaning of the term, trustees. Everyone is looking for more, and everyone is eager to prove that they both need more and have done their part to get more. Thus do companies sitting on unspeakably large cash reserves and non-profits with endowments in the billions convince themselves that they suffer from scarcity and its numerous psychological and cultural afflictions. But at the same time, organizations are keenly aware that they have vast assets both tangible (property, capital equipment, investments) and potential (unused or underused intellectual property, underutilized space or services, etc.) and they work with great intensity to protect both what they own and what they might own someday. Neoliberalism both seeks rents and works to protect its existing rents; a neoliberal society is primarily an asset-based one. And asset-based societies favor the first in and punish the last in–they are in some grand sense Ponzi schemes. People chase IPOs with frankly idiotic companies like Juicero because they know that there is no other way to climb the ladder past the first few rungs: the existing base of accumulated wealth inside older neoliberal organizations is so vast that no new entrant can compete without the equivalent of an accumulative miracle. (Or, as in “disruption”, without essentially destroying some class of asset holders and grabbing like children at the pinata candies that spill out–but just as at most pinata parties, the greedy and the bullies get most of the candy.)


I take this detour to explain why risk management, usually in the form of legal counsel, stands in front of conversation and deliberation within institutions about values, even in institutions that are not ostensibly devoted to profit or growth. That layer of institutional decision making exists to protect the assets that allow institutions to grow and compete in a world of rent-seekers–and the mission of protecting those assets dictates most of the rest of what I have described as neoliberal organizational culture. The institution makes utopian promises that it knows are impossible, but it cannot acknowledge the gap or apologize for it, because such statements invite a lawsuit from a stakeholder who experienced that gap. The institution seeks endless incremental improvement because dramatic reconsiderations of its purpose are far too risky–leave that for start-ups!–but simply maintaining a steady hand at an ongoing mission is also too risky in an environment that requires everyone to perform competition against others. Making decisions based upon deep underlying values–or deciding what those values really are–is too risky: what if the values lead you to some commitment that you can’t control or sublimate as necessary?

This all sounds terribly abstract, and I mean it to sound that way, because I honestly think this is a deep habitus that runs across many kinds of organizational cultures that we are all influenced by and often are unaware of, that we take to be common sense or pragmatically necessary. However, moments of crisis have a tendency to surface some of what is ordinarily buried inside everyday life. So I will turn to a less abstract example: how U.S. higher education has made decisions in the face of the covid-19 pandemic.

A necessary prelude to this analysis is that American higher education, like American businesses and civic organizations, has had to make decisions on its own in part because of the deliberately engineered failure of national leadership and the resulting divergent range of state and municipal leadership across the country. In societies with more coherent national leadership, institutional leaders have had to worry about a much more constrained range of decisions that are being left to them. In the US, higher education has been left to fill a howling void within a very constrained time frame. Under that kind of pressure, no group of leaders, no community of professionals, could be expected to get everything right, no matter how they went about making decisions.

However, if you look at higher education in that crucible, I think you can see everywhere the signs of risk management and legal counsel being involved in the proposition, not disposition, of decisions.

Institutions like many community colleges that already make extensive use of online education and that do not have to deal with students coming from across the country or from outside the United States to be in residence on campus have had a more natural pathway to the fall semester. They still have the same concerns about making classrooms safe for any in-person use if they decide to do that, the same problems with courses that aim to teach students physical skills for operating machines or using particular tools, and the same basic issues with operating in a disastrous economic environment.

On the other hand, institutions that put on-campus residential life at the heart of their operations almost universally made an abrupt decision in March of 2020 to send students home from dormitories and to close on-campus facilities to use by both students and employees. Since that time, most residential institutions, public and private, small and large, have been wrestling with the question of what to do with summer programs and with the fall 2020 term.

Resolving that question has depended from the very beginning on having a forecast or model of the pandemic’s likely course over the remainder of 2020. So the first and very sensible decision that almost every institution made was to wait until May or June to commit to any course of action and in the meantime consider the possible strategies they might employ in the fall.

The basic alternatives were also clear: operate normally with basic precautions, open fully but with unusual or extensive responses to the pandemic, open in a ‘hybrid’ or limited format with extensive pandemic management strategies, or close completely for a semester.

In the event that the pandemic was coming to some form of natural end by June, a normal opening would have been the obvious strategy, but even in March no reputable authority or forecaster saw that as likely or possible. So the real debate almost from the beginning has been between full residential opening with extensive pandemic management, hybrid or limited openings that saw some or most students study online from their homes or off-campus housing, and a complete shutdown for the entire fall term.

It would be unfair to suggest that risk assessment be excluded from the making of this decision. Anyone contemplating the stakes in this decision would be instantly aware that if the wrong option were chosen, the results could be illness and death, but also the chaos and financial costs of once again sending students home in an unplanned response to a deepening crisis.

But even here, that assessment ought to come after a deeper values-driven exploration of the question, “What do we care about the most in thinking about a semester? What do we value about our work together when it is operating normally?”

Let me lay out what it looks like to decide about covid-19 policies with those questions as the first you answer, rather than post-facto narratives that are attached, sometimes awkwardly or mysteriously, to decisions that were reached with risk, liability and image maintenance in mind.

A university or college could decide that first and foremost, they value students having the most deeply transformative and empowering educational experiences possible within the time that they are matriculated students, that the major reason the institution exists and should exist into the future is the provision of this experience. Answering in this fashion doesn’t have to be a consumerist answer: an institution could also maintain, in a values-driven way, that what it means by experience is not just a simple transactional service.

If this is the primary driving value, then a university might well decide that it is important to open despite covid-19. But it is at this point that considering other values and considering pragmatic challenges to a values-driven decision should enter the picture. For example, what other values might a university hold as rivalrous or at least important? A university might hold that it also values the production of knowledge in the form of scholarly research, clinical trials, and so on. It might also take the rhetoric of “community” seriously and value its faculty, staff and students not as employees and customers, but in terms of their human relations–and obligations–to one another. The university might regard its service to either a local public or some wider regional, state or national public to be deeply important, whether that is providing popular spectator sports for smaller cities and towns that otherwise have no local professional teams or it is as a civic benefactor, protector of open land, or source of cultural events.

It might even put one or more of those values above the provision of the most transformative educational experience for students, though I think few institutions would if it was put in these terms. Putting these things in terms of values and subordinating talk of revenues, liabilities or risks sorts values into primary and dependent columns. If the primary value is the most transformative and empowering education for enrolled students, then a university might decide that a precondition of that education are faculty and staff who are driven by their own autonomous and individual motivations to educate and produce knowledge, and that this in turn means requires an institution that genuinely means it when it pronounces itself a community. Which in turn may turn over yet more dependent values. For most of us, the word community implies non-hierarchical relationships between people living near one another. When we mean it in a positive sense, most of us think about life in community in terms of mutual obligation to one another, as collective and shared responses to life’s challenges.

It might not decide that, of course: there is a possible (maybe even existing) university where the people in control of it have decided that delivering the best education for students requires maximum hierarchical efficiency or it requires strong conformist alignment behind a single culture for both employees and students or it requires the maximum frictionless delivery of a commodified service to individual paying consumers. Each of those might dictate a different position on opening in the fall of 2020.

But for the university that says first that it values a vision of education as both individually and collectively empowering and transformative and that second it values the production of knowledge in service to wider publics and third it values organizing the labor of both of those commitments in terms of community, the decision about opening in the fall of 2020 rests on the interrelationship of these three values and what might keep them from being fully lived into.

They may have some intrinsic tensions. Scholarship and teaching frequently inform one another, but not invariably so. Communities that have to allocate a finite set of resources rarely make everyone feel happy even if they have completely democratic, consensus-driven deliberative processes. In the case of covid-19, other tensions enter in. What if some members of a community are more vulnerable to the disease? What if multigenerational communities specifically are vulnerable because of that? What if closure of other services or of critical infrastructure outside the university make it impossible to produce scholarship? The whole point about enunciating values clearly as a starting place is that you get to see where they conflict with one another and you get to decide how to resolve those conflicts. That might mean putting one value above another. It might mean deciding how to resolve conflicts between different values on a situational basis while continuing to insist that they are otherwise equal in the obligations they place upon people making decisions.

Risk, liability and revenues now finally enter the picture in their proper place. Does the university need revenues that only reopening can provide in order to exist in six months or a year so that it can continue to fulfill those values? Do people in community need to avoid the danger of infecting one another in order to live up to what is meant by community? Is providing students a transformative and empowering education incompatible with increasing the chance that either they or their teachers and supporters might be sickened or that their families might be sickened as a result of contact with their children (either on delivery to campus or return to home)?

Is it ever right to think of a fulfilling and transformative education as putting the life or safety of students at risk? I think it is perfectly possible to answer this question as “yes”: we accept that athletics involves the risk of serious injury, we accept that scholarly research in the world may involve the risk of injury, assault or death from accident or from the unpredictable actions of other people, we accept that the stresses of education may produce suffering or mental debility. If we came to the conclusion that in a population of 5,000 students, around .1% of those students would attempt to commit or commit suicide due in part to the stresses of the educational environment, most of us would still judge that the value of the education is such that we should continue to provide it. But we would also likely say that we need to put resources into reducing that number to zero or as close to it as possible–and that if particular features of that education were causally responsible for that small fraction of cases, they should be modified or abandoned. You don’t start from the risk, but you eventually put it into relation alongside the values. Even those of us who say, “It is never acceptable to put a single life at risk to education a thousand people” need to start first with what we value and get to risk assessment afterwards.

For the most part, institutions influenced by the culture of neoliberalism don’t build that way. Values or principles get declared as retroactive narratives designed to explain or justify commitments that were made to protect a particular configuration of assets from a perceived set of risks or liabilities.

I think you can see the signs of that all over how higher education as a whole has stumbled into the fall of 2020, all the way back to Brown University President Christina Paxson’s early op-ed that served more or less as a template for what would follow across the sector. Students must come back, there must be testing and social distance and mask-wearing, there must be plexiglass installed. But Paxson’s essay really doesn’t explain very thoughtfully why the provision of education at institutions like Brown is in fact important, because most of higher education takes for granted that what they offer is important and necessary without really thinking up to that importance from foundational values. You can almost sense a kind of fear behind that early summer thinking that this crisis might actually reveal that absence–that forced to explain why we must do what we do, the sector as a whole finds itself stumbling for the deep convictions that would provide a stirring and persuasive answer and that in the giving of this answer, the question of “What is to be done?” would begin to spell out its more specific answers.

If higher education has answered the question backwards, that’s because it has been working from an analysis of revenues and from a reactive analysis of risks as they appear, both of which represent an attempt to cope with a profound rupture in our lives as if they were a whack-a-mole game at a carnival. No answers that have deep meaning to sustain a community or that explain the reasons for the education to which we are so devoted can come via that route. I also think it is no coincidence that both forms of institutional process are understood in modern institutional life to be the most necessarily unknown and unshared information within the institution’s forms of self-knowledge–undercutting the value placed on community and on the production (and consumption) of formal knowledge as a public good. The contract, the lawsuit (or fear of one), the balance sheet are all documents that encode a particular vision of human values and human possibility and they are by their nature kept from community view and are exempt from its deliberations. One could propose that by their natures, they enable all the other values that we might uphold. That, at least, deserves an open discussion of the kind that neoliberal culture has generally foreclosed.

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Mucking Out Mead

Via Mohamad Bazzi of New York University, I learned last week about several articles published in the last few years by Lawrence Mead, also of NYU. I had a vague awareness of Mead as a kind of post-Moynihan “pathology of poverty” scholar who had had some influence over public policy in the 1990s, but otherwise I hadn’t really encountered his work in detail before. Bazzi was responding to a July 2020 article in the journal Society entitled “Poverty and Culture”. After I read it, I looked at a 2018 article by Mead in the same journal, titled “Cultural Difference”. The two substantially echo each other and are tied to a 2019 book by Mead, which I really dread to look at.

1. In “Culture and Poverty”, Mead is talking about “structural poverty” (though he doesn’t use the term), and yet does nothing to reference a very large body of comparative social science on structural poverty that has been published between 1995-2020. His references to poverty scholarship are entirely to work from the mid-1990s or before.

2. Paragraph 3 in the article chains together a set of assertions: low-income neighborhoods lack “order”, marriage is in steep decline, poor children do poorly in school, and “work levels among poor adults remain well below what they need to avoid poverty”. These require separate treatment, but they are chained together here to form a composite image: structural poverty causes “disorder”, it is tied to low rates of marriage and school performance, and it’s because the poor don’t work enough. This is sloppy inferential writing, but it is only an appetizer before a buffet of same.

3. Poverty arises, says Mead, from not working or from having children out of wedlock who are not supported. Not just here but throughout his article (and similar recent work), Mead seems to completely unaware of the fact that in the contemporary United States, some people in structural poverty or who are close to the federal government’s official poverty line are in fact employed. It also takes some astonishing arrogance and laziness to say that arguments that racial bias, lack of access to education, or lack of access to child care play a role in causing structural poverty have been flatly and undebatedly disproven—with only a footnote to your own book written in 1992 as proof of that claim.

4. On page 2 (and in other recent Mead writings) we arrive at his core argument, which is basically a warmed-over version of Huntingdon’s “clash of civilizations”. though even that goes unreferenced; he has a few cites of modernization theory and then one of Eric Jones’ European Miracle and McNeill’s Rise of the West, again without acknowledging or seeming to even be aware of the vast plenitude of richly sourced and conceptually wide-ranging critiques of modernization theory and Jones’ 1987 book. He doesn’t even seem aware that McNeill’s own work later on cast doubt on the idea that the West’s internal culture was the singular cause of European domination after 1500.

5. So let’s spend time with the intensely stupid and unsupportable argument at the heart of this article that vaguely poses as scholarship but in fact is nothing of the sort. Mead argues that Europeans who came to the Americas were all “individualists” with an inner motivation to work hard in pursuit of personal aspiration and that they all “internalized right and wrong” as individually held moralities, whereas Native Americans, blacks and “Mexicans absorbed by the nation’s westward expansion” were from the “non-West” and were hence conformists who obeyed authoritarian power and who saw ethics as “more situational and dependent on context”, “in terms of what the people around them expect of them”.

6. So today’s poor are “mostly black and Hispanics, and the main reason is cultural difference. The great fact is that these groups did not come from Europe…their native stance toward life is much more passive than the American norm…they have to become more individualist before they can ‘make it’ in America. So they are at a disadvantage competing with European groups—even if they face no mistreatment on racial grounds”. This, says Mead, explains “their tepid response to opportunity and the frequent disorder in their personal lives”.

7. This entire argument would not be surprising if you were reading the latest newsletter from Stormfront or the local chapter of the Klan. But as scholarship it is indefensible, and that is not merely a rejection of the ideological character of the argument. Let me muck out the stables a bit here in factual terms just so it is clear to anyone reading just how little Mead’s argument has to do with anything real.

8. Let’s start with the African diaspora and the Atlantic slave trade. In West and Central Africa between 1400 and 1800, what kinds of societies that were in contact with the Atlantic world and were drawn into the slave trade are we dealing with in terms of moral perspectives, attitudes towards individualism and aspiration, views of work, and so on?

9. First off, we’re not dealing with one generically “African” perspective across that vast geographical and chronological space, and we’re not dealing with collective or individual perspectives that remained unchanged during that time. I’m going to be somewhat crudely comparative here (but what I’m calling crude is essentially about ten magnitudes of sophistication above Mead’s crayon scrawling: in his 2018 essay “Cultural Difference”, Mead says “most blacks came from Africa, the most collective of all cultures”.) Consider then these differences, quickly sketched:
a. Igbo-speaking communities in the Niger Delta/Cross River area between 1600-1800 famously did not have chiefs, kings or centralized administrative structures but were woven together by intricate commercial and associational networks, and in these networks both men and women strove to ascend in status and reputation and in wealth (both for themselves and their kin). There was a strong inclination to something we might call individualism, a tremendous amount of emphasis on aspiration and success and something that resembled village-level democracy.
b. Mande-speaking societies associated with the formation of the empire of Mali in the upper Niger and the savannah just west of the Niger and subsequent “tributary” empires like Kaaba in upper Guinea were structured around formal hierarchies and around the maintenance of centralized states with an emperor at the top of the hierarchy. But they also invited Islamic scholars to pursue learning and teaching within their boundaries (and built institutions of learning to support them) and reached out to make strong new ties to trans-Saharan merchants. Moreover, the social hierarchies of these societies also had a major role for groups of artisans often called nyamakalaw: blacksmiths, potters, weavers, and griot or ‘bards’, who not only were a vibrant part of market exchange but who also had an important if contested share of imperial authority that involved a great deal of individual initiative and aspiration.
c. The Asante Empire, one of a number of Akan-speaking states in what is now Ghana, rose to pre-eminence in the 18th and 19th Century, and both its rulers and its merchant “middling classes” showed a tremendous amount of personal ambition and investment in individual aspiration, as did their antagonists in the Fante states to the south, who were heavily involved in Atlantic trade (including the slave trade) and who were very much part of Atlantic commercial and consumer culture. Cities like Anomabu and Cape Coast (and others to their east) were commercial entrepots that in many ways resembled other cosmopolitan Atlantic port cities in Western Europe and the Americas.
d. (I can keep going like this for a long while.) But let’s throw in one more, just because it’s illustrative, and that’s the Kingdom of Dahomey. It was an authoritarian state—though so was most of “the West” in the 17th and 18th Century, coming to that soon—but it was also deeply marked by religious dissent from those who profoundly disagreed with their ruler’s participation in the Atlantic slave trade, as a number of scholars have documented, as well as very different kinds of personal ambitions on the part of its rulers.
e. The upshot is that you cannot possibly represent the societies from which Africans were taken in slavery to the Americas as conformist, as uniformly authoritarian, as fatalistic or uninterested in personal aspiration, or as unfamiliar with competitive social pressures. I think you can’t represent any of them in those terms (I’m hard-pressed to think of any human society that matches the description) but none of the relevant West or Central African societies do. It’s not merely that they don’t match, but that they had substantially different ideas and structures regarding individual personhood, labor, aspiration, social norms, political authority, etc. from one another.

10. Let’s try something even sillier in Mead’s claims (if that’s possible), which is the notion that “Hispanics” or “Mexicans” are “non-Western” in the sense that he means. Keep in mind again that the argument depends very much on a kind of notion of cultural difference as original sin—he doesn’t even take the easy Daniel-Moynihan route to arguing that the poor are stuck in a dysfunctional culture that is a consequence of structural poverty—an argument that has a lot of problems, but it is in its way non-racial (it’s the same claim that undergirded J.D Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, for example): culture is a product of class structure which then reinforces class structure in a destructive feedback loop. Mead is pointedly rejecting this view in favor of arguing that cultural difference is an intact transmission of the values and subjectivities of societies from 500 years ago into the present, and that the impoverishing consequences of this transmission can only be halted by the simultaneous “restoration of internal order” (e.g., even tougher policing) and the black and brown poor discovering their inner competitive individualist Westerner and letting him take over the job of pulling up the bootstraps.

11. Right, I know. Anyway, so Mead has a second group of people who are carrying around that original sin of coming from the “non-West”, full of conformism and reliance on authoritarian external commands and collectivism and avoidance of individual aspiration: “Hispanics”, which at another point in the article he identifies more specifically as “Mexicans”. I would need a hundred hands to perform the number of facepalms this calls for. Let’s stick to Mexico, but everything I’m going to say applies more or less to all of Latin America. What on earth can Mead mean here? Is he suggesting that contemporary Latinos in the United States who have migrated from Mexico, are the descendents of migrants from Mexico, or are the descendents of people who were living within the present-day boundaries of the United States back when some of that territory was control either by the nation-state of Mexico or earlier as a colonial possession of Spain, are somehow the product of sociohistorical roots that have nothing to do with “the West”?

12. Mead does gesture once towards the proposition that by “Western” he really means “people from the British Isles and northern Europe”; at other times, he seems to be operating (vaguely) with the conception of “Western” that can include anybody from Europe. He could always make the move favored by Gilded Age British and American racists and claim that Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece are not really Western, that their peoples were lazy collectivists who liked authoritarian control, and so on—it’s consistent with the incoherence of the rest of the argument, but he may sense that the moment he fractures the crudity of “Western” and “non-Western” to make more specific claims about the sociopolitical dispensations of 1500 CE that produced contemporary “cultural difference”, he’s screwed. In his 2018 essay, it becomes clearer why he would be screwed by this, because then he couldn’t contrast European immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe in the late 19th Century with the really-truly “culturally different” black and brown people—if he drops Spain out of “Western” (by which he really means “white”), he’s going to lose his basis for saying that Giovanni DiCaprio had a primordial Western identity but Juan Castillo is primordially non-Western.

13. He’s screwed anyway, because there is no way you can say that Mexican-Americans are “non-Western” because they derive their contemporary cultural disposition from some long-ago predicate that is fundamentally different than that of white Americans and that this has nothing to do with the ways that societies in the Americans have structured racial difference and inequality. What is he even thinking is this ancient predicate? That Mexican-Americans are reproducing the sociocultural outlook of Mesoamerican societies that predate Spanish conquest? That Spain was non-Western, or that the mestizo culture of early colonial Mexico was totally non-Western? I can’t even really figure out what he thinks he is thinking of here: the Ocaam’s Razor answer is “well, he’s a bigot who wants to explain African-American and Latino poverty as a result of a ‘cultural difference’ that is a proxy for ‘biological difference’”, because his understanding of the histories he’s flailingly trying to invoke is so staggeringly bad that you can’t imagine that he is actually influenced by anything even slightly real in coming to his conclusions.

14. To add to this, he clearly knows he’s got another problem on his hands, which is why Asian-Americans aren’t in structural poverty in the same way, considering that most of his Baby’s First Racist History Stories conceptions of “cultural difference” would seemingly have to apply to many East, Southeast and South Asian societies circa 1500 as well. (And to Europe too, but hang on, I’m getting there.) In his 2018 essay, he’s got some surplus racism to dispense on them: some of them “become poor in Chinatowns” (citing for this a 2018 New York Times article focused on “Crazy Rich Asians”), and saying that despite the fact that they do well in school, Asians do not “assert themselves in the creative, innovative way necessary to excel after school in an individualist culture” and “fall well short of the assertiveness needed to stand out in America”. But he’s not going to get hung up on them because they pretty well mess up his argument, much like anything remotely connected to reality does.

15. Another reality that he really, really does not want to even mention, because he can’t have any conceivable response to it, is “well, what about persistent structural poverty in parts of the United States where the poor are white? And not just white, but whiteness that has pretty strong Scots-Irish-English roots, like in parts of Appalachia?” In terms of how he is conceptualizing cultural difference, as a cursed or blessed inheritance of originating cultures five or six hundred years old, he’s completely screwed by this contemporary structural fact. He can’t argue that it’s just a short-term consequence of deindustrialization or globalization—the structural poverty of Appalachia has considerable historicity. It used to give white supremacists fits back in the early 20th Century too.

16. Moreover, of course, everything I’ve said above about the complexity of the West and Central African origins of people taken across the Atlantic as slaves goes very much for Europeans arriving in the Americas. The idea that the Puritans, for example, represent a purely individualistic Western culture pursuing individual aspiration who are not ruled by and conforming to external authority is a laughably imprecise description of the communities they made. The sociopolitical and intersubjective outlooks derived from the local origins of various Europeans arriving in the Americas between 1500 and 1800 were substantially different. The states that many came from were absolutist, hierarchical, authority-driven, and the cultures that many reproduced were patriarchal, controlling, and not particularly anything like Mead’s sketch of “Western” temperaments, which is just a kind of baby-talk version of the Protestant work-ethic, a concept which actual historians doing actual research have complicated and questioned in a great many ways. Moreover, as many scholars have pointed out, the conflicts between these divergent origins were substantial until many colonists found that the threat of Native American attacks and slave revolts pushed them towards identifying as a common “white” identity.

17. Speaking of slavery, it’s another place where the entire premise of Mead’s article is just so transcendently awful and transparently racist. Mead is arguing that somehow the cultural disposition of a generic “Africa” survived intact through enslavement, which even the most enthusiastic historian of black American life would not try to claim for more positive reasons, and that slavery had no culture-making dimension in its own right. The debate about African influences, “Africanisms” and so on in the African diaspora is rich and complicated and of long-standing by scholars who actually do research, but that same research amply documents how the programmatic violence of slavery aimed to destroy or suppress the diverse African heritage of the enslaved. That research also documents the degree to which Africans in the Americas participated in the making of new creole or mixed cultures alongside people of European, Native American, and Asian descent. It’s easy to see why Mead has to make this flatly ridiculous claim and avoid seeing slavery as a culture-making (and culture-breaking) system, because it leads right away to the proposition that structural poverty among African-Americans has causal roots in enslavement, in post-Civil War impoverishment, in racial discrimination and segregation in the 20th Century. It also takes some spectacular, gross misperception, by the way, to see slave-owners collectively as canonical examples of “Western” hard-working, aspiration-fulfilling individualists. Right, right, having a hundred slaves plow your fields for you under threat of torture and death is the essence of inner-driven individualism and hard work

18. I’m leaving completely aside in all of this an entire different branch of absurdity in the article, which is that Mead says nothing about growing income inequality and lack of social mobility in the United States over the last thirty years, and nothing about what life is actually like for people who are working minimum wage jobs with all of what he calls “Western” motivations—with an individualist sensibility, with aspirations for improvement, and so on. He might say that getting into the historical details about Western and non-Western cultural differences is just beyond his remit in a short article connected to a long project. I don’t think he can say that legitimately, because extraordinary claims call for extraordinary evidence, even in a short article. But there is no way that he can excuse not citing or being even aware of the last thirty years of social science research on structural poverty in the United States. The footnotes in both his 2020 article and his 2018 article are like time-capsules of the 1990s, with the occasional early-2000s citation of scholars like Richard Nisbett.

19. I’ve bothered to lay all this out because I want people to understand that many critiques that are dismissed breezily as ideological or “cancel culture” derive from detailed, knowledgeable, scholarly understandings of a given subject or concept—and that in many cases, if a scholar or intellectual is arguing that another scholar should not have a platform to publish and speak within it is because the work they are producing shows extraordinary shoddiness, because the work they are producing is demonstrably—not arguably, not contentiously, but unambiguously—untrue. And because it is so dramatically bad, that work has to raise the question of what that scholar’s real motivation is for producing that work. Sometimes it’s just laziness, just a case of recycling old work. That isn’t anything that requires public dismissal or harsh critique.

But when the work is not only bad, but makes morally and politically repellant claims, it’s right to not merely offer public criticism but to raise questions about why a respectable scholarly journal would offer a place to such work: it mocks the basic ideals of peer review. It’s right to raise questions about why a prestigious university would regard the author of such work as a person who belongs on its faculty and tout him as an expert consultant in the making of public policy. That may be an accurate description of his role in setting policy on poverty in the past and his past work may possibly be not as awful as this recent work (though the contours of some of this thinking are visible, and reveal anew just how deeply flawed the public policy of the Clinton Administration really was). This is not about punishing someone for past sins, nor for their political affiliations. It is about what they have chosen to put to the page recently, and about the profound intellectual shoddiness of its content, in service to ideas that can only be called racist.

Posted in Academia, Cleaning Out the Augean Stables, Politics | 4 Comments

Masking and the Self-Inflicted Wounds of Expertise

A broken clock tells the time accurately twice a day, but Donald Trump tells the truth even less often than that. Never on purpose and rarely even by accident. And yet he told an accidental truth recently, one that doesn’t reflect well on him, in saying that some Americans wear masks consistently today because masks have become a symbol of opposition to Trump.

Almost everything that involves the actions of the federal government has been like that since the fall of 2016. What the government does signifies Trump, what it doesn’t do or pointedly refuses to do signifies resistance to his authority. It isn’t instantly true: some policies and actions of the government just continue to signify ordinary operations and the provision of expected services. But the moment Trump becomes even slightly aware of any given policy or action and addresses it even once, the 60-40 divide that now structures two cultural and imaginative sovereignities instantly manifests and the signifiers fall rapidly into Trump’s devouring gravitational pull.

It’s likely true that in any other administration, typical public health discourse about covid-19, including advice on masks, would have been met with some paranoia or resistance, all the more so if masks and the constriction of economic activity were co-identified. It’s also true that Trump is the explosive, catastrophic culmination of thirty years of deliberate Republican subversion of the authority of scientific expertise and the cultivation of the logics of conspiracy theory. Some degree of partisan division in the reaction to various suggestions and orders would have been inevitable even were the President a competent, reasonable adult who believed that the Presidency must at least rhetorically and conceptually be devoted to the leadership of the entire body politic, not an inward-turning constituency of far-right Americans trying to preserve their racial and cultural privileges. No matter what, we would have had a surplus of the sort of fragility, weakness, incoherence and malice that has been on display in public hearings in Florida, California and elsewhere over masking policies. But without Trump, I think that would have been more clearly a fringe sentiment with relatively little weight on the body politic. With him, it is a crushing burden.

But if we hope to eventually emerge from this catastrophic meltdown into a better, more democratic, more just, and more commonsensical nation–perhaps even just into a country that possesses a much larger supply of the adult maturity required to just wear a mask for a year or so in order to safeguard both our own personal health and the health of our fellow citizens, then we have other kinds of work to do as well. One of the major tasks is that experts and educated professionals have got to learn to give up some of their own bad habits. If Republicans have worked to sabotage science and expertise in order to protect their own interests from regulation or constraint, then experts have frequently amplified those ill-meant efforts through their own ineptitude, their own attraction to quack social science and wariness about democratic openness.


This is an old theme for me at this blog, but the masking debacle provides a fresh example of how deep-seated the problem really is.

The last fifteen years have been replete with examples of how many common assumptions we make about medical therapies, sociological and economic phenomenon, drivers of psychological behavior and experience and much else besides rest on very thin foundations of basic research and on early much-cited work that turns out to be a mixture of conjecture and the manipulation of data. We know much less than we often suppose, and we tend to find that out at very unopportune moments.

In the present moment, for example, it perhaps turns out that we know much less about just how long a virus like covid-19 can be infectious in human respiration, how far it travels, and precisely how much wearing a fabric mask with some form of non-woven filter inside might protect a person who was wearing it properly, in relationship to a variety of atmospheric conditions (indoors, outdoors; strong air movement, little air movement; rapid athletic respiration, ordinary at-rest respiration) etc. There are very legitimate reasons why these are not things we can study well right now in the middle of this situation, and why they are a hard set of variables to measure accurately even when the situation is not urgent.

And yet. It has seemed likely from the very first news of a novel coronavirus spreading rapidly in China that wearing a mask, even a simple fabric or surgical mask, might help slow the spread of the virus and offer some form of protection to the wearer, however humbly or partially so.

The early response of various offices within the US government likely will receive considerable critical attention for the next decade and beyond. Not only did the unspeakably self-centered political imperatives of the Trump Administration intervene at a very early juncture, but also there seems to have been some basic breakdowns in competence and leadership at the CDC and elsewhere.

The question of masks, however, was bungled in a more complicated and diffuse way. It’s now clear that most public health officials and medical experts knew full well from the very first news about covid-19 that even surgical or fabric masks but especially N95 or other rated masks, would provide some measure of personal and collective protection for any wearer. And yet many voices stressed until late March 2020 that masks weren’t useful to the general public, that social isolation was the only effective counter-measure, that no one but medical workers or people in close contact with covid-19 patients should be wearing masks. Why not tell people to wear masks from the outset?

The answer seems to be only very slightly about any degree of uncertainty about the empirical evidence for mask-wearing. What really seems to have driven the reluctance to recommend mask-wearing are three basic propositions:

1) That if the benefits of mask-wearing were acknowledged, this would spur a massive amount of panic buying and hoarding of rated masks, which were after all a commonly available commodity, less for protection against infectious disease and more for protection against inhaling minute particulate matter in woodworking, drywalling and other projects.

2) That the general public would not know how to properly wear any mask, whether a simple fabric mask with non-woven filters or a rated mask, in order to insure actual protection from infection–that the masks only conferred meaningful protection if fitted correctly, if not touched constantly by hands during a period of exposure, if the mask-wearer did not touch their face otherwise, if rigorous hand-washing preceded and followed mask-wearing, and if some form of protective eyewear were also worn–and would hence not receive the expected protection from even non-rated masks.

3) That wearing masks might give people a false sense of security and prompt them to circumvent the more critical and impactful forms of social distancing and isolation that were (accurately) seen as more critical to mitigating the damage of the pandemic.


There are two basic problems with the line of reasoning embedded in those propositions. The first is that they reflect how profoundly unwilling educated professionals are to speak to democratic publics in a way that notionally imagines them as capable of understanding more complicated procedures and more complicated facts.

I know what you are saying: well, have you watched the YouTube videos of people testifying angrily about masks, in which they appear to be barely capable of understanding how to tie their own shoes, let alone how to deal with a public health emergency like this pandemic? Yes, and yes, those folks are appalling and yes they seem to represent a larger group of Americans.

The problem in part is that their behavior and the public culture of educated professionals have involved in relational tandem to one another–and to be caught up in the expression of and enforcement of social stratification. Because we expect people to be irrational and incapable of understanding, we offer partial explanations, exaggerations and half-true representations of research findings and recommended procedures and justify doing so on the grounds that it is urgent to get the outcomes we need to prevent some greater harm–to get people to behave properly, to get funds allocated, to get policies enacted. But it is not a secret that we are doing so. The news gets out that we amplified early reports of famine in order to get the aid allocated in time to make a difference, that we amplified the impact of one variable in the causation of a complicated social problem because it’s the only one we can meaningfully act upon, and so on. The people we’re trying to nudge or change or move know they’re being nudged. They know it from our affect, they know it from their own fractured understandings of the information flowing around them, they know it because it’s a habit with a long history. So they amplify their resistance in turn, even before the Republicans manipulate them or Donald Trump malevolently encourages them.

And in turn what this does is also commit experts to an increasingly unreal or inaccurate understanding of social outcomes in a way that corrodes their own expertise. The experts start to be vulnerable to manipulation by other experts who provide convenient justifying explanations for nudging or manipulation. “Make the plates half as big and it’s like magic! People eat less, obesity falls, the republic is saved! You don’t have to actually talk to people any more or try to understand them in complex terms!” Most of that thinking rests on junk modelling and Malcolm Gladwell-level simplifications once you peel it back and take a close look.

Even when the causes of behavior are in some sense simple, so many experts look away if it turns out the causes are in the wrong domain or are something they themselves are ideologically forbidden to speak to with any clarity. Take for example the fear of hoarding in the early reluctance to clearly recommend mask usage. It’s true that hoarding was a problem and it’s clear it could have been far worse still had the general public come to believe that owning a package of N95 masks was as important as stocking up on toilet paper or making a sourdough starter.

But what’s the problem there? It’s not in the least bit irrational under our present capitalist dispensation to buy up as much of a commodity that you suspect is about to gain dramatically in value. Buy low, sell high is a commandment under capitalism. In our present crisis, we’ve all felt outrage at the men who fill storage units full of hand sanitizer and PPE and called them hoarders. But they’re just the down-market proles that the nightly news feels comfortable mocking. There’s been just as much up-market hoarding, but there we call it business. The President of the United States has helped fill the troughs for various hogfests with his promotion of hydroxychloroquine and so on, but beyond that, organized profiteering has unfolded on more spectacular and yet sanctified scales.

At whatever scales, if the problem is hoarding rather than altruism in a public health crisis, if the problem is someone pursuing profit instead of saving lives, then name the problem for what it is: capitalism as we know it and live it. That’s not ideology or philosophy, it’s plain empirical fact. It’s fine to say that you are facing a problem whose cause is utterly beyond your capacity to address and beyond your expertise to understand. It is not fine to avoid doing that in order to launder the problem so that it comes out being something you know how to describe and feel you can do something to affect. In this case that “something” is to offer a half-truth (masks aren’t useful) in the thought that it might impede or slow down a basically rational response that threatens your capacity to act in a crisis.

I keep saying that expertise needs to respect and emulate the basic idea of the Hippocratic Oath, most centrally: first, do no harm. It is less harmful to name a problem for what it is, even when you cannot deal with it as such and your expertise does not really extend to it. It is less harmful to tell democratic publics what you know to the extent that you know it than to try and amplify, exaggerate or truncate what you know because you’re sure (with some justification) that they will not understand the full story if you lay it out. I understand the impulses that drive expert engagements with publics, but those impulses, even with the best of intentions, end up fueling a fire that far more malicious actors have been building for decades.

Posted in Oath for Experts, Oh Not Again He's Going to Tell Us It's a Complex System, Politics | 4 Comments

Knowing Better

I’m struggling to process my own discomfort at the thought of either cancelling a fall semester or doing it only online with the primary intention of protecting the health of faculty and staff.

Assuming that the still-fragmentary data about the pandemic holds somewhat true, students who are 18-22 year olds would be right to think that the risk to their own health from gathering together on a residential campus this fall is relatively small. They’re not invulnerable, of course–there are people in that age range who are immuno-compromised, there are people in that age range who have gotten very sick or died from covid-19 without apparent vulnerabilities, and there is the possibility that even asymptomatic or lightly symptomatic cases of coronavirus may pose unknown long-term health threats given how little we really know about the disease. On the other hand, one thing we do know is that it’s very contagious. I do not think it’s likely that colleges and universities can have a testing regimen sufficient to ensuring that everyone who comes to campus is not an infectious carrier. By fall, I expect that a much wider number of people will be exposed to it, whether or not campuses reopen. If they reopen, it’s almost certain that covid-19 will be a constant threat during the semester.

The major threat would be to older faculty and to staff who have regular contact with students. We could continue to hold most of our meetings remotely and stay away from each other, but if students are here, the people who teach them, serve them food, clean the buildings, attend to their mental and physical health, counsel them on academic and community matters, discuss their financial aid, etc., will inevitably be at some risk of exposure to a large community pool of potential carriers, even with some form of PPE (a non-trivial thing to secure in sufficient quantities in and of itself).

I’m a fat guy with high blood pressure in his mid-50s, so this is a meaningful threat to my survival. I should be, rationally, all for anything that will allow me to continue in relative isolation while still getting paid and doing as much of my job as I can in ways that are as creative and professional as I can manage as long as possible. And rationally, I am.

My discomfort is in the contrast between that future for me and my wider society. Many people have proposed that this is a national and global challenge that compares in its intensity and exigency and unpredictability to wartime. A few of the people using that structure of metaphor should probably think again about it–our utterly failed national leadership are just amplifying their failure when they talk in these terms. But mostly it’s meant sincerely and mostly I take it to heart. It’s because I take it to heart that I’m uncomfortable.

I’m uncomfortable because I think closing major institutions and workplaces (academic and otherwise) through the fall and possibly even longer while finding ways for professionals and white-collar employees to continue to productively work remotely while likely at the same time furloughing or terminating the employment of people who can’t work remotely doesn’t feel wartime to me. It doesn’t feel like wartime that I should be solicitiously protected from a risk to my health and a risk to my livelihood at once while some people are fired and other essential employees are compelled to take risks, often for little to no economic reward and with little national support beyond the same empty gladhanding we have given men and women sent to die in misbegotten wars since 2001–grocery clerks, delivery people, health care professionals, farm workers, meatpackers, police and fire, and so on. Wartime means shared sacrifice, shared danger, shared risk.

If we can’t all stay home and work on laptops–and plainly we can’t–there is part of me that think we all should be on the same frontlines, in the same foxholes, enduring the same bombardments. Not without precautions–masks, distancing, hand-washing, the whole thing. Not without the equivalent of 4F–the immuno-compromised, the highly vulnerable, in all industries and jobs given leave to stay home and be paid securely for the duration. But the rest of us–even me, obese and high blood pressure and all–out there like everyone else. Not for the sake of “the economy”, which needs a total transformation. Not for the 1%, not for anyone’s political prospects. But just as there has been solidarity in being apart to stretch out the curve, if by September some of us are in the soup of contagion with no choice (or in the abyss of unemployment in an especially cruel and unequal national economy), I feel as if there should be solidarity in the inescapability of threat. And I believe enough in the mission of my work to think that my students deserve to continue their studies, and to continue them in a format better than online–to think that there is a value in facing this risk. At least as much value as delivering packages, stocking shelves, collecting garbage, producing food and other services we have deemed so essential (if poorly compensated) that we feel they must continue regardless. I’m in no rush to say that a college education is inessential or can be delayed without cost, and not merely because that’s my meal ticket. I honestly believe it, more than ever with my own child in college.

I know there’s a lot wrong with these feelings, and that many of you feel very differently. Give me a moment and I will feel the same: that we should continue to shelter as long as possible, that no job is worth dying for, that we should not for a moment sanction the degree to which our systems have failed us all in the face of a deeply forseeable, inevitable crisis by numbly accepting a hollow rhetoric about shared sacrifice and duty. Indeed, if you follow the wartime metaphor, this has always been the problem for dissenters and social critics in wartime–to seem to deny or dismiss the heroic willingness of soldiers to die and the homefront to endure shared hardship by refusing the call to unity. And yet the metaphor has a pull, and all the more because this crisis at least does not involve the contingent failure of the powerful to make peace with an enemy they did not have to fight. We could have been so much better prepared but this crisis will come to humanity now and again no matter what we do, all the more so in the Anthropocene, as life (including pathogens and parasites) evolves to human bodies and systems as its primary ecosystem. This is one of the few existential crises that should put us in radical solidarity with one another.

So I grapple. I don’t want any of the short-term futures that September may bring. I can see the reasonableness of the ones I would guess to be most likely. I feel the pull of an unreasonable desire for something else.

Posted in Academia, Politics | 9 Comments

An Actual Trolley Problem

I’ve always seen a certain style of thought experiment in analytic philosophy and psychology as having limited value–say for example the famous “trolley problem” that asks participants to make an ethical choice about whose life to save in a situation where an observer can make a single intervention in an ongoing event that directs inevitable harm in one of two directions.

The problem with thought experiments (and associated attempts to make them into actual psychological experiments) is that to some extent all they do is clarify what our post-facto ethical narrative will be about an action that was not genuinely controlled by that ethical reasoning. Life almost never presents us these kinds of simultaneous, near-equal choices, and we almost never have the opportunity to reason clearly in advance of a decision about such choices. Drama and fiction as well as philosophy sometimes hope to stage or present us these scenarios either to help us understand something we did (or was done to us) in the confusion of events, or perhaps to re-engineer our intuitions for the next time. What this sometimes leads to is a post-facto phony ideological grandiloquence about decisions that were never considered in their actual practice and conception as difficult, competing ethical problems. Arthur Harris wasn’t weighing difficult principles about just war and civilian deaths in firebombing Dresden, he was wreaking vengeance plain and simple. Neoliberal institutions today frequently act as if they’re trying to balance competing ethical imperatives in purely performative way en route to decisions that they were always going to make, that were always going to deliver predictable harms to pre-ordained targets.

But at this moment in late March 2020, humanity and its various leaders and institutions are in fact looking at an honest-to-god trolley problem, and it is crucial that we have a global and democratic discussion about how to resolve it. This is too important to leave to the meritocratic leaders of civil institutions and businesses, too important to be left to the various elected officials and authoritarian bureaucracies, too important to be deferred to just one kind of expertise.

The terms of the problem are as follows:

Strong national quarantines, lockdowns, and closure of nonessential businesses and potential gathering places in order to inhibit the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 will save lives in all countries, whether they have poorly developed health infrastructures, a hodgepodge of privately-insured health networks of varying quality and coherence or high-quality national health systems. These measures will save lives not by containing the coronavirus entirely but simply by slowing the rapidity of its spread and distributing its impact on health care systems which would be overloaded even if they had large amounts of surplus capacity. The overloading of health care facilities is deadly not just to people with severe symptomatic coronavirus infections but to many others who require urgent intensive care: at this same moment, there are still people having heart attacks, life-threatening accidental injuries, poisonings, overdoses, burns from fires, flare-ups of serious chronic conditions, and so on. There are still patients with new diagnoses of cancer or undergoing therapy for cancer. There are still people with non-COVID-19 pneumonias and influenza, still people with malaria and yellow fever and a host of other dangerous illnesses. When a sudden new pandemic overwhelms the global medical infrastructure, some of the people who die or are badly disabled who could have been saved are not people with the new disease. Make no mistake: by the time this is all said and done, perhaps seventy percent of the present population of the planet or more will likely have been exposed to and been carriers of the virus, and it’s clear that some percentage of that number will die regardless of whether there was advanced technology and expertise available to care for them. Let’s say it’s two percent if we can space out the rate of infection: that is still a lot of people. But let’s say it’s eight percent, including non-COVID 19 people who were denied access to medical intervention, if we don’t have strong enforced quarantines at least through the first three months where the rate of infection in any given locale starts to rise rapidly. That’s a lot more people. Let’s say that a relatively short period of quarantine at that level–three months–followed by moderate social distancing–splits the difference. A lot of people, but fewer than in a totally laissez-faire approach.

Against that, there is this: in the present global economy, with all its manifest injustices and contradictions, the longer the period of strongly enforced quarantine, the more that another catastrophe will intensify that will destroy and deform even more lives. There are jobs that must continue to be done through any quarantine. Police, fire and emergency medical technicians must work. Most medical personnel in emergency care or hospitals must work. Critical infrastructure maintenance, all the way down to individual homes and dwellings, still has to be done–you can’t leave a leaking pipe in the basement alone for four months. Banks must still dispense money to account holders, collect interest on loans, and so on. And, as we’re all discovering, there are jobs which can be done remotely in a way that was impossible in 1965 or 1985. Not optimally from anyone’s perspective, but a good deal of work can go on in that way for some months. But there are many jobs which require physical presence and yet are not regarded as essential and quarantine proof. No one is getting routine tooth cleaning. The barber shops are closed. Restaurants and bars are closed. Ordinary retail is closed. Amusement parks and concert halls are closed. All the people whose lives depend on those businesses will have no money coming in the door. Three months of that might be barely survivable. Ten months of that are not. Countries with strong social-democratic safety nets have some insulation against the damage that this sudden enforced unemployment of a quarter to a half of the population. Countries like the United States with almost no safety nets are especially exposed to that damage. But the world can’t go on that way for the full length of time it might take to save the most lives from the coronavirus pandemic. And make no mistake, this will cost lives as well. Quite literally from suicide, from sudden loss of access to shelter and health care, from sudden inability to afford the basic necessities of everyday life. But also from the loss of any future: the spiralling catastrophe of an economic downturn as grave as the Great Depression will deform and destroy a great deal, and throw the world into terrifying new disequilibrium.

It cannot be that saving the most lives imaginable from the impact of the pandemic is of such ethical importance that the destructiveness of the sudden collapse of the world economy is unimportant. It cannot be that business as usual–already deformed by inequality and injustice–must march forward over the deaths caused by the unconstrained, unmanaged spread of COVID-19. Like many people, this problem is not at all abstract for me. I’m 55, I have high blood pressure, I have a history of asthma, I’m severely overweight and when I contract the disease, I may well die. I have a mother that I love who is almost 80, aunts and uncles whom I love who are vulnerable, I have valued colleagues and friends who are vulnerable, and of course some who may die in this have no pre-existing vulnerabilities but just draw a bad card for whatever reason. But there has to be a point where protecting us to the maximum degree possible does more harm to others in a longer-lasting and more devastating way.

And this trolley problem cannot be left to the civic institutions and businesses that in the US were the first to act forcefully in the face of an ineffective and diffident national leadership. Because they will decide it on the wrong basis and they will decide it in a way that leaves all of us out of the decision. They will decide it with lawyers in closed rooms, with liability and insurance as their first concerns. They will decide it following neoliberal principles that let them use the decision as a pretext to accomplish other long-standing objectives–streamlining workforces, establishing efficiencies, strengthening centralized control.

It cannot be left to political authorities alone. Even in the best-case scenario, they will decide it in closed rooms, following the technocratic advice of experts who will themselves stick to their specialized epistemic networks in offering counsel: the epidemiologists will see an epidemic to be managed, the economists will see a depression to be prevented. In the worst-case scenario, as in the United States, corrupt leaders will favor their self-interest, and likely split differences not out of some transparent democratic reasoning but as a way to avoid responsibility.

This has to be something that people decide, and that people are part of deciding. For myself, I think that we will have to put a limit on lockdowns and quarantines and that limit is likely to be something like June or July in many parts of the United States and Europe. We can’t do this through December, and that is not about any personal frustration with having to stay at home for that length of time. It’s about the consequences that duration will wreak on the entirety of our social and economic systems. But it is not anything that any one of us can decide for ourselves as a matter of personal conscience. We the people have to decide this now, clearly, and not leave it to CEOs and administrators and epidemiologists and Congressional representatives and well-meaning governors and untrustworthy Presidents. This needs not to be a stampede led by risk-averse technocrats and managers towards the path of least resistance, because there’s a cliff at the end of all such paths. This is, for once, an actual trolley problem: no matter what we do, some people are going to die as a result of what we decided.

Posted in Academia, Grasping the Nettle, Politics, Swarthmore | 1 Comment

Free College: Not So Extreme

I’ve complained that for the most part, self-identified centrists and moderates prefer not to engage in direct arguments about their policy preferences in this election, but instead to argue about “electability”–essentially laundering their preferences through mute off-stage proxies, some other group of voters who won’t accept an “extremist” policy proposal simply because it’s extreme.

It’s not as if any given proposal is intrinsically extreme. (Well, up to a point: there are ideas that might be in some absolute sense be deemed to be fringe–say, banning any policy that accepts that the Earth is round and that the solar system is heliocentric.) “Extreme”, for the most part, is a judgment about how far a given idea is from some perceived stable consensus or status quo. As such, it’s more a marketing term than an empirical description: you make something extreme by describing it as such, over and over again, much the same way that you remind people that Colgate has new whitening agents and an improved fluoride formula.

Let’s take by way of an example the proposition that making public higher education free to all citizens and residents is a really extreme proposal. So extreme that it has been the normal public policy of many other liberal democracies (and a few non-democracies). So extreme that up to 1980 or so, it was in effect the policy of most states in the United States, in that there was a sufficient level of public funding for universities and community colleges that most could, if they chose, attend college for very little.

How did that become “extreme”? Through a steady thirty year effort to defund public higher education, which simultaneously raised the cost to prospective students while degrading the quality of the service it provided. Why exactly did we do that? Largely because we had thirty years of both Republican and Democratic administrations that turned away from public goods in general while cutting taxes, thirty years of austerity talk about inefficiencies and the need for private competition, and thirty years of educated elites trying to slow increasing access to higher education as union-protected high-wage manufacturing was transferred overseas and high-paying professional work that required educational credentials became the only alternative to low-paying service jobs. Thirty years of using higher education as the false whipping boy explanation for a major structural realignment of the economy (there aren’t enough engineers! There are too many poets and anthropologists!) while starving higher education in the process.

That’s how “public higher education should be free or nearly so to citizens and residents” became an extreme idea. It isn’t that way naturally: it was made extreme, a parting gift from the boomers and their parents who benefited from the idea back when it wasn’t extreme. It’s as if a thief broke into your house, stole something valuable, and then claimed you shouldn’t have it back because you never could have afforded it in the first place.

Inasmuch as any moderates care to actually engage the proposal on its merits, they have complained that it is regressive. Meaning that free access to public higher education should be means-tested, and the wealthy should have to pay. That sounds reasonable enough, but in fact, this is the torturous logic that has brutalized liberal democracy for the last three decades.

Before we get to the practicalities of it, at a more philosophical level, what looks like a gesture that targets income inequality in fact sanctifies it as foundational. When you prorate access to public goods, you establish that there are and must always be tiers of citizens–that inequality is fundamental. Platinum-tier citizenship, Gold-tier citizenship, etc. It effectively amends the Declaration of Independence: that all men are created unequal. What is public should be public to all: it is the baseline of equality.

That the wealthy can buy more on top of that is true–but don’t write that into the baseline. The rich can buy more legal representation than the state can provide, they can buy concierge health care on top of a public provision, they can buy an expensive private education. Yes. Figuring how to keep that from cancelling out equality of opportunity is a difficult, challenging problem. But you do not acknowledge that fact by writing it in at the deepest level of provision.

The wealthy already legitimately pay their fair share in a progressive tax system–if it’s actually used effectively as a way to redistribute excessive wealth and check run-away inequality.

The complaint that “free college” is regressive, moreover, feels jury-rigged to this political moment. The people who raise this argument against Sanders and Warren curiously seem to think this is the one ad hoc case where this concern is important. They are not arguing in favor of universal means-testing in the provision of public goods. Should we start charging wealthy people more to enter national parks? To send their children to public secondary schools? Should their EZ Passes charge them twice as much to drive on an interstate highway? Should they have to pay a fee to use the Library of Congress website? Be charged a fee in order to send a letter to their representative in Congress? Why not? They can afford it, after all. Isn’t it regressive to allow them to generally access public goods on the same basis as everyone else?

The idea that free public college should only be for those who really need it, moreover, is in practical terms the same kind of terrible idea that Democratic moderates have been peculiarly in love with since Johnson’s Great Society programs. When you set out to create elaborate tiers that segregate the deserving poor from the comfortable middle-class and the truly wealthy, you create a system that requires a massive bureaucracy to administer and a process that forces people into petitionary humiliation in order to verify their eligibility. You create byzantine cutoff points that become business opportunities for predatory rentiers. “Ah! I see you earn just $1,000 too much to qualify for free public college, and so will have to pay $5,000 a semester. Why don’t you consider taking on debt to attend my for-profit online school and we’ll spread that out for you? How about you hide that $1,000 in income using my $500/year accounting service? Try using your employer-offered system for tax-deferred payments into a special fund rather than receiving raises for the next four year!” Simplicity isn’t just about a basic idea of citizenship: it is also about efficiency, the very thing that neoliberal policy-makers supposedly revere so greatly and yet will so very often go to great pains to avoid.

Perhaps it is no great surprise that eye-rolling dismissals at supposedly utopian improvidence and hand-waving at proxies who are afraid of extremism is the preferred way to engage proposals like “free public higher education”. Who would want to undo thirty years of rigging the conversation, after all? Or for that matter twenty or so years of close ties between some of the economic interests that have benefitted from the defunding of public higher education and centrist policy makers.

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