Systemic Racism: a Rationalist Take (Part 5 of 9)

Finding Systemic Racism in Employment, Housing, Education, Access to Government.

It seems to me that systemic racism should (almost by definition or lack of it) bear upon all aspects of life, with four having special importance. First, I see employment, which affects often profoundly, the quality of one’s life. Second, I would consider housing, same thing more or less, plus it’s a normal way to accumulate a nest egg for many or most of those who are not born rich in America. The third area where systemic racism should have many and far-reaching negative effects is education. Unequal access to the government might be the fourth large area where systemic racism manifest itself. Finally, the hypothesized systemic racism if the words have any meaning, should be operational the delivery of justice and of police services. These sectors are important because of their direct potential to to take away one’s freedom and even one’s life. I give this last area of concern a separate treatment.

I offer my superficial contribution as an observant citizen to the first four areas. I think that is all that should be expected of me if systemic racism is truly widespread. If it were as common and as general in its applications as is being currently alleged as I write (June-July 2020), I should see it without much effort once it’s been pointed out to me. (It’s being pointed out practically every minute of the day by radio and by television, and even by the moderate WSJ for the past three or four weeks, even by Fox News.) I should even be able to stumble upon it without a conventional study. It seems to me that if I have to move furniture and lift every carpet to find traces of systemic racism, it’s just not that important, or, it does not exist at all.

If systemic racism is both said to be pervasive and it’s impossible to detect, it’s just another fairy tale in reverse, or fetishism. Or it’s a deliberately fallacious concept designed to affirm a social fact while avoiding the empirical burden of demonstrating its existence. This is true although it’s obvious that, as a white person, I cannot be made aware of any kind of racism the easiest way possible, by becoming its target. But this most obvious path to awareness is also the most subject to error, of course. The anger that accompanies being a target of presumed injustice induces a subjectivity inimical to sound judgment. The anger must impair or destroy the capacity to think rationally. These statements, together, imply that a dozen infamous and well documented cases of what might be racially inspired possible police crimes against African Americans spread over five or six years stops short of establishing the case for the existence of systemic racism. “It happens” does not mean the same as “it’s everywhere.” Incidentally, by making these self-evident statements, I feel as if I were ringing a bell to wake my fellow citizens from their stupor.


Racial discrimination in employment used to be pervasive. So many laws have been passed to eliminate it that one is tempted to believe that it hardly exists anymore. At least, gross racial discrimination in employment is a risky legal game for large companies, those with deep pockets. The nature of the anti- discrimination suits showing up in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) nearly every day makes it difficult for me to believe that much of a problem remains in this area. The suits sound almost all frivolous, capricious, and arbitrary. This is not a judgment on the sincerity of those filing the suit. They may truly believe they are the victims of discrimination. Yet, belief is not evidence of anything. It’s possible nevertheless that real racial discrimination in employment persist in companies too small to be worth suing.

What I know personally about work and race corresponds well with most of the news I obtain from the media in general (including National Public Radio to which I listen – less than religiously – every weekend). Affirmative action, or positive discrimination in favor of African Americans, or negative discrimination against Asians and whites, seems to be the rule in every employment locale of which I am aware. I am especially aware of academia, of course. The last time I was involved in hiring in my university, for example, the new 30-year old hire came in at a salary equal to mine after 24 years and a respectable academic career. The recruit was a woman, and perhaps, just probably, a person of color of some kind. (My chairman, a man with a Spanish surname, asked me confidentially my opinion about whether she was black or Hispanic. I couldn’t make this story up up!) I hasten to say that the recruit in question was more than qualified enough for my department (like me, in fact). This is merely an anecdote, of course. I think though that it’s just as valid as anyone’s anecdote. Still in academia, it would be possible but difficult to find a French person (from France) hired by a Department of French in an American university in the past twenty years. The new hires are overwhelmingly “people of color,” or almost, from former French colonies or from Zaire (a former Belgian colony). Such uniformity in hiring obviously does not happen by chance. I would almost call it “systemic.” (Incidentally, as a native French speaker, I have nothing against the different varieties of French used outside of France.)

So, at this point, as a keen observer but as someone who has not conducted a real study of the topic, I am not persuaded that there exists any discrimination against African Americans in employment in the US that is not an isolated, willful act and thus, not systemic racism. It’s self-evident however that there exists in many economic areas discrimination in hiring against whites and Asians and that this discrimination is systemic. That is, it’s not the result of any specific individual or corporate action directed against whites or Asians but baked in. Note that I did not say anything about the possible historical, ethical justification of this kind of discrimination.

Some will object that, in fact, in spite of affirmative action programs, African Americans have on the average, worse jobs than white Americans. Here is a good point to re-iterate a principle that should not even have to be mentioned: The widespread (and unfortunately judicially validated) practice of establishing proof by outcome is deeply illogical: If I go hunting with my friend and he bags five rabbits to my one, it may be because my rabbits were faster than his or better at zig-zaging, or that my gun barrel is curved (as I may claim), or it may be because he is a good shot and I am not. Similarly, the vast numerical preponderance of African Americans in those powerful millionaire-making machines that are professional football and basketball does not establish the existence of systemic racism against whites and others in those sports.


The practice of redlining included informal and sometimes formal discrimination against members of racial minorities. It used to be widespread everywhere in the US, including in the northern states. One of the practical consequences was to deny African Americans the ability to purchase housing in certain areas and even in whole towns. This was hostile treatment in its own right. Redlining also had negative implications for education because in most of the US the public schools are district schools. Children attend the schools tied to their residential neighborhood. Poor neighborhoods are thus often associated with inferior schools The very detailed Fair Housing Act of 1968 tried to put an end to the most egregious redlining practices. Violations of the Act carry heavy penalties.

I don’t know to what extent the prohibited practices have been extinguished nor if they have been replaced by other nefarious practices with similar consequences. I would not be surprised if redlining did subsist but on a small scale, between small local banks, for example, and small, equally local real estate firms, both situated far from the limelight. I suspect the research exists to answer these questions. Remaining or renewed redlining would be fair candidates for systemic racism. I regret that I cannot look for the relevant material. I hope others will.


Affirmative action to the benefit of African Americans is the rule in admission to American universities. Even in universities where racial preferences were formally eliminated, as was the case at the vast University of California about fifteen years ago, the prevalent political forces are working to re-establish them. That is, of course, systemic racism. Affirmative action for black unavoidably works to the detriment of white and Asian students. That’s absent any racial animus against the latter. No surprise there, it’s expected to do so. (There was a famous lawsuit against Harvard University by a coalition of Asian-American groups in 2016-2019 for discriminating in admission against applicants of Asian extraction. The suit was eventually dismissed in spite of what looked like strong evidence of discrimination, based on SAT scores among others.)

As far a K-12 is concerned, unequal education for African American children used to be the rule and it was supported by law – that is, by the armed power of the State- in much of the country. This fact mattered in its own right but also because of its consequences on employment. Education is a precursor to employment and a partial predictor of its quality; it determines the width of employment choices available. Formal obstacles to a good education for African Americans have been eliminated by multiple court actions and the painful remedy of busing, practiced for many years with and then, without federal subsidies. Yet, it’s likely that African American children still attend schools that are, on the average, less well funded than the schools of average white children because of the largely local funding of American schools in general. (This may be a fact of “institutional racism,” a close cousin to “systemic racism.”) Notably though, where African American students happen to attend schools that are richer than the average school in America, as is the case in Washington D.C., good educational results don’t measurably ensue.

One thing that has been shown to improve strongly black children’s educational performance, controlling for income and living address, is charter schools. The opposition of teachers unions is the only significant obstacle to enrolling more children and, by logical implication, more black children in charter schools. No one believes that this opposition is dues to the racial motivations of either individual teachers or of their unions. It looks like a good example of pure systemic racism against African Americans. It seems to me that there is no other such example in the area of education. For a measured approach to this form of systemic racism by a respected African American conservative, see Thomas Sowell’s “Charter Schools’Enemies Block Black Success” (WSJ 6/19/20).

Access to government

I have little to say about systemic racism as it may affect access to government, for two reasons. First, it seems obvious that African Americans have met with great success in achieving elective office, going from about zero in 1960 to tens of thousands in 2020. (During the Floyd crisis, black elected officials intervened everywhere in the media, including on conservative Fox News.) I think also that the Congressional Black Caucus exerts power much beyond its numbers. This is true when the Democratic Party dominates. I suspect I think it’s almost as true with a Republican Congress. Its influence corresponds to the same seniority rules that gave any white elected southern Congress people disproportionate power for many years. Black congresspersons keep getting re-elected, acquiring both experience and seniority which multiplies their effectiveness.

Separately, I often wonder why black voters do not more often provide the swing vote in nation-wide primary elections as they apparently did in the 2019 Democratic primaries. It seems to me that they could if they would and thus, exert an influence out of proportion to their numbers. But they would have to be seen looking outside the Democratic Party to become credible. (On a personal level, I have little sympathy toward opportunities not seized.)

Secondly, I am persuaded that the power-wielding jobs in the federal bureaucracy are afforded to black applicants at least fairly, and probably preferentially, given equal (and often mysterious) formal qualifications. I have no hard evidence to present in support of this impression. The relevant research may exist and I don’t know about it. I am less sure about local bureaucracies’ openness, but I never read anything about unfairness in connection with black employment in local government. It’s true that I may not be well positioned to perceive it if it exists. I may be in the wrong part of the wrong region of the country.

A shortage of African Americans in the bureaucratic apparatus of local and state government could itself be a source of systemic racism. It could be enough to account for government neglect of what happens to be issues affecting African Americans preferentially. I am open to learning on this point.

[Editor’s note: you can find Part 4 here, or read the whole essay here.]

What I learned in my bachelor’s degree

I took my bachelor’s degree in History between 2001 and 2005. All the people I asked told me that the course I took was the best in the country. I suppose they were right, but today I understand that they were predominantly talking about the graduate program at the same school. A department with a good master’s and doctoral degree does not necessarily translate into a good undergraduate degree, in the same way that good researchers and writers are not necessarily good teachers. Most of my professors were very bad teachers. I hope to be saying this without bitterness or arrogance, just realizing that although they were good academics, they were mostly not good at imparting knowledge.

Perhaps one of my professors’ difficulties in transmitting knowledge was precisely the constant questioning about the validity of transmitting knowledge. Brazilian pedagogy is strongly influenced by a form of social-constructivism created by educator Paulo Freire. Freire strongly insisted that teachers could not be transmitters of knowledge, but that students created knowledge on their own, and that teachers were, if at all, facilitators of this process. At least that’s what I understood or is what I remember from my pedagogy classes. Paulo Freire’s pedagogy is admittedly a translation of Marxism into the teaching field: students are the oppressed class, teachers are oppressors. Freire wanted pedagogy to reflect a classless society. The result, in my view, was that teachers were terrified of being seen as “the owners of the truth”.

My bachelor’s degree had the bold goal of training teachers and researchers at the same time. In my view, this created a difficulty: students needed to learn to cook and be food critics at the same time. It was not an easy task for people of 18, 20 years of age. Most classes ended up being quite weak. Another problem is that my post-Marxist professors wanted us to have a critical attitude: we needed to be critical of everything that was understood as “traditional”. This ended up creating distrust in the students’ minds: if everything is to be criticized, what should I believe? Of course, contradictorily what professors said should not be criticized, especially the proposition that everything should be criticized. In general, the program tended to generate people of 18, 20 years boisterous or confused. Or both.

Another experience of my bachelor’s degree was the encounter with party politics. In my high school, I had little contact with highly politicized people or student unions. The same cannot be said of my undergraduate studies! I met many people who were already involved to some degree with political parties, always on the left. Some people say that Christians are the main reason churches are empty. I can say something similar about my undergraduate colleagues. It is largely thanks to them that I became conservative. The hypocrisy, the aggressiveness, the arrogance of many of them made me suspect that there was something very wrong with the left. It took a few years, but eventually, I discovered classic liberal or libertarian authors and found my intellectual home.

But there were positive things about my undergraduate studies as well. Undergraduate was my first great opportunity to leave home a little more. I met some people with whom I am still friends today. And I had some good classes too. Some professors were more conservative, and largely ignored the department’s directives. Their classes were more traditional, more expository, more dedicated to informing us about things that happened in history, without much questioning. I remember a quote from my professor of Contemporary History I (roughly equivalent to 19th century): “when writing your paper, don’t say “I think … ”. You don’t think anything. When you are in the master’s or doctorate, you will think something. Today, simply write “the so-and-so author says …”. Be able to understand what the authors are talking about. That is enough for you today ”. There were also professors who were able to introduce a more critical perspective but in a less radical way.

Perhaps my biggest disappointment with undergraduate is that I almost didn’t get to teach History. The education system in Brazil is essentially socialist. The government assumes that everyone has the right to free, good quality education. And you know: when the government says you have a right to something, you’re not gonna get it, it will be expensive and of poor quality. The life of a teacher in Brazil is quite harsh. I have several friends in the teaching profession, and I am very sorry for them. Maybe I should have listened to my mom and study engineering.

But I don’t want to end it bitterly! I studied History because I really wanted to be a teacher. I still think that being a teacher is a beautiful vocation. Unfortunately, in Brazil, this vocation ends up being spoiled by the undue state intervention. I also studied History simply because I liked History, and I still do. If I had the mind I have today, possibly I would have studied something else. But I didn’t, and I am grateful for the way my life happened.

Everyone understands what your GPA this semester means

In my industry there’s been a ton of discussion about how to handle grading for this spring semester. Campuses shifted to online instruction mid-semester. Students are losing jobs, struggling with home responsibilities, and otherwise being utterly thrown into the deep end of an unfair situation.

Here’s the thing: we all get it. C+ this semester will be a mighty impressive accomplishment for a lot of students this year. Nobody looking at and subjectively interpreting a transcript will fail to appreciate that. If I’m looking at your transcript, I’m going to look at your GPA for before this and heavily discount this semester’s GPA if it’s anything different than it was in the fall.

For some students, this pandemic will be a minor hiccup, or even a chance to rise to the occasion and excel. Good for them. For other students, it will be such a significant disruption that they won’t be able to learn the material they’re ostensibly in school for. And if they can’t pass the class, that sucks. Pandemics suck, and their impact on people’s educational progress is part of that suckiness.

We absolutely should look for ways to reduce the impact on those students. We need to grant exceptions for things like scholarships requiring certain timelines and GPAs (like my favorite NY state program). But life happens, and a if grades are worth having at all (which we should debate), then we shouldn’t abandon them now. We should just abandon the stakes we’ve attached to them.

“There’s Nothing Morally Wrong With Not Wanting to Work Hard at School”

That’s a point I agree with in an opinion piece I recently stumbled across.

And it relates to a larger point that’s been brewing in my head the longer I hang around campus. Most of these kids simply shouldn’t be here. They don’t want it enough, and they really don’t need it. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that they don’t want to work hard enough to make school a valuable experience. College is a distraction for most kids who really should be getting work experience instead.

I’d love to live in a world where people valued education and pursued it for its own sake. I’d love to find out my garbage man is a lover of classic Russian literature. But I actually live in a world where people value schooling which they pursue for credentials. And any education they get along the way is an accidental byproduct. The one things students seem to learn is how to flatter their professors. Sure, they learn while they’re at school (how can you be 18 and not learn something?!), but I’m far from convinced that they learn because of school.

The trouble is that the one thing schools have been effective at teaching students is how important school is. Is it so important that nearly a quarter of “amusement and recreation attendants” should have bachelor’s degree or higher? I won’t argue that carnies should be high school drop-outs like in the good old days. But if I had the choice between one who passed my class (with a C+) and one who spent an extra couple years learning how to make sure a bolt is tightened properly, I know who I want operating my teacups.

As a society, we’re fooling ourselves. We’ve set up a system where we convince kids that they need a degree to live a good life, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as college graduates go on to uncritically hire college graduates. That leaves an unsustainable tension: most students (rightly) don’t want to work hard at school, but they want to go to school. “Society” wants them to work hard at school, but doesn’t want to deny anyone a degree. At best we end up wasting everyone’s time. At worst, we set kids up for failure then leave them with student loans. In either case we erode standards and diminish the signalling value of school along with the educational value. We need someone to go into high schools to tell kids that there’s nothing morally wrong with opting out of college entirely.

The Lesson to Unlearn

Paul Graham writes:

In theory, [classroom] tests are merely what their name implies: tests of what you’ve learned in the class. In theory you shouldn’t have to prepare for a test in a class any more than you have to prepare for a blood test. In theory you learn from taking the class, from going to the lectures and doing the reading and/or assignments, and the test that comes afterward merely measures how well you learned.

In practice, as almost everyone reading this will know, things are so different that hearing this explanation of how classes and tests are meant to work is like hearing the etymology of a word whose meaning has changed completely. In practice, the phrase “studying for a test” was almost redundant, because that was when one really studied. The difference between diligent and slack students was that the former studied hard for tests and the latter didn’t. No one was pulling all-nighters two weeks into the semester.

Even though I was a diligent student, almost all the work I did in school was aimed at getting a good grade on something.

This, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with the education system. Forget governments, unions, misunderstandings, standardization, Baumol Disease and all the rest. The big problem is that the signal value of school subsumed the educational value. It’s Campbell’s Law.

The rest of the article is worth the read.


  1. Slavery as free trade Blake Smith, Aeon
  2. Yay Democracy Dollars Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
  3. Edward Snowden’s education Christian Lorentzen, LRB
  4. American hillbillies Jacques Delacroix, NOL


  1. Monarchy in American political thought Zach Bates, JHIBlog
  2. Make school hard again John Nye, Reason
  3. Nationalism’s dividends Liah Greenfeld, American Affairs
  4. Lysistrata among the hippies Titus Techera, Law & Liberty

More Longform essays

Barry’s essays on republican libertarianism (not what you think, American readers!) and British sovereignty and isolationism are up in the new ‘Longform Essays‘ section of the blog. You’ll see that there are more in the works, too, including essays by Zak, Rick, and at least one more from Barry.

These essays join Jacques’ work on legal immigration into the United States and protectionism/free trade, as well as Mary’s essay on education and its relationship with The State.

Editing these essays makes me the luckiest dude in all of libertarian-dom! I hope there are many more in the years to come.

I still pay attention to the news cycle, but it’s so outrageous these days that it’s hard to write about, let alone analyse or interpret. What a mess. I will say that corporate media is definitely skewed to the left.

Libertarians – and economists – haven’t done a good job of explaining the benefits of free trade. Telling the man on the street that free trade is a fundamental truth has not worked. “Democracy” is another major issue; people throw the word around like a baseball, but its fundamentals are rarely discussed. Given that we’ve gone to war over democracy, on numerous occasions, I think it needs to be discussed far more often.

At any rate, enjoy the essays!

Sine qua non: No shortcuts

This past summer at language school a young man invited me to a party, which I had to refuse since there was a major exam coming up. In response he said, “But you’re smart, why do you have to study?” He was genuinely astonished at the idea that intelligent people have to study; for him, intelligence meant that one was spared the bother of having to work to master a skill or a subject. His bewildered reaction made me start thinking about the nature of the work surrounding achievement and how it is perceived.

Bluntly put, achievement is very hard work and requires tremendous sacrifice. Last weekend, Oxford had its matriculation ceremony, after which the individual colleges arranged group photoshoots. While waiting for one shoot, I overheard two young women discussing a celebratory evening party. One said that she couldn’t go because she had to finish the reading for the next day, but the other said that she had risen at five o’clock that morning in order to finish her reading so that she could attend the party. Neither one was bothered by the choices she had to make, and they were united in their agreement that study came first. Missing a party or missing sleep were simply prices for achievement.

There is an ancient Egyptian legend about a couple who stole the Book of Thoth, which contained all the wisdom of the natural and supernatural worlds, copied it down on a stone writing tablet, washed the stone, and then drank the runoff water; in doing so they acquired all that knowledge without having to read the book. (For those who are interested, the story doesn’t end well, mostly because Thoth is annoyed that his book is gone, but also because, having not genuinely learned the material, the couple can’t control their new-found powers.) In the Folger Museum in Washington DC, there is a medieval manuscript (MS V.b.26 (1)) that contains a spell to compel the spirits to do your writing for you, though as a friend of mine drily pointed out, there’s nothing promised about the quality of writing delivered. What is interesting about myths and spells concerning shortcuts to knowledge and accomplishment is that they are all focused on bypassing the sacrificial process, while still being crowned with the laurels.

The ancient/medieval view was that the spiritual sphere, being responsible in the first place, could help create a world where everyone could achieve without the bother of the foundational work. Now, in a post-Frankfurt School, Utilitarianist world, society speaks in terms of “talent,” as if it is a supernatural thing that requires no cultivation, existing fully formed in a vacuum. We have come from Thomas Jefferson arguing that every person should be free to pursue his own interests according to his endowments to John Rawls’ yowling about the “injustice” of modern society and a world where smart, talented people appear to “have it all.” In order for the Rawlsian vision of the world to work out in completely equitable justice, the work put in by achievers in pursuit of their goals must be negated.

On a personal note, I remember one chillingly funny episode when, during a seminar, a classmate informed a group of us that our coming in prepared, having done the readings and written up commentary, was an act of oppression against her. Her basic argument was that we were too smart, and it wouldn’t cost us anything to show up unprepared once in a while in order to let her shine. We finished on time; I ran into her three days before all MA theses were due for submission and she hadn’t started writing yet. I’m willing to bet, though, that in her movie she’s a victim and we’re all oppressors.

In a way, the romaticization and mythicization of people of genius has been very unhelpful to society, especially since the popular conception of these people appears to support Rawls and Co.’s complaints. Let us take the example of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, partially because his myth is a perfect example and partially because this is a topic I would be happy to discuss for days on end. The popular myth is fairly well established: genius infant who miraculously taught himself everything and created beautiful music as a three-year-old, before dying tragically young, in keeping with the romantic tradition of great geniuses.

The reality, while hardly prosaic, is much less romantic. W.A. Mozart’s parents, Leopold and Anna Maria, were superbly well-educated for the standards of their time. Their familial letters, written in a mix of German, French, Italian, Latin, some English, and mathematical substitution ciphers are a jumble of thoughts and observations on literature, music, art, history, political events, social commentary, and professional talk, along with some infantile humor. Musicologist Nicholas Till wrote a wonderful book, Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Beauty and Virtue in Mozart’s Operas, that covers exactly how having an Enlightenment-era (possessing an unbound belief in the benefits of education and faith in the individual), Renaissance man (good at everything) for a father affected Mozart and his sister.

Due to the extensive concertizing tours undertaken throughout Wolfgang and Marianne Mozart’s childhood,[1]music history tends to treat their father as the epitome of a deranged stage parent. But one of Leopold’s primary reasons for the tours was to procure music lessons for his son with the best musicians in the world. On the infamous “Grand Tour,” where the Mozart family travelled across Europe, from 1763 to 1766, the family spent over a year in England, on stretched financial means, so Wolfgang could study composition with Johann Christian Bach, one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s surviving sons and a much-sought after composer and teacher. Leopold was absolutely determined that his son would study with a Bach and the family had first spent time in the Netherlands in an unsuccessful effort to contact Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, J.C.’s brother. Mozart senior also applied the same strategy to obtaining private instrumental and voice lessons for Wolfgang. So much for the spontaneous aspect of the child genius story; during his boyhood, the composer had lessons with masters for whom he had to prepare work and have it judged. Genius might exist, but it had to be formed and cultivated, a process that the Mozart myth has completely and deceptively lost.

Losing sight of the work, sacrifice, and constructive elements of achievement has, I believe, provided valuable fuel to the social resentment industry. It is easier to envy the accomplishments and standing of others if one believes that they are unearned endowments because the person holding them is “gifted.” In my own path and work that I do, I’ve seen many people of envious or resentful inclination become devastated emotionally and psychologically when they come into close contact with high-achievers and see the amount of work, time, investment, and sacrifice that being one requires.

In my experience, these people either develop personal persecution narratives, such as the girl from my class, or flounce out proclaiming that they “have a life.” My personal experience has made me doubt the efficacy of Charles Murray’s solution, proposed at the end of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 – 2010, that the best cure for the culture of resentment and anger is for the top twenty percent, representative of the high-achieving, to become visible to the bottom eighty and in doing so to allow the bottom sectors to see how hard the top actually works. Historically, the argument is probably justified; returning to the example of the Mozart family, their close association with the aristocracy, both hereditary and professional, certainly provided impetus for the children to set themselves new challenges as part of winning respect and recognition. But that family had an openness to self-improvement, a belief in the possibility of it that as a larger cultural force was, as Nicholas Till repeatedly pointed out, unique to the Enlightenment.

The people of contemporary society not only lack such a belief, they are closed even to the possibility that there is room for improvement. This is not new; Nietzsche observed and decried the culture of ressentiment– defined by the OED as “a psychological state resulting from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred that cannot be satisfied.” Only now there is no suppression. Achievement through self-improvement is replaced with cries for equality of outcome. People are no longer willing to work for achievement, instead they want is for what they have done, no matter how small, no matter how inadequate, to be recognized as achievements, citing that they did invest time, energy, and money it their banalities. Since the investment aspect is very important, I’ll close here and we’ll look at it next.

[1]Marianne Mozart was, according to the entire family, the better musician and performer of the two siblings. By the time of her early teens, she had surpassed her father and brother as a violinist and pianist to such an extent that her brother gradually ceased playing seriously himself in order to concentrate on composing for her. However, her parents had her retire from the stage once she turned seventeen in order to leave her open for an aristocratic marriage, which she eventually made. After she was widowed, she became a very successful teacher and was able to support single-handedly her children, step-children, and nephews and leave behind a massive fortune.

The State and education – Part IV: Conclusion

On August 17, 2018, the BBC published an article titled “Behind the exodus from US state schools.” After taking the usual swipes at religion and political conservatism, the real reason for the haemorrhage became evident in the personal testimony collected from an example mother who withdrew her children from the public school in favour of a charter school:

I once asked our public school music teacher, “Why introduce Britney Spears when you could introduce Beethoven,” says Ms. Helmi, who vouches for the benefits to her daughters of a more classical education.

“One of my favourite scenes at the school is seeing a high-schooler playing with a younger sibling and then discussing whether a quote was from Aristotle or Socrates.”

The academic and intellectual problems with the state school system and curriculum are perfectly encapsulated in the quote. The hierarchy of values is lost, not only lost but banished. This is very important to understand in the process of trying to safeguard liberty: the progenitors of liberty are not allowed into the places that claim to incubate the supposed future guardians of that liberty.

In addition to any issues concerning academic curricula, there is the problem of investment. One of the primary problems I see today, especially as someone who is frequently asked to give advice on application components, such as résumés and cover letters/statements of purpose, is a sense of entitlement vis-à-vis institutional education and the individual; it is a sense of having a right to acceptance/admission to institutions and career fields of choice. In my view, the entitlement stems from either a lack of a sense of investment or perhaps a sense of failed investment.

On the one hand as E.S. Savas effectively argued in his book Privatization and Public-Private Partnerships, if the state insists on being involved in education and funding institutions with tax dollars, then the taxpayers have a right to expect to profit from, i.e. have a reasonable expectation that their children may be admitted to and attend, public institutions – it’s the parents’ money after all. On the other hand, the state schools are a centralized system and as such in ill-adapted to adjustment, flexibility, or personal goals. And if all taxpayers have a right to attend a state-funded institution, such places can be neither fully competitive nor meritocratic. Additionally, Savas’ argument serves as a reminder that state schooling is a manifestation of welfarism via democratic socialism and monetary redistribution through taxation.

That wise investing grants dividends is a truth most people freely recognize when discussing money; when applied to humans, people start to seek caveats. Every year, the BBC runs a series on 100- “fill-in-the-blank” people – it is very similar to Forbes’ lists of 30 under 30, top 100 self-made millionaires, richest people, etc. Featured on the BBC list for 2017 was a young woman named Camille Eddy, who at age 23 was already a robotics specialist in Silicon Valley and was working to move to NASA. Miss Eddy’s article begins with a quote: “Home-schooling helped me break the glass ceiling.” Here is what Eddy had to say about the difference between home and institutional schooling based on her own experience:

I was home-schooled from 1stgrade to high school graduation by my mum. My sister was about to start kindergarten, and she wanted to invest time in us and be around. She’s a really smart lady and felt she could do it.

Regarding curriculum choices, progress, and goals:

My mum would look at how we did that year and if we didn’t completely understand a subject she would just repeat the year. She focused on mastery rather than achievement. I was able to make that journey on my own time.

And the focus on mastery rather than achievement meant that the latter came naturally; Eddy tested into Calculus I her first year at university. Concerning socialization and community – two things the public schools pretend to offer when confronted with the fact that their intellectual product is inferior, and their graduates do not achieve as much:

Another advantage was social learning. Because we were with mum wherever she went we met a lot of people. From young to old, I was able to converse well with anyone. We had many friends in church, our home-school community groups, and even had international pen pals.

When I got to college I felt I was more apt to jump into leadership and talk in front of people because I was socially savvy.

On why she was able to “find her passion” and be an interesting, high-achieving person:

And I had a lot of time to dream of all the things I could be. I would often finish school work and be out designing or engineering gadgets and inventions. I did a lot of discovery during those home-school years, through documentaries, books, or trying new things.

In the final twist to the plot, Camille Eddy, an African-American, was raised by a single mother in what she unironically describes as a “smaller town in the US” where the “cost of living was not so high.” What Eddy’s story can be distilled to is a parent who recognized that the public institutions were not enough and directly addressed the problem. All of her success, as she freely acknowledges, came from her mother’s decision and efforts. In the interest of full honesty, I should state that I and my siblings were home-schooled from 1stgrade through high school by parents who wanted a full classical education that allowed for personal growth and investment in the individual, so I am a strong advocate for independent schooling.

There is a divide, illustrated by Eddy’s story, created by the concept of investment. When Camille Eddy described her mother as wanting “to invest time in us and be around,” she was simply reporting her mother’s attitude and motivation. However, for those who aspire to have, or for their children to attain, Eddy’s achievements and success, her words are a reproach. What these people hear instead is, “my mother cared more about me than yours cared about you,” or “my mother did more for her children than you have done for yours.” With statements like Eddy’s, the onus of responsibility for a successful outcome shifts from state institutions to the individual. The responsibility always lay with the individual, especially vis-à-vis public education since it was designed at the outset to only accommodate the lowest common denominator, but, as philosopher Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind,witnessed, ignoring this truth became an overarching American trait.

There are other solutions that don’t involve cutting the public school out completely. For example: Dr. Ben Carson’s a single-, working-mother, who needed the public school, if only as a babysitter, threw out the TV and mandated that he and his brother go to the library and read. As a musician, I know many people who attended public school simply to obtain the requisite diploma for conservatory enrollment but maintain that their real educations occurred in their private preparation – music training, especially for the conservatory level, is inherently an individualistic, private pursuit. But all the solutions start with recognizing that the public schools are inadequate, and that most who have gone out and made a success of life in the bigger world normally had parents who broke them out of the state school mould. In the case of Dr. Carson’s mother, she did not confuse the babysitter (public school) with the educator (herself as the parent).

The casual expectation that the babysitter can also educate is part of the entitlement mentality toward education that is pervasive in American society. The mentality is rather new. Allan Bloom described watching it take hold, and he fingered the Silent Generation – those born after 1920 who fought in World War II; their primary historical distinction was their comparative lack of education due to growing up during the Great Depression and their lack of political and cultural involvement, hence the moniker “silent”[1]– as having raised their children (the Baby Boomers) to believe that high school graduation conferred knowledge and rights. As a boy Bloom had had to fight with his parents in order to be allowed to attend a preparatory school and then University of Chicago, so he later understandably found the entitlement mentality of his Boomer and Generation X students infuriating and offensive. The mental “closing” alluded to in Bloom’s title was the resolute refusal of the post-War generations either to recognize or to address the fact that their state-provided educations had left them woefully unprepared and uninformed.

To close, I have chosen a paraphrase of social historian Neil Howe regarding the Silent Generation, stagnation, and mid-life crises:

Their [Gen X’s] parents – the “Silent Generation” – originated the stereotypical midlife breakdown, and they came of age, and fell apart, in a very different world. Generally stable and solvent, they headed confidently into adult lives about the time they were handed high school diplomas, and married not long after that. You see it in Updike’s Rabbit books – they gave up their freedom early, for what they expected to be decades of stability.

Implicit to the description of the Silent Generation is the idea, expressed with the word “handed,” that they did not earn the laurels on which they built their futures. They took an entitlement, one which failed them. There is little intrinsic difference between stability and security; it is the same for freedom and liberty. History demonstrates that humans tend to sacrifice liberty for security. Branching out from education, while continuing to use it as a marker, we will look next at the erosive social effect entitlements have upon liberty and its pursuit.

[1]Apparently to be part of the “Greatest Generation,” a person had to have been born before or during World War I because, according to Howe, the Greatest Generation were the heroes – hero is one of the mental archetypes Howe developed in his Strauss-Howe generational theory – who engineered the Allied victory; the Silent Generation were just cogs in the machine and lacked the knowledge, maturity, and experience to achieve victory.

Evidence-based policy needs theory

This imaginary scenario is based on an example from my paper with Baljinder Virk, Stella Mascarenhas-Keyes and Nancy Cartwright: ‘Randomized Controlled Trials: How Can We Know “What Works”?’ 

A research group of practically-minded military engineers are trying to work out how to effectively destroy enemy fortifications with a cannon. They are going to be operating in the field in varied circumstances so they want an approach that has as much general validity as possible. They understand the basic premise of pointing and firing the cannon in the direction of the fortifications. But they find that the cannon ball often fails to hit their targets. They have some idea that varying the vertical angle of the cannon seems to make a difference. So they decide to test fire the cannon in many different cases.

As rigorous empiricists, the research group runs many trial shots with the cannon raised, and also many control shots with the cannon in its ‘treatment as usual’ lower position. They find that raising the cannon often matters. In several of these trials, they find that raising the cannon produces a statistically significant increase in the number of balls that destroy the fortifications. Occasionally, they find the opposite: the control balls perform better than the treatment balls. Sometimes they find that both groups work, or don’t work, about the same. The results are inconsistent, but on average they find that raised cannons hit fortifications a little more often.

A physicist approaches the research group and explains that rather than just trying to vary the height the cannon is pointed in various contexts, she can estimate much more precisely where the cannon should be aimed using the principle of compound motion with some adjustment for wind and air resistance. All the research group need to do is specify the distance to the target and she can produce a trajectory that will hit it. The problem with the physicist’s explanation is that it includes reference to abstract concepts like parabolas, and trigonometric functions like sine and cosine. The research group want to know what works. Her theory does not say whether you should raise or lower the angle of the cannon as a matter of policy. The actual decision depends on the context. They want an answer about what to do, and they would prefer not to get caught up testing physics theories about ultimately unobservable entities while discovering the answer.

Eventually the research group write up their findings, concluding that firing the cannon pointed with a higher angle can be an effective ‘intervention’ but that whether it does or not depends a great deal on particular contexts. So they suggest that artillery officers will have to bear that in mind when trying to knock down fortifications in the field; but that they should definitely consider raising the cannon if they aren’t hitting the target. In the appendix, they mention the controversial theory of compound motion as a possible explanation for the wide variation in the effectiveness of the treatment effect that should, perhaps, be explored in future studies.

This is an uncharitable caricature of contemporary evidence-based policy (for a more aggressive one see ‘Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials’). Metallurgy has well-understood, repeatedly confirmed theories that command consensus among scientists and engineers. The military have no problem learning and applying this theory. Social policy, by contrast, has no theories that come close to that level of consistency. Given the lack of theoretical consensus, it might seem more reasonable to test out practical interventions instead and try to generalize from empirical discoveries. The point of this example is that without theory empirical researchers struggle to make any serious progress even with comparatively simple problems. The fact that theorizing is difficult or controversial in a particular domain does not make it any less essential a part of the research enterprise.


Also relevant: Dylan Wiliam’s quip from this video (around 9:25): ‘a statistician knows that someone with one foot in a bucket of freezing water and the other foot in a bucket of boiling water is not, on average, comfortable.’

Pete Boettke’s discussion of economic theory as an essential lens through which one looks to make the world clearer.

ICE as Education Planners

Yale recently reclassified economics as a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), and other schools may follow suit. It’s a public-spirited regulatory arbitrage–by reclassifying to “Econometric and Quantitative Economics” they make it easier for international students to continue working in the U.S. after graduation. But by capitulating to regulatory nonsense, they’re sacrificing the long-run vitality of the field.

Here’s how this whole classification thing works: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has a “STEM Designated Degree Program List” that specifies which programs on the Department of Education’s list of degree programs qualify as STEM. Students with degrees in these fields get special status as far as immigration. ICE’s list includes (among others) several psychology programs and three social science programs: Archaeology; Cyber/Computer Forensics and Counterterrorism; and Econometrics and Quantitative Economics.

What can we infer from this? That the feds are defining STEM narrowly, with a greater emphasis on engineering than science. STEM is about training people to do science-y work with practical applications. Basic research gets lip service, but only really matters so far as it’s likely to have clear applications in the future.

Economics has some parts that fit into such a view of STEM. Even I’ll admit (controversially for Austrians and Anarcho-Capitalists) that positive-sum social engineering a) is possible (in modest increments), and b) has something to learn from economics. But to include all of econ in STEM would require using a broader definition of STEM.

So what’s the upshot? High profile departments will focus more on a narrower part of economics pushing much of the field to the periphery. This is a retreat into more isolated academic silos. “Economics, general” leaves a vague space around a department, but taking a more specific designation means they can be held to more specific expectations. It might have little impact on the day-to-day life of a department, but in the long run they’re hamstringing themselves.

The problem these departments are trying to address is that ICE has too much power. But by playing this game they’re letting ICE play central planner in the education industry!

On the point of quantifying in general and quantifying for policy purposes

Recently, I stumbled on this piece in Chronicle by Jerry Muller. It made my blood boil. In the piece, the author basically argues that, in the world of education, we are fixated with quantitative indicators of performance. This fixation has led to miss (or forget) some important truths about education and the transmission of knowledge. I wholeheartedly disagree because the author of the piece is confounding two things.

We need to measure things! Measurements are crucial to our understandings of causal relations and outcomes.  Like Diane Coyle, I am a big fan of the “dashboard” of indicators to get an idea of what is broadly happening.  However, I agree with the authors that very often the statistics lose their entire meaning. And that’s when we start targeting them!

Once we know that this variable becomes the object of target, we act in ways that increase this variable. As soon as it is selected, we modify our behavior to achieve fixed targets and the variable loses some of its meaning. This is also known as Goodhart’s law whereby “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure” (note: it also looks a lot like the Lucas critique).

Although Goodhart made this point in the context of monetary policy, it applies to any sphere of policy – including education. When an education department decides that this is the metric they care about (e.g. completion rates, minority admission, average grade point, completion times, balanced curriculum, ratio of professors to pupils, etc.), they are inducing a change in behavior which alters the significance carried by this variable.  This is not an original point. Just go to google scholar and type “Goodhart’s law and education” and you end up with papers such as these two (here and here) that make exactly the point I am making here.

In his Chronicle piece, Muller actually makes note of this without realizing how important it is. He notes that “what the advocates of greater accountability metrics overlook is how the increasing cost of college is due in part to the expanding cadres of administrators, many of whom are required to comply with government mandates(emphasis mine).

The problem he is complaining about is not metrics per se, but rather the effects of having policy-makers decide a metric of relevance. This is a problem about selection bias, not measurement. If statistics are collected without an intent to be a benchmark for the attribution of funds or special privileges (i.e. that there are no incentives to change behavior that affects the reporting of a particular statistics), then there is no problem.

I understand that complaining about a “tyranny of metrics” is fashionable, but in that case the fashion looks like crocs (and I really hate crocs) with white socks.

What classes are worth subsidizing?

A friend of mine has a great phrase that captures what’s wrong with about 1/3 of the population. They’re “people who would make good Nazis.” These are the obedient people who are ready to follow orders without thinking without having sufficiently high standards for whose orders they’ll follow.

My question is “what can I do to help my students not fall into this category?” The trouble is that these folks aren’t drawn to intellectual arguments. I need to get them in a more visceral way. I think the answer is art. These kids need to be watching TV shows and movies/shows like Donnie Darko and The Handmaid’s Tale (tell me your favorites in the comments!). They need something that will grab them by the lapels, shake them, and shout “question authority!”

Pragmatic folks (the sort of people who are normally excited to hear what a libertarian economist has to say) would usually think that schools should focus on pragmatic things. It’s certainly a good idea for kids to leave school with some ideas about how to manage their personal finances and research important issues. But the economic justification for subsidies rarely favors such pragmatic topics. Petroleum engineers don’t need their schooling subsidized because they’ll end up getting paid enough to pay off their student loans.

I like to think of myself as a pragmatic person*, but I’m increasingly coming around to the idea that art is worth subsidizing. Even (perhaps) if that means giving money to ridiculous people who argue incoherently against freedom.

Bildergebnis für ned flanders parents

As subsidies go, art is cheap. You don’t need to build anything as complicated as a particle accelerator. You just need to grab some kid out of the nearest Starbucks and give them a few bucks to make something.

You’ll end up paying for a lot of garbage, but life is full of waste (I’d bet good money that any good project involves a good amount of unrealized potential savings that are only obvious after the fact). For that matter, you’ll almost certainly do some degree of harm. If we threw money at art departments (the way we did with STEM departments during the cold war) the money spent on Che shirts could easily fuel the western hemisphere by attaching a generator to Guevara’s spinning corpse.

And the benefits will be vague and arguable. I’m not in the business of selling bonafide snake oil; this idea isn’t a magical cure-all.

In fact, the more you try to measure the benefits, the less benefit you might get. If we could measure important but intangible things like decency and thoughtfulness, we’d already have those things. But when we try to come up with proxies for important things, those proxies quickly become bad proxies. All the more so if we try to reward people for measurable achieving our goals. Funding should be unconditional (and focused on production rather than selection) if we want to avoid funding propaganda. We almost certainly will be funding propaganda, but if humanity is really worth saving, it’s a baby/bathwater tradeoff.

I’ve just spent three paragraphs convincing you that this might be a terrible idea. But I still think the net benefits could justify the cost. Imagine some imperfect estimate of the impact and an even more imperfect measure of the value created. What will we get out of this (on average)? In a word: more. More novels, web comics, paintings, podcasts, and films.

And with more art, there’s more cream to rise to the top. The best art typically encourages thoughtfulness and empathy. This is a “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach that would (at relatively low cost) saturate the public sphere with enough semi-thoughtful stuff to force usually-thoughtless people to think more clearly about the world around them.

If** we can subsidize free thought, this is how we’ll do it. And if it’s possible, it’s worth doing in a world where we clearly have too many people who would make good Nazis.

*If that was really true I’d work in a bank.

**Do I really think this would work? I’m not remotely sure. But I think it’s an idea worth discussing. I teach economics because I hope the marginal return (in terms of improving the “civic quality” of my students) is high. But it feels Sisyphusian at times, and some students are clearly not ready to get it. I worry that they’ll go out into the world ready to follow any maniac’s orders. In terms of the stability of a free and peaceful society, doing something about those people seems important.

How school choice can benefit teachers

Betsy DeVos was narrowly confirmed as US Education Secretary this week. Of all Trump’s nominees, she seems to have attracted the most rancor, which is a shame considering Trump’s pick for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is an outspoken supporter of the US’s brutally racist drug war. Concerns with DeVos’s background and experience are very well-founded. Concerns with her support for school choice, however, are not.

Others, including Nick Gillespie, have already covered the important student-centric case for school choice, pointing out in particular how greater choice benefits minority students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I will focus instead on the benefits to teachers as I see them based on my research in school choice systems in the United Kingdom and Sweden.

A great deal of opposition to school choice is based on the perception that it is necessarily an attack on the teaching profession (it is certainly the way teaching unions portray it). Indeed, it is too easy for generically anti-state advocates of school choice to fall into the assumption that there is a pitched conflict between the supposed special interests of publicly-funded teachers and the interests of students. On this narrow account, the purpose of school choice is to compel teachers to work harder, for longer, in order to produce better results for their students.

The reality is that teachers and students share a lot of common interests, namely having a safe, productive and enjoyable working environment. The broader case for school choice is that a competitive framework allows for these environments to emerge more readily than with a monopoly public provider. This does not necessarily mean importing a ‘competitive ethos’ inside the school gates. If anything, it is school administrators, or proprietors in the case of private schools, that need to be exposed to competition, not the teachers themselves.

How do teachers benefit from school choice in practice? First, schools exposed to competition are encouraged to devote more money to teachers’ salaries (for teachers both in public and private schools). Arguably, this is because retention of quality teachers is more important than more visible expenditure that are often more attractive to policymakers. These include new buildings and electronic classroom aids that officials think can give the public the impression of long-term ‘investment’ in a way that simply paying teachers more does not, even if that is, in fact, what works best.

Second, such schools can allocate training resources more effectively to teachers. I found in Sweden, which has an extensive school choice system, that one private network of schools had developed and provided their own continuing professional development curriculum rather than outsourcing it to consultants.

Third, multiple competing providers combined with the possibility of establishing new schools give more career options for teachers. Conversely, a public monopoly can easily succumb to group-think. This ends up excluding good teachers who happen to disagree with the prevailing orthodoxy. The career trajectory of British teacher, Katharine Birbalsingh, is a useful illustration. She was a successful state-school teacher who made the mistake of appearing at a Conservative Party conference in order to advocate for a more traditional pedagogy and to discuss problems of discipline in the school system. She was suspended from teaching as a result and essentially forced to resign her position.

Under a purely public school system, an outspoken teacher who disagrees with the way the majority of schools are run might be frozen out from further employment indefinitely. They would have to move to the fee-paying private sector instead in order to continue teaching at all. In the United Kingdom, however, we now have array of state-funded but independent schools called free schools. This allowed Birbalsingh to open a new school, the Michaela Community School, which so far appears to be enjoying some success. It is also an attractive employer for other teachers seeking an environment that supports greater discipline in the classroom. Thus she was able to continue contributing to public education. In this sense, a diverse range of schools, based on different pedagogical principles, does not only benefit students who can find a school that better matches their needs. It also gives teachers a wider range of environments in which to work.