Friday, October 23, 2015

The Benghazi Hearings. Popcorn Time.

I was feeling cruddy yesterday so spent the day in bed watching the hearings until I fell asleep (for sixteen hours and now I'm bright-eyed and bushy-tailed again!).

It was better than a horror movie!  Great fun, indeed.  All Republicans put on their vampire masks and went at Hillary Clinton, all Democrats put on their Superman outfits and defended her.  The contents of the debate, however, were really really stupid crap.

And I'm not saying that because of partisanship.  I very much wanted to understand the complaint the Republicans had.  But it kept shifting, from this person Sidney Blumenthal, to e-mails, to this person Sidney Blumenthal, to absence of e-mails and so on.  Even many conservatives found the questions in the hearings embarrassing.

I missed the last few hours of the hearings (having a Viking-dream instead), so what I leave you with was one round of questioning by Congressman Peter Roskam (R-Illinois):

Representative Peter Roskam, Republican of Illinois, accused Hillary Rodham Clinton of using Libya as an opportunity to burnish her credentials as secretary of state and establish a “Clinton Doctrine.”
In a fiery exchange, Mr. Roskam read a series of emails between Mrs. Clinton and her staff members that he said showed how they were trying to shape the narrative surrounding America’s Libya policy and present Mrs. Clinton in a positive light.
“You were thinking about credit for you, isn’t that right?” said Mr. Roskam, before reading a message from her confidant, Sidney Blumenthal, in which he said that she needed to become the public face of Libya’s political transition.
Mrs. Clinton said that she was proud of the role she had, but that ultimately President Obama made the final decision on Libya. She said it was not unusual for someone in her position to explain foreign policy to the public.
Mr. Roskam disagreed, saying that Mrs. Clinton was being self-serving.
“Let me tell you what I think the Clinton Doctrine is,” he said. “I think it’s where an opportunity is seized to turn progress in Libya into a political win for Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
That part remains etched in my mind because of the viciousness of Mr. Roskam, not because of the obvious question of what all that has to do with whatever the hearings were supposed to be about.  Roskam's voice grated with red-hot hatred, his tone was "J'accuse,"  and his eyes burned with red fire.

It was sooooo good!

Or would have been very good if all this had taken place in Terry Pratchett's fantasy world, Diskworld.  But when it takes place in the country which still is the most powerful in the world, well, you need lots and lots of popcorn to quiet your nervous stomach.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Should Feminism Care About Hillary Clinton Or Other Powerful Women?

Should feminism be at all concerned about rich, white (in the US), educated and relatively powerful women and their problems?   Aren't those women already on the top rungs of the societal power ladders?  Didn't the second wave of feminism mainly benefit them, perhaps at the expense of working class women and women of color ( in the US black women)?  And doesn't all this mean that feminists might spend their effort better than by defending, say, Hillary Clinton when she runs for the US presidency?   After all, she is a woman of privilege.

That paragraph is my attempt to summarize (with a squirt of apple cider vinegar) some of the arguments presented in this National Journal article, about why young feminists might feel ambivalent about Clinton's running or about any powerful women out there (at least white powerful women in the US).  Examples from the article:

Fem­in­ism came to mean something very dif­fer­ent from girl power. And Hil­lary Clin­ton came to look like the sym­bol of an older gen­er­a­tion of wo­men more con­cerned with fe­male em­power­ment—in par­tic­u­lar, with white, middle-class, Amer­ic­an fe­male em­power­ment—than with broad­er is­sues of so­cial and eco­nom­ic justice.


To young wo­men like Sylvie Ed­man, a 20-year-old stu­dent at the Uni­versity of Mas­sachu­setts, Am­h­erst, Clin­ton em­bod­ies “cor­por­ate fem­in­ism,” which Ed­man defines con­cisely: “It’s em­power­ing wo­men who are already power­ful.” Clin­ton and Sheryl Sand­berg, the Face­book COO and au­thor of Lean In, are of­ten name-dropped in this con­text; while they ex­per­i­ence sex­ism, the think­ing goes, they’ve been able to dare greatly be­cause of their race and class—while be­ing helped along the way by work­ing-class wo­men and wo­men of col­or who didn’t have the same op­por­tun­it­ies.


Aye­sha Sid­diqi, the 24-year-old ed­it­or-in-chief of the on­line magazine The New In­quiry, says that this range of con­cerns should be no sur­prise. “Fem­in­ist is­sues,” she says, “are no more com­plic­ated than the is­sues of people’s lives.” But that philo­sophy makes young wo­men’s views of Clin­ton—and her cam­paign’s ef­forts to gal­van­ize them be­hind her—very com­plic­ated in­deed.

The issues I'm grappling in this post are complicated.  They begin with the question what feminism is.  

Is it an activist movement, focusing on social justice,  which needs to define whom it is trying to help first, in order to best use the limited (very limited) resources of money and time the movement has?

Or is it a theoretical way of analyzing the world, taking apart power structures and then putting them back together, using history, psychology, sociology, political science and plain hard thinking to understand how being defined as a woman or a man affects our lives, paying attention to how class, race, age and other characteristics influence those effects?

Or is it both?   Or even an overall ideology, a large box into which someone puts all the concerns about justice and how societies should be organized?  Almost like a religion?

And what about the idea that feminism should be concerned with all oppressed groups, in the way one young woman defines it in the linked article:

The 17-year-old Viqueira and her high school friend stood off to the side in a small lounge, look­ing like they were dressed for a reg­u­lar day of school. They’d taken the train in from Maple­wood, New Jer­sey. “To me, fem­in­ism isn’t only about want­ing equal­ity for all genders,” Viqueira told me later, “but want­ing and ad­voc­at­ing for the equal­ity of all op­pressed groups, which can and do in­ter­sect.”
What happens if some of those oppressed groups really really want to oppress some of the other oppressed groups?  Which oppressed group would then be prioritized?  What is the role of being viewed as a woman in this kind of feminism?

The background to all these questions are the theories of intersectionality on one hand and of kyriarchy on the other.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Market Gods In Education

This post on Eschaton  made me think of the way the market gods are usually worshipped*  among conservatives, except when it comes to education.  There the conservatives look at the  situation cross-eyed, arguing BOTH that the markets should provide the remedy** AND that it's fine to cut teachers' retirement benefits and pay and to demonize teachers with no effect at all on how many people want to become teachers or what the quality of their preparation might be.

But anyone who has taken even one economics course (the most dangerous amount to take, by the way, is one course) knows that if you lower the monetary benefits of a job and also make it psychologically less appealing you are going to get a drop in the numbers of people who want to do it.  That's where we seem to be heading right now.

The expected market response to a drop in the supply of teachers would be a rise in average salaries.  The snag in education markets is that the demand side (those who hire teachers) tends to consist of various public sectors, and when the politicians in power (Republicans, say) refuse to pay teachers enough all sorts of alternative tricks are attempted.  Those includes outsourcing most everything.  Somehow that's supposed to work like a magic pill, creating schools where students are well taught by minimum wage teachers.

To properly write about the markets for education takes more space and time than one post can command.  But as a very short summary, the characteristic of basic education itself*** make it a poor candidate for unregulated private markets and also explain why education is frequently provided in not-for-profit settings.  At the same time, those who plan to work in the field do respond to market initiatives: pay, benefits, hours, reputation etc.

There is no miracle pill which could be force-fed to schools which are in trouble.  Those schools, the ones serving unprivileged children with many problems, need much more resources and attention than other schools.  Indeed, a logical system would pay the teachers in at-risk schools a lot more than the average teacher pay.  -------
*I want to write it with two ps, because it sounds more like adulation that way.

** The remedies, such as charter schools etc., have serious problems when cream-skimming (picking the students most likely to succeed) is a real possibility and when the more expensive students (those with more trouble) can always be returned to the public schools which must accept them. Voucher proposals assume that all parents have the same geographical access to the same spread of school quality.  It also assumes that parents can judge how good the schools are.  Finally, the voucher programs can also suffer from the cream-skimming problem and from the difficulty public schools have in not being able to refuse certain students.

***Some aspects of education which make markets less able to produce good results (especially without that not-for-profit status and government regulation etc.):
-  Many of the benefits from basic education fall not on the students and their families but on the overall society.  That part has a public good aspect, and private markets tend to under-produce those types of benefits.
-  The final quality of education, the "product," if you like, is created in cooperation between the students and the system teaching them.

Because of the intimate involvement of what we'd call "the customers" in the production process of education, it matters that children enter the system with very different preparations, family backgrounds, levels of deprivation and so on.

An apparently good education outcome could be caused by not good teaching but by hand-picking students who have few problems and are well prepared.  Likewise, an apparently poor education outcome could, in fact, disguise great teaching efforts, covered up by the very large prior deficiencies of the students.

These aspects make it hard to judge how good an education a particular institution gives.  To take an example from higher education, sure, Harvard University is a great place to get your degree.  But some part of its greatness surely comes from the way it picks its students.

- Finally, to measure and compare the outputs of educational institutions is very difficult.  That's because ideally we'd need some multi-dimensional indicator which could capture all the relevant before/after changes in a student.  We don't have such an indicator, and almost all the short-run proxy measures (eg. test scores) suffer from being very partial and from being rather easily influenced in ways which might not correlate with the real quality of education we wish to measure. 

Because it is hard to measure the output of education "firms," unscrupulous individuals could exploit that to short-term benefit by funneling money out of the schools or by using money in ways which don't help the actual quality of education.  That risk is somewhat greater in for-profit firms than in not-for-profit firms because the latter don't have shareholders as such.