This essay by Peter Frase, also in the new issue of Jacobin (I promise I will blog about more than the new issue of Jacobin) is fucking great. I agree with almost all of it, both the descriptive and prescriptive. His blog is one of favorites, I really recommend it.

All I want to add it’s a bit strange he doesn’t mention Iain Banks, whose Culture novels are explicitly about the idea that civilization can become harmonious with the kind of anarchist socialist post-scarcity that space travel and massively intelligent AIs would allow us to coordinate. The books examine the moral issues such a hyper-powerful space civilization would face. I suggest starting with Excession.

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I’m usually pretty hostile toward military personnel and what I presume to be their politics, but if they’re donating to the candidate who wants to end all US wars more than to any other candidate, then shit.

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Throwing money at stuff

Andrew Hartman’s TFA hit piece in the new Jacobin has some good criticism, but I don’t like aspects of how it casts the larger debate surrounding educational reform. This is coming from someone who basically thinks teaching is the most heroic profession other than organizing, so I should have total sympathy for his argument.

I don’t think of TFA as a perfect or even adequate solution to the problem of educational equality. Instead, I think of it as a step toward a new paradigm in which debates over reform aren’t about whether market logic or protectionism are better mechanisms for managing limited resources, but where we address the problem of those limited resources. Hartman is too tangled in that annoying first debate, and, committed so devotedly to defending one side, he shuns some promising possibilities.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Whereas TFA corps members leverage the elite TFA brand to launch careers in law or finance—or, if they remain in education, to bypass the typical career path on their way to principalships and other positions of leadership—most regular teachers must plod along, negotiating their way through traditional career ladders. These distinctions are lost on nobody. They are what make regular teachers and their unions such low-hanging political fruit for the likes of Christie, Walker, and Kasich.

I’m not convinced Republican governors feel authorized to target teachers because TFA makes teachers look bad. Christie, Walker, and Kasich would be attacking public unions and slashing education budgets regardless, because that’s their core political agenda. As for whether TFA bolsters it, I think you could just as easily argue that TFA exposes the challenges and critical importance of teachers. Crucially, it exposes this to people who, Harmtan explains, wind up influential and connected in other fields. Will those people really think teachers should be paid less or lack healthcare benefits?

Teachers are underpaid. If people can use their teaching experience to land high paying jobs in finance or law, that’s the market telling us teachers deserve more pay. I don’t think we should hold that against the teachers who choose to get paid off, or demonize TFA for illuminating the connection with clever branding. We should see it as a reason to pay teachers more.

Kopp is particularly enamored by high-performing charter schools, which succeed because they do whatever it takes to hire and retain good teachers, a zero-sum game that most schools cannot win without more resources—those dreaded “inputs.”

I haven’t read Kopp’s book (and pretty sure I never= want to lol), so I don’t know how dogmatic she is about the charter model specifically over the need for “more resources” generally. But I think if unions won the kind of pay and autonomy that charter schools propose (and agitating in solidarity for higher pay and autonomy is precisely the purpose of unions), schools would improve immediately. Unlike many other social problems, educational inequality is something we can greatly improve simply by throwing more money at it. At least for now, the biggest problems in education come down to severe lack of funding. Charter schools address that lack with innovative measures for maximizing profitability or whatever shit, which bring in other issues. We need public schools that are funded as well as charter schools but without those other issues. Charter schools are simply evidence of the need for more funding and teacher/school autonomy. I think it would be easy for unions to say that there’s no good reason all public school teachers (and principals), not just charters, shouldn’t operate with more independence from centralized authority and standards.

Reformers believe that if teachers are subjected to “market forces,” such as merit pay and job insecurity, they will work harder to improve the education they provide for their students.

Merit pay and job insecurity are potentially corrupting mechanisms, but it’s naive to think honest reformers should ignore “market forces” in general. When it comes to anything involving the job market, understanding market “forces” is crucial to organizing good policy. For instance, I don’t think teachers need the sorts of specialized incentives charter schools are pioneering. Teachers don’t need merit pay, they just need more pay. Higher wages means better teachers: if teachers got paid way more, more people would want to be (or could be) teachers, the hiring pool would become more competitive, and schools would be able to hire more selectively. This is also the application of “market” logic, but it’s a market in which we have a scarcity of critically underserved jobs, rather than of good teachers or the resources to pay them. We need to shift to that market.

Likewise, we need hiring and retention policy that accurately reflects the expected trajectory of productivity for a teacher and then is set up to allow individuals to make a lifetime of living off a teaching career, regardless of when or how they’re most productive. An 8-year veteran teacher might be more productive than a freshman teacher, but Hartman describes districts firing veteran teachers to make room for TFA-like recruits because they can be paid much less. Meanwhile, a 4-year veteran might be more productive than a 25-year veteran (especially a teacher who survived that tenure in a challenging, underfunded school), but the 25-year veteran deserves to be rewarded for his years. He deserves to be able to fund an entire life based on his output during his earlier, most productive years. It’s important to think through these dynamics, because once again neither unbridled market logic nor singular concern for retaining veterans get at the real issue.

Unions naturally don’t want people to be laid off and left destitute just because there’s fresh meat willing to work for cheaper. But I wonder if it’s the case that to some degree teachers do get legitimately burnt out after two decades or whatever, and whether it’s worth thinking more precisely about the point at which older teachers really should be replaced by young blood. In other words, what I’m pointing to is earlier retirement options and better pensions, both of which should be core union commitments but maybe aren’t anymore. There’s a reason ER surgeons, military personnel, and professional athletes retire early, and perhaps it’s worth thinking of teachers on similar terms. All those professions are designed to permit an even quality of life after the most productive years. A veteran teacher that earned better pay for years of service obviously isn’t dead-weight to be jettisoned, even if the quality of his output has plateaued. This happens in all fields: people deserve to get compensated for loyalty. These incentives are necessary for attracting talent and retaining it, which should be a separate concern from the task of getting the best work out of the teachers you do have.

As for the whole section on teachers rigging standardized testing: yes fraud is bad and tailoring curriculum around a shitty test is harmful. And I agree standardized testing alone may be a poor and even harmful basis for sorting student, but is there really a better method for evaluating instruction than standardized testing? But the problem isn’t with standardized testing, it’s with shitty standardized testing. Better tests are not hard to imagine. For instance, testing that evaluates student writing and reasoning like the AP exams and the LSAT would probably address all the issues. In the math and science AP exams, students show the work used to reach a result, and that work is evaluated. The problem is that these kinds of testing are expensive, but that’s again only because we vastly underfund education. Likewise, these tests need to be graded off-site, but that would also be expensive. Once again, the problems of harmful testing are caused at the root by underfunding. They’re not caused fundamentally by either incentives or complacency, as the debate between union protectionism and market logic casts it.

Likewise, the point about exploitative corporations giving to TFA is misguided. Just because TFA doesn’t address broader inequality doesn’t mean that the way it addresses acute effects of that inequality are wrong. Yes fuck those corporations. Yes we need to upturn economic inequality and destroy the rich. But there are also systemic problems in how schools are run, motivated, and funded. Those schools Bill Gates and others pioneered are embarrassments of riches. If all schools had that much money to spend on facilities, programming, and teacher compensation, they would also be great. By taking money from the rich, TFA and charter schools show how education could be reformed if it was well funded (after all, TFA spends most of its fundraising treasure on recruitment). Now we just need the government to do that, using some of the innovations “reformers” have discovered. And we also need the government to address all other aspects of systemic inequality through broader socialization.

This brings me to a larger point, which I’ve made elsewhere in the past: that union organizing must be part of broader and vehemently socialist politics to really make sense as a force for good. It hasn’t been in the last few decades, and I think that’s why unions have become so incoherent and unpopular. Maybe there’s something to say here about discourses of rights and protecting property versus more emancipatory impulses. I’ll think about this when I go to law school.

With regards to teaching, one specific example is what I was describing about lower retirement ages and better pension. That is a clear example of reform that requires unions to be tied to a broader socialist platform. In a properly socialist economy, each profession would be organized and incentivized according to specific needs. If good teachers need 2-3 to develop and then taper after two decades of peak productivity, we need to set up a system so worthy teachers can make a healthy lifetime living off that model regardless of how it compares to the demands and specific trajectories of productivity in other jobs. This is what I don’t like the idea of insisting we need to dump everyone into a “job” in order to improve society. Dumping everyone in the world into shitty jobs is a basic neoliberal prescription for paving humanity over.

Indeed, fuck jobs: you’re not really a leftist if you think wage labor isn’t essentially degrading, and that the sense of fulfillment or pride people get out of certain jobs (like I do out of mine fancy and inspiring job freeing inmates from the clutches of state oppression) are anything more than enjoyable side-effects. I’m not saying we should immediately abolish work. I just think the idea that wage labor is alienating and unnatural is an important place to begin thinking about ways to make important work more bearable. For instance, teachers would probably not burn out after 20 or whatever years if they worked in more supportive environments throughout their career. Relatedly, aging teachers could be eased into other roles, such as support, mentoring, and training networks for younger teachers, observing and training teachers, and also help expand and staff after-school and Saturday school program. I think TFA and other innovative re-toolings of how and why people become teachers could be a catalyst for this kind of change, but only if unions get on board, hard. It’s harder than it sounds though: what I’m describing requires a broad, targeted restructuring of the teaching profession that doesn’t make sense when you think of teaching work as basically similar to other work.

More generally, the point is maybe that we should stop thinking about jobs as an essential and uniform unit of human occupation. Honestly, everyone doesn’t need a job. What everyone needs is money, to be able afford what they need. Also, maybe people need something to keep them busy and fulfilled. But those are two separate things, and it makes no sense to suggest we should cede all organization of professional responsibilities to a completely free market, where people can choose between teaching, a profession where they can only expect to be truly productive for a decade or so, or a different, less important profession in which they can “contribute” consistently for four decades and therefore not worry about losing their job as they burn out. This is precisely what unions should be advocating for, compensation and retention models that specifically suit the particularities of each profession. But they can’t, because they’re up against other unions and worker interests in a system that insists on their competition not collaboration, a “marketplace” where teaching is primarily thought of as just another shitty job to be improved as market forces allow, rather than a critical cog in the radical experiment of public education. Once again, union organizing can’t bring true harmony unless it’s part of broader socialist agitation.
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Give universities the loot


On a trip to Texas last week (no, that will not relate: I’m just adding color), my coworker and I were discussing higher education, and I tried to argue that federal student loan subsidies. The more we subsidize loans, I claimed, the more schools raise tuition, and those increases just translate into federally leveraged profit solely reaped by big banks. This was actually the second time in the week I had harped on the point (this time it was about college education, earlier about legal education, and the effect there of the hose of federal money encouraging law schools to expand enrollment even though there will never be enough jobs for all those graduates, especially if they went to shittier schools, which get the same amount and quality of subsidies better schools get), so my coworker stopped me to ask what I think we should do instead. I got flustered briefly, because I don’t have to think about solutions to problem as often as I get to complain about them, and said something half-assed about how we should just fund public schools better instead.

I wasn’t totally satisfied with that response, partly because it wasn’t comfortable in the dark depths of my dark anarchist heart, but also because it seemed like a lazy cop out to just suggest we need to give universities more money. I’ll answer both these concerns, starting with the second one.


After I got back home, I read this
excellent Mike Konzcal post this week on the subject. Konzcal explains that the current cost of subsidizing college tuition and financing student debt, largely conducted through the tax code, is roughly what it could cost to fund completely free public higher education. Think about that for a second. He nods to this great Suzanne Mettler article from the summer on the “submerged state,” tax subsidies that have become means for delivering government expenditure to citizens without the political investment other spending requires. It’s one of the best things I read this year, check it out if you haven’t already. The main problem with funding education through the tax code is that the primary beneficiaries are wealthy people who pay more taxes. This isn’t very egalitarian. It also drives up tuition costs, which means that even after increasingly expensive government subsidies, graduates will eventually be saddled with greater risk anyway. It would be more sensible to just fund schools better, and would make education feel public in a more essential sense:

These [tax] subsidies benefit private educational institutions over public ones, as they’ll make private education feel more “natural” while obscuring the role of the government in setting up these markets. They give public college a nudge towards corporatization and privatization.

He also links to this great JW Mason explanation from last year of how, when comparing an equal amount of state tuition grants or university funding, the former spending drives tuition costs up while the latter drives it down.

I’m really excited by all of this because it places the indignation over student loan debt and tuition hikes that we’ve seen at Occupy protests in an intresting context. Protests against high student debt aren’t just the frustration of swaddled, entitled graduates trying to relieve themselves of debt burden; they address an important structural question about the direction of education policy.

Konzcal follow-up the next day to address filthy neoliberal Matt Yglesias’s suggestion that education might be better served if the government just gave cash directly to people and allowed them to “buy higher education services or not according to whether or not they thought vendors of said services were, all things considered, offering a reasonable value proposition.” I agree that’s stupid. I do generally believe direct cash transfers to the poor are a better form of welfare than many of the corrupt, complex programs we have in place today (including student loan subsidies), but I think, for education, what Yglesias suggests ignores a step. The middle men in education are universities, which I think are for the most valuable and important institutions. We need to decide as a society if institutional higher education is worthwhile and fund it accordingly, not just let people decide whether it makes sense as financial investment. If we just give people money and tell them to decide if higher education is worth the cost, the wealthy can make that situation in different circumstances than the poor do.

I also don’t like the idea of encouraging people to think of education primarily as an investment device. This has bad consequences. Will Wilkinson wrote recently about how Americans rarely doubt the need for funding high school curriculum that doesn’t directly produce high-wage workers, yet that’s increasingly becoming the consensus approach to reforming higher education. From a different political corner, this Wendy Brown lecture from 2009 explains well the consequences of that spirit on the form of the university, and ravages the arguments for privatization. Freddie deBoer also argues persuasively about the dangers of thinking of education as investment device, with regards to the dumb idea of higher education “bubbles”.

Anyway, Konzcal devotes his response to broadly setting up some arguments against cash transfers generally, and I’m interested to see where that goes, because I’m convinced direct cash transfers can be a more ideal form of welfare broadly, at least compared to many of the programs we have today. Check out the post by Ashwin Parameswaran I linked earlier (the cartoon at the top of this post comes form it), which begins by discussing a massive program in India that guarantees public work to unskilled rural laborers but delivers alarmingly little of it to its apparent beneficiaries:

When faced with the choice of either tolerating a corrupt program or cancelling the program, the rural poor clearly prefer the status quo.

A rather more sophisticated example of this phenomenon is the endless black hole of losses that are Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae – $175 billion and counting. The press focuses on the comparatively small bonus payments to Freddie and Fannie executives but ignores their much larger role in the back door bailout of the banking sector. Again the reason why this goes relatively uncriticised is simple – despite the significant contribution made by Fannie and Freddie to the rents extracted by the “1%”, their operations also put money into the pockets of a vast cross-section of homeowners. Simply shutting them down would almost certainly constitute an act of political suicide.

The masses become the shield for the very programs that enable a select few to extract significant rents out of the system. The same programs that are supposed to be part of the liberal social agenda like Fannie/Freddie become the weapons through which the cronyist corporate structure perpetuates itself, while the broad-based support for these programs makes them incredibly resilient and hard to reform once they have taken root.

That brings me to my other concern, the anarchist one. During the last year, we’ve seen a lot of protests across that have wed anti-austerity and anarchist impulses. What’s the basis for that? Charles Davis wrote a good post a few months ago, as an anarchist addressing the need for welfare spending, that’s illuminating here.

When we speak of a post-welfare state society, we’re not imagining the status quo minus the social safety net, but rather a world where intellectual property doesn’t exist, the corporation doesn’t exist, and where private property isn’t a sacrosanct right that entitles one person to exploit natural resources for their own personal gain while those around them are mired in poverty…. no anti-state leftists I know are interested in slashing the social safety, at least not until after we’re done smashing corporate privilege.

Likewise, the anarchist impulse is at home here in the fight to end government subsidization of rapacious education debt held by massive banks. To me, compared to forcing the poor into debt if they want access to what we claim is a basic right, the idea that government should pay for better, more accesible education is more anarchist, because it’s more egalitarian. Ideally we wouldn’t need either, but that prospect is too far away to even properly imagine now.

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If Protestant ethics actually held more popular influence today, would the importance of counter-cyclical economic policy captivate public imagination as effectively as the perverse metaphor of government resembling a family that needs to buckle down when constrained? In their personal lives, people don’t actually tend to think it’s worth sacrificing when they’re doing best, but that’s kind of a protestant attitude, and it’s precisely the sort of thinking central bankers need to institute to keep a massive economy chugging along.

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The rise and fall of the Third Reich

Every time I read about the latest unpunished atrocities in Israel, I feel sick and confused. It’s kind of baffling this happens so consistently (the world cannot be so perverse), so I recently asked a group of friends if there was anything I could read that would make me feel better about Israel in principle. Do you have any suggestions? Someone suggested The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, probably as a joke. I think it’s worth thinking about this though, because I understand it’s a natural response and because it’s an instructive one.

First, I think all agree (and if not, need to agree) that the holocaust during WWII was one of worst moments in human history. But I also believe, separately, that the holocaust was made worse by the forms of American intervention in the war in ways that are I think are relevant to thinking about Palestine.

Before America entered the war, German treatment of the Jews basically entailed a hostage crisis. Hitler was rounding up and imprisoning every Jew in the areas he controlled. He had monstrous, elaborate plans to kill all of them and threatened to do so, but had not begun yet. It’s true Hitler was totally insane, so it’s hard to make sense of his reasoning, but I think it’s safe to say he would that refraining from killing all the Jews was the most reliable possible insurance against what he most wanted to avoid or delay: the US attacking him. Likewise, I think he also knew that if he started killing hostages, the US would have to intervene. This is how a hostage crisis works.

So, how does one respond to a hostage crisis? I watched Inside Man last month, kind of a disappointing movie but basically there seem to be three options: negotiation, tactical strike, or frontal assault. We always hear in movies that you don’t negotiate with hostage takers. I guess the reasoning for it is that it emboldens future attempts. Terrorists will think they can get away with robbing another bank or ransoming another rich kid or bus or Air Force One because the authorities will meet their demands. Now on the scale of brutally interning every Jew in Western Europe as a first step toward ruling the hemisphere for centuries, I don’t think the idea that some future tyrant would think “Yo lemme give that a shot, it could totally work again” is a real concern that warrants a “Boy we need to teach Hitler a lesson that this kind of shit ain’t cool, to set an example” response. In fact, thinking on those terms with a problem of this scale and gravity is totally childish, but it’s precisely the response the Allies chose, and I’m arguing it resulted in the deaths of millions Jews.

As for the two remaining options, both involve military intervention. Some kind of tactical strike focused singularly on liberating the camps is perhaps difficult to imagine but I doubt it would have been impossible, and certainly worth considering given the stakes. It was clearly never considered. In fact, there’s evidence the US never really cared about specifically saving the Jews. It’s very apparent that the State Department vigorously denied visas to European Jews seeking asylum even as Nazi efforts to round them all up were underway. There’s obviously nothing that would have saved more Jewish lives than helping Jews leave Europe as Hitler began sending them to concentration camps. Negotiations to firstly rescue vulnerable Jews were obviously well outside American thinking.

As for intervention, as I said, there were two options, a surgical or a frontal strike. The Allies chose a massive frontal assault. The results were disastrous. This isn’t Inside Man where Denzel believes Clive Owen won’t kill hostages and sure enough the killing is fake. No, Hitler was a genocidal monster bent on eradicating the Jewish people and thrilled to begin killing his hostages. In choosing to attack, the US gave up the most valuable possible negotiating chip it had over Germany, the threat that it could flatten it. Instead, it began to flatten Germany at the precise moment Hitler had securely rounded up most Jews in Western Europe and was ready to begin slaughtering them. To make matters worse, the Allies intervened in the most dangerous way possible. Churchill made very clear that he intended for the slow, persistent bombing of urban centers to demoralize the civilian population and inspire a revolution against the Reich.

This intended effect obviously never happened. Instead, Hitler just blamed the bombing and whatever on Jews “meddling,” and the people lent whatever shreds of political will they had left to rallying behind their leader, and against the Jews. What followed is indisputably one of the most traumpatic episode of human suffering the world has ever known and hopefully will ever know. Why do I bring all this up? Well besides the fact that people still suggest the Nazis explain or justify Israel today, there are three reasons.

For one, Jewish immigration to the British territories in Palestine was carefully controlled for several years prior to the beginning of the war, as part of attempts to deal with “the Jewish question” that Western powers, mostly still imperial at this point, had been agonizing over since the Enlightenment. Even after Hitler began rounding up Jews, the British tightened caps on the quotas of Jewish immigration allowed to Palestine. Everyone had their own ideas for how to deal with “the Jewish question” and the British were presumably deliberating on theirs. Ultimately it was Hitler’s “final solution” that won. Six million humans were slaughtered. Afterwards, everyone pretty quickly decided on a better solution: the state of Israel (it’s worth noting here that the state was never intended to be the kind of exclusionary regime it’s become today, even by foundational Zionist figures). In essence, this is a solution to the “Jewish question” decided largely as a way of hastily cleaning up after the worst possible solution to it imaginable, which was the realistic attempt to exterminate all Jews. The problems with that premise should be obvious. It’s also an extremely imperial solution: no meaningful democratic process could have arrived at what we have today (and at the ethnic cleansing and dispossession that preceded it), and that’s an incredible tragedy. It’s understandably something the rest of the world couldn’t comprehend in the immediate wake of the holocaust, but it should be an urgent question at this point. Unfortunately, it’s a question that memory of the holocaust tragically diverts from now.

Second, and I guess this isn’t that distinct: Hitler was perhaps the most powerful truly evil person in modern history. We can all agree on that, which is the beginning of the problem. Once you agree that Hitler is absolutely reprehensible, it becomes hard to disagree on the most ethical way to respond. Was Hitler evil? Sure, no one disagrees. Was firebombing entire German cities also bad? I personally think so. Was allowing Hitler to kill millions of Jews so that we could totally crush his warmaking abilities also bad? I definitely think so. The point is, when you’ve got the worst possible human being at the table, it’s easy to make whatever you do seem ethically sound. There’s almost no room for deliberation. That’s a dangerous moral position to be in, and I think of it as a counterpoint to the extremely depressing idea that we should simply invoke the Holocaust when we want to feel better about what Israel does, the issue that started this discussion. To be glib, the holocaust will make anything look okay, and certainly any of Israel’s current politics, statecraft, and social culture.

Now third, and it’s almost ironic people don’t mean this when they invoke the holocaust: the Nazis should provide a lesson against the ideological direction in which Israel is headed. The fact is that no one will probably ever try or succeed at something as radically evil as the Third Reich, and certainly Israel wouldn’t, we should think. But there’s also no getting around the fact that Israel is an ethnically exclusive state. There are people born in Israel and also within the occupied territories that can never be citizens because of their ethnicity, even if several generations of their ancestors were also born right there. If you’re Muslim, you have no right of any kind to self-determination in Israel, you will never vote; you are legally discriminated against even by the state and treated differently in courts; and you live in a society where generations of Israeli men and women firstly and formatively came into contact with you on the terms of their required military service, policing your poor, totally socially dependent ass with assault rifles and tanks. The Nazis are obviously a good historic example of why ethnically exclusive states, maintained by a legal and cultural regime of ethnic exclusion, astonishingly sophisticated and totally pervasive militarism, the wanton killing of unarmed civilians by that military, and obsession with an epic “founding story” are not a good look. This is the opposite of how we conceptualize liberal society today and is just thoroughly depressing.

The Nazis and the holocaust forgive pretty much whatever Israel wants to do, and that’s a real tragedy. There’s almost nothing Palestinians can do now to live normally. They can’t vote their way into justice, because they’re excluded from the democratic process in their homeland, simply because they outnumber their occupiers and allowing them to vote would allow them to successfully determine their just fate. They can’t fight their way into it, because there’s no violent act Palestinians can do now that will actually advance their cause. Finally, there’s nothing non-violent they can do, because as we saw this weekend, they can peacefully demonstrate just as millions of other Arabs have in the past few months and Israel will shoot them dead without anyone one in the world giving a fuck.

In short, it seems there’s literally nothing they can do to advance the conversation, which is to say it’s an impasse. But it’s not an impasse in the sense of a stalemate or some kind of settled peace, because the Israelis clearly have all the power and priority, and, importantly, the permission to behave as brutally as they please. It’s an incredibly tragic impasse where Palestinians are conquered and silenced not by being wrong or being on the wrong side of some kind of ideological or political progress (which is what I’m asking for references in possibly helping to understand, because maybe there is some heartening reason I don’t understand for Israel to act as oppressively as it does), but simply because the world doesn’t care about them. Because everyone prefers to think about Hitler.

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