Friday, July 29, 2011

my broken record keeps on spinning

I mean, sometimes, it's like the world wants to show us as carefully as it can that we lack the wisdom and ability to remake it in our image.

I've said this again and again: even if you don't hold my moral conviction that democratic states have no business dictating the futures of foreign countries, you should oppose interventions such as that in Libya because we lack the knowledge necessary to achieve our stated ends. I don't know anything about the Obeidi tribesmen of Libya, or the larger context of tribal, sectarian, and political divisions within that country. Neither, I feel confident in asserting, do the vast majority of the American people. Events of the last decade further make me skeptical about the knowledge of most self-styled experts in our media. But even if I was confident that there was an informed, nonpartisan expert base that could provide credible and current information to our leadership and our citizenry, I would be extremely skeptical about the ability of our policy apparatus to make sound choices about the future of a sovereign people. Particularly one that is so different from ours in language, culture, religion, and history.

I don't know. If you've read me for awhile you've read this all before. The beat just keeps going on: we fall in love with our righteousness, power, and knowledge, and hold our belief in them so dearly that we refuse to alter that belief in the face of events and evidence.

It will get worse in Libya.

Monday, July 25, 2011

education reform and the neoliberal-leftist divide

I stayed away from the recent neoliberal/leftist contretemps for the primary reason that I have been happily distracted by personal and academic concerns, and for the secondary reason that the discussion has been a little too on the nose, a little too directly in my wheelhouse for me to want to weigh in. But I found while reading a piece on Florida's charter schools today that inspired me to write, and I think in education reform we have a set of issues where there is a clear divide and where even the most narrow view on what constitutes policy difference has to recognize argument.

Before I get to it, can I just say that I find the endless posturing about the term "neoliberal" tiring and a dodge? The various poses that the term is meaningless, that the people called it don't know what it means, or that it is a uniquely unhelpful word for making distinctions are just that, poses. Yes, the term is imperfect. Yes, it is imprecise. It shares that quality with absolutely every other term for broad political movements and ideologies that's used in conventional discourse. Yes, we all imagine that we are unique political snowflakes who cannot be pinned down to reductive terms, most certainly including me. And, indeed we are, after a fashion. These terms persist because we need them. To say that neoliberal is any less demonstrative than, say, conservative, a term that somehow applies to Daniel Larison, Pamela Geller, Andrew Sullivan, and Maggie Gallagher, seems to me to be absurd on its face. But look, if the various bloggers involved in this discussion will agree to abandon progressive, a weasel word if I ever heard one, or even worse, "classical liberal," a self-imposed title of nobility, I'll drop neoliberal.

So as not to bore anyone, here's the lens I'd like to consider these issues through: compare this story with this one, from only about a week earlier.

One of the things that makes me scratch my head about the whole debate-- and I mean this in a genuinely "this is odd" sense rather than an explicitly judgmental sense-- is how immensely self-aggrandizing the neoliberal technocratic line has been. To read all of the various actors towing the neoliberal line in the debate, those who are on their side are interested in real and meaningful policy decisions, those on the other side in vague pieties; those on their side are sober-minded technocrats, those on the other side in the trap of wooly nostalgia; those on their side are serious and dedicated to the slow pursuit of progress, the others merely interested in self-righteousness. It's kind of silly.

Not only silly, but I would argue, demonstrably untrue. And I look to the topic of education reform for my proof. Because here is an issue where it is largely inarguable that neoliberal dedication to technocracy runs aground. Here is the current condition of the education reform debate: education reformers, made up almost exclusively of neoliberals and conventional economic conservatives, endorse market-based (to use their term) reforms that seem at least superficially deductively compelling; empirical research is done that demonstrates, at least in a qualified and conditional way, that these reforms in fact don't work; education reformers blame the empiricists, the teacher unions, or those of us opposed to conservative educational reform for the failure of their preferred policies.

So in Florida, where charter schools principles have again demonstrated that they are no panacea and may in fact harm more than they help, the outcome is vastly more relative funding for charter schools than for conventional public schools. This is politically possible in Florida largely because the conservative establishment hates Democratic and liberal constituencies like teachers, hates unions and unionism, and hates government ventures like public education. That they are given political cover by ostensibly left-wing policy wonks is likely trivial in the narrow perspective of Florida's electoral politics but on a broader scale serves to shape national dialogues. In any case, policy advocated is unwavering in the face of evidence, or if you prefer, reality.

There are other examples. The culture of high stakes testing and the endless assertion, free of evidence, that harsh penalties on teachers and "no excuses" rhetoric will lead to educational output gains led directly to widespread cheating in Atlanta and Washington DC-- exactly as those critical of educational reform have argued would happen for years. Yet these results have had no demonstrable impact on the rhetoric of school reformers. You can also look at an education reform edifice that continues to refuse to adopt very basic tenets of understanding educational outcomes, such as the essential role of network effects and selection bias. You can see this at work in the regard for the Harlem Children's Zone schools, which have an attrition rate so high (they once dismissed an entire grade) that they are effectively meaningless as a data point for broader reforms.

Forgive me if this is an aggressive question, but what kind of technocracy is this? Surely technocracy requires a dedication to acknowledging the outcomes of empirical study. I have said before, and I will certainly say now, that more study is needed in the major planks of neoliberal education reform policies. But surely this is not a binary situation, where you must pursue these anti-union reforms zealously until such a time as the preponderance of evidence forces you to switch entirely to the other side. The extant empirical evidence for school vouchers is quite discouraging. The extant empirical evidence for charter schools is somewhat better, but still largely negative and haunted by confounding variables and impediments to generalizability. If rhetoric does not follow reality than those voicing it cannot be meaningfully be said to be technocratic.

This probably sounds like I'm dropping some major criticism, but I'm actually merely saying that neoliberal wonks are as human as all of us. There are many reasons why, through all of my political evolution, I have never been able to be an orthodox Marxist, but one of the most powerful is orthodox Marxism's insistence that its policy preferences transcend politics or ideology. Surely many school reformers would take the same evidence that I have read regarding reform efforts and see them in a more favorable, or at least more conditional, light. This is not a matter of duplicity on either of our parts. It is an acknowledgement that all policy preferences are political, that there is no line where policy ends and politics starts, and that none of us, actually, have pierced the veil of ideology and seen through to real reality. The Marxists are not wrong to imagine that we see through the lens of ideology, but they are wrong to imagine that they have cast the lens aside or ever could. So too with technocrats of every stripe. Life is too complicated and messy for that.

Perhaps the truth is not that we have not yet found the market based education reforms that work but that there are no market based education reforms that work, that it is nowhere written in the sky that attaching the word "markets" to something or privatizing it is a cure all, that capitalism and markets are not handed down by God but are instead human instruments developed fitfully and in starts and ones which have certain uses for which they are great and certain uses for which they simply don't work. My most consistent criticism of both neoliberal and libertarian teleology is that their dedication to markets, which approaches literal religiosity, transcends their dedication to the rational or the empirical. If you want to take my ten cent gloss on how neoliberals differ from their left-wing critics , it's that they have been seduced into favoring the process above the people-- they are more attached to the mechanisms of markets and privatization and deregulation than they are to the positive effects for real people that those mechanisms are meant to engender. I believe in using mechanisms like markets exactly and only to the point that they have proven to work for the betterment of mankind, and the instant they don't, abandoning them fully and without apology. In fields where they seem not to work, such as education and environmentalism, different mechanisms such as government must be applied, and in doing so privilege the people before the process, the outcome over the means.

Saturday, July 9, 2011


I am a huge fan of Andrew Sullivan and the Daily Dish. Andrew is everything the blogosphere could want in an experienced and compassionate elder statesmen, sort of a father figure. It happens that he and the Dish have been very good to me personally; whatever limited exposure I've had owes a great deal to the kindness and interest of the Dish.

However, Bruce Bawer's daily invective against Arabs and Islam is to me a great stain on the reputation of the Daily Dish. Andrew is of course not responsible for the opinions of a guest blogger, nor are his dedicated support staff. But as an entity, I think the Dish has been harmed by Bawer's consistent bigotry, and I'm very disappointed. That's all.