Talkin’ Bout Our Generation

Ezra is right on the mark here, on why J Street has made an impact earlier American pro-peace groups haven’t:

Being a privileged member of the majority in the most powerful country the world has ever known is a fairly unique experience for Jews. Israel, though hated and vulenrable to terrorist threat, is nevertheless the dominant military power in the Middle East. A history defined by agonizing persecution has given way to a present defined by relative power. But that has, inevitably, changed the relationship young Jews have to both Judaism and Israel. And that’s created substantial concern among older Jews, who sense that the younger generation’s connection to Israel is either slipping or, at the least, becoming something less visceral and recognizable. Just ask my grandfather. J Street — which has always sold itself as a net-oriented enterprise for the Obama generation — inflames that anxiety. My hunch is an examination of AIPAC’s demographics — and even more so its active membership — wouldn’t bar the organization from membership in AARP.

I’m not even sure this is a uniquely Jewish experience. I think it’s fair to say that gentiles of my generation are significantly more critical of Israeli policy than our parents and grandparents, for similar experiential reasons. The Israel my parents grew up with faced Nasser’s coalition, the slaughter in Munich, and a violent nationalist movement aligned with the Soviet Union. The Israel I grew up with bulldozes Palestinian homes, is unthreatened by any neighbors, and has repeatedly disrespected a moderate movement that had offered it significant concessions. It’s easy for someone with the former experience to view Israel as an ally in need of American protection, separate from any personal connection to its mission as a Jewish state. Similarly, it’s easy for someone born in the ’80s or ’90s to view Israel as an incredibly powerful nation that not only doesn’t need America’s help, but could afford to be pushed into a more sensible course of action by Washington. These aren’t identity shifts so much as pragmatic ones, but they result in the same trends Ezra outlines within the Jewish community.

The Conservative Lesson of the Crisis


I think this, from Matt Yglesias, is a crucial point:

The funny thing is that this a pretty Burkean argument. One of the most powerful lessons of the conservative tradition is that sweeping changes can have tremendous unintended consequences, which run the risk of sabotaging the whole enterprise. That happened in the French Revolution, obviously, and I think it’s pretty clear in retrospect that it happened with AFDC as well.

But the changes that can backfire like that need not be government programs. They can also be the elimination of those programs. In throwing out decades worth of regulation for seemingly rational reasons, the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush administrations didn’t grapple with the possibility that those regulations kept the financial system in check in ways that they didn’t fully understand. It’s uncomfortable to say, “We shouldn’t deregulate because these arbitrary rules may know something we don’t”; indeed, it’s one of the things that makes traditional, Burkean conservatism so unappealing to rationalist types.

You could even expand this lesson beyond the realm of government. I’m sure that converting into publicly traded corporations made a tremendous amount of sense to Wall Street executives in the ’80s and ’90s. But they were either unaware or dismissive of the possibility that being able to pawn losses onto shareholders would lead them to grow beyond reason and take risks that they never would have taken as a partnership. So just as I think the crisis should, if we’re lucky, force our government to be more reticent about sweeping deregulatory policies, it should also spur Congress to make it harder for banks to make large changes to their business structure. Requiring banks to be partnerships would be a good start, but it shouldn’t be the end.

Reflections on SEED

I spent the last week, from last Sunday to yesterday morning, with a group of Harvard students at the SEED public boarding school in Southeast DC, teaching and helping out where we could. I am somewhat hesitant about blogging the experience; I certainly won’t use names, not out of a desire to criticize but because I went not as a journalist but as a volunteer, and no one there – all of whom were extraordinarily gracious and giving hosts – would have reasonably expected to be reported upon in a public forum like this blog. But it was an enlightening experience, and it’s worth writing about given the school’s newfound notoriety.

The Teachers: I will never criticize a public school teacher again. Not one. Not after this trip. Institutions are different – I have no apprehensions about debating the relative virtues of the AFT and NEA, Teach for America and the charter movement, and so on. But to choose to work these hours, to grapple with these students, to devote yourself to such grueling labor with such meager pay the way teachers in these districts do – that’s noble. No matter their actual impact, to fail to respect the people who work in the DC public school system, be they in traditional or charter schools, would just be cruel. The emotional toll exacted by dealing with children this disadvantaged, who have been failed by our society so profoundly at such a young age, is just too great to dismiss those who choose to take it on. Forget student performance; that these teachers are able to get up day after day and face that injustice again is impressive enough.

This is all true at a traditional school. But compared to some of the workers at a place like SEED, traditional teachers have luxuries. They have a life outside the school; it’s not much of one, given the time constraints of grading and continued teacher training, but it’s there. And they have a union. No one at SEED is unionized, as with most every charter school, and the mandate is larger. These are not simply academic instructors; especially in the case of the after-school “life skills counselors” (LSCs), they are charged with the social, emotional, and even professional development of their charges. They’re not just held accountable if the students can’t deal with algebra, or fail to conjugate their Spanish verbs. They are ultimately responsible for their students growing up. Even the lowest rung of the totem pole at SEED, the “resident assistants” who live with students at the dorms and monitor them at night, and thus have less interaction with students than LSCs or teachers, have a raw deal. These are generally graduate students or people with full-time day jobs, and they are living in a dorm where they are expected to be up or capable of getting up at all hours of night. How they don’t collapse from exhaustion is beyond me. The turnover rates – which are high despite apparently falling – are anything but surprising.

I don’t think the approach proposed by The Equity Project and others – raise teacher wages dramatically – is the best way to solve this, to keep good teachers going and signal to them that we as taxpayers value their work. The perverse incentive, namely the rapid entry of teachers not as interested in students as in filthy lucre, is too great. But some sort of support mechanism is needed. This is why the KIPP schools’ attempt to stop a unionization movement is so despicable and appalling – the very least teachers in this kind of situation deserve is a union rep. If that union gets a better reward system or those who stay into the teachers’ contract, all the better.

The Students: While by no means advantaged within the context of DC – no parent in Northwest is going to send their kid east of the Anacostia River for school – the kids who get lotteried into SEED have one important thing going for them: they entered the lottery. They have parents who care enough about their children’s education that they took the time to research their options, decide SEED was the best one, and go through the hoops of applying (which are considerable, and involve a week’s stay at the school during the summer). These are parents who won’t let their kids skip school even for family emergencies. Even if it’s a small one, SEED students get a leg up by virtue of having been raised by these parents.

That being said, I saw a number of seventh grade boys who were about four feet tall. That’s 4’0″. In seventh grade. Seventh graders are generally at least twelve years old, and the average twelve-year-old male is 58.5 inches (4’10.5″). The cutoff for the lowest fifth percentile is 54 inches (4’6.5″). Now, is it possible that SEED just got a bunch of outliers, that they just happened to get, out of 40 seventh grade boys, several who were far, far outside the normal height range? Certainly. I haven’t done a rigorous hypothesis test on the question. But it’s more likely that this is the result of years of malnutrition. Now, I had heard the numbers from the Korean peninsula, about how South Korean males are on average four inches taller than those North Koreans who managed to defect and get measured. But that’s in aggregate, and in one of the poorest, most famine-prone nations on Earth. I saw this in America. In the nation’s capitol, no less. It’s a fucking outrage.

I could go on about students’ reactions to the SEED program, about the frequent comparison of the administrator’s system of control to that of prisons and the complaints about being kept away from their communities and even each other. My response varies; the school could afford to allow its students more autonomy, especially in the upper school, and the degree of sex segregation really isn’t defensible, but separating kids from the violence and instability of their home communities is more or less the entire point of SEED, and a policy worth sustaining. But at the end of the day, it’s somewhat irrelevant. The kids get there too late for these things to make that big of a difference. Take, for instance, the most disturbing statistic about SEED, its drop-out rate (what the higher-ups call “declining re-enrollment”; recall the Hitchens quote on the “moral offense of euphemism”). About 80 seventh graders enter every year; 10-25 twelfth graders leave. So when SEED brags about its 98% college enrollment rate, it’s juking the stats. It’s really a 12-31% rate, depending on the year.

It’s not fair to pin that on SEED. By the time they enter as seventh graders, the kids have already been failed, and they’re already far enough behind that it’s only reasonable that they’d want to leave a college prep program, that it’d just be too much. These are kids who didn’t even get enough food as children to grow to a reasonable height; how are they supposed to do well on the SATs? One of the most painful scenes in The Wire‘s fourth season comes when David Parenti, the UMD sociologist proposes studying street kids starting at age 18 and Bunny tells him that he needs to start in the eighth grade if he wants to catch kids before they’re already lost. Well, Bunny was wrong; even the eighth grade’s too late, at least in terms of achievement. We need to catch these kids earlier.

The System: If there’s any overriding lesson here, it’s that last point. There’s a way to catch these kids earlier, of course. It’s called the Scandinavian social model. While the system of all-encompassing, universal support for parents and students through comprehensive day care and preschool programs that Finland has implemented may not transplant perfectly to the US, or scale sufficiently, they sure couldn’t hurt. I have no doubt that if these kids were being read to and taught in day care centers, and had parents who were compensated for their work as caregivers and taken seriously for that work, they would be facing a far smaller gap. And given as we live in a country in which making sure every citizen has access to basic medicine is derided as socialism and watered down by scoundrels like Evan Bayh, I don’t see any system like that being implemented in my lifetime.

Nothing surprised me about this week quite like the nationalistic fervor it instilled. My problem wasn’t just that children were experiencing this tragedy. My problem was that it was being experienced by children in my country, mere miles from the national seat of my government. But if the act of observation offended my hope for national greatness, thinking about what could be done to change the system all but killed that hope entirely. In a humane country, this isn’t even a question. When we have problems as deep as these, inequalities that shock the conscience as much as these do, we correct them. We build the twenty-four hours day-care centers, we disperse the parenting checks, we put aside bickering about teaching evolution or sex-ed and write a national curriculum. But this isn’t a humane country. And so when the stimulus package included $90 billion for education, it was considered “great” for education folks. And it disturbs me to no end that, relatively speaking, that was a great figure. It’s not enough. And it won’t be enough until we get over our bizarre apprehensions about government involvement in education and make some kind of real monetary commitment to leveling the playing field.

Perspective Women’s Issue

The March issue of Perspective is officially online. This is our annual Women, Gender, and Sexuality issue, and I’m really excited and pleased by how it turned out. The pieces are:

  • Tyler Brandon and Lucy Caplan on women’s historical underrepresentation at Harvard. Long story short, it’s kind of a problem.
  • Christian Garland on the decision of Harvard-Radcliffe BGLTSA’s (Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Supporters Alliance) decision to change its name to Harvard College Queer Students and Allies (QSA). This may seem like a minor tweak, but it’s actually a pretty substantive move that follows a lot of discussion within the queer community at Harvard.
  • Martabel Wasserman on sex and privilege on campus. Martabel is the editor-in-chief of H Bomb, the somewhat notorious Harvard sex magazine, and she does a superb job of tying the institutionalized privilege and entitlement of Harvard’s culture to the role of sex and rape on campus.
  • Our staff editorial on the growth of sororities at Harvard. Shockingly enough, we’re not big fans of the Greek system.
  • Madeleine Schwartz’s interview with Sarah Haskins, who entire oeuvre you (a) should have seen by now (b) should go watch immediately if you haven’t. Madeleine asks the hard questions, like where Haskins (class of ’01) has and hasn’t peed at Harvard.
  • Ian Kumekawa on Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s revival of Keynesian economic policy in Australia. Full disclosure: Ian’s my roommate, and there’s a giant, Rasterbated portrait of John Maynard Keynes overlooking my bookcase. Believe it or not, that was Ian’s idea, not mine. Apparently, the Harvard housing people get it right sometimes.
  • The Harvard Salient Drinking Game (which we wrote as a group). Lost in the hubbub over the Douthat piece was the fact that The Salient – the publication in which a lot of the quotes Jesse and I pulled were written – is a pretty thoroughly contemptible institution. It tends to do things like replacing the words “homosexual” and “gay” with “sodomite” in a piece without the author’s permission, or intentionally antagonize the campus Muslim community. The last issue viciously mocked victims of homophobic workplace discrimination. It’s like if The American Spectator and First Things decided to join forces and be more asshole-ish. So, we saw fit to mock them.

    In any case, check it out.

  • High-Yield Housing

    Which is more stereotypically Crimson,

  • The series of residential house reviews that’s running on the paper’s blog, clearly intended to terrify freshmen inform the public, or
  • The fact that they grade the houses using bond ratings (Adams is AAA! Leverett is BBB! Pforzheimer is junk! lolz)?

    Seriously, someone should inform FlyByBlog’s editors that there won’t be bonds by the time we graduate, because there won’t be companies solvent enough to issue them, thanks to the idiotic and incompetent bankers that this godforsaken school has churned out with such relish for decades. Also, they should know that “subprime” isn’t a category below “junk”, and was for the past decade synonymous with “AAA”, thanks to corrupt rating agencies staffed in large part by (you guessed it!) Harvard economics ABs. I really hate this place sometimes.

  • On the Douthat Piece

    I’m glad Ross Douthat is the new conservative on the NY Times op-ed page. I think he’s a tremendously interesting figure, and having a Christian Democrat who supports a robust welfare state at the Times is better for the country than if Andy Rosenthal hired a libertarian like Tyler Cowen or Megan McArdle who would use the post to bash Keynesian principles day in and day out. Hell, I even wrote up a short post for Ezra’s blog on Wednesday, which didn’t end up going up as Ezra was back by the time I finished it, praising the pick.

    That’s the funny thing about the reaction to the piece Jesse and I put up on Campus Progress yesterday. While certainly meant to be critical of Douthat, the point of the piece wasn’t that he’s a bad person or shouldn’t get the job. Indeed, I don’t believe either of those things. The point was that Douthat wrote some silly bordering on offensive things in college.

    That’s not disqualifying, but I do think it’s relevant, and I push back strongly at the suggestion – from Andy Sullivan and Ryan Avent, to pick two people I respect – that posting material from The Salient or The Crimson is somehow low or mean. Some of this material was written seven years ago. If you don’t see anything wrong with attacking, oh, Andy Sullivan for actions taken during his tenure as TNR editor over a decade ago – and lord knows I don’t – I don’t see how more recent comments from Ross are somehow off-limits. I think it’s interesting to know Ross wrote in reaction to 9/11. I think it’s interesting to see what he thought when the Hainan Island incident happened. Are Ross’ comments about Islam on his blog a better indicator of his current views than this piece? Obviously, but that doesn’t mean that 21-year-old Ross’ record should be disappeared.

    Look, college students aren’t children. Teenagers aren’t children. I have been writing this blog since I was 14, with the full knowledge that the material here is pretty permanent. And even with some of the more ridiculous stuff I posted in past years, excuses like “I was just a high school sophomore” are stupid. Yes, I was a sophomore, but I was a sophomore who chose to keep a blog and publish my thoughts for the entire world to see. If I want to repudiate past writing, I should start with an acknowledgement that I am at any moment imperfect and can and do change my opinions on a number of things. My age, or current educational status, isn’t a balm that ought to protect me from criticism. I want to be engaged with as a writer, and that means accepting critiques rather than rejecting them sight-unseen as inappropriate.

    Same goes for Ross. “He was 19” is a lame exculpatory argument, and “he was 21” is lamer still. College students are mature, intellectually capable humans whose viewpoints deserve to be taken seriously rather than dismissed as childish ramblings. And a switch doesn’t magically flip when you graduate college and magically make your opinions acceptable targets of criticism. If Ross today doesn’t think that it’s fair to compare bin Laden to Muhammed – and I sure hope he doesn’t – then he changed his mind. There’s nothing wrong with that, and given his initial opinion it’s a good thing too. But acting all offended that this is even being pointed out, or acting like what Ross wrote at 21 isn’t really part of his journalistic record, is pretty bizarre.