The Privilege of Even Poor Whites

I just don’t get the belief in genetic and cultural determinism. It doesn’t really explain anything.

As an example, “whites” used to have much lower IQs on average than do “non-white” minorities now. The first IQ tests were done in the early 20th century. It was a time of many social problems, not unlike these past decades. It was a time when ethnic Americans of European ancestry were targeted and scapegoated by WASPs not unlike how minorities are still treated.

Along with testing as low IQ, those ethnic Americans had higher rates of violence than have been seen since, much of it related to substance abuse, youth gangs, and organized crime. It was the highest rates of violent crime ever recorded in US history and, because of mass immigration from Europe, probably was the largest “white” majority in US history (or rather perceived “white” majority as those included and excluded is always changing).

That was the largest influx of “white” genetics and culture ever to happen on American soil. If “whites” are inherently superior, why didn’t that even larger “white” majority immediately drive down the violence and push up the IQ? It took decades before those early 20th century social problems improved with the help of public education, Progressive policies, the GI Bill, etc… not to mention oppressive Cold War tactics of cultural genocide and forced assimilation of hyphenated Americans into proper “white” mainstream culture, a part of the original purpose of such things as public education which is why the KKK supported it.

So, if even lower IQ and more violent “whites” were able to see vast improvements over such a short period of time, why is it assumed that “non-white” minorities today are different? Why wouldn’t the same improved environmental condtions that improved the lives of ethnic “whites”, if implemented universally, also improve the lives of all other Americans? Why is genetic and cultural determinism only applied to rationalize the social problems impacting some groups and not others?

This is a personal issue for me, as a descendant of ethnic immigrants, some who likely identified as hyphenated Americans.

My non-English ancestors experienced oppression and prejudice. They worked hard, and through generations of struggle they were allowed to move up in society.

My mother’s family a few generations ago were poor whites: distillers, farmers, clam diggers, manual laborers, etc; when they were lucky enough to find work. They definitely knew poverty and unemployment during the early 20th century. They were under-educated and uneducated, often illiterate and unable to write until recent generations. They wouldn’t have tested as high IQ. They also had many of the problems associated with ethnic Americans, such as alcoholism and bootlegging during Prohibition. They were simple people, just getting by in life, whatever that took.

It was only with my mother’s generation that most of her family began graduating from high school and, in some cases, getting college degrees. Within a single generation, many members of my mom’s family went from poor to middle class. Their perceived “whiteness” gave them privileges and advantages of social and economic mobility.

It wasn’t genetic and cultural determinism that had kept them poor and disadvantaged for centuries upon centuries. It was the social conditions that initially kept them at the bottom of society and that then allowed them to rise. Their perceived “whiteness”, after they had been either willingly or forcefully assimilated, doesn’t explain this change. Rather, their perceived “whiteness” was the change or an expression of that change. Before being “white” or fully “white”, they were treated as second class citizens and so they suffered the fate of second class citizens. The twentieth century, however, gave them new opportunities with a new racial and social identity. They were now “white” and hence “real Americans”.

Many whites take this kind of cross-generational upward mobility as a point of pride. Their family did it. So, it is no one else’s fault for those who are seen as failures. But this ignores the reality of our society, the remaining forms of classism and racism. It was also only a brief respite for many families, as new generations find themselves falling back down into poverty once again, no better off than the rest of the poor who have been stuck there. The American Dream has been a mirage because it never was built on a strong foundation, never was integrated into a functioning democracy.

The racial myth of superiority has been shown to be the lie it always was. Poor whites have always been the majority of the poor and those on welfare. A temporary respite from poverty for some white Americans didn’t change this fact.

Why do we want to use social categories to choose who will be allowed to succeed and who will continue to be punished with prejudice and oppression? Instead, why not treat all Americans equally and give them all equal opportunities and assistance? Making excuses of determinism helps no one and harms everyone as it undermines the very values and ideals that justify our country’s existence. If American isn’t about an actual American Dream accessible to all Americans, then what is it about? Do we really want to cynically embrace Apartheid? Why not live up to the hopes and aspirations our country was founded upon?

Group Psychology For All, Experts And Non-Experts Alike

I’ve been reading a book I had seen over the years, but had ignored until a friend recommended it. It is The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. I guess I didn’t pay it much heed because of an assumption that it was likely lightweight pop psychology. I was wrong.

It is an intriguing book, although more of an introductory text and so can be not quite fully satisfying in that it entices the reader’s curiosity to learn more. The ideas in the book are quite radical, but the author doesn’t emphasize that aspect. There are so many directions that could be taken and that would require many other books. This particular book, however, accomplished what it sets out to do which was ambitious enough.

A number of things are covered in the text. It’s not really about crowds, the title being unfortunate. Rather, it’s about group psychology and all that relates to that.

The author discusses the conditions under which any group will operate well or not. It could be a group of average citizens, a school board, or a grassroots organization. But it also could be a group of scientists, investors, or politicians. All humans are social animals, and so the same group psychology applies to all people and all groups. Even the paternalistic elites of Scandinavian countries, for example, are dependent on and interdependent with, built upon and inseparable from the constructive group dynamics of a culture of trust.

This would apply even to effectively ruling an authoritarian regime. That said, the conditions when fulfilled to their utmost would inevitably tend toward democratization, no matter the intent. This is true in all spheres to which these conditions could be applied. It isn’t just about politics. Far from it.

In reading reviews of the book, I realized many people didn’t understand the central point the author was communicating. He isn’t opposing crowds against experts. As I said, group psychology is a universal human reality, even for experts. Much of what the author discusses is experts themselves, when they are useful and when they are not. I found it odd that some reviewers thought the book had nothing to do about experts. Either they didn’t actually read the book or the unfortunate title biased their reading experience.

The term ‘expert’ was mentioned 92 times in The Wisdom of Crowds. Expertise is discussed in numerous chapters throughout the book. I’ll offer a few examples of it being discussed, but other examples not included below go into much more detail about examples and research.

(I’d also suggest the even more recent book, The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller. He also has useful discussion of groups and experts, both separately and as they interact, including some fascinating research. There are some other books I’m reading that may be relevant. I’ll probably write more about this topic later. I specifically have in mind a post about democracy in the city I live in, as analyzed according to Surowieki’s conditions of a wise crowd.)

 * * * *

The fact that cognitive diversity matters does not mean that if you assemble a group of diverse but thoroughly uninformed people, their collective wisdom will be smarter than an expert’s. But if you can assemble a diverse group of people who possess varying degrees of knowledge and insight, you’re better off entrusting it with major decisions rather than leaving them in the hands of one or two people, no matter how smart those people are. If this is difficult to believe—in the same way that March’s assertions are hard to believe—it’s because it runs counter to our basic intuitions about intelligence and business. Suggesting that the organization with the smartest people may not be the best organization is heretical, particularly in a business world caught up in a ceaseless “war for talent” and governed by the assumption that a few superstars can make the difference between an excellent and a mediocre company. Heretical or not, it’s the truth: the value of expertise is, in many contexts, overrated.

Now, experts obviously exist. The play of a great chess player is qualitatively different from the play of a merely accomplished one. The great player sees the board differently, he processes information differently, and he recognizes meaningful patterns almost instantly. As Herbert A. Simon and W. G. Chase demonstrated in the 1970s, if you show a chess expert and an amateur a board with a chess game in progress on it, the expert will be able to re-create from memory the layout of the entire game. The amateur won’t. Yet if you show that same expert a board with chess pieces irregularly and haphazardly placed on it, he will not be able to re-create the layout. This is impressive testimony to how thoroughly chess is imprinted on the minds of successful players. But it also demonstrates how limited the scope of their expertise is. A chess expert knows about chess, and that’s it. We intuitively assume that intelligence is fungible, and that people who are excellent at one intellectual pursuit would be excellent at another. But this is not the case with experts. Instead, the fundamental truth about expertise is that it is, as Chase has said, “spectacularly narrow.”

More important, there’s no real evidence that one can become expert in something as broad as “decision making” or “policy” or “strategy.” Auto repair, piloting, skiing, perhaps even management: these are skills that yield to application, hard work, and native talent. But forecasting an uncertain future and deciding the best course of action in the face of that future are much less likely to do so. And much of what we’ve seen so far suggests that a large group of diverse individuals will come up with better and more robust forecasts and make more intelligent decisions than even the most skilled “decision maker.”

We’re all familiar with the absurd predictions that business titans have made: Harry Warner of Warner Bros. pronouncing in 1927, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?,” or Thomas Watson of IBM declaring in 1943, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” These can be written off as amusing anomalies, since over the course of a century, some smart people are bound to say some dumb things. What can’t be written off, though, is the dismal performance record of most experts.

Between 1984 and 1999, for instance, almost 90 percent of mutual-fund managers underperformed the Wilshire 5000 Index, a relatively low bar. The numbers for bond-fund managers are similar: in the most recent five-year period, more than 95 percent of all managed bond funds underperformed the market. After a survey of expert forecasts and analyses in a wide variety of fields, Wharton professor J. Scott Armstrong wrote, “I could find no studies that showed an important advantage for expertise.” Experts, in some cases, were a little better at forecasting than laypeople (although a number of studies have concluded that nonpsychologists, for instance, are actually better at predicting people’s behavior than psychologists are), but above a low level, Armstrong concluded, “expertise and accuracy are unrelated.” James Shanteau is one of the country’s leading thinkers on the nature of expertise, and has spent a great deal of time coming up with a method for estimating just how expert someone is. Yet even he suggests that “experts’ decisions are seriously flawed.”

Shanteau recounts a series of studies that have found experts’ judgments to be neither consistent with the judgments of other experts in the field nor internally consistent. For instance, the between-expert agreement in a host of fields, including stock picking, livestock judging, and clinical psychology, is below 50 percent, meaning that experts are as likely to disagree as to agree. More disconcertingly, one study found that the internal consistency of medical pathologists’ judgments was just 0.5, meaning that a pathologist presented with the same evidence would, half the time, offer a different opinion. Experts are also surprisingly bad at what social scientists call “calibrating” their judgments. If your judgments are well calibrated, then you have a sense of how likely it is that your judgment is correct. But experts are much like normal people: they routinely overestimate the likelihood that they’re right. A survey on the question of overconfidence by economist Terrance Odean found that physicians, nurses, lawyers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and investment bankers all believed that they knew more than they did. Similarly, a recent study of foreign-exchange traders found that 70 percent of the time, the traders overestimated the accuracy of their exchange-rate predictions. In other words, it wasn’t just that they were wrong; they also didn’t have any idea how wrong they were. And that seems to be the rule among experts. The only forecasters whose judgments are routinely well calibrated are expert bridge players and weathermen. It rains on 30 percent of the days when weathermen have predicted a 30 percent chance of rain.

Armstrong, who studies expertise and forecasting, summarized the case this way: “One would expect experts to have reliable information for predicting change and to be able to utilize the information effectively. However, expertise beyond a minimal level is of little value in forecasting change.” Nor was there evidence that even if most experts were not very good at forecasting, a few titans were excellent. Instead, Armstrong wrote, “claims of accuracy by a single expert would seem to be of no practical value.” This was the origin of Armstrong’s “seer-sucker theory”: “No matter how much evidence exists that seers do not exist, suckers will pay for the existence of seers.”

Again, this doesn’t mean that well-informed, sophisticated analysts are of no use in making good decisions. (And it certainly doesn’t mean that you want crowds of amateurs trying to collectively perform surgery or fly planes.) It does mean that however well-informed and sophisticated an expert is, his advice and predictions should be pooled with those of others to get the most out of him. (The larger the group, the more reliable its judgment will be.) And it means that attempting to “chase the expert,” looking for the one man who will have the answers to an organization’s problem, is a waste of time. We know that the group’s decision will consistently be better than most of the people in the group, and that it will be better decision after decision, while the performance of human experts will vary dramatically depending on the problem they’re asked to solve. So it is unlikely that one person, over time, will do better than the group.

Now, it’s possible that a small number of genuine experts—that is, people who can consistently offer better judgments than those of a diverse, informed group—do exist. The investor Warren Buffett, who has consistently outperformed the S&P 500 Index since the 1960s, is certainly someone who comes to mind. The problem is that even if these superior beings do exist, there is no easy way to identify them. Past performance, as we are often told, is no guarantee of future results. And there are so many would-be experts out there that distinguishing between those who are lucky and those who are genuinely good is often a near-impossible task. At the very least, it’s a job that requires considerable patience: if you wanted to be sure that a successful money manager was beating the market because of his superior skill, and not because of luck or measurement error, you’d need many years, if not decades, of data. And if a group is so unintelligent that it will flounder without the right expert, it’s not clear why the group would be intelligent enough to recognize an expert when it found him.

We think that experts will, in some sense, identify themselves, announcing their presence and demonstrating their expertise by their level of confidence. But it doesn’t work that way. Strangely, experts are no more confident in their abilities than average people are, which is to say that they are overconfident like everyone else, but no more so. Similarly, there is very little correlation between experts’ self-assessment and their performance. Knowing and knowing that you know are apparently two very different skills.

If this is the case, then why do we cling so tightly to the idea that the right expert will save us? And why do we ignore the fact that simply averaging a group’s estimates will produce a very good result? Richard Larrick and Jack B. Soll suggest that the answer is that we have bad intuitions about averaging. We assume averaging means dumbing down or compromising. When people are faced with the choice of picking one expert or picking pieces of advice from a number of experts, they try to pick the best expert rather than simply average across the group. Another reason, surely, is our assumption that true intelligence resides only in individuals, so that finding the right person—the right consultant, the right CEO—will make all the difference. In a sense, the crowd is blind to its own wisdom. Finally, we seek out experts because we get, as the writer Nassim Taleb asserts, “fooled by randomness.” If there are enough people out there making predictions, a few of them are going to compile an impressive record over time. That does not mean that the record was the product of skill, nor does it mean that the record will continue into the future. Again, trying to find smart people will not lead you astray. Trying to find the smartest person will.

Surowiecki, James (2005-08-16). The Wisdom of Crowds (pp. 29-34). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This might be okay if people only spoke when they had expertise in a particular matter. And in many cases, if someone’s talking a lot, it’s a good sign that they have something valuable to add. But the truth is that there is no clear correlation between talkativeness and expertise. In fact, as the military-flier studies suggest, people who imagine themselves as leaders will often overestimate their own knowledge and project an air of confidence and expertise that is unjustified. And since, as political scientists Brock Blomberg and Joseph Harrington suggest, extremists tend to be more rigid and more convinced of their own rightness than moderates, discussion tends to pull groups away from the middle. Of course, sometimes truth lies at the extreme. And if the people who spoke first and most often were consistently the people with the best information or the keenest analysis, then polarization might not be much of a problem. But it is.

Surowiecki, James (2005-08-16). The Wisdom of Crowds (p. 186). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

So what would the wider distribution of real decision-making power look like? To begin with, decisions about local problems should be made, as much as possible, by people close to the problem. Friedrich Hayek, as we’ve seen, emphasized that tacit knowledge—knowledge that emerged only from experience—was crucial to the efficiency of markets. It is just as important to the efficiency of organizations. Instead of assuming that all problems need to be filtered up the hierarchy and every solution filtered back down again, companies should start with the assumption that, just as in the marketplace, people with local knowledge are often best positioned to come up with a workable and efficient solution. The virtues of specialization and local knowledge often outweigh managerial expertise in decision making.

Surowiecki, James (2005-08-16). The Wisdom of Crowds (pp. 209-210). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The best CEOs, of course, recognize the limits of their own knowledge and of individual decision making. That’s why important decisions at GM, in the days when it was the most successful corporation in the world, were made by what Alfred Sloan called “group management.” And it’s why legendary business thinker Peter Drucker has said, “The smart CEOs methodically build a management team around them.” The lesson of Richard Larrick and Jack Soll’s work applies to business as much as it does to other fields: chasing the expert is a mistake. The Federal Reserve’s decisions, after all, aren’t made by Alan Greenspan. They’re made by the board as a whole. In the face of uncertainty, the collective judgment of a group of executives will trump that of even the smartest executive. Think about John Craven’s work in finding the Scorpion. A relatively small group of diversely informed individuals making guesses about the likelihood of uncertain events produced, when their judgments had been aggregated, an essentially perfect decision. What more could a company want?

Surowiecki, James (2005-08-16). The Wisdom of Crowds (pp. 220-221). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In January of 2003, 343 people, carefully chosen so that they represented an almost perfect cross-section of the American population, gathered in Philadelphia for a weekend of political debate. The topic was American foreign policy, with the issues ranging from the impending conflict with Iraq to nuclear proliferation to the global AIDS epidemic. Before the weekend, the participants were polled to get a sense of their positions on the issues. They were then sent a set of briefing materials that, in a deliberately evenhanded fashion, tried to lay out relevant facts and provide some sense of the ongoing debate about the issues. Once they arrived, they were divided up into small groups led by trained moderators, and went on to spend the weekend deliberating. Along the way, they were given the chance to interrogate panels of competing experts and political figures. At the end of the weekend, the participants were polled again, to see what difference their deliberations had made.

The entire event, which bore the unwieldy name of the National Issues Convention Deliberative Poll, was the brainchild of a political scientist at the University of Texas named James Fishkin. Fishkin invented the deliberative poll out of frustration with the limitations of traditional polling data and out of a sense that Americans were not being given either the information or the opportunity to make intelligent political choices. The idea behind deliberative polls—which have now been run in hundreds of cities across the world—is that political debate should not be, and doesn’t need to be, confined to experts and policy elites. Given enough information and the chance to talk things over with peers, ordinary people are more than capable of understanding complex issues and making meaningful choices about them. In that sense, Fishkin’s project is a profoundly optimistic one, predicated on a kind of deep faith in both the virtue of informed debate and the ability of ordinary people to govern themselves.

Surowiecki, James (2005-08-16). The Wisdom of Crowds (pp. 257-258). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

One knee-jerk reaction to the evidence of democracy’s failings is to insist that we would be better off ruled by a technocratic elite, which could make decisions with dispassion and attention to the public interest. To some extent, of course, we already are ruled by a technocratic elite, what with our republican form of government and the importance of unelected officials—for instance, Donald Rumsfeld or Colin Powell—in political life. But one would be hard-pressed to argue that most elites are able to see past their ideological blinders and uncover the imaginary public interest. And trusting an insulated, unelected elite to make the right decisions is a foolish strategy, given all we now know about small-group dynamics, groupthink, and the failure of diversity.

In any case, the idea that the right answer to complex problems is simply “ask the experts” assumes that experts agree on the answers. But they don’t, and if they did, it’s hard to believe that the public would simply ignore their advice. Elites are just as partisan and no more devoted to the public interest than the average voter. More important, as you shrink the size of a decision-making body, you also shrink the likelihood that the final answer is right. Finally, most political decisions are not simply decisions about how to do something. They are decisions about what to do, decisions that involve values, trade-offs, and choices about what kind of society people should live in. There is no reason to think that experts are better at making those decisions than the average voter. Thomas Jefferson, for one, thought it likely that they might be worse. “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor,” he wrote. “The former will decide it as well and often better than the latter because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.”

It’s also the case that democracy allows for the persistent injection into the system of what I called earlier “local knowledge.” Politics is ultimately about the impact of government on the everyday lives of citizens. It seems strange, then, to think that the way to do politics well is to distance yourself as much as possible from citizens’ everyday lives. In the same way that a healthy market needs the constant flow of localized information that it gets from prices, a healthy democracy needs the constant flow of information it gets from people’s votes. That is information that experts cannot get because it is not part of the world they live in. And that keeps the system more diverse than it would otherwise be. As Richard Posner puts it: “Experts constitute a distinct class in society, with values and perspectives that differ systematically from those of ‘ordinary’ people. Without supposing that the man in the street has any penetrating insights denied the expert, or is immune from demagoguery, we may nevertheless think it reassuring that political power is shared between experts and nonexperts rather than being a monopoly of the former.”

Surowiecki, James (2005-08-16). The Wisdom of Crowds (pp. 265-266). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

A New Rule On Immigration

I have a new rule. *

We can only deny immigration to citizens of countries where the US government and military has never meddled in their society. We will demand any immigrants to go away and leave us alone, if and only if we have done the same to them.

We should make the Golden Rule a law. Also, self-righteous ignorant hypocrisy should be made illegal.

* * *

Why do those on the right love to complain about government but then demand that government is the final arbiter of reality?

Immigrants are illegal because they’ve broken the law. Others have noted there are so many laws on the book that every American regularly breaks laws every day. Are we illegal citizens? Unemployment is so high that a large part of Americans work on the black market. Are these Americans illegal workers?

Why do some people argue that people should serve the legal system instead of the legal system serving people? Is the legal system simply a system for defending power? Why, for example, have we allowed the War On Drugs which is a war against the American people?

When law and governance is used for oppressive social control, why should we allow that power structure determine our reality? Maybe we should make our own reality through self-governance.

* * *

* I was ‘inspired’ by an discussion about President Obama’s Immigration Actions on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal. It was hosted by John McArdle. The guests were Jon Feere (Legal Policy Analyst of Center for Immigration Studies) and Crystal Williams (Executive Director of American Immigration Lawyers Association), the former from the right and the latter from the left. It is one of those mainstream media debates where both sides frustrated me.

Wealth, Power, and Addiction

I live and work in downtown Iowa City. I regularly walk through and spend time in the downtown area. Having lived here (with a few years spent elsewhere) since the 1980s, I’m always trying to get perspective about this city and where it is heading.

As I was meandering to work today, I went through the pedestrian mall and my mind was naturally drawn to the numerous bars. I’ve had a theory for a while about what drove out so many of the stores I used to like, the stores that the average person would want to shop at and could afford to shop at. There is a general gentrification going on that is being promoted and funded by TIFs (among I’m sure other causes), but there is more than just that going on. I’ve considered that maybe the bars have been so profitable that they’ve driven up the rental costs in the downtown, driven them too high for the average small business owner.

This is problematic. Few things can compete with alcohol. All that has been able to compete are mostly high end restaraunts, art galleries, gift shops, jewelry stores, etc.

I was thinking about what this means. Why is it that it is so hard to compete with bars? The first thing that came to mind is that alcohol is an addictive substance. For a large number of people, the more alcohol they drink the more they want to drink. It guarantees repeat customers who are willing to pay high costs for their preferred drug. There is a reason the only mom and pop grocery story left in town is a major retailer of alcohol, and of course it is downtown.

I’m not for prohibition of addictive substances. But we have to get serious about the externalized costs, whether from legal or illegal markets. I’m in favor of making most addictive substances legal, but putting high sin taxes on them and providing the highest quality rehab centers (along with whatever else is beneficial). The sin taxes should go to deal with all the externalized costs, from rehab centers to homeless shelters… also to deal with the problems developing in the downtown and other impacted areas.

There is something telling about how gentrification and the sale of addictive substances act as twin forces in utterly transforming this town. I’m far from convinced that these changes are positive.

* * * *

What is the relationship between gentrification, crony capitalism, and bars? Or to put it another way: What is the relationship between wealth, power, and addiction?

I wouldn’t be the first person to associate addiction with the consumerism of a capitalist society. Nor would I be the first to associate addiction to power relationships. I know William S. Burroughts had many interesting thoughts on the matter. Is it simply about social control? If so, to what end? Or is it as Burroughs suggests, just power serving power, like a disease?

I’m specifically thinking of the city I live in, but all of this applies more broadly. Also, the issue of alchol should be widened to all addictions and everything related to it: drug wars, mass incarceration, etc. Part of my context here is the book “Chasing the Scream” by Johann Hari. That author sees addiction as a social failure, rather than a mere personal issue. It isnt just the addict who is addicted, but the entire society addicted to the system. The alcoholic is addicted to alcohol, the bar owners are addicted to the profit they can make, and the local government is addicted to the tax money that is brought in.

The difference with alcohol, though is that it is a socially acceptable addiction. The entire identity of a small college town like Iowa City is tied up with alcoholism. The UI is famous for being a party school. The town was well known as a drinking town going back for more than a century. Generations of people have traveled from far away just to get drunk in this town.

What is at the heart of this? What is the driving force behind it all?

* * * *

I originally posted these thoughts on Facebook.

It was on my mind for some reason. Several people commented and it led to a detailed discussion, but my mind was no more clear afterwards. I still don’t quite know what to make of this line of thought.

It’s complicated, as I’m always repeating. There is a much larger context involved (German immigration, Prohibition, TIFs, etc). No changes come out of nowhere. There are always underlying causes that go much deeper, often to historical roots.

Here are a few other things I’ve written before about related issues. Also, along with them, I’ll throw in some articles about the local area.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2014/09/18/tifs-gentrification-and-plutocracy/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/10/17/generational-change-and-conflict-immigration-media-tech-etc/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2014/08/25/the-fight-for-freedom-is-the-fight-to-exist-independence-and-interdependence/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/10/28/centerville-ia-meeting-point-of-diversity-conflict/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/10/20/generations-at-the-age-of-twelve/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/10/14/ku-klux-klan-and-the-lost-generation/

http://thegazette.com/subject/life/beer-riots-of-1884-brought-violence-and-bloodshed-to-iowa-city-20140810

http://littlevillagemag.com/the-hops-original-gangsters-the-iowa-city-beer-riots-of-1884/

https://books.google.com/books?id=WaRjYoBZO3sC&pg=PA56&lpg=PA56&dq=%22iowa+city%22+AND+englert+AND+prohibition&source=bl&ots=_tc1dCXj3S&sig=sMsBOrtOH8vUdVSPXiSkMW4EHjE&hl=en&sa=X&ei=HO_fVJjgA9OwyASv_oK4CQ&ved=0CEIQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=%22iowa%20city%22%20AND%20englert%20AND%20prohibition&f=false

http://www.press-citizen-media.com/150/geiger.html

http://www.press-citizen-media.com/150/englert.html

https://stateinnovation.org/uploads/asset/asset_file/1529/Tax_Increment_Financing_A_Case_Study_of_Johnson_County.pdf

http://littlevillagemag.com/the-truth-about-tifs/

http://www.dailyiowan.com/2014/06/23/Metro/38106.html

http://www.iowahouserepublicans.com/government-oversight-coralville-use-of-tif-funds

http://thegazette.com/2012/04/12/coralvilles-bond-ratings-take-hit-on-hotel-costs-tif-reliance

https://www.moodys.com/research/MOODYS-DOWNGRADES-CITY-OF-CORALVILLES-IA-ANNUAL-APPROPRIATION-URBAN-RENEWAL–PR_243553

http://www.limitedgovernment.org/brief19-5.html

http://patch.com/iowa/iowacity/iowa-city-city-council-sidesteps-petition-on-tif-vote6cce46a1fd

http://www.northlibertyleader.com/content/coralville-ailing-finances-or-healthy-debt

Everyone Code Switches

Living in a college town, I deal with people from different places. I notice how, as a parking ramp cashier, I treat customers differently. I’m guilty of judging people by appearances and by accents. I’ve worked this job for so long that I unconsciously categorize people, you might say I profile.

It doesn’t alter the quality of my customer service or anything like that. But it amuses me because of how it does effect how I act.

I think this comes from having spent much of my life split between two distinct regions. I had to learn a new way of talking and acting when I moved to the Deep South as a kid. When I returned to the Midwest after high school, I still had a bit of the Southern accent that I had picked up. It also took me a while to stop referring to all of my customers as “Sir” and “Mam”. There were many ways of speaking that I had to drop from my repertoire, but they remained within my mind.

What many people don’t think about is that inner city dialect is a product of the South. I more often interact with people with an inner city dialect than a Southern one, but they are similar in certain ways. When I hear someone speak with a stereotypical inner city dialect, I naturally fall back to aspects of my Southern way of speaking.

This happened the other day. A black customer spoke with an inner city dialect. Instead  of saying a solid Midwestern “fine” in response to something, I said the (Deep) Southern equivalent, which is “all right” but without the last letters enunciated, more like “ah’righ”.

I would never speak this way to my fellow white Midwesterners. Sure, I’d likely respond to a white Southerner in that same way, but here in Iowa City I don’t run into too many whites from the Deep South or even whites from the inner city of Chicago. It’s mostly blacks who elicit this from me because around here it is only among blacks that I’m likely to hear the closest equivalent to a Deep Southern dialect.

When this happened, I realized what I was doing. I code switched. I didn’t code switch from white to black culture, but from Northern to Southern culture. It’s just that inner city blacks and I have both inherited a bit of the Southern culture.

I unconsciously look and listen for cues about people. I more or less treat people the same, but there are tiny shifts in how I act or speak. I only notice them when I’m actively thinking about it. It is more than just about black people or the rare Southern person I meet. For example, I switch the way I interact depending on how I perceive someone’s class. It is easy for me to code switch between middle class and working class, as I spent my life in both of those classes at different times. I know how to act in proper middle class ways, when needed.

All of this is based on my perception, of course. It is a superficial level of interaction, but that is what daily interactions tend to involve. Everyone does this type of thing and most people give it a lot less consideration. Even if you are aware of how you act in different situations, it isn’t easy to control. Although I couldn’t for the life of me intentionally speak with a Southern accent, I’d probably slide right back into it if I moved back to the Deep South.

These are the outward expressions of social identity. It’s not who we are at a deeper level, just the patterns of behavior we learn from those around us. We then carry these patterns with us for the rest of our lives, even if we leave an early influential environment that shaped us. We all have many selves, ways of acting and roles we know how to play. We can forget about some of these aspects of our identity, until something brings it out in us.

 

Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park

I read an article the other day about the just-world hypothesis (or rather fallacy), Believing that life is fair might make you a terrible person by Oliver Burkeman. It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece.

The main point of the author is how the victimization of injustice leads to victim-blaming. That victim-blaming in turn rationalizes and encourages further victimization and injustice. It relates to the victimization cycle as well, where victims too often become victimizers, a topic I’ve written about endlessly.

It makes one want to throw one’s hands up in despair.

Another side of my personality kicks in, however. I wonder what are the exceptions to the rule (or better yet, the exceptions to who rules, to how they rule, to what ways we are ruled, which is to say the exceptions to the rules of the status quo). The author doesn’t explore that.

It is like the rat studies I recently discussed. There was a study done in the late 70s and published in 1980 that had quite an impact because it fit American beliefs about depraved humanity. The rats were put into horrific conditions of immense distress and then given the opportunity to consume drugs until they died, which unsurprisingly is what they did.

Around the same time, there were other researchers with other views on the issue. One researcher considered that, if he “were kept isolated in cramped metal cages, tethered to a self-injection apparatus”, he too might give into drug addiction until sweet death delivered him from the inescapable torment. He thought that maybe these were far from optimal conditions for rats or for humans. He designed research that, instead, would create the most optimal conditions. This was the rat park.

Mainstream science and academia were resistant to his questioning of the status quo. He couldn’t get published and lost funding. Americans didn’t want to know the truth… or rather the American ruling elite didn’t want Americans to know the truth. The truth was that if conditions change so do the responses, even with something so compelling as physical addiction.

The just-world hypothesis research shows that in an a society based on injustice people act according to and rationalize that injustice. That is unsurprising, as it fits our preconceptions, which maybe ought to make us suspicious for what if the research was designed and the conclusions developed to fit our preconceptions. If we look a bit deeper, we can see this research also implies that in a society based on justice people would act according to and rationalize justice (consider intolerance, which research shows does decrease when children are raised in diverse communities, neighborhoods, and schools). The author missed that implication because it didn’t fit into the cynical and fatalist American mainstream view of social reality.

This brings me to thoughts I’ve had about the morality-punishment link. Conservatism is utterly dependent on tis link. But I doubt this link is as inevitable as it seems. It can be broken and often is broken, every time a problem is solved, a sickness cured, etc.

It isn’t hard to imagine a world where justice prevails. Some of the best science fiction is about that very possibility (e.g., Star Trek: The Next Generation). We create what we imagine. This might give us pause in our collective obsession with imagining dystopian futures, but it also offers hope as we are free to imagine the future in any way we so choose. Our visions of the future can justify the status quo or they can challenge it. It is time we enter a new era of the radical imagination.

 

* * * *

Here are two videos and then some writings about the just-world hypothesis:

Shailene’s Hair, Unfair Monopoly, and the Just World Fallacy
by vlogbrothers

Social Psychology: Stereotype, Prejudice, Discrimination, and Just World Hypothesis/Belief
by Chris Dula (East Tennessee State University)

Vulnerability, Victim Blaming, and The Just World Fallacy
by Daniel Fincke

That Shouldn’t Happen: The Just World Fallacy and Autism
By Kim Wombles

White Privilege, Republicans, and the ‘Just World’ Fallacy
by Chauncey DeVega

Fatal Hypothesis: How Belief In A Just World Is Killing Us
by Katherine Cross

Poverty and the “Just World hypothesis”
by Nathan Pensky

The Just-World Fallacy
by David McRaney

The UNjust world
by Every Topic In The Universe(s?)

Modern American Libertarianism and the Just-World Fallacy
by Nolen

* * * *

Here are some of my previous posts on the issues of empathy, imagination, realism, and society:

Imagination, a Force to Be Reckoned With

Alternative Visions, Radical Imagination

Imagined Worlds, Radical Visions

Vision and Transformation

Culture of Paranoia, Culture of Trust

Liberal-mindedness, Empathetic Imagination, and Capitalist Realism

Social Order and Symbolic Conflation

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

A Ruling Elite of Well-Educated Sheep

Here is an interesting dialogue of articles about higher education. It is from The New Republic magazine.

The initial article is by William Deresiewicz. It is based on his book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. There were two critical responses I came across, one by Steven Pinker and another by J.D. Chapman. The last article is Deresiewicz’s response to his critics.

I didn’t care too much about the issue in and of itself. I don’t know enough about higher education to have an informed opinion, and so I won’t claim to know whether or not Deresiewicz makes sense about that issue. What interested me was the conclusion Deresiewicz offered, the opposition between a false meritocracy and a functioning democracy. That central point goes way beyond any aspect of education. It touches upon the root of nearly every problem in our society.

On this issue of democracy, Deresiewicz hit a raw nerve. I didn’t get the sense that Pinker grasped this aspect of the argument, as is indicated by his own conclusion where he seems to praise meritocracy in place of democracy. Pinker seems to genuinely believe in meritocracy, not just in theory but as it functions in our society. I get a bit of a reactionary vibe from Pinker (see this post by Kenan Malik, Human Conditions, and also notice how much attention Pinker gets by a popular neoreactionary like hbdchick).

Chapman disagreed with much of what Deresiewicz wrote. However, in his own conclusion, he supported the severe doubts about meritocratic claims.

In his final comments, Deresiewicz restates his basic case for an education based on an egalitarian vision. The only thing I wish is that he had grounded this into the larger problems we face with growing inequality, unemployment/underemployment, mass incarceration, structural racism, and a permanent underclass. What is at stake is far more than access to quality education for all citizens.

He does point in that direction, and so he is far from ignoring the implications. I understand he was purposely keeping his focus more narrow in order to deal with a single issue. His personal bias is from working in higher education and so that is where he naturally focuses his attention. That is fine, as long as the larger context is kept in mind.

 * * * *

Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League
The nation’s top colleges are turning our kids into zombies
By William Deresiewicz

“Not being an entitled little shit is an admirable goal. But in the end, the deeper issue is the situation that makes it so hard to be anything else. The time has come, not simply to reform that system top to bottom, but to plot our exit to another kind of society altogether.

“The education system has to act to mitigate the class system, not reproduce it. Affirmative action should be based on class instead of race, a change that many have been advocating for years. Preferences for legacies and athletes ought to be discarded. SAT scores should be weighted to account for socioeconomic factors. Colleges should put an end to résumé-stuffing by imposing a limit on the number of extracurriculars that kids can list on their applications. They ought to place more value on the kind of service jobs that lower-income students often take in high school and that high achievers almost never do. They should refuse to be impressed by any opportunity that was enabled by parental wealth. Of course, they have to stop cooperating with U.S. News.

“More broadly, they need to rethink their conception of merit. If schools are going to train a better class of leaders than the ones we have today, they’re going to have to ask themselves what kinds of qualities they need to promote. Selecting students by GPA or the number of extracurriculars more often benefits the faithful drudge than the original mind.

“The changes must go deeper, though, than reforming the admissions process. That might address the problem of mediocrity, but it won’t address the greater one of inequality. The problem is the Ivy League itself. We have contracted the training of our leadership class to a set of private institutions. However much they claim to act for the common good, they will always place their interests first. The arrangement is great for the schools, but is Harvard’s desire for alumni donations a sufficient reason to perpetuate the class system?

“I used to think that we needed to create a world where every child had an equal chance to get to the Ivy League. I’ve come to see that what we really need is to create one where you don’t have to go to the Ivy League, or any private college, to get a first-rate education.

“High-quality public education, financed with public money, for the benefit of all: the exact commitment that drove the growth of public higher education in the postwar years. Everybody gets an equal chance to go as far as their hard work and talent will take them—you know, the American dream. Everyone who wants it gets to have the kind of mind-expanding, soul-enriching experience that a liberal arts education provides. We recognize that free, quality K–12 education is a right of citizenship. We also need to recognize—as we once did and as many countries still do—that the same is true of higher education. We have tried aristocracy. We have tried meritocracy. Now it’s time to try democracy.”

The Trouble With Harvard
The Ivy League is broken and only standardized tests can fix it
By Steven Pinker

“So why aren’t creative alternatives like this even on the table? A major reason is that popular writers like Stephen Jay Gould and Malcolm Gladwell, pushing a leftist or heart-above-head egalitarianism, have poisoned their readers against aptitude testing. They have insisted that the tests don’t predict anything, or that they do but only up to a limited point on the scale, or that they do but only because affluent parents can goose their children’s scores by buying them test-prep courses.

“But all of these hypotheses have been empirically refuted. We have already seen that test scores, as far up the upper tail as you can go, predict a vast range of intellectual, practical, and artistic accomplishments. They’re not perfect, but intuitive judgments based on interviews and other subjective impressions have been shown to be far worse. Test preparation courses, notwithstanding their hard-sell ads, increase scores by a trifling seventh of a standard deviation (with most of the gains in the math component). As for Deresiewicz’s pronouncement that “SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely,” this is bad social science. SAT correlates with parental income (more relevantly, socioeconomic status or SES), but that doesn’t mean it measures it; the correlation could simply mean that smarter parents have smarter kids who get higher SAT scores, and that smarter parents have more intellectually demanding and thus higher-paying jobs. Fortunately, SAT doesn’t track SES all that closely (only about 0.25 on a scale from -1 to 1), and this opens the statistical door to see what it really does measure. The answer is: aptitude. Paul Sackett and his collaborators have shown that SAT scores predict future university grades, holding all else constant, whereas parental SES does not. Matt McGue has shown, moreover, that adolescents’ test scores track the SES only of their biological parents, not (for adopted kids) of their adoptive parents, suggesting that the tracking reflects shared genes, not economic privilege.

“Regardless of the role that you think aptitude testing should play in the admissions process, any discussion of meritocracy that pretends that aptitude does not exist or cannot be measured is not playing with a full deck. Deresiewicz writes as if any correlation between affluence and Ivy admissions is proof that we don’t have a true meritocracy. But that only follows if the more affluent students are without merit, and without a measure of aptitude that is independent of affluence, how could you ever tell? For the same reason, his conspiracy theory of the historical trend in which Ivy students have been coming from wealthier families—namely that the Ivies deliberately impose expensive requirements to weed out poorer families—is glib. Hoxby has shown that the historical trend was propelled by students’ no longer applying to the closest regional colleges but to the ones with the most similar student bodies anywhere in the country. The law of supply and demand pushed the top schools to raise their academic admissions standards; the correlation with parental income may just be a by-product.

“After first denying that we have ever tried meritocracy, Deresiewicz concludes by saying that we have tried it, and now should try “democracy” instead, by which he seems to mean a world in which the distribution of incomes of Ivy League families would be identical to that of the country as a whole. But as long as the correlation between wealth and aptitude is not zero, that goal is neither possible nor desirable.

“Still, he’s right that the current system is harmful and unfair. What he could have said is that elite universities are nothing close to being meritocracies. We know that because they don’t admit most of their students on the basis of academic aptitude. And perhaps that’s what we should try next.”

Send Your Kid to the Ivy League!
The New Republic’s article against elite education is destructive to my students
By J.D. Chapman

“I agree with Deresiewicz that liberal arts colleges like Sarah Lawrence and Reed are uniquely positioned to nurture and challenge students, and I champion them when I can. I don’t believe the Ivies are for every bright kid, and I have occasionally counseled students capable of admission to them to favor other options. And I agree that class lines are hardening in dangerous ways; the Ivies have too much money and power; and meritocracy is a delusion. That does not mean that an Ivy League diploma isn’t valuable, especially for someone whose family has no history of access to elite careers like teaching at Yale or writing for The New Republic. It means that it is valuable. Whether it should be is another discussion altogether.”

Your Criticism of My Ivy League Takedown Further Proves My Point
By William Deresiewicz

“Nor was it—or is it—an either/or situation: Either a general, liberal arts education or a specialized, vocational one; either building a soul or laying the foundation for a career. American higher education, uniquely among the world’s systems, makes room for both. You major in one thing, but you get to take courses in others. The issue now is not that kids don’t or at least wouldn’t want to get a liberal education as well as a practical one (you’d be surprised what kids are interested in doing, if you give them a chance). The issue is that the rest of us don’t want to pay for it.

“That is finally what’s at stake here. Are we going to reserve the benefits of a liberal education for the privileged few, or are we going to restore the promise of college as we once conceived it? When I say, at the end of my book, that the time has come to try democracy, that is what I am talking about.”