Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Why Republicans Need Change

Jamelle Bouie argues today that Republicans may well win the presidency without actually changing much or offering new ideas.

I think that's broadly correct: the out-party just doesn't matter all that much. I'd put two caveats on it. One is that the GOP crazy has caused problems in their efforts to find an appealing general election candidate. It doesn't matter a lot, but it matters some, and they'll probably have to find some way around it or suffer an electoral penalty (which, to be sure, would be on the margins and probably wouldn't make much of a difference). The other is that actively annoying large swing constituencies is also something that can hurt them and may have hurt them this year. You would think it would be fairly easy to cut that out (avoid rhetoric that offends Latinos! Don't call women sluts if they advocate for policies you don't like!), but a good deal of this is structural, and thus harder to end than one might think. That is, if very visible Republicans have (financial) incentives to do that sort of thing, it may be difficult for electorally-oriented Republicans to do much about it.

Again, however, we're talking somewhere below five percentage points total from all that, presumably, and probably a lot less. It's unlikely to swing the election. And both of these are the sorts of things that may well be less evident after eight years out of the White House -- not that the causes will be cured, but that everyone will be willing to play nice for the duration of the campaign.

What I would say about it, however, is that the dysfunction in the current GOP makes successful governing if they do win extremely difficult. I think we've seen that for some time, and I think it was part of why George W. Bush was such a poor president; there really are major governing penalties for finding it hard to accept reality.

Put it this way: it seems that Republicans outside of the recent campaign certainly deluded themselves about the polling, and Republicans inside the campaign may well have been guilty of it too. I've argued that it didn't really hurt them, however; mostly it just meant that the eventual results took them by surprise. However, if you try to govern that way -- say, if you actually believe phony revenue estimates, or actually believe that people in some country are eager for you to invade them when in fact they are not -- then massive policy disasters are likely.

As I've said many times, this doesn't really fit on a conservative/liberal or moderate/extreme framework all that well. What's important is being able to get key clues about whether policies will work or not, clues that for a normal, healthy party are produced by the normal political system. To the extent that the current GOP is so dysfunctional that its politicians are likely to ignore those clues, or will structure their administrations so that they won't be able to hear them, the chances for catastrophic policy failure go way, way, up.

80 comments:

  1. I think you're on the right track here. Yes, a Republican Obama can emerge in 2016, but it isn't very likely. Not only are Obamas rare, but such developments tend to occur to parties that have less incoherency in their internal structures and are growing demographically. The Democrats definitely got more disciplined/serious after 2004, and that's the boat the GOP is in right now. By rights they *should* behave like the GOP of 1999 or the Democratic Party of 2005, but it's unclear that they will, for precisely the reasons you state.

    At the same time, a few things should be noted. The Democrats have just had their two most successful presidential results since 1964. The Democrats have won the popular vote 5 years out of 6, and the odd election of Bush in 2000 has tended to cloak the fact that we're in a strongly Democratic period. That's bad news if you're thinking about e.g. the SCOTUS, but it's good news if you're thinking about where in the cycle of rise/fall the Democrats currently are. We're in the 6th term of a Democratic period, but to the electorate it "feels like" the 2nd term -- and for very good reason. It's a bit like having a low BABIP for a hitter, our true ability should result in more singles than we've been getting.

    The next Democratic candidate is not likely to be as good a candidate as Obama. Ordinarily I'd say history teaches that the Dems are due for a big fall in 2016. But as things stand, I'd say it's more likely the Dems will do well.

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    1. Here's an interesting question: did the economic fundamentals in 2000 predict a better result for Gore than he actually got?

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    2. They, essentially, predicted a tie.

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  2. I beg to differ that starting an election with a deficit of 5 percentage points is unimportant.

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    1. As I said, probably a lot less. I don't know how it winds up on the "importance" scale, but it's not enough to prevent GOP wins -- and in fact, it's hard to see any large deviation from the fundamentals in the last several elections.

      What out parties do just isn't all that important, normally.

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  3. One of the difficulties the Republicans have is not making concessions to the inevitably varying interests of a tent comprising 51% of the population. Don't know if the Democrats are exactly great at this, but in failing to embrace a "big tent" mindset, the current Republicans make the current Dems look like Hall of Famers. Two great contemporary examples are abortion and gun control.

    I made this point the other day, but here's the thing about abortion: its hideous. Especially where a fetus is involved, as opposed to an embryo. I think we all realize its hideous, and we understand why folks are strongly opposed. However, until such time as pregnancy is not prejudicial to a professional woman's interest, family planning rights are going to be a part of whichever platform professional women seek. By and large, professional women should be conservatives. But until the party comes up with a way to recognize the legitimate concerns that evangelical types have re: abortion without alienating professional women, well, they're going to continue to alienate professional women.

    And guns. I trust everyone has seen the Jon Stewart bit at the expense of Fox News' response to Bob Costas' rant about gun violence in Javon Belcher's death. Costas quoted a (black) blogger who noted that if Javon Belcher didn't have a gun, he'd be alive now. Fox News 'fired' back with a bunch of Costas condescension, notably from the Motor City Madman himself, Ted Nugent.

    See, here's the thing. I like conservative ideals. I want to be active in the party. I'm perfectly happy letting Ted Nugent have whichever hunting weapons he needs to go out in the woods with Fred Bear or whomever. I also think Bob Costas was basically correct Sunday night.

    I might be wrong about Costas. But if I am, its not because TED FUCKING NUGENT said so! Know what I mean? I don't want to worship at the church of the Orthodox Ted Goddamn Nugent. What, was Ozzy Osbourne not available? Seriously, if conservative cred means nodding along with TED FUCKING NUGENT about the controversial issues of the day...no thanks, man.

    There are many millions out there who feel exactly the same way, I am sure.

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    1. Lol, ok maybe Nugent isn't so great for Republicans, but I don't think they lose votes on gun control.

      Actually, I think you could have a more rational conversation with Ted Nugent than with O'Reilly or Limbaugh.

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    2. CSH, you're pretty close on what professional women think. Except that it isn't about abortion, only: it's also about violent talk against women. Slut shaming, belittling the effects of violence, etc. We don't like the hateful talk anymore than Latinos or Asians.

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    3. Anon, it must be a matter of perception on those points, because married women vote Republican as much as men do.

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    4. I wish someone could explain to me what these conservative ideals are that you speak of admiring. The problem is that whatever they may be, the ideals have been hijacked by a group of batshit crazy ideologues, that identify as conservative. Do you think that Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Louie Gohmert and a whole host of others identify as anything but conservative? The Republican Party has a serious, self inflicted identity problem. Around 27% of the Party identifies with this group and without them, winning is almost impossible. Do you think a moderate such as Chris Christie, has any remote chance of winning a nomination from the current state of the Republican Party? He doesn't. Why? It's pretty obvious: He won't pander to the 27% as Romney did to win the nomination. He'd stand a good chance of winning in the general election by appealing to, and winning moderate swing voters. However, I don't think he'd get past the Republican primary process and be able to win the nomination under current party makeup.

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    5. @Nanute:

      Conservative ideals:

      -Individual empowerment
      -Small is beautiful
      -Less is more
      etc.

      If observed Republicans in any way stray from these ideals, I invoke the ubiquitous bloggy privilege to point my finger at them and declare "No True Scotsman!"

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    6. Well, CSH, this is going to be long and rambling, and it's going to sound like pop psychology, but I do think it gets at the heart of the problem with modern Republicans. Along with "small is beautiful," etc., many have come to accept as a conservative principle (whether rightly or wrongly I have no right to say, as I do not identify as conservative) that life, at least in America, is basically fair and hard work and virtue will win out. The fact that this just isn't true leads to severe problems for them.

      I recently (a few months ago) on book TV saw a roundtable with former low-level types from the GHWB administration. It was apparent that these men, all seemingly goodhearted sorts who honestly loved their country, still suffered from a deep trauma over 1992. In that year an intelligent, patriotic, honorable President who had personally served in war and led the country to victory in a major conflict went down to defeat before a draft-dodging Southern shyster. To make matters worse said shyster even then had a reputation as a creepy woman chaser, and he was so oily that he fairly oozed. This insult to their basic sense of the order of the universe was profound, and I think profound for their party as well. If 1980 is the foundational myth of the modern Republican Party, 1992 is its foundational trauma.

      To make matters worse, I will stipulate that they were essentially correct on the questions of personal merit. GHWB was, and is, an honorable, decent, and intelligent man and Clinton was, and is, an oily creep. But the fact of the election, the fact to get to what JB has said that the out party really didn't matter very much, was a cosmic insult to the Republican understanding of America and its moral functioning. They have, I think, been caught for 20 years between their bedrock imperative moral understanding of America, that it is fair and rewards hard work and merit, and the blazingly clear evidence that this just isn't so. Caught between those two enormous psychological forces, is it surprising they have gone nuts? And is it surprising that this has become ever more evident as the essential injustice of much of American life has become ever more apparent, leading them to cling even more strongly to their basic beliefs in the face of this evidence? There's inequality -- it's FAIR inequality! They don't have healthcare, well.... splutter, splutter, splutter ... they could get it if they really WORKED for it or DESERVED it, and besides it isn't FAIR that I have to pay for it ... splutter, splutter, splutter.

      Now, this is a problem Democrats don't have. The groups and individuals who tend to make up the party, at least in large part, have no problem at all acknowledging that life isn't fair and that individual merit often leads to squat. Some say that this leads to a victim mentality, and there is some truth it that. Others say it feeds defeatism, and there is some truth it that. But it means that Dems can often roll with the punches better than the GOP can. Republicans often seem bright and brash but are surprisingly fragile, whereas Dems whine and carp and weep, but in the end are often much tougher over the long run.

      The problem is how Republicans can escape that trap. With an individual facing this type of existential trauma (and they are very common) one can restore them to functionality with a lot of therapy and meds and hard work, but even then they are scarred and under pressure the problems blossom forth again in all their putrid glory. With an entire sub-society ... sigh, I guess the only answer is to keep them away from power and hope that time and mortality work their will.

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    7. "Small is beautiful...."

      The notion of local control over school boards, policing, zoning, development is a strong one.

      It's particularly promoted by the people who can control these things, and keep down those who don't deserve a chance.

      Of course, who wants the federal government interfering with re-districting, with providing sufficient resources to make sure everyone can vote, with policing and sentencing, with making sure that people can't be turned away from renting an apartment because of the color of their skin or their obvious sexuality?

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    8. Ah, I see. Conservative ideas are vague, meaningless cliches. It makes so much more sense now.

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    9. Anastasios, that's wonderful. Man, did your post spur a huge insight. First, some housekeeping: while your observation about merit probably does characterize (too) many contemporary Republicans, here's where I am: hard work should provide an individual additional numbers in the great lottery of life. Government's role is twofold: 1) to ensure that hard work really does lead to more numbers in the lottery of life (that is to say, hard work reliably leads to greater chance of reward), and 2) prevent catastrophic outcomes for those whose lottery draw is exquisitely bad.

      Something has happened to that ideal, no? I surely don't need to say this to an audience of mostly liberals. It occurs to me, though, for the first time, that the modern GOP has gone ass over teakettle, as the emphasis is no longer on better opportunity, but rather looking backward from results and saying "Well, I won, so I must have been good".

      That's a toxic meme, which again one doesn't need to tell liberals. Its toxic because it defeats the purpose of conservatism! If only the capable elite can ever win, then what shall we do with the rest of the losers? In such a world being a conservative is to hold a Malthusian dystopic view of the world; no wonder people increasingly hate conservatives!

      So I'm rambling too, now, but its interesting to note that conservatism flipped (from "hard work gives everyone better chance to succeed" to "I'm prosperous so post-hoc I must have been awesome") at the same time that dynastic families learned to hold their wealth. For all the angst about the robber barons of the late 19th century, their wealth and influence is mostly gone - save the Rockefellers and maybe Anderson Cooper. By contrast, we're already gearing up for our fourth generation Bush running for prominent national office in 2016.

      In an era of dynasties, the temptation for Fredo Corleone types to be well-maintained and overstate their merit, in an influential manner, is immense. I saw a bit on Romney's vapid son Tagg saying he wanted to set up his own consulting firm because "he didn't want to ride his family's coattails". The piece noted that Tagg's firm has an impossibly elite clientele given their size. Apparently he's a man of exceptional merit, or something....

      fwiw, I said "empowerment" above, and I still believe in that as a conservative ideal, still believe in a world where folks have a fair shot and win (or sometimes lose) on their own efforts. I still believe that idea has a lot of draw.

      Unfortunately, the world is fast filling up with Tagg Romneys and Paul Ryans, folks fueled by Ayn Rand mania to think that they got here because of their own awesomeness and don't have to apologize to no one.

      Its quite possible that the history of the last two or three generations in the US is the crowding out of real opportunity for little people by the vain conceit of the Tagg Romney crowd. That's an interesting idea, thanks for sending me in that direction, Anastasios.

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    10. You are welcome, CSH. Let me muddy the waters, now, by saying the phenomenon you are describing is the consolidation of an aristocracy. In effect, American conservatism (which, after all, was once called liberalism in a previous era of Aristocracy) is dying, to be replaced by ... of all things, the kind of aristocracy it once arrayed itself against. Only the new aristocrats are, in some ways, worse than the old. The old order appealed to God for its foundation (God made all things, the small and the great, the lord and the beggar, each in his
      estate) and therefore felt bound by the edicts of God to at least mouth certain ideals of charity and service and honor, and even sometimes felt bound to uphold those ideals, however imperfectly. When you owe your place in the aristocracy not to God but to merit ... well, to be slightly sacriligous, merit never hung on a cross for anyone's salvation.

      But to make things even worse, this appearance of a new aristocracy cuts across political lines. I don't want to get into a discussion of the developments in Michigan over labor law, but I will say that many liberal friends of mine have taken what, to Republicans, would be a very surprising line. These friends, all well-paid knowledge-workers in affluent blue suburbs, have basically waved their hands in derision and said, "Well, Michigan is filled with idiotic uneducated whites who put the GOP in power despite plentiful warnings. I don't care what their loutishness has brought on them and I'm not going to waste my time and energy on the ungrateful wretches. They came, they voted, and they have the punishment they deserve. Let them suffer and learn, and if they don't learn, I really don't care what happens to them." In their view, the blue-collar workers of Michigan are, quite simply, beneath them, whatever the merits of their cause.

      I think that a recognition of this development is what fueled, at least initially, both the Tea Party and OWS. The alarm was channeled in different ways because it arose from different social groups and was expressed through different political traditions, but at its root is was very similar. To wit, "They are coming back! After two centuries, the lords are coming back. After generations of freedom, we can hear the rattle of chains and the crack of whips in the dim distance. We must stop it before it's too late!"

      Is it too late? I don't know. I hope not. But I don't think the fears are exaggerated, and I think the sound of whips and the rattle of chains echoing through the halls of history are very real. The question is, can they be stopped before they are, inevitably, joined by the Internationale and the Horst Wessel Song? I hope so, I really do. But I just don't know.

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    11. I’ve always thought of “small is beautiful” as a mantra of the eco-left .

      Agreed with Anastasios about the fear of aristocracy and I like CSH’s lottery analogy.

      There is growing uncertainty in the middle class. The Democrats provide better solutions, even if they’re only band-aids. Republicans point out that Europe is the inevitable end here, although they're not as forthcoming with solutions of their own.

      Neither party is striking at the root of the problem. Corporatism continues unchallenged while we bet our collective future on leveraging the entire economy against itself One Last Time.

      The myth of success, that it is due to hard work, is necessary in every successful society. We still live in a society where people will go on unemployment rather than take a job that's beneath them. If we cease to value work completely, things would get much worse. And while work is essential, the traditional path to success (Education + Debt = Middle Class) is being discredited, despite our leaders’ desperate attempts to prop up the unsustainable system.

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    12. Maybe I'm too late with this (sorry, traveling yesterday), but CSH, the "toxic meme" as you aptly call it is basically revived Social Darwinism, much in vogue in the previous Gilded Age, and arguably goes back even further than that, perhaps to the Protestant / Puritan doctrine of "election" (worldly success must be a sign of virtue and of God's favor). It's probably been present in some form forever, since it's a view of things obviously congenial to the already privileged. Even Edmund Burke, an intellectual giant among conservative thinkers compared to the vulgar Social Darwinists, spoke of elites as holding more of society's "joint stock" and therefore advocated giving them a more heavily weighted vote (as happens in actual joint-stock corporations). How they came to hold more of the stock -- well, that was "tradition" which contains its own wisdom, which we must respect and nurture, like the growth of a big old tree. IIRC.

      The 20th century saw a major struggle against these views, as various problems -- unemployment during the New Deal, urban poverty during the Great Society, race-related underachievement during the Civil Rights era -- came to be recognized as structural social injustices rather than the fault of individuals; and, by logical extension, the favors bestowed on some were revealed as structural advantages, not direct results of their "hard work" or enterprising spirit. We're living at what I hope is the tail end of a 30-year-plus reaction against those reforming movements, one that drew strength, ironically, from the tendency of reform to become a victim of its own success. (Jim Crow laws finally repealed? Then whatever disadvantages we still see among African-Americans must be their own fault. Etc.)

      I think -- but, of course, I'm a liberal, so I would -- that people's lot in life is still determined to a much greater degree than we understand by structural conditions not within their control. In fact I think we're only just beginning to study some of these, for instance the cultural transmission of disadvantage, or the role of infants' brain development in adult attitudes and decisions. The conservative movement knows nothing of this, actively rejects insight of this kind when encountered, and therefore has no answers for people who are struggling against circumstances and forces of which they know they themselves are not the authors. The current GOP thus descends into hectoring about how you should have been a successful entrpreneur, you lazy dumbass. But in doing this it's drawing on a long and dishonorable tradition.

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    13. What a fantastic subthread! Wanted to add my support for the aristocracy meme, and as a bit of an aside, you're right Couves about the origin of 'Small is Beautiful'. I'm appropriating it for my purposes...sort of.

      Thinking further about this, it occurred to me that while we typically think of the right wing media as serving the interests of Joe Ambulatory Hamburger here in Palookaville, perhaps that media is really serving the aristocracy Anastasios described.

      Consider the evangelical hostility to Romney. You knew they would vote for Romney ultimately, as the PUMAs eventually voted for Obama, but you figured they would first have their Howard Beale moment, no? They went awfully quietly for a group supposedly served by that media. Its true that the PUMAs had a rallying cry in Hillary, but Obama is not their natural enemy quite like Romney is the natural enemy of evangelicals.

      But to the extent the right-wing media is serving the aristocracy, the rise of diversity in elections should be taken as a sign of huge hope. How does that media work? It tries to get Joe Ambulatory Hamburger to identify with Lord Mittens so as to get Joe A. Hamburger to step aside to the Lord's interests.

      I suspect there is no media meme to get Tammy Baldwin's constituency to identify with the aristocracy.

      So maybe its a hopeful thing they've shouted their opinions, no?

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    14. CSH, I didn’t mean to come across as correcting you on that. In fact, there was once a Libertarian Party candidate for Senate in my state that came close to second place with the slogan “Small Government is Beautiful” (yes, it was as corny as it sounds).

      Jeff, as CSH said, individual effort may not guarantee success, but it is a necessary prerequisite. I think we’ve all known talented people who have decided to just settle or even give up altogether.

      There’s also a lot of wisdom in Republican support for entrepreneurship. Even if you have no desire to work for yourself, you’d better think of your work in the same way that management does -- ie, to know what is in demand in your industry and find ways to meet that demand. If you make yourself indispensable and market yourself appropriately, you’re way ahead of people who work equally hard. Even in a super-enhanced European welfare state, the system doesn’t really care about you. If you don’t care enough to take charge of your life, no one else is going to do it for you.

      It is important to understand the different social and structural impediments to personal success. But working hard and thinking like an entrepreneur will always be the best ways to make the system work for you rather than against you.

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    15. That's a great point, and since you're not preaching to the choir here, Couves, I wanted to back up your comment with a concrete example:

      A while ago I mentioned my family was driving up the spine of the Midwest from Florida, when we stopped at Exit 25 off the I-75 in Kentucky (Corbin). Right off the highway we were greeted by a larger-than-life billboard of a lawyer promising assistance in getting SSI. I looked it up when I got home, and indeed Corbin has 10X the rate of SSI as even that cesspool of sucking on the goverment teat, Washington DC.

      Things are terrible in Corbin, as they are throughout Appalachia, surely a result of the structural problems to which Jeff was referring. There are certainly things the Federal Government can do to help Corbin, like encouraging education, business, etc in small towns. My understanding is that both Federal and State government attempt such things all the time, with unfortunately limited success.

      I think what we all sort of recognize the following: while larger forces such as globalization and urban flight have ravaged places like Corbin, larger forces can't solve Corbin's problem, even though they can help. A Corbin solution is going to come from Corbin. State and federal government can and should make it easier for Corbin to help itself, but ultimately, Corbin is going to have to help itself.

      My sense is that liberals recoil from this idea because it sounds cold and harsh to do Corbin that way; we sense that Corbin is not sure exactly what to do, and thus conservatism seems to be putting a terrible burden on them.

      Those criticisms are fair. The problem is, if Corbin is unsure what to do, DC is doubleplusungood unsure what to do. If its hard from Corbin, its impossible from DC. And thus there's something a wee bit depressing about a huge greeting coming into town advertising a federal entitlement of last resort. They should have a billboard with state hero John Calipari shaking his fist and yelling out, with the caption:

      "Cmon Corbin!"

      Maybe I'll look into that.

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    16. CSH, thanks for the anecdote, which is unfortunately repeated many times all over the country. I live in one of those small cities that’s lost its economic reason for existence. Our national and individual solution is simple -- labor mobility. Of course this does no favors for the city itself, as it gets drained of some of its best workforce, and those left behind languish in an economic wasteland. A city that once attracted people for the good jobs it provided now attracts people for the cheap rents that are available. There’s no simple solution, but it’s certainly not going to come from railing against greed, as the local newspaper’s editors occasionally do.

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    17. Yeah, Corbin sounds like a sad case. Here's another sad case: I have a friend who does "family literacy" work on the south side of Chicago. The term "family literacy" comes from a recognition that illiteracy is carried through families (duh) and that the solutions have to be family- and community-based. So the work involves various subtle interventions designed to involve adults and children together. It's very tricky, because you're dealing with people who already have innumerable other struggles, and you're asking them to do something difficult, something whose value they don't all even consistently recognize (because after all, they grew up in families that were similarly afflicted).

      Now a decent society would make interventions like this a major national priority. It would help not only the people in question, but the rest of us, who may be losing who knows how many future hotshot entrepreneurs to chronic intergenerational illiteracy. But we don't live in that society; we live in a society that honors the likes of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. So my friend's organization scrapes by on grants, some (I suppose) from what meager government programs exist -- at least until the GOP gets its way and eliminates the Dept of Education -- but mostly from do-gooder arms of private corporations that get their logos displayed, or from other foundations that are themselves underfunded. These include the one that Barbara Bush established, to her credit, but really -- we should be relying for such a vital service on the philanthropy of a dowager duchess? What is this, 1750?

      I've never heard of a "free market" solution to a problem like this one; the population in question is poor and can't pay to acquire literacy. I think the solution has to come from a national commitment expressed through government. But, LORD HELP US if gabillionaires had to pay tax rates in the high 30's; much better to keep a budget axe hanging over programs like this one (and a thousand other such, ahem, points of light) at all times. And the same major party that would destroy America's credit rather than countenance 4% higher taxes for said gabillionaires then runs a national convention telling people, "You built that!" What is the message to our literacy-challenged friends on the south side? "Be more entrpreneurial"? I translate it roughly as, "We don't recognize your existence." What a delightful thing it was last month when that party had its ass handed to it.

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    18. Jeff, I'll see your literacy anecdote and raise you one of my own: many many moons ago, when I was a mere tadpole, I was working in a cognitive psychology lab that did reading development work, for which I was traipsing about some pretty poor elementary schools in a 700,000 person MSA, testing various reading acquisition techniques among reading-delayed second-graders. There are many bad schools in a 700,000 person MSA, but in this case there was one that left all the rest behind: all the standard associations of decay and poverty were exceptionally rampant in this community; it was a breeding ground of failure.

      This school also had a young teacher, we'll call him Dave cause that's his name, who was unusually passionate about applying science to break the cycle of failure. Dave put in place several programs that were not approved in the Teacher's Union handbook, such as after-school reading with parents, rotating individual practice in recess, etc. Even the most liberal reader of this blog cringes at how the union must have reacted to Dave; to his endless credit, Dave simply didn't give a shit.

      In spite of Dave's efforts, our lab thought his school would be ripe territory for delayed readers; as it turned out, among 110 second graders a grand total of 1 was delayed, and that individual appeared to have something like pervasive development disorder. Suffice it to say that no other school in the MSA, even in the relatively wealthier parts of town, did anywhere close to as well with their second graders as Dave's school in the middle of hell.

      Was Dave supported by region-wide programs to help him achieve his miracle? Was he the widely-celebrated teacher of the year? Heck, did any of his peers even give him a high-five in the hall?

      Here's the thing: you can have your government programs, an expressed national commitment to blah blah blah, the community coming together to sing kumbaya and say how committed they all are. I'll take Dave.

      My community will beat yours every time.

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    19. I think what we are all circling around here is that the problems we are dealing with are complicated and extremely hard. Coming from a more leftward stance than either CSH or Couves I totally agree with what they are saying about small towns. I also grew up in (actually near) one and going there for the holidays is a depressing experience. Most of the jobs have fled. And yet, sympathetic as one wants to be, you can't excuse people for not trying to save themselves. A semiconductor plant recently opened near my mother's house. All of her neighbors were complaining bitterly that their children and grandchildren were not considered for employment there, as they did not meet the educational requirements. Yet they also complain bitterly about their property tax rates, teacher salaries, and "city people looking down on us." What can you do? It seems cruel to say, "Well, what can you expect? Quit whining and get to work!" But yet, what else can one do? Yes, there should be more aid for education in the local area. Yes, there should be more job training. Yes, there should be more social services. But for those things to work well, it means people have to buy into the system of supporting the educational infrastructure, getting the training, and cooperating with the social services. Absence a willingness to do that ... well, I guess the welfare rolls are going to get longer, much to the detriment of people's pride -- which will only feed resentment and paranoia, which ... on and on.

      The question, I suppose, is how we as a society are going to respond to that type of situation. What do you do when you try the conservative approach and it doesn't work, and the liberal approaches ain't so great, either? A friend of mine from Sweden once told me that, contrary to popular opinion, Swedes are not terribly liberal or kindly, they simply are grim realists. The way he put it was, "There have always been incapable people that had to be taken care of. In the oldest days the king did that, along with the guilds and extended families. Now the king can't do it and the guilds and families are gone, so the state must step in. We Swedes aren't as soft-hearted as Americans. When we see an incapable peasant who can't make it in the modern world we call him such and send him to the welfare agent in full knowledge that we have indentured him to the state for the rest of his life. That's tough, but incapable people can expect no less. You Americans have the ridiculous habit of seeing Andrew Carnegie in every drunk and ne'er-do-well. One day you are going to run out of money and patience, and realize that some people are just burdens that decency doesn't let you cast away. You think we provide medical care and education because we are kindly? Well, even a lot of Swedes like to think that, but the truth is that we need to wring every bit of production out of every possible source, because we accept that there is just a certain percentage of people that are dead weight, and that's that."

      So speaketh Social Democracy.

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    20. CSH, that is a beautiful story. But, I'm sorry to say there just aren't enough Dave's to go around, and there aren't going to be. Extraordinary people are just too rare. That is why we have to have systems. Yeah, I wish we had a Dave in every school, but it isn't going to happen. Absent enough Dave's, better to have government programs and national commitments. In the end ordinary people need them, because, much as we hate to admit it, most of us are very ordinary, and Dave isn't going to come along to help us.

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    21. But Anastasios, why is it that there aren't more Daves? Part of the reason lies in the attitude of the Swedes you describe above, which if we're honest, underlies a lot of the perspective in enlightened liberal society.

      Here's the thing I didn't mention about Dave: by all appearances, he looked like just your average young guy in the city. Hairline receding a bit too quickly, waistline expanding a bit too quickly, too loud in the bar, probably take out a fragile competitor rounding third in the softball beer league. There was nothing "special" about Dave; to see him on the street you would have been wholly unimpressed.

      What made Dave great was that he didn't care that the machine was lined up against him. He knew what needed to happen, and he just did it, and any associated unpleasantness or blowback wasn't going to stop him. Though you're right, Anastasios, that there aren't many Daves as a practical matter, otoh we are all Dave, we just lack the courage to do the things we know we obviously should.

      So when the proverbial semiconductor plant opens, Dave goes and educates himself to achieve a better life from the opportunity provided. Why doesn't everyone? The social democrats in Sweden say they are not capable. But again, there's nothing special about Dave, nothing about Dave that couldn't be replicated by any of us, if we would just do it.

      Though its gauche to bring in a new angle this late in the greatest ever Plain Blog subthread, the Sweden angle brings up another side to this: one of the reasons why the great liberal Swedish machine sees the ne'er-do-wells as exactly that is because the ne'er-do-wells are good for business. Where would the folks whose livelihoods are provided by administering the Great Society be without ne'er-do-wells? Where would they be if everyone woke up one morning and channeled their inner Dave?

      Its Jimmy V week on ESPN, which does a wonderful job raising money for the very noble cancer research. That money goes to grants that provide substantial funding for research that will, hopefully one day, cure that dreadful disease.

      Imagine though, that you were a world-famous cancer researcher at an Ivy University, bringing in multi-million dollar grants, meeting with internationally famous folks. Tomorrow, you cure cancer! The Jimmy V folks will be thrilled.

      Ten years hence, you might be shuffling into a variety store with a dirty old coat, and the folks there will say "What happened to you?" and you will sigh "I used to be a world-famous cancer researcher, but then I cured the disease" and they will regard you with some pity and say "Oh, you poor bastard".

      So, in summary:

      1) There's a Dave in everyone,
      2) Systems create dependence, not just from dependents, but also those that run them, and - of course -
      3) What would this subthread have been without TED FUCKING NUGENT?

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    22. PS - I should add, this just occurred to me for the first time after many years: in Dave's particular case, it was a bit easier to break so much china because he was a young guy, just out of school, so making enemies and possibly jeopardizing his job wasn't going to hurt any dependents.

      I agree, then, that it can be a bit complicated for others to follow Dave in similar circumstances.

      But educating yourself for the semiconductor opportunity should be a no-brainer, er, "brainer".

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    23. Well, I don't agree that there is a Dave in everyone, or most people. I suspect the Swedes are quite right about that. But it would be churlish not to celebrate and appreciate what few there are. I'll answer your well meant points with some of my own, equally well meant :

      1) Dave is great but rare,
      2) We cannot depend on Dave to solve our troubles,
      3) Liberal style programs are stodgy and produce mediocrity,
      4) Stodgy mediocrity is the best a lot of people can hope for,
      5) Stodgy mediocrity would be a vast improvement over what many have now.

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    24. Jeff, illiterate students obviously have bigger problems than a lack of entrepreneurship. But an entrepreneurial attitude is the most important thing that’s not taught in schools. Public schools were designed to teach obedience and conformity, not personal initiative -- they were modeled after factories to train people to work in them. It’s a homogeneous and inflexible educational system that’s trying to educate people to thrive in a fluid and individualistic society. Most reform has further tied the hands of schools and teachers by centralized control at the state and national level. School vouchers would give the system the ability to radically change to meet the demands of society in the 21st century. And that includes the very specific demands of economically disadvantaged communities that educational entrepreneurs like your friend are trying to serve.

      Anastasios, we support much of our “dead weight,” in ways other than simple welfare. Most people who either can’t work or refuse to work for an extended period are going to be diagnosed with some form of disability, for which they can get direct cash payments from the federal government for the rest of their lives. We “support” others in jail cells, at much higher rates than do European countries. Modern society is very good at discarding certain people, always under the guise of caring for them.

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    25. Maybe I'm too late to enter into this again, but I'd like to drop a pair of pennies.

      CSH: Dave is surely great. How do we make more Daves? How do we support the idea of Dave? Do we just sit around and wait for Dave to come? Sounds an awful lot like Godot to me.

      When we figure out how to attract Dave to teaching, or how to promote Davism, how do you plan to pay for it?

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    26. Great subthread, I'd agree. I'd just mention that such fruitful and forthright discussions can only occur when differing perspectives actually at base agree on the problem to be solved and mutually recognize it. It works for effective schooling and for alleviating poverty. It, to a certain extent, on the abstract issue of the role and size of government in a modern society. It all too often doesn't work when it comes to -- for example -- climate change, the correspondence in detail between revenue and expenditure, and the existence of systemic racism.

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    27. Anonymous, those questions do not have easy answers, if they did those answers would have no doubt been implemented widely. If I can impress on folks one thing from this awesome conversation, its that Dave is not special. He is made of flesh and bone like you and me, he is an average guy, when he's not exceptional at his job, he resembles everyone else.

      There are more Daves. About 7 billion of them. Liberals believe that the other 6.999999999 B Daves don't step up because they can't. I say those other would-be Daves are lazy or afraid of being unpopular or gripped by inertia or some other rather tepid excuse.

      Note that this is separate from calling the non-Daves "moochers". Approaching work as Dave did is hard. But it is within all of our grasps. So I must also agree with Couves: encourage a culture of dependence, and you give the non-Daves a ready excuse for avoiding what is admittedly not easy.

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    28. And what's wrong with dependence? Most people are dependent on someone or something, and there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that someone or something being the state. There is nothing inherently admirable about independence, indeed it is often inherently pathological and causes many more problems than it solves. Why on Earth would most of us want to be Daves? The answer is that the vast majority of us do not want any such thing (and are not capable of it even if we did). And if you say we should be, aren't you being as controlling and judgmental as you might claim some liberals are?

      No good answers. That, in part, is why these questions are so difficult. Very often the Dave's of the world are helpful and admirable. Very often, they are not admirable at all and simply sow destruction. Very often the systems of the world are helpful and admirable. Very often they are not and simply produce stagnation and disfunction.

      If it were within my power, I would take everyone who want to be a Dave and help them nurture their talents and find a place where they could be of great use, and I would guard them against the depredations of people who only want to protect destructive systems. If it were within my power, I would also provide everyone who wants and needs a strong system within which to exist, and yes upon which to be dependent, such a well-functioning system and severely punish any would-be Dave who tries to foul it up.

      If it were within my power to do that, I would be God and the world would be a perfect place. But I am not God, and the world is not perfect, and for every Dave there is a selfish, narcissitic, destructive crank, and for every well-functioning, helpful system there is a fouled-up, repressive one.

      So I guess I'll just paraphrase Tolkien, badly. There are those who are formed by the gods to exist within strong systems, and to depend on those systems and look to them for guidance and protection. There are those who are formed by the gods to be alone and independent. The first outnumber the second by a vast number, but that is neither here nor there. Each is as he was formed to be, and wherein does one have the right to criticize the other? Wherein does one have cause to envy the other?

      The world, and the nation, contain both. Maybe rather than arguing so much whether one way of being on the other is superior, which only frays tempers and ends up with people arguing fruitlessly, it is best to find ways for both to exist and prosper within some kind of framework. We won't be able to avoid arguments, entirely. And yes, the Daves are going to annoy the systems people, and yes, the systems people are going to make demands on the Daves.

      And if we want the Democrats to represent the systems people and the Republicans to represent the Daves, there is nothing wrong with that, either. I don't see why can't all get along and find a way to live together. It is when the Republicans demand that the Democrats must give up their systems and act like Republicans, or the Democrats demand that Republicans give up their independence and act like Democrats, that tempers flare. Enough of it, and people reach for their guns. So I beg of everybody, go easy and don't criticize each other so damn much! No, Couves, there isn't anything at all wrong with dependence, and being dependent on the state is a perfectly honorable and healthy way to live. No, CSH, the vast majority of us who don't want to be Dave's aren't lazy and aren't scared, we just disagree with you about the best we to run society, because we don't find being a Dave to be necessary or inherently admirable. And no, Anastasios, you aren't God and can't be so quit being so damn pompous and sanctimonious with everybody else!

      Now, to be a little pompous and sanctimonious, I'll butcher Shakespeare, "By difference we fall and be difference we'll thrive, there's place and means for every man alive."

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    29. Anastasios: There’s absolutely nothing dishonorable about being dependent on government, if circumstances truly force you into that position. Your real problem then isn’t the dependence but the personal issue that caused the dependence in the first place.

      If you want to work for the same employer in the same position for your entire life, in a job where you’re too afraid to even call your office “Holiday Tree” by its true name, more power to you. The problem is, even that kind of “job security” is increasingly rare. And if we teach students to shoot for such a goal, we’re not giving them what they really need -- even if they have no aspirations to management or entrepreneurship, they’ll have way more job security if they think like their boss (or better yet, their boss’s boss). Instead of encouraging people to depend on the government, we should be teaching them to not get run over by the system in the first place. The point isn’t to achieve some kind of mythical cowboy-like independence that doesn’t exist. You just don’t want to be the person to get run over every time society needs to make a course correction on that road to wherever we’re going.

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    30. I find something to agree with in almost every comment here, although mostly I'd just second what you're all hearing from Anastasios. CSH, the problem I see is that you're contradicting yourself: You can't say, in one breath, that "What made Dave great was that he didn't care that the machine was lined up against him. He knew what needed to happen, and he just did it, and any associated unpleasantness or blowback wasn't going to stop him," and then, in the next breath, claim that there was nothing special about Dave. You've just STATED what was special about Dave. Here's the basic fallacy: We assume that astounding physical talents (like Michael Jordan's) are rare. We assume that astounding intellectual talents (like Stephen Hawking's) are rare. We're less sure about astounding entrepreneurial talents, like Steve Jobs's. But they're also rare. And then we assume that astounding moral talent, i.e. courage, like Dave's -- the willingness to put up with abuse, misunderstanding, the contempt of others, etc. -- isn't just as rare as all the other talents. But it is. Most people just can't be Dave, any more than most people can be Michael Jordan or Steve Jobs or Stephen Hawking or Martin Luther King. Because Dave's qualities -- I say this from bitter personal experience -- are just as rare as the others.

      So Anastasios is right about systems. They're always imperfect, and sometimes counterproductive. But in most cases they're all we've got -- other than just pretending that obvious problems don't exist.

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    31. This was a great, great conversation. My final contribution, which is a new insight: the thing about Dave is, while he is exemplary in his workplace, he probably is way too passive in other areas of his life, maybe in his church or community or whatever. Because we all are kind of Dave, and we all are (mostly) not.

      But you know what? I think we conservatives should continue to emphasize the magic of Workplace Dave as the talisman it is! Maybe Corbin has no Daves. Maybe it has a handful, and only in limited capacity. Regardless, I think it behooves conservative-minded folk to cast their net widely over places like Corbin, encourage the Daveness in all of its citizens, to help those handful or real life Daves make it better for everyone else.

      Cause as usual, I kind of agree with Couves above: the culture of dependency is stifling to the Dave-type, rare though he may be in a particular context, who might otherwise break through and make things better.

      So I believe all y'all are Dave, and I will continue to press that point for all its worth.

      And if it turns out that a couple of folks really are Dave in a context that matters, then casting that net far and wide will have seemed eminently worthwhile to me.

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    32. Jeff, I didn't see your last comment before I posted...when I said there was nothing special about Dave, I didn't mean in the empirical sense: obviously Dave's effort went way beyond that of the average bear. What I meant was that such effort came from an eminently normal, not-otherwise impressive guy.

      And yeah, I actually believe most people could be Steven Hawking or Michael Jordan or whomever...if they tried hard enough.

      So I say go for it! Maybe even a few people would.

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    33. The main lesson I take from Dave is that the educational system actively discourages innovation and success. You shouldn’t need to have exceptional moral courage to do your job like the professional you are. But if you have a system that rewards the right things, that’s when the profession will become a million-Dave army. I see school vouchers as the most likely path to change. I’d also abolish just about every educational mandate that exists -- without that step, you might just end up with a corporatized version of the system that already exists.

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    34. CSH, absolutely cast your net far and wide, and more power to you! The problem, however, is that the language you use raises alarm bells from here to Massachusetts. Like it or not, many people do NOT want to be Dave, and many people do depend on systems. Your language is most alarming, as it suggests what I am sure you don't mean, which is that you would gladly smash the systems to bits to find one Dave, wreaking agony in every direction while proudly proclaiming "You deserve to suffer you lazy dependent unworthy shots. We can't show you mercy because it would STIFLE DAVE!"

      Now, that is unfair. But to get us back to the original subject of the subthread, Tagg Romney and Paul Ryan have made double damn sure that is what most people even slightly left of center are going to hear. The well for that kind of language is thoroughly poisoned. Go gently, I beg of you. What I think you mean as a message of positive empowerment many, by no means very far to the left, hear as class hatred. It is not fair or helpful, but it is so. Yet one more gift the nascent aristocrats have given us.

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    35. Anastasios -- that last line is the conclusion I've found myself drifting towards. Of course, it works the other way, with liberal rhetoric eliciting a similar response in Republicans. The results is that one 40% can't effectively communicate with the other 40% and each side assumes the worst about the other side whenever communication does occur. People get played against each other, when they might otherwise reach agreement that would be for the common good.

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    36. Agreed, Couves. For example, I wince when some of my friends on the left talk about diversity. They just don't appreciate how when you get closer to the center "diversity" starts to sound like "get lost white man.". It is near the place where, coming from the right "personal responsibility" and "self reliance" turn into "just die already you lazy moocher parasite.". The left just does not understand how horrified the right is over abortion, the right just does not get how horrified many people to the left of them feel about the notion of health care not being a basic human entitlement. What truthfully worries me is when people laugh and ask about the other side, "what are they going to do, start shooting.". Yes, they will do just that if you keep it up. Now, I am not saying that will happen, or that we are close to it. But yes, it could happen. If you don't think so, go see Lincoln and contemplate the past as prologue. And then ask yourself who has the market on bullets and knives sewn up.

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    37. But you know what makes fora like this great, and this discussion in particular priceless? It clarifies what we each bring to the table. Its too easy, especially in a hyper-partisan world, to identify oneself as a conservative/liberal primarily because one hates or scorns the other side, from which a line is easily drawn to the proverbial knives and bullets.

      But why? When we conservatives leave off the vitriol and put on the pretension, we declare ourselves Hayekians, without noticing that Hayek believed in a government safety net and central planning to keep economic units optimally sized (i.e. small). Might Hayek prefer to have a beer with many modern liberals as opposed to non-reflective conservatives? One wonders.

      So what do we each bring to the table? How about this: Anastasios and Jeff, you guys perfect the system. Me and Couves will try to find Dave. Between us perhaps we will move toward utopia, in spite of ourselves.

      There's no way to know for sure, but it feels like there's some chance I'll take that away - a long way away - from this memorable conservation.

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    38. I’d also abolish just about every educational mandate that exists....."

      Including Brown vs. Board of Education? See, that's the problem: We tried local control with basically no mandates, and it led to disfavored classes and races getting sh*t instead of schooling. And while it's a long and separate discussion -- and I'm not against vouchers in principle, if properly done (which they wouldn't be) -- I am wondering why the world's leading national school systems aren't voucher-based if vouchers are so great.

      But anyway. CSH, I agree it's been a fine discussion. But you keep calling yourself a "conservative." Sorry, not buying it. If you're a conservative in any real sense that either the left or the right would recognize, then I'm Rosa Parks.

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    39. Jeff -- You're talking about government-run and government-segregated schools. I'm talking about putting parents and students in control, which is a popular idea in minority communities. Yes, you’d want to keep prohibitions against racial discrimination. But I’d get rid of most other regulations, just to let the system naturally evolve and diversify from what we have now.

      Segregating youths from adult society for 12 years, with hundreds of their age group peers, this is something unique in human history. I don’t think the fact that almost every country now does it makes it uniquely suited to either our present society or our nature as human beings. We could probably find lots of things that are done more-or-less the same way everywhere in the world -- not because of some inherent superiority, but because a few dominant European nations did it that way at the onset of globalization. Five hundred years from now, people will be scratching their heads, wondering why an anachronism from early industrial Prussia came to dominate world education for so long after its usefulness had obviously passed.

      If you’re interested in this line of critique, check out some writings or speeches by John Taylor Gatto.

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    40. Couves, I'm already on board with your larger vision here. The same critiques of industrial-age and industrial-style schooling were made from the left back in the '60s, in the writings of people like Paul Goodman (Compulsory Mis-education and Growing Up Absurd, which by the way JT Gatto cites approvingly), Neil Postman (Teaching as a Subversive Activity), Theodore Roszak and others. If I thought that vouchers were the key to realizing that vision, I'd be all for them. Indeed, I would be very interested if we were talking about a plan that guaranteed that the same amount of money (inflation-adjusted) would be available for the education of every child in America that was available for, say, my own public education. But today's right, I'm pretty sure, would recoil in horror from any such plan. As in most areas, it wants to destroy the imperfect system we have, not in favor of a genuinely better approach but in order to entrench the privileges of the already privileged, while everyone else can go hang.

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    41. Well, you know, once again I think there are ways the two sides are talking past each other. A favorite meme of the right in the last election was that everyone needs to have "skin in the game." That can easily be turned around to "everyone needs a stake in the gamble." Sort of kind of the same thing, but different, as happens so much when liberals and conservatives actually listen to each other.

      When I was a very young man there was a local controversy over a community center that served almost entirely a black (it was long before the age of African-American) clientele. Many people argued that it was wasteful, poorly run, etc., and they were probably right. My mother worked in the local city hall at the time, and would sit me on a chair during city council meetings on nights my father was working late. After a particularly contentious meeting over this the mayor, who was also a local businessman, and conservative certainly by modern standards and probably even the standards of the time, was having a discussion with some of the more reasonable opponents of the center. I will always remember him saying, with a weary sigh, "It's a mess down there. But the black man needs to have something, too." To the modern ear that is racist and condescending and patriarchal and numerous other things, but it gets at a certain rough wisdom, to wit if society is going to work all groups need to have a stake in it, to feel that they "have something, too" to use the mayor's words, and all interests need to feel that they can speak, if only it's surly conservatives (and, frankly, white racists) blowing off steam in a city council meeting while the mayor listens with pained patience. And, to veer pretty close to CSH and nod to Dave, there need to be harried, exasperated mayors who may have their glaringly obvious flaws, but who understand that everyone needs to feel that society cares for them, even if it means putting up with some waste and disruption, and if that's buying people off with gifts from the government, then so be it and let's move on to talk about garbage collection (and if you'll just act like you have some damn sense over the community center maybe we can talk about that street you want patched).

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    42. Jeff -- thanks for the references, I knew there had to be some good criticism from that period. Of course the devil's in the details with any voucher scheme. There's typically very high per-pupil spending on education in the inner city, so the funds should be there. I think the bigger problem would be the desire by government to continue to regulate and control education, even under a voucher system. Even so, it would be an improvement on what we have.

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    43. Anastasios, that's a great point, which you’ve been driving at for most of this discussion. No matter how convinced you are in the righteousness of your cause, concessions and compromise are necessary to live in democracy.

      Republicans need to realize that tax increases on the rich are a necessity if we're ever going to get our long-term entitlement spending under control. People are willing to sacrifice when necessary, but only when it's a shared sacrifice.

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    44. Maybe the timing of this is wrong, but today's terrible events put sharper focus on something that has always bothered me (and did in this thread) about the liberal belief in "systems" solving things...

      Let us accept the premise from Anastasios, Jeff and the Swedes that doing the brave right thing (being Dave) is beyond the grasp of the wretched masses who need systems to prop them up. Let us further accept the premise, from Dale Carnegie, that those wretched masses think of themselves as heroic Dave-types, which means that these systems are designed to prop up wretched losers who nevertheless think they're great. Systems, say, like the culture at Pencey Prep that Holden Caulfield railed against. Or the culture at Columbine that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris hated. Though we don't know yet, probably systems like the environment in Newtown that sick fuck likely railed against.

      Yes, Dave breaks a lot of china. Yes, this makes people uncomfortable. Yes, guys like Tagg Romney and Paul Ryan are wretched losers. But you know what? Systems that are designed to comfort ones that liberals romanticize...those comforted folks are made of the same failed, fallen, wretched human stuff comprising a Paul Ryan or Tagg Romney.

      Systems inevitably devolve into winners and losers, and Holden Caulfield orbiting just outside. I'll take my chances with celebrating Dave. Guys like him make systems uncomfortable.

      But how much comfort can one have from a system when some Holden Caulfield-type psycho is waiting just outside, and people within systems inevitably devolve into hierarchies of cool people and losers?

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    45. CSH, I hope my respect for you is clear. But: For probably the first time ever, I'm not sure I have any idea what you're talking about. Can you please try stating your point in another, "CSH for Dummies"-type way?

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    46. Leave aside Newtown for a second; we don't yet know. Columbine: apparently Klebold and Harris were disgruntled idiots who idolized Holden Caulfield and lamented (and eventually shot up) the "phonies" in their high school. Think of those phonies in the context of the helpless losers in Sweden discussed in this thread.

      Those phonies don't annoy Holden (and later Klebold and Harris) because they are helpless. They annoy because they suck and think they are awesome, and in the process make life difficult for the complainers. Whether or not they annoy a Holden Caulfield/Dylan Klebold/Eric Harris type, everyone who sucks thinks they are awesome, because - cue Dale Carnegie - everyone thinks they are awesome.

      So when you see fools in Sweden and say well we need a big safety net to help these folks because they can't help themselves, by the universal power of How to Win Friends, you know the recipients of your largesse don't see it that way. They think you are doing them favors in recognition of their awesomeness! The kindness you bestow on them does not cover off against their weakness; it validates their greatness. And so those failed Swedes feel empowered to see themselves as the winners they are confident they are, an objective fact that must be visible from here to Anastasios.

      In the context of social policy, it probably doesn't matter much that delusional people feel justified by largesse. In the context of a high school, the danger is fairly clear. There's an argument that Dave too is creating a system, though it is explicitly not for the sustenance of losers, and Dave is by no means, in any context, a "cool guy". Succeeding in Dave's system renders no one "cool", or if it does, its only because of objective accomplishment, not because some loser was meant to be comforted and instead felt validated.

      At a 30,000 foot level, what you are recommending is a series of social programs designed to help folks who are too helpless to do much for themselves. Recall that How to Win Friends eventually became the 3rd most read book in Western history, behind only the Bible and Sears Catalog, which speaks to the incredible power of the idea that those too helpless to help themselves never see themselves that way. Largesse as an antidote to despair is instead an invitation to conceit.

      Dave rails against systems that make losers feel good. Anastasios cautions us against too much Dave, as Dave makes the beneficiaries of said systems feel uncomfortable. Well, that's no doubt true.

      Then again, better Dave than Dylan Klebold, no?

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    47. Or perhaps this: there are crucial similarities between Tagg Romney's impossibly connected, otherwise-fledgling consulting firm and the loser beneficiaries of Swedish largesse:

      1) Both are helped net of any intrinsic merit
      2) Both are helped for extraneous reasons, and
      3) Neither has any idea that either 1) or 2)is true.

      After all, the rising aristocracy discussed in this thread is a system, too, though it no doubt offends sensibilities sympathetic to liberal systems. But the aristocracy is good to recall here, as it sheds light on the flaws of cherished liberal systems:

      Why do liberals/non-aristocrats hate the ascendent American conservative aristocracy? Many reasons, but chief is that the New Aristocrats think they are hot shit because of their (unearned) status, which places a burden on the rest of society. Those New Aristocrats, like Swedish losers, are just humans, no? The dollars may be smaller, and so the burden may be lesser, but in an otherwise similar way, failed Swedes benefiting from liberal largesse also think this a result of merit (or at least, earned) and thus places a burden on the rest of society. In the context of a high school, where hormones are high and wisdom is low, unearned status is especially toxic.

      You can criticize Dave all you want, but here's the thing he always has going for him:

      No one ever feels good about themselves for no good reason in Dave world. That's worth a lot, it seems to me.

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    48. Well, CSH, like Jeff for the first time I really do not follow you, except that you are concerned about an unearned sense of merit or entitlement or some such. Fair enough, but to eliminate that you would need to fundamentally alter human psychology, which is not a task I would recommend. Very few people think of themselves as benefiting without merit from any situation, just as very few people think of themselves as evil. And as it is the nature of humans to live in society, and as merit is in the eye of the beholder, it follows that no one ever receives any benefit without someone else, generally a lot of someone elses, regarding them as benefiting undeservedly. You might call that envy, but envy like merit is pretty much in the eye of the beholder. I guarantee that many saw Dave as a selfish, narcissistic crank who was thoroughly undeserving of praise or reward. You speak of unearned status. Earned by whose estimation? Earned by whose recognition? Earned by what standard? To be able to answer that one must appeal to a set of beliefs and practices, in other words a system. That is the nature of people, and of society, which after all is only a system. I am afraid that systems are inevitable, there is simply nowhere to stand and no way to formulate a thought outside of them. So, like Jeff, just don't see what your point is. Or maybe I do, but if you are saying what I think you are saying it amounts to wishing we could do without society, which we can't, or wishing that humans were different, which they aren't, or that God was more just, which he isn't.

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    49. CSH: Even if Dave's world is an idealized free market society, the problem is this: Would you consider the best stock trader in Dave's world to be more deserving of his salary than even a mediocre public school teacher today? I'm not sure many people would answer "yes" to that.

      In a perfect free market, the only thing that your salary measures is the value that markets place on your labor. So while the hotshot stock broker, as a crucial cog in the capitalist system, may have some great unseen importance to the general welfare, it's hard for us to say that he's more ethically deserving than many people who might work harder, suffer more, care more, etc. I just thought that had to be said even though that’s not really your point.

      What conservatives want to see from society is a system that induces the inner Dave in all of us to come out -- and everyone has him waiting to come out, even the most flawed among us. The free market is an unplanned system that does this to a much larger degree than does the planned public sector. Liberals focus on what is planned and like to point to how much we owe our prosperity to basic public services. And perhaps Hobbes is right, that we’d still be brutes living outside of society if there hadn’t been some seminal moment of coercion that made society possible. On the other hand, the easy comforts and amazing technology that are available to us today are the result of centuries of deferred consumption being invested into capital improvements. None of this was planned and most of it was inspired by greed, but it’s the reason that you and I can be employed in easier work than wandering the landscape in hunter-gatherer groups. It’s a system that deserves credit for the fact that we live in a society in which bored teenagers and too much food are bigger concerns than death and deprivation. Indeed, we’re consuming ourselves to the point of sickness, both physical and economic. Markets, harnessed by the nation-state, came to dominate the world. That same combination, in slightly different form, now threatens those same nations with destruction from within.

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    50. Oh, and CSH I would agree with Jeff that you are not very conservative. That is an observation, not a criticism. Rather you are fundamentally a romantic, believing in great, semi-mysterious forces that shape history and human destiny. It's true that the forces you believe in a moral and you place the locus of these forces in the individual, but that is well within the romantic tradition. Which is perfectly respectable, but not very conservative. Jeff and I, on the other hand, are hard headed Tories, which is to say we take the world as it is and don't expect it to fundamentally change, and we accept people as they are, without any belief that they are admirable or capable, or that much can be expected of them. Both sides can believe in progress, but whereas the romantic sees progress in sweeping terms, the Tory is happy if we can just get the Verbal scores up, because Lord knows that is hard enough with the students and parents, and yes the teachers, God has, errrrr, "gifted" us with. The romantic looks at the Tory and trembles with exasperation and the desire to shout, the Tory smiles and says "You are a wonderful person. Now get the Hell out of my office because I have to explain to one of my dolts, I mean one of my wonderful parents, that Johnny will never learn to read if he doesn't do his homework. And I have five more dolts, I mean parents, lined up after that, and then I have to go wring a pittance out of the tightwads, I mean the school board. But you do dream lovely dreams, I'll give you that.". The romantic then goes outside and kicks in a locker door. The romantic then may do wonderful things that afternoon teaching his students. The Tory smiles again, in admiration this time, the quickly reaches for the phone knowing he has a school board, a PTO, and a faculty to placate, else the romantic will be giving those wonderful lessons in the back booth of a hamburger joint out on route 50.

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    51. Anastasios: But Dave is the educator who gets real results, not a hopeless romantic. I’m sure your tory school administrator cares about results too, but his form of pragmatism demands that he only teach in a way that pleases the appropriate bureaucratic gods.

      At the risk of speaking for CSH, the problem isn’t systems, but technocratic systems that manage, control and infantilize people who are perfectly normal (if flawed) and capable of better things within a system that incentivizes them appropriately.

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    52. Yes to Couves just above. Amen, even. To the issue of who is a conservative: if not being a conservative means not being a water carrier for Hannity and Limbaugh and the rest, guilty as charged. However, long long ago in this subthread I outlined a "lottery philosophy" which is, I believe, awfully close to a Hayekian view of the world, certainly if we draw a line from Marx to Hayek the lottery model is much much closer to Hayek than Marx. But whatever. Maybe y'all think I'm lying about that, for which I guess there's little I can do.

      More even than Hayek, I worship at the secular altar of 10,000-hour excellence, for the 10,000th time here's my secular bible. On the crazy chance that someone actually clicked through and even - gasp! - read Talent is Overrated, they would discover several hundred pages worth of scientific research proving, the way only science can, that Anastasios' and the Swedes' view of the underclass is empirically incorrect. Its not that they can't, its that they don't. Talent is Overrated proves that as much as it can be proved, and if you still question the power of "hard work leads to excellence, in each and every case", well, there are some people on the right who doubt AGW too. Takes all types.

      The place where Carnegie fits in: 10,000 hour of disciplined effort makes any and all of us great. No true Swedeman won't end up excellent if he follows that path! But - 10,000 hours is unpleasant, and we like to feel good about ourselves, and frankly, the Anastasios/Swedish world view vamps off desire of the underclass to feel good about themselves by declaring them helpless, indulging their vanity, (criminally) encouraging underachievement.

      A more famous parallel to Dave is Jaime Escalante of the famous movie Stand and Deliver. Those poor kids in inner city LA were the losers that the Swedes give up on, no? In the Swedish model, they are incapable of becoming the 3,000,000th best high school on the Calculus AP test, much less the 3rd best that Escalante led them to. That process was unpleasant. It felt bad for those kids. But it was, eminently, doable.

      Unless you liberals believe that Escalante's kids were not "just like" all the other poor kids in LA but rather comprised of some special magical secret sauce that made them fundamentally unlike their less high-achieving peers.

      Escalante, like Dave, had a system, but as Couves said, it didn't infantilize people, it didn't indulge their desire for comfort, and most importantly, it didn't start from the (empirically false) assumption that these kids couldn't make it.

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    53. Well, CSH, you dream great dreams, and I say that with affection. I guess I would return to Lincoln (great movie) to show a good and effective balance in all of this. Lincoln certainly broke a lot of China, but he also knew that the time came to bend the knee to Preston Blair, and to tell Thaddeus Stevens, correct and impressive as he might have been, that if you let the perfect get in the way of the good, you and up with the bad. So Lincoln knew that Dave was right, that breaking china will make Progress. He also knew that there comes a time to tell Dave to sit down and shut up because now isn't the time for dreaming and annoying people, now is the time for vote buying and anal osculation.

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    54. CSH, thanks for the further explanations. Stand and Deliver makes MY point, I think. For one thing, Jaime Escalante has a heart attack or something (it's been a long time since I saw it), and the movie attributes this to overwork and drivenness. For another, he is brilliantly charismatic. For a third, he is teaching math, which is not easy, to be sure, but more straightforward than a lot of other things that people would benefit from being able to do. The qualities that make for up-by-your-bootstraps success are much subtler, and aren't easily achieved through repetitive drills. Calculus is not something those kids likely needed later in life; I took 3 semesters of it in college, myself, yet wouldn't know a differential equation today if it bit me in the keister. (Yeah, I know, they were also learning how to apply themselves and be disciplined. But learning something you don't need is an ineffecient way to do that.)

      Anyway, my point has certainly not been to disparage the Daves or the Jaimes or other heroic figures. It's to point out that they don't represent solutions because what they do isn't scaleable. When you've got tens of millions of children to educate, you're going to need millions of teachers. A few of those will be awful, some will be great, but most, by definition, will be mediocre (which comes from the Latin for "ordinary"). And yeah, I'm what Anastasios is calling a Tory -- though don't tell my British Labourite friends -- in that I don't believe the solution is to hope for heroics, because most people aren't heroes. Even the makers of Stand and Deliver don't really see that as the solution, because not only does his brilliant work nearly kill the guy, but they obviously see him as an exceptional case. How do we know? Because they made a movie about him.

      I said earlier I'm not necessarily averse to unconventional new approaches, like school vouchers, if they're done right. But that's another and related point: Human enterprises usually aren't done right, or at least, we have to assume that they're going to be flawed and mis-executed in various ways, and that if they're meant to serve very large numbers then they're necessarily going to be delivered through, and to, lots and lots of mediocre people. Applying this to education, it's easy to design reforms that will work well in the hands of great teachers; the trick is finding approaches that get at least decent results even in the hands of the second- or third-rate, because in practice that's all we're going to have available most of the time. What I would really like to see is a movie, not about a heroic teacher, but about a heroic curriculum designer, somebody who finds a way of learning calculus (or whatever) that turns out to work reasonably well, even if not always with award-winning results, in thousands of classrooms across the length and breadth of the land, preferably while avoiding the deadening conformism that Couves rightly criticizes. And this person would be even more of a hero to me if s/he did this while also living a healthy life and getting plenty of rest.

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    55. What we arrive at, then, is a charged, empirical question: why don't folks pursue 10,000 hour greatness, and why don't teachers lead students toward that? I've said that all teachers should be like Dave or Jaime Escalante; this is obviously naive on its face. The counterargument, that the lack of Dave/Jaime Escalante means we should accept that some children or people "just can't cut it" is not only belied by Talent is Overrated but also the obvious implication of Escalante/Dave: they didn't select those poor, hopeless students. They worked with what they had and created outstanding results. Either that was a tremendous piece of good luck in those guys finding just the right impoverished kids to work their magic, or everyone could do it.

      But everyone doesn't do it. Hardly anyone does. Why not? There are many reasons, such as a fear of being unpopular, inertia, and sheer ignorance. I would argue that there are two reasons that rise above, and aggregate, the rest: the universal human conceit that we are pretty good already ("above average") for where we are, and that the pursuit of excellence is inherently unpleasant. Overcome those two and I think you get a lot more Daves/Jaime Escalantes.

      But follow me: I won't ask for every one of the thousand+ teachers in a 700,000 person MSA to be Dave. Not even close. Give me, maybe, 6 at poor schools spread throughout town. 6 who achieve the magical results that Dave achieved, which when restricted just to Dave seems like a novelty.

      Give me six sets of schoolchildren in bad parts of town, achieving magical results via disciplined work, and suddenly the decision calculus that prevents people from reaching up changes: it gets a lot harder for the mediocre teachers to convince themselves that they are above average within their self-defined context, and the unpleasantness that comes with 10,000-hour type effort is superseded by the greater unpleasantness of parents who increasingly want to know why our poor school has such inferior results to the other poor schools in town. I can't, Dave didn't, achieve that groundswell with only one. But a half-dozen, I've got a shot.

      Can I have 6, Anastasios? Out of several hundred? Does that still make me a dreamer?

      Because if we break the conceit of the mediocrities thinking they are good, and we further make it more painful not to try then to try, I think we might find a Dave in everyone, as Couves said above. Yes, it isn't easy, and yes it can take a toll on one's health (though I can report, Jeff, that I had the great privilege of meeting Esclante several years after that film, and he was healthy as a horse! He did manage to live an additional three decades after that movie...not saying that Hollywood would over-dramatize that high intellectual effort is way too difficult..no wait, I am saying that :).

      Finally, curriculum: there's a study mentioned in Talent is Overrated that compared expert violinists. It looked at those who were in major city orchestras, mid-sized city orchestras, and local community groups. The first were all 15,000 hour violinists, the second were all 10,000 hour violinists, and the third were 5,000 hour violinists. The researchers found not a single case of a 5,000 hour violinist making it to a world-class orchestra, nor were there any 15,000 hour violinists who had to settle for community groups.

      So, yeah, fancier curricula? Sure, why not. The secret sauce is still trying hard, we need to increase the motivation and opportunity to do so.

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    56. Yes, CSH, it still makes you a dreamer. I will gladly let you have six. I'll let you have six thousand. But human psychology is not going to change. Asking a mediocrity to admit to their unworthiness is a larger example of wondering why so few of the GOP admit they were wrong about Bush, or asking, if you prefer, why so few Democrats will question diversity programs, or so few gun advocates acknowledge the differences between Europe and the USA in terms of violent crimes and gun deaths. Are people just telling untruths for convenience? Not usually, it's just that the human mind does not work like that. People just rarely admit to lack of merit or being wrong in any situation. If they do admit to being wrong or lacking merit, it is usually in some minor matter, or else they are clinically depressed and take all sorts if blame for everything that comes along.

      So, if you want to improve test scores and help individual students, take six or six thousand and I certainly hope you succeed. If you think that your success will cause people to say, "Look at them! How unworthy I feel!" then I expect you will be disappointed. People do not react well to unpleasant truth, and messengers thereof usually get killed. Better to help your six thousand and let the rest think what they will, which will be to belittle you, try to deny your success, and try to qualify away your insights. That is not to tell you what to do, but only what go expect. After all, this is still the same world that nailed a guy to a cross once for saying "You know, you people should really try to be nicer."

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    57. Not to toot my own horn here, but I have BEEN Dave, in fact quite recently, in an educational setting, with exactly the painful results that Anastasios describes. Which is a key reason that I don't expect moral courage from others -- I wouldn't wish that experience on most other people, and some wouldn't be as free as I was to risk their jobs and reputations. (People don't literally kill the messenger these days, but they do try to smear and ruin him.) Nor do I expect it even of myself in all situations. I join with Anastasios in wishing you luck, CSH, in finding Daves and Jaimes and encouraging them to do their best in hopes of modeling an approach that might move others or create pressure for better results. In addition to the scaleability problem, though, or similar to it, I guess I wonder what exactly this project of seeding Daves throughout the school system would involve: Do you run ads looking for Daves? Do you inform the school principal that such-and-such individual has been put in place with every expectation he'll be a pain in the ass and probably make the principal look bad (or at least unimaginative), but he's nonetheless to be tolerated? Does that mean Dave has some kind of tenure? Can other people also get tenure, then, by promising to be a thorn in the side of the powers-that-be as well? Do others in the same job category as Dave lose points, relative to him, because they're too cooperative or don't upset things enough? Or, granting that the Daves are rare meteors streaking across our skies, do we just sit around and wait and hope that the six you want will show up? Which of course in a sense is what we're alerady doing. I really don't mean to throw cold water on the whole effort, but I see it raising some conundrums that I don't think have easy answers.

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    58. Hard to admit it after all this time, but I'm afraid you're probably right, Jeff. Its awfully difficult to hire Dave, as everyone you interview of course assures you that they are Dave, most of them believe that, and its hard to suss out the difference.

      Your second choice, as a superintendent, might be to hire away known Daves from elsewhere, but that type of thing costs a lot of money in other industries, money which the superintendent probably can't pay Dave in a bad school, and even if the superintendent could, the union would never allow it.

      Your third choice is to elicit Daveness from the dormant Daves among the troops. That's not career building to academic leadership, who might not only lose their job but also be followed by a trail of negativity.

      Damn, it is hard to come up with a half-dozen Daves. If I could get them, I think it would work; to the extent the barrier with the mediocrities is 1) lack of awareness they suck and 2) lack of initiative to take the pain, a few well-placed Daves may indeed be enough to generate escape velocity from the school system's mediocrity.

      But you're right, Jeff, its incredibly difficult to place those well-placed Daves. Damn.

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    59. Freedom is infinitely scalable. If you’re trying to figure out how to make everyone else do what Dave is doing, you’re missing the point. Because what Dave is doing is not about scrupulously following prescribed technique, but in doing what works for him. He may also face barriers in a voucher-based educational system, but at least there he would have more options, including striking out on his own as an entrepreneur. The teachers’ unions are afraid of vouchers, but every teacher I’ve known would have given up pay and benefits if they could only teach as they best knew how. A deregulated voucher system would be great for teachers -- administrators would attract them, not usually by paying them more, but by being more supportive and allowing them to unleash their inner Dave. And for the teachers who are decidedly non-Dave-like (a minority, I think), there would be other schools that would carefully control methods and curriculum.

      Jeff, I was so bored by calculus that I struggled just to get by… then I took physics and I suddenly realized that this stuff wasn’t pointless, but could be used to solve seemingly impossible real-world problems.

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    60. Freedom is infinitely scalable, Couves? No, I am glad to say it most certainly is not. Indeed, it is often not possible at all, and God and the law be praised! The loss of freedom is the price of civilization, and in general it is an extremely good bargain.

      Having said that, how to encourage Dave? Vouchers might be one useful way, I guess. But the problems inherent in preventing the wealthy and well-connected from gaming the system would be immense. A general voucher system would rapidly degenerate into a highly directive assignment system as schools intrigue for the best prepared (I.e. upper-class) students, and parents intrigue for rare spaces in the best schools. The British public-school system after all functions through a quasi-voucher setup, and Britain is one of the few OECD nations with a stronger and more entrenched class system than our own. Nor are British teachers particularly known for innovation.

      Maybe teaching grants for Dave would help. Or maybe a system of sabbaticals and self-development.

      But in general Dave will not appear until students and parents demand him, and that is unlikely to happen on the large scale. The school system must wrestle with students who do not even have one competent parent, neighborhoods where coke the drug is easier to get that coke the drink, and subcultures in which a stretch in jail is an accepted part of the male life-cycle. When parents and students are freed from those pressures, they will have the time and energy to encourage Dave to a greater degree. Yes, in not encouraging Dave now they are closing off venues for dealing with tese problems, but if frogs had wings they wouldn't bump their butts.

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    61. Couves, I did see the real-world value of calculus, I just haven't been in any position since where I had to solve such problems myself. Most people aren't. That said, for various reasons I'm still in favor of kids having oppoortunities to learn it.

      CSH, I think one answer may be tenure. I know conservatives hate it; yes, it will end up protecting a certain number of malingerers, and we all know that the right to be bad at your job without penalty should be resrved only for investment bankers and the like. But in a large system, a certain number of Daves would appear spontaneously here and there, and the best thing at that point is a clear rule that ensures they won't just get dumped. I'm reminded that my dad was fired from a job as a young special-ed teacher (this was a long time ago) because he wouldn't discipline kids by hitting them. It's not like he was a crusader on this point, he just didn't believe in it, and so the school decided he wasn't a "good fit" with their "philosophy" and yadda yadda. He might have been frustrated enough to leave anyway, but who knows -- with tenure, he might have stuck around and modeled ways of dealing with troubled kids less crude than whaling on them, and other teachers might have found these compelling too. In other words, he might have been one of your Daves. I think that's exactly what the administration feared.

      As to "freedom," I have the same problem with Couves' otherwise attractive vision that Anastasios mentions: The system will be gamed. The problem is that the term "freedom" is too elastic. Just as administrators will normally define "a good fit" as "not being Dave," the privileged will define freedom as the right to maintain their privileges. Slaveholders fought a war over their "freedom" to own slaves. (True story.) Even today, we hear that a modest rise in millionaires' tax rates is a horrible assault on freedom. What worries me is that in our voucherized future, those with the most power to set the terms of debate will see to it that "freedom" applies mainly to their own community or class. But perhaps, paraphrasing Anatole France, they will condescend to note that now that the old system has been smashed, the new arrangements, in their majestic equality, give rich and poor alike the same freedom to sleep (or study) under bridges.



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    62. One other thing by way of acknowledging Couves' and CSH's points: When I was teaching in a business school I was called upon to help college students craft resumes and job applications. So I read a lot of job ads from the corporate world, virtually all of them, often in identical language, calling for "self-starters" and "pro-active" "problem-solvers" and, basically, Dave. Or so they said. (I figured real Daves would last about a week in most of those organizations, but whatever.) I felt I knew what they wanted -- someone who wasn't just a time-server but would be dynamic and compelling in the ways CSH has been talking about. Every organization knows they need this, even if in practice they try to obliterate it as soon as it appears. In a sense, they literally DO advertise for Daves. But I was painfully aware of (a) how far most of the students actually were from having these qualities, (b) how little they even understood what was being asked for, and how ready they likely were to imagine that the ads were nonetheless describing them, and (c) how a big reason for those two facts was that the students were products of 15+ years of deadly, conformist, industrial-style schooling, weirdly married to "self-esteem"-oriented curricula whose explicit goal was to cater to parents' vanity and keep kids from seeing any shortfalls in themselves. (My own energies were marshalled to that system through such mechanisms as (1) no tenure and (2) heavy reliance on student evaluations in performance reviews, evaluations you put at risk if you offended students' sense of entitlement. It couldn't have been more obvious how counterproductive that was, but go ahead, try pointing this out. In the hearing of an administrator. Dare ya! I did, and have the lumps on my skull to prove it.)

      So Couves and CSH have put their fingers on real problems. I don't dispute that. The issue is finding policies that will work, with most of the good consequences we're imagining and a minimum of disastrous blowback.

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    63. Fantastic valedictory post, Jeff. Speaking at least for myself, it seems we end in (violent) agreement.

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    64. I will second that! If only Congress would go home and let the four of us legislate -- we could REALLY mess everything up!!!

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    65. Anastasios, it sounds like what you’re calling “freedom” is some sort of state of nature outside of civilization. Obviously, that’s not what I meant. I mean freedom within civilization -- where, not only have we increased the number and percentage of free people on this earth, but in many ways we’ve increased the amount of freedom enjoyed by the individual. As a libertarian, I may sometimes focus on the loss of freedom, but it would be foolish to ignore all the progress that’s been made as well.

      Jeff, you describe the problems with education better than me -- we’d probably agree on most of it.

      Anastasios and Jeff both make great points about the cultural origins of the education problem. This may never happen, even under a voucher system, but I want to see it impressed upon parents and students alike, that education only comes from hard work, dedication and a personal desire to learn. Too many students and parents today assume that schooling is just a process that’s externally applied to someone. They’re simply participating in a system. Unfortunately, education is becoming “just a system” all the way up through college. The degrees are just a proxy for other things employers hope students will have. In some ways, it’s a pernicious process of social approval, and anyone who drops out without the proper stamps on their forehead will be deemed a failure. Better to let a student drop out at 15 to do simple work (and praise them for it!), rather than be tortured by the system -- then let them get more training or education later when he or she is better prepared. Instead, we’re now debating whether schooling should be mandatory through age 18. When schooling becomes a system almost exactly tied to one’s age, it inevitably comes to be seen by the student as a social rite of passage more than a time of practical learning for the future. We need something that's in some ways closer to the informal schooling of the pre-industrial past, which integrated us more with society and allowed us to shape our young lives more in keeping with our natures, rather than subsuming them to a an all-controlling system.

      I should also add that some students from the most troubled backgrounds are going to need some very comprehensive school of last resort to give them everything they’re likely missing at home. These students are either in inadequate alternative schools already, or are integrated into the general population where they are making the environment terrible for everyone else. Some people just need extremely intensive help when young, or they’re going to end up dead or in prison otherwise.

      The two of you are right to be skeptical -- I’m not saying there is any such thing as a sure thing here. But I also don’t think that vouchers will lead to the nightmare of inequality that’s being described. Look at the system that already exists -- the middle class finds the best schools by segregating themselves in communities with high real estate values as barriers of entry to the poor. And of course the very rich just put their kids in private school anyway. The geographic segregation widens the class divide far more than vouchers ever could. A truly deregulated voucher system would, I hope, also help integrate students into their communities in a more meaningful way. There are trends in society far beyond education that make this increasingly difficult, but that should be part of the goal. Given how hyper-individualized our society is in most other ways, it seems like it should be not only desirable to achieve the same for education, but very achievable as well.

      Anyway, sorry for rambling a bit at this point. I’m obviously groping for some future educational system that I can’t precisely imagine or describe. I can't imagine real change coming from within the current system, but it may yet happen in ways that none of us could anticipate.

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    66. Thanks, comrades! Couves, you are right, you and I could find large areas of agreement here; I certainly agree that "The geographic segregation widens the class divide far more than vouchers ever could," although I'd add the word "probably" in there until I saw a voucher plan in more detail. I also like the phrase "comprehensive school of last resort," and in addition would want the future arrangements to ensure that a taste and aptitude best developed in early youth -- say, a talent for higher math -- was recognized and allowed to flourish. (I'm guessing the pre-industrial arrangements lost us a lot of potential Leibnizes, because they weren't giving every child a chance to discover math, or literature, or a bunch of other potential interests, some of which you can't necessarily start acquiring with equal success beyond a certain stage of adolescent brain development.) And I would be worried about the future arrangements aiming to be more "practical," because I think that will quickly become code for "more regimented to the needs of late-industrial capitalism," something I know you agree is to be avoided.

      But yeah! As Anastasios suggests, let's dismiss Congress and get to work on it! In a blog thread! That's the future of legislating, no doubt about it. What could possibly go wrong?!

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    67. Jeff, when you talk about your practical educational experience, you sound just like my family members who teach. It's really not hard to find the problems if we just listen more to actual teachers.

      Anyway, back to Couves' World:

      I’m also concerned by the possibility of talented kids getting left behind, but I don’t really think it would be a problem. With informal schooling, students would generally be taught by people who were relatives, family friends or otherwise part of the parents' personal network -- ie, people with a very personal reason to see the student succeed. Add to that greater individualized attention and I think you would have a greater likelihood of finding talent. That’s something parents naturally do anyway. I’ve never met a welfare mom who couldn’t talk at length about the individual talents of all her children. She may be limited in some respects, but very few mothers are completely unaware of the abilities and needs of their children. This was of course the case in pre-industrial society just as well as today. The difference being, back then very few people could afford adequate schooling, or to lose the work provided by children at home. Of course today, free schooling is provided to everyone.

      When you talk about practical experience making students "more regimented to the needs of late-industrial capitalism” -- yea, I don’t want to see ten year olds being led in the “Walmart cheer.” But students who are properly educated early on would be unusually impervious to corporate brainwashing by the time they’re ready to do a little work. No one I’ve met is more independent-minded than someone who was home-schooled and that’s what I see as the model for informal schooling.

      I guess the worst that could happen is that you’d also have formal schools that would specialize in turning out lots of good little corporate drones. And maybe that’s all that some people want for their children -- it’s arguably better than what they’re getting from a lot of public schools today anyway. In any case, the idea would be to have a system that could tailor an education for the aspiring Daves and non-Daves alike

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    68. Couves, I'm very interested in all this and expect we'll be discussing it again; meanwhile, I'll try to get up to speed on Gatto, and I repeat that I think you would find much of interest in this book:

      http://www.gyanpedia.in/Portals/0/Toys%20from%20Trash/Resources/books/goodman.pdf

      Your comment reminds me of lines from the book like this one:

      "Education is a natural community function and occurs inevitably, since the young grow up on the old, towards their activities, and into (or against) their institutions; and the old foster, teach, train, exploit and abuse the young."

      It then goes on to describe what that might mean in practice. Goodman is associated with the left, but is hard to peg; at various times he called his own philosophy "anarchism" and "Neolithic conservatism." To me he represents the importance of breaking free from the standard political categories if you're going to reform education, because we're talking about a nest of interacting problems, some of which are easier to see with our right eyes, as it were, and some with our left eyes. As I think this discussion has demonstrated.

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    69. Thanks Jeff, I’ll definitely take a look at that book. Elements of the left and right often share a sort of humanistic critique of modernity. I don’t think human nature has changed much since the Paleolithic age, but our societies have increasingly lost their human scale. Adults at least have the capacity to find their own space in this world -- for children, adult protection and guidance is essential, but not adequately provided by the current system. This last point is gleaned from Hannah Arendt, who always had something insightful to say about education.

      It’s important to look at the system as a whole and change it to be more flexible in adapting to fit our social and personal needs. Simply applying new educational philosophies, top-down through the hierarchy of professional educators, has a long tradition of failure. One particularly perverse outcome was the application of Ayn Rand’s ideas, which became what’s now known as the self esteem movement (and in some ways the opposite of what Rand had envisioned!). So the goal shouldn’t be to found a system influenced by Arendt any more than a system influenced by Rand, but a system influenced more by the real people who live in it.

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  4. Your evidence of Republicans being disconnected from reality (which I don’t disagree with), is of course subjective. There are neocons who will call Bush’s foreign policy a success. Then there’s the fact that Obama has followed the Bush timetable in Iraq, copied the surge in Afghanistan, greatly expanded the drone war and bombed Libya. If you believe that blowback is real, then you might also believe that Obama has made us much more susceptible to future terrorist attacks. And then there’s the Obama economic policy, which has been little different from Bush’s.

    I liked your final point, that a healthy political system produces “clues,” which give the parties incentive to enact good policy. But the problem is not just that the parties are ignoring these clues, but that they aren’t made in the first place. For example, the true deficit hawks in the GOP have been drowned out by people who don’t want to give another penny to the state. Just as the actual civil libertarians and transparency advocates in the Democratic party are quiet next to the majority that doesn’t want to do anything to jeopardize their party’s hold on power. Parties are always incentivized to get power, but a problem occurs when the incentives for enacting responsible policy just aren’t there.

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  5. I like the point about "this doesn't really fit on a conservative/liberal or moderate/extreme framework all that well." Because I would agree that this problem doesn't fit well into their of those frames, despite the fact that the problems with the GOP are often portrayed as being precisely this. Does anyone have a frame they think might work better? Again I just keep going back to the Max Weber's concept of an "ethic of responsibility" and an "ethic of ultimate ends." Since the GOP is so heavily focused on achieving their goals in term of the "ethic of ultimate ends" they seem to see any sort of responsibility in their policy as impeding doing what they want, so they chuck it out the window, even if that leads to policy disasters.

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    1. The Weberian duality is a tempting one. And yet it's hard to say that the GOP is too fanatical as a party when they can still command 47%, nearly half the vote. Many of their positions and instincts seem entirely out of the mainstream, but the electorate by and large doesn't register it that way in any dramatic way. Isn't one unpleasant truth lurking underneath all this that a large portion of the electorate has embraced (or at least not been repelled by) proclamations of a right-wing "ethic of ultimate ends"? Electorally the GOP has been off its game, but it's hard to say that its really lost contact with the electorate, if one looks at the larger sweep of American history.

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  6. Maybe a distinction to make is between political conservative/liberal as opposing approaches to governing, vs. the declining proportion of the GOP coalition that is conservative in that sense. It seems to me that their Big Tent is overcrowded with theocrats and people who are involved chiefly for personal (mostly monetary) ambition. It's hard to read the GOP 2012 presidential field in any other way, as Jon Huntsman acknowledged.

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  7. The biggest plus I see for the GOP is reaction against `No Change.` The realization that Demockratic reps in power merely means the War Party is more publicly apologetic - while being at least as overbearing and focused on the military industrial complex - leaves protest vote at risk. There is no U.S. `left`...and it is folly to think there is.

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