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Sunday, February 07, 2021

Organizational hierarchy is immoral by default

I've been thinking lately about how organizations make up of decent people can do immoral things.

When you have to do something, you usually do it. In relationships where you have less than half the power, or roughly half, you need to be careful to tell the truth, keep track of your promises, and generally own the things you say and do.

But if you have much more than half the power, you just don't really need to do any of those things. You can even intend to do them, and do them much of the time, and credit yourself for doing them. But when you don't do them -- when you misstate facts, or omit facts, or ignore your promises, or reverse course without owning the change, or drop a position without acknowledging it, or enforce a rule that hasn't been articulated -- well, you totally can.

There are many forms of self-regulation that are effective, without requiring external pressure. And in organizations, there are leaders who work to hold themselves to a high standard on these measures.

You might say that in the long term, this self-regulation is rational and strategic, because an organization without it will bleed people and customers. Maybe, but the pressure is very indirect. Whereas the more basic effects of a power imbalance are more obvious. As in, what can get you fired?

Take lying. A boss can generally get someone under them fired, or at least written up and put under HR pressure, for being caught lying about something substantial. But what about when the employee catches the boss in a lie? It's not that there is no repercussion ever. But in a basic sense, the employee won't get very far going to HR and telling what happened.

It's analogous to police violence. It's a perfectly mainstream thing to think, "I know the police may have been too aggressive when they shot that guy, but there was a scuffle and for all they know, he was going to kill them." But it's much more uncommon to think "I know that citizen may have been too aggressive when he shot that cop, but there was a scuffle and for all he knew, the cop was going to kill him." Which he did!

I hope nobody kills anyone, and I support police safety and understand the risks of policing. I'm just trying to point out that when we look at a situation with a genuine power imbalance, that shapes the lens of what we do and don't see as acceptable.

In a relationship with roughly equal power -- a marriage, say, or a business partnership -- there is often a LOT of messy back and forth. Tons of feedback happening. Lots of apologies and changes of course. That's not because the people involved suck at relationship, it's because they're *good* at relationship, and a power balanced relationship involves lots of doing fucked up things, yelling at each other, listening better, and changing.

What does it do to a relationship, if you take the power and make it wildly imbalanced? Well, it becomes no longer possible to hammer out grievances the less powerful person has.

You can still hammer out grievances! There can still be listening and change! But it's essentially one-way, with only small, limited, heavily risky opportunities for expressing grievances the other way. This isn't due to anyone involved being a bad person. It's the underlying power situation. Rewind time, switch the individuals in their hierarchical roles, and you'd probably get the same result.

How do you defy this trend? Well, you can't pretend it doesn't exist. "Let's all get drinks and be chums" is good, but it doesn't actually threaten the power imbalance, so it's immaterial to this dynamic.

To undo it in a systematic way, you need to actually shift the power dynamics in ways that are not just window dressing.

Take something like giving credit: what I've seen, over and over, is that credit is given in groups according to power alliances more than according to work. So to combat this, you need institutional practices that pay attention to who is doing what work, and you need to use those to recognize contributions *even when they seem off*.

As with a Constitution, this sort of practice doesn't matter when it easily aligns with the way things are already done. It matters when you don't want to do it, but do it anyway. "Ugh, Carol again, she's such a PITA... Hey everyone, let's thank Carol for arranging this meeting."

You could have a practice like a weekly survey of whose work is helping you most, and use it to specifically recognize people, with negative bias the higher in the hierarchy someone is. And you can make "asking tough questions" a specifically solicited quality of meetings and workplace culture, with cultural practices like calling out others' questions for their value if they seemed difficult to ask.

Expertise with an area of work is different from management of that work, or of management in general. Make it a practice to seek out and consult those who know most about a topic in the org, not those who have the most power, when changing something in that area.

Overall, this is a problem that needs deliberate action to overcome the inherent bias in the power imbalance. Can people throughout your organization immediately point to ways that management gives up part of its power, and puts not just the feedback of the rank-and-file but the planning and direction of the rank-and-file on an equal basis with management?

If not, your organization may be immoral, in its structure, in a way that makes good intentions irrelevant.

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Parents worry about the wrong things

I appreciated this Emily Oster post assuring parents that they don't need to worry about heavy metals in baby food.

Among Oster's other points is that there's a much bigger heavy metal problem, that really is real: lead in drinking water.

I raised my kids in a brownstone in Brooklyn, and most old buildings like that have lead solder in their pipes that leaches lead into water over time. The solution is to always run the cold water until it's as cold as the outside -- 30 seconds or so -- before using it for drinking or cooking. 

What was surprising to me was that so few other helicopter-ish parents in Brooklyn seemed to be aware of this problem. We had our water tested as soon as we moved in, and sure enough, there was lead in the water if it had been sitting in the pipes, and no lead if we let it run 30 seconds first. This must be the case for hundreds of thousands of homes in NYC. But there was zero government messaging around that, no pushing program to encourage replacing pipes or other mitigation, etc.

And while one data point isn't "data", a family we knew really did discover that their child had lead poisoning, presumably from their home (though perhaps from playing in the dirt in the backyard, since many brownstones for decades disposed of their coal ash by burying it in the backyard).

Meanwhile, parents were super tuned in to kidnapping fears and you'd almost never see a 10 year old taking the subway alone.

I just think there are massively misplaced priorities.

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Monday, February 01, 2021

Authoritarianism can be both a joke, and legitimately destructive

There's been a debate on the left since the January 6th coup attempt: does the conservative movement constitute an autocratic threat against liberalism? Or is that concern being overblown by holders of power to empower the Biden administration and undermine leftist insurgents like Bernie Sanders? After all, the judiciary didn't come close to permitting the coup to go through legally; for an autocratic movement, they don't seem to have much actual purchase.

It seems to me like both views have merit. You might synthesize them by saying that there is a strong anti-democratic tradition in the US, which has flexibly and fluidly moved from using the Constitution and rule of law to defying them.

And not just in that direction! All tools are at its disposal. So Trump really has increased authoritarianism by appointing lackeys with weak fidelity to universal principles and the law, even if when put under the spotlight they sometimes side with the law.

Gerrymandering and steady, whatever-works voter suppression don't make our democratic processeses useless, they just fiddle at the margins and give the GOP more power and the occasional presidency.

Corey Robin, arguing against alarmism about the right, is right that progressives shouldn't see the FBI and CIA as bulwarks against authoritarianism -- they have generally been forces for more authoritarianism. But just as American authoritarianism is fluid and uses whatever it can, so can the forces for American democracy. The FBI and CIA don't have to be only one thing; we can appreciate when they hold the line against political abuse, even if they have happily facilitated political abuse against others.

The Afghan and Iraq wars are a good case to focus on. Our democratic institutions have supported them, and they have been, on balance, a force for authoritarianism, if sometimes in balance with elements of progressivism (girls' education, freer elections).

The 9/11/2001 attacks would have happened if Gore won, but it's reasonable to imagine that the shift toward unaccountable military power and arbitrary violence would have been less severe. We might have not gone to war with Iraq. That win for authoritarianism didn't require a total destruction of democracy, it only required purging Black voters in Ohio and Florida.

There's no chance the GOP will rule forever as a minority party. But just shifting the electoral bias 5% does a lot. Taking one Supreme Court seat does a lot. Running one of history's most successful propaganda media operations does a lot. Coexisting with bonkers conspiracy theories does a lot.

One of the surprising facts about lynching was how effective it was at maintaining rigid racist boundaries, while killing in any one county only occasionally. Lynching never needed to kill everybody, or abolish the rule of law, to succeed. White people were sometimes prosecuted for murdering Black people in the Jim Crow South. Lynching just needed to shift the playing field so that the rule of law was an uphill battle.

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Sunday, January 31, 2021

We should capitalize 'White'

In the summer of 2020, the New York Times announced that it would change its style rules to capitalize 'Black' when referring to race, explaining:
“We believe this style best conveys elements of shared history and identity, and reflects our goal to be respectful of all the people and communities we cover,” said Dean Baquet, The Times’s executive editor
They also decided not to capitalize 'white' (or 'brown'). They acknowledged the difference, explaining that they were making the decision consciously:
“To be parallel does make sense usage-wise when talking about grammar and usage, but we can never just go on these sorts of standards,” Ms. Royal said. “Language doesn’t work that way. You have to consider the other factors.”

I certainly do understand the importance of emphasizing the humanity and importance of Black people (and Brown people, for that matter) in the language style of the paper of record. White people don't need our value reaffirmed in the same way.
That said, this choice makes no sense to me, stylistically. I capitalized "Black" and "White" in my history and sociology papers in college, sometimes with a footnote explaining that these were ethnicities, and it made sense to capitalize them as with other ethnicities.
Looking back, I don't think that reasoning holds up. "Black" and "white" are not really ethnic groups, so much as they are racial categorizations; within Africa, it would be pretty ridiculous to say that an Amharic speaker from Ethiopia and an isiXhosa speaker from South Africa are the same ethnicity; it is only through the filter of European/American slavery that all of these ethnicities would be collapsed into one category. Similarly, it would be ridiculous to tell a Bosnian Muslim being attacked by a Serbian etho-nationalist that they are of the same ethnicity; the categorization of "white" exists in service of racism, and barely serves any purpose outside of racism.
That said, within the context of the United States, there really is a shared history and identity among Black people; not to the same degree among all people, but to a meaningful degree among many or most.
In this sense, "Black" is not merely a racial category, but one that combines many ethnicities into one that is emerging in a new context as consisting of shared cultural qualities. And of course, that is how any ethnicity we now recognize came to be: "Irish" is an identity that owes much to the common experiences outside Ireland of people who initially thought of themselves as Cork, or Derry, or Protestant, not "Irish".
The question, then, seems to be whether White people in the United States have a shared history and identity. The Times answers this in two ways:
The Times also looked at whether to capitalize white... white doesn’t represent a shared culture and history in the way Black does, and also has long been capitalized by hate groups.
I think these reasons are revealing, and contradictory. "White" clearly does represent a shared culture and history: Isn't that the whole point of white supremacy -- to stitch together a shared history and identity, one so strong that it could be written into the law thousands of times over? Does the Times think this project failed?
The second reason is, I think, the real one: capitalizing "White" just seems uneasily like something that White supremacists would want. It's also something that might seem distressing to some readers.
Frankly, I just don't think that's a good enough reason to make the style so deeply inconsistent. I have always felt that reasoning should come before feelings; I acknowledge that this is partly due to my privilege, as someone who seldom sees my groups' feelings ignored. I believe putting reason first is clarifying, in ways that pay off in the long term and lead towards greater justice.

Another argument for capitalizing "white" is that there is already a tendency in American culture to treat whiteness as a default, as the norm, and to treat people of color's identities as notable deviations from the norm. Treating whiteness as an identity analagous to other identities centers its characteristics, rather than letting them slip by in the background and escape scrutiny and itemization.

I know there is no rhetoric without bias, but I also think that by practicing rhetoric under the principle of putting rules and consistency first, we can reduce our bias overall. It won't actually empower or embolden White supremacism. And it will put our rhetoric on firmer ground as we try to understand and change the world.

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Sunday, January 17, 2021

Vaccine prioritization

At this point, sates have all sorts of criteria on who has what priority.
But whose job is it to decide if a given person fits the criteria? 
Like, I have had cancer. I haven't had any tumors detected in several years. But do I "have" cancer? I mean I hope not, but I still spend medical money because of my cancer, and I'm still at elevated risk for recurrence. 
I got hit by a car on my bike a few years ago and got a concussion, which we now know causes permanent brain damage, even if each instance doesn't cause much. Do I have a neurological impairment? 
I suppose one answer is, if I can get any licenced doctor to write a note saying I do, then that should be acceptable. But still, whose job is it to look at my documentation, compare it to the state's criteria, and confirm that I qualify? 
That's the sort of question that can be surprisingly murky in healthcare (for example, there's a concept of "primary" insurance and "secondary" insurance but no one knows whose job it is to classify a patient's insurance that way)

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Monday, January 11, 2021

Who has the ability to approve an active-crisis deployment of the National Guard to DC?

There's a key question here that it's bafflingly difficult to find journalists trying to answer: Who has the ability to approve an active-crisis deployment of the National Guard to DC?

The NYTimes has been vague on whose authority is actually required to send in National Guard troops; they don't seem to have made any mention of the "it was Pence who approved the National Guard" claim, that Matt Yglesias and others have mentioned. (See search here: https://www.nytimes.com/search?dropmab=true&query=pence%20guard&sort=newest )

In today's main article, the NYT alludes to a Pentagon official needing to get approval, but leaves it at that, which strikes me as frustratingly lax reporting. Does the NYT know whose approval was required? Obviously if Trump commanded it it would happen; but how far down the chain does that ability go, in theory? "Deployment" is a vague term itself, of course, and all military troops (and police) have some kind of standing authorization to defend violent situations in their immediate vicinity. But if there were, say, active shooter terrorists attacking the White House and the president was unreachable, it's not like the military would just shrug and wait for orders. How is this stuff supposed to work? If reporters can't find anyone who knows, that's a huge story in and of itself, isn't it? And if they can find people who know, why the heck aren't they reporting the answer?

Matt Yglesias seems to suggest that it was Trump's responsibility to approve the National Guard deployment, but I also haven't seen that mentioned in other coverage, and it's not mentioned in the article he links to.

Who has the ability to approve an active-crisis deployment of the National Guard to DC?

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Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Attempting to understand support for Trump

Here's my best attempt at explaining Trump's unflagging support.

Trump's flaws are a feature, not a bug. Liberals felt similarly about Bill Clinton -- Clinton was a relatable shmuck who needed us, and that need made us feel passionately defensive of him in the face of the fact that he committed a serious crime, perjury.

Trump shouldn't make it in Washington -- Washington thinks it's better than him, and sneers at Trump supporters. It's only because of the fierceness of their adulation that his career survives. His supporters aren't listing their values and finding that he aligns best with them; they're being unlikely heroes, and making an unlikely hero succeed. When Luke Skywalker is douchey, Star Wars lovers don't cringe and regret their support for him -- his doucheyness is why he needs our faith, and what makes his coming through glorious. That glory simply doesn't exist with, say, Marco Rubio or John Kasich.

To be clear, I think Donald Trump is probably the single worst human being in the United States, and it's a testament to the corruption of the justice system that he has never spent time in jail for his innumerable crimes. I think it's likely he literally committed a crime every day of his adult career.

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Sunday, December 20, 2020

Dry landscape, a poem

I miss this, getting into mischief in the hills
and figuring our way back
creeping down the ravine on our butts
like 2 year olds, holding
hands over the unsteady parts
and not letting go after.

It’s so hard to get lost these days,
adventure is just a Yelp category
and the broad strokes of human history,
persecution and misery and bombs
are something we have
opinions about
but aren’t real to us
the way thirst is real.

I never even go this long without water,
this out of balance.
Having small sips at my fingertips
makes me forget true thirst,
the thirst that leaves your tongue
and burrows into your bones.

Take me away from my comforts,
to the place where I politely
left my desire.
I thought I’d used up my fair share,
but now I’m tearing my bones open
to be poured into. Lose me
and let me be completely
unfound.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Supportive unanimity

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt proposes an explanation for some difference in the worldview of conservatives and liberals by showing experimental results that suggest conservatives are more considerate about sanctity and desecration than liberals. There is a fixation on purity, which connects to an affinity for tradition and an aversion to violations of tradition, real or imagined.

In recent years, I have wondered if his framework was missing a parallel aspect of the liberal mind: something you might call "supportive unanimity". On issue after issue, I find myself surprised that progressive friends take any deviation from a "protective" worldview as a sort of betrayal. What's interesting to me is that there is relatively little curiosity about the landscape of these "protective" views; the safe place seems to be in assuming everyone sees a long list of make issues the same way.

So you get, for example, surprisingly little interest in gender identities that don't fit the popular progressive view, such as Eddie Izzard's identity of frequently switching from man to woman and back again; and work by allies that isn't easy to categorize, like the wonderfully queer short story "I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter", gets pilloried and censored.

It's important to recognize the positive value of supportive unanimity. As with other core values that Haidt points to, there is nothing inherently good or bad about it; it performs a function, and that function can be good or bad, at different times and from different perspectives. I think the positive function it plays is protection of the weak; it is a sort of overreaction to potential bullying by the majority, that signals to bullies and the bullied alike that abuse won't be tolerated.

I think you can credit a form of supportive unanimity for the degree to which, say, it is unacceptable for leaders to entertain anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. In a sense, bigotry and oppression beget a reaction of supportive unanimity, by making "to each their own" unacceptably destructive. If Palestinian citizenship and land ownership rights were respected by the laws of Israel, in one example of supportive unanimity, the Movement for Black Lives wouldn't be compelled to oppose Israel's policies in its official platform.

It's not perjorative to say that supportive unanimity is a form of "groupthink" -- all community standards are groupthink, and groupthink can be a tremendous force for good. The danger is that the same fierce urgency that fuels supportive unanimity in support of the powerless can become its own justification. That can make it hard to change course when supportive unanimity is being repurposed in ways that are destructive. Almost anything goes, if it is presented as a defense of supportive unanimity; lamenting the pogroms against Asian-Americans carried out in the 1992 L.A. riots, for example, runs afoul of supportive unanimity for desperate Black rioters.

As with so many forms of suppression, supportive unanimity often ends up contributing to the oppression of the least powerful. It shouldn't be discarded -- but progressives should work to keep it grounded in other values, and to be open to violations of that unanimity if there are other progressive values that are being cited.

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Saturday, December 05, 2020

Candle: a short story

When he learned his dad died, Peter immediately realized two things: he had to move to Buffalo to help sort out his dad’s stuff; and somehow, somehow, his brother and sister were going to be dicks about it. And his mom wouldn’t back him up. And no one would appreciate what hard work it was. And they wouldn’t help. So, not two things.

The whole bus ride, it didn’t seem to Peter like he was mourning. He spent the snowy hours imagining going through the shelves and boxes in the garage, excavating and cataloguing. He couldn’t wait to start. Why hadn’t he ever thought to do this while his dad was alive? It felt so right, thinking ahead to opening each mysterious bin, touching each thing that his dad had cared about enough to sort and keep. Peter’s toes were soggy and distractingly cold in his sneakers, but imagining his explorations in the garage kept him warm.

To keep a thing — what a curious idea that seemed, in a way. Why is an album on a shelf, an album that you haven’t played in probably twenty-five years, any more yours than if it weren’t there? He knew the album he’d reach for, absolutely confident that his dad had kept it, even as he’d given up the storage space in a concession to family budgeting, and whittled his LPs and CDs down to a single shelf.

He remembered the first time his dad had played it for him, waiting for a time when it was just the two of them, knowing that his mom, Kristen and Jeff wouldn’t respect the delicate and sacred risk of sharing a piece of music that really means something to you. He remembered the cover, a single candle, a photograph, blurry in a way that made him realize he’d entirely overvalued camera focus. The opening guitar, both impossibly lush and dangerously aimless. Kim Gordon playfully coming in, barely audible, barely singing. He didn’t know a woman could sound like that, not entertaining him, not entertaining anyone.

He’d broken up with his eighth grade girlfriend days later, and he knew, consciously at the time, that Kim Gordon on that track was the reason. That album freed him, in a way, opened his eyes to how much more was possible, and how much around him was fake. But in that room, hearing it for the first time, he also knew that his father was sad, and incomplete. Some part of his father was still in that room, stuck. And Peter was heading there too, on the fastest ticket he could afford.

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Body literacy

I recently read a nonpublished account of recovery from surgery, written by a longtime professional dancer and performance artist, and I was struck by the piece's breadth of physical observations.

Certainly, any account of surgery and its effects will involve the physical. But it will not necessarily explore the full space of the physical.

I've read that non-literate people generally have trouble following complex explanations and discussions; you need to have years of reading and writing to develop many aspects of thinking, because literacy gives you tools for interacting deeply and frequently with others' thinking, and with your own. Similarly, I think there is something you might call "body literacy" -- tools for noticing and interacting with body processes, which open up deeper levels of physical understanding.

There are people who have so little connection with their body that they don't notice disease for years; there are even accounts of people giving birth, who didn't realize they were pregnant. (I've never quite believed those -- that just sounds too impossibly alien.)

I struggle with this in terms of my body's reaction, and my mind's reaction, to drugs and medicines: it's often hard for me to tell if I'm experiencing an effect, whereas others immediately notice a difference, and doctors are often surprised that I can't say if a given drug "is working". I know people describe feeling "hangry", and I imagine that I probably shift emotionally when I'm hungry or tired as well; but I can't see it, maybe because I don't have enough experience, enough tools, for mapping out the aspects of body and mind along the way.

For many of us, there is an undiscovered country of body literacy: an unmapped landscape of physical experience. My old friend Ben Spatz works, in part, on the related project of getting physical expression and embodiment to have a place in academic institutional work.

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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Why do White people pretend to be Black?

Why do some White people pretend to be Black? Or Latin, or Native American?

I think, for some white people who are stuck thinking in the ways that racism has taught us--stuck even more than they think they are--it seems like taking on the identity of a person of color will add to their interestingness and power, and give them entry to a fellowship of people of color that they think they couldn't enter otherwise. Of course, there's so much actual ability to enter into fellowship with anyone just by being an actual friend or colleague, listening, owning your own history and noticing your assumptions! And, adopting a false identity as a person of color does not require actually going through the experiences that really being a person of color would; so the white person does not actually have to give up the power or privilege they have received. 

There is also a piece of legitimate uncertainty in the race some people identify as. As many people have pointed out, membership in a Native American tribe is not necessarily dependent on ethnic ancestry. And some people, like Shaun King, legitimately do not know who their parents were; and if you think about it, few people in the world could truly be said to know who their father is. I have sympathy for people like Elizabeth Warren, who were told as children that their family included and ethnicity that turns out to be at least partially false. In my own family, there is some evidence that a recent ancestor was Cherokee, but not all people in the family tree agree that that's likely.

As I've unlearned racism--an ongoing process--I've realized the ways that even in my support for people of color, I have sometimes engaged in a version of racist thinking. To pretend to be black -- whether overly, or in  the partial impression you might give -- is to essentialize race, as though you couldn't communicate the things you bring and the things you need without using race as a manipulative tool.

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Saturday, September 05, 2020

What "Nice White Parents" leaves out

I've been listening to Nice White Parents. First of all, it's wild to hear so much reporting about something I've spent so much time inside -- I was a parent at an integrated charter school less than a mile from IS 293, I visited around 20 schools in the neighborhood, and I also worked as a substitute teacher in schools in the neighborhood. I also worked for several years teaching math and college counseling with mostly black high school students from nearby Bed-Stuy.

There's much in the show that I recognize and appreciate. And, I think the show has a tendency to fall into progressive assumptions and simplifications that make the answers look easier than they really are.

One thing that rankles me is the way the show vaguely references white parents getting more "resources" than parents of color. (Or "hoarding resources".) For all the reporting they've done, they haven't really identified significant funding gaps between white students and students of color. But it seems like if those gaps were there, the show would be talking about them. 

Does this omission matter? I would argue that it's indicative of a shell game that the series is playing. When an opportunity arises to show an imbalance of resources--say, the fundraising for the French dual language program that isn't shared with the broader school--the show pounces, and summarizes the trend in phrases like "hoarding resources". But contrary evidence is either skipped over or never explored. Is there a difference in effective per pupil expenditure for white students in Brooklyn public schools, vs students of color? If so, that seems like it would hugely support the show's thesis. But they either never found out, or never thought to try, or perhaps they looked into it and the answer didn't fit their thesis. In another example, consider the effect on resources of a white student's parents sending them to private school. The city doesn't give a refund to families for not using the public school system; to opt out of it is effectively to contribute significant resources. It may seem like a stretch to look at the effect of these parents' decisions on funding this way, but is it as much of a stretch as describing the overall situation as white parents "hoarding resources"?

Another gripe is that there is so little credence given to the legitimacy of a school being "bad". Early on they interview one white parent who says she didn't send her kid to a school because it seemed like the kids were misbehaving, not listening, and chaotic. The host points out that these perceptions can be colored by racism, which is absolutely true. But they are also perfectly real and valid. The host mentions sending her child to their "zoned" Brooklyn public school, which she describes as integrated -- in other words, she lives in an expensive gentrified neighborhood. (Many or most white parents in that part of Brooklyn send their kids to a school outside their "zone" -- I'm going to say the odds that she considered that are 99%.) I'm guessing that here are dozens of schools near to her that have few white students. It would serve the overall quality of education much better for her to send her child to one of those schools, but she instead chose a more white and upper middle class school. Why didn't she? Why doesn't she talk about that?

I also think the show fudges aspects of the intersection of race and class in gentrified Brooklyn. The show mentions "the projects" a few times, but what people not familiar with NYC might not understand is that in neighborhoods such as IS 293's Gowanus, the gap between the income of a random black person and random white person is much higher than it is nationally. In other words, even more so than the main as a whole, in these neighborhoods, segregation is more economic than racial. That's not to excuse it, at all. But I know many middle class and upper middle class black parents in Brooklyn who advocate, shop around, and fundraise much like the white parents the show focuses on. They also avoid nearby public schools where the students' families are overwhelmingly poor, and they don't do that because they are racist. How much would it have depend the show's portrait of the situation--and undercut its confrontative thesis--to include them in the picture? And, conversely, to exclude them?

These may be nitpicks, but I was very disappointed by the series. I think there are truly difficult problems in education and that integration is vital -- we sent our kids to one of the most integrated publicly funded schools in Brooklyn, and they rode the school bus every day as the only white kids on the bus. From everything I've seen, the problems that the show identifies are real. The system, as it plays out, isn't fair. But the show doesn't seem serious about trying to understand the way the system works, and instead prefers a progressive fantasy that there's "one weird trick"--white parents not being so racist--that would meaningfully solve things.

Some schools really are more chaotic or dangerous than others, and this isn't just the racist perception of white visitors--teachers, parents and students are asked about this, and the numbers are reported. Some schools really don't notice if teachers aren't teaching, and kids aren't learning. I've been on a scheduled school tour in Brooklyn public schools when the school staffer leading parents around realizes, in a shock, that a teacher is asleep at her desk with a class full of students. I've been on a scheduled school tour (at a different Brooklyn pubic school) when the school staffer leading parents around realizes, in a shock, that none of the classrooms have students in the because practically the whole school is watching Monsters, Inc. in the auditorium. I've been in New York public schools where teachers turn on Netflix, to occupy second graders with Spongebob because they have nothing else to do. I've spoken to a Brooklyn pubic school principal, during a school tour, and heard her make half a dozen grammar mistakes in just a few minutes of conversation. Critics such as Diane Ravitch insist that claims that public schools are failing are nothing more than propaganda. Other critics cite the need to replace equality of service with equity of outcome in our apportionment of resources. I have sympathy for those arguments. But it's significant that these philosophical arguments seldom come with a frank description of the reality on the ground in New York's public schools, as I've seen them. It's as though the real problems are too hard to even begin to address, and so clever critics have come up with more attractive and intriguing problems to replace them--a sort of Malcolm Gladwellification of the school reform issue.

This is bad for many reasons, but most of all because systemic racism is very real, and very destructive. Systemic racism doesn't care that you have come up with a clever reframing of the problems facing education equity. Systemic racism laughs at the parent, who chose not to send their kid to the school that needed their family's involvement the most, and who wags their finger at another parent for doing the same. Systemic racism knows it can let black and Latin kids watch cartoons in school on a regular basis, and there's no chance that will get mentioned in progressive media because it sounds like something a conservative might say.

What do I think would solve things? I think you need to start by acknowledging that professional parents, of all races, often put necessary pressure on schools to improve; and by acknowledging that it is rational for involved parents to choose schools based on a combination of perceived quality, transportation convenience, and societal goals like racial integration.

The "pressure" piece is huge, and I think Nice White Parents misses the implications of its own reporting. There needs to be more pressure applied from professional parents, not less. I agree with the show that parent choice allows more active and informed parents to collect in a small number of schools; a goal should be to distribute them among more schools, while not incentivizing them too much to leave the district, the city, or the public school system.

This distribution is also important because advocating for your school to improve takes a lot of real labor. Parents who would be willing to be one of, say, a dozen active families working on replacing an abusive teacher or an incompetent principal, will balk at being one of, say, three. I've seen this multiple times; parents have told me that they worked for years to improve their kid's public school, but finally gave up and moved to a different neighborhood.

As I've argued with Nicole Hannah-Jones, this is fundamentally a collective-action problem, more than a problem with the values that individual parents are applying. That means it needs a collective-action solution, like assigning families to a school that may not be the nearest school to them--AKA "busing".

Currently in Brooklyn, there are school "zones" within school "districts". Everyone is assigned a zone based on their home address, and that essentially guarantees their children entry into the zoned school. A school "district" may contain two dozen "zones", and parents who send their kids outside their zone get preference within the district, over parents from outside the district.

The zones and districts seem to be to primarily function to help real estate buyers see the schooling implications of a location. Needless to say, this fuels housing segregation. They should be done away with entirely.

Instead, the NYC Department of Education should assign parents to one school, and give them a small cash incentive to go there. The assignment can be chosen to emphasize racial and economic integration, while also staying reasonable about transportation. Parents can send their kids to other schools if they prefer, but there wouldn't be a preference for schools near them, and they wouldn't get the cash.

If professional parents know that dozens of other professional parents are also being assigned to the school, they will consider it, even if it is day from their first choice. And poor parents who don't know as much about how to work the system, and who would prefer a closer school, will be more willing and able to send their kids to a "better" school in a different neighborhood, having been assigned the school and knowing that other people near them will be going to. The cash incentive would help everyone stick to the system, while still allowing parents to get their kid out of a school that's a bad match for them, or to keep them with extended family.

Key to this working would be transportation. The DOE's system of buses is antiquated and underfunded; the buses are too large to navigate city streets quickly, and there is too much car traffic. There needs to be a citywide fee system for cars, and higher taxes on Uber. Every family with kids in the school system should get a student unlimited MetroCard, plus one adult 20x/month MetroCard for accompanying them. And every family should be guaranteed school bus service that will take no more than 1 hour each way, so long as they attend their assigned school.

One thing that Nice White Parents gets right is how difficult a political sell this sort of integration policy would be to parents. For how much the system is failing, people still seem to prefer their neighborhood schools. Many white parents would resist, though I think there would be much more than racism fueling their resistance. Many parents of color would resist, too. But consider that there would be little taken away from parents--just the guarantee of admission to their zoned school.

It would be worth it, and, I think, ultimately could become a popular policy. 

Integration is really, truly crucial, but I think it can only be achieved by facing how the system actually works now, not by hiding our heads in the sand and repeating fairy tales.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Is it illegal to lie to the police?

The question of whether it is illegal to lie to the police (brought to my mind by the viral video of Amy Cooper falsely telling the NYPD that "an African-American man is threatening me") is a great window into the epistemology of law.

Here is the answer I contributed to the question on Quora, where the answers were deeply inadequate:

Most of these other answers do a poor job of conveying the reality of what “illegal” means, in reality.

There are tons of laws that could be argued to apply to any given action. For instance, if you tell a police officer you had one drink when you really had three, it’s conceivable that that act in and of itself could be prosecuted as a crime in many states. But it basically never would be, because to police, it doesn’t really matter; they’re not really asking you if you drank tonight to gain information, but to hear how you answer, and to smell your breath.

On the other hand, if you called and falsely told the police that there was a police car on fire at some location and an officer bleeding in the street, and there had been a rash of false reports to the police in your area, then you very well might face prosecution.

What’s the difference? Is one act legal, and the other illegal? Well, you could read this law or that law and make a case for various interpretations, but in practice what matters is what the effect of your action is, and if police and prosecutors feel motivated to focus on it. Most states have enough laws on the books that significantly inconveniencing, harassing or impeding the work of police officers is something they can punish, on the basis of one law or another.

Note also that the most common punishment for crime is NOT prosecution. That is, most crime that gets punished in the US never goes before a judge, even as part of a plea deal. Most crimes that are punished are punished simply by arrest and release—police make someone stop and search them a bit, or make them sit in the car, or put them in handcuffs and take them to the station, maybe make them spend a night or a weekend in jail (arresting people on a Friday, so they’ll not be fully processed and released until Monday, is a common practice). Filing paperwork for someone is a hassle, and also sometimes police officers feel sympathetic to some people and don’t think an offense deserves prosecution. So, often police will just inconvenience the person. Often that person has indeed broken some official regulation; often they haven’t, or the police suspect that they did but don’t really know. So did they “do something illegal”? It’s not really easy to say, and that’s really not the right question.

Often there are no charges filed at all, or there are charges initially filed and then withdrawn. (Often, as well, the person’s belongings are stolen by police—they never make it to the itemization list when the person is processed, or they are listed but then come back with money or other contents removed. I’ve witnessed multiple people pleading with the NYPD at local stations for the return of their belongings taken this way, and they would have absolutely no reason to lie.)

It also matters a huge amount who you are, and how much attention the police expect your arrest and/or prosecution to attract. People are often rounded up with zero suspicion by the police that they have committed crimes, for instance at protests; in NYC, people have been thrown into paddy wagons while on their way to work, totally mystified at why they’re being arrested, only to be released hours or days later, never having been charged.

It’s simplistic, and essentially incorrect, to say “Yes, lying to police is a crime, it’s called _____________” or “No, lying to police is not a crime”. Smart lawyers never talk to each other that way! The idea that some things “Are Crimes” is a simple gloss that the unthinking public is told, but not at all how crime and punishment actually work.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Anti-vaxxers are a bastion of diversity of opinion

A friend asks: "Honest question: are anti-vaxxers against any and all vaccines?"

Without looking, I'm sure there's a vibrant online community with lots of discussion, lots of evaluations of various vaccines, and many people not opposed to all of vaccines.

This is how nonsense works. It's only outsiders who assume a nonsense community is internally absolutist. You'll find a huge diversity of expressed opinion within, for example, QAnon, biohacking, Tim Ferriss's books of hacks, etc. There can be that diversity because no one is there to hold anyone, least of all themselves, accountable. People watch, read, and listen to a ton of content, with no one bothering to really sort it out and find the coherent and repeatable truths in there. That's not what they're there for -- they're there for the certainty, for the community, for the sense of superiority, and for the escapism.

So these communities have a high tolerance for incoherence. Anti-vaxxers aren't against any and all vaccines. Except when they are. Sure, they'll give their kid a coronavirus vaccine. They'll also repost conspiracy theories about it. They have no shame about their own intellectual rigor or hypocrisy. They are warriors fighting a battle and need ammunition, leeway, and allies. They aren't keeping score of their own intellectual consistency!

The simple fact is that coherent and repeatable truths, which stand up to scrutiny and encounter with reality, are few and far between. Those of us who insist on them know how infrequent they are, how meager and paltry. We only settle for that meal because we care so much more about reality than illusion. We'd rather eat the hardtack we made ourselves than plug into the Matrix and eat Agent Smith's filet mignon.

Of course, that's nothing new! Religion has been working this way for millenia. As soon as you separate belief from the need to be coherent, anything goes -- which means you can actually tolerate a high degree of disagreement within a cult. The guru preached celibacy? But he also just slept with my friend? I can synthesize that, no problem -- I already have my bag of nonsense from the guru in the first place.

My favorite, most straightforward example: many people who claim to believe Jesus was the most important person in the history of the universe definitely do not act like it. Most never even bother to learn what his name was. Who cares? Most aren't trying to investigate real stuff, they're just enjoying the belief, being part of the tribe, having a firm sense of purpose.

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