Worst practices in curriculum design

The current “best practice” for course/curriculum design is to start from the learning objectives and then fill in gradually more detail, only supplying the actual course content at a relatively late stage. When Shimer was going through some curriculum debates a few years ago, I opportunistically seized upon this principle as a way to open up a little more space for thinking about new and different readings, but it was a way of thinking that just didn’t work, ultimately. We had one meeting when everyone seemed to be on board, and then we got back to the traditional debates over particular readings and how we can’t remove this one thing that really “works,” etc. And I don’t think this was because my Shimer colleagues are especially hidebound — the way they do curriculum design is just the way everyone does it.

The so-called “best practices,” as usual, have virtually never been done, and that’s because they presuppose a very simplistic, unidirectional version of curriculum development. Continue reading “Worst practices in curriculum design”

Political polarization in the family

I have written before about my struggle to come to terms with my parents’ decision to vote for Trump, and I have it relatively easy. My family has tended to avoid politics over the years, and few if any of them appear to be pure Fox News zombies. Many other people — such as this black author who has had major conflict with his Trump-supporting white mother — have had it much worse and have reached the point where they need to break off contact.

I don’t claim to know what’s going on in people’s heads in specific cases, but this trend of family strain related to right-wing indoctrination does seem pretty widespread. As we know, systemic effects have systemic causes, and the biggest systemic cause for the last forty years of American life has been the radical reworking of the economy through the bipartisan consensus known as neoliberalism. It is well known that that consensus has favored capital mobility and concentration in a way that has led to a hollowing out of the economic prospects of vast swathes of the country while benefiting a handful of urban areas, which have become basically the only place to find any real opportunity.

What is less noted is the way that this dynamic tends to tear families apart — and to create braindrain as the urban centers basically poach the most talented and creative members of other communities. In a setting like this, going to college, adopting more liberal values, moving to the city, etc., take up a very fraught status. On the one hand, it’s the only way to get ahead in life, and families are often proud of their children who “get out” and make a life for themselves. On the other hand, that means that the parents who have done the “best job” are often punished with the effective loss of their children — not only through less frequent contact, but through a changed lifestyle, values, and expectations. They did everything they were supposed to, and the reward is that their children hardly visit and look down their nose at them when they do. For how many Fox News viewers, I wonder, is the archetypal smug liberal elitist their own child?

The way they react to this pain and loss often isn’t healthy, but I’m less interested in judging individuals than in pointing out the ways that right-wing media have exploited this grief by pushing it toward anger and resentment. Becoming a Fox News zombie of course only exacerbates the problem, as it becomes increasingly impossible to talk about important national events or, more broadly, about values or ideas. Every episode of conflict only hardens the dynamic, until it becomes very unclear for the children what this relationship is even supposed to be about. I suspect parents know what’s happening, but they can’t help but double down — and what are we in the younger generation really offering them? Should they uproot and move to the city, too? Would the problem be solved if they watched “All In With Chris Hayes” religiously instead of O’Reilly or whatever?

We talk about broad-strokes when assessing the slogan “Make America Great Again,” but what if — alongside the racism and toxic nostalgia — there is a more intimate way people are hearing it: make my children love and respect me again, make my community a place where people don’t automatically want to leave and never come back again, make America a place where getting ahead in life isn’t synonymous with dissociating yourself from me. Right-wing media — and here I am thinking of Trump fundamentally as a media phenomenon, which is how our parents experience him — has exploited this situation in a despicable and probably unfixable way, but they didn’t create the underlying dynamic. In other words, ultimately Fox News isn’t what’s tearing families apart, but it’s profiting from the fact that they’re already being torn apart by the geographic concentration of wealth and opportunity.

The rot in our public discourse is neoliberalism’s fault

Whenever I picture talking to my Republican parents about Trump, I always anticipate an “I know you are but what am I”-style response. Obama was narcissistic, too. Democrats have supported racism in the past. You only think that because you rely on biased liberal media. Etc., etc., etc. It’s exhausting and almost impossible to break through, and it’s hardly limited to my parents — conservative media has cultivated those rhetorical habits for literally decades at this point.

It’s worth pausing to consider the sheer moral nihilism of this rhetorical stance. On the surface, it seems logically contradictory — if both sides are equally bad (to a stunningly consistent degree, on every single issue!), then what possible basis is there for choosing one over the other at all? How is such a view compatible with passionate, lockstep support of one of the equally bad sides? This common sense view misses the real dynamic at play, though. False equivalency turns partisan identification into a sheer act of will, inaccessible to reason. Both sides are equally bad, and yet we support different sides — so it must be that we support those sides simply because we support those sides.

And hence no one is in a position to judge, because everyone is an arbitrary ideologue nihilistically rooting for their team. If there is a shade of difference to be discerned, it’s that conservatives are “at least honest” about the nature of their identification. In other words, everyone’s political stance is structured exactly like conservatism, but liberals won’t admit it to themselves because they are seeking out some illusory social prestige through “virtue signalling.” After all, no one can really care about people outside their own group — once again, everyone is secretly a conservative underneath it all.

From the other side, liberals are addicted to hypocrisy attacks and other demonstrations that their opponents are stupid, uncouth, or otherwise disqualified from consideration. This may initially seem more intellectually promising, insofar as it makes use of something like logic, but even on its own terms, this strategy doesn’t make sense. Would more consistent racism be better?

As with the conservative version, the liberal rhetorical stance presupposes that everyone is a liberal, but the conservatives are just not as good at it or something. And it is every bit as much a defense mechanism. If we stay on the purely formal level of judging the structure of their discourse, then we don’t have to actually confront their ideas — which would open up the possibility of real, principled conflict. This is the true nightmare of the liberal position: that we would somehow discover that white supremacists are behaving perfectly “rationally” given their initial premises, that the formal safeguards of logical consistency and public deliberation are not enough to guarantee automatically “good” results.

And this brings me to the title of this post: where did this dynamic come from? I think we can point the finger at neoliberalism. After the inital triumph of neoliberalism, the window for serious, principled political dispute rapidly closed — all the most important questions about how the economy and political order should be structured had been answered. At that point, politics really did become a question of arbitrary identification based on tribal loyalties, stylistic preferences, “virtue signalling,” etc. And now that the neoliberal order is breaking down and we really do need to find some way to hash out serious differences and make collective decisions about how our society is going to look, we find that a generation of neoliberal anti-politics has left those muscles completely atrophied.

This is why the younger generation is leading the way, because they are the only ones who haven’t yet had a chance to get worn down to the nub of “I know you are but what am I” or knee-jerk hypocrisy attacks. And it’s also why both the US and UK left have been led by members of an older generation — they remember a time before neoliberal zombification, and they heroically stood their ground against it. But in the vast middle swath that currently holds power and is in a position to maintain it for the foreseeable future, there has been a terminal brain drain that leaves them incapable of solving real problems.

Better Skills

As political slogans go, “Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages” is in many respects… suboptimal. Yet I do think that it represents mainstream Democrats’ vision in an authentic way. They agree with the Republicans that all of life should be a ruthless competition, for all eternity. They agree that the individual should be responsible for every decision and outcome, as a matter of principle. The difference is that the Democrats want to set things up to slightly decrease the chances that you will irrevocably screw up, whereas the Republicans want to leave losers to die. Hence Democrats come up with a plan whereby people are forced to buy health insurance, while the Republicans openly muse about how maybe having a preexisting condition means that you are a bad person who deserves to die. On the job front, Democrats want to help people become more competitive on the job front, while Republicans think colleges should be burned to the ground.

What we’re dealing with here, fundamentally, is two different strategies for bringing the job market into equilibrium and restoring America’s global competitiveness. The Democrats are dangling the prospect of short-term advantage for particularly industrious individuals, but the end logic of their plan is to commodify those in-demand job skills, converting ever more occupations into disposable cheap labor. Democrats are opening up the possibility of economic survival to more people, but not really increasing the number of slots available. The Republican strategy, by contrast, appears to be to let the dying communities just die — not to drive up wages for those left behind, but apparently out of a sheer desire to make sure that the losers lose.

It’s as though the Democrats are Chigurh from No Country for Old Men: you’re most likely going to die, but you do have the option of a coin toss. The Republicans don’t offer the coin toss. Which one is better? The Democrats, obviously! But if you were someone in a dying community that had been starved for jobs for a generation, the kind of place where everyone leaves if they can, would you bother getting up in the morning to pull the lever for that option?

2 Trump 2 Neoliberalism

At New APPS, Gordon Hull has a good response to my post on Trump and neoliberalism, where he argues that Trump can be construed as broadly neoliberal due to his emphasis on branding and competition. There is nothing in the post that I would strongly dispute, and I think that in part it’s a terminological question. Certainly I wouldn’t claim that Trumpism is intellectually robust enough to constitute a radical break with the logic of neoliberalism, so I can understand calling him a mutation rather than something else. When I said that Trump personally isn’t neoliberal, I meant that he’s basically too ignorant to be a principled, self-conscious neoliberal, which does not exclude him being shaped by neoliberalism in the ways Hull lists.

As I ponder Trump’s infrastructure plan, which Krugman critiqued yesterday, I think that we could say that Trumpism is where neoliberalism shades over into open corruption. It always looks like corruption, but Trump’s vision takes the “public-private partnership” to a new level in terms of supporing rent-extraction by wealthy capitalists. That makes sense once you realize that Trump is basically nothing but a corrupt property developer, and if Trumpism’s corruption produces a public outcry while (as is likely) failing to deliver the promised economic boom, that does increase the likelihood of a return to “normal” neoliberalism if no serious left option is on the table.

The problem, as I see it, is that at a conceptual level, all the options for managing capitalism have been done. Whether we’re talking about Keynesianism, neoliberalism, or outright “crony capitalism” — which were all conveniently personified in this election by Sanders, Clinton, and Trump, respectively — all of them are models that presume that capitalist accumulation will be taking place and use specific strategies to promote it while redirecting the proceeds in some way. Capitalist accumulation is a very powerful engine for creating material plenty and technological progress, but we are increasingly reaching the point of diminishing returns when it comes to just letting the thing run and using its leftovers for socially important goals. The undiscovered country is a model that would actually direct production, that would determine that certain things need to happen regardless of whether surplus value can be extracted from them.

Trump and neoliberalism

In Australia and New Zealand, I was often asked after my lectures whether I thought Trump was a neoliberal. I answered that since neoliberalism is a specific set of ideas, it was unlikely to be within Trump’s grasp. Then, on a more serious note, I said that I really don’t think he is neoliberal and that I would actually prefer standard neoliberalism to Trump. Indeed, that preference guided my vote for Hillary Clinton, the virtual incarnation of neoliberalism, over Trump.

If we grant for the moment that Trump is not neoliberal, how does the Trump phenomenon stand in relationship to neoliberalism? The most common narrative seems to be that neoliberalism atomizes the social body, leading to a right-wing explosion of nationalism or other revanchist forms of social identification. In this narrative, the right-wing reaction is somehow external to neoliberalism — it just so happens that these national or racial identities persist from previous eras, as it were — but necessarily entailed as a predictable backlash. This narrative strikes me as a variation on the well-known theory that racial and national identities are extrinsic “distractions” from the reality of economic exploitation.

I don’t find that narrative very satisfying as an answer. Continue reading “Trump and neoliberalism”

Obamacare Wasn’t Worth It

In 2009, Obama entered office with an unmistakable mandate and control of both houses of Congress — including a rare fillibuster-proof majority in the Senate — and the Democrats wasted it. They pushed through a stimulus package that barely offset the cuts in government spending at the state and municipal level, providing line-item veto power to a small rump of centrist Republican senators in exchange for bipartisan “cover.” And most of the rest of their “political capital” was spent on a Republican health care plan that the Republicans immediately demonized them for. Obama was determined that it be “deficit-neutral” over a ten-year period, and the conditions of its passage (using the reconciliation process, which was only necessary because of the Democratic majority’s foolish refusal to abolish the fillibuster) absolutely necessitated it.

This meant that most of its provisions wouldn’t even go into effect until four years later, so that the Democrats literally could not point to a single concrete benefit to a law that sounded… pretty bad. Yes, the Republicans exaggerated, as is their habit, but this was hyperbole that centered on an unavoidable truth about Obamacare: Americans would be forced by the government to give their money to some of the most hated and distrusted corporations on earth, whose continued profitability is taken as axiomatic under the terms of the health care reform law. Obamacare does a lot of good things other than that, and the insurance mandate has in fact decreased the number of uninsured — but the central premise of the law is one that is deeply offensive.

Continue reading “Obamacare Wasn’t Worth It”