Category: The professions

Moral Envy and Opportunity Hoarding

One quick addendum to the last post—and to Bertrand Russell’s comment about how the traditionalist is allowed all kinds of indignation that the reformer is not.  What’s with the ubiquity of death threats against anyone who offends the right wing in the United States?  That those who would change an established social practice/pattern, no matter how unjust or absurd, deserve a death sentence is, to all appearances, simply accepted by the radical right.  So, just to give one example, the NC State professor who went public with his memories of drinking heavily with Brett Kavanaugh at Yale immediately got death threats—as did some of his colleagues in the History Department.  Maybe you could say that snobbish contempt for the “deplorables” is the standard left wing response to right wingers—just as predictable as right wingers making death threats.  But contempt and scorn are not solely the prerogative of the left, whereas death threats do seem only mobilized by the right.

Which does segue, somewhat, into today’s topic, which was to take up David Graeber’s alternative way of explaining the grand canyon between the left and right in today’s America.  His first point concerns what he calls “moral envy.”  “By ‘moral envy,’ I am referring here to feelings of envy and resentment directed at another person, not because that person is wealthy, or gifted, or lucky, but because his or her behavior is seen as upholding a higher moral standard than the envier’s own.  The basic sentiment seems to be ‘How dare that person claim to be better than me (by acting in a way that I do indeed acknowledge is better than me?”” (Bullshit Jobs: A Theory [Simon and Schuster, 2018], 248).  The most usual form this envy takes, in my experience, is the outraged assertion that someone is a “hypocrite.”  The right wing is particularly addicted to this claim about liberal do-gooders.  The liberals, in their view, claim to be holier than thou, but know what side their bed is feathered on, and do quite well for themselves.  They wouldn’t be sipping lattes and driving Priuses if they weren’t laughing their way to the bank.  Moral envy, then, is about bringing everyone down to the same low level of behavior—and thus (here I think Graeber is right) entails a covert acknowledgement that the general run of behavior is not up to our publicly stated moral aspirations.  So we don’t like the people who make the everyday, all-too-human fact of the gap between our ideals and our behavior conspicuous.  Especially when their behavior indicates that the gap is not necessary.  It is actually possible to act in a morally admirable manner.

But then Graeber goes on to do something unexpected—and to me convincing—with this speculation about moral envy.  He ties it to jobs.  Basically, the argument goes like this: some people get to have meaningful jobs, ones for which it is fairly easy to make the case that “here is work worth doing.”  Generally, such work involves actually making something or actually providing a needed service to some people.  The farmer and the doctor have built-in job satisfaction insofar as what they devote themselves to doing requires almost no justification—to themselves or to others.  (This, of course, doesn’t preclude all kinds of dissatisfactions with factors that make their jobs needlessly onerous or economically precarious.)

Graeber’s argument in Bullshit Jobs is that there are not enough of the meaningful jobs to go around.  As robots make more of the things that factory workers used to make and as agricultural labor also requires far fewer workers than it once did, we have not (as utopians once predicted and as Graeber still believes is completely possible) rolled back working hours.  Instead, we generated more and more bullshit jobs—jobs that are make-work in some cases (simply unproductive in ways that those who hold the job can easily see) or, even worse, jobs that are positively anti-productive or harmful (sitting in office denying people’s welfare or insurance claims; telemarketing; you can expand the list.)  In short, lots of people simply don’t have access to jobs that would allow them to do work that they, themselves, morally approve of.

Graeber’s point is that the people who hold these jobs know how worthless the jobs are.  But they rarely have other options—although the people he talks to in his book do often quit these soul-destroying jobs.  The political point is that the number of “good” jobs, i.e. worthwhile, meaningful jobs is limited.  And the people who have those jobs curtail access to them (through professional licensing practices in some cases, through networking in other cases).  There is an inside track to the good jobs that depends, to a very large extent, on being to the manor/manner born.  Especially for the jobs that accord upper-middle-class status (and almost guarantee that one will be a liberal), transmission is generational.  This is the “opportunity hoarding” that Richard Reeves speaks about in his 2017 book, Dream Hoarders.  The liberal professional classes talk a good game about diversity and meritocracy, but they basically keep the spots open for their kids.  Entry into that world from the outside is very difficult and very rare.

To the manner born should also be taken fairly literally.  Access to the upper middle class jobs still requires the detour of education–and how to survive (and even thrive) at an American university is an inherited trait.  Kids from the upper middle class are completely at home in college, just as non-middle-class kids are so often completely at sea.  Yes, school can be a make-it and a break-it, a place where an upper class kid falls off the rails and place where the lower class kid finds a ladder she manages to climb.  But all the statistics, as well as my own experience as a college teacher for thirty years, tell me that the exceptions are relatively rare.  College is a fairly difficult environment to navigate–and close to impossibly difficult for students to whom college’s idiolects are not a native language.

So two conclusions. 1.  It is a mixture of class resentment and moral envy that explains the deep animus against liberal elites on the part of non-elites—an animus that, as much as does racism in my opinion, explains why the abandoned working class of our post-industrial cities has turned to the right.  As bad as (or, at least, as much as) their loss of economic and social status has been their loss of access to meaningful work.  Put them into as many training sessions as you want to transition them to the jobs of the post-industrial economy, you are not going to solve their acute knowledge that these new jobs suck when compared to their old jobs in terms of basic worth.  So they resent the hell out of those who still hold meaningful jobs—and get well paid for those jobs and also have the gall to preach to them about tolerance and diversity.  2.  It is soul-destroying to do work you cannot justify as worth doing.  And what is soul-destroying will lead to aggression, despair, rising suicide rates, drug abuse, and susceptibility to right-wing demagogues.  Pride in one’s work is a sine non qua of a dignified adult life.

Church vs. State

The current battles between the politicians in North Carolina (both those in our state legislature and those on the Board of Governors for the state-wide university system) remind me of nothing so much as the battles between church and state as portrayed in the film, Beckett.  Like the medieval church, the university, under the double banner of academic freedom and the right of professional expertise to self-governance, claims—and actually possesses—an autonomy that infuriates the statesmen.  The politicians (despite their hypocritical claims to abhor state power and over-reach) are determined to bring the university to heel.  It only exacerbates matters that universities generate a loyalty and affection among students and alums that politicians can only dream of attaining.

Put this way, the university is the Church.  And, certainly, the university has plenty of analogues with the Church, especially in the pretension to and, sometimes achievement of, the otherworldly.  Plenty of room for hypocrisy there—and undoubtedly no shortage of actual indulgence in that vice.

But I can’t help but view our power-grasping politicians through the lens of religion as well.  I have tried, mostly successfully, during my life and academic career to resist those narratives that posit a sickness deep in the American soul, that see our nation as doomed by a darkness, an original sin, that means it is impossible we will ever live up to our high-falutin’ ideals.  I don’t want to believe that racism explains all of the American past and the American present.  I do want to believe that the US has done a decent—albeit far from perfect—job of providing a good enough life for a higher percentage of its citizens than have most societies in human history.  But I cannot deny that the desire to believe these things may be making me blind to the uglier truth.

In any case, I read this in a Kipling story (“Watches of the Night”): “You may have noticed that many religious people are deeply suspicious.  They seem—for purely religious purposes, of course—to know more about iniquity than the unregenerate.  Perhaps they were specially bad before they became converted!  At any rate, in the imputation of things evil, and in putting the worst construction on things innocent, a certain type of good person may be trusted to surpass all others.”

Now, you could say that the evangelicals meet their match in this regard with the “America is rotten to the core” crew.  Fair enough.  But what I want to ponder is the desire to punish.  When I consider why these right-wingers hate the university—and consider the ways they express that hatred—what I see (among other factors, no doubt) is the desire to subject professors to “market discipline.”  It is not enough to see evil.  One must punish it.  And the chosen instrument for punishment is the market.  The right-wingers may be able to mouth all the virtues of the free market.  But what they really like is that it punishes people, that it causes pain to the reprobate.  How else to explain the need to hunt down the poorest and most vulnerable at every turn and make sure that they are suffering enough?  It’s almost as if the prosperous cannot enjoy their riches without also knowing that some are excluded from that enjoyment.

Of course, the price for that enjoyment is “hard work”—and the right (reminiscent of Kipling’s comments on “suspicion”) is obsessed with the notion that there are people out there who are avoiding “hard work,” who are living off the fat of government largesse.

The university looks like a free consequence zone.  Bad enough that students get to play on their parents’ and the state’s dime for four years.  But that professors get to do so for a lifetime is truly insufferable!  Teaching only two days a week!  Summer vacations!  Sabbaticals!  And with fancy titles and exaggerated respect.  There ought to be a law against it.

Self-Regulation

I am reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History (Scribner, 2016).  Lots of interest here—and lots of scientific information that is simply new to me and sometimes beyond my ability to comprehend.  More on that, perhaps, later.

For the moment, I want to focus on a more political point.  Mukherjee devotes a few pages to a 1975 conference at Asilomar (near Monterey in California) in which genetic scientists hammered out an agreement to not pursue certain possible laboratory experiments and procedures because of the potential danger of loosing pathogens into the world.

Quoting from Mukherjee’s account:

“Extraordinary technologies demand extraordinary caution, and political forces could hardly be trusted to assess the perils or the promise of gene cloning (nor, for that matter, had political forces been particularly wise about handling genetic technologies in the past [a reference to forced sterilizations in the US and Nazi eugenics]).  In 1973, less than two years before Asilomar, President Nixon, fed up with his scientific advisors, had vengefully scrapped the Office of Science and Technology, sending spasms of anxiety through the scientific community.  Impulsive, authoritarian, and suspicious of science even at the best of times, the president might impose arbitrary control on scientists’ autonomy at any time.

A crucial choice was at stake: scientists could relinquish the control of gene cloning to unpredictable regulators and find their work arbitrarily constrained—or they could become science regulators themselves.  How were biologists to confront the risks and uncertainties of recombinant DNA?  By using the methods they knew best: gathering data, sifting evidence, evaluating risks, making decisions under uncertainty—and quarreling relentlessly.  ‘The most important lesson of Assilomar,’ [Paul] Berg [Stanford professor and key figure at the conference] said, ‘was to demonstrate that scientists were capable of self-governance.’ Those accustomed to the ‘unfettered pursuit of research’ would have to learn to fetter themselves” (232-233).

Except, of course, that they don’t—fetter themselves that is.  Oddly enough, Mukherjee doesn’t seem to see this.  He hails Asilomar as “a graduation ceremony for the new genetics” (235).  Less than ten pages later, as Mukherjee retails the story of the creation of synthetic insulin, we learn that the success comes from a private company, Genentech, which beats the Harvard team working on the same problem because unconstrained by university regulations and caution.  Later, Mukherjee treats Craig Venter, who creates a private company to compete with the government-funded Human Genome Project, much more kindly than many commentators do, while gingerly avoiding the issue of what corners Venters allowed himself to cut by stepping outside of a regulatory regime.

At issue, however, is not Mukherjee’s failure to develop a coherent stance on regulation.  Rather, I am interested in the whole notion of self-regulation—and in the paradoxes of regulation itself.

For starters, regulation is a tough one for people because it is not full-bore permission and it is not full-bore prohibition.  If I give my teen-age son a curfew, I am regulating his behavior, but not forbidding him to go out at night, and not granting permission for him to stay out all night.  Seems simple enough in principle—but it proves very difficult in practice.  The regulation sets a clearly visible limit which (as we know from the Garden of Eden) creates an immediate and powerful temptation.

With self-regulation, then, the limit setter and the tempted transgressor have to be one and the same.  Again, it is trivially true that learning how to regulate oneself, to set and abide by limits not externally imposed, is a crucial step toward maturation.  I am hardly saying that humans are incapable of avoiding “over-doing” something.

But the case is very different when strong social incentives are in place to reward going past a limit.  That situation appears particularly relevant in any competitive environment.  So, in sports, using performance enhancing drugs or even just over-training (to the point of self-harm) are such strong temptations because the rewards for success are so massive.  Similarly, in science, where getting there first is just about everything (to echo Vince Lombardi).  And the same is true, of course, in economic competitions, where various forms of unregulated or expressly forbidden, behaviors can reap one a market advantage.

George Bernard Shaw said “all professions are a conspiracy against the layman.”  By that, he meant that professions claim to have expertise and knowledge that the ordinary person does not possess.  One of the first consequences of that claim is that professions want to be self-governed, to get out from under any external oversight.  The outsiders cannot possibly understand the full complexity of our professional tasks—and hence can only muck things up by interfering.

I was in a room full of hedge fund managers and Wall Street financial guys (none of the finance people was a woman) shortly after the 2008 election of Obama in the aftermath of that fall’s financial meltdown.  To a man, this group lamented how the Democrats were going to cripple financial markets and the absolutely essential flow of capital by coming in and ignorantly regulating things.  There was not a single iota of self-doubt expressed by this group.  They were too focused on the image of themselves as victims of innocent politicians.

In short, it is hard to believe that any profession can ever successfully regulate itself. The reward structures internal to the profession are tied too closely to surpassing limits.  After all, regulation is about trimming back, about not letting everything that is possible be undertaken.  And the logic of the profession is to push relentlessly forward.

But, as Mukherjee’s anecdote about Nixon (making him sound remarkably like Trump) reminds us, are the politicians really in a better position to do the regulating?  When we watch the spectacle of our politicians denying climate change, endorsing nut-case theories about vaccinations and autism, and calling for a balanced federal budget and a return to the gold standard, aren’t we forced to agree that their ignorance should not be allowed to cripple the experts’ knowledge?

How, in other words, are we to establish true accountability?  Some, of course, say we should rely on markets for that.  But the market’s decision is always (even when it does come—and it does not always come) after the fact.  The harm has been done.  Regulations are often also created after the fact, to prevent a disaster happening a second time. But regulations are also anticipatory.  My curfew for my teen-age son was not motivated by any particular incident.  It is just a rule that seems to fit the circumstances—and some possible issues.  So regulation is not just in order to hold people accountable; it is also about prevention.  Don’t do this because it will have bad consequences.

That still leaves the question of who is the best judge of possible bad consequences.  I don’t think the profession itself is.  Professionals have their minds fixed on other things—on success as their profession defines it, on pushing the limits, on following a line of thought or action out to all its logical and possible conclusions.  But no one else seems to be in a very good position to set the boundaries.  We reach here a fundamental dilemma in democratic governance.  The professions need to be governed by a demos that actually lacks good credentials for doing the governing.  We are stuck, I would say, with trial and error, with repeated attempts to regulate that will be resisted by the professions and yet still must be enforced, with (hopefully) continual revision as some regulations prove salutary and others harmful or useless.

Regulation will also have to be dynamic—no once and for all fix will ever be achieved—because the attempt to evade regulations will be endless, as will be the emergence of new possibilities and innovations. (I scorn the oft-heard conservative argument that regulations are counter-productive because they generate evasion.  No one uses that argument against the prohibition of murder or the regulation of prescription drugs.) Some of those innovations will have arisen precisely as mechanisms to evade regulation.  But others arise just because human ingenuity knows no bounds and things undreamed of in the current regulatory scheme become possible.  Trying to tailor old regulations (for radio and TV) to handle new media (the internet), to take just one example, is a fool’s errand.  But in an atmosphere of knee-jerk hostility to regulation, devising a whole new regulatory framework is almost impossible.  The result is the current patent mess, which cries out for a reform that seems beyond our political capability to enact.

So let me conclude by considering that wide-spread hostility to regulation.  Every one of us has experienced it: some bureaucratic barrier placed between us and just getting the job done.  “Enough to make me a Republican,” was my exasperated way of responding to HR hurdles in the days when I was trying to hire staff for the Institute that I directed.  It was fairly easy (in almost all cases if one could look at the thing impartially) to see why a certain regulation was in place, what possible abuse it was trying to guard against, but that didn’t lessen the hassle of having to abide by the regulation.

But it is also worth thinking about just what regulations disallow—or enable.  Our heroic individualists always claim regulations stiffly ingenuity, creative thinking, going beyond the current sense of what is thinkable or doable.  Nonsense.  Just like those who talk most loudly about risk are actually risk averse (businesses make bets when the odds are stacked in their favor), what really irks most people about regulations is that they assault their habitual ways of doing things.  Many of those HR regulations were about insuring a diverse applicant pool and avoiding the nepotism and unconscious biases that lead to all-white offices.  Similarly, requiring that professors deposit their syllabi with a central office prior to the semester’s start means they must actually plan their classes and inform their students about the course’s content and expectations.  Regulations are ways of intervening in shoddy professional practices, of trying to not let habit rule the roost.

And regulations are also reminders that you, perhaps, are not the best judge of your performance.  In my corner of the professional world, college professors, there is deep resentment against the introduction of notions like “learning outcomes” and attempts to measure whether those outcomes have been attained by students.  Finding the right metrics is, no doubt, very difficult, but there is absolutely no denying at this late date the well-documented findings that lectures and reading are a poor way to transmit information to today’s students.  But deny those findings my colleagues will.  It was good enough for them—and they are also damned sure their students are learning lots.  How do they now this latter fact?  They can just tell.

External demands that any profession actually demonstrate, actually prove, its worth can only be to the good, in my opinion.  I sure as hell don’t want an unregulated Wall Street.  So how can I, in good faith, then argue for unregulated professors? The give-and-take, the endless jostling and disputes, between the professions and those external to them that try to regulate them is never going to be resolved.  But that process is far preferable to the delusion that the profession will self-regulate.  Just recall that every time a new environmental or economic policy is bruited in our fair land, some industry group will step forward and say: “We will voluntarily adopt this standard.  Just leave it up to us.”  How many times should we fall for that ploy?

As Michael Bérubé puts it in Life as Jamie Knows It, “bioethics is too important to be entrusted to the bioethicists.”  The same goes for every profession.  It has to be kept on its toes by knowing not just that outsiders are watching, but also by knowing that outsiders wield regulatory power to intervene in its practices.  And when such interventions come, let the fight begin.