With due respect to the Financial Times and Professor Deaton, portraying Angus Deaton as a rugged outsider is utter horse pooh

Ok, let’s get a couple things out of the way: I think Angus Deaton’s work is important. Big fan.

But this piece in the Financial Times had me throwing up at my desk. The big takeaway is that Professor Deaton hates technocratic insiders and thinks of himself as a bit of an outsider, and he “likes Obama” and now “doesn’t have to pretend he likes Hillary.”

There’s just nothing worse than a woman who isn’t liiiiiiikeable. Let’s try something like “I don’t think she’s the leader we need right now.” There. It’s possible to reject a woman’s leadership without making it about whether she was pleasing to you personally.

But to my main problem, nothing says “outsider” like winning the Nobel, having tenure at Princeton, and spending one’s summers flyfishing in Montana. That’s just what happens for everybody.

This is what I mean when I say that this whole dialogue in the US about class is utterly debased, and frankly stupid. The conversation is not about who has wealth or power. It’s who spouts the best bs about being an outsider and shows the right culture war markers (“I go fishing” rather than “I love opera”) rather than who has power, access to power, or in the case of economists like Professor Deaton, who act as privileged consultants to power. Let’s by all means skip the problem that there are PLENTY of genuinely economically disenfranchised people in the academy–adjuncts and many, many low-wage workers all over campuses everywhere. Nope. Let’s think about Deaton’s outsider status because, you know, that way we can avoid thinking about those other people who are actually marginalized.

So Deaton goes on to condemn cold technocrats, but if there is a discipline more implicated in the technocracy than economics, I can’t think of one unless it is engineering. Again, big fan of both professions, mad respect and all, but it’s not like they don’t have a tight grasp on systems of power. But hey! Some of them drink beer and eat pork rinds and go to NASCAR, so…

Today, I shall begin some screwed-up coding

How do I know my coding will be screwed up? Because no matter how carefully I plan, no matter how carefully I structure my conceptual framework, no matter how much I discuss the project ahead of time, my first run through with coding is always screwed up. This isn’t even what I call “drift” or lack of consistency among codes. This is just straight up “I selected the wrong codes” AND because they are the wrong ones, I am using them inconsistently.

If past performance is any indicator, I will go through and code and recode at least three times before I have a coding scheme that I believe, and then I will have to go through at least twice more to get it consistent enough that it passes consistency tests.

Research is harrrrrrrrrrd.

Yes, I give trigger warnings and encourage safe spaces, and anybody who has a problem with that can kiss my butt

I think safe spaces are misnamed. I think we should rename them “Giving Us A Break from Dumb Questions Space.” That’s it. Yes, “there are no dumb questions.” But we all know that’s bull crap to some degree: there are questions that drag down both the pace and discussion of information exchange. Safe spaces are places where students from similar backgrounds facing similar experiences with alienation or oppression from majority culture can be with people who get it instead of *always, perpetually* having to be with people who don’t get it and who ask dumb questions or require explanations about it. Isn’t it nice, sometimes, to be with a group of people with whom you don’t have explain yourself? Now and then? We’re not talking all the time. We’re talking about now and then. One of the nice things about the Lusk Center programming at USC is that we can often just sit around and assume everybody knows how to read applied micro and relatively advanced econometrics. We can start further ahead than if we have to bring others up to speed. See? Nothing sinister about any of it. I assume that my black students at USC–granted that I generally have 1 in every 50 person class–want to hang out with other black students now and then without the rest of us horning in. Is that really so wrong? The College Republicans have private meetings–not every meeting is an open debate with everybody democratically voicing their opinion. No, I don’t think those students are sinister, either. I think they want a place where they can discuss their ideas uninterrupted by newbies and challengers. Bringing along newbies and debating challengers are things that can–and do–happen in other contexts throughout the university. Some advanced courses have prereqs so that you don’t spend all your time catching up people who don’t know the basics.

These moments of sharing and idea development are important to any subgroup with shared identities, value systems, or intellectual projects. It is not, in other words, a big deal, and the people making it into a big deal need to get a real hobby.

Trigger warnings strike me as simple good pedagogy. Anybody who teaches on emotionally difficult subjects knows that emotions play a role, but you have to let students manage themselves and their own comfort levels if they are going to participate or learn at all. And students don’t need to be in class for every discussion. To wit: those of us who teach end-of-life decision-making know–if we are any good at our jobs–that in any given class, there may a student or two for whom this discussion is not abstract. Plenty of young students are fortunate enough to still have their parents; others have watched parents or other loved ones struggle with debilitating conditions or suffer at the end of life. I used to assume that students knew me well enough that I would be cool if they needed to leave a class discussion if it was getting too emotional for them. I learned not to do that. I had assumed it was common sense. It’s not; lots of professors might sanction such behavior. Me? There are lots of places to learn. I’m thrilled to have people with a variety of experiences in the class. But not if their heart is breaking and their colleagues’ grappling with the ideas in the abstract hurts them more. How many of us can learn effectively when all we are trying to do is not cry in front of our peers? Maybe a student *is* ready to have that discussion, and they want to talk about it. Or they think they are, but about halfway through, they find it tough going and need to head out.

Why not just give students the information and freedom to take care of themselves? Yes, they might miss an important opportunity to discuss difficult concepts, but maybe they will take up the reading later, and maybe they know what they need to know already, having learned experientially. Maybe they will talk about the ideas later with a friend in the class they trust. It’s THEIR education, not mine. And while it is nice if a student wants to stay in and speak to others from their experiences, that’s a choice they should make, not me, and they aren’t here to be everybody’s educator. That’s what I get paid for.

These things are true for LOTS of things across the political spectrum. Anybody who sneers at trigger warnings has never looked into the devastated face of a young woman or man in an undergraduate class, trapped in their seat, while everybody else talks about violence like it’s a theoretical concept.

And anybody who thinks this is all just students on the left has never led a discussion about Israel-Palestine. You are very likely, in a cosmopolitan research university like mine, to have students sitting in the *same class* who have had family members die on either or both sides of the conflict. People, no matter what their politics, feel pain, and there are lots of ways of working through it, and it’s wrong for an instructor to be indifferent to the struggles or sorrows (or joys and triumphs) of people sitting in that class, no matter what side they espouse.

As to the idea that we should teach ‘grit’ and whatever, please. Life teaches grit. Life doesn’t magically stop just because a person has gone to college, no matter what FoxNews tells everybody who never went to college. People who go to college still have car accidents, brain cancer, siblings with leukemia, crushing loads of student debt, and lots and lots of other things happen to them. If a student has something happen where the trigger warning is useful, they have coped already. The fact that the student is still upright, going to class, trying to make things work after something devastating happened to them speaks enough to their character. That’s plenty tough enough without the rest of us making it tougher through our indifference or cluelessness.

IOW, I am not a drill sergeant or a sadistic PE teacher, and I am training people to think from many different angles. That’s enough for one course without me assuming I need to be nasty to somebody to build their character.

the wonderful discoveries of used books: Platonist Gregory Vlastos and Classicist G. B. Kerferd

I’m quite a fan of used books, as most friends know, and books in general. But used books are almost always wonderful. I really like it when I encounter a book that somebody has marked up. What did they find interesting? That’s one of the few nice things about reading on the iPad: you can see what becomes a popular mark.

Yesterday, I got a very nice surprise in the mail. I ordered an older book–one I would normally take out from USC’s library–but it was only a few dollars used on Amazon. It was G.B. Kerford’s The Sophistic Movement. It will be a pretty familiar among readers of ancient philosophy because it’s an important book by a distinguished scholar, George Kerford, who passed in 1998.

Here’s a picture of the cover:
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I leafed through it and saw, comrade! A prior owner had scribbled some notes in Greek to annotate the key citations. Here, the reader has filled in a line from Plato’s Lysis (216a).

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I think it’s:

καὶ ἡμῖν εὐθὺς ἄσμενοι ἐπιπηδήσονται οὗτοι οἱ πάσσοφοι ἄνδρες, οἱ ἀντιλογικοί, καὶ ἐρήσονται εἰ οὐκ ἐναντιώτατον ἔχθρα φιλίᾳ;

It’s a bit where Socrates is being particularly irritating and speaking of things through anti-logic: Why, at once these all-accomplished logic-choppers will delightedly pounce on us and ask whether hatred is not the most opposite thing to friendship.

How wonderful, I thought. But then I looked at the front page and found this wonderful inscription.

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It’s an author’s copy that he presented to a friend–in this case, Gregory Vlastos. Now, Vlastos will be a familiar name to classicists and those interested in ancient philosophy, and he wrote some key pieces. One, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, is a key work in modern study. He also wrote one of the seminal pieces on Plato’s justice: Vlastos, G. 1977. The theory of social justice in the polis of plato’s republic . In Vlastos, Interpretations of Plato: A Swarthmore Symposium.

I don’t know for certain that the cribbing in Greek in the margins of my little book, which came to me at random from a small Amazon vendor, came from Vlastos himself–he might have passed along the book to a keen student–but the inscription was enough for me catch my breath and make me smile. I shall treasure my little book and continue thinking about it, written by a scholar in Durham (Kerford) and then inscribed and sent to his colleague, Vlastos, then at Princeton, with his “very kindest regards.”

Ben Carson, his mom (aka The Real MVP), HUD, and management versus leadership

My brilliant (and gracious) colleague Richard Green commented on Ben Carson’s appointment on KPCC. His brother shared this interview on Fboo, and one loudmouth Trump supporter immediately condemned Richard as typical leeeebral…and then had to admit that he hadn’t even bothered listening to what Richard said before jumping in to yell and scream about liberals, and to note that Carson “grew up in the projects so of course he is qualified.”

Way to show us that you, right-winger, epitomize rationality, open-mindedness, and everything wonderful about reason that we damn libs do not.

Carson did not, in fact, come from the projects. Now, the NYT reported this bit about Carson’s life, so it’s a mistake that anybody could make, and he did come from a neighborhood where, to put it mildly, his success was not guaranteed. Richard Green notes this, and says that while Carson’s story is impressive, it’s also exceptional. Not everybody is born as gifted as Dr. Carson, and it’s a bad idea socially to set up systems where only those as gifted as Carson gain skills and flourish. You wind up with much less overall when you let people fail because they are surrounded by barriers to success.

The GOP is fond of doing this: they trot out exceptional people like Condeleeza Rice or Dr. Carson and say “Ha! Proof that blacks can make it in America if they only sacrifice and try.” It’s proof for them that the system rewards merit and the problem resides with the people not the system. But, as Richard suggests, society winds up with much less made of human potential when we expect individuals to tear down all the barriers themselves. (Conservatives say “No, that’s why there are churches” etc))

Beloved colleague Richard, however, misses another rather important point: it sounds like Dr. Carson’s mother was exceptional, too, as in “You the Real MVP, Mom.” She worked three jobs to keep them out of public housing because, I assume, she wanted him to have a different peer group. I have questions about what the difference between ‘the projects’ and his neighborhood really are; it can mean the difference between schools, too, and then we get into a significant Mom-Public Service difference question.

My point, however, stands: Dr. Carson is not the only exceptional individual in this story. It sounds like his mother sacrificed and worked extremely hard for him to have opportunities. Like Abigail Adams, Ms. Carson made some pretty damn big contributions to society with her work raising her boy, and it’s the kind of work that gets rendered invisible and swept away when we focus only on how accomplished Dr. Carson is.

Of all the many contributions that Rawls makes to justice thought, the way he argues that growing up in families that teach good character is also a matter of good fortune (moral luck, to put in Bernard Williams terms) excited me the most. It’s absolutely true that you can pull yourself up in America. I did, to some degree. But it helps–a whole freaking lot–if you get born into a family of people who sacrifice for you and believe in you. Everybody comes into this world naked and helpless, and what greets them when they arrive is a big deal.

As Richard answered in his discussion with public radio, I don’t really know what Trump is thinking, but I have a guess. I think he just likes Ben Carson, and Trump doesn’t see management as a function of expertise at the upper echelons of an organization. Evidence for the fact that Trump likes him: DT was always reaching out and poking and touching him onstage during debates, and as awkward as that was, I think it was Donald Trump being friendly, and DT clearly has trouble with personal boundaries. Evidence for the latter is obvious. Whenever asked about anything that involves details, Trump talks about “his people” or “the guys with the yarmulkes.” “People” fret the technical stuff. Business dudes at the CEO level routinely switch industries. MBAs do not specialize in industries. They specialize by skills set: marketing, management, finance, etc. Trump thinks the folks he’s choosing are good leaders and that makes them qualified enough to be executive officers in agencies.

I don’t know really what Trump is doing, and I think people have been a little too quick to assumed there is a crafty, crafty, wiley strategy behind All Which Trump Does. I do think everything he does with the media is carefully choreographed, but I don’t think there are grand political strategies going on here, except insofar that he is actually listening to Preibus. How much does that matter? I don’t know.

We can get very blunt: the history of cabinet appointments suggests that we can and do have complete idiots as titular leaders and while damage can get done, leadership at the cabinet level is not necessarily about the details. Dr. Carson is not an idiot: he believes some things I think are pretty weird, but he’s clearly not incapable. The question becomes: what kind of expertise ought one have to lead? Not to manage, but to lead? How much of Carson’s new role is leadership versus management? Trump has emphasized the former.

In today’s world, if you think that people should be educated in order to engage in democratic leadership, it’s rather easy to pull out the lazy trope “ELITIST” among knee-jerk whiney types or, dressed up in fancier language, “fascist Neo-Platonist Supporter of Philosopher Kings.” I think it’s fair to say that no, I don’t think being a nonspecialist disqualifies you from democratic leadership. And yet the practicality of specialized public administration goes back a long ways: ancient sources from Egypt and Babylon show a highly sophisticated, hierarchical structure of educated people who reported on up to leaders who didn’t specialize, but who were born into their positions. Plato hardly invented the technocrat, and my read of Plato is that he did note some pretty severe drawbacks of having experts run things.

In other words, we probably don’t need philosopher kings, but it’s genuinely helpful if at least somebody knows something about what’s going on, and it helps a bit if leaders are willing to consider that in the directions they choose to go.

Regardless, what does Ben Carson’s “nearby” knowledge of the projects from 40 years ago really get him? (Maybe he’s younger than that; I am too lazy to look it up.) His advocates say “he never lost touch” with those neighborhoods, but I have questions. I grew up poor in rural Iowa in the 1980s. Do I know rural Iowa now that haven’t been to it in 20+ years? Housing policy has changed a lot during that time, and so have many of the issues that center on public housing in the US. Perhaps Dr. Carson has kept abreast better than I have. What my growing up poor in Iowa and moving on to a successful career has gotten me is that I am a person without a country: my colleagues in the academy, whether they admit to it or not, tend to think that people where I’m from are stupid and backward, and thus whatever poverty occurs there must be the fault of those there, and in turn, the less I speak of my life and experiences there, the better. People from back there hate California and hate academics, and now I’ve lost any and all common sense I ever did have for all that fancy book-learning instead of “the real world”, like somehow I don’t have to pay my bills or deal with cranky, powerful people who can make my life difficult. IOW, neither side thinks I can ever possibly understand anything about anything.

What I do have is empathy for poverty and impatience for those who think there is no social mobility, with an equal amount of impatience with people who think everybody can make it in America if they just try.

Back to Dr. Carson: a lot has happened in housing policy in 40 years, and a lot has happened in housing projects and poverty since then: mass incarceration took some steroids during the time period, for one, and programs that were in place to help his mother, and him, get access to social programs that helped him get where he is, regardless of whether he chooses to acknowledge those or not, and regardless of how great he, personally, is, or how great his mom was. Again, it helps if somebody at least knows a little about what is going on.

My coping mechanism for the next two years: Yes, Minister is available to stream on Amazon

Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne are sorely, sorely missed in the Schweitzer-Miller household. There are multiple television shows of my youth that had great influence on me as a kid growing up as I watched PBS all the time. (Not much else came in all that well.) This show was one of them.

It’s opening, drawn brilliantly by Gerald Scarfe, always emboldens me to make art even if I don’t draw well conventionally.

Me, Thomas Aquinas, and Why I Got No Time for All the “Let’s Understaaaaaaaaaaaaand” Sermons

First of all, understanding voting is hard. I’m not an expert on voting; I gave up on the social science on voting. Why? Because it’s vast, and when I was avidly following that literature, I found very few credible knowables for those outside party affiliations.

But I’ve sat through the last “We just need to understaaaaaaand each other” and “You liberals need to understaaaaaaaand all the pain of the white working class” sermons I am going to.


Look, people, I probably know more about the GOP platform that 90 percent of the people who voted for the GOP. It’s not that I don’t understaaaaaaaaaaaaaand them. It’s that I don’t want what they say they want.

Is that really so wrong? Is lecturing me on my need to underssssstaaaaaaand them ANY different or less patronizing than liberals who think people need to be educated? Is it really impossible to believe that I understand them perfectly well and still just don’t want what they want?

No, it’s not.

It’s not that I didn’t listen or that I don’t read other people’s sides. I do. I just think their policies are the wrong way to go.

So here’s the deal: I am the opposition. You win some elections, you lose some elections. My side lost this time. Ok. But there’s no “oohhhhhh let’s all get along and support the new guy.” I don’t wish him ill; I hope he doesn’t get any horrible disease from his can o’tan, and I also hope nobody tries to hurt him, or heaven forbid succeeds. I’m looking forward to whatever pretty outfits Melania plans to wear to all the tedious things she is going to have to go to now. I admit to some schaudenfreundish tee-heeing at how much less fun being president is going to be than running for president, but hey, maybe he will find hidden depths and wind up liking the job.

But I fervently hope they fail to implement every single thing they promised because I think every single thing PEOTUS has said in the last year, and just about every single thing in the GOP platform, are dumb things to do. I’m not going to help make those things happen. It’s not my duty to support what I consider bad public policy. I dissent. Period.

I don’t have to be a good sport. My side lost. The other side is in charge. They have their turn. They spent 8 years obstructing. That’s what opposition *does.* I didn’t expect the other guys to be *nice* when they were out of power. And they weren’t, in case any of you missed the bit where Charles Grassley and Mitch McConnell hosed the Dems out of a SCOTUS nomination. They had the power to do it, they did it.

That happens in politics. The other team has the ball. Maybe they will prove me wrong and all their policy changes will be wonderful.But I’m not going to help them find out. Not my job. It’s their job now. It’s my job to make their job hard enough that they want to make some deals to win me over. That’s my job now.

For all the liberal guilt everybody wants to drench themselves in, for all the gloating that “teh smug liberalz have been shown a thang or two—horsepoop. I have been scraping conservative social media feeds for 3 years (doing some work on open carry and assumptions about the public sphere) and plenty of these people are JUST as smug, snotty, patronizing, and insufferable as Matt Taibbi or anybody else people want to drub for smugness on the left. People who are convinced they are right about things are annoying, but it’s EVERYWHERE and neither side has a monopoly on asshats. Go look at #leftstupid if you don’t believe me. Ya wanna understaaaaaaaaaaaaand why they think you’re stupid? Because you don’t agree with them, that’s why. And that’s all.

Boy, howdy, deep.

It may be appealing to say that we need to understaaaaaand each other, but it’s also deluded at some point. America is pluralistic, and there are interests that are not going to be reconciled by kumbayah appeals to civil society. For somebody who believes life begins at conception, there is no amount of me explaining my side that is going to move them. We are not going to come together. I don’t think a person who believes that life begins at conception is a monster or an idiot (though, from what I’ve scraped from the web, plenty of those folk think people like me are). I just think they are wrong to put the well-being of what think is basically a group of cells over the well-being of a woman who is already in the world. They think I am wrong to weight these things the other way. I don’t want them to have their way in our collectively governed space. They don’t want me to have my way in our collectively governed space.

I’ve read Aquinas on when life begins and ends. It is remarkable–remarkable–thinking; and plenty of his interlocutors have built very good arguments for why the “at conception” people are right, and I am wrong. I read a big pile of it.

I clocked in the damn hours to understaaaaaaaaand.

But I still think I’m right to come down on the issue where I do, after all that anguished study.

That’s it. We understand each other perfectly fine. We just don’t agree. And that’s what we have to live with. Nothing more, nothing less.

As to the jerkfaces painting swastikas, I understand them, plenty. I don’t know how much of Trump’s coalition they represent; supporters tell me it’s a tiny fraction, teenagers engaging in youthful rebellion, etc etc…but even a tiny fraction is gross. To hell with them. I don’t owe them my time. If one starts choking next to me in Denny’s I’ll do the Heimlich. But beyond that, they can call back for my empathy when they aren’t celebrating a political ideology that killed millions of people. Toleration has limits.