Author: john mcgowan

More Comments on What We Should Teach at University

My colleague Todd Taylor weighs in—and thinks he also might be the source for my “formula.”  Here, from Todd’s textbook is his version of the three-pronged statement about what we should, as teachers, be aiming to enable our students to do.

  1. To gather the most relevant and persuasive evidence.
  2. To identify a pattern among that evidence.
  3. To articulate a perspective supported by your analysis of the evidence.

And here are Todd’s further thoughts:

“I might have been a source for the ‘neat formula’ you mention, since I’ve been preaching that three-step process as “The Essential Skill for the Information Age” for over a decade now.  I might have added the formula to the Tar Heel Writing Guide.  I am attaching a scan of my textbook Becoming a College Writer where I distill the formula to its simplest form.  I have longer talks on the formula, with notable points being that step #1 sometimes includes generating information beyond just locating someone else’s data.  And step #3, articulating a perspective for others to follow (or call to action or application), is the fulcrum where “content-consumption, passive pedagogy” breaks down and “knowledge-production, active learning” takes off.

The high-point of my experience preaching this formula was when a senior ENGL 142 student shared with me the news of a job interview that ended successfully at the moment when she recited the three steps in response to the question ‘What is your problem solving process?’

In my textbook, I also have a potentially provocative definition of a “discipline” as “a method (for gathering evidence) applied to a subject,” which is my soft attempt to introduce epistemology to GenEd students.  What gets interesting for us rhet/discourse types is to consider how a “discipline” goes beyond steps #1 and #2 and includes step #3 so that a complete definition of “discipline” also includes the ways of articulating/communicating that which emerges from the application of a method to a subject.  I will forever hold onto to my beloved linguistic determinism.  Of course, this idea is nothing new to critical theorists, especially from Foucault.  What might be new(ish) is to try to explain/integrate such ideas within the institution(s) of GenEd requirements and higher ed.  I expect if I studied Dewey again, I could trace the ideas there, just as I expect other folks have other versions of the ‘neat formula.'”

Todd also raised another issue with me that is (at least to me) of great interest.  The humanities are wedded, we agreed, to “interpretation.”  And it makes sense to think of interpretation as a “method” or “approach” that is distinct from the qualitative/quantitative divide in the social sciences.  Back to Dilthey.  Explanation versus meaning.  Analysis versus the hermeneutic.  But perhaps even more than that, since quantitative/qualitative can be descriptors applied to the data itself, whereas interpretation is about how you understand the data.  So no science, even with all its numbers, without some sort of interpretation.  In other words, quantitative/qualitative doesn’t cover the whole field.  There is much more to be said about how we process information than simply saying sometimes we do it via numbers and sometimes via other means.

Comments on the Last Post

Two colleagues had responses to my post on the curriculum reform currently in proces at UNC.

First, from Chris Lundberg, in the Communications Department, who thinks he may be the source for my (stolen) list of the primary goals of university education in our information saturated age:

“I think I might be the unattributed source for the formula!

The only thing that I’d add to what you already wrote here is to disassociate capacities from skills. Here’s an abbreviated version of my schtick (though you’ve heard it before).

The university is subject to disruption for a number of reasons: folks don’t understand the mission; the content we teach is not responsive to the needs that students have beyond Carolina, and lots of folks have a legitimate argument to teach information and skills.

One of the ways we talked about this in the conversation we had awhile back was to ask “what are the things that can’t be outsourced?”—either to another mode of learning information or skills, or, in the case of the job market, to someone behind a computer screen somewhere else. So the formulation that we’d talked about was something like If you can learn content remotely, the vocation organized around that content that is highly likely to be outsourced.

So the case for the university also has to be a case about what is unique about the mode of instruction. That’s the thing about capacities. They aren’t just about something that you learn as content, they are also the kinds of things that you have to do and receive feedback on in the presence of other folks. Writing, Speaking, reasoning together, framing arguments, etc.

The information/content part of education doesn’t make a case for the uniqueness of the university—the Internet is real good at delivering information. You don’t need a library card anymore to access the repository of the world’s information. What you need is to learn how to effectively search, pick, and put together a case for what that information is useful. The capacity for sorting and seeing connections in information is the thing. (see the “neat formula”)

Skills (or as the folks in the corporate sector call them now, competencies) are defined by the ability to know how to perform a given task in a given context. Their usefulness is bounded measuring (typically a behavior_) against the demands of that context. A capacity, OTOH is a trans-contextual ability (set of habits of inquiry and thought, ways of deliberating, etc.) that works across multiple contexts. For example, the biology text my dad used was horribly misinformed about genetic expression (they didn’t know about epigenetics, micro RNA, etc.). What was valuable about his biology class (dad was a biotech entrepreneur) was that he learned how to engage the content: what was a legitimate scientific argument; what made a study good; how to do observational research; a facility for the vocabulary, etc. That set of capacities for thinking about science benefitted him even if the content did not. A capacity is something like the condition of possibility for learning content—think Aristotle on dunamis here—not unlike a faculty in its function, but unlike a faculty because it is the result of learning a specific style or mode of thought and engagement. Where faculties are arguably innate, capacities are teachable (constrained by the innate presence of faculties). That, by the way, is what makes it hard to outsource capacity based learning either in terms of the mode of learning (harder to do lab research online) and in terms of the vocation (you can’t acquire it as effectively as you might in the context of a face-to-face learning community).

So, a big part of the sell, at least in my opinion, should be about framing capacities as the socially, politically, and economically impactful “middle” ground between information and skills—and therefore justifying both the university and Gen Ed as an element of a liberal arts curriculum.”

Second, from my colleague in the English Department, Jane Danielewicz, who puts some flesh on the bones of “active learning” and weighs in issues of assessment:

“If we relinquish our grip on teaching primarily content, then we must also develop new methods of assessment.  Our standard tests are content focused.  To assess competencies, students must be asked to demonstrate those competencies.  Our methods of assessment will need to evaluate students’ performances rather than their ability to regurgitate content knowledge.

We should be asking students to write in genres that are recognizable to audiences in various real world settings.  We should also strive to provide real occasions where a student can demonstrate their competencies to an audience, starting with an audience of their peers and moving out from there.  For example, students can present posters or conference papers at a min-conference (held during the exam period).

Assessment can be tied to the genre is question.  E.g. for the conference presentation (and we all know what makes a good or bad conference presentation–and should work to convey that knowledge to students), students can be assessed on how well they performed the research, made an argument, supplied evidence, and communicated (orally and visually).

Yes, classes will need to be redesigned to encourage active learning, immersive classroom environments, process-based instruction, problem-oriented class content, and appropriate assessment methods.  Many faculty are already moving in these directions, teaching in ways that develop students’ competencies.  Faculty organizations such as the Center for Faculty Excellence are (and have been) providing instruction and support for active learning, experiential learning, and collaborative learning practices.  Some of our students have built web-sites, started non-profit organizations (grounded in research about an issue), written family histories, presented at national conferences, and published in peer-reviewed journals.  We will be sorely disappointing our very action-oriented student body if we retrench and insist on a coverage model of GenEd.”

 

 

What Should—and Can—the University Teach?

The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill is currently attempting to develop a substantially new “general education” curriculum.  GenEd, as it is known at Carolina, is the broad “liberal arts” part of a student’s college career; it is a set of requirements separate from the more specialized course of study that is the “major.”

Anyone even remotely connected to universities knows that changing the curriculum always insures lots of Sturm and Drang, gnashing of teeth, and ferocious denunciations.  Much of this is driven by self-interest; any change, necessarily, will benefit some people more than others.  At a time when students are abandoning the humanities (particularly) and the social sciences (to some extent) as “majors,” the health of those departments depends, more than in the past, on enrollment in their “GenEd” classes.  Thus, any curricular change that seems to funnel fewer students toward those classes is viewed as a threat.  Of course, an oppositional stance taken on that ground pushes the (presumably) primary responsibility of the university to serve the educational needs of its students to the back seat, displaced by internal turf battles.

But there is a legitimate, larger issue here—and that’s what I would like to address.  What does a student in 2019 need to know?  And how does our current understanding of how to answer that question relate to the “liberal arts” as traditionally understood?  At a time when respect for the liberal arts in the wider culture seems at an all-time low, how can their continued centrality to university education not only be protected, but (more importantly) justified or even expanded?

My sense is that practitioners of the liberal arts are having a hard time making the shift from a “coverage” model to one that focuses on “skills” or “capacities.”  Yes, all the proponents of the liberal arts can talk the talk about how they teach students to “think critically” and “to communicate effectively.”  So, all of us in the humanities (at least) have, to that extent, adopted skills talk—even where we fear that it turns our departments into training grounds for would-be administrators of the neoliberal world out there.  But, in our heart of hearts, many of us are really committed to the “content” of our classes, not to the skills that, as by-products, study of that content might transmit.

But, please, think of our poor students! The vast universe of knowledge that the modern research university has created means, as any conscientious scholar knows, that one can spend a lifetime studying Milton and his 17th century context without ever getting to the bottom.  Great work if you can get it.  And isn’t it wonderful that universities (and, by extension, our society) sees fit to fund someone to be a life-long Milton devotee?  But it is futile to think our undergrads, in two short years before they assume a major, are going to master Etruscan pottery, Yoruba mythology, EU politics, the demographics of drug addiction, the works of James Joyce, and the principles of relativity.  The standard way of approaching (ducking?) this conundrum has been “survey courses.”  The “if this is Tuesday, it must by John Donne” approach.

Any teacher who has ever read the set of exams written by students at the end of those survey classes knows what the research also tells us.  They are close to useless.  They are simply disorienting—and fly through the material at a speed that does not generate anything remotely like real comprehension.  The way people learn—and, again, the research is completely clear on this point—is by taking time with something, by getting down and dirty with the details, followed by synthesizing what is learned by doing something with it.  Active learning it is called—and, not to put too fine a point on it, faculty who despise it as some fashionable buzz-word are equivalent to climate change deniers.  They are resolutely, despite their claim to be scholars and researchers, refusing to credit the best research out there on how people learn.

Back to our poor student.  Not only has she been subjected to survey classes, but she has been pushed (by curricular requirements) to take a smorgasbord of them, with no effort to make the various dishes relate or talk to one another.  Each course (not to mention each department) is its own fiefdom, existing in splendid isolation from all the rest.  The end result: students have a smattering of ill-digested knowledge about a bunch of different things, with no sense of why they should know these things as opposed to other possible ones, and with no overarching sense of how this all fits together, or a clear sense of what their education has actually given them.  If we wanted to create confusion, if that was our intended outcome, we could hardly have done better.

The “content” approach in my view, then, leads to confusion for the students and tokenism in the curriculum.  We simply cannot deliver a meaningful encounter with the content of our multiple disciplines during GenEd. So the question becomes: what can we do that is meaningful in the GenEd curriculum?  After all, we could scrap GenEd altogether and do as the Brits do: just have students take courses in their chosen majors during their college years.  Like most American educators, I think the British model a bad mistake.  But that does mean I have to offer a coherent and compelling account of what GenEd can do—and the best way to insure it does what it aims for.

The answer, I believe, is to define what we want our students to be able to do as thinkers and writers.  Here’s a neat formula I stole from someone (unfortunately, I cannot remember my source).  We want a student in 2019 to 1) learn how to access information; 2) learn how to assess the information she has accessed; and 3) know how to use that information to solve specific problems and to make a presentation about it to various audiences in order to communicate various things to those audiences.  I take number 3 very expansively to include (crucially) understanding (through having some experience of) the fact that members of your audience come from very different backgrounds, with very different assumptions about what matters. Thus, effective communication relies heavily on being able (to adapt Kant’s formula) “empathize with the viewpoint of the other,” while effective problem solving relies on being able to work with others. Assessing information (#2 on my list) involves understanding that there are various methods of assessment/evaluation.  Judging the features of a text or a lab experiment in terms of its technical components and the success with which they have been deployed is different than judging its ethical implications.

I think we can, if careful and self-conscious, make significant progress toward achieving the three goals stated above during the first two years of college.  I think success requires that we de-fetishize content; that we design our classes to develop the identified skills; and that we re-design our classes to make sure we are achieving them.  Assessment will come in many different varieties, each geared to evaluating students’ performances of the competencies rather than to regurgitation of content knowledge. We should be asking students to “perform” their skills, which involves (partly) the presentation of knowledge acquired through reading, research and hands-on experience, in a variety of genres for different kinds of audiences.  The quality of their performances will be the first indication of whether or not we are being pedagogically successful.

I will confess real impatience with teacher/scholars who resist all “assessment” as a dirty word.  Somehow we are supposed to magically know that we are actually teaching our students something, when (in the old curriculum) all we really knew was that the students had checked off the requisite boxes, gotten a grade, and been passed on.  It is no secret that universities have neglected the arts and sciences of pedagogy over the years—and there is no excuse for it.  If we claim to be teaching our students, we need 1) to state clearly and precisely what it is we claim to be teaching them; 2) to do the work necessary to ascertain that we are actually succeeding; and 3) revise our methods when they are not getting the job done.

Necessarily, courses will still have “content”—and that content matters a lot!  The capacities will be taught through a semester-long engagement with some specific subject matter.  In my ideal university, the person we hire to teach medieval literature, or the history and beliefs of Buddhism, or astronomy, is someone who, in their heart of hearts, believes life is less worth living if you don’t know about their subject of expertise.  They convey that enthusiasm and conviction when they teach their classes—and gain a reputation on campus that attracts students because it is known that Professor X makes Subject Y come alive.  But Professor X also has to know, on another level, that the vast majority of her students are not going to make Subject Y their life work and that even a vaster majority of the human race will lead worthy lives knowing nothing whatsoever of Subject Y.  So we are asking our professor to also—and consciously—design her class to develop some specified capacity.  In other words, her class should model a way of thinking, and require students to put that model into practice.

The proposed new curriculum at Chapel Hill moves from the “coverage” model to one focused on skills or capacities.  I think that means we are moving from something we cannot possibly achieve to something we can, perhaps, do.  I also think the new curriculum has the distinct advantage of trying to specify those skills and capacities.  And it challenges our faculty to craft their classes with care in order to inculcate those capacities in our students.  It is a feature, not a bug, in my eyes that many of our classes will need to be modified.  The point of change is change.  Doing the same old same old is not an improvement—and I, for one, think the need for improvement is evident.

Is the new curriculum perfect?  Of course not.  We cannot know with any certainty exactly how it will play out.  The definition of the capacities and the most effective ways of transmitting them to students will have to be honed and reformed through the crucible of practice.  Any successful institution needs to fight calcification tooth and nail, continually revising itself at it moves along, with an eye firmly on the goals that motivate its practices. The tendency of institutions to stagnate, to do something because that’s the way it has always been done and how it currently distributes its resources and rewards, is all too familiar—and depressing. Change is upsetting and, as I said at the outset, some will benefit more than others from change.

In fact, I think the proposed curriculum protects the arts, humanities, and social sciences at a time when they are particularly vulnerable. I also think the liberal arts will suffer if they stick resolutely to old models that do not respond to larger cultural shifts.  We cannot resist or even speak to those shifts if we don’t find a way of meeting our students—who come to college now with a set of needs and objectives that represent their own response to new societal pressures—at least halfway.  We also must recognize that students will, inevitably (within the “elective” system that dates back to the 1880s) make their own decisions about what courses to take.  Thus we must articulate clear rationales for them to take the various courses that will be available within the GenEd curriculum.  What I like about the new curriculum is the way that it calls us to our task as educators, asking us to identify what we believe passionately our students need to learn, and placing the responsibility that our students get there in our hands.

Harry Frankfurt on Inequality

I read Harry Frankfurt’s essay on inequality (published as a small book by Princeton University Press, 2015) over the weekend.  Frankfurt’s position is simple: “Economic equality is not, as such, of any particular moral importance; and by the same token, economic inequality is not in itself morally objectionable.  From the point of view of morality, it is not important that everyone should have the same.  What is morally important is that each should have enough.  If everyone had enough money, it would be of no special or deliberate concern whether some people had more money than others.  I shall call this alternative to egalitarianism the ‘doctrine of sufficiency’—that is, the doctrine that what is morally important with regard to money is that everyone should have enough” (7).

Economic inequality is morally objectionable only when the fact of its existence leads to the production of other moral harms.  But it is not intrinsically (a key word for Frankfurt) morally objectionable in itself.  “That economic equality is not a good in itself leaves open the possibility, obviously, that it may be instrumentally valuable as a necessary condition for the attainment of goods that do generally possess intrinsic value. . . . [T]he widespread error of believing that there are powerful moral reasons for caring about economic equality for its own sake is far from innocuous.  As a matter of fact, this belief tends to do significant harm” (8-9).

Frankfurt’s efforts to specify the harm done are not very convincing, involving tortured arguments about marginal utility and implausible suppositions about scarcity.  By failing to deal in any concrete cases, he offers broad arguments that fall apart (it seems to me) when applied to things like access to clean air and clean water (think of the Flint water crisis) or to health care and education (where provision of equal access and quality to all is a commitment to the equal worth of every life, a principle that seems to me intrinsic.)  It gets even worse at the end of the book, in the second essay, “Equality and Respect.”  Frankfurt writes: “I categorically reject the presumption that egalitarianism, of whatever variety, is an ideal of any intrinsic moral importance” (65).  His argument rests on a bit of a shell game, since he substitutes “respect” for “equality”, and then acknowledges that there are certain rights we deem morally due to all because of our “respect” for their “common humanity.”  But he is against “equality” because he thinks we also accord respect (and even certain rights) differentially.  We need to take the differences between people into account when those differences are (in his words) “relevant.”  What he fails to see is that “equality” names the moral principle that, in (again) particular cases, no differences can or should be relevant (in spite of the fact that various agents will try to assert and act on the relevance of differences).  The most obvious case is “equality before the law.”  It is very hard to see how “equality before the law” is not an intrinsic moral principle.  It functions as a principle irrespective of outcomes—and its functioning as a principle is demonstrated precisely by the fact that it is meant to trump any other possible way of organizing how the law functions.  It is good in and of itself; we could even say that “equality before the law” constitutes the good, the legitimacy, of law—and it preforms this constitutive function because it is the intrinsic principle law is meant to instantiate.

But let’s go back to economic inequality.  There Frankfurt is on much stronger ground.  I don’t think he makes a good case that concern over economic inequality causes harm.  But as what I have been calling a “welfare minimalist” (what he calls “the doctrine of sufficiency”), he echoes the comment of my colleague that questions of inequality are irrelevant if everyone has enough.  As Frankfurt puts it: “The doctrines of egalitarianism and of sufficiency are logically independent: considerations that support the one cannot be presumed to provide support for the other” (43).  “The fact that some people have much less than others is not at all morally disturbing when it is clear that the worse off have plenty” (43).

There are practical questions here of a Marxist variety: namely, is it possible for there to be substantial inequality without the concomitant impoverishment of some proportion of the population?  Oddly enough, Frankfurt briefly talks about the inflationary effects of making the poor better off, but never considers the inflationary effects of their being vast concentrations of wealth (in housing costs, for example).  Mostly, however, Frankfurt shies far away from practical issues.

On his chosen level of abstraction, he makes one very good and one very provocative point.  The good point is that concerns about inequality help us not at all with the tough question of establishing standards of sufficiency.  If the first task before us is triage, then what is needed is to provide everyone with enough.  It seems true to me that triage is the current priority—and that we have barely begun to address the question of what would suffice.  Talk of a UBI (Universal Basic Income) is hopelessly abstract without a consideration of what that income would enable its recipient to buy—and of what we, as a society, deem essential for every individual to be able to procure.  There is work to be done on the “minimalist” side, although I do think Martha Nussbaum’s list of minimal requirements (in her book on the capabilities approach from Harvard UP) is a good start.

The provocative point comes from Frankfurt’s stringent requirement that a moral principle, au fond, should be “intrinsic.”  The trouble with inequality as a standard is that it is “relative,” not “absolute” (41-42).  It is not tied to my needs per se, but to a comparison between what I have and what someone else has.  The result, Frankfurt believes, is that the self is alienated from its own life.  “[A] preoccupation with the alleged inherent value of economic equality tends to divert a person’s attention away from trying to discover—within his experience of himself and of his life conditions—what he himself really cares about, what he truly desires or needs, and what will actually satisfy him. . . . It leads a person away from understanding what he himself truly requires in order effectively to pursue his own most authentic needs, interest, and ambitions. . . . It separates a person from his own individual reality, and leads him to focus his attention upon desires and needs that are not most authentically his own” (11-12).

Comparisons are odious.  Making them leads us into the hell of heteronomy—and away from the Kantian heights of autonomy and the existential heaven of authenticity.  But snark is not really the appropriate response here.  There seem to me interesting abstract and practical questions involved.  The abstract question is about the very possibility (and desirability) of autonomy/authenticity.  Can I really form desires and projects that are independent of my society?  In first century Rome, I could not have dreamed of becoming a baseball player or a computer scientist.  Does that mean that my desire to become one or the other in 2019 is inauthentic?  More directly, it is highly likely that my career aspirations are shaped by various positive reinforcements, various signals that I got from others that my talents lay in a particular direction.  Does that make my choice inauthentic?  More abstractly, what is the good of authenticity?  What is at stake in making decisions for myself, based on a notion of my own needs and ambitions? Usually, the claim is that freedom rests on autonomy.  Certainly both Kant and the existentialists believed that.  But what if freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose, if it indicates a state of alienation from others so extreme that it is worthless—a thought that both Kierkegaard and Sartre explored.

I am, as anyone who has read anything by me likely knows, a proponent of autonomy, but not a fanatic about it.  That people should have the freedom to make various decisions for themselves is a bottom-line moral and political good in my book.  But I am not wedded to any kind of absolutist view of autonomy, which may explain why appeals to “authenticity” leave me cold.  On the authenticity front, I am inclined to think, we are all compromised from the get go.  We are intersubjectively formed and constituted; our interactions with others (hell, think about how we acquire language) embed “the other” within us from the start.  It’s a hopeless task to try and sort out which desires are authentically ours and which come from our society, from the others we have interacted with, etc. etc.  To have the freedom to act on one’s desires is a desirable autonomy in my view; to try to parse the “authenticity” of those desires in terms of some standard of their being “intrinsic” to my self and not “externally” generated seems to me one path to madness.

Even more concretely, Frankfurt’s link of the “intrinsic” to the “authentic” raises the question of whether any judgments (about anything at all) are possible without comparison.  His notion seems to be that an “absolute” and “intrinsic” standard allows me to judge something without having to engage in any comparison between that something and some other thing.  I guess Kant’s categorical imperative is meant to function that way.  You have the standard—and then you can judge if this action meets that standard.  But does judgment really ever unfold that way?  By the time Kant gets to the Critique of Judgment, he thinks we need to proceed by way of examples—which he sees as various instantiations of “the beautiful” (since “the beautiful” in and of itself is too vague, too ethereal, a standard to function as a “determinative” for judgment).  And, in more practical matters, it would seem judgment very, very often involves weighing a range of possibilities—and comparing them to see which is the most desirable (according to a variety of considerations such as feasibility, costs, outcomes etc.) A “pure” judgment–innocent of all comparison–seems a rare beast indeed.

Because he operates at his insistently high level of abstraction, Frankfurt approaches his “authenticity” issue as a question of satisfaction with one’s life.  Basically, he is interested in this phenomenon: I am satisfied with my life even though I fully realize that others have much more money than me.  One measure of my satisfaction is that I would not go very far out of my way to acquire more money.  Hence the fact of economic inequality barely impinges on my sense that I have “enough” for my needs and desires.  This is a slightly different case from saying that my concept of my needs and desires has been formed apart from any comparison between my lot and the lot of others.  Here, instead, the point is that, even when comparing my lot to that of those better off than me, I do not conclude that my lot is bad.  I am satisfied.

For Frankfurt, my satisfaction shows that I have no fundamental moral objection to economic inequality.  Provided I have “enough” I am not particularly morally outraged that others have even more.  I am not moved to act to change that inequality.

It seems to me that two possibilities arise here.  The first is that I do find the existence of large fortunes morally outrageous. I don’t act because I don’t see a clear avenue of effective action to change that situation, although I do consistently vote for the political parties who are trying to combat economic inequality.  But Frankfurt’s point is that my satisfaction shows I don’t find economic inequality “intrinsically” wrong.  I am most likely moved to object to it by seeing what harms have been done to others in order to accumulate such a large fortune—or I point to the wasted resources that are hoarded by the rich and could be used to help the poor.  Frankfurt, in other words, may be right that economic inequality is not “intrinsically” wrong, but only wrong in terms of the harms that it produces.  I think I would take the position that economic inequality is a “leading indicator” of various ills (like poverty, exploitation, increasing precarity, the undermining of democratic governance, etc.)—and that the burden of proof lies in showing that such inequality is harmless.  If this focus on produced harms means economic inequality is not an “intrinsic” value, so be it.

The other interesting consideration Frankfurt’s discussion brings to the fore is the absence of envy.  Conservatives, of course, are fond of reducing all concerns about economic inequality to envy.  And the mystery to be considered here (and to which Frankfurt points) is how, if I am aware that others have more than me, I am not consumed with envy, resentment, or a sense of abiding injustice (i.e. it’s not fair that he has more than me).  Certainly some people’s lives are blighted by exactly those feelings.  But others are content, are satisfied, in the way Frankfurt describes.  The comparison has no bite for them.  The difference is noted but not particularly resented—or, if resented, still doesn’t reside at the center of the judgment of their own life.  Maybe some kind of primitive narcissism is at work here, some sense that I really like being me and don’t really want to trade in “me” in order to be some other chap.  The deep repudiation of self required by envy may just be beyond the reach of 80% of us.  Just how prevalent is self-hatred?  How many would really desire to change their lot with another?

Pure speculation of course.  But the point is not some fantasy about authenticity, about living in a world where I don’t shape my desires or self-judgments at least partially by comparing myself to others.  Rather, the fact of our constantly doing such comparing is here acknowledged—and the question is how we live contentedly even as we also recognize that we fall short of others in all kinds of ways.  He has better health, a more successful career, a sunnier disposition, more money, more friends, more acclaim.  How can I be content when I see all that he possesses that I do not?  That’s the mystery.  And I don’t think Frankfurt solves it–and I cannot explain it either.  His little book makes the mystery’s existence vivid for me.

Inequality and Violence (Final)

To sum up the previous posts.  Scheidel offers three reasons to think that violence leads to decreased inequality of both wealth and income.

  1. The sheer destruction of wealth by violence. Since the wealthy have more to lose, if you destroy a lot of wealth, the gap between those with a lot and those with a little will be closed to some extent.  Even the 2008 financial collapse led to a short-term diminution of the percentage of US total wealth owned by the top 10%.  The decrease was not huge, and the lessening of the gap was only temporary (lasting about 18 months), but there was a dip.  The more prolonged and extreme destruction of wealth of the world wars, especially of World War II, was an equalizer (again, only to a certain degree, but of a degree unseen in the West over the past four hundred years).
  2. Income disparities are lessened when labor becomes relatively scarce and can, thus, command larger wages. Total warfare of the 20th century variety renders labor scarce.  There is more work to be done than hands to do it—and thus incomes rise for those lower down the ladder.

 

  1. Total war also has, to some extent, a “moral” effect—or perhaps it is only a prudential one—in that the wider distribution of economic benefits (accompanied by a sense that all should also share in necessary sacrifices such as rationing and the provision of sons to the military) is seen as “fair” and as conducive to patriotic solidarity for the duration. The programs put in place to achieve that wider distribution take a fairly long time to dismantle—if we can generalize from the experience of the post-World War II years.

There seems to me a fourth way to account for (at least in the 20th century context) the connection between total war and greater economic equality.  War seems the only pretext for confiscation of wealth and for sharply progressive income taxes that serves to bring modern democracies to enact those measures.  If capitalism tends toward growing accumulations of wealth in the hands of the few and to sharp differentials in incomes, then only confiscation of wealth can undo accumulation and only progressive income taxes can lessen the effects of widely unequal wages.  Again, Scandinavia may offer the exception here, a place where the need to finance a generous welfare state was enough to put high taxes on both wealth and income into place.  But Scandinavia aside, the US and the UK only had high tax rates in the 1950s and 1960s as left-overs from the war effort.   Nations will confiscate wealth to pay for war–and not for other goals.

There is the revolutionary alternative.  The Russian and Chinese Revolutions did confiscate accumulated wealth.  But doing so required massive violence—either through the outright murder of those who held the confiscated property or by driving the wealthy into exile with much of their wealth left behind.  As Machiavelli already suggested, the wealthy will in most (although not all) cases fight to the death to maintain their wealth—although it is also fair to say that in Russia and especially China the revolutionary regimes preemptively assumed the rich would fight for their wealth and put them to death before they had much chance to take up arms.  American slavery appears another similar case.  Confiscation of the wealth represented by slaves could only be effected through violence.  And if we want to be really brutal about it, we could say that the American Civil War (a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight) left the old slave-owners in place and thus did not effect the social revolution required to actually place the enslaved on any kind of equal footing with the slave-owners even after emancipation.  The point: it is not clear that you can confiscate wealth on a large scale and still actually retain the formerly wealthy as citizens in your new regime.  They are very unlikely to come over to your side, becoming instead the reactionaries of the equalizer’s nightmares.

The challenge, then, today is to get enough political support—and, perhaps more importantly, enough political power—to enact the kind of wealth and income taxes that the experts (including Thomas Piketty) say would be needed to reverse the increasing economic inequality in the West.  Opinion polls seem to suggest that a majority of Americans favor higher taxes on the top 15%, but the majority doesn’t hold the power (currently) in the US to put such aspirations into law or practice.  Lots of reasons for that lack of power, but capital flight (in all its varied forms) is not the least among them.  Democracy (political power) is currently subservient to economic power.

I want to make two further points to bring this thread to a conclusion.  Violence is connected with the lessening of inequality, because that lessening (it seems) always requires bringing the wealthy down.  This, of course, is the cry of conservatives, who attribute the project of equality to “envy” and see that project as always about making some people worse off without ever doing anything to make others better off.

The leftist utopia, on the other hand, depends on not shrinking the overall pie, but of distributing its pieces more equitably. Here we get into the territory of Rawls max/min—how much inequality should we tolerate in order to maximize the overall (national) wealth, the amount that can be distributed.  Conservatives, of course, like to insist that the only things holding back even greater production of wealth are high (disincentivizing) taxes and excessive regulations.  Take off those restraints—and we’d see the market really take off, to the benefit of all. (And like my colleague on rural electrification, the conservative will say that inequality doesn’t matter at all.  It is just the raising of the floor, the availability of various benefits of prosperity to all that matters.  Even if the rising tide makes the rich richer, it will also make the poor better off.)

But liberals can also have their own versions of models that see economic growth as a cure for our ills.  We could lessen the pain (and conflict) of confiscation if somewhat more progressive taxes were joined to economic growth managed in such a way that the gains went mostly to those at the bottom.

This is where Piketty’s work becomes important.  Straightforwardly, he tells us that you can’t grow your way into greater economic equality unless the rate of return on capital is less than the economic growth.  So long as R>G (i.e. return on capital is greater than growth), all growth will only increase inequality.  And Piketty’s lesson is that it is just about completely impossible to make R<G in the absence of high taxes that undo what the market will do of itself—which is increase inequality.  You have to confiscate market-derived income and wealth to counteract the market dynamics that always (except in periods of massive catastrophe like the world wars and the great depression) lead to ever larger concentrations of wealth.  On that, Piketty in telling us, Marx was right.

Scheidel—and this is my second (and last) point—wonders if Marx was right about the dynamic that pushes wages ever lower and lower.  Absent catastrophes, are there any governors that would keep us from returning to the conditions in 1840 Manchester and 1890 East London?  Scheidel attacks this question by pondering what is the maximum inequality that a society could reach before failing to reproduce itself.  In other words, how high a rate of inequality is sustainable.  His answer is: quite high.  The current US GINI coefficient is about 48, as is China’s.  Norway is 27, France 30, Brazil 49, Columbia 54, and South Africa 63.  Through a series of mathematical calculations that I admit are beyond my ability to follow, Scheidel believes that a GINI coefficient of 60 is very close to “the level of inequality at which current levels of output could no longer be attained” (453).  At the other end of the scale, he also concludes that “in market economies, disposable income inequality needs to be significantly above zero in order to sustain his levels of per capita output” (456).  He suggests that a GINI coefficient of 10 designates a floor (where, we should recall, a GINI coefficient of zero represents total equality).  Thus, modern economies operate within an “inequality possibility space” between 10 and 60 on the GINI scale.  The US has moved from a GINI of 35 in 1979 to one of 48 in 2017.  So, apparently, [if Scheidel is right about the upper limit] we have room to continue the accumulation of wealth and income in the upper echelons that has characterized the last forty years.

As with climate change, the question is whether there are any political forces organized and powerful enough to reverse current trends.  Or are we doomed to keep traveling in the direction that we have been going?

Violence and Inequality (Part Three)

Continuing my engagement with Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton UP, 2017).

A colleague of mine who teaches about the dynamics of violence was very dismissive of Scheidel’s book.  He claimed it was simply wrong—and explained he hadn’t read the book because its thesis was so patently absurd.  He reasoning: there has never been violence on a scale massive enough to effect the kinds of redistributive effects that Scheidel reports.  Unfortunately, our conversation then got sidetracked by another colleague who was present and disputed Scheidel’s thesis by pointing to rural electrification.  Poverty in the American South was greatly reduced by the watershed event of introducing electricity—and that had nothing to do with violence.

So what does all this lead me to say?  First, if technology makes something like electricity cheaper and thus more widely available, that doesn’t mean that inequality (which is always relative, not absolute) was lessened.  My colleague’s response to that was: then why does inequality matter? A good question.  It is the case that, as Branko Milanovic is fond of pointing out, even the poorest person in the United States is better off than 40% of the world’s population.  So, if extreme poverty doesn’t exist, why care about the distribution of goods and wealth?

The response comes in two varieties, it seems to me.  First response: I do think there is what I have come to think of as “bottom-line minimalism.”  That is, prior to worrying about equality per se, there should be the establishment of a “floor” below which no one is allowed to live.  The floor would be a package of basic goods, including food, shelter, health care, access to education, old age pensions and the like.  Since the funding for such a universal floor would have to, in large part, come from taxation, it seems likely that a robust social democracy will have less inequality than a less robust one—as well as lower levels of poverty.  Such is demonstrably the case in the contrast between European countries like France and Norway with the UK and the US.  But, once the floor is adequately funded, we could wipe our hands and have no further interest in reducing inequality.

The second response is to consider the social ills attendant upon inequality.  Now it may be hard to separate those ills out from absolute, as opposed to relative, inequality.  So, for example, the poor have a much shorter life expectancy than the rich in the US for a host of reasons.  Perhaps a basic package of guaranteed goods would close that gap.  It also seems demonstrably true to me (although I haven’t seen anyone make this argument—and thus prove my intuitions here) that inequality of the sort now prevalent in the US is a major cause of homelessness.  The reasoning goes like this: it obviously makes sense for any industry (in this case real estate and home construction) to go for the customers who have money.  At the same time, the more disposable money the people at the top have to spend, the more likely they are to spend it on real estate.  The rich now regularly have five homes or more.  Furthermore, as is well attested, global inequality leads to foreign money coming into the housing markets of Vancouver, Auckland, London, New York, and Los Angeles.  Housing prices are driven up; those providing housing have every incentive to concentrate on the high end of the market, while those whose income and wealth in increasingly a smaller fraction of the top earners are priced out.  The same sort of argument—attuned to the differences in the market in each case—might be made about health care and higher education.

Now I believe that in all of these goods—health care, higher education, and housing—we have markets that produce “artificial scarcity.”  There is no reason quality health care, quality education, and decent housing could not be widely available, instead of rationed as they currently are.  But when that scarcity (or, in the case of housing and education, the willingness, even desire, of the rich to pay very high prices for the luxury version) skews the market, we should fully expect that market to pay little attention to providing goods at the low end.  That task is left to “public education,” “public housing,” and “public hospitals,” all of which have been starved for funds ever since the neoliberal counter-revolution began in the mid-1970s.  It is impossible to decouple the US’s inability to solve its housing crisis, and to reverse its horrible health care record (when contrasted to every other “rich” country in the world) from the fact of the growing inequality in the distribution of income and wealth since the 1970s.  The two are certainly correlated even if the exact causal relation between them can’t be fingered.

None of this is exactly news.  What my first colleague’s objection to Scheidel’s thesis puts into question is how and why “the great compression” of 1914 to 1970 occurred.  Basically, given the size of the world’s population post-1800, the amount of violence required to substantially lower inequality is just about impossible to achieve.  World War I, along with the Spanish flu of 1918-1919, killed approximately 50 million people.  The population of the world in 1900 is reported as 1.6 billion people.  Therefore, the death toll is about 3% of the world’s population.  Compare that to the 33% decrease in population Scheidel attributes to the Black Death.  (As a side note, it is precisely the huge increases in population after 1800 that underwrite Steven Pinker’s insistence that violence has greatly decreased in the modern era.  The numbers required to show that a large percentage of people die violently are now simply massive.)

So: the violence of the 20th century does not seem large enough to create the kind of labor shortages that Scheidel associates with the Black Death.  In that case, his argument is that laborers are placed in a better bargaining position when they are in short supply and, thus, inequality drops because wages go up.  (A kind of reverse of Marx’s notion of the vast reserve army of the unemployed.)

But Scheidel’s argument about the effects of 20th century violence, in fact, seems to go in another direction.  The key feature of the 20th century wars is mass mobilization.  Thus the leverage the poor acquire stems from the need for their whole-hearted support of the war effort.  Governments feel compelled to assure that wages outstrip the inevitable war-time inflation and that government regulation tamps down “wartime profiteering.”  Such measures to equalize (if only moderately) rewards across the board then carry over into peacetime—for at least a period of time (about 30 to 40 years in the aftermath of World War II).  The dynamic is perhaps best represented by the famous Beveridge Report of December 1942 in the UK .  But there was also FDR’s “second bill of rights” in his 1944 state of the union address.  (Of course, the Beveridge Report was, to a large extent, implemented, whereas FDR’s ambitious program died aborning.)  So it is not the number of deaths that is so crucial as the scale of mobilization, which then exerts pressure to heighten national solidarity by moving the nation in a demonstrably more equal direction.  The issue then becomes whether there is anyway, short of war, to produce the kind of impetus toward lowering inequality.  The depressing evidence is No.  Climate change certainly doesn’t seem to be doing the trick—even though a goodly majority now say they favor a “green new deal.”  William James’s hope for a “moral equivalent of war” keeps resurfacing in different guises.

Which now leads us back to another argument against relative inequality, even where absolute poverty has mostly been eliminated.  The top 1% in the US now (according to some reckonings) pay 40% of the cost for American electioneering.  Although goodly majorities favor increased taxes on the wealthy, the political likelihood of raising taxes is fairly slim.  We don’t have a democracy, but a plutocracy.  And that has deleterious effects in all kinds of ways, including an inability to respond to things like climate change and our housing crisis.  It is the inequities in power that unequal wealth breeds that are one possible objection to economic inequality.

I will end here today.  The question Scheidel poses is whether, apart from historic moments of great violence, there is some other form of pressure that would move a state to adopt measures that distribute economic goods more equitably.  I assume the history of the establishment of social democracy in Scandinavia would be most relevant here—and will admit to total ignorance of that history.  Sweden did not participate in either World War I or World War II.  The goal remains some non-violent alternative, some form of concerted democratic action, that could change the economic order—with its relentless (over the past 40 years) increase of inequality.  The civil rights movement which, in so many ways, serves as the model for such democratic action was fairly successful is winning increased political rights for African-Americans.  But it was a dismal failure in its efforts to improve the economic standing of blacks.  By all measures (except for the existence of a small black upper and middle class), blacks in the US today are no better off than they were in 1960.

Violence and Inequality (Part Two)

The thesis of Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler:  Violence and Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton UP, 2017) is easily stated: “Thousands of years of history boil down to a simple truth: ever since the dawn of civilization, ongoing advances in economic capacity and state building favored growing inequality, but did little if anything to bring it under control.  Up to and including the Great Compression of 1914 to 1950, we are hard pressed to identify reasonably well attested and nontrivial reductions in material inequality that were not associated, one way or another, with violent shocks” (391).

In particular, Scheidel says there are four kinds of “violent shocks” (he calls them the four horsemen): war, plague, system or state collapse, and violent revolution.  But it turns out that not even all instances of those four can do the job of reducing inequality.  The violent shocks, it turns out, must be massive. Only “mass mobilization” wars reduce inequality, so (perhaps) only World War I and, especially, World War II actually count as doing the job.  The Napoleonic Wars clearly do not–and it is harder to tell with the possible mass mobilizations in the ancient world.

Similarly, except for the Russian and Chinese revolutions of the 20th century (both of which caused, at the minimum, fifteen million deaths), revolutions rarely seem to have significantly altered the distribution of resources.  The Black Death (lasting as it did, in waves, over at least eighty and perhaps 120 years) and perhaps similar earlier catastrophic plagues (of which less is certainly known) stand as the only examples of leveling epidemics.  For system or state collapse, we get the fall of Rome—and not much else that is relevant since then, with speculations about collapses prior to Rome and in the Americas (Aztecs and Incas) where (once again) the available evidence leads to conjectures but no firm proofs.

Where does that leave us?  In two places, apparently.  One is that inequality leveling events are rare, are massive, and are, arguably, worse than the disease to which they are the cause.  Also, except for the revolutions, the leveling effects are unintentional by-products.  Which leads the second place: the very conservative conclusion (much like Hayek’s thoughts about the market as being beyond human control/calculation or T. S. Eliot’s similar comments about “culture” being an unplanned and unplannable product of human actions) that, although the creation of inequality is very much the result of human actions that are enabled and sustained by the state (i.e. by political organization), there is little that can be done politically (and deliberately) to reduce inequality.  Scheidel is at great pains to show a) that even the great shocks only reduce inequality for a limited time (about 60 to 80 years) before inequality starts to rise again; b) that the various political expedients currently on the table (like a wealth tax of the kind Elizabeth Warren is proposing or high marginal tax rates) would lower inequality very slightly at most; and c) that the scale of violence required to significantly lower inequality (as contrasted to the marginal reductions that less violent measures could effect) is simply too horrible to deliberately embrace as a course of action.

So the conclusion appears to be: bemoan inequality as much as you like, but also find a way to come to terms with the fact that it is basically irremediable.  Scheidel is good at the bemoaning part, portraying himself as someone who sees inequality as deplorable, even evil.  But he is just as resolute in condemning violence aimed at decreasing inequality.  So his unstated, but strongly, implied recommendation is quietist.

In line with my ongoing obsessions, the book appears to reinforce what I have deemed one of the paradoxes of violence: namely, the fact that the state is undoubtedly a constraint upon violence even as states are also undoubtedly the source of more violence than non-state actors.  In the new version of this paradox that Scheidel’s book suggests, the formulation would go like this: the state enables greater economic activity/productivity while also enabling far greater economic inequality.

Yet the state’s enabling of inequality doesn’t work the other way.  It seems just about impossible to harness the state to decrease inequality—except in the extreme case of war.  World War II certainly bears that out in recent (the past 300 years) history.  The US (in particular) adopted (in astoundingly short order) a very communistic framework to conduct the war (with a command economy in terms of what was to be produced and how people were to be assigned their different roles in production, along with strict wage and price controls, and rationing).  It would seem that the war proved that a command economy can be efficient and, not only that, but in times of dire need, a command economy was obviously preferable to the chaos of the free market.  The war effort was too important to be left to capitalism.  But outside of a situation of war, it has seemed impossible to have the state play that kind of leveling role, strongly governing both production and distribution.  Why?  Because only war produces the kind of social solidarity required for such centralized (enforced) cooperation?  To answer that way gets us back to violence as required—because violence is a force of social cohesion like none other.

To phrase it this way gets us back to an ongoing obsession of this blog: the problem of mobilization.  How to create a sustainable mass movement that can exert the kind of pressure on elites that is required to shift resources downward?  If violence as teh source of cohesion for that movement is taken off the table, what will serve in its place?  Which also raises the thought of why nationalism is so entangled in violence and in rhetorics/practices of sacrifice.  The means by which social cohesion is created.  Maybe that’s the “numinous” quality of violence to which Charles Taylor keeps gesturing.  A kind of Durkheimian creation of the collective, a way of escaping/transcending the self.

A different thought: Scheidel makes a fairly compelling case (although it is not his main focus) that the creation of inequality is itself dependent on violence.  Sometimes the violence of appropriation is massive–especially in the cases of empires which are basically enterprises of either outright extraction (carting off the loot) or somewhat more indirect extortion (requiring the payment of “tribute” in return for peace/protection).  Or sometimes the violence of appropriation is less massive and less direct.  But appropriation still requires a state that, in the last instance, will protect appropriated property against the claims of those who see that appropriation as either unjust or as inimical to their own interests.  In short, the power of the state (a power that resides, to at least some extent, in its capacity for violence and its willingness to put that capacity into use) is necessary to the creation and maintenance of inequality.  So, in one way, it seems like a “little” violence can get you inequality, but it requires “massive” violence to dislodge that inequality in the direction of more equality.  And it is this difference in scale that places the exploited in such an unfavorable position when it comes to remedial action.

Of course, the growth in inequality since 1980 in the US was grounded in legal instruments and institutional practices.  The increasing power of employers over employees, the prevention of the state from intervening in massive lay-offs or equally massive outsourcing, the onslaught of privatization and deregulation (or lax enforcement of existing regulations), the legalization of all kinds of financial speculation and “creative instruments” etc. etc. was all accomplished “non-violently” through a classic “capture of the state.”  This is what inspires the most radical leftist visions; the left seems utterly paralyzed as it witnesses all these court cases, new laws, revisions of executive practice, a paralysis generated by the fact that the shifts of power and wealth to the top 10% are all “legal.”  The radical claims there is no “legal” room left for the radical egalitarian to occupy.  The system is so corrupt that it offers no remedies within its scope.  But the distaste for massive violence (here is where Scheidel is relevant) appears to take extra-legal methods for change off the table.