Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Equal Rights Amendment is a good idea that won’t change much

I support the recently re-initiated Equal Rights Amendment and I’m happy it has momentum again, but we shouldn’t get our hopes up thinking it’s more of a game-changer than it really is.  Even if the deadline could be retroactively nullified and enough states voted to pass it, most federal justices already interpret the constitution in much the same way as they would were the ERA made part of it.

The current conservative majority on SCOTUS or lower federal courts would certainly not interpret the ERA in the same ways the left is hoping for.  They would likely interpret it the same way they already interpret the 14th amendment, which has basically the exact same wording except with gender-neutral “persons” in place of women.  The ERA would not force them to change their votes on anything in recent memory.

Even liberal judges would have few new tools to advance gender equality than the 14th amendment already provides them.  The best argument for it is that it might prompt courts to treat sexually discriminatory laws with “strict scrutiny” under due process doctrine (instead of the “intermediate scrutiny” they’re currently afforded), which could expand LGBTQ protections as well.  That’s important enough to warrant passage – but still an arbitrary, non-binding, extra-constitutional doctrine subject to judicial whim.

And beyond that singular, technical field of constitutional law, the ERA is largely symbolic.  Both domestic abuse and pay discrimination are already illegal, and the laws making them illegal have already been upheld by the courts.  Meanwhile, the ERA would neither mandate stronger enforcement of equal pay, nor mandate maternity leave, nor prohibit differential pricing of healthcare, nor prohibit abortion restrictions except under the loosest of liberal interpretations (and those inclined to loosen the law in that way have no shortage of elastic clauses with which to do so today).

We’ve already seen those legal fights play out.  A vague affirmation that men and women should have equal rights – which massive majorities of Americans and American judges have agreed on for decades now, in the abstract – does not much simplify nor hasten the in-practice solution to such complex and polarizing legal debates.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Debate with a Utilitarian, revived!

Back in January I posted the transcript of a lengthy debate I had with an "authoritarian utilitarian" I called Sean.  The debate died down after a few weeks, but this week he reanimated it.  We left off here, and his eventual response is below:
Sean: I'm guessing it's been a while since either of us looked at this – JRTC, change of command shenanigans, and moving over to be HHC XO took up most of my time these past few months. But, if you've the time, I'd like to continue.

Perhaps you can clarify something for me: so, are you a deontologist or a utilitarian? You keep using utilitarian ends in your arguments, so I'm confused as to what your frame is. During your discussion of smallpox, you argue voluntary individual efforts and private organizations made great strides in reducing incidence of the disease: “the number of deaths from smallpox was cut in half by mostly voluntary means” “The will was there, the expertise was there, the non-governmental organizations were there...” “Did mandatory vaccination policies effectively stifle that resistance, or intensify it?”, etc. These statements imply that reducing incidents of the disease was the end goal, not the preservation of liberty or self-ownership. During your discussion of private vs public systems, you made the following statements: “and yet, today, we recognize that the purely private system of shoe provision works brilliantly...practically everyone can afford a pair of shoes, and nearly everyone owns several.” “I firmly believe that the poor stand the most to gain from it”. These imply that the market is merely a tool to increase the material well-being of the participants – a utilitarian goal. During your direct responses you write “By all means, let's save people! It isn't saving people I have a problem with. Theft is what I don't like”, “I posit that if our wealthiest taxpayers were the saintly reincarnations of God himself...and decide that in their efforts to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people on earth, they could frankly get better bang for their buck with a very different allocation of resources”, “And if we piece this back into your hiker analogy, we're left with a friend who declines to call 911 because he has a better idea”, “Smart, compassionate people can disagree...about the best way to utilize scarce resources towards the betterment of mankind.”, “And this is where my third condition comes in: the existence of alternative, peaceful means of solving global problems that lack the tempting perception of immediacy, but so often work much better and much faster than the state”.
These all assume “the greatest good for the greatest number” as an end goal and freedom/liberty as a means towards that end. A utilitarian cares about these ends and indifferent towards the means. A deontologist cares about the means and is indifferent towards the ends. Picking and choosing elements of both is a philosophical contradiction, as the two systems are entirely incompatible. So under which frame do you operate?

And, it's fine if you use the utilitarian frame - we can continue arguing over the proper ratio of market forces to government intervention is optimal in the economy and what forms each might take. Markets and governments are both tools towards a higher end. The rest is then agreeing upon metrics (we already have one metric in the Quality-Adjusted Life Year (QALY) already in use in public health policy to allocate resources) and then calculating the optimal policy.

You'll have to bite the bullet either way, though.
Either you care about the system or you care about the end. The point of the hiker analogy was to force this kind of decision - either freedom or utility. The cell phone represents resources, the injured hiker represents those in need of resources, and the friend's attitude represents an unwillingness to apply all of those resources to aid another.

The central question of the analogy was this: when considering what action to take,
which is priority: the freedom of your friend or the welfare of the hiker? From the language you used, it seems as though the welfare of the hiker was the primary concern - utilitarianism. Your hesitation to overpower the friend was based on assuming he would also help the hiker, not based on his right to his cell phone - "I cannot fathom overpowering my friend in such a situation as the one you described, if only because I do not know any acquaintances who would insist on keeping their phone in their pocket at such a time". "If only...". The only thing keeping you from intervention is the assumption that you both shared the same goal: the welfare of the hiker.

Me: Our central disagreement comes from this line:Picking and choosing elements of both is a philosophical contradiction, as the two systems are entirely incompatible.”  I made it clear from the outset that I think that’s a false choice.  I also made it clear that I’m happy to defend libertarianism on utilitarian grounds for your sake, and the many times you quoted me doing this are examples of that.  But when you ask me to clarify whether I am a deontologist or a utilitarian, the simplest answer is “neither,” because neither convince me as standalone moral philosophies.  They each have elements of truth, but neither tells us all we need to know about moral behavior.

I am hardly unique in this regard: barely anyone on earth is a perfectly devout deontologist, and barely anyone is a perfectly consistent utilitarian (of course, most people don’t even know what those words mean, but if you give them surveys testing how they think we ought to act in hypothetical situations, their choices consistently reveal that most of us borrow from both frameworks, and others too).  I don’t think it follows that the moral beliefs of everyone on earth except an enlightened few are ridiculous, hypocritical and invalid.  I think it follows that whatever it means to “do the right thing” is informed by BOTH of those competing values.

By analogy, communism and capitalism are incompatible ideologies which directly contradict one another – and yet, it may be that the best economic systems are hybrids of the two.  “Draft and develop” and “buy the best free agents” are incompatible philosophies for building a baseball dynasty, and yet it may be that the best franchises employ a hybrid of the two.  Likewise, we should not always refrain from killing or stealing, but nor should we always disregard the means employed in pursuit of a greater good. 

Neither deontology nor utilitarianism adequately encapsulates the complexity of human moral intuition: that fundamental, deeply embedded sense of right and wrong which for most people serves as the litmus test for resolving ethical questions.  They are each but partial truths, revealing portions of a more complicated whole; like yin and yang, as complementary as they are contradictory.  They cannot both be completely correct at the same time, but this only makes them wholly incompatible to a dogmatist.  They can both be partially correct, as opposite poles of a spectrum of moral perspectives on which there exists a happy middle ground.

The answer to the question “Do the ends justify the means?” is “sometimes.”  We need a system to identify those times.  That’s what my three conditions (remember those?) were all about: bridging the gap between two insightful but flawed moral worldviews to create a more holistic (if less simple/formulaic) conception of human morality.
To return to your analogy, you ask “which is priority: the freedom of your friend or the welfare of the hiker?” My conditions respond: “it depends.”  Such a question presupposes that those things are in contrast.  If you were 100% certain that those things were in contrast, and that ONLY by overpowering your friend you would be able to save a life, I’d agree with you that the welfare of the hiker takes priority.  But in real life, you are never 100% certain, and we need a framework that navigates real life.  Recall some other quotes from my initial response: at the beginning “the hiker analogy is flawed because it builds-in assumptions about its characters that don’t hold true among the real world entities those characters are supposed to represent.” And at the end, “this is where my third condition comes in: the existence of alternative, peaceful means of solving global problems that lack the tempting perception of immediacy, but so often work much better and much faster than the state.”

So I’ll repeat: welfare matters.  Outcomes matter – of course they matter.  But so do the means, which means unless you’re damn sure the outcome will be better, and there’s no other way to make it better, you should be extremely wary of using violence to get your way.  “First, do no harm.”  Have a strong bias against force, because deontology has important ethical insights too.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

What is the relationship between leader confidence, leader competence, and gender?

I recently came across an article titled Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” from the Harvard Business Review.  It’s worth a read, and I won’t fully summarize it here, but the author essentially answers his titular question with "because the abundant confidence required to be perceived/chosen as a leader by others actually makes for bad leadership." I think that's wrong, for two reasons:
1. Leadership is partially defined by perception. The author's argument depends on a distinction between those traits required to be SEEN as a good leader by others, and those required to actually BE a good leader. In reality, though, that distinction is muddled; isn’t the former merely a subcategory of the latter? Leadership isn't an individual skill like running or lifting or shooting a basketball, where your actual measured ability is wholly independent from the social estimation of your likely ability. Leadership is an inherently social endeavor - to inspire those around you to effective action - which depends in part on how they see you. Since it's very difficult to have confidence in someone who lacks it in themselves, projecting confidence is probably a prerequisite to inspiring anyone. "Our inability to discern between confidence and [leadership] competence" is grounded in something; confidence is literally part of what defines competence.

2. Even for that part of leadership not defined by perception, confidence helps much more than it hurts. It is a proven psychological truth that confidence begets success and success begets confidence, from a very early age. The line between confidence and overconfidence is defined in relation to results, so OF COURSE the relationship between results and overconfidence is tautologically inverse. But the overall relationship between results and confidence is pretty clearly positive for most things, and the article basically tried to make it seem as if the opposite were true.

The article makes some good points, but ultimately I think there's more of a yin-yang here than it lets on. As much as I roll my eyes at male leaders' bravado, the opposite end of the spectrum is even less competent or bearable.  I made a graph to try and depict this:

Friday, March 3, 2017

There’s such a cowardice in euphemism

This isn’t a very long or substantive post.  It won’t make any new arguments, and it won’t refute arguments made by anyone else.  I’m just writing to call attention to something which angers me, in the hopes the reader will start to notice it too:   just   how   many   euphemisms statists use to justify the violence of the state.

The central insight of libertarianism is that all governance is violence.  Most people recognize on a fundamental level that violence is normally bad.  If everyone recognized that all government is violent, justifying government would be much more difficult, and the case for a smaller government would be much easier to make.  Accordingly, making the case for a bigger state usually requires you to conceal or downplay the violence inherent in what you propose – sometimes, even from yourself.  This is why statists find euphemisms so appealing: they make state solutions presentable in polite company.

The military may be the clearest example of this, and as an officer I’m exposed to even more of these euphemisms than the average American.  At the tactical level, the heart of what we do is kill people – let’s be real here – but we rarely use that word.  We prefer to say we “eliminated the target(s),” thereby abstracting the verb and dehumanizing the subject. We don’t even say we shoot people, we’re just “engaging” the enemy.  Engage! what a harmless sounding word! If we don’t kill enough people, we go back to “mop-up” the area.   If we accidentally kill the wrong person, that’s just “collateral damage.” If we torture someone, we’re just using “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or even “physical persuasion.”  And don’t worry, that isn’t a war crime – it’s just “extralegal.”

On the operational level, the folks being tortured are often unlawfully imprisoned outside the US without due process of law, but we don’t like to put it that way either; they’re merely “under protective custody” at an “offshore internment facility.” On a strategic level, we don’t like the sound of “killing foreign leaders who oppose us”, so we just call it “regime change.”  In Vietnam, our napalm was merely a “defoliant” – the casual reader would never know we were dropping fire-bombs on areas rife with civilians.  When Cambodian children are blown up each year by the remnants of our carpet-bombing campaign, we frown at the tragedy of “incontinent ordnance.”  Even bureaucratically, the entire “Department of Defense” does hardly a thing that directly defends American citizens.  It originally had a more honest title: the Department of War.

Domestically, ICE agents don’t kidnap fathers from their children, they merely deport undocumented aliens.  DEA agents don’t kick down your door and shoot your dog in the middle of the night - they just investigate leads of potential illicit substance distributors.  Policemen don’t kill black people, they just neutralize perceived threats with lethal force.  TSA agents don’t molest you and steal your shampoo, they simply look for contraband and remove it.  It’s all sterilized.  The more technical the jargon, the easier it is to stomach.

Taxation, of course, is the biggest example, as it underlies everything the government does.  Hardly a day goes by without politicians saying something to the effect of “it’s high time we ask all Americans to pay their fair share.” Of course, there’s no ASKING about it: taxes don’t work that way.  What they mean is that if you don’t pay, they’ll steal your money, and then your car, and then your home, and then your family’s possessions, eventually throw you in jail. Furthermore, what share qualifies as fair (and why) is never specified; all the speaker means by it is “more.”  All of this relies on conceptions of consent so abstract that they don’t hold water in any other linguistic context.  Statists roll their eyes at the famous “taxation is theft” meme, when really we should roll our eyes to call it anything else.

This is all related to a separate problem I’ve described before on this blog: people’s unwillingness to enforce what they endorse.  I’ve been lamenting it for years, but a few weeks ago a comedian I follow named Jeremy McClellan articulated it more precisely than I ever have.  In economics, he noted, there’s a difference between people’s stated preferences and people’s revealed preferences.  Jeremy calls this the difference between his Netflix queue (which is full of documentaries about bees he told himself he wants to watch someday) and his Netflix history (which is full of re-watched old episodes of The Office or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia).  In all walks of life, what we SAY we want is different from what our ACTIONS INDICATE we really want.  Studies have proven this time and again.

Politics is no different, and that’s what makes the state so dangerous.  By normalizing and concealing and dividing up the culpability for violence, politics becomes the outlet for our stated preferences: our preachy virtue signaling on how other people ought to live their lives.  So long as the dirty work of making it so is left to someone else, we’re all too happy to VOICE our support for coercing disfavored groups into abidance by our principles.  But when it comes time to walk the walk, our actions speak louder than our words.  Our revealed preferences – as shown in our market decisions, or in our day-to-day interactions with practitioners of those same disfavored activities – are much kinder and more peaceful than our stated preferences would indicate.  The portion of people who’ll vote to deport undocumented immigrants or lock up pot smokers is vastly larger than the portion who will actually try to detain them those people themselves.

Euphemisms are a reaction to this dichotomy: a way for people to pretend what they say is in line with how they act.  They enable doublethink on the part of speaker and audience alike.  In cases where saying something plainly would offend our nobler sensibilities, euphemisms shroud the ugly truth of the speaker’s idea for long enough that it doesn’t initially raise any moral red flags, enabling us to believe two contradictory things at the same time without realizing it (or at least, without admitting it to others).

When the FDA bans an untested but promising AIDS drug, or the DEA bans an untested but pleasant recreational drug, or a taxi regulator bans Uber, or the school board bans homeschooling, or Congress bans discrimination, or some licensing bureau bans certain hair stylists, or a mayor bans untaxed cigarettes, or Evangelical senators ban abortion or prostitution, the advocates of those bans rarely focus their advocacy on what should happen to people who do it anyway.  They prefer to dwell on how great society could allegedly be were those taboo activities to simply vanish – to lure us with the fantasy that with the stroke of a pen, the people who formerly practiced such activities will instantly cease and desist.  It’s inconvenient for them to acknowledge that some will resist their moral imperialism, and even more uncomfortable for them to confront the question of just how to deal with such people.

The state can only persist for so long as it’s advocates are spared that confrontation.  Lots of people might think X is bad and wish fewer people did it, but far fewer typically think it’s bad enough to warrant imprisonment, and fewer still would be willing to enforce that penalty themselves.  If the state did not exist, plenty of people would take it upon themselves to help the poor, or research drug safety, or do any of the other important tasks that we tragically hand over to unaccountable bureaucrats today.  But hardly anyone would take it upon themselves to start wars, deport immigrants, ban Muslims, arrest pot-smokers, shut-down businesses or steal, because we are more tolerant in person than we are behind the ballot box.

The first step to realizing that is to be honest with yourself about what it is you are saying.  There are times when violence is justifiable.  Smart people can disagree about what those circumstances are, and if you have a well-thought out opinion on that which differs from mine I totally respect that.  I will debate you in good faith and take your arguments seriously – there are no easy answers in philosophy.  All I ask is that you at least allow the debate to take place by acknowledging that the tradeoff exists.  Don’t cower behind comforting platitudes or numbing technical argot to convince yourself government is all hunky-dory patriotic sunshine and rainbows.  Being wrong is forgivable; being a coward is insufferable.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education, and the Constitution

Some weeks ago my friends were lamenting the slew of bills introduced by the new Republican Congress.

Dakota: Have you heard about the bill to get rid of the department of Education yet?

Alexis: THE. WHAT.

Carey: I'm totally being nosy but whatever. Lol but yes, they're saying that schools will be governed by states and localities, which in my opinion will only encourage even more inequality and segregation because states will start to use that to push economic agendas.

Dakota: Not nosy at all Carey! I'm glad you came in with more info. I wasn't aware of their "reasoning" yet.

Carey: and Ill just add that 10% of money come from the ED, which doesn't seem like lot BUT that also comes with upholding Civil Rights ie. like the Brown v Board decision. So the dismantling of ED would be awful, zero accountability.

Dakota: 😩😫😩 what are we going to do if they follow through on this crap... it doesn't feel beyond the realm of reality anymore

Alexis: Ahh returning regulation back to states and localities. The push for privatization. Smh. They're all terrible greedy people.

Me:  ^No we're not.

Alexis: Andrew Doris you're in congress?

Me: No, but I agree with some of the people you're calling terrible and greedy due to what they believe, and would vote as they're voting on the Dept. of Education., federalism, enumerated federal powers, etc. To say (or directly imply) a group of people are terrible and greedy because they believe XYZ is to imply the same about anyone else who also believes XYZ.

Sorry to hijack your commiseration - I'm appalled by Trump too and on another day I'd join in. I'm just flustered right now by everyone talking past one another and arguing in bad faith on the few issues that might yet advance under him. Supporting conservative education reform does not = wanting to hurt kids to make money. Smart and well intentioned people often disagree about this stuff. I literally stand zero to profit from those initiatives and nor do most who agree with me, including conservative Congressmen; chalking them up to "ugh they're all so greedy!" is just lazily avoiding the nuance of the issues.

Alexis: Andrew Doris I respect what you're getting at. But I stand by my assertion that congress people (on both sides of the aisle) are more aligned to maintaining their own power and financial interests than they are in the "right" choices for education for all kids. I respect ideological differences, I don't respect greed. And I work directly with education and housing policy so I have particularly strong opinions about the current regime changes and their plans.

Dave: Andrew Doris curious as to your opinion on Betsy DeVos in general. From what I understand, she doesn't have real/serious experience in education, so how can anyone reasonably claim she's the best (or even among the best) candidates for the position?

Brock: Dave, here's a pretty good piece on her:

the last paragraph is kinda of horrifying since it is a direct quote.

Me: Dave - thanks for asking - lots to say.

1. My opinion on Betsy DeVos in general is strongly positive. I support her nomination because she is perhaps the foremost champion of school choice in the country, and I believe (like very many independent and even left-leaning experts, including some of my center-left professors at Hopkins) that school choice is the single reform that stands to most benefit our education system (and especially disadvantaged students). I recognize that the impetus for school choice must come from the state and local level and don't think DeVos will be a panacea, but with DeVos in charge I can at least be sure the Federal Govt. won't try to get in the way of those initiatives or make them harder to implement, which has happened in the past. (That's also part of why I don't think the Department of Education should exist at all, with the other reasons being it's poor track record and the pesky fact that it's plainly unconstitutional).

2. I disagree that DeVos doesn't have any "real/serious" experience in education; on the contrary, she has been vigorously and intimately involved in education activism for almost thirty years. According to her Wikipedia page she founded an institution funding education reform back in 1989, was chairwoman of the board of Alliance for School Choice, founded an education PAC called All Children Matter in 2003, was on the boards of directors for the American Education Reform Council, Advocates for School Choice, and the Education Freedom Fund, and chaired the boards for Choices for Children and Great Lakes Education Project. She remains Chair of the American Federation for Children and in the 90's she served on the board for Children First America. She has clearly devoted her life to education issues! She also had executive business experience back in the 80's.

If that doesn't count as experience, what does? Being a teacher is not the sort of experience that deals with national-level education issues. Obama's appointee Arne Duncan wasn't a teacher either, and was also a multi-millionaire, but nobody cared because he was union-friendly. Senator Warren's only attempted "gotcha!" thing on experience during the hearing was her lack of experience dishing out $70 billion worth of loans, which was ironic because if we limit the acceptable candidates to those who have managed such massive loan portfolios, we're left pulling from the exact group of people whose influence Senator Warren most hopes to extricate from politics: big bankers.

3. IRT Brock’s article, I find nothing horrifying about it, including the last quote. It's obvious the "return on investment" she is referring to is not selfish financial gain, and she says as much. Nothing about her 30 years of tireless effort and hundreds of millions of dollars in philanthropy poured in to this cause has been a profitable endeavor, and the family is so rich they hardly have incentive to start running small-time private schools anyway. Like the George Soros or Koch brothers, their wealth frees them to pursue un-profitable causes they care deeply about to try and feel good about themselves for making a positive difference in the world. There is nothing immoral about funding causes you believe in, and it's clear she believes very passionately that she is dedicating her time and fortune to helping poor people get a better education.

You may disagree with her on that, but don't pretend it's the same as corruption. Certainly the other side does the same. It's widely known that the bulk of DeVos' opposition came from the teacher's union lobby, which dump vastly more money into influencing politics in their direction than the entire DeVos family combined. The line of thought on the left these days seems to be that if you donate money to progressive causes you have a big heart, but if you donate to conservative causes it's pure graft and ominous big-money puppeteers buying rents. If anything about her nomination was bought with big-money, it was the fierce opposition to her on grounds of preposterous non-issues like the out-of-context Grizzly Bear quote, making it seem like she was a complete dullard or a religious fanatic. None of that is true.

Dakota -

(1) Sure, experience as a teacher doesn't have to be a prerequisite for this position. But some semblance of an understanding of current US law surrounding education should be. DeVos demonstrated a lack of understanding or even basic preparation to understand this during her confirmation hearing.

(2) In my opinion, every student in the U.S. should have the opportunity to attend a school that (a) isn't falling apart, (b) is equipped with trained staff, (c) is prepared to educated them, and (d) has the materials and funding to do so. States shouldn't have an option to choose whether they want to do with this all students. For example, disabled students should have the same rights to education in every state, something DeVos would not commit to saying she would uphold on a federal level. Also, it's incredibly concerning to me that she wants to take funding AWAY from public schools and put them toward private schools.

Schools in my neighborhood are LITERALLY crumbling. One of our schools shut down for a few months a year ago because the ceiling tiles literally fell in in a classroom. Okay? Please let's not provide LESS FUNDING to our struggling public schools.

(3) On that note, forgive me if I find it a little bit gross that someone pours 100s of millions of dollars into a political machine and comes out in charge of an entire national system, in which she has expressed plans to take money out of the already underfunded public program and put it into the already wealthy programs.

There is nothing unprofitable about their pursuits in education. Even if they lose money (which I doubt they do, but even if they do) they're gaining an immense amount of social capital and influence through this.

(4) I grew up in public schools. GOOD public schools. And my schools were cramped. In high school we had to use trailer classrooms because the school was so overcrowded we couldn't fit all the students in the building at once. Our books were not great either. And I went to some of the nicer public schools in the areas I grew up in NJ and VA.

We need someone who's ready to take on the issues inside public schools, not divert attention away. What's going to happen to the kids who can't get into a charter school or a private school under DeVos? What on earth is she going to do for them?

Me: Hi Dakota.  I’ll go in order of the points you numbered:

(1) I concede DeVos did not acquit herself well in the hearing.  I don’t think that means she lacks “even basic understanding” of the Education system.  Most of the videos I saw of her were Senators asking her lawyerly, accusatorial questions that pre-supposed liberal assumptions, which she couldn’t answer clearly only because she doesn’t share those assumptions.

(2) I agree with a, b, c and d.  So does DeVos.  Where we disagree with you is simply on whether federal regulators are any likelier than state regulators to guarantee that opportunity.

I don’t know where you live, but I suspect that part of the reason schools in your neighborhood are “LITERALLY crumbling” is because they are run by government officials, who are unexposed to the market pressures which typically prevent businesses from falling into disrepair (in other words, because of public monopoly). If your goal is like mine - to, as you put it, ensure that “every student in the US has the opportunity to attend a school” that meets your four criteria a b c and d – it seems to me the students in your neighborhood currently forced to attend that crumbling school should be given the chance to attend a different school if they like.  Whether that different school is public or private shouldn’t matter.  That’s all school choice is about.

It’s not about “taking money out of the already underfunded public program and put it into the already wealthy programs” – which leads me to your point (3).  First, the problem with public education in this country is not that it’s underfunded.  Per-pupil, inflation adjusted K-12 education spending has tripled since 1970.  Even President Obama admitted that, quote, “not a dime of whatever new money we might spend would do anything – not so long as it is poured into schools as we organize them today. To make education work for all our kids, we need to tear up our current educational system and reorganize it from the ground up." The problem is that public schools are wasteful, poorly organized regional monopolies, and the solution is the same market forces that eliminate waste and inefficiency in every other sector of the economy.  School choice doesn’t take money away from public schools and give them to private schools necessarily; it’s more accurate to say it takes it away from bad schools (public, private or charter) and gives it to good schools (public, private or charter), with good or bad determined SOLELY by the decisions of parents about what they think is best for their children.

(4) You ask: “What's going to happen to the kids who can't get into a charter school or a private school under DeVos? What on earth is she going to do for them?”

The answer: make their current school more responsive to the wants and needs of students like them, while at the same time giving them more options than they currently have.

Even for kids whose parents choose to keep them at their current school, the beauty of competition is that it makes ALL products in the market better.  Comcast sucks because it has regional monopolies in major cities, like Baltimore; Nike and Adidas don’t, because they have to compete with dozens of shoe companies for market share.  The left is the first to point out how important it is to break up monopolies in any other sector, because it’s widely acknowledged that monopolies are a rent paid to powerful interests, and introducing competition helps consumers.  Why is education different?  The worst-case scenario is better public schools.

The best-case scenario for those students is that they do indeed get to pick a school better tailored to their own interests or abilities. “Getting into” a charter or private school usually isn’t like gaining admission to a selective college where there are stringent academic standards.  Especially at the elementary level, the main thing holding back students trapped in bad schools is cost: inability to afford those better private options. School vouchers fix that.  From trade schools to arts-heavy schools to sports-heavy schools to schools for people with various disabilities, markets allow for customization that uniform, one-size-fits-all public education simply doesn’t, and that makes everybody happier with their education outcomes.

Brock – If you think Betsy DeVos running a PAC is unprofitable, then i really don't know where to start. And pardon me. It sounds to me that you're basically advocating for a plutocracy. You don't say it clearly here, but your arguments are tacitly opposing campaign finance reform as well, which i find really really alarming.

Also, i don't know if you know about the School Choice Alliance, but their system of providing scholarships to charter schools or private schools, does NOT yield a meritocracy and to think as much is plain ignorant of educational issues. A student living Hollywood or Beverly Hills is much more likely to win a scholarship than the kid from south central LA simply because he has more guidance, free time (many low-income students have to work at 16), access to educational material, extra-curricular, etc.

Also a dig at the Education Department being unconstitutional.... If your referring to michelle bachmann's assertion that education should be left to localities and states. Well, I purely disagree cuz there are somethings that are facts and need to be enforced at the federal level in schools. Rural areas where schools can get away with teaching creationism, that the world is 6,000 years old, or that climate change is not real, is really not acceptable today. This whole unconstitutional argument is bullshit and a traditionalist viewpoint is unsustainable. Quite frankly everything is unconstitutional until someone writes it in the constitution. African American's voting was unconstitutional until we amended it. Women's right to vote was unconstitutional until it wasn't. So forgive me if i dont hold reverance for some 240 year old document that slave owners (brave and forward thinking slave owners mind you) drew up because they felt they didnt have political representation (oh the irony).

Me: Hi Brock.  Lots to respond to with you too.

Please explain to me how DeVos has made money from her 30 years of activism for school choice.  I sincerely don’t see how.  For sure, political rent-seeking in general is very profitable, which is part of the reason it’s so important to reduce the rents politicians have to offer.  But to my knowledge, DeVos does not run any franchise of private schools where she’d be in a position to make money from a transition to school choice nationwide.  And certainly, she was already a billionaire before she took up the cause, with lots of more lucrative ways to make money then trying to gradually nudge policy.

I will spare you the hassle of inference – I do oppose campaign finance regulation.  That is not the same as advocating plutocracy.  Even setting aside constitutional considerations, the purest plutocracy is a set of 535 entrenched politicians invulnerable to electoral challenge.  Campaign finance regulations are problematic in part because they often serve as “incumbent protection acts” by making Congressmen much more difficult to unseat.  In any case, the link between campaign funding and electoral success is tenuous, and the government shouldn’t be censoring political speech from reaching its citizens’ ears no matter how much it costs nor who wants to fund it.

I’m a little confused by your meritocracy argument, because none of the disadvantages you listed are unique to an elective school system.  Yes, wealthier students with more free time, resources and parental involvement are more likely to succeed academically and gain admission to the most competitive private schools – but this is also true in the status quo, so it’s not an argument against school choice.  If anything, school voucher programs help negate this problem by narrowing the gaps in resources that currently allow only the wealthiest students to attend private schools.

Now let’s talk about the constitution.  I don’t have reverence for the judgment of slave owners from 240 years ago either, but I do have reverence for the concept of political legitimacy.  If we are to even pretend that we are a nation governed of, by, and for the people, the government has to be able to point to some widely popular and agreed-upon social contract as the source of its authority to wield force on those people.  That contract is the only thing that separates government from the Mafia or a common gang, which may have unwritten rules, but doesn’t pretend to be a singular moral authority ruling by consent over every inhabitant of a certain territory.  As a libertarian, I’m willing to entertain the idea that the entire constitution is bullshit – but if that’s true, the implication isn’t that the government has MORE power/authority and can do whatever it wants!  The implication is anarchy – that the government has no authority at all – because that document is the only thing that gave it any. 

So for your sake, as an advocate of greater government powers than I prefer, let’s assume the constitution is not bullshit, but is in fact morally authoritative and legally binding.  In that case, you are quite right that “everything is unconstitutional until someone writes it in the constitution” – so do tell me, when did someone write the power to regulate education into the constitution?  I can’t seem to find where that’s written.  I CAN see where voting rights for black people and women were added, in the 15th and 19th amendments, respectively.  If you concede education-related powers are not written in there yet, but think the federal government OUGHT have the power to regulate education moving forward, perhaps you should propose a 28th amendment granting it this power, and then we could debate the merits of that.  But until such time, it’s not a “traditionalist viewpoint” to expect politicians to follow the law they’ve each sworn to support and uphold.

Dakota: Andrew I'd be happy to continue this conversation in a message if you're open to it but broadly speaking I think our different perspectives come down to trust, historical precedent, and having something to lose.

I don't trust that the states will dispense education fairly across the spectrums of wealth, race, disability, etc.

History tells me that if the states had control of education I would not have been able to attend the same school as you. And my school would not have been as equipped as yours. I am not white.

My neighborhood is made up of mostly lower-income, Black residents. We had a really successful public high school a few decades ago. It burned down. There's still speculation as to how. But the fact is students were split up until the next one was ready and it was an entirely different story after that.

It's clear to me that you're not indifferent to this issue Andrew, which I really appreciate and which is why I'd be happy to continue the conversation if you're open to hearing more of my perspective and what it's rooted in.

Me: Hey Dakota, I’d always meant to message you after that discussion we had on Betsy DeVos and the Education Department but I hadn’t gotten around to it until now.  I am open and interested to hear more of your perspective so hopefully you’re still up for the discussion – but if not, just tell me and I’ll get lost!  There’s a TL;DR version at the bottom in case you don’t feel like reading all of it.

I can totally understand and appreciate this historical reasons why you “don’t trust that the state governments will dispense education fairly across all spectrums of wealth, race and disability, etc.”  They historically have not.  I don’t trust them either.

I’m sincerely curious, though, why you would trust the federal government to do that any better?  That’s where we differ:  I don’t trust them either.  As I’m sure you know, the feds also have a long history of racial oppression in their own policies.  FDR basically built the New Deal off the backs of black people, for instance, and Nixon or Reagan’s War on Drugs targeted them as well.  I don’t know which state you live in, and I’ll concede that some have historically been even more regressive than the federal government.  But especially now that Trump is in charge, it seems to me that the more powers we devolve from the federal level to the state level, the more likely those powers will be wielded in a responsible or progressive way.

This isn’t limited to education.  This are lots of issues on which the states disagree with one another: marijuana legalization, gay marriage, right to work, the minimum wage, healthcare, etc.  On these issues, the federal government has two options: it can allow each state to do their own thing, or it can overrule them all and enforce its own, one-size-fits-all policy on all 50 states.  Which we prefer on a case-by-case basis will likely vary based on what our federal leaders presently hold on that issue, but unfortunately we can’t pick and choose which times states’ have rights; if we want to be ideologically consistent about federalism, we have to decide which general stance we find most conducive to liberty and progress.  To me, it seems clear it’s typically better for liberty and progress (not to mention more in line with the 10th amendment of the constitution) if we generally allow states to each do their own thing.

My reasoning is this…society progresses at different paces in different places.  Every time we make progress as a society, some states are ready for that change faster than others.  And, every time we make a mistake as a society, some states push for it more eagerly than others.  Take the War on Drugs; states rights’ are proving super important there!  Federal law classifies marijuana as a Schedule I substance and has stiff mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, which are really stupid and oppressive, especially for minorities and the underprivileged.  But thankfully, dozens of states have legalized medicinal marijuana and several have legalized it outright, all in defiance of federal law.  More follow suit every year.

As a progressive, you probably oppose the war on drugs too, and likely agree with me that this is a good thing the states are doing this. When the federal government sets policies we disagree with, we as socially tolerant people value the ability of more progressive states to set more progressive policies without being interfered with (perhaps like the minimum wage in Seattle, for another example).  Eventually, as other states see that the sky hasn’t fallen in those progressive states, change becomes less scary and they become more willing to experiment with these changes themselves.  Inversely, if a state passes a law that doesn’t go so well, other states can heed that warning and avoid the same mistake BEFORE it’s implemented all across the country.  And in the interim, people who prefer to live under one set of policies over another can “vote with their feet” by choosing to live in a state that agrees with them (more easily than they can move to a whole different country if they disagree with national policy).  This “laboratories of democracy” principle helps prevent wrongheaded national majorities or pluralities (like the one that elected Trump!) from imposing bad policies on all of us.

The flip side of that coin, though, is if we want to be ideologically consistent, we have to allow states rights’ even when some states disagree with us.  So if we value it on drug reform, how can we oppose it on education reform?

TL;DR – You said you think our differing perspectives come down to “trust, historical precedent, and having something to lose.”  You’re certainly right about two of those things: you do have more to lose, and I’m sure you understand the historical precedent on a more personal level than I will ever be able to grasp.  I sympathize with that and respect your perspective. But when it comes to trust, I don’t think I’m any more trusting than you are overall; it’s more a question of, “which institutions do you trust more, and why?”