Archive for April, 2012

Manufacturing Stupidity

April 17th, 2012  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Work

I don’t usually write about education. I don’t have any special expertise or knowledge about it, and anyway, fellow Jacobin writers Andrew Hartman and Megan Erickson are on the case. But this story (via Slashdot) touches on some of my more typical themes.

The linked post is written by Rob Krampf, a science educator in Florida who found some serious problems when he was trying to develop practice materials for fifth grade students preparing for the state’s mandatory science test, the FCAT. This is one of those so-called “high stakes tests” which are the idol of the education reform movement and the bane of left-wing education critics, because they are used to dole out financial incentives or penalties to schools. But the trouble with these tests goes beyond the standard criticism of testing-focused education. In the test questions Krampf received from the state, many of the “wrong” answers turned out to be just as correct as the supposedly “right” ones. This led to an exchange with state authorities that should be read in its entirety, for the dark comedy if nothing else. Here, however, is a representative sample from the FCAT:

This sample question offers the following observations, and asks which is scientifically testable.

  1. The petals of red roses are softer than the petals of yellow roses.
  2. The song of a mockingbird is prettier than the song of a cardinal.
  3. Orange blossoms give off a sweeter smell than gardenia flowers.
  4. Sunflowers with larger petals attract more bees than sunflowers with smaller petals.

The document indicates that 4 is the correct answer, but answers 1 and 3 are also scientifically testable.

For answer 1, the Sunshine State Standards list texture as a scientifically testable property in the third grade (SC.3.P.8.3), fourth grade (SC.4.P.8.1), and fifth grade (SC.5.P.8.1), so even the State Standards say it is a scientifically correct answer.

For answer 3, smell is a matter of chemistry. Give a decent chemist the chemical makeup of the scent of two different flowers, and she will be able to tell you which smells sweeter without ever smelling them.

While this question has three correct answers, any student that answered 1 or 3 would be graded as getting the question wrong. Why use scientifically correct “wrong” answers instead of using responses that were actually incorrect? Surely someone on the Content Advisory Committee knew enough science to spot this problem.

I’d just add that you could probably find scientists who’d call 2 a right answer as well (survey a random sample of listeners about the prettiness of birdsongs, and voila…) This would be embarrassing enough if it were merely a sloppy oversight. But when he asked for an explanation of this bad question, Krampf received the following justification:

Christopher Harvey, the Mathematics and Science Coordinator at the Test Development Center told me:

“we need to keep in mind what level of understanding 5th graders are expected to know according to the benchmarks. We cannot assume they would receive instruction beyond what the benchmark states. Regarding #1 – While I don’t disagree with your science, the benchmarks do not address the hardness or softness of rose petals. We cannot assume that a student who receives instruction on hardness of minerals would make the connection to other materials. The Content Advisory committee felt that students would know what flowers were and would view this statement as subjective. Similarly with option 3, students are not going to know what a gas chromatograph is or how it works. How a gas chromatograph works is far beyond a 5th grade understanding and is not covered by the benchmarks. As you stated most Science Supervisors felt that student would not know this property was scientifically testable. The Content Advisory Committee also felt that 5th graders would view this statement as subjective. We cannot assume that student saw a TV show or read an article.”

Here we have the ideology of testing reduced to its fatuous essence. The ritual memorization and regurgitation of a decreed list of “facts” is the paramount value, superseding all other goals of education. We simply “cannot assume” that a student might “receive instruction beyond what the benchmark states”, that they could “make the connection to other materials”, or that they “saw a TV show or read an article.” Not only does the FCAT not assume these things, it actively penalizes them. The test is not merely indifferent but actually hostile to any understanding or learning that happens outside the parameters of the testing regime.

Krampf’s commenters continue to pile on; a reading teacher reports tests full of “bad grammar, incorrect spellings, and questions that simply made no sense”. You might ask what sort of system could produce the kind of pathological rationalization for these errors that I quoted above. Another commenter refers to “a culture of bureaucratic ass-coverage”, which lends credence to David Graeber’s claim, which I discussed the other day, that much of the apparatus of late capitalism has degenerated into a sclerotic order dominated by “political, administrative, and marketing imperatives”.

A slightly different question, though, is what sort of society can tolerate this kind of dysfunctional education system? I’m not a rigorous structural functionalist—that is, I don’t think every social phenomenon can be explained in terms of the role it plays in optimally reproducing the social order. But I’m enough of one to think that as a rule, the behaviors that are encouraged by a society are those that are useful to it, or at least not actively hostile to it. Capitalism is unusually hospitable to sociopathy, for example, because the sociopath approaches the ideal-typical personification of capital itself. Conversely, capitalism is an unfriendly place for those of us who tend to prefer time over money, because this is in tension with capital’s need for ceaseless expansion.

One might think that capitalism requires workers who know how to do and make things, and that therefore our elites would not complacently accept the emergence of Florida’s regime of enforced stupidity through testing. There is a narrative of cultural decline to this effect, still available in both liberal and conservative packaging. According to this lament, America neglects the proper education of its populace at its peril, as we allow ourselves to be eclipsed and out-competed by better-educated, more ambitious hordes from abroad. This is a reassuring argument, in a way, because it presumes broad agreement about the purpose of education: to produce a society full of practically skilled workers, capable of at least enough critical thought to do their jobs.

Critique from the left tends to spend its time condemning models of education that are narrowly focused on the instrumental task of creating a new generation of obedient and productive workers. Megan Erickson’s essay, for instance, worries that under the influence of self-styled reformers, “social studies and music classes are commonly replaced by . . . glorified vocational training”. But a farce like the Florida science exams fails even at this narrow task. A population raised to take the FCAT will be ill-prepared to be either engaged citizens or productive workers. Can the ruling class really be so inept, so incapable of producing the proletariat it requires?

An alternative explanation is the one I’ve explored in my writings on the disappearance of human labor from production—most notably, in “Four Futures”. My analysis of the political economy (recently summarized and seconded by Matt Yglesias) is that we are experiencing a slow transition from a capitalist order in which accumulation is based on the exploitation of labor, into a “rentist” order based on rents accruing to land or intellectual property. Such a society is not, in my view, functionally compatible with the ideals of broadly-distributed critical thinking or practical work skills.

In a rentist order, an increasing percentage of the population becomes superfluous as labor—but they are still necessary as consumers. For reasons of ideological legitimacy and political control, the fiction that everyone must “work” is maintained, but work itself must increasingly be pointless make-work. What kind of populace is suited to this habit of passive consumption and workday drudgery? One that accepts nonsensical and arbitrary rules—whether they are the rules of endless work or endless consumption. Students who learn to answer the questions the testing bureaucracy wants answered, irrespective of their relationship to scientific knowledge or logic, will be well trained to live in this world.

Krampf’s description of the Florida science testing dystopia is a grim vindication of something I wrote in an old post about the Mike Judge movie Idiocracy. I think of that post as kind of a lost chapter in my “rentism” series—I wrote it just after “Anti-Star Trek” and intended it as a follow-up, but it’s been read by orders of magnitude fewer people. I hope you’ll go read that post, but my general critique was that Judge portrayed stupidity as being inherent and genetic, even though the logic of his own movie suggested that stupidity is socially produced.

And mindless, bureaucratized testing is exactly the sort of system fit to produce the citizens of our future idiocracy. The mentality required to correctly answer the questions on the FCAT is a mentality suited to a world of pervasive marketing and advertising, in which reality is reduced to a postmodern nominalism of disconnected slogans. The students who unthinkingly repeat the assertion that smell and texture are not scientifically testable will grow up to confidently inform you that they water their crops with Brawndo—it’s got electrolytes, after all, they’re what plants crave!

Capitalism Against Capitalists

April 4th, 2012  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism

The New York Times brings us once again to Foxconn and China’s manufacturing industry, in a story reporting that “there is a growing shortage of blue-collar workers willing to work in China’s factories”. This, we are told, is “a big factor in the long shifts and workweeks manufacturers have used to meet production quotas.”

The implied model of the labor market here is a strange one indeed. If an important input to production—in this case, workers—is scarce, economic theory suggests that its price will be bid upward. That would mean some combination of higher wages, shorter hours, and better working conditions. Instead, we are supposed to find it logical that a shortage of workers causes bosses to work their employees harder.

In what seems to be something of a pattern in NYT labor reporting, the giveaway line is saved for the last paragraph. “It’s hard to find a good job,” says a young Chinese worker. “It’s easy to find just any job.” The entire story is now revealed to be a slightly more orientalist version of a U.S. media standby, in which capitalists whine about being forced to offer competitive wages and working conditions. Dean Baker never tires of lampooning these stories, which credulous reporters continually trot out as an explanation for high unemployment.

My favorite recent example of this phenomenon was the flurry of coverage surrounding Alabama’s anti-immigrant laws, which had the effect of driving many undocumented workers out of the state. This produced, among other things, a long magazine article about “Why Americans Won’t Do Dirty Jobs”. What we actually learn from the article, however, is why American citizens won’t put up with the kind of working conditions that immigrants without legal protection have no choice but to accept.* And once again, the real story is saved for the final paragraph. There, we meet Michael Maldonado, a young immigrant who has remained in Alabama and gets up at 4:30 to work at a fish processor. “With the business in desperate need of every available hand, it’s not a bad time to test just how much the bosses value his labor”, the article observes. Maldonado himself is well aware of his increased leverage. “If you pay me a little more—just a little more—I will stay working here,” is how he puts it. “Otherwise, I will leave. I will go to work in another state.”

(* Lest I be misconstrued: this does not mean that I think the Alabama law was a good idea. All this story shows is that driving away immigrants can, in fact, create a situation of labor scarcity. Unlike Walter Benn Michaels, I don’t think that’s enough to recommend an anti-immigrant politics. I still think the policy is immoral and inconsistent with a principle of internationalism, because its effects on the labor market come at the expense of Latin American workers who are generally even poorer than their American counterparts.)

All of this is amusing, but it also raises a dilemma for those of us who would like to use labor scarcity as a cudgel to drive high wages and labor-saving innovation, and thereby harness the drive for relative surplus value in the service of increasing productivity and decreasing the burden of work. In order for the increased bargaining power of labor to have its desired effects, capitalists must actually behave the way their economic ideology claims they should—that is, they must respond to incentives, rather than whining about having to pay their workers and demanding that the state guarantee their cheap labor supply.

But it turns out that nobody hates a free market more than the capitalist class. It was Adam Smith who observed that “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” The unwillingness of really existing capitalism to face market competition goes beyond a complacent assumption of the right to cheap labor. It’s at the foundation of Ashwin Parameswaran’s far-reaching account of our current troubles, which he traces to a “system where incumbent corporates do not face competitive pressure to engage in risky exploratory investment.”

This then leads to the troubling (for a radical) notion that the operation of capitalism is too important to be left to the capitalists, and so the workers’ movement must do some of their work for them. This is one of the intriguing ideas that runs through the Italian “workerist” Marxist tradition, and it’s something that always bemused me. For all that operaismo and its descendants have become a hip, ultra-left alternative to staid traditional Marxism in certain circles, one of the tradition’s core claims is that the workers’ movement is historically tasked with rationalizing capitalism, helping Capital to achieve its own destiny. Mario Tronti, in Workers and Capital, puts it like this:

After a partial defeat even following a simple contractual battle, capital is violently pushed to having to come to terms with itself, i.e., to reconsider precisely the quality of its development, to repropose the problem of the relation with the class adversary not in a direct form, but mediated by a type of general initiative which involves the reorganization of the productive process, the restructuring of the market, rationalization at the factory, and the planning of society.

On this reading, a big part of the historical mission of the Left was to make capitalism as revolutionary in reality as it was in its own ideological self-conception. Marx wrote admiringly of the revolutionary élan of the bourgeoisie, which “cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.” But according to Tronti, the capitalist must be dragged kicking and screaming into this revolutionary fervor. Just as Corey Robin argues that right wing political theory borrows from its revolutionary antagonists in its defense of hierarchy, capitalist production adopts radical measures to defend the prerogatives of accumulation, but only in response to working class challenges. Creative destruction is only ignited by the sparks thrown off from class struggle.

The idea that dynamism and innovation must be forced on capitalism from the outside recurs in a different way in David Graeber’s essay for the re-launched Baffler (not online, but the whole issue is worth buying). In a move reminiscent of both Parameswaran and Tyler Cowen, Graeber laments that we are living in an age of technological stagnation, in which “the projected explosion of technological growth everyone was expecting—the moon bases, the robot factories—fail[ed] to happen”. The explanation he proposes is that the wellsprings of invention and creativity have been corporatized and bureaucratized, administered in a away that favors caution over breakthroughs. “[E]ven basic research”, he argues, “now seems to be driven by political, administrative, and marketing imperatives that make it unlikely anything revolutionary will happen.” Academia, meanwhile, has been transformed from “society’s refuge for the eccentric, brilliant, and impractical” into “the domain of professional self-marketers.” Looking back at a bygone age of rapid progress, Graeber—like Tronti—sees a system that had to be forced into innovating by a hostile antagonist; in his account, however, it is the Soviet Union rather than the domestic labor movement that plays the starring role.

Graeber concludes by insisting that capitalism is neither “identical with the market” nor “inimical to bureaucracy”. He implies that capitalism today finds itself where its Soviet twin was a few decades ago—a stagnant, bureaucratized order, incapable of reinvention or reform. He is ultimately a technological optimist—he is careful to distance himself from anti-industrial strains of anarchism—but he insists a break with capitalism must precede a return to technological dynamism:

To of begin setting up domes on Mars, let alone to develop the means to figure out if there are alien civilizations to contact, we’re going to have to figure out a different economic system. Must the new system take the form of some massive new bureaucracy? Why do we assume it must? Only by breaking up existing bureaucratic structures can we begin. And if we’re going to invent robots that will do our laundry and tidy up the kitchen, then we’re going to have to make sure that whatever replaces capitalism is based on a far more egalitarian distribution of wealth and power—one that no longer contains either the super-rich or the desperately poor willing to do their housework. Only then will technology begin to be marshaled toward human needs.

As a long-term vision, I agree with Graeber on this. The question is whether all of these issues can be left for after the revolution, or if there is a more reformist project we can engage with in the meantime. What does it mean if Graeber is right that capitalism tends toward bureaucratic inertia, and Parameswaran is right that our economy is held back by incumbents barring the way to creative destruction, and Tronti is right that it’s the workers who ultimately force innovation on Capital? Maybe it means that until we can get rid of the capitalist class, we have to force them to bend to the forces of the market, rather than cling to their patent monopolies and their God-given right to cheap labor.

Dean Baker argues, in The End of Loser Liberalism, that progressives should reject the notion that they are in favor of regulation while the right is in favor of free markets. He insists that, understood correctly, everything from the defense of Medicare and Social Security to the critique of “free” trade agreements can be understood as part of the project of ensuring that “the logic of the market leads to progressive outcomes”. It’s easy to see this as a kind of rhetorical trick, but maybe it’s just that capitalists can never be trusted to properly run a capitalist society. The great irony of Tronti’s reading of capitalist development is that it’s us anti-capitalist rebels who end up animating the logic of Capital in spite of ourselves—at least until we manage to break that logic altogether.

This perspective also casts the figure of the left neoliberal in a different light. The arguments I’ve described as left-neoliberal rely on certain free market tropes: competition, deregulation, efficiency. But taking such tropes seriously is perhaps more subversive than it appears, since actually existing neoliberal capitalism is not consistently based on any of these principles. It is instead, as David Harvey has said, a project of class power. In another of his essays, “Against Kamikaze Capitalism”, Graeber contends that “Whenever there is a choice between the political goal of undercutting social movements—especially, by convincing everyone there is no viable alternative to the capitalist order—and actually running a viable capitalist order, neoliberalism means always choosing the first.” So perhaps it’s not so surprising to see University of Chicago finance professors attempting to save capitalism from the capitalists, while two other mainstream economists express their hope that it will be Occupy Wall Street that ultimately helps save capitalism from itself.