Saturday, January 25, 2014

It's Just BC!: A Rebuttal

A number of my friends (who are my best critics) have variously suggested in my criticisms of higher education that my view is too narrow, that the complaints I have are really only about Bellevue College, and that things really aren't that bad in other schools. It's an argument that my points are only anecdotal, which, of course, their responses are as well, but it also misses the way in which I came to the conclusions about higher education that I did. Allow me to clarify that here.

My concern with freedom of speech, particularly on college campuses, began after hearing Christopher Hitchens' defense of hate speech at the University of Toronto in 2006--my closer friends will have probably gotten sick of hearing references to this by now--and it was at that point, at the beginning of a class on the techniques and technology of propaganda I was involved in, that I took the issue seriously and began to research the threats to freedom of speech in the United States and in higher education generally. It became clear to me, in researching, that this was not a problem of the past or a latent problem, but a problem in American schools, now, today, and this was primarily the result of my discovery of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). From that understanding, and from various books I read--by Alan Kors and Harvey Silvergate, the co-founders of FIRE, by Greg Lukianoff, the current president of FIRE, by "Kindly Inquisitors" by Jonathan Rauch, and another book called "Let the Students Speak!," a legal history of the freedom of speech struggles in American schools--from this, I saw freedom of speech as something that was important to examine at Bellevue College, but it wasn't something I believed was a problem at the moment. My line of thinking was: "Look, here's something that's problematic in other schools. Let's try to preempt that so it doesn't become a problem at Bellevue College." I didn't think it was a problem at Bellevue College at the time. It was entirely because of the instances of the chilling effect and the fear of these inscrutable and often incoherent policies at other schools that I began to look into Bellevue College's own policies.

It was then that, after I had assumed that Bellevue College was actually doing okay because I hadn't noticed anything myself prior to this, that I began to notice that Bellevue College was, in fact, a very, very, very poor defender of freedom of speech, and was even a strong opponent of it. This, by the speech of the now president of the college itself, Dr. David Rule, in response to my question at his student forum discussion, and by my interviews with the Vice President of Equity and Pluralism, Yoshiko Harden, and by the school's policy itself, and the way that school rules and beuracratic systems were used systematically to keep quiet opinions that ran contrary to its own political agenda, and to simultaneously promote its own agenda, and claim to be a defender of free speech while oppressing it in a quiet, surreptitious manner. All of that came after the discovery of these effects going on in other schools, and it was this discovery in other schools that fueled my discovery of it in Bellevue College.

Now, because it's been widely acknowledged by these same critics that my criticisms are for the most part true, (though the opinion differs greatly on what we should do about it), I hope it won't be alleged post-hoc that I'm tilting at windmills here. This was a problem I first discovered at other schools, and it's not just a thing at BC. Whether it's true at this or that or the other particular school is, of course, open to discussion. I haven't been to every single school; I haven't experienced the college life at these other schools. But when people who haven't taken quite as active of an interest in the subject as me--for entirely understandable reasons--come to me and say, "but my school's not like that!," I have no way of knowing whether that's true or not because I would have said the same thing about Bellevue College to my current self, were I talking from two year's ago's experience.

In short, this isn't just a problem at Bellevue College. It's a problem all over the country, and in more schools than not. FIRE rates schools on a red, yellow and green light system. Green doesn't even mean the school is constitutionally sound, but it's close enough. It's "about right," it for the most part does a good job of protecting student's rights and you'll be safe holding a dissenting opinion about a major political subject. The yellow-light school's policies are problematic. These are not abiding by the constitution, and there's an issue that needs to be addressed in the name of the school's Amendment XIV section I obligation to uphold student's constitutional rights, perhaps to an even greater degree than those of other, non-student citizens. Red-light schools are "laughably unconstitutional," as Greg Lukianoff described them, and of the schools surveyed by FIRE's team of extremely competent first amendment law team, they found that of the hundreds of schools surveyed, nearly 60% of them fell into the red-light category.

This is not a Bellevue College-exclusive issue we have here.

Bellevue College is one of those red-light schools, or was last year; they've since been removed from that list even though their policies have gotten worse with time and not better. And these are only the schools surveyed, which are the major and larger schools in the United States. So with that in mind, I think the burden is on those who say this is a one-school, Bellevue College issue, and not a greater, larger trend, to investigate their schools before exonerating them off the cuff, and to show that the resources, time and experience organizations like FIRE that have spent to evaluate these schools in dedication to this sole cause are don't prove that these school policies are a threat to the classical liberal society and American values that FIRE believes them to be.

BC Presidential Student-Forum with Candidate Dr. David Rule

(From October 13, 2012)
Robertson: “Sort of a specific question […].  In 2001, Kincaid v. Gibson, the courts ruled that the University environment is, and I’m quoting them, “the quintessential ‘marketplace of ideas’ which merits full, or indeed heightened first amendment protection,” so freedom of speech.  There’s unfortunately been some conflict between the push against bullying and intolerance and that sort of thing, and freedom of speech.  This has happened in Illinois, particularly on the East Coast. Where do you see the line between first amendment protections and, sort of the intolerance-bullying issue?”
Rule: “First amendment rights are not absolute. And we need to start—none of our rights, when you look through the Bill of Rights, none of our rights are absolute rights. I mean, the issue with first amendment rights is that we all say “you’re not allowed to stand up in a theatre and yell ‘fire!’” alright? Unless there is one, ok.  Well the basic principle underlying that concept is freedom of speech can be controlled.  Particularly in areas where harm can be done.  Yelling ‘fire’ in a theatre could result in a stampede where people could be hurt, so that is not protected speech.
“One of the things I love about working in the public sector—and I served in three Catholic Universities, and freedom of speech was very simple: you spoke to the president and he or she would tell you what you are allowed to say. It’s a private college.  One of the things I love about public colleges is that you do have the marketplace of ideas, but even here at Bellevue – I remember when I was taking the tour – we dictate time, place, manner, right.  Time, place, manner, and I forget the statutes that support all of that.  The idea that, for example, people cannot wander around on campus unless the campus says so, and say whatever they want, in the hallways and in the rooms, and things of that nature.  You have a ‘free-speech’ area out here, which is honored.
“Free speech stops when individuals are being hurt, in my mind, so that’s where that line is with bullying.  You know, it’s the same way we talk about, for example, sexual harassment.  It doesn’t matter if I didn’t mean a comment in a way that is a sexual advance, let’s say.  In my mind, what I thought, doesn’t matter; it’s what the victim feels.  If you feel I have made sexual advances or made sexual comments that are inappropriate, it’s your opinion that counts, not mine.  And it’s the same way in the bullying aspect.
“You know, I’m from the East Coast, so I’m told I have a relatively thick skin.  So people can say things to me, particularly after being a president for eight going on nine years – I can take it.  Does it hurt sometimes? Yes, but I have a particularly thick skin.  Other people, hearing the very same comments that I might take as ‘ok, they’re upset, or they’re…” could be very damaging to them.  So, there is a line there, and to some extent it varies at the institution, but when it comes to bullying and things like sexual harassment and hate-speech, it really flips up the other side and a lot of it has to do with how it’s perceived on the other end.  And so it becomes more of a case-by-case scenario. What hurts me may not hurt you, and vice versa.”

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What's Wrong with the Wealth Inequality Conversation

This is a power-law distribution graph. I first became familiar with the phenomenon of power-law distribution graphs from Clay Shirky's TED talk comparing institutional models of organization and collaborative models of organization.

Now, suppose you're a photo-blogger. You invest several hundred dollars and a few months on photography lessons, another couple hundred on decent quality photography equipment, and spend a few hours a week, every week taking photos and posting them to your page. As an amateur, you do quite well; your photos are of good, nearly professional quality, and you make calendars out of them over Christmas for your relatives. Your photo-blog receives, on average, around 50,000 hits per month.

Your father, on the other hand, lives in retirement and has opted, of all possible hobbies out there, to devote the majority of his free money, time, and energy into the same one you chose. After thousands of dollars on courses, seminars, workshops, equipment, and trips to exotic places, and after thousands of hours of practice time taking meticulous photos, he's finally started his own photo-blog, and his superior photos bring him in close to 1,000,000 page-views per month, with thousands of them shares.

And just as one final counter-point, let's look at your teenage daughter, a social-media tycoon and queen bee, a selfie-taking, smart-phone-wielding Facebook junkie with more tech skills than she probably deserves or knows how to productively apply. As it happens, she takes a tremendous number of photos, which she uploads to facebook via instagram. Her photos get a fare number of views, but only from close friends and family members. At your request, she reluctantly put some of her better photos into an online photo-blog. The blog gets less traffic than the Gravina Island Bridge.

I want you to keep two things in mind. First, that even the possibility of a teenager taking photographs as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world--which, in many ways, it is--would not have been thinkable a mere hundred years ago, and is now possible thanks primarily to a non-redistributive market. Secondly, in a world where websites are profitable only with the aid of people actually going to them, I want you to allegorically think of page-views as a kind of currency, to be distributed and redistributed.

Notice too that, in the greater population, photographers like your daughter are ubiquitous; like yourself are uncommon; like your father are exceptional and rare. As if by some celestial law, the page views associated with each blog correlate to quality of content, not as a matter of moral obligation or of making the internet run better, but as a function of human nature, incentive structures, and simple cause-and effect.

It is from this allegorical angle that I look at the arguments for redistributing wealth. Power-law distributions are not just about contribution of content and effort, but also describe the expected distribution of rewards, be they page-views or dollars.

In my macro-economics class, the only non-textbook article we were told to read was Joseph Stiglitz's now famous "Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%," which lambasted the growing wealth inequality in the United States, and in some way spurred on and gave credence to the Occupy movement (the parts that weren't a political carry-over from Code Pink and the rest of the Anti-War movement, as Bernadine Dohrn mentioned to conservative writer and journalist Andrew Breitbart). Stiglitz actually preempted my own argument, saying:

"Some people look at income inequality and shrug their shoulders. So what if this person gains and that person loses? What matters, they argue, is not how the pie is divided but the size of the pie. That argument is fundamentally wrong. An economy in which most citizens are doing worse year after year--an economy like America's--is not likely to do well in the long haul. There are several reasons for this."

His given reasons are the following: first, wealth inequality is a result of decreasing opportunity, which is bad; second, distortions and manipulations that lead to inequality undermine the economy; third, America needs infrastructure, which is the result of 'collective action,' which inequality threatens by dividing people based on needs, desires and incentives.

As I recently wrote in a post about unemployment, there are no shortages of opportunities for work, even for lucrative work. If there is a problem of unemployment, the problem appears to be more cultural and social than it is economic in nature. Stiglitz's second point is largely correct, but is a function caused by government intervention and meddling, not solved by it.

As for the third point, the argument that "[t]he United States and the world have benefited greatly from government-sponsored research that led to the Internet, to advances in public health, and so on..." is misleading on two fronts. First, it ignores all of the bad things government has done with the money we give it (most recently, denying the privacy-rights and presumption of innocence of its' taxpayers). As Christopher Hitchens once observed, it is true that Hezbollah gives money to charity, and that HAMAS helps feed the poor. Not to compare our own government's actions to those of theocratic-fascist organizations, but it would be equally unjust to equivocate the threat to society posed by large corporations, which often fund philanthropic infrastructure projects, with the threat posed by the government presumed to be the sole provider of such infrastructure.

Secondly, Stiglitz's point ignores the opportunity cost when money is put into "collective" goals through government. There are various reasons why the private market is a more efficient and more effective innovator, builder, and business-conductor than the government, which I won't go into here for the sake of brevity.

Stiglitz also references a common fallacy in social theorizing: the idea that those at the top stay in the top, and that money doesn't move around. We're stagnating, and money won't redistribute, so the wealthy, while outwardly complaining, are really quite happy with the status quo. Thomas Sowell thoroughly destroys this myth in his more careful study of the issue:

For the more progressively-inclined, loath to trust a conservative (a black conservative!!1!) like Thomas Sowell, Malcolm Gladwell also attacked this fundamental misunderstanding of social and economic mobility in his most recent book "David and Goliath."

Ultimately, however, none of these address the most important issues, which is not intellectual or economic or anything so high as that. The real concern at work here is a more gut-level, emotional argument: they have something I don't have. How did they get it? They're no better than me...

Well, actually, if you want to use money as your measure, yes, the 1% are better than you, and they care more about money than you do. For the same reason that your dad has more page-views on his photo-blog, because he put in time and effort to get those page views, the way Bruce Lee put in time and effort to achieve his martial arts expertise (though I'd totally get behind a "redistribution of martial arts expertise" movement), the wealthiest in America have, by and large, achieved it through a combination of luck and really, really hard work. My 8th grade math teacher was one of the founding members of Amazon, retiring in his mid-30's. How did he do it? By putting in consecutive 18-hour days, for months, on top of a finely honed expertise with computers and logistics. I will never be a member of the 1%, because I spend my time writing about stuff like this instead. As a consequence, I may one-day aspire to be among the top 1% of writers in the world though. Imagine the injustice: 1% of all writers owning 40% of all the writing talent! How terrible! When we look at money the way we look at any other kind of currency, be it respect, page-views, books, knowledge, sleep, or whatever, the lunacy of class warfare rhetoric becomes transparent.

We shouldn't be shocked or upset when we see power-law distributions at work in society. We shouldn't feel upset when your basement-dwelling cousin has a better World of Warcraft character than we do, despite his putting in roughly 1,000% more time into the game than you. We shouldn't feel upset when, after our reclusive sibling spends hours reading and studying in their room while we were out partying, they end up smarter than us. Nor should we feel we've been cheated or wronged when someone makes more money than we do. The increasing wealth-inequality is not a function of some kind of systemic injustice, but is in fact the natural product of justice--giving to each their due--and a growing population. In many ways, it is in fact a sign of freedom and equality of treatment, in that only in a free economy can real differences between individuals in goals, aspirations, drives, and the sweat of honest effort be allowed to shine openly.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Are Schools Enclaves of Totalitarianism?

One of my favorite of all Supreme Court opinions was delivered by Justice Robert Jackson in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, in which he claims that under the fourteenth amendment, all citizens are protected from the state itself "and all its creatures," including schools, and that while the needs of education necessitate special considerations, none are so demanding as to deny students their Constitutional freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. "That they are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes." In Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), arguably the most famous and often-cited case related to American schools, Justice Abe Fortas famously wrote that "schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism."

But totalitarianism's face has changed, from the vicious and open brutality of George Orwell to a confused, bureaucratic labyrinth out of a Kafka novel. William Dobson has variously explained this phenomenon on the international scale in his book, "The Dictator's Learning Curve:"

To summarize, the old methods don't work anymore. They're too transparent. The new, more slippery and more effective way to maintain power is to use more subtle tactics: the allowance of free speech, but only in places and manners in which it is certain to have no effect; no blatantly oppressive laws, but vague laws that, when taken literally, are breathtakingly broad in scope but can be applied like a scalpel against political opponents. In short, the new totalitarians do their best to play the part of defenders of freedom, while still quietly suppressing its effects.

I used to think it was an overstatement and exaggeration to refer to school policies as "totalitarian" in nature, but I'm increasingly believing that it was Fortas, not myself, who was correct in naming the problem.

Consider, as just one example of this, the phenomenon that is FERPA law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Two years ago, Issaquah High School expelled Cameron Gardener (name changed to protect privacy). It appears that two other students who had been caught with illegal drugs had opted to turn in Cameron as a kind of plea bargain, though the details are a bit sketchy there. Cameron was brought into the principle's office from class and told that they already knew what he had done and that there was no use lying. The administration forced him to sign a confession that he had violated the school's drug policy, and then proceeded to search his person and backpack and administered a drug test. Cameron was not allowed to call a lawyer or even his parents.

Now, what's interesting in this case is that Issaquah High School didn't find any drugs on Cameron, and his drug test came out negative. Oh well, says the school. It makes no difference. He signed the confession, therefore he broke the school's drug policy. In the school's findings on the case, they audaciously congratulated themselves on respecting all of the student in question's rights during the investigation. Apparently they forgot the IV, V, VI, and VII Amendment rights; I'm no lawyer, but if those words have any communicative value, the school's actions clearly violate them. Issaquah High School turned the emergency expulsion into a 10-day suspension and never apologized to Cameron or the Gardener family.

Here's where FERPA law plays it's part. When I called to confirm these facts with the school, after the ordinary passing off from secretary to administrator to secretary, the school claimed that they could not release the information to protect the student's privacy. It wasn't particularly important, apparently, that it was the student himself who had told me about this information and given me the paperwork that had been given to him. Whose privacy is this law defending?

A much milder but similar incident occurred at Bellevue College where, in attempting to confirm facts, English professor Elizabeth Harazim (no name change, in this case), refused to provide information about a student who she had permanently removed from her class for "question[ing] a student's contributions based on ethnicity," not because she didn't want to--so she said--but because FERPA didn't allow it. The student in question's comment was actually that everyone with American citizenship is an American, no matter what their ethnicity, or at least so they said. Instead of having to overtly deny the claim, Bellevue College could simply fall back on "the student's privacy" in order to protect their own decisions, proceedings, rulings and treatment of the student.


In mirroring the secret courts of classical authoritarian governments, schools now run on de facto secret courts, where a preponderance of evidence--rather than the "beyond reasonable doubt," or even the more lowly civil court standard of "clear and convincing evidence--as their standard burden of proof.

FERPA law is just one example of these kinds of infringements on public law that Fortas, Jackson and others warned against in attempting to teach students how to live in a free society. Free expression, free assembly, free exchange, and various other freedoms are being attacked in other, similarly sly ways, all the while paying lip service to the same rights and freedoms that our education system is systematically eroding. It's true that the schools aren't directly responsible for these laws, legal dangers and monetary incentives, but they openly and enthusiasticaly embrace of them without even a hint of a challenge or fight to retain the values they proclaim with their other face--free inquiry, freedom of speech, innocent until proven guilty, and fair, public trials. We're beyond the point where we should accept as legitimate our government school's tired old excuse that "this wasn't our fault." If they weren't taking advantage of these laws for their own sake, or at the very least being cowardly and two-faced, they would be actively working to oppose FERPA, free speech zones, oppressive speech codes and the like. But they're not, so we shouldn't be afraid of calling them by their proper descriptor: totalitarian.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

On Unemployment

I recently finished Garret Garret's novel "The Driver," which opens with a surreal procession of various people, from lawyers to farmers to beggars, marching behind two men who, jointly, constitute the modern reincarnation of Christ on earth. Their mission: to solve the problem of joblessness by marching their army to Washington and demanding that congress pass a law granting unlimited prosperity to everyone. Surprisingly, the novel wasn't published in 2008, but in 1922, and set in 1893. Oh the times, they are a changin'.

"There aren't enough jobs" was the crux of the argument made by sympathizers with Coxey's army, as the odd procession came to be called. It is strikingly similar to the complaints made today, particularly of college students who emerge from their academic institutions armed with a fiercesome intellectual resume and the force of will to take on the world... only to find that no one seems to need their job-skills, or at least far fewer than expected. Economists, politicians, and lay people lazily pontificating about the world's problems will say "well, the job-market's tough out there."

But is it really? I don't think so. Nor, as it happens, does Mike Rowe, whose recent interview with Reason.TV is an insightful view into the untapped job-market that the people complaining about the lack of jobs are inexplicably ignoring.

Ignoring these jobs isn't exactly inexplicable though. In fact, it has a perfectly legitimate explanation: as we've gotten more successful as a nation, we've been told over and over again that "college is a path to success." For a while, this was true; as we got more things we needed, like food, housing, and clothes, at affordable prices, we could afford to do research, and come up with theories about society and pay people to do that. Pay them very well, in fact. It was all very new and very interesting, and such people were intellectual giants of their time. Many still are.

But we overcompensated, and the corollary of aspiring to be great doctors, lawyers, professors or politicians, by no means bad or irrational careers (except maybe that last one), was to begin looking down on the more traditional kinds of work as "beneath us." On a more personal note, as a professional truck-driver who left academia for the blue-collar world--I was previously set on becoming a teacher, then a journalist--people from various different walks of life ask when I'm going to wake up and get a "real job." Never mind that the average driving salary is $48,000 a year, ignoring benefits. My second company trainer was an owner-operator, and grossed over $150,000 last year. What do people mean by "real job?"

There is no shortage of jobs. Welders, plumbers, drivers, various tech-industry jobs (it's this easy to learn to code), are all relatively easy to get into, and provide a reasonably good income to people claiming to have no employment. In education, a field that requires upwards of 5 years of school, depending on your state, tens of thousands of dollars, thousands of hours of time that could have been spent doing something else productive, all of that will give you the opportunity to fight tooth and nail against your erstwhile classmates for a job as an intern. Maybe. I'm only slightly exaggerating. My driving-training, which with any effort will easily out-pay teachers in the long run, took one month. Not six months, not three, but one. One month. That's thirty days, to clarify, and four thousand dollars instead of eighty thousand, or more. Before I had even graduated, I had been pre-hired with three separate companies.

There is a town in North Dakota called Williston, where an oil-boom has left the city struggling to catch its infrastructure up to the incredible wealth pouring out of that region, and the subsequent flow of people pouring in. An inexperienced worker can move there and make $16 an hour as a McDonalds employee, with guaranteed overtime, or upwards of $80,000 a year as an oil-field worker. Due to the lack of housing and hotels, construction in that region is in demand, and it doesn't take much to get paid very well to pound nails.

Of course, the reason the pay is so good is that there's a cost. There's a cost--in time, energy, stress, and even danger--in every job, but in Williston, the cost is very high. Temperatures in the winter can drop into the -60F range (even excluding this year's polar vortex), the hours are long, and the whole city is essentially a sausage-fest; romantic prospects are slim even if you aren't wrapped in oil and mud-soaked Carhartts. But people who are willing to work and are resourceful enough to find housing, even just a trailer, can get it there.

I mention Williston to make a point about people's choices. In a recent episode of Joe Rogan's podcast, Stefan Molyneux pointed out that Americans under the poverty line worked an average of 16 hours a week... as a family. That's husband and wife combined, and these numbers precede the 2008 housing crisis. To be fair, there are certainly people out there who work very hard and still live in poverty, but the fact that the average sits at 16 hours a week per family, even if we grant that many people in poverty don't work at all, gives us good reason to guess that number to be much smaller than many particularly leftist politicians would have you believe. These people are, to a great extent, unemployed by choice.

This is not to say that they don't want to be employed; far from it. All I'm saying is that people who are unemployed are, by and large not willing to make the sacrifices or put in the creativity to find or make work for themselves. There is this mindset of externalization at work, which has been fostered in large part by polarized political finger-pointing and the mainstream media, that it is someone else's responsibility to make work for me. Nothing could be more damaging to employment numbers though. The jobs are out there, and it's not anybody else's responsibility to give you one. You cannot parade your way to Washington and legislate a job for yourself (though many people today do seem to be under that impression), and even if you could, you don't need to, because it's far more efficient and effective to go out, figure out what people need, and help provide that for them, and right now, like South Korea, we don't need more college educated graduates; we need linemen, and fishermen, and drivers. The problem of unemployment is social and cultural, not economic.

This article by David Wong gives eloquent (albeit vulgar) advice on how to think about this on a more personal level.