The second installment in a weekly collection of short observations. Musings linked by no obvious theme or purpose. 

  • James Flynn’s book How To Defend Humane Ideals contains the most succinct explanation I’ve seen for why the idea of a “meritocracy” is incoherent and impossible. Flynn’s argument is: “(1) Allocating rewards irrespective of merit is a prerequisite for meritocracy, otherwise environments cannot be equalized (2) allocating rewards according to merit is a prerequisite for meritocracy, otherwise people cannot be stratified by wealth and status (3) therefore a class-stratified meritocracy is impossible.” In other words: in a meritocracy, status, wealth, and privilege are given to those who have “earned” their position through merit, meaning that everyone had an “equal opportunity” even if they did not reach an equal outcome. But if status, wealth, and privilege are unequally distributed, people can never have equal opportunities, meaning that rewards will never be assigned on the basis of merit. There can be no such thing as a “meritocracy” in which there are inequalities in power, wealth, and status across classes, because people’s environments will be unequal, therefore they will not start with equal resources and the resulting unequal outcomes will not reflect differences in individual merit. This argument is so simple and obvious that it feels pedantic to explain it. But there is still widespread acceptance of the idea that “wealth/status inequality is okay as long as there is equal opportunity,” even though it is conceptually incoherent in a very basic way.
  • Political scientist Lilliana Mason has a new paper called “Ideologues without Issues: The Polarizing Consequences of Ideological Identities,” which argues that people’s political identities are generally more like the loyalties of sports fans than principled divides over issues. Mason suggests that people care far more about their identities as liberals or conservatives than about the particular positions liberals and conservatives stand for. This supports the perspective that political conflict is in large part the result of irrationality or a failure to understand one another, and that if we set aside our partisan identities we could have political discussions that weren’t nearly as bitter or polarizing. My first reaction to this is strong skepticism, because I generally buy the perspective that political divides are real and substantive and that those (like Barack Obama) who think we aren’t “really” divided are naive. With regard to this paper’s particular argument, I think it probably views “issues” as too narrow a category. The divide between me and, say, Mark Zuckerberg might be quite narrow when measured on a set of particular “issues” (the six in the paper were “immigration, the Affordable Care Act, abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, and the relative importance of reducing the deficit or unemployment”). But we also have fundamentally different visions of how society should be constituted. I actually don’t doubt that most people have somewhat modest positions on the ACA, abortion, gay marriage, etc. But that doesn’t mean the divide between liberals and conservatives is necessarily illusory. “Worldview” differences may be relevant as well as “issue” differences and I wonder if the divide would appear stronger if instead of questions like “Do you support low, moderate, or high amounts of immigration?” we asked questions designed to capture the “individualistic” bootstraps ethic versus the “collective” solidarity ethic.
  • How To Lie With Statistics—Education Policy Edition: Education “reformers” (read: privatizers) from Betsy DeVos to Bill Gates have long displayed a chart showing increases in education spending alongside flat student performance. This is used to support the talking point that we’re throwing money at schools and not getting results, and to affirm the stereotype of greedy, useless tenured teachers who suck up public money. But as C. Kirabo Jackson, an education policy expert at Northwestern University, shows, this is a selective manipulation of the data, and if you look at it differently, you can see a high correlation between spending and performance. Social science is extremely complicated, and because the world has billions of variables in it it’s often difficult to produce neat findings, but anyone presenting a simple chart purporting to show that spending has zero effect on performance is not to be trusted.


  • Peter Gowan and Ryan Cooper’s paper on public housing is well worth reading and thinking about. They argue that city governments should just build people houses if they want to address affordable housing issues. This seems self-evident to me, but it’s a radical position in the United States, where everything is supposed to be solved with elaborate manipulations of market mechanisms.
  • I have previously suggested that New York magazine’s Andrew Sullivan is a racist. His latest column offers interesting new evidence on that front. He first weighs in on the recent debate between Sam Harris and Ezra Klein over race and IQ. Sullivan is especially incensed at Klein’s suggestion that discussions about race and IQ should never be had without an understanding of the historical context of those discussions, and the way supposedly scientific inquiry into “racial intelligence differences” has been going on since the colonial era as a way to justify racial hierarchy. Sullivan insists that “the science is the science regardless of history, and you can discuss that separately from a discussion of social policy or the past, and that, in scientific debate, the race and gender and identity of the participants are irrelevant, and only the arguments matter.” All sounds very good, though as I’ve explained at tedious length elsewhere, one reason you can’t ignore the history is that understanding the history helps you formulate crucial hypotheses for conducting the science. (Also the science is often crap.) But in the next part of Sullivan’s column there’s actually a funny demonstration of what you get when you wilfully ignoring social and historical context. Sullivan decides to weigh in on the controversy about Apu from The Simpsons. Sullivan thinks it’s all politically correct nonsense. He admits that Apu is a racial stereotype, but insists (as he has before) that racial stereotypes are actually good. As he says: “Stereotype humor is one of the most benign ways to vent racial or gender or religious tension, without degenerating into dangerous bigotry.” “Apu is funny, in part, because he is a stereotype, and because that stereotype largely rings true… There’s a huge difference between stereotypes that are born out of fondness, and those rooted in hatred… Almost all the studies of stereotypes in social psychology prove that they are actually, most of the time, dead accurate.” Now, if Sullivan did care about the history of racial stereotypes, he would know what he sounds like here, namely a 1950s white person defending the hilarity of Amos & Andy. Sullivan’s idea that racial stereotypes exist because they’re probably true was offered by people who defended minstrel shows and the various racist cartoons. He doesn’t show any understanding of the actual arguments that Indian Americans are making about Apu, e.g. that the existence of Apu led to them spending their childhoods being bullied and taunted with “Thank you, come again.” A history lesson is long overdue for this man.
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  • Abraham Lincoln sometimes sounded a bit like Karl Marx, when he talked about “the spirit [that says] ‘you toil and work and earn bread and I’ll eat it.’” A few quotes: (1)  “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital, only the fruit of labor, could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration…” (2) “These capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert to fleece the people.”  (3) “Inasmuch as most good things are produced by labour, it follows that all such things of right belong to those whose labour has produced them. But it has so happened in all ages of the world, that some have laboured, and others have, without labour, enjoyed a large proportion of the fruits. This is wrong, and should not continue. To [secure] to each labourer the whole product of his labour, or as nearly as possible, is a most worthy object of any good government.” I generally don’t believe in “appeals to the authority of eminent historical figures” but it can be fun to strategically haul out Socialist Lincoln in arguments, and to remember that many people were often more radical than their sanitized contemporary portrayals let on.
  • Here Noam Chomsky says something many people find counterintuitive: the creation of the Soviet Union was an attack on socialism. Chomsky argues that if we think the Soviet Union was “socialistic,” we should also think they were democratic, because they called themselves democratic. No, he says, socialism means worker control. Workers weren’t in control in the Soviet Union, because it was totalitarian. Therefore, there was no socialism. Chomsky thinks that calling the Soviet Union socialist served the interests of both the Soviets and the United States. The Soviet leadership got to insist they were a genuine egalitarian society, which they weren’t, and the United States had a convenient way to discredit socialism. Chomsky expands on the point here.
  • Speaking of Chomsky, The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky is an actual novel that exists, which makes me sad.
  • My colleague Briahna Gray recently interviewed Bernie Sanders. Her report is well worth reading. Here’s a great bit on how economic justice and racial justice are both important parts of the same political fight: So I asked Sanders what he thought about critics who say he seems to care more about white voters than people of color. “It’s just not true,” he said. Sanders explained that he believes his agenda, which includes Medicare for All and free public education, will have an especially “profound and positive” effect on communities of color. … “Having said that,” he continued, “is racism a very significant and powerful force in American society that has got to be addressed? The answer is absolutely. Will a Medicare for All or single-payer system end racism in America? No, it won’t. So above and beyond moving forward on strong national programs, we’ve got to pay a special attention to communities of color, which are especially hurting right now.” Sanders went on to cite the racial wealth gap, the disproportionate incarceration of black Americans, and the unequal public education system which plagues many low-income communities. “So it’s not either/or,” he explained, rejecting the race versus class framing that has become popular since the 2016 presidential election. “It’s never either/or. It’s both.”
  • Last time, I quoted Edmund Burke’s assertion that “majority rule” is just a social convention and I wondered why there should be anything magical about “51%” as a number, especially since it always leaves the minority overruled simply because they are in the minority. Why, I asked, should simple majorities ever rule without a process for incorporating minority opinion? Reader Kelsey Cody, whose field is environmental studies, sent me a thoughtful response that I’d like to quote at length. She suggests that there are good insights to be found in the work of the late political economist Elinor Ostrom, who wrote Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cody says in “community based management of common pool resources such as water, forests, grasslands, and fisheries… there are usually good reasons [why] majority is used… One of the simplest reason is that it’s an easy criterion to determine. After days or weeks or even years of deliberation, a majority vote is a transparent, easy to understand way to assess that at least the process of deciding the final outcome is known and deemed legitimate. I think the key qualifier in your quote above is, ‘without an inquiry into the effects of that thing on the people that didn’t vote for it?’ In the irrigation systems I study in Colorado (and elsewhere, but I can speak much more authoritatively about Colorado), there is always a consideration among the owner-users of the system of the net effects on those who may be in the minority. The reason is simple: it takes all (or nearly all) of the users to effectively manage the irrigation system—to maintain it, to monitor its use, to operate it, etc. – and as a result it is of central importance for everyone, majority or not, to feel they have gotten a fair hearing and are being treated fairly. In well governed systems, if hegemony arises, or unfair treatment occurs, the people made worse off simply defect if they can – they stop contributing to the group effort (since the group effort is now not only against their interests but dismissive of their interests) and may even sabotage the would be hegemons. This prevents the hegemons from benefitting from their power, and can usually bring them back into the fold of democratic decision making. Ultimately in these contexts, people are rarely ideological – they are highly pragmatic because their livelihoods depend on sound decisions. I have seen some of the most ideologically conservative Trump voters tax themselves in order to more sustainably manage water resources. So even if someone opposed something promoted by a minority in principle, in practice they could be convinced to take the minority view into account because they have a vested interest in doing so. I realize that this gets around the problem in a way: you questioned why 51% should be an automatically fair standard even without considering the impacts on minority groups/interests. I don’t have a good answer for that because I think governing in that way is unethical. The challenge is to build the considerations/rights/interests of the minority into the governance framework. One of the reasons I believe capitalism is an unethical system is because unlike common property, private property removes the need to consider anyone but property owners in decisions about how society should function/resources should be managed. If people do not have common ownership of property – some shared stake in how resources are allocated – then there is no need on the part of the hegemonic owners of property to consider the interests of the non-property owners beyond organized labor. So we could see majorities this way: it’s mostly a matter of convenience, and we should recognize it as such, meaning that governance systems always have to incorporate feedback of the minority if they are to be ethical.
  • Pete Davis, who has previously written for Current Affairs, has an article in the Harvard Law Record objecting to the school’s selection of Jeff Flake as a commencement speaker. I have no interest in that particular controversy, but he has a good explanation of how liberal institutions are manipulated into moving to the right: “There is an idea in sports called ‘working the ref.’ You accuse the ref of being biased toward your opponent, and the ref starts being biased toward you to make up for it. It’s a clever tactic for bending an easily-rattled referee to your will. In institutional politics, the right-wing establishment has honed working the ref into an art form. It’s a two-part dance. First, they take institutions that see themselves as ‘neutral referees’ and accuse them of having a ‘left-wing bias.’  Then, they repeat themselves over and over and over again—no matter what the truth of the matter is—until the institution is so rattled by being called biased that it, in an attempt to affirm its neutrality, starts doing whatever the right-wing wants.”
  • I have been returning to James Baldwin’s essays, which should be required reading for every single American in order to receive a high school diploma. Much to react to, but I like this quote from Doris Lessing that he cites: “Color prejudice is not our original fault, but only one aspect of the atrophy of the imagination that prevents us from seeing ourselves in every creature that breathes under the sun.” The fight to eliminate racism, then, is part of a larger effort to create more empathy and expand our imaginative capacities to better understand the world and our fellow human beings.

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