Noah Millman

That’s Just Your Opinion


Rod Dreher joins Justin McBrayer in fretting that we are teaching students there are no “moral facts”:

A few weeks ago, I learned that students are exposed to this sort of [morally relativistic] thinking well before crossing the threshold of higher education. When I went to visit my son’s second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:

Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.

Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.

This comes from Common Core standards, McBrayer says. What’s wrong with this? McBrayer goes on:

First, the definition of a fact waffles between truth and proof — two obviously different features. Things can be true even if no one can prove them. For example, it could be true that there is life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it. Conversely, many of the things we once “proved” turned out to be false. For example, many people once thought that the earth was flat. It’s a mistake to confuse truth (a feature of the world) with proof (a feature of our mental lives). Furthermore, if proof is required for facts, then facts become person-relative. Something might be a fact for me if I can prove it but not a fact for you if you can’t. In that case, E=MC2 is a fact for a physicist but not for me.

But second, and worse, students are taught that claims are either facts or opinions. They are given quizzes in which they must sort claims into one camp or the other but not both. But if a fact is something that is true and an opinion is something that is believed, then many claims will obviously be both.

It’s pretty shocking to read the examples he found, and the evidence from his own child’s moral reasoning that this instruction is having a corrosive effect. McBrayer concludes:

In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.

This kind of nihilism cannot work in the real world, the world that they will encounter, the philosopher says. Read the whole thing. It’s important.

Well, I suppose it is important – but are we entirely sure that second-graders are prepared to handle Gettier counterexamples?

More seriously, let’s look at a very real-world second grade type example, and see where facts and opinions enter into the discussion.

Eddie takes Billy’s cookie without permission. Billy protests to the teacher. What are the facts of the case?

  • Eddie took the cookie.
  • The cookie belonged to Billy.
  • Billy did not give Eddie permission.

These are all facts of the case. If they can be established, then we know what happened.

To know what consequence follows, you need to know some other facts – facts of law. In this case, these are:

  • Taking other people’s things without permission is not allowed.
  • The teacher is the one who determines what happened, and what the consequence is if a student does something that is not allowed.

Those are the facts of the law: matters of the rules and who has jurisdiction over a given question. The teacher duly establishes the facts, and sends Eddie to the principal’s office.

What would be an example of an opinion? Well, Eddie could say that his punishment of being sent to the principal’s office is unfair, because he gave Billy a cookie last week so Billy has to give him a cookie this week. That’s an opinion. It’s certainly not a fact.

It’s also moral reasoning, and it should properly be engaged, so as to develop Eddie’s moral reasoning further. The teacher should say that he understands it feels unfair that Billy didn’t reciprocate in cookie exchange, but that this still doesn’t justify taking Eddie’s cookie without permission because – and here the teacher would have to give a second-grade level explanation of why this is wrong. For example: if everybody took whatever they thought they deserved, people would be taking from each other all the time, and there would be lots of fights. Or: how would you feel if you were Billy and somebody took your cookie without permission because he felt you owed it to him? Wouldn’t you feel that was wrong? Regardless of what he said, he would need to present an argument – which could be debated. Because that’s how moral reasoning works.

But he would also have to say: even if it feels unfair, Eddie has to suck it up, because the fact is that he, the teacher, gets to decide this question.

The point is: a debate about whether or not it’s wrong for Eddie to take Billy’s cookie is different in kind from a debate about whether or not Eddie actually took Billy’s cookie, and we need some kind of nomenclature for distinguishing the two questions. “Fact” versus “opinion” will do fine.

If there’s a problem here at all, it’s not with what constitutes a fact but with what constitutes an opinion – that is to say, a failure to distinguish between an opinion and a preference. For example: the statement “vanilla is the best flavor of ice cream” is an opinion. It’s also a stupid opinion because “best flavor of ice cream” is not really a thing. What the speaker really means is “I like vanilla ice cream best” or possibly “most people like vanilla ice cream best.” Either of those statements are statements of fact, not opinion – facts about individual preferences.

Now, what about “George Washington was the greatest American President?” That’s clearly a question of opinion, not fact, right? Ok – but is it a stupid opinion like “vanilla is the best flavor of ice cream?” The answer depends on whether a word like “greatest” has any social meaning. If it doesn’t – if we can’t reason together about what makes for greatness – then it’s a stupid opinion, because the only statements we can actually make are factual statements about personal preferences, our own or others’. But if it does – if we can reason together about what greatness means, its relationship to goodness, or to sheer historical importance – then it’s not a stupid opinion, because we can share it, debate it, and have our minds changed about it.

Which brings me to a final test proposition.

“There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet.” Fact? Or opinion?

Obviously, it’s a problem if you teach the above proposition as an example of fact. And if it isn’t a fact, then it’s an opinion. But if you were a pious Muslim parent, and learned that your child was taught that a central tenet of your religion was “just a matter of opinion,” you’d be unhappy, right? That statement is certainly more than a statement of fact about personal preference (“I like Islam best!”) – but it’s also not really something subject to public dispute, by which I don’t mean that such dispute is blasphemous or forbidden but that it’s a category error, at least within modernity, to argue with a proposition like the above in the way that you might argue about whether it was right or wrong for Eddie to take Billy’s cookie, or whether George Washington was the greatest President.

The statement, “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet,” is a creedal statement, an affirmation. It’s something more forceful and substantial than a preference, not really subject to public reason like an opinion, and not subject to verification like a fact. It belongs in its own category of statements.

My question is whether McBrayer thinks moral truths belong in that same category. If so, then I would say that he is the one arguing against moral reasoning – arguing, in fact, that moral reasoning is impossible and that therefore what we need to teach children is obedience to moral commands. That view has a venerable history in Western and non-Western philosophy, but I dissent from it.

If he doesn’t think moral truths belong in that category, then I think he is just objecting to the specific words chosen by the Common Core, and not to the distinction itself. Because the distinction hanging over the bulletin board is entirely valid and even essential to moral reasoning. If it’s not being used that way, to promote the development of moral reasoning, but instead to wall us all off from each other with our indisputable personal preferences, the problem isn’t with the distinction itself, but with the fact (if it is the case) that we’re taking our view of opinion from Jeffrey Lebowski.

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What, Me Worry?

My latest column at The Week argues for “cheerful pessimism” in foreign policy:

Once upon a time, Berlin was where the world was most likely to end, the point where the armies of freedom and of tyranny — or, if you prefer, the armies of progress and of reaction — stood eyeball to eyeball, wondering who would blink first.

At the height of superpower tension, right as the Berlin Wall was being constructed, Billy Wilder directed the film One, Two, Three, about the divided city and continent — and one Coca Cola executive’s schemes to conquer both sides of the Iron Curtain. The film’s satire was wide-ranging, encompassing conniving American executives, spoiled Southern belles, inadequately de-Nazified German workers. And our great superpower rival — against which America stood ready to incinerate half the world, and against which we were enjoined by our new president to “bear any burden, pay any price” — was portrayed as poor and incompetent, its officials petty, lustful, backstabbing, and clownish. In other words: not much different from the folks at Coca Cola.

It is unfortunately difficult to imagine a similar film being made today. And that’s a shame. It would be helpful if we could remember that our rivals and enemies share with us a full respective measure of human stupidity and vice. It would be even more helpful if we could remember just how extraordinarily weak our current enemies are, relative to ourselves and relative to those we’ve faced in the past.

I say this not because I believe knowledge of our common humanity will enable us to see past our differences, nor because if we realized how weak our opponents are we would be bolder in confronting them. On the contrary: every single war fought by humanity was fought between groups of human beings, and most of the time both sides recognized that fact. And substantially weaker opponents are frequently able to deny their would-be conquerors victory — just ask George III. Or, for that matter, George W. Bush.

But if we had a more realistic view of our opponents, then we would realize that our conflicts with them are far less existential than we are often led to believe. Which would be comforting, because many of them are also far less likely to be resolvable than we would like to believe, either by diplomacy or by force.

Andrew Bacevich begins his book, Washington Rules with a meditation on Berlin similarly intended to call attention to how much we got wrong about the Cold War. Specifically, right after the wall came down, he crossed over into East Berlin – and he saw, suddenly, just how weak an opponent the Communist East was. That insight led him to question the verities of much of his prior Cold War thinking. In much of the rest of the American establishment, it led instead to triumphalism. And triumphalism has now turned to an existential crisis as we realize that we cannot actually dictate terms to the entire world.

My own view is that the situation with Russia is hopeless. We have very few levers to change Russian behavior in the short term. Risking war over Crimea or eastern Ukraine would be absurd, sanctions are unlikely to have any material effect, and arming the Ukrainian government will just escalate the scale and cost of civil war. Meanwhile, Russia under Putin or under a successor is unlikely to be ready to admit that it has come to a stable accommodation with the West even if one were offered. Neither carrots nor sticks are likely to be efficacious.

But the situation is also not very serious. Russian revanchism is bad news for Ukrainians, Moldovans, Georgians, etc. Their independence just got much more expensive than they can afford. But the international system will not fall apart if we are unable to reverse Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, nor is Russia crazy enough to attack Germany, or even Finland. We should keep the situation in perspective and set policy accordingly.

The situation in Iran is not similarly hopeless, but we shouldn’t get our hopes up too much either. Iran is not going to be “turned” into a U.S. ally – because that wouldn’t actually serve either American or Iranian interests. But Iran does have a lot to gain from normal relations with the United States, and very little to gain from actually building a nuclear weapon. It’s possible that there is a window currently open to ending a period of fruitless hostility, and it behooves us to make every effort to go through it if it is.

But it’s also possible that there is no such window, that Iran’s regime depends too much for its legitimacy on active hostility to the West and to the United States specifically, and that therefore we really are in a zero-sum situation. That may be the most likely scenario, in fact. But even in that case, we can’t lose sight of the overwhelming disparity in power and resources between the United States and Iran, and the relative insignificance of the latter in the larger scheme of world affairs. A failure to improve relations with Iran would be a disappointment. It would not be a catastrophe.

There is really only one country on earth of whom one could say that whether we manage our relationship with them well or poorly has potentially existential implications, and that is China, whose importance to the world economy and to the future environmental health of the planet rivals ours, and whose potential military strength does as well. Fortunately, we don’t seem to be doing as catastrophic a job on that front as we sometimes seem to be elsewhere.

So on China, I’m nervously optimistic. On the rest of the world, a cheerful pessimism strikes me as a useful tonic.

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Non-Jewish Humor

Rod Dreher quotes Terry Teachout:

Teachout is reviewing a new Hope biography, by Richard Zoglin that calls Hope the “entertainer of the century.” Why is it that Hope was phenomenally popular for much of the 20th century, but is now virtually unknown by people under the age of 60? Teachout says:

But Zoglin, for all his admirable thoroughness, inexplicably fails to emphasize the central fact about Hope and his career—one that not only goes a long way toward explaining why he was so successful, but also why we no longer find him funny.

Simply: He wasn’t Jewish.


What was missing from his style? Even though Hope was a first-generation European immigrant, there was nothing remotely ethnic about his stage manner. He was among the few successful WASP comics of his generation, and despite the fact that he hired such Jewish writers as Larry Gelbart and Mel Shavelson, the jokes they penned for him lacked the sharp ironic tang of Jewish humor that is to this day one of the essential ingredients in American comedy.

So, clearly we need a list of currently living non-Jewish comedians of note.

I’m tempted to start with Eddie Murphy and Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock and so forth, but I understand that this would be met with “That’s not what I meant.” Ditto if I decided to mention Tina Fey or Amy Pohler or heck, Carol Burnett, who is still out there doing great work and whose classic show has aged marvelously well. Anybody who’s plausibly an outsider is, by a kind of magic switcheroo, an insider. Which is completely unfair. You don’t get much more all-American than Bill Cosby (and the cloud he’s now under has no bearing on this particular question).

I guess I could mention Patton Oswalt or Louis CK or Zach Galifianakis or Stephen Colbert but I’m sure they’d all get axed for being too interesting. So what are we really saying here? That anything non-bland is implicitly Jewish, like the way anybody from New York is implicitly Jewish? That’s ridiculous, right? What – are we going to posthumously circumcise Charlie Chaplin because he’s aged better than Hope has?

Fine: are there any genuinely non-threatening but perfectly successful comics who are white, male, not Jewish, all-American, still living, and who, let’s put it this way, just don’t seem like Lenny’s children.

Here’s my very quickly assembled, too-short list of extremely well-known names:

  • Johnny Carson. Check out his classic bits. Are they the funniest bits in history? No. Have they aged well? Surprisingly.
  • Throw in Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien – heck, throw in David Letterman. Contrary to popular belief, Jews did not invent irony – just ask the British. We invented anger.
  • Dana Carvey. You don’t make a career playing George H. W. Bush by seeming even vaguely Jewish.
  • Will Ferrell. Leader of the Frat Pack. Not Jewish. Not even Italian.
  • Steve Martin. An oddball? Sure. Threatening? Not really. Jewish? Not at all.
  • Hey, what about Drew Carey? By any reasonable measure, Carey is extremely successful and well-known. If you don’t think he’s funny, you’re moving the goal posts.

Give me a bit of time with the Google and I’m sure I could put together a much longer list. American comedy, like America, is much more diverse now than it was in Hope’s day. That doesn’t mean there are no non-ethnic comedians, or that white bread comedians can only be funny by aping a “Jewish” style. It just means that there’s no one style, and no one comic, who can be as overwhelmingly dominant as Hope was in his day.

Bob Hope’s work may have aged poorly because that just sometimes happens. Somebody who is just made for a particular era doesn’t age well into another. Somebody else ages better. But that applies to Jewish comedians as well. Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner will be funny forever. You know who also hasn’t aged so great? Lenny Bruce, the original Jewish rebel comedian.

You know who else feels more and more dated as time goes by?

Woody Allen.

Speaking of which:

(h/t Steve Sailer for that delightful bit of Canadian humor. Hey – do Canucks count?)

UPDATE: For those who are interested, Adam Gopnik’s take on Hope can be found here.

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Pessimism Has No Place In American Foreign Policy Debate

Egyptian protesters tear down an American flag at the United States embassy in Cairo on September 11, 2012, during a demonstration against a film deemed offensive to Islam and the Prophet Mohammad. UPI/Ahmed Jomaa / Photo via Newscom.

Damon Linker has a new column about Jeb Bush and the Iraq War that really should be several columns – it goes in so many fruitful directions, but isn’t able fully to explore any of them. But that’s the nice thing about having an old-school blog – I can spend as much space as I like exploring whatever I wish.

The first potential column is about how Jeb Bush will have a hard time addressing the Iraq War:

[The Iraq War] remains very unpopular outside the fever swamps of the far right, so defending the decision to launch it could be a kiss of death in the general election. Calling it a mistake, on the other hand, would be viewed as a swipe at his brother, which would risk looking peevish and threaten to ignite a GOP civil war.

I have no idea how Jeb will finagle the issue. (Judging by his statements so far, he’ll try to have it both ways by asserting he’s his “own man” while hiring a bunch of retreads from his brother’s old neocon-ish foreign policy team.)

I actually think this is going to be much easier than Linker thinks. Bush doesn’t need to come out full-throatedly in favor of or against the Iraq War to win the GOP primary. He can just say that his brother was somewhat naive about how tenacious our enemies would be, and hence the first couple of years after the invasion went really badly. But by the end of his term he had won the war that Obama then lost. This appears to be exactly what Republican primary voters want to hear: they don’t want to re-litigate that war, but rather to frame any discussion about that war in the context of where they want to go from here, which is toward crushing ISIS mercilessly.

In the general election, then, he will face a candidate – Clinton – who supported the Iraq War wholeheartedly, and the Libyan war, and pushed for direct intervention in Syria. So Bush will not have to do any “defending” of the decision to invade Iraq. On the contrary – he’ll be able to go on the offensive with respect to more recent foreign policy failures. Clinton, after all, has a track record. Jeb Bush does not. It’s just a depressing fact that so long as there are two solid hawks up there on stage, we will not get a meaningful foreign policy debate in the general election.

That’s why we badly need a peace candidate in the race. But I only grow firmer in my conviction that there isn’t really a constituency for one.

Linker’s second potential column is about how, to-date, we’ve re-litigated the Iraq War the wrong way:

Ever since it became clear in the first months after the 2003 invasion of Iraq that there were no weapons of mass destruction in the country, the Iraq War debate has focused on intelligence failures and how the administration of George W. Bush (aided and abetted by mainstream media outlets) supposedly misled the public into supporting the war.

This has always been a distraction and a misconstrual of the state of the argument prior to the invasion.

The fact is that just about every intelligence agency in the world (and not just the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans) believed that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs. The debate hinged on whether these weapons constituted a threat sufficiently large enough to justify toppling Hussein. I came down firmly on the side of No, along with Barack Obama, Pat Buchanan, Dominque de Villepin, and a few staffers at The Nation. (That’s an exaggeration, but not by much. Or so it felt at the time.)

This is a hugely important point, but one that substantially undercuts his first potential column. We’ve re-litigated Iraq this way precisely because it is very comfortable ground for hawks. And that’s exactly why the question “well, if Iraq really did have WMD, would the invasion have been justified then?” will not be asked in 2016.

We know that because we’re actively debating the Iranian nuclear program, and how we should deal with it, right now. That program is a known fact. We don’t know whether the Iranians intend to build a bomb, but it is reasonable to assume that the goal of the program is to make the country nuclear-capable. From the perspective of the hawks, the goal of diplomacy is to prevent that outcome – and if we can’t prevent that outcome through some combination of diplomacy and sanctions, we have to be prepared to use force in the “last resort.” Of course, that threat itself shapes the contours of diplomacy in ways that may prevent diplomacy’s success.

To make the contrary case, the case for ruling out the use of force to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, you have to make the case that war would be worse than allowing Iran to succeed. That doesn’t mean giving up – there are other carrots and sticks that can be deployed to, hopefully, find a middle ground that allows Iran to say it is developing a nuclear capability while allowing the rest of the international community to say that it has proper safeguards in place to prevent Iran from easily “breaking out” and building nuclear weapons – and that provides proper incentives (positive as well as negative) for Iran to want to remain a non-nuclear state. But it means recognizing that the hawks might be right about Iran’s intentions with respect to its nuclear program – that it intends to get a bomb eventually one way or another – and concluding that preemptive war is still not worth it.

That’s not a case that anybody running in the general election in 2016 is likely to make – including Rand Paul in the unlikely event he gets the GOP nod.

Linker’s third potential column is about what really motivated going into Iraq:

Immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, there seemed to be a realization on the part of some in the foreign policy establishment both inside and outside the Bush administration that the events of that morning signaled something new: sub-state actors could declare war and inflict levels of harm we formerly assumed only a state could accomplish.

That’s what was going to make the War on Terror different. After Afghanistan, it wouldn’t be waged against states. It would target sub-state actors within states — usually states too weak to combat terrorists operating within their borders. This meant the war would be largely covert, with victories unheralded and defeats unannounced. Its signature would be special-ops raids, surgical missile strikes, and drone warfare.

But as we had already learned by the summer of 2002, when planning for the invasion of Iraq really got rolling, this new kind of war could be frustrating. It didn’t produce enormous casualties, like traditional land wars often do, but it also produced little glory. Victory was muddy, indeterminate. The war’s governing mood was ambivalence. The enemy could easily melt away into obscurity only to crop up in another country thousands of miles away. It could be maddening, like a global game of Whack-a-Mole.

And that, more than anything else, is why we found it so tempting to declare war on a country. Finally something familiar! Something satisfying!

Except that the Iraq War wasn’t just a distraction. It actively set back the War on Terror by creating a new failed state, right under our noses, where Islamist terrorism could breed. (As everyone now knows, the Islamic State was incubated in the chaos of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.)

There are several problems with this chronology – starting with the fact that the planning for the Iraq War began in the 1990s, with support from both parties, and that a big part of the motivation for the Iraq War was that the Persian Gulf War – a classic war between states – had such an “unsatisfying” outcome.

Linker suggests that we invaded Iraq because that fit our “Cold War” mindset, a mindset we were more comfortable with than we were with the ambiguous War on Terror. But this is highly problematic. The Soviet Union itself was only intermittently seen as simply a state in a world of states; at least as often – and almost exclusively if we’re talking about the American right – it was viewed as the head, or, better, the lead instrument, of a transnational, ideological force known as Communism.  And many of the conflicts of the Cold War were fought not between but within states. The Soviet Union supported revolutionary movements around the world; the United States sponsored counter-revolutionary forces, including coups (Iran, Chile, Guatemala, etc.) and, by the 1980s, insurgencies (Angola, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, etc.).

More importantly, of the three largest inter-state conflicts of the period – Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan – two resulted in total defeat for the more directly-engaged superpower, and one resulted in a bloody and painful stalemate. There’s a reason why many Americans, particularly but not exclusively on the right, were never comfortable with the Cold War – precisely because it was “unsatisfying” in all the ways that Linker describes the War on Terror as being.

These problems reading the past lead Linker to a questionable conclusion:

Barack Obama seemed to understand all of this. He strongly opposed the Iraq War and as president quickly returned the War on Terror to its original strategy of employing mainly covert ops and drone strikes.

And yet, as if to prove that he could be just as foolish as George W. Bush, Obama repeated his predecessor’s mistake when he approved air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi’s government in Libya. This time it wasn’t fear that tempted a president to act. Obama’s a Democrat, after all, so he was motivated by a bleeding heart — by the humanitarian imperative to protect the rebellious civilians of Benghazi against the Libyan air force.

And it worked. Until it didn’t.

Just like in Baghdad.

The problem here is not the analysis of Libya (I can quibble over how “humanitarian” the motives really were, but that would truly be a quibble), but the implicit argument that President Obama got the War on Terror “right” prior to or apart from Libya. The evidence from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, west Africa and elsewhere is at best equivocal on that point. Covert ops and drone strikes have indeed killed lots of bad guys. It’s not obvious that we are making “progress” though.

This, of course, is Linker’s point about the War on Terror being ambiguous, without clear metrics for victory, etc. But, as with the Iranian nuclear program, if we really want to have a debate about this question, we have to ask not only what means are more successful and what are more counterproductive, but how we respond if all options present a real likelihood of further destabilization.

Linker’s ultimate conclusion – that someone needs to stand up for the devils we know (Assad, Qaddafi, Hussein, Mubarak, etc.) against the devils we don’t (al Qaeda, ISIS, etc.) – sounds world-wearily serious, but it’s actually comforting, because it suggests that there is actually a clear choice to be made, just one that leaves us feeling morally ambiguous and unsatisfied. But I don’t think the choices are nearly that clear.

That doesn’t mean we should opt for insane-but-clear over less-insane-but-muddled.

It just means that we shouldn’t hold out much hope for a robust debate that includes the deeply pessimistic perspective on our current conflict that, I have come to suspect, Linker and I share.

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Unsafe On-Line “Streets” and Intellectual Gated Communities

My latest column for The Week is up. It’s about the Marquette brouhaha that Rod Dreher, among others, has been blogging about. In it, I bravely blame the mob of on-line harassers for everything that’s wrong in the world.

Absent the mob, the initial recording by the student would likely have been of interest only to the philosophy department’s faculty. “My teacher wouldn’t let me make a valid argument” is hardly a page-one news story. Absent the mob, the professor’s blog post would similarly have raised few hackles; it would have been no worse a breach of etiquette than saying the same things out loud in the faculty lounge.

That mob is what transformed this situation from a routine and largely uninteresting ivory tower spat into a dark precedent for academic freedom. Which is what this is. It has become all too difficult to draw clear contours around the new implicit restrictions on academic speech, which would appear to put professors in the distinctly odd position of being less free to criticize one another in print than civilians not crowned with the blessing of tenure.

And, ironically, the original complaint of the student — that he wasn’t allowed to discuss a particular topic because the teacher feared he would offend other students — is likely in part a consequence of the toxic debate environment the online mob has helped create. It is probably not an accident that demands for “safe spaces” and ever-expanding definitions of harassment are features of the same landscape as 4chan and Reddit.

Check it out there.

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Does Bibi Speak For Me?


Assuming Prime Minister Netanyahu actually winds up speaking to Congress at all, he’s made it clear that he will be speaking “as a representative of the entire Jewish people.” This has already prompted a campaign by Jewish opponents (including liberal Zionists) to declare in response: no, Mr. Prime Minister, you don’t. But does Bibi have a point?

From my perspective, yes, and no.

Yes, in the sense that Israel, by its own lights and for its entire history, represents the satisfaction of the legitimate national aspirations of the Jewish people. Even if you, as a Jew, deny the existence of such national aspirations; even if you, as a person of Jewish descent, deny affiliation with anything called “the Jewish people,” inasmuch as such a people exists (whether or not you affiliate with it) and inasmuch as that people has any legitimate national aspirations (whether or not you ascribe to them), Israel has declared itself to be their satisfaction, and a wide array of national governments around the world have concurred.

So what Netanyahu is saying has some logic to it. He’s the head of the Israeli government. The State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. Hence, he is a representative of the entire Jewish people. Saying “you don’t represent me” sounds an awful lot like the “not in my name” crowd from the Bush years, but you don’t get to disown a government that you don’t like and take it back when you like it better. It’s either yours or it isn’t.

Except, not.

First, “representative” is a very specific word. Israel may undertake, on its own initiative and for its own reasons, the defense of the interests of Jews outside of Israel. Indeed, by its own ideological lights, it is obliged to do so. But that doesn’t mean Israel is in any meaningful sense representing those interests. Those interests are presumably already represented by the governments where those individuals reside – indeed, they must be, unless we are to understand Jews in the diaspora as merely temporarily resident aliens.

To make an analogy, Vladimir Putin may see himself as the secular champion of Orthodox Christians everywhere. The Russian electorate may decide to endorse this ambition, and endorse a foreign policy of intervening to defend Serbs and Bulgarians and Greeks and so forth against their enemies. Serbs, Bulgarians and Greeks might even be pleased to have Vladimir Putin in their corner. But Vladimir Putin would not, thereby, become the representative of Serbs and Bulgarians and Greeks. And it would be very weird for, say, Angela Merkel to consult with Vladimir Putin as if he were – rather than talking to the leaders of Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia directly.

Second, Benjamin Netanyahu is not the head of the Israeli state. He’s the head of the Israeli government. If someone from Israel were to posture as the “representative” of the Jewish people around the world, logically that would be the head of state, which in Israel is the President.

Israel’s Presidency is a fairly weak office, but that’s not actually the problem with this formulation. The problem is that the Presidency, elected by the Knesset and generally parceled out to a well-regarded over-the-hill politician, is not an office with a lot of symbolic heft. If you really want someone to be a the living symbol of an organic nation, someone members of that nation can look to and love even if they are not citizens, then what you are looking for is a monarch.

Third, Bibi is not coming to Congress to say: I, as the representative and defender of Jews worldwide say: you must protect your Jewish citizens better, or you’ll have to deal with me. That’s an argument that, perhaps, he could make in France. On the contrary: he is coming to Congress to say: I, Prime Minister of Israel, say that the negotiations with Iran must be scuttled, lest their nuclear program develop into an existential threat to Israel. And because I am the representative of Jews worldwide, you can be assured that America’s Jewish citizens back me up.

That’s not “representation.” That’s a demand for fealty. To which the response, “no, Mr. Prime Minster, you don’t represent me” is singularly appropriate in a way that it would absolutely not be coming from Bibi’s fellow citizens.

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President Obama’s Bully Lectern


I understand where Damon Linker is coming from in his latest column on President Obama’s predilection for playing professor-in-chief, but I think it behooves him to consider the possibility that the President is not confused about his role, but is consciously trying to do something different with it – possibly something foolish, but possibly not. It’s hard to know without examining what that “something” is.

But let me start with a cranky quibble. Linker says:

What Obama’s comments demonstrate is that he lacks a sufficient appreciation of the crucial difference between politics and morality.

Broadly speaking, morality is universalistic in scope and implication, whereas politics is about how a particular group of people governs itself. Morality is cosmopolitan; politics is tribal. Morality applies to all people equally. Politics operates according to a narrower logic — a logic of laws, customs, habits, and mores that bind together one community at a specific time and place. Morality dissolves boundaries. Politics is about how thisgroup of people lives here, as distinct from those groups over there.

That’s certainly one way of understanding morality – but far from the only one. Etymologically, “morality” comes from a Latin root that relates to manners – and manners are indisputably a historically- and culturally-rooted matter, and not at all universalistic. Aristotle, and modern-day Aristoteleans, would surely agree that it’s specious to talk about ethics and morality as something independent of a community’s self-understanding. Historically, in the United States, “morals” legislation has been overwhelmingly particularistic in orientation, either referring explicitly to (Protestant) Christian conceptions of morality or more generally to “community standards” that turn out to be rooted in same.

What Linker appears to have in mind is Kantian conceptions of morality. I know he’s read his Hegel, so I know he knows how this conception can be attacked – but more to the point, he knows that even within the liberal tradition there are other ways of coming at the problem.

The same criticism can be leveled at Linker’s account of politics: this is one way of understanding the realm of politics, but hardly the only one. For Aristotle, politics was distinguished from ethics inasmuch as the former treated questions of collective organization, the latter questions of individual good (said good being only truly discoverable within the context of a collective). The two realms, though, were inextricably related; politics wasn’t just a matter of tribalism, but of discovering truths about the best way to organize groups of human beings in harmony with their natures. And the Greeks eagerly exported this conception across the empire Alexander conquered. In modern terms, virtually all politics have appealed to and advanced some conception of the good. The American Revolution was a political movement, but it was dedicated to a bunch of propositions that went beyond “we don’t like paying taxes so we’re going to stop now.”

I’m aware that Linker is, himself, dedicated to certain propositions about the distinction between these spheres. I merely ask that he recognize that his is a distinctive program with both political and moral implications, as opposed to something everyone agrees on and for which the President of the United States merely “lacks appreciation.”

So: Linker thinks politics should be tribal, while morality should be Kantian. And he’s upset that the President, in his remarks . . . did what exactly?

If the president truly believes that ISIS poses a dire threat to the United States — one requiring a military response that puts the lives of American soldiers at risk, costs billions of dollars, and leads to the death of hundreds or thousands of people on the other side of the conflict — then it makes no sense at all for him simultaneously to encourage Americans to adopt a stance of moral ambiguity toward that threat.

Does Obama want us to kill the bloodthirsty psychopaths of ISIS? Or does he want us to reflect dispassionately on the myriad ways that they’re really not that different from the grandfather of my friend from Mississippi?

I’ll say it again: as an intellectual exercise, Obama’s remarks weren’t wrong. Christianity has been invoked to justify a wide range of moral atrocities down through the millennia, and the Crusades, Inquisition, and Jim Crow are all excellent examples. I would welcome and praise an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates making that exact point.

But Ta-Nehisi Coates isn’t the president of the United States, and Barack Obama isn’t a writer for The Atlantic.

A wise president understands that his role is categorically different from that of a journalist, a scholar, a moralist, or a theologian. It’s not a president’s job to gaze down dispassionately on the nation, rendering moral judgments from the Beyond. His job is to defend our side. Yes, with intelligence and humility. But the time for intelligence and humility is in crafting our policies, not in talking about them after the fact.

As I say, I get completely where Linker is coming from. He wants the President to make a practical, not a moral, case for engagement in a war against ISIS, and to leave it at that. Here’s a threat, here’s how we’re going to address the threat, and our boys have the threat well in hand. All in a day’s work.

But let’s consider a variety of possible reasons why the President might have taken the rhetorical tack he took beyond what I acknowledge is a personal preference for the lectern.

First of all, he may genuinely be concerned not only about ISIS but about the possibility of inflaming American moralistic nationalism by engaging with ISIS. The President may feel that, properly aroused, our country might very quickly get behind a far more robust effort to “kill the bloodthirsty psychopaths” and might not, in fact, be so particular about who else gets killed in the process. The reaction to his prayer breakfast speech, and the disposition of the opposition party on these matters, suggest that such fears are not entirely specious. And so, he wants to let us know, this is not a great crusade against evil. It’s more like a police action against a particularly monstrous group of criminals. He may want us to understand ISIS as more the heirs to the Manson family than to Saladin.

Second, he may be concerned about diplomacy. The best – likely the only – effective response to ISIS must be one rooted in the Sunni world. Perhaps America can help, but we  can’t lead except from behind. And so, he repeatedly returns to formulations of the conflict calculated not to offend the sensibilities of allies in the region who we need to occupy the front lines. Part of that ritual formulation is to say: this is not a conflict between tribes; it’s a conflict between good and evil within another tribe; and we’re taking the side of good not because we are the good tribe but because taking the side of good is good.

Third, he may be thinking not as President of the United States but as Leader of the Free World. Linker may decry the fact – plenty of writers here at TAC decry it daily – but the United States occupies a quasi-imperial position in the world system. We’re the global hegemon, the hyper power, the indispensable nation. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, a crown we should covet to keep or a poisoned chalice we should try to put down, it’s still a fact. And it’s obvious that the President views his role as managing that position as effectively as possible. From the perspective of that position, the Muslim world is not a foreign tribe but a difficult and restive province far from the imperial center.

Or, you know, maybe he was thinking that this was a prayer breakfast, a singularly appropriate place, one would think, to speak from a position “beyond” tribal politics. Of course, if politics and morality are to be treated as strictly separate realms, then a prayer breakfast is a singularly inappropriate place for a President to speak at all. Maybe Linker’s problem isn’t the President’s failure to conform to the “bully pulpit” expectations Americans have, but to those expectations in the first place. But those expectations have a long lineage.

President Obama’s warnings about the danger of self-righteousness owe an obvious debt to Niebuhr, but they also trace back to President Lincoln’s warnings about Northern self-righteousness in the cause of anti-slavery. Lincoln was acutely aware that the South’s cause was self-interested, but that awareness led him not to condemnation but to compassion, because he understood that it implied that the anti-slavery North, if it had the climate and history of the South, would likely have adopted the same stance. Right was still right, and wrong was still wrong, but judgment belonged to someone more exalted than the President. Nobody should pat themselves on the back for choosing right; very likely, the choice was less-costly for them than for somebody who chose wrong. Our proper stance is charity for all, malice toward none.

Perhaps that puts a finger on the real problem. Lincoln used complex moral language to address a nation wracked by civil war, but ISIS is not us, and perhaps wars are fought more effectively when the people are encouraged to see the enemy as uniquely evil, ourselves as uniquely good. But if so, that’s an argument against American hegemonism, against limited war – and against engaging with ISIS. It’s an argument that a properly “tribal” politics is inconsistent with our quasi-imperial position, and that if we want to avoid carrying the flag of the crusades we had better carry no flag at all so far from our territorial waters. It strikes me as strange to choose to marry a policy argument of that sort to a critique of the President for being insufficiently solicitous of the sentiments of Johnny Jingo.

Or maybe Lincoln was just confused about the distinction between morality and politics.

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Uz on the Barents Sea

Will the bands of fishermen make a banquet of him?
Will the bands of fishermen make a banquet of him?

Readers of this space are familiar with my attachment to The Book of Job. My personal favorite “double feature feature” film pairing was anchored by a discussion of how each film – “The Tree of Life” and “A Serious Man” – related to that masterwork of religious philosophy.

Well, if I wanted to, I could now revise that piece to a triple feature feature – because one of the more powerful films of the past year is the Oscar-nominated Russian film, “Leviathan,” from director Andrey Zvyagintsev - and guess what? At its heart, this movie is also a meditation on Jobian themes.

The story of the film is simple. A fairly ordinary Russian man, Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), denizen of a town on the Barents Sea coast, is facing the loss of his property. Using whatever the Russian equivalent of eminent domain, the corrupt local mayor (Roman Madyanov) plans to summarily kick Kolya off the land he and his family have lived on for decades. Kolya is convinced that the mayor plans to build himself a palace on the land, and is determined to do whatever is necessary to keep what is his. More specifically, he invites his old army buddy, Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a Moscow lawyer, to come up and not-so-subtly threaten the mayor with exposure of his many misdeeds if he doesn’t back off – or at least offer a fair market rate of compensation to Kolya for the loss of his valuable beachfront property.

At first, it looks like the plan is going relatively well. The mayor is intimidated by the august names Dmitriy casually drops, and even more intimidated by the dossier he has compiled. Though he rages at his flunkies, his rage feels impotent – he’s clearly seriously considering caving, at least on the point of compensation.

But the local bishop (sounding very like a proponent of the “Orthodox Jihad” that Rod Dreher talked about on his blog) tells him, in so many words, to gird up his loins like a man. God gave you any power or authority you may have. If you are using it for God’s ends, you should not flinch, doubt or hesitate – because it was for these ends that you were entrusted power in the first place. At the same time, Kolya’s camp unravels with startling rapidity. His young wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), sleeps with Dmitriy, and is caught in the act by Kolya’s son, her stepson. Kolya beats him up, and before Dmitriy has recovered from these injuries he finds himself threatened by the mayor’s goons. Dmitriy flees back to Moscow, leaving Lilya to her guilt and Kolya to face the mayor’s wrathful vengeance alone. And, if you can believe it, this is only the beginning of Kolya’s troubles.

Why does Lilya cheat on her husband? Her actions are never really explained, but my sense is that we are supposed to see Dmitriy through her eyes as Kolya’s natural superior. He’s younger, better-looking, smarter. He’s also the true savior of the family if the family is to find one – Kolya cannot save them himself. He is a man who, he says, believes in facts, in objective reality – he is not deluded that God is going to engineer an outcome that sentiment might favor. If we are to see the world in that way – which is how Kolya, defying the “righteous” authority of the mayor, implicitly does – is Dmitriy not a more appropriate man to cleave to than Kolya? That’s my sense of what her actions signify. And in the end they leave her utterly lost.

In the depths, facing the loss of everything he ever cared about, and facing yet further loss to come, Kolya turns to a priest, who tells him the story of Job as a parable of obvious relevance to Kolya’s life. “To whom do you pray?” he asks him – this, to the priest is the decisive question. He offers Kolya no answers, but only a choice: whose authority do you accept, as total and absolute? Kolya doesn’t see the point of praying at all if there is no promise of reward – the reward that Job received, at the end of the biblical book. And so he goes to meet his end with no consolation.

The foregoing may make the film sound a bit pat. It isn’t. This is a film rich in life, from the stunning cinematography (by Mikhail Krichman), to the powerful ensemble acting, to the painful cross-currents of these characters lives (particularly the fault line that divides stepmother from stepson), to the humor provided by the ensemble of peripheral characters, particularly a corrupt police officer who leans on Kolya for free repairs of his truck, and Lilya’s mouthy best friend from the local fish packing plant. One can appreciate the film fully without paying any attention to the way in which it uses the philosophical and theological themes that I’m focusing on.

But I’m going to focus on them anyway, because they interest and move me – and because I love the Book of Job too much from them not to.

“Leviathan” presents a fairly bleak reading of the Book of Job, one that emphasizes the absolute and unfathomable scope of God’s power and authority. Faced with such awesome majesty, the only proper attitude is utter submission, with which the reservation of any personal pride or status is incompatible. It is, frankly, a reading that doesn’t sit well with me. But then, I am disinclined to identify divine authority with any temporal, human authority, whether the state, religious authorities, or my own conscience (and I, like any good scholar but also like the devil, can cite scripture to my purpose if I’m so inclined). That, indeed, is precisely part of the point I take from God’s voice from the whirlwind: God’s authority is different from, incommensurate with temporal, human authority. Human authorities you may critique for being unjust, and demand satisfaction of them. Human authority proceeds from and may be bound by and shaped by positive law, because it aims at the satisfaction of human ends, like fairness and justice. But to demand these things of God is to making a category error. You cannot critique a whirlwind.

I don’t see the whirlwind demanding submission – I see it urging Job to raise his eyes, not lower them. When the Book of Job talks of Behemoth and Leviathan, I imagine quasars and black holes, the monsters of physics; I imagine a universe of laws, but laws the depths of which will never be sounded to the bottom. I am, I suppose, more like Dmitriy than not.

But in the context of autocracy, which has deep roots in Russian soil, the priest’s interpretation has perhaps more resonance. What does the voice from the whirlwind sound like to a mind conditioned to understand law as proceeding from authority rather than the other way around? From such a mind’s perspective, the only way to know the law is to know whether authority is righteous, meaning whether it aims at ends that God approves. Which is precisely how the bishop tutors the mayor. And from such a mind’s perspective, the thuggish, abusive, cruel mayor is in fact more humble than poor, suffering, Job-like Kolya.

That, to my mind, is the point of the ending, which reveals that the mayor was indeed, from a certain perspective, aiming to serve God’s ends. Many Western viewers are reading the film as a satiric story of corruption in modern Russia. But perhaps this is not the only way to read it. Indeed, perhaps it is not the way that Russia’s Ministry of Culture originally read it – which would explain why they initially supported the film, facilitated its financing and production, and promoted it internationally, only to turn on it when they saw it described in the Western press as a critique of Putinism. Because, with just a little turn of the head, the film can be read not as an indictment, but instead as a tragedy, the very tragedy that Hobbes identified when he first contemplated the problem of authority: that, once you establish the necessity of authority as your bedrock political principle, you immediately establish the necessity of absolutism, and the impossibility of any formal reservation for the individual against that authority.

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Measuring Bench Strength


And as long as we’re talking about 2016, I’ve got a peeve to air. It’s become a commonplace that the GOP has huge “bench strength” coming into the 2016 presidential contest, while the Democrats have a much thinner bench. But I wonder how we’re measuring this.

Presidential candidates tend to emerge from other high political office – the Vice Presidency, governors’ mansions, the Senate – or, much more occasionally, from other exalted perches of our national life. The GOP currently controls significantly more governorships than the Democrats do, so that immediately gives them a larger bench. But apart from that, I’m hard-pressed to identify what makes the GOP bench stronger.

Here’s a list – not exhaustive, but extensive – of names frequently bandied about for the GOP line in 2016:

  • Jeb Bush – former Governor of Florida, brother and son of 43rd and 41st Presidents, respectively.
  • Ben Carson – retired neurosurgeon and media personality.
  • Chris Christie – Governor of New Jersey.
  • Ted Cruz – Senator from Texas.
  • Carly Fiorina – former CEO.
  • Mike Huckabee – former Governor of Arkansas and media personality.
  • Bobby Jindal – Governor of Louisiana.
  • John Kasich – Governor of Ohio.
  • Sarah Palin – former Governor of Alaska, former Vice Presidential nominee.
  • Rand Paul – Senator from Kentucky.
  • Mitt Romney – former Governor of Massachusetts, former Presidential nominee.
  • Rick Santorum – former Senator from Pennsylvania.
  • Donald Trump – businessman and media personality.
  • Mike Pence – Governor of Indiana.
  • Rick Perry – former Governor of Texas.
  • Marco Rubio – Senator from Florida.
  • Scott Walker – Governor of Wisconsin.

It’s a broad field – even George Pataki – former Governor of New York - and Lindsey Graham – Senator from South Carolina – are making noises about running. Clearly, there are a lot of Republicans who see themselves as potential Presidents, and who think this is a year to at least consider going for it.

Now, here’s list of Democrats, with comparable credentials to the GOP list above:

  • Joe Biden – Vice President.
  • Cory Booker – Senator from New Jersey.
  • Jerry Brown – Governor of California.
  • Sherrod Brown – Senator from Ohio.
  • Andrew Cuomo – Governor of New York.
  • Russ Feingold – former Senator from Wisconsin.
  • John Hickenlooper – Governor of Colorado.
  • Amy Klobuchar – Senator from Minnesota.
  • Gary Locke – former Governor of Washington, former ambassador to China.
  • Martin O’Malley – former Governor of Maryland.
  • Deval Patrick – former Governor of Massachusetts.
  • Ed Rendell – former Governor of Pennsylvania.
  • Bernie Sanders – Senator from Vermont.
  • Brian Schweitzer – former Governor of Montana.
  • Elizabeth Warren – Senator from Massachusetts.
  • James Webb – former Senator from Virginia.

This list has some names that look tired to me and some who have a record of accomplishment – but so does the GOP list. It has some currently serving Governors and Senators, and some who served in years past – but so does the GOP list. It has some who won reelection by large margins and some who lost their last bids for office – but so does the GOP list. Like the GOP list, it has current or former Governors and Senators from some of the largest states – New York, California, Ohio, Pennsylvania – as well as from smaller states.

Jim Webb scrambles categories in as fascinating ways as Rand Paul. Russ Feingold, on the merits, seems to me as plausible and interesting a candidate as Mike Huckabee – both are very unlikely to win the nomination, after all, but I can more easily see Russ Feingold making interesting waves on his way to losing than I could Mike Huckabee (at least this time around). I don’t know why current Governor Andrew Cuomo (leaving aside the shadow cast by Sheldon Silver’s recent arrest) is any less plausible or formidable a candidate than former Governor Jeb Bush. And is Jerry Brown really more extreme or absurd a candidate than Rick Perry? Why, exactly?

Of course, the Democratic list is essentially irrelevant, because Hillary Clinton is the overwhelmingly dominant figure in the Democratic field. Anybody who chooses to challenge her is trying to slay a giant – or simply to make a point. That either rules out or diminishes a lot of candidates who might otherwise seem like plausible contenders, from Joe Biden to Brian Schweitzer. There’s nobody on the Democratic side who has remotely the kind of institutional and popular support that Hillary Clinton does. But if she had been felled by a piece of falling masonry in 2013, it’s not clear to me that the Democratic bench would look so terribly weak.

What looks relatively weak is the Democratic agenda – which is pretty normal after going on eight years with its usual mix of accomplishment, compromise and failure.

But it’s not like the GOP is distinguishing itself on that score.

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I Killed Latin. What Did You Do?


I’ve been thinking more about Scott Walker and his potential staying power. And the more I think about it, the more I think he’s got a real shot at the whole thing. I would certainly not call him the front-runner. He’s got a lot to learn, and a lot to prove before it’s worth talking about him in those terms. But he’s got a really valuable card to play that I can’t quite figure out how his major opponents are going to answer effectively. And that card could make him quite dangerous.

Unlike Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Rand Paul or the various also-rans, Scott Walker picked a high-profile battle over a core issue that both the establishment and more insurgent types care about – the status and position of public sector unions. His opponents rose to the challenge, and threw everything they had into the battle to defeat him – to the point of trying to get him recalled before the next scheduled election. The showdown went down in a purple-to-blue state. And Walker won, unequivocally.

Jindal and Perry can point to very conservative things they did as governors – but Louisiana and Texas are very conservative states. Could they do the same in Washington? Ted Cruz can tout his purism – but he’s accomplished literally less than nothing, with his antics having demonstrably backfired in multiple instances. Chris Christie and Jeb Bush can tout their own records – but their opponents can turn around and point to things in those same records that offend the faithful, including not merely compromises but issues that they ran on and advocated forcefully. Rand Paul . . . well, Rand Paul is Rand Paul.

Scott Walker can say to anyone touting their conservative bonafides: “you talk the talk, but I walked the walk.” But he can also credibly say, “you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em,” without sounding like a moderate squish – because in one very high profile situation, he held ‘em, and he won.

And sometimes, you win the game when you fold a hand. In his most recent confrontation – an attempt to change the mission of the Wisconsin public university system – Walker folded – partially. The changes to the mission statement (which would have reduced the mission of the university system to “meet[ing] the state’s workforce needs”) have been scrapped. So Latin isn’t dead yet. But the $300 million in funding cuts remain, so Latin’s probably going to have a tough time surviving, ultimately. Backing down on a symbolic issue may in fact take the pressure off the more substantive changes. If so, Walker may have another victory to tout.

I don’t know whether he’s skillful enough to do so, but if he is, he can play this card over and over again against every one of his primary opponents. And I can’t think of a really solid answer any of them can make. (Well, other than his policies are bad ones, but I somehow think that answer won’t go over well in a GOP primary.)

That doesn’t mean Walker wins – you need more than one good card to win. But this card really is a killer.

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Wealth and Poverty in Paradise


Apropos of some of the discussion happening on this site about the nature of poverty, and at the risk of sounding horrifically upper-middle-SWPL-whatever, I wanted to relate some thoughts about a recent visit I made to the island of Dominica.

Dominica is a very small country. They have only 70,000 people, and though the country is physically tiny it is not especially dense. (96 people per square kilometer, versus 349 for neighboring Martinique, 300 for Grenada, 258 for Trinidad and Tobago.) It’s not a deeply impoverished country – on a purchasing power parity basis, per capita GDP is up there with Romania and Venezuela, and three times the level of the Philippines. But it is far from wealthy. And in the rural southeast, where we were, people live very simply; in rural areas, every other household is impoverished, according to the UNDP.

It’s hard to get ahead in Dominica. The country is very mountainous – it’s quite young, geologically, and still volcanically active – and its poor system of roads mostly go straight up and down with the gradient of the mountains. It takes a long time to get anywhere, and there are few expanses of flat land suitable for large-scale agriculture. And because it’s a small island, imported goods are relatively expensive – and a lot of different kinds of goods need to be imported. Combined with the limited amount of local capital, what you have is a formula for under-development. It’s just very hard to see what Dominica could produce that would integrate readily into the global supply chain.

Wisely, I suspect, the government is not trying to encourage industrialization, and is trying to move away from agricultural products (mostly bananas) that have a hard time competing with industrial-scale operations elsewhere anyway. It’s focused on eco-tourism and on specialized services a small island could plausibly provide: a cheap medical education (import medical students, export doctors), and the kinds of financial services that cluster around tax havens. All of which seems to be working reasonably well, but none of which is going to provide a rapid rise in living standards in the countryside.

But the thing is: this impoverished countryside looks quite healthy. People walk everywhere; they have no choice but to stay fit. Life expectancy at birth is 76.5 years, comparable to Poland and Uruguay. Food grows everywhere, free for the taking, and fresh water is abundant; the island is quite edenic in that regard. It’s never cold. As one of our guides told us repeatedly, even if you don’t have two nickels to rub together, you’ll never die of hunger or thirst on the island.

Moreover, precisely because the island isn’t suited for massive luxury development, there was less of a sense than in some parts of the Caribbean of a steep power gradient between tourists and locals. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we felt like guests rather than tourists, but the master-servant dynamic that kicks in easily in such situations was far more attenuated than usual.

We tend to think of wealth as luxury – having lots of stuff – and poverty as the lack. But that may not be the best way of thinking about it, at least once we’re talking about people above the subsistence level. Absolute poverty and its ills – starvation, malnutrition, etc. – are still rampant in parts of the world, and even in pockets of the developed world, and deserve serious attention. But once we get above that level, measuring poverty just in terms of income or in terms of goods becomes more problematic. Agatha Christie once wrote that she never thought she would be so rich as to be able to afford a car, nor so poor that she could not afford servants. What constitutes a lot of valuable “stuff” is always relative, both to the standards of the time and to what the Joneses have.

Perhaps a better way of thinking about poverty above subsistence is in terms of the experience of freedom. Someone who is literally imprisoned is living a deeply impoverished life even if they have three squares a day. Someone who cannot afford not to work 16 hours a day is also impoverished – even if they treat as necessities some consumer goods (a cell phone, say) that previous generations would have considered unimaginable luxuries. Ditto for someone whose prospects and opportunities are so narrowly circumscribed that they feel no choice in their future. In the ancient world, someone who could not afford to feed himself might sell himself into slavery; in the 17th and 18th centuries, he might bind himself to indentured servitude. How different are the “choices” many of the world’s poor make today, particularly the ones lucky enough to be integrated into the global supply chain?

How does Dominica fare from that perspective? The barriers to self-improvement are, as noted, quite steep; that’s one reason the island has had a perpetually high emigration rate. If one of our guides touted the fact that it was impossible to starve, another guide – who had lived in America – complained of the island’s provincialism, and missed both the consumer paradise of America and the opportunity America afforded him to make a living doing something he wanted to do (tinkering with cars, as it happened), instead of having to fit into one of the few roles available on the island. Unemployment is very high among Dominica’s poor; there are clearly many who don’t have the choice to do much of anything.

But it is possible merely to live quite freely in Dominica, free of many of the fears that stalk the poor of wealthier countries. That’s not a quality to ignore when we think about poverty.

I’m not discounting the seriousness and importance of absolute levels of poverty. Nor am I dignifying the notion of someone earning $150,000 per year being “house-poor” because they bought a brownstone in Clinton Hill for $2,000,000. The latter is a real thing, but it is not poverty; it’s a conscious (possibly wise, possibly foolish) choice to spend a lot of money on one consumer good-slash-investment, leaving much less for other goods and investments.

All I’m saying is that the frame that defines poverty as having relatively less stuff than most people is, itself, impoverished. And that a richer definition would focus on how we live, and how much choice in how we live, and not just on what we have.

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Class Resentment, Class Treason, and Political Consciousness

Adam Gregor / Shutterstock

Reihan Salam has written an interestingly revealing essay for Slate about how he came to be conscious of his class identity – and, implicitly, how that shaped his emerging political consciousness. He begins:

I first encountered the upper middle class when I attended a big magnet high school in Manhattan that attracted a decent number of brainy, better-off kids whose parents preferred not to pay private-school tuition. Growing up in an immigrant household, I’d felt largely immune to class distinctions. Before high school, some of the kids I knew were somewhat worse off, and others were somewhat better off than most, but we generally all fell into the same lower-middle- or middle-middle-class milieu. So high school was a revelation. Status distinctions that had been entirely obscure to me came into focus. Everything about you—the clothes you wore, the music you listened to, the way you pronounced things—turned out to be a clear marker of where you were from and whether you were worth knowing.

By the time I made it to a selective college, I found myself entirely surrounded by this upper-middle-class tribe. My fellow students and my professors were overwhelmingly drawn from comfortably affluent families hailing from an almost laughably small number of comfortably affluent neighborhoods, mostly in and around big coastal cities. Though virtually all of these polite, well-groomed people were politically liberal, I sensed that their gut political instincts were all about protecting what they had and scratching out the eyeballs of anyone who dared to suggest taking it away from them. I can’t say I liked these people as a group. Yet without really reflecting on it, I felt that it was inevitable that I would live among them, and that’s pretty much exactly what’s happened.

So allow me to unburden myself. I’ve had a lot of time to observe and think about the upper middle class, and though many of the upper-middle-class individuals I’ve come to know are good, decent people, I’ve come to the conclusion that upper-middle-class Americans threaten to destroy everything that is best in our country. And I want them to stop.

Allow me to say, as a member of this same class, that I completely know where Salam is coming from, as well as where he’s arrived at. There’s a reason why SWPL is a thing, and there’s a reason why getting that it’s a thing is yet another SWPL class marker. There is something especially annoying about the smugness of those who mistake status markers for virtue, and who act as if these badges of virtue put them above any interrogation of their class interests. And it’s especially awful when you feel in danger of becoming one of these people.

And I understand where he’s coming from in terms of personal history as well. My high school experience was more like his experience prior to high school: we Bronx Scientists all felt like broadly middle-middle urban kids. (The difference has something to do with the Bronx versus Manhattan, and more to do with the near-decade difference in our ages; New York changed a lot in ten years.) But I had something more akin to Reihan’s shock when I got to college, where I regularly felt like the guy who didn’t own a proper jacket among the swells in their tuxedos.

When I interrogate myself honestly, though, that had very little to do with the actual class backgrounds of my college classmates, and mostly to do with my own psychosocial development. Yes, there were plenty of prep school grads and the like. But my roommates freshman year were from: Columbia, Missouri; Youngstown, Ohio; and Temple, Texas. Not a son of Groton among them; I, the son of a public high school teacher in the Bronx, was the sophisticated urbanite of the bunch. And frankly, they fit in, socially, better than I did. It wasn’t that I didn’t come from the right class; it was that I didn’t have any class – that, frankly, I was an argumentative slob.

It didn’t feel that way at the time, though. And that feeling – the feeling that I had been sized up by my betters and found wanting – was an important undercurrent leading me in a more right-wing direction politically a few years after graduation. Pecuniary interest was obviously important as well – I was working on Wall Street, and though my career had not yet taken off that was all the more reason to want to keep the path of that potential career as smooth as possible. But that kind of self-interest only makes it more important to find “objective” justifications for one’s opinions.

I’m not suggesting that Salam is animated by those kinds of resentments. Frankly, he has always presented to me as remarkably free of resentments. And he is nothing if not socially adept, in his unique, Salam-y way. I can’t even picture him being a slob. I’m just saying that a certain cliche – the bright, socially-inept striver identifying with a right-wing political program so as to stick it to his social “betters” – is a cliche for a reason: because it’s a pretty common. But it’s highly destructive of sensible analysis.

And that’s because any sensible analysis has to start with objective class interests, not the status markers of class.

Indeed, the heart of Salam’s complaint is precisely that the upper middle class have too much influence:

We often hear about the political muscle of the ultrarich. Billionaires like the libertarians Charles and David Koch and Tom Steyer, the California environmentalist who’s been waging a one-man jihad against the Keystone XL pipeline, have become bogeymen for the left and right respectively. The influence of these machers is considerable, no doubt. Yet the upper middle class collectively wields far more influence. These are households with enough money to make modest political contributions, enough time to email their elected officials and to sign petitions, and enough influence to sway their neighbors. Upper-middle-class Americans vote at substantially higher rates than those less well-off, and though their turnout levels aren’t quite as high as those even richer than they are, there are far more upper-middle-class people than there are rich people. One can easily turn the Kochs or the Steyers of the world into a big fat political target. It’s harder to do the same to the lawyers, doctors, and management consultants who populate the tonier precincts of our cities and suburbs.

Salam proceeds to lay out a detailed brief against the mass upper class in policy terms: from their support for unproductive tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction, to restrictive zoning rules that keep housing prices high in urban areas, to cartel-preserving licensure requirements that keep dental assistants from hanging out their own shingles, to a backwards immigration system that lets in nannies but keeps out doctors.

It’s all very Institute for Justice - but it’s also the kind of stuff that Matt Yglesias, liberal scion of the mass upper class, has been writing about for years. In other words, you can contextualize the kind of policy criticism Salam is making within a general libertarian critique (government will always be co-opted by those who already have power; here are examples how upper-middle-class professionals use government to shut the gate on the middle class; we need less government so nobody can rig the game that way). Or you can contextualize it within a general left-wing critique (here are examples of how upper-middle-class liberals act to protect their class interests to the detriment of the poor and middle class; we can’t let a left-wing politics be compromised by the need to keep a large and wealthy class on-side just because it makes the right sounds; we need a class-based politics that doesn’t get hijacked by cultural politics). These are both frameworks for talking about how to reduce the political influence of a favored class, and create an opening for new entrants.

But Salam doesn’t make either argument. Instead, he’s says we need to guilt the upper middle class into being a more civically-responsible gentry:

What can we do to break the stranglehold of the upper middle class? I have no idea. Having spent so much time around upper-middle-class Americans, and having entered their ranks in my own ambivalent way, I’ve come to understand their power. The upper middle class controls the media we consume. They run our big bureaucracies, our universities, and our hospitals. Their voices drown out those of other people at almost every turn. I fear that the only way we can check the tendency of upper-middle-class people to look out for their own interests at the expense of others is to make them feel at least a little guilty about it. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

It reminds me of the way that Charles Murray ended Coming Apart with a similarly exhortatory plea – successful people just shouldn’t shut the gate; instead, they should spend more time in Fishtown because . . . well, because they should.

Salam’s complaint up front is that upper middle class liberals act like they are distinctly virtuous – they obey the law, pay taxes, raise their kids right, and have all the right political opinions – and that this virtue exempts them, in their own minds, from criticism, allowing them to be as ruthless as they like in protecting their individual interests. But by calling for  a more virtuous gentry, Salam isn’t puncturing their pretensions – he’s implicitly endorsing them. Because if they aren’t actually any better than anybody else, then why expect them to be?

The thing is, it’s completely normal for people to pursue their own economic interests. That’s precisely what you’d expect people to do under most circumstances. It’s when people act against interest that requires explanation. So why the fury that the upper middle class, as Salam sees it, acts out of selfish motives? Why say that this behavior threatens to destroy everything great about America? Why make this about the kind of people the upper middle class are? If the problem is that they have too much power, then that’s the problem. And let’s talk about how to tackle that.

Because here’s the thing: there is no virtuous class out there. Contra William F. Buckley, a collection of random names from the Boston phone book would do a terrible job running the country. Take a look at the fate of lottery winners and reality television stars if you want to see what happens when fortune and fame descends on individuals nearly at random. The urban mass upper class has a host of ridiculous pretensions about itself – and more’s the pity for them. (Er, us.) But if you think the pretensions to virtue of other distinct classes that are more generally endorsed by the culture don’t have pernicious political and social effects, well, I’ve got a military-industrial complex to sell you.

My advice to would-be class traitors like Salam is: don’t let your predispositions get in the way of your analysis. Here’s a good example of what I mean from right here in New York. Our Mayor, Bill de Blasio, hails from Park Slope, the capital of mass upper class Brooklyn. (That’s my neighborhood as well.) It would be very easy to assume that, as such, he must be following precisely the playbook that Salam describes: posturing as a liberal but in fact acting to preserve the prerogatives of the mass upper class.

But, at least in terms of housing development, the mayor has done something rather different, and has pursued a very pro-development line. I cannot tell you the number of conversations I’ve had with brownstone owners raging about how this mayor is worse than Bloomberg, how he doesn’t care about preserving the historical character of neighborhoods or about the opinions of the local community – he just wants to build. This is not what Park Slope thought it was buying.

Now, de Blasio is trying to yoke that pro-development stance to an affordable housing plan that perhaps Salam would be skeptical of as being too regulatory in nature – but that’s not my point. My point is that de Blasio is acting against precisely the entrenched class interests that Salam thinks are so problematic – against the people who want to pull up the drawbridge. But his cultural politics line up perfectly with the kinds of liberals Salam knows dominate the mass upper class.

Which matters more? That, it seems to me, is the question.

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The Grexit and the Future of Europe

Marques / Shutterstock

I’ve got a new column up at The Week:

Economically, allowing Greece to leave the euro and default on its debt might be the best thing for all parties. After a period of disruption, Greece would be able to grow again. The eurozone, meanwhile, would have demonstrated that it can distinguish between risks worth taking (Ireland) and risks not worth taking (Greece), and that it is not as brittle as might have been thought. But even if it is economically sensible — indeed, arguably because it may be economically sensible — a Grexit would have deeper implications for the trajectory and meaning of the European project.

That project was originally intended to be something new, neither a traditional state nor a mere customs union, but a kind of supra-national governance that would supplant nationalism, and end the possibility of intra-European conflict. Entry into the EU would tutor Italians and Portuguese in German thrift, and would cement Western democratic norms in countries like Ukraine and Turkey. It was a mechanism for defining — and expanding — the meaning and boundaries of European civilization.

A Grexit would redefine both the meaning and those boundaries. Countries like Poland are going to be properly leery of adopting the euro once it is clear that handing over control of monetary policy does not come with any implicit fiscal guarantees. Greece’s new government is already providing Moscow with diplomatic support as Europe debates the possibility of further sanctions in response to Russian intervention in Ukraine. They will presumably only adopt a more pro-Russian line in the wake of a Grexit.

If it happens, a Grexit will make it clear that there are not only rules for becoming “European” but also rules you have to abide by to remain a European in good standing — rules over which supplicant states have little influence. Rationally, every state — even those in the heart of Europe — will necessarily recall their primary, national allegiances, knowing that these are all they can count on when the chips are down.

The point is not that a Greek departure from the euro would be catastrophic, or that Brussels (or Berlin) ought to see itself as in some kind of competition with Moscow for the allegiance of peripheral European states. Russia’s willingness to waste blood and money on such a competition probably does it more harm than benefit; that was certainly the lesson Gorbachev took from the Brezhnev years. The point is that a willingness to let Greece leave signals precisely that Brussels — and Berlin — do not see themselves as being in that kind of competition. That the European project is no longer about defining a civilization.

Is that a good thing? I’m not sure – my feelings about the European Union are complex.

On the one hand, I understand and even admire the aims of the European project. European civilization was almost destroyed by national rivalries, so I can understand why Europe’s leaders wanted to find a political arrangement that made war in the heart of Europe seem impossible. I understand why France wanted an arrangement that magnified her potential influence, and I understand why Germany wanted an arrangement that made it possible for her to have influence again. And I also see some ancillary effects of the European project that may be positive. Union has made it more possible for smaller European nationalisms – Catalonia, Scotland – to asset themselves in a less traumatizing manner than would probably be the case without that superstructure.

On the other hand, Europe is kind of obviously ridiculous, with poor democratic accountability, no clear definition of what is properly Brussels’s business and what belongs at the national level, and what in practice amounts to a consensus-based method of governance that makes it impossible to take difficult decisions. In the past, Germany was the strongest advocate of reforming these deficits and moving towards a proper European federalism, but in the wake of the financial crisis that is much less true.

I have a great deal of sympathy for Germany’s attitude toward Europe generally – that if they are going to be on the hook fiscally that there had better be fiscal accountability – but in practice this attitude has been enforced in a punitive manner rather than being the spur to institutional reform. As a consequence, the Euro has become something of a Hobson’s choice for small countries – join and you become a German colony; don’t join and you potentially forfeit a substantial competitive advantage vis a vis your neighbors. That’s not a structure that is going to achieve the goals that the founders of the Union intended.

Where I wind up is that America needs a strong Europe, whether it’s a federal Europe or a Europe of states. We need a strong Europe because a weak Europe will be an American dependency and will encourage us in our worst imperial pretensions, while a strong Europe will be both a more useful ally and a check on those ambitions. But the current arrangements leave Europe institutionally weak, and historically the United States has abetted that weakness by focusing almost exclusively on pushing for a larger Europe rather than a more functional one.

So I’m kind of hoping that Greece forces a reckoning, and that the reckoning doesn’t burn the house down completely.

Anyway, check out the column there.

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The End Of Blogging – And The Need For One Big Paywall


Forgive me if I see Andrew Sullivan’s departure from blogging as more than just a routine retirement by a pioneer in a new media field. Rather, I see it as an extremely negative omen for that very field.

Andrew Sullivan was not just one of the pioneers in creating the blogging form, and in demonstrating how you create a personal brand on the web. Beyond that, he was one of the first to understand that what he was doing, most fundamentally, was not writing, or even editing, but curating – organizing the vast trackless swamp of the internet into material that his audience would be interested in.

And beyond that, he was pioneering a business model that I believed held the best hope for anybody getting paid for producing “content” in the age of on-line distribution. He asked his audience to pay, to subscribe to what amounts to “the web as I see it.”

I say that that is the best hope for anybody getting paid for producing content based on the following syllogism.

First, there are only three ways to monetize traffic. Either you give everything away for free and sell advertising. Or you get people to pay for specific content. Or you get people to pay for a subscription to a whole suite of content.

The problem with the first is that on-line advertising is massively deleterious to the on-line reading (and watching and listening) experience. And it doesn’t work very well in terms of motivating purchases. And most efforts to mitigate the one or the other are massively corrupting of the creative or journalistic enterprise (as Sullivan was well-aware).

The problem with paying for specific content is that you don’t know whether the content is worth purchasing until after you’ve purchased it, which creates a substantial barrier to purchase. If you’re talking about a feature film for which you can consult Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes or whatever to learn whether it’s likely to suit, that’s one thing. But if you’re talking about a news article, or a web short, or a poem, that’s not an option.

The problem with subscriptions is that, generally, the way they are enforced is by creating a paywall around the content. Nothing gets inside the wall unless it was worth paying for up-front. And once it’s inside the wall, the only way to access it is to be a subscriber. This creates a two-tier world where most people are producing and distributing stuff without compensation, hoping to get them “hosted” by sites that don’t pay them, and eventually to “graduate” to paid work. But the prevalence of so much free work means that there is constant, brutal pressure on compensation for content-creators.

The solution to this dilemma is one that I’ve described – with apologies to “Big Bill” Haywood – as One Big Paywall. In very broad strokes, this would be a scheme whereby content-creators band together to require micro-payments from content aggregators for traffic driven their way, in exchange for not cluttering up access to that content with extraneous advertising and the like. Such a scheme would make it possible for content-creators to put their material out there for general consumption without worrying about either hiding it behind a paywall or getting paid nothing.

Without going into a great deal of detail of my thoughts about how to bootstrap into such a scheme, I’ve long felt that it depended, ultimately, on the success of curators in turning themselves into subscription services. A free curator is always going to pursue a mass audience, and this will skew the kind of content (and advertising) that it features toward the lowest-common denominator. A subscription service has the possibility of pursuing a niche audience – and niches can be quite lucrative. And much of the most interesting content is going to be aimed at some kind of niche.

Andrew Sullivan was my test case, in a way. If he was able to “make it” on a standalone basis, with a subscription model, then it was possible. If it’s possible, other people will do it – not exactly the same way, but with variations. And once it’s clear that it’s a “thing,” one could pursue my idea of One Big Paywall – because there would be moneymaking curators to negotiate with, and with whom the content-creators signing up for such a scheme would have a natural symbiosis.

But we don’t know whether he made it. It’s too soon to know. All we know is that it didn’t go bust immediately, and that there was no way to keep the venture going without Andrew Sullivan consistently and obsessively at the helm.

That’s a very negative fact for the future of that model. There just aren’t very many people like Sullivan in the world, who combine his speed as a writer, his breadth of taste, his skills as an editor, his manic energy, his head for the business side – it’s just a huge conglomeration of valuable traits. And he didn’t institutionalize them the way Steve Jobs or Walt Disney or Harold Ross did in their own various ways. Even though Andrew Sullivan did only a small fraction of the writing or the curating of the Daily Dish, without him blogging full time, apparently, there is no Dish.

I’ve been told that, in order to build a real, monetizable audience on the web, I need to post at least three times a day. Obviously, some of my colleagues here do exactly that. But it’s a completely insane demand. Virtually none of the critics or opinion-writers of yore could have met it – and those that could have would probably have destroyed themselves doing so, to say nothing of destroying their lives. The only reason anyone adheres to such a standard is precisely that there is no reliable way to monetize good work as such.

I probably sound like Leon Wieseltier here, but I could not disagree with him more. I have no interest – none – in preening lamentations for the great age of culture now past and gone. I loathe nostalgia – but I also recognize that culture is shaped by market structure, and that the market structure we have – and which is a consequence of decisions made a long time ago, some consciously but many unconsciously – is exceptionally brutal to anyone trying to make a living writing, making music, shooting movies, while also providing more ready opportunities to “break in” than ever before. I want to retain the latter while mitigating the former. That means changing the market structure, not posing as a solon while manifesting mostly ignorance.

Andrew Sullivan’s retirement is a blow personally, because, while I never met him, he has always been generous in linking to me, both here and at my prior perches. That he has been so generous in spite of the fact that my first on-line interaction with him was acrimonious in the extreme (and unnecessarily personal – on my part) is a testament to his admirable ability to look past the sort of thing that would lead many successful people (particularly in media) to hold a lifelong grudge, simply because what Sullivan cared about most was whether the work was interesting – to him and to the readership he cultivated. But that’s not the main reason his departure is a blow. The main reason is that the torch has not been passed. There is nobody else out there doing what Andrew Sullivan did, nor is there any prospect for someone to do it. There’s nobody else I can think of who I would say: if he or she links to me regularly, then people will read what I write.

Which make me very sad, for any younger versions of myself out there looking to give what they have to give, creatively, and to get something for it, without being fatally consumed by the endeavor.

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Gay Bob, Christian Bob, Empathy and Tolerance

I read with interest Rod Dreher’s piece about the “Gay Bob, Christian Bob” parable. And I’m reluctant to pour any amount of cold water on something so obviously well-intentioned. But I’m afraid I have to – a bit.

(Before I start, let me say that I’m not interested in litigating the question of who is more persecuted, gays or traditional Christians,  in today’s society. Not because I don’t have opinions on the subject – I do – but because that’s not where I want to go with this piece.)

First, let’s change things up a little bit. Let’s say one of the Bobs is not a friendly, neighborly gay man, but a friendly, normal seeming fellow who is also an active pedophile who preys on pre-pubescent girls. How does the dialogue go now?

Let’s be clear: I’m not equating homosexuality with pedophilia. I am doing exactly the opposite. I’m pointing out how the effectiveness of the dialogue depends on our already having classified both sides as being within the realm of the tolerable as opposed to the intolerable. Christian Bob, if he met pedophile Bob, would be horrified – and the horror would not be lessened, but heightened, if pedophile Bob had been a good neighbor, helping with the trash and so forth. It would be heightened, not lessened, if pedophile Bob complained about being thought a monster, but seemed to take those kinds of nasty comments in stride. All of this would scare the bejeezus out of Christian Bob. The fact that, in the dialogue as written, nothing like that happens, says that Christian Bob already sees gay Bob as fundamentally different from pedophile Bob. In whatever way he continues to believe gay Bob is deeply wrong in the way he lives his life, he doesn’t see him as truly monstrous.

The dialogue builds to a moment of empathy – both Bobs see that the other Bob’s situation is analogous to his. Much of that empathy is built on the recognition that both have experiences of not being understood, of being treated as weird or even monstrous. But of course, the other part is that they each recognize that this treatment is unjustified. Absent that element, the dialogue never gets going.

But let’s take this a little bit further. Let’s say you are a member of the American armed forces living in Afghanistan. Your “neighbor” has just married a nine-year-old girl, and plans to initiate her sexually so as to seal her to him. How does the dialogue go now?

I think one can make a very plausible case for tolerance in that case. The serviceman may need this man’s good will – and he’s not going to get it if he makes it clear that he finds his Afghan neighbor morally abhorrent. And let’s be honest – he’s not going to be able to behave that way unless he convinces himself that his Afghan neighbor has his good points, and is not actually a monster. And he might indeed have his good points – be a gracious host, a fiercely loyal fighter, a loving father and husband, notwithstanding the whole child rape thing. Serviceman Bob might not go so far as to say: hey, this guy is really just like me, if I think about it. Then again, he might – he might conclude: if I were raised here, I’d do much the same (and – remembering who he is – thank God I was not raised here). Either way, we can no longer say that the act of pedophilia as such is intolerable – merely that, if we’re talking about our neighbor in Akron, we’re not willing to tolerate it, but if we’re talking about our neighbor in Kandahar, we are.

Now – let’s look at the other side. What if the other Bob isn’t an evangelical Christian, but a member of the Christian Identity movement, an arguably neo-Nazi type cult? Could agnostic gay Bob tolerate such a neighbor, even if he helped out with the trash? I don’t think so.

Ok, well what if they are in neighboring prison cells? What can each Bob tolerate now? Can they find their way to a dialogue that allows for some measure of mutual respect? Or do they have to try to kill each other on sight? I think the case for tolerance is pretty manifest.

Why am I going through these iterations? To make the point that what we are willing to tolerate and what we are not willing to tolerate is highly context-dependent – and that that context affects our actual beliefs, not just how we behave. The mere fact that Mike Cosper can construct the dialogue that he did implies a great deal about Cosper’s feelings about both characters. He already believes that there’s no reason a gay man or a traditional Christian can’t be a good neighbor. Possibly he believes that because he has had good neighbors who are both. But he also already believes that their private views and practices do not negate the meaning of that good neighborliness – as he surely would if, in the context as given, traditional Christian Bob discovered his “good” neighbor was a pedophile, or if gay agnostic Bob discovered his “good” neighbor was a member of a neo-Nazi pseudo-Christian cult.

Of course, in either of the latter cases, the “discovery” would be a matter of some moment. neo-Nazi Bob is probably not open about his views in the way that evangelical Christian Bob is. Pedophile Bob is probably not open about his sexual orientation in the way that gay Bob is. But neo-Nazi prisoner Bob is open about his views – he’s got them tattooed on his chest. And our Pashtun preparing to deflower his child bride – he’s not hiding his plans either.

That’s precisely why the gay rights movement has been so insistent that coming out of the closet is a fundamentally radical and necessary act. It is hard, socially, to anathematize something open and admitted. Openness puts a choice on you: be a lousy neighbor, or openly affirm your tolerance. Cosper has decided to be a good neighbor and openly affirm his tolerance.

(And, by the way, I am not blind to the fact that the neo-Nazi prisoner’s openness, and the Pashtun child-deflowerer’s openness, are each built on a structure of violence. The child bride does not have the opportunity to be open in the way that her husband is. Neither does the gay man who submits to the neo-Nazi’s “protection” in prison. That’s tangential to my point, but I wanted to make it clear in passing.)

The surface lesson Cosper is trying to draw is that those inclined to persecute gay people in the name of Christianity, or Christians in the name of gay rights, should see the analogy of their respective social positions and, without changing their views of what is True with a capital “T,” let that empathetic analogy lead them to tolerance and mutual respect. But below the surface, something deeper is going on. Openness has forced a conversation. Quiet hostility is no longer a choice. One must be openly, frankly hostile – or affirm that the other is deserving of respect, and honor.

Two final points.

First, the dialogue couldn’t happen with pedophile or neo-Nazi Bob because neither would be sufficiently open – sufficiently ready to “come out” to the other Bob. And if one of them was so open, it would cause immediate disorientation. Gay Bob, faced with open, friendly Nazi Bob, would not suddenly say, “wow – he’s like me, even though he’s a Nazi. I guess Nazism is just one of those things I just have to tolerate while agreeing to disagree.” He would say, “holy cow – I’ve got a neighbor who’s an open, avowed Nazi! What the heck am I going to do now?” Ditto for Christian Bob faced with alarmingly open pedophile Bob. And if either Bob, alarmed, went around to his other neighbors to get a sense of what everyone else was thinking of doing, and they all didn’t see what the big deal was, he would start to seriously worry if he was being gaslighted.

I have a funny feeling that there are a lot of people out there in America who feel precisely that way.

Second, Dreher talks a lot about the Benedict Option, about insulating, protecting oneself from the baleful influences of the culture. How does he square that impulse with the dialogue that he seems to admire? If I am right that it is openness, and not just good-neighborliness, that forces that conversation, and makes the empathy possible, how does he square achieving that openness with that impulse to insulate?


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A Follow-Up On “Two Days, One Night”

Based on the comments I received, I think I may have been misunderstood a bit in my piece on the film, “Two Days, One Night.” Allow me to clarify a few things:

Some readers apparently thought I was endorsing the view that businesses should always pursue the bottom line, with no other considerations. I do not believe that. I don’t think that a “purely capitalist framework” inevitably “improves things for everyone.” Rather, I was saying that within such a framework – i.e., within a certain set of given assumptions and assuming institutional arrangements that reflect those assumptions – it’s clear what the business is supposed to do, and why. Reject those assumptions – or assert that existing arrangements don’t actually reflect those assumptions – and you may also reject the conclusion. As I do. As I thought was clear.

Some readers argued that the film had nothing to do with workplace democracy. The workers are not owners. Management decided the terms of the vote – there was no choice to have no layoffs, still get a bonus, and have less profit, nor were other choices like reducing some employees’ hours, reducing management compensation, or any other alternative put on the table. Only two choices were given: lay off Sandra and get a bonus, or keep Sandra and lose the bonus.

This is, indeed, far from a perfect description of workplace democracy. But consider the way our actual electoral democracy works. Who selects the choices we, the electorate, have to choose from? One of the features of democracy – and a basis of criticism thereof since the time of Pericles – is that it empowers those who are good at swaying opinion, and one way you sway opinion is by structuring choices. Unless we are imagining a world in which management simply ceases to exist (which would be a world more radically decentralized than most of us would ever seriously contemplate), the potential exists for management to play these kinds of games.

I admit, I assumed that the formal reason why a vote was happening at all had something to do with workplace democracy. Perhaps management is obliged to get worker approval for layoffs? In the absence of such a rule, I can’t imagine why management went through the trouble and turmoil – why not simply lay her off and be done with it? Therefore, I read the film as showing how such rules – which might have been intended to give workers more of a say in their workplaces – can play out in practice under conditions of scarcity and competition. I think I was correct in doing so.

Finally, some readers argued that this just proves solidarity is impossible so long as we have the profit motive. But the profit motive is just that – a motive. If you’ve got a plan for abolishing avarice, along with lust and pride and anger and the rest of them, clue me in. Scarcity and competition are objective conditions in the world. If solidarity is impossible under those conditions, then solidarity is impossible. I’m not that much of a pessimist.

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Who Would Vote For a Peace Candidate?


It’s been instructive to watch the maneuvering of the Republican field of candidates, and of the Republican party in general, in the pre-primary phase of the 2016 election.

Jeb Bush enters the race with the formidable advantages and disadvantages of his last name. But rather than move to distance himself from his brother’s foreign policy disasters, he’s shown every indication of believing that, whatever the failures of execution, the strategic and moral framework within which they unfolded was correct, and that the big problem with President Obama foreign policy has been that it is insufficiently muscular in its activism.

Mitt Romney enters the race with the formidable advantages and disadvantages of his 2012 run. A significant part of his motivation appears to be the belief that, on foreign policy specifically, he predicted all the problems that have bedeviled America and the world in Obama’s second term, and that his own omnidirectional belligerence would have worked out much better than the President’s approach.

All of the other Republican candidates need to establish that they can play at the level of these two in terms of national credibility. Some – like Marco Rubio or Rick Santorum – are true-believing hawks. Others – like Scott Walker, who I felt before Iowa had the best chance to “break out” of the pack as an establishment-acceptable alternative to the better-known leaders – who are in a position either to stake out distinctive territory in foreign policy or to largely avoid the subject, have chosen instead to stake out stridently hawkish positions across the board, without much thought or concern.

Only Rand Paul still seems to be looking for distinctive foreign policy ground, but increasingly he seems to be trying to have things both ways – to push the envelope in a less-hawkish direction by reassuring his audience that he has the same Jacksonian instincts they do.

What I take from all of the above is the conclusion that, whatever the polls may say, the people with power in the Republican party believe that there is far more electoral risk in deviating from the hawkish line than from embracing it. So I feel confident in saying that the next Presidential election looks overwhelmingly likely to feature a hawkish Democrat (Hillary Clinton) facing off against a hawkish Republican.

When faced with this kind of situation, it is tempting to fantasize about alternatives. In the context of the Democratic party contest, I’ve done some of that fantasizing myself. So: what if a serious candidate ran on a third party peace platform? What would be the consequence?

Taking the fantasy seriously for a moment, I immediately have to ask myself: who is the candidate? How is he or she perceived in more general ideological terms? Dennis Kucinich and Pat Buchanan could both plausibly describe themselves as peace candidates. But I very much doubt there are many voters who would seriously vote for one who would also seriously vote for the other.

Successful third party candidacies – meaning, ones that succeeded in shaping subsequent politics – have to scramble the allegiances of established blocs of voters, so that both parties sit up and take notice, and ask themselves: how can we win those who may be suddenly up for grabs? Ross Perot did that in 1992; he not only facilitated Bill Clinton’s victory, but moved the national conversation about the budget decisively in his direction. George Wallace did it in 1968; he not only facilitated Richard Nixon’s victory, but moved the national conversation about crime decisively in his direction. Is there any plausible candidate who would have a similar impact in 2016? Who could force the two major parties to reckon with an up-for-grabs bloc of voters not being represented by the major party candidates in contention?

Well, another way to put that is: can you imagine a significant number of Democratic-leaning voters, liberals or moderates, voting for a peace candidate who felt culturally Republican and/or who failed to pass a set of liberal litmus tests (say he’s against the ACA, or against abortion or gay marriage, or goes around waving the tenth amendment at rallies)? Can you imagine a significant number of Republican-leaning voters, conservatives or moderates, voting for a peace candidate who felt like a cultural Democrat and/or who failed to pass a set of conservative litmus tests (say she’s robustly in favor of higher income taxes, or open borders, or says one of our most important challenges today is ending rape culture)? Or, alternatively, is there some cultural and political type that crosses those boundaries in interesting ways?

The more I think about it, the more I think the answer to this question is “no.” That is to say: when you poll Americans about whether they want to see a more or less active foreign policy, you can get numbers that suggest there’s an opening for someone to run on such a platform – and that such a constituency exists in both parties. But this is an electoral illusion.

The peace constituency in the Democratic party is a left-edge constituency that is not going to consider voting against Hillary Clinton or any other popular Democrat in favor of someone more centrist-seeming – or even culturally Republican – who happens to be in favor of a significantly more restrained foreign policy. Foreign policy is just one of a host of issues where they are to the left of their party’s center; it’s not a trump card.

Meanwhile, I increasingly suspect that there is no actual peace constituency in the Republican party, but rather a below-the-surface unease about the kinds of people who are making decisions about war and peace for our country. And part of the price of admission to proving you are the right kind of person to trust with our national security is believing in American exceptionalism and standing with our allies and all of that – that is to say: speaking the language of the hawks. Yes, there are fringe groups of libertarians and paleoconservatives and the like who are genuinely opposed to the Washington consensus and its even more hawkish movement conservative variants, but (a) they are tiny; and (b) many of them, like left-wing Democrats, would not vote for someone whose views on other issues they strongly opposed even if they agreed on foreign policy.

So if we do see a third party alternative running on a peace platform, I would expect that candidate to receive very few votes. And I would expect that result to be touted as proof that the American people favor the hawkish consensus.

All of which also makes it harder for a peace candidate to get any traction within one of the two major parties – since the candidates know that such positioning doesn’t help them win votes from the center, and there’s no real ability to reach around and grab from the opposing party’s fringe.

Sorry for the depressing analysis. On the bright side, we only got a few inches of snow here in Brooklyn, so the apocalypse is not upon us quite yet.

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The Soul of Man Under the Mixed Economy

Marion Cotillard runs the gauntlet of her co-workers in the Dardennes' "Two Days, One Night."
Marion Cotillard runs the gauntlet of her co-workers in the Dardennes' "Two Days, One Night."

On the recommendation of TAC‘s own Eve Tushnet, I went to see “Two Days, One Night” this past week – and I heartily second her strong endorsement of the film, and of Marion Cotillard’s performance.

It’s interesting (if unsurprising, to me) that Tushnet focused as strongly as she did on the spiritual dimension of the film, reading it primarily as a story of overcoming depression. It certainly is that. But it’s also a fascinating study of the central principle of socialism, and how that principle operates – and fails to operate – in practice, in a country (Belgium) and an economic system where socialism is neither a dirty word nor a foundational ideology. That central principle is solidarity.

The film opens on Sandra (Cotillard) being notified on Friday afternoon by a colleague that she has lost her job as the result of a vote by her fellow workers. Management gave them a choice: the company could afford either to pay bonuses or to lay off one worker, and she was chosen for the axe (likely because she had already been absent from work for some time as she battled a severe depression). The vote was 14-to-16 in favor of getting bonuses.

A friendly co-worker convinces the manager that the original vote was tainted, and he agrees to a re-vote on Monday by secret ballot. The rest of the movie chronicles Sandra’s struggle – with her co-workers and with the lurking black cloud of her depression – to win enough votes to keep her job.

The whole thing is pretty inconceivable in an American context where hiring and firing decisions are either entirely at management discretion or are determined by the outcome of an adversarial contest between organized workers and management. In a purely capitalist framework, the obviously proper thing for the company to do is lay off one worker, whether Sandra or someone else. That makes the business more efficient, and decisions across the economy that improve enterprise efficiency make possible an increase in the overall output of the economy, which implies greater aggregate wealth. Sandra herself may struggle financially in the short term, but that struggle is part of a process that improves things for everyone. Not that such a conclusion will make Sandra feel any better about being laid off.

But in the film, that decision goes not to management, but to the workers themselves. Management simply presents the workers with the facts: the company faces increased competition from Asia; the company can hit its production targets with 16 rather than 17 workers; and by laying off one worker there is room to pay all the remainder more. The workers then have to decide, collectively, what to do. And the “right” decision – even if we take the principle of solidarity seriously – becomes much blurrier.

I say it becomes blurrier, rather than inverted, because I presume the facts are honestly presented. That is to say: I presume that the company really is facing competition and really can’t afford to raise wages without increasing productivity, which, in this case, means laying off one worker. More than one of Sandra’s colleagues expresses to her their fear that, if they vote to keep her, it’ll just mean that one of them will get laid off instead. This is not an idle fear.

The most compelling objection to socialism as an economic model, from Hayek on down, has been an information theory objection. It’s just not possible for a command and control model to process information remotely as efficiently as the price mechanism does. But this objection doesn’t pose the same problem for decentralized models of worker control, including the various varieties of distributism and syndicalism. Advocates of these models often assert that they will result in a more just social order not only because they will mean a fairer distribution of the returns to capital, but because worker-ownership as such will have positive social effects in terms of social cohesion – in terms of solidarity. I’ve made those kinds of arguments myself, in fact.

“Two Days, One Night” complicates that pleasant story – indeed, arguably refutes it. Workplace democracy, under conditions of scarcity and competition, doesn’t lead to solidarity and collective decision-making. Some workers put their personal relationships with Sandra above their economic self interest. Others do the opposite. The workers are divided, not united, and they are divided by the effects of need and sentiment, not by different views of the interests of the collective. (It doesn’t help that management, as we come to understand fairly quickly, is using collective decision-making as a passive-aggressive tool for manipulating the workers. But this is also a strike against the structure of the workplace more than it is against management – after all, what would you expect management to do?)

The film ends by when Sandra is given a choice, and she makes it, and feels good about it. On a spiritual level, and on the level of her human relationships, it’s clear she’s made a good choice, and, moreover, that she’s come to be able to make it because of the personal and social journey she went on over the weekend, with herself, her husband, and her co-workers. But on the level of political economy, the choice rejects the structure within which her workplace, and the film, has been operating. It is a rejection of the responsibility of collective decision-making, in favor of solidarity on a humane, personal level. And the alternative to collective decision-making is giving that job to the discretion of management.

So what might be the political implications of Sandra’s journey?

Over the past generation, labor and social democratic parties across Europe have earned credibility as stewards of the economic system partly by abandoning the idea that they specifically represent the interests of workers, and instead implementing neoliberal policies aimed at making their economies more efficient. In the wake of the financial crisis, there’s been something of a crisis on the left, over whether they sold their birthrights for a mess of pottage that wasn’t nearly as filling as promised. But this feeling actually pre-dates the crisis, and may have validity even if it could be determined that, in terms of policy and politics, the leaders of the left actually made the best decisions possible for their countries.

Those most-likely to receive a pink slip do, in fact, need solidarity, need someone who cares first and foremost about their interests. By definition, it is going to be harder to get that solidarity from someone who is also responsible for the interests of the collective. If solidarity really is the bedrock principle of socialism, then there may be something yet to be said for the adversarial model, over those that promise a more harmonious system of economic relations.

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The King Is Dead – Long Live the King

I don’t have much to say about the passing of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia as such. One presumes that, contrary to some headlines, the transition of power from one brother to another will be relatively uneventful. Saudi Arabia is not a locked box; the United States has extensive contacts throughout the royal family, and undoubtedly has a very clear idea already of how Salman intends to rule the kingdom and what he intends to do – which, I presume, is not very much; the House of Saud is an extraordinarily conservative bunch and the default conservative thing to do in all circumstances is nothing.

The passing of the baton from 90-year-old Abdullah to 78-year-old (and ailing) Salman inevitably recalls the gerontocratic post-Brezhnev years in the Soviet Union. But as a family business that happens to own a country rather than an ideologically-inflected bureaucratic state, the kingdom can’t really bring forth a Gorbachev. Which is probably a good thing; Gorbachev attempted to reform a failing Soviet state by opening it up, and what followed was a catastrophic collapse, ultimately leading to a return to authoritarianism masked by the forms of democracy. What Saudi royal would even consider opening up the kingdom after observing recent history in Egypt, the ongoing chaos in Iraq and Syria, and the eruption of Yemen? And lest we forget, there are restive Shiites in the kingdom as well – right where the oil is.

None of which is to suggest that America needs to hold fast to its Saudi card for fear of the deluge that would follow any change in the kingdom. On the contrary – America’s goal should be to moderate the closeness of our ties to Saudi Arabia without causing any kind of a rupture in relations. The strength of those ties will wane naturally over time for economic reasons – as, on the one hand, American dependence on imported oil has ended, and we slowly transition to a post-fossil-fuel economy; and, on the other hand, as the world progressively transitions away from the dollar as the exclusive reserve currency. Geopolitical crises may accelerate or retard that movement, but the secular trend remains toward a less-close relationship.

Meanwhile, we should not let those crises disturb that trend unnecessarily – but the passing of the crown provides the Saudis with an opportunity to try to turn some of those crises to their advantage. Iran is supporting a burgeoning Shiite rebellion in Yemen, and opposing a burgeoning Sunni rebellion in Syria, both actions that the Saudi monarchy views as profound threats. They will ask the administration to affirm commitments made by previous administrations to previous Saudi leaders – and to extend these commitments – as a way of demonstrating American confidence in our relationship with Saudi Arabia during a time of transition. Such commitments will be a relatively cheap-seeming consolation prize to offer in the context of any kind of administration rebuff to Saudi pressure to scuttle our nuclear negotiations with Iran. Whatever we do offer, we should be wary of anything that might be plausibly interpreted as a renewal of our commitment to oust Assad from Syria, or a new commitment to intervene in Yemen on the side of the government.

We’re walking a fine line, trying to improve relations with Iran without giving the impression that we are giving a green light to Iranian troublemaking. But that’s the line we have to walk if we want to avoid either a costly and ultimately pointless confrontation with Iran or a further acceleration of the descent of the region into chaos and sectarian warfare. And we have to keep that line in mind as we reaffirm our multi-decade friendship with Saudi Arabia at this time of transition.

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Restructuring Higher Education

My latest column for The Week is up. In it, I speculate about the likely effects of making community college free – assuming that the administration’s plan is enacted, and actually works as it is intended:

If the administration program succeeds, and participating community colleges offer more programs eligible for transfer to four-year institutions — tuition-free to all comers — then that option will become much more attractive for this sort of student [the marginal student barely able to afford to attend a four-year degree program]. Community college enrollment may well grow — but a large fraction of that growth may come from students who might otherwise have gone directly to a four-year institution.

What effect might that have, in turn, on those four-year institutions? All else being equal, one would assume that, if a supplier enters the market with a free product or service that is of acceptable quality, other market participants will respond either by focusing on a more quality-oriented market segment (willing and able to pay a premium for a premium product), or by exiting the market entirely.

If the administration’s proposal succeeds, for-profit colleges will have a harder time staying in business; it’s hard to compete with free. But it is equally reasonable to assume that four-year public institutions, perpetually strapped for funds, will decline to compete to keep those students most attracted by a fully transferable two-year degree. Rationally, they will reorient their own “business models” around a higher percentage of transfer students, with a higher percentage of non-transfer students being either ineligible for significant financial assistance, or of distinctly higher academic standing.

This is, of course, speculative – the plan is not going to be passed by this Congress, and if it were enacted it might not work as intended. I’m trying to tease out what the likely effects would be if it did work as intended – if the law passed, states eagerly signed up, and community colleges responded to incentives to restructure their programs to meet the eligibility criteria.

To be clear, it’s not obvious to me that a restructuring of community colleges to be more academically serious would be a bad thing, if the goal is to make higher education cheaper without sacrificing quality. But if the goal is to enable people to go to college who currently do not, I wonder whether the proposal will be that effective. Poor students, after all, are frequently attending community colleges for free now. And even if they benefit from the elimination of tuition, the eligibility criteria could inadvertently make it harder for them to remain enrolled.

Some folks have worried that community colleges will engage in rampant grade inflation to keep their graduation rates up (and thus remain eligible for subsidies). That could happen – but the requirement that credits be readily transferable to a four-year institution might prevent that eventuality. But another way to keep graduation rates up is to “fire” or “manage out” failing students, a process observed at many charter schools. The administration proposal includes money for remediation – but high-performing charter schools frequently do the same. Who knows where the bulk of the incentives will ultimately lie?

In any event, I concluded the piece with a throwaway line about the “class divide” running through the student body in higher education, and I want to complicate that view slightly. It is entirely likely that a poorer student, struggling to stay financially afloat at State U, might be better off spending two or three years at a community college and then transferring to State U. I mean that not just in financial terms but in social terms – at the community college she would be around more people like her, and when she transferred to State U she might be better prepared, socially, to handle this novel social environment. The class divide already runs through State U, and runs pretty deep.

But I do think it would change State U if the pool of poorer first-year students shrank significantly, particularly if state governments responded by reorienting their budgets to treat community colleges as the “proper” academic path for poorer students. And I also worry about the position of remedial students at community colleges if the college mission is re-oriented around transfer students.

To be clear: I’m not ultimately making an argument against the proposal, either against making community college free or against the eligibility criteria. I’m just teasing out possible unintended effects. Other proposals would undoubtedly have different unintended effects. Policy is rarely about finding a program with no downsides or unintended effects; it’s about finding one that is on-balance worthwhile, and being aware of those possible downsides so they can be mitigated.

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