Jeff’s Newsletter #14

Jeff’s Newsletter, Volume 14

Hey there, readers old and new. If we haven’t talked in awhile (or ever), I’d love to hear from you. Let me know what you’re enjoying about this newsletter, what you’d like to see more of, any suggestions on structure, what you’re reading and thinking about these days. And if you’re a fan, add your friends to the list.

1. Education without end
I am often guilty of a certain reductionism where, if you look close enough, every human ill is really a problem of education. If we need more creative workers, more deliberative citizens, more nurturing parents, or more noble leaders, then surely better schooling is the only way to mold them. At the same time, I try to be mindful of the warning I once encountered in an education reform book: that we have always demanded too much from our school system. We ask it to reduce inequality, build civic consciousness, integrate immigrants, out-perform other nations, and meanwhile do the frontline work of the public health and social services systems. But if this is too much to ask, Paulo Freire, the late Brazilian philosopher, goes several steps further in arguing that education should be, above all, the site of moral and political development. Of course you’ve heard that education should be a lifelong endeavor, but Freire provides a rigorous grounding for this idea in Pedagogy of Freedom. He says the human condition is defined by a “radical unfinishedness.” Because we are unfinished, we are continuously immersed in the process of “becoming oneself” (or, maturing). The fuel for this process of becoming is “ingenuous curiosity”–the intuition that we don’t understand the world. We advance as learners when we recognize our ingenuous curiosity as such and begin to refine it into a self-aware, critical epistemology. I took this point as an argument for why some people fall off the lifelong learning track. Naive curiosity is naturally childlike; if it doesn’t get validated or formalized before adulthood, intellectual complacency will set in and humility drain away.

From these principles, Freire expounds a vision of ethical teaching. He rejects what he calls the “banking model” of filling students with knowledge as so many empty vessels (here, a debt to Rousseau). “To teach is not to transfer knowledge but to create the possibilities for the production or construction of knowledge.” Because the teacher is a human, and unfinished, he or she must be open-minded, prepared to be wrong, and eager to learn from the students as an equal. Most of all, the teacher must realize that “education never can be neutral or indifferent in regard to the reproduction of the dominant ideology.” Politically neutral education produces politically neutered citizens, prepared to accept their roles in society without question. Freire is beloved in progressive education circles, but I’d like to see if anyone argues against his principles, or at least against their practical application. Also, if you know a school with an unusual emphasis on moral or political education, I’d love to hear about it. The Democracy Prep schools may be one example.

2Against monopoly, against antitrust?

Let me share two takes on the issue of monopoly and antitrust law: both thought-provoking, neither fully convincing. On Ezra Klein’s podcast, Tim Wu spoke up for the view that corporate consolidation and corporate power is a major social problem. I agree. His preferred solution is an ad-hoc regime of trust-busting, as he spoke cavalierly about several large companies “we” (he does some work for the FTC) should break up. Klein was, correctly, somewhat horrified at the level of discretion Wu’s approach would grant to the federal government, yes that same government now in the capable, tiny hands of Donald J. Trump. It seems obvious that the companies with the best lobbyists would avoid dismemberment and the enemies of the regime would land on the chopping block. To be fair, lobbyists played a major role in greasing the wheels of corporate consolidation “even” under the Obama administration, as I discussed a few weeks ago re: the U.S. Air / American merger.

Although on opposite sides of the political spectrum, Klein’s concerns and my own align us with Edwin Rockefeller, author of The Antitrust Religion. I am fundamentally opposed to Rockefeller on the role of  big business in society–“We do not need to fear corporate consolidation”–but found myself sympathetic to his complaints about antitrust law. Actually, he argues that there is no coherent thing called antitrust law. There are two foundational statutes, the Sherman Act of 1890 and Clayton Act of 1914, neither of which clarify the key issues: how to distinguish between contracts that “unreasonably constrain trade” and those that don’t; how to distinguish between “willful acquisition of monopoly power” and effective business practice; and how to tell whether a merger may lessen competition. In place of the rule of law, Rockefeller sees the rule of men: capricious regulators, the lobbyists who ply them, and a cabal of antitrust lawyers who revel in the unpredictability of the whole affair. He shows how the government’s attitude toward mergers has vacillated over the decades, from the Warren Court which blocked every major merger for over a decade to the merger frenzy of the late 90s and 2000s. In my view Rockefeller shouldn’t be complaining, since his side has largely won. Starting with Robert Bork’s antitrust revolution, the economistic focus on consumer welfare (which tends to justify consolidation à la Wal-Mart) has trumped all other concerns.

In reading about antitrust, it struck me how much the entire paradigm is concerned with prices, and how they are affected by various forms of corporate organization (e.g. horizontal/vertical integration, etc). But what if prices are not the only important consequence? The Brandeisian critique of monopoly has always been about the harmful effects on small business, on the one hand, and the political system, on the other. I agree with that focus, but I would further argue that even if we restrict our focus to consumers, monopolists engage with consumers not just through price-setting but through data collection. Increasingly, consumer transactions run in two directions: consumer gets a product, corporation gets data. In this setup, the corporation takes on a governance and surveillance function beyond its role as merchant. I’d like to think more about the implications of monopoly on personal privacy and autonomy.

3. In land we trust
Ok, now that I’ve given you the usual critical take on big business, it’s big government’s turn. I’m embarrassed to confront how little I know about the American Indian experience, especially in the modern era. Sometimes it’s nice to jump into a topic from a highly opinionated angle; although you’ll start off with a bias, this strategy can draw your attention to the interesting debates more quickly than a more neutral introduction would. With this justification, at least, I was fascinated to listen to Terry Anderson’s take on the economics of modern American Indian life, on EconTalk. Anderson is a critic of the reservation system, particularly the way in which it falls short of providing real property rights. Reservation land is held in trust by the federal government. While this setup was originally intended to sequester Indians on their land, it is now more optimistically framed as “protecting” the land. In either case, people on reservations cannot be property owners. They can’t get a mortgage, because no bank could seize the land in the case of foreclosure. “We are the highest regulated race in the world,” says a Crow official in this Atlantic article.

Anderson’s preferred path forward would capitalize on the fact that Western reservations are disproportionately located on top of energy reserves: “almost 30 percent of the nation’s coal reserves west of the Mississippi, 50 percent of potential uranium reserves, and 20 percent of known oil and gas reserves—resources worth nearly $1.5 trillion, or $290,000 per tribal member.” From this angle, the Standing Rock Sioux vs. Dakota Access Pipeline saga takes on a dark irony uncomfortable to our liberal sensibility that environmental protection and disadvantaged groups should be on the same side. Anderson points out several other tribes that have managed to gain ownership over their land and profit from leasing pipeline rights or even operating their own oil wells and pipelines. This is a deep, tricky issue! It’s one of the most striking illustrations I’ve seen of the tension between tradition and modernity. How do you balance the prospect of selling out your heritage with the reality that American Indians face the highest poverty rate of any ethnic group? Historically, Americans are collectively responsible for the physical, economic, and apparently legal segregation of Indians. Now, the Trump administration is interested in privatizing energy-rich Indian land. A new low of mistreatment or the first step to rectification? I have little faith in how the details will work out, but must admit I’m more sympathetic to the idea than I would have been last week.

4. Polar vortex
Probably the most intelligent conversation I heard this week was between Ezra Klein and Ta-Nehisi Coates, largely focused on Coates’s Atlantic blockbuster retrospective on the first black president. A theme that really stood out to me–and apparently the subject of Klein’s first book, were he to write it–was the partisan polarization of everything. Klein has been citing this research from Michael Tesler for a few years now which shows how opinions about racial issues became way more polarized during the Obama presidency.

While the divide between Republicans and Democrats on the O.J. Simpson verdict was actually quite slim, something as banal as whether 12 Years a Slave should win an Oscar now splits the parties down the middle. Obama and Trump have both contributed to structuring the two parties along racial lines–Trump deliberately so, Obama simply by existing. But it’s not just race: there was no clear reason why GamerGate should have become a political controversy, or why Republicans’ sentiment about Putin’s Russian should have flipped so strongly in the past few weeks. The sphere of unpolarized topics is precious and rapidly diminishing.

5. When HBR is the best critic of neoliberalism… 
The paragraph of the week comes from an incisive essay in defense of cosmopolitanism (h/t Max):

“While they might sound similar, cosmopolitanism is not the same as globalization. One is a fragile personal attitude, the other is a relentless socio-economic force. One strives to humanize the different, the other to homogenize it. One celebrates curiosity, the other convenience. (Curiosity is often inconvenient.) One is embracing, the other expansive. One is easy to lose, the other hard to stop. Nationalism and globalization are more similar to each other than to cosmopolitanism, that way. And cosmopolitanism is what might help us counter nationalism and humanize globalization, pushing it to be a vehicle of freedom and opportunity for most, not just a privileged few.
That might just be the mission statement I didn’t know I was looking for.

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