Explain Your Extremists

No matter how controversial your political views are, there are always people on “your side” who hold a more extreme position than you do.  How do you account for such people?

Top scenarios:

1. The extremists are actually right, but their proposals are “politically impossible.”  It’s better to ask for half a loaf and get it than demand a totally unattainable whole loaf.

2. The extremists are actually right, but their proposals are politically unstable.  Even if the extremists prevailed in the short-run, the long-run effect would be a mighty backlash, leading to a crushing defeat for your side.  It’s better to ask for half a loaf that you can actually keep than demand a whole loaf that will soon be confiscated.

3. The extremists would be right, except that foolish and/or knavish resistance to their proposals would be extremely costly.  As a result, it’s better to pursue your more moderate approach, which is inferior in principle but elicits less strident opposition.  It’s better to peacefully obtain half a loaf than to fight a bloody battle for a whole loaf.

4. The extremists are wrong because they take a good idea too far.  A moderate move in your preferred direction makes the world better; an extreme move, however, makes it worse.  It’s better to eat half a loaf and remain at a healthy body weight than to eat a whole loaf and become morbidly obese.

5. The extremists are wrong because they take your side’s rhetoric too literally.  Yes, moderates like you often exaggerate and oversimplify, but you know you’re doing it.  Your extremists, in contrast, naively believe your side’s exaggerations and oversimplifications, leading them to advocate ineffective or even dangerous policies.  Just because your slogan loudly proclaims that “Bread is the staff of life” doesn’t mean you should follow an all-bread diet.

6. The extremists are wrong because they fail to grasp the intellectually sophisticated position held by moderates such as yourself.  If they would just patiently listen, they’d discover the intricacies of your worldview.  Alas, they rarely bother.  Thus, you derive the value of a half a loaf of bread from a detailed examination of human nutritional requirements – and the extremists childishly fixate on getting “all the bread.”

The meta-point, naturally, is that there are also always people on your side more moderate than yourself.  So when you dismiss your extremists, you really should wonder: How confident am I that people more moderate than myself couldn’t rightfully dismiss me?

All of which leads to three questions for discussion:

1. Where do your extremists go wrong?

2. Where would your moderates say that you go wrong?

3. What makes you think you’ve discovered your side’s “Golden Mean”?

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Controlled Choice Isn’t School Choice

I recently heard the term “libertarian paternalism.” It was presented in an article about health care, specifically doctor-patient relationships, as a strategy for helping patients choose among the various best options the doctor recommends. There were many good points in this article about personalizing medicine, but that term made me cringe. Taken literally, “libertarian paternalism” means the free will to select among the choices that some authority figure determines is in your best interest. I don’t like this term, mainly because it’s an oxymoron. The dictionary definition of “libertarian” is a person who believes in the doctrine of free will. To add a caveat that limits free will to options chosen by some allegedly omniscient actor rubs me the wrong way. And yet, we see this contradictory and demeaning idea enacted in many areas of life, especially education.

The comparable term in education is “controlled choice,” or the idea that someone will pre-select among the best options and then allow an end-user (e.g., a student or a family) to choose from among those established options. At the student level, controlled choice might look like a teacher announcing a unit on US presidents and then letting the learner pick which one to research. Central planning, even when seemingly well-thought-out and with good intentions, ultimately restricts free will.Or it could look like a lesson on mammals in which a teacher allows the child to pick the elephant group, the bat group, or the whale group. In this environment, the teacher (or curriculum developer) decides what the child will learn but allows the child some discretion. It’s a lot like reading a choose-your-own-ending book: It can make the story more enjoyable, but only if you are interested in the overall theme. We can contrast controlled choice at the learner level with self-directed education in which the child is fully in control of what, how, when, and with whom she learns.

At the macro level, controlled choice manifests in policies that allow families some degree of choice over their assigned district school, as long as it meets a district’s overall enrollment distribution goals. My city, Cambridge, Massachusetts, was one of the first to enact this type of controlled choice program in 1981 as a way to let families choose among the city’s various public elementary schools through a ranking system, as long as each school met its preferred socioeconomic distribution quota. The goal was economic integration and improved academic performance, particularly for disadvantaged students, while retaining some choice beyond a zipcode school assignment.

Controlled Choice Programs Results

But new research reveals that controlled choice programs in many urban districts have not achieved their intended goals of socioeconomic integration or the narrowing of achievement gaps between high- and low-income students. An in-depth analysis by David Armor of the Cato Institute finds that not only were intended goals not reached but also that unintended consequences, including “white flight,” were widespread in controlled choice districts. Armor concludes:

Most larger school districts that have implemented controlled-choice plans have experienced (or are experiencing) demographic changes like those experienced during race-based busing, meaning the loss (or “flight”) of white and middle-class families. Moreover, there is ample evidence that economic diversity is not producing academic benefits for poor children in these districts. In other words, controlled choice can bring much pain and controversy for little or no educational gains, at least as measured by test scores.

Central planning, even when seemingly well-thought-out and with good intentions, ultimately restricts free will. Concerned that when given real freedom individuals will make the wrong choice, those with power often seek to limit—or control—choice. It is true that freedom means the freedom to make bad choices, but that isn’t a compelling reason to curb one’s freedom to choose. It’s also important to note that what constitutes a “bad choice” is subjective. Individual freedom means toleration of individual choices. As the Nobel prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek wrote in The Constitution of Liberty:

What is im­portant is not what freedom I per­sonally would like to exercise but what freedom some person may need in order to do things bene­ficial to society. This freedom we can assure to the unknown person only by giving it to all.

Hayek goes on to say that the essence of real freedom is humility. He wrote:

All political theories assume, of course, that most individuals are very ignorant. Those who plead for liberty differ from the rest in that they include among the ignorant themselves as well as the wisest.

Controlled choice, libertarian paternalism, or any number of similarly discrepant terms suggest that appointed wise ones should have the power and influence to coerce others through policy or decree. Those of us who truly believe in the doctrine of free will should recoil at attempts to add qualifiers to its promise.

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Trump’s Course Correction on E-Cigarettes: Great Idea, No Matter His Reasons

Annie Karni, Maggie Haberman, and Sheila Kaplan  of the New York Times describe US president Donald Trump’s proposed ban on flavored e-cigarette products as “a swift and bold reaction to a growing public health crisis affecting teenagers” that Trump backed away from “under pressure from his political advisers and lobbyists to factor in the potential pushback from his supporters.”

Maybe they’re right about Trump’s motivations, but they’re wrong about pretty much everything else.

E-cigarettes are not a “public health crisis.” That supposed crisis is not “growing.” And to the extent that teenagers are negatively affected by e-cigarettes, the very “bold reactions” the three writers seem to favor are far more culpable than e-cigarettes themselves.

E-cigarettes are, according to all credible evidence, safer than burning sticks of tobacco — sorry, FDA, you don’t get to tell me I can’t say so.

A few cases of lung injury from black market “street vapes” have been reported, the cause (use of vitamin E in the “juice”) seems to have been identified, and that problem is already disappearing in the rear-view mirror.

Who buys “street vapes?” People who can’t buy the e-cigarette products they want legally, either because of content (cannabis) or age (the teenagers the Times authors imply they care about so much).

Banning flavored e-cigarette products wouldn’t stop teenagers, or anyone else, from getting flavored e-cigarette products. It would just send even more of them to the “street vape” market for those products.

If Trump reconsidered his proposed ban due to political pressure and the desire to be re-elected, so what? A good decision is a good decision.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once told a group of lobbyists, who were pushing a policy change at him, “Okay, you’ve convinced me. Now go out and bring pressure on me.”

That’s how politics works. Politicians  appease voters and activist groups who can help or harm their careers. Sometimes that works out well for the public, sometimes it works out badly.

In this case it works out well — certainly for the public, and possibly for Trump. Much of the “I Vape and I Vote” demographic presumably falls outside his existing electoral “base,” and for at least some the issue matters enough to swing their votes.

Now Trump’s Democratic opponents need to decide which they value more: Their desire to run everyone’s lives at the expense of actual public health, or that public health and those votes.

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Outschool.com Takes Education Out Of Schooling

Supporting education beyond schooling is a key feature of many educational technology platforms. While some may be integrated into conventional classrooms, complementing a traditional curriculum, emerging technology is increasingly helping to separate education from schooling and catalyze new models of K-12 learning. As its name implies, Outschool.com is focused on out-of-school learning that helps families and organizations to access high-quality content in an array of subjects. Its flexibility and variety engage learners around the world and facilitate the expansion of new learning communities outside of standard schooling.

Instructors choose to share their knowledge and passions, and they are publicly rated by participants, offering transparency and accountability.

Founded by Amir Nathoo in 2015, Outschool now offers over 10,000 live, video-enabled classes for young people ages three to 18. Connecting online in small groups with dynamic instructors, learners select content ranging from typical academic subjects to more adventurous classes such as pet trick training, forensic science, engineering with Minecraft, and wilderness survival skills.

Prices vary by topic and course length, but the introductory wilderness survival class, for example, costs $45 for a total of three, 45-minute classes. Instructors choose to join Outschool to share their knowledge and passions, and they are publicly rated by participants, offering transparency and accountability. They undergo background checks and are then free to offer whatever courses interest them while catering to learner, and parent, demand. Teachers set their own prices and Outschool takes 30 percent of the enrollment fee.

Supporting Passion-Driven Learning

Trained as an engineer, Nathoo’s inspiration for launching Outschool was tied to his own childhood experiences.

My parents were both teachers and although I had an amazing standard education in the U.K., my most impactful learning happened outside of school,

he says. In the early 1980s, Nathoo’s parents bought him a computer, a BBC Micro, and he spent hours tinkering with it. “They gave me unlimited screen time,” recalls Nathoo. “I loved playing computer games and I became inspired to try creating games myself.”

Spotting their son’s burgeoning passion for computers, Nathoo’s parents found a retired economics professor who liked computer science and offered to mentor Nathoo. “That learning experience based on my interests has turned into a career in technology,” he says.

When I think of the skills and learning that I use today, so much of that happens outside of school. Being a technologist and an entrepreneur, it’s always been my idea to apply technology to enable more of the out-of-school learning that has been so valuable to me.

Prior to starting San Francisco-based Outschool, Nathoo worked as a project lead for Square, the payment processing company. He was intrigued by how technology-driven marketplace models such as Airbnb, Lyft, and Etsy revolutionized entire industries, and he was dissatisfied that the same level of transformation was not occurring in education.

As Nathoo began to create the Outschool digital platform, he was intentionally looking for models outside of the existing education system. “The real lightbulb moment came when I learned more about homeschooling,” says Nathoo. He was introduced to this type of education from a San Francisco friend who was homeschooling her children. “There are a bunch of presumptions about homeschooling that I really didn’t see among the homeschoolers in the Bay Area,” says Nathoo.

I found that there was this group of people customizing and curating their kids’ learning and giving them a lot more freedom than they would typically have. And they were doing it socially, hiring teachers, forming groups and creating a much more dynamic style of learner-directed education. To me, this looked like the future.

Nathoo realized that this was the learner-directed education model outside of schooling that he was seeking to support and scale. The path forward became clear: create a product that served this existing audience, build a business around it and then use this business to make the ideas of learner-directed education mainstream.

I had the belief that once other parents had seen the power of this model, at first after school and on weekends, we could cause a big change in how people saw kids learning,

he says.

Global Reach, Local Impact

With a product plan, bold vision and seed capital from Y Combinator and others in 2016, Nathoo and his team built the Outschool platform and launched the first Outschool class in 2017. Since then, more than 60,000 learners worldwide have attended Outschool classes.

During his initial days incubating the Outschool idea within California homeschooling networks, Nathoo contacted Julie Schiffman who had been actively homeschooling her children for years and was very involved in the local homeschooling community. A former public school special education teacher, Schiffman left teaching because she was distraught by what she saw as a widespread practice of over-labeling and over-medicating many children with disabilities while offering limited support to children with serious emotional and behavioral disorders.

Nathoo’s vision is to make interest-based, learner-directed education a mainstream option for many more young people.

“It was insanely depressing and I had to leave the profession altogether in order to preserve my health,” says Schiffman. She began wondering how she could help to fix the problems of conventional schooling. At first, she believed that change could come from within the system, but after she started researching alternative education models, like homeschooling, she became convinced that lasting change would need to come from outside the system, by embracing and helping to expand new and better models of education.

When Nathoo called Schiffman on the phone one day in 2015 to tell her about his Outschool idea, she was spellbound. “I had to literally sit down and stable myself,” Schiffman recalls. “I fully recognized from the moment he told me what he was working on that this was the education revolution.” Schiffman’s children have used Outschool for some of their interest-based learning, including classes on building their own YouTube channels and video-editing. The relevant content and global reach mean that learners frequently take classes with peers and instructors all over the world, often retaining connections long after a class ends.

Outschool continues to expand, raising $8.5 million in Series A funding from Union Square Ventures and Reach Capital earlier this year. Nathoo expects Outschool’s digital platform to grow quickly, but he is also focused on helping to support co-learning communities, micro-schools, and other experimental education models.

Our goal is to provide a service to these types of in-person learning centers so that the kids there can get access to teachers and content to pursue their interests and to fulfill their learning goals.

Schiffman is in the process of opening one of these in-person community centers in Marin County, California, where she plans to rent out space to various instructors and vendors offering a host of different classes. She has been getting advice from Nathoo on how to make her community learning model, known as Home Base, scalable and replicable, with the aim of growing to multiple locations within the next two years. Nathoo explains how Outschool can help:

Local learning centers can focus on providing a great, local, social environment while not worrying about content, and kids can access far more teachers and content globally through this combination of online and in-person learning.

Ultimately, Nathoo’s vision is to make interest-based, learner-directed education a mainstream option for many more young people. He wants more children to have the opportunity he did to pursue passions outside of a conventional classroom that can ultimately lead to fulfilling lives and livelihoods. Now as a parent himself, Nathoo can relate even more personally to what parents want for their children’s education and well-being. He says:

When parents realize that letting kids pursue their interests is a way to get them excited about learning and is a better way to help their kids thrive in the world, that’s really powerful to see.

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Messaging as Manslaughter: Massachusetts Modernizes the Salem Witch Trials

In July of 2014, 18-year-old Conrad Roy killed himself in Fairhaven, Massachusetts by pumping carbon monoxide into the cab of his truck. In a bench trial, a judge convicted Roy’s 17-year-old girlfriend, Michelle Carter, of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced her to 2 1/2 years in prison.

In May of 2019, 22-year-old Alexander Urtula killed himself in Boston, Massachusetts by jumping from the top of a parking garage. His 21-year-old girlfriend, Inyoung You, has likewise been charged with involuntary manslaughter.

In both cases, the charges hinge on the content of text messages in which the women encouraged, even “ordered,” the men to commit suicide.

You is a South Korean national who has since returned home. The treaty governing extradition between the US and South Korea requires that the charge involved “be recognized as a crime in both jurisdictions,” so unless text messaging is illegal in South Korea, You may avoid playing her part in yet another re-enactment of the Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693.

Text messaging isn’t manslaughter, any more than it’s rape, robbery, or driving 60 miles per hour in a 50 mile per hour zone. Nor is possession of a doll or a mole or birthmark “witchcraft” as fantasized in 17th century Puritan New England.

Hanging 19 men and women for witchcraft, and crushing another man to death for refusing to plead to charges of witchcraft, didn’t bring an end to imagined “molestations from the invisible world.” It merely sated an outbreak of mass hysteria.

Imprisoning Michelle Carter or Inyoung You for sending text messages may sate the desire of a few families for retribution. It may advance the political careers of a few grandstanding prosecutors.

It won’t  bring back Conrad Roy or Alexander Urtula, nor will it erase the irrefutable truth: These two adults knowingly and intentionally took their own lives.

Are Michelle Carter and Inyoung You “bad people?” Maybe they are.

Are they (or at least were they) controlling and psychologically abusive? It seems likely, and their relationships with Roy and Urtula were obviously mentally and emotionally unhealthy on both sides.

Not everyone who’s broken can be fixed before something awful occurs. Sometimes horrible things happen, and we’re left looking for answers as to why, and for ways to prevent the next such tragedy.

Imprisoning people for text messaging is not one of the right answers. It merely compounds tragedy with error, with evil, and with comforting lies, at the expense of additional victims.

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Roderick Long on the Plight of the Worker

In response to my Nickel and Dimed posts, my old friend Roderick Long referred me to his original review of the book.  Highlights of Rod’s review:

Ehrenreich went “undercover” to document the lives of the working poor and the Kafkaesque maze of obstacles they face: the grindingly low wages; the desperate scramble to make ends meet; the perpetual uncertainty; the surreal, pseudo-scientific job application process; the arbitrary and humiliating petty chickenshit tyrannies of employers; the techniques of intimidation and normalisation; the mandatory time-wasting; the indifference to employee health; the unpredictably changing work schedules, making it impossible to hold a second job; etc., etc.

None of this was news to me; I’ve lived the life she describes, and she captures it quite well. But it might well be news to those on the right who heroise the managerial class and imagine that the main causes of poverty are laziness and welfare.

Of course the book has its flaws…

But Ehrenreich’s misguided diagnoses and prescriptions occupy at most a tenth of the book. The bulk of the book is devoted to a description of the problems, and there’s nothing sneerworthy about that. And libertarians will win few supporters so long as they continue to give the impression of regarding the problems Ehrenreich describes as unimportant or non-existent. If you’re desperately ill, and Physician A offers a snake-oil remedy while Physician B merely snaps, “stop whining!” and offers nothing, Physician A will win every time.

Rod’s solutions:

First: eliminate state intervention, which predictably works to benefit the politically-connected, not the poor. As I like to say, libertarianism is the proletarian revolution. Without all the taxes, fees, licenses, and regulations that disproportionately burden the poor, it would be much easier for them to start their own businesses rather than working for others. As for those who do still work for others, in the dynamically expanding economy that a rollback of state violence would bring, employers would have to compete much more vigorously for workers, thus making it much harder for employers to treat workers like crap…

Second: build worker solidarity. On the one hand, this means formal organisation, including unionisation – but I’m not talking about the prevailing model of “business unions,” conspiring to exclude lower-wage workers and jockeying for partnership with the corporate/government elite, but real unions, the old-fashioned kind, committed to the working class and not just union members, and interested in worker autonomy, not government patronage.

I’ve had similar debates with Rod before, but I still can’t resist responding.  Verily, I do “heroise” the managerial class.  And at least in the First World, I do think that irresponsible behavior (partly fueled by the welfare state) is the main cause of severe poverty.  Specifically:

1. Management quality is vital for productivity – and measured management quality really is high in First World countries.  Contrary to stereotypes, poor countries have very little big business. Instead, their economies are dominated by “informality” and self-employment.  So yes, I am most grateful to managers for doing their jobs – especially given all the abuse that intellectuals and activists have heaped upon them.

2. In rich countries, non-work is the main cause of severe poverty.  A small percentage of non-workers are seriously disabled or genuinely can’t find a job.  The overwhelming reason for non-work, though, is behavior that intuitively seems highly irresponsible.  Such as?  Not searching for a job.  Not showing up for work on time – or at all.  Having impulsive sex.  Committing crimes.   Sloth (“laziness”) is one poverty-inducing vice, but don’t forget lust and wrath.

3. There are, of course, many full-time workers who – like Ehrenreich and most of her co-workers – end up moderately poor.  How is this possible?  I endorse the standard economic explanation: low-paid workers are, on average, low-skilled.  Since they aren’t very productive, employers don’t bid much for their services.

4. Why, though, do low-skilled workers endure such unpleasant working conditions?  Again, I endorse the standard economic explanation: making work more pleasant costs money – and low-income workers don’t want to take a pay cut to get more pleasant working conditions.

5. Rod apparently rejects both textbook stories.  Instead, he blames the government for using “taxes, fees, licenses, and regulations” to prevent the poor from “starting their own businesses rather than working for others.”  While I would be happy to see “taxes, fees, licenses, and regulations” go away, I’m afraid there’s little reason to think this would sharply increase the poor’s rates of self-employment or small business ownership.  Why not?  Because  it’s far from clear that regulation on net penalizes small businesses relative to big businesses.  Yes, some regulations impose fixed costs, which discourage small business and self-employment.  However, many regulations specifically exempt small business.  Furthermore, it is much easier for small business to evade regulation.  I wouldn’t be shocked if self-employment and small business became somewhat bigger under laissez-faire, but Rod’s confidence that this effect would be big is wishful thinking.

6. I totally agree with Rod’s view that government hurts the poor by suppressing economic growth.  Because government hurts almost everyone by suppressing economic growth.

7. I’m honestly puzzled by Rod’s desire to see the poor start their own businesses.  Romantic thinking aside, most people lack the competence for self-employment. With or without regulation, it’s incredibly hard.  I get that Rod has seen the ugly side of low-skilled employment first-hand.  But what about the ugly side of low-skilled self-employment?  Instead of bosses mistreating you, you’re mistreated directly by customers.  If you can actually get some customers, which is like pulling teeth.  Imagine how bleak Ehrenreich’s book would have been if, instead of trying to find a bunch of low-skilled jobs, she tried to found a bunch of low-skilled businesses!  Without her savings, she probably would have ended up homeless.

8. I’m even more puzzled by Rod’s desire to “build worker solidarity” and support for unions.  The standard economic story says that unions are labor cartels; they improve wages and working conditions for members at the expense of other workers and the rest of society.  While I’ll defend the legality of unions on libertarian grounds, they’re nothing to celebrate.  The best I can say is that without government help, very few people will belong to unions.  Indeed, even with hefty pro-union regulations on their side, private sector unions have almost disappeared in the U.S.  But isn’t solidarity nice?  Not solidarity with large, unselective groups like “workers” – and not when you build solidarity by scapegoating employers as exploiters and managers as bullies.

9. General observation: If you know a little social science and a lot of libertarianism, Rod Long’s story sounds great.  If you want to sell libertarianism to leftists, his approach is plausibly more persuasive than mine.  Alas, if you take the time to learn more social science, Rod’s story isn’t tenable.

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