Counterfactual Identity Swap

My favorite genre of takes is the Counterfactual Identity Swap (CIS). The way the CIS works is you take an event in the news and you speculate on what the event would be like if the identity of the actors involved were different. Unsurprisingly, the CIS always proves that the take-maker is correct about whatever their point is.

You can find CIS examples for almost any news event. Liberals and conservatives equally enjoy it.

When a problematic event involves an identity group conservatives have some sympathy for, conservatives either stay quiet about it, offer qualified support, or blame its happening on provocative liberal antics. Liberals then flood the channels with CIS takes and ask what would happen if the actors in the problematic event were an identity group conservatives do not have sympathy for. The big counterfactual identity groups used by liberals in current CIS takes are Muslims and blacks.

Likewise, when a problematic event involves an identity group liberals have some sympathy for, liberals either stay quiet about it, offer qualified support, or blame its happening on provocative conservative antics. Conservatives then give us the CIS takes, usually involving Christians, whites, or those who hold certain conservative views.

What’s so incredible about CIS takes is that the existence of them actually proves the point being made by them (at least as the point pertains to discursive responses). It really is the case that if [problematic event done by liberal-favored group] was [problematic event done by conservative-favored group], the perspectives and reactions of liberals and conservatives would completely flip. Conservative CIS takes would be replaced by liberal CIS takes. And liberal sympathy and qualified support would be replaced by conservative sympathy and qualified support.

What’s also incredible about CIS takes is that their speculative nature makes them almost entirely impossible to disprove (as it pertains to non-discursive responses). The Oregon militia situation is a great example of this. Since the Oregon militia people are a conservative-favored group, the channels have been deluged with liberal CIS takes. The most popular one seems to be that the response to a takeover of federal property like this from a nonwhite group would not be met the same way, but instead would be met with immediate overwhelming force.

But we actually have historical examples of nonwhite groups doing this that are directly on point. For example, in 1971, the American Indian Movement took over Alcatraz Island and held it for 19 months. The occupation ended after the government laid siege to the island and the thing more or less collapsed. Yet, despite actually having a nonwhite comparator for this fairly rare event, the liberal CIS takes will discount it as not on point enough and therefore not adequately instructive. Since you cannot literally rerun the Oregon militia thing with nonwhite actors, nothing will ever be able to adequately prove or disprove the liberal CIS take, and so it will flourish as a perfectly unassailable flatterer of priors.

As fun as CIS takes are, they do suffer from one main problem. The core of a CIS take is an accusation of hypothetical hypocrisy. I must admit that I don’t understand why accusing a phantom opponent of hypothetical hypocrisy gets people real excited. But worse than that, the CIS takes don’t really demonstrate any hypothetical hypocrisy is present. The reality is people don’t actually care that much one way or another about the form of some protest action. They only care about who is doing it and why. Thus they are perfectly consistent in how they approach protest actions: favoring them when done by people and for reasons they like and disfavoring them when done by people and for reasons they dislike.

Are Students Workers or Nonworkers?

I’ve been saying for some time now that, if the Left is going to push for more student benefits, it needs to do so under a pro-welfare banner, something it has not really done. My piece in Dissent on this topic features my latest rehash of this point:

If we are actually going to push a free college agenda, it should not be under a restrictive students’ rights banner, but instead under a general pro-welfare banner. The goal of free college should not be to help students per se, but instead to bind them to a broader welfare benefit system. By presenting their tuition subsidies and living grants as indistinguishable from benefits for the disabled, the poor, the elderly, and so on, it may be possible to encourage wealthier students to support the welfare state and to undermine students’ future claims of entitlement to the high incomes that college graduates so often receive. After all, the college income premium would only be possible through the welfare benefits to which the rest of society—including those who never went to college—has contributed.

Lately I’ve been trying to think of pithier ways to make this point and I think I’ve finally hit upon one.

In leftists arguments for free college, you frequently see arguments that cast students as workers. They go to class. They read. They study. They exert themselves in ways that are productive, at least in some sense of that word. The upshot of this worker description is that college students are involved in unpaid labor and that student benefits are actually necessary to pay students for what they do.

In my view, this framing has it entirely backwards. If you are going to argue for student benefits, you should not do so on the grounds that students are workers, but rather on the grounds that students are nonworkers. That is, instead of rhetorically grouping them with the workforce and justifying their entitlement as quasi-paychecks, they should be grouped with other nonworkers receiving social benefits like the elderly, the disabled, and the unemployed. The argument should be that all people whose life circumstances make it difficult or impossible to work should be receiving generous welfare benefits, including students.

The impulse to justify student benefits as earned benefits (either because students are virtuous people who are making something of themselves or because students are literally doing labor) is the one I find so problematic about the community of student benefit campaigners. This impulse and the rhetoric it generates does nothing to bind student benefits (and their recipients) to a broader welfare state agenda and thus seemingly fails to secure the welfare state “buy in” that is supposed to justify having regressive student benefits in the first place.

Welfare Schools and Psychoanalyzing Education Reformers

Conor P. Williams has a piece at 74 million that purports to be a simulation of what critics of Teach for America must be like. Apparently, in Wiliams’ view, they are coffee shop elite hipsters. As far as this genre of writing goes, Williams’ piece is not particularly funny, insightful, or well-executed. It comes off, like some of his other pieces, as Williams wanting to demonstrate that he and people like him are personally cool and heroic while those on the other side are actually the lame losers. It is a brand of ego-stroking akin to the guy who likes to play up the time he did a humanitarian spring break in Africa, not (only) because he wants to advocate humanitarian spring breaks to Africa, but also because he wants people to think he’s righteous for what he did.

I thought about doing a similar piece where I simulated what Teach for America enlistees are like. I knew people who signed up to TFA around the time that they did so, and so I have some ample material to work with. But instead of creating some fictionalized parody of the arch TFA participant, I’ll just tell you what I think directly. This account is based on people I’ve known and some speculation beyond that.

I think the typical TFA person is earnest about wanting to help poor kids. However, they are not very knowledgeable about what it is that poor kids are dealing with. I don’t mean that they haven’t experienced being a poor kid (though that’s true too). Rather, I mean that they aren’t familiar with the empirical facts about the ways in which material conditions majorly influence educational attainment and life outcomes.

The reason their interest in helping poor kids gets channeled into educational stuff is because the idea that education is the universal solvent of economic problems is the hegemonic ideology of the country. Additionally, the educational story we tell in our society matches what they have personally experienced (as people who’ve excelled academically). By living in this society, they also have probably heard “bad schools” talked about a lot, perhaps by their own parents.

Because they aren’t very knowledgeable, and the hegemonic tendency of the society is to emphasize education, it’s not surprising that the naive college student signs up to be a brave education warrior. It helps also that there is a huge amount of organization that exists to give them the ability to plug in to TFA and other education reform outlets. An earnest, but ignorant, college student who wants to help poor kids can fire off a TFA application on their own campus and get right into the fight (and as Williams shows, feel really good about doing so). Similar outlets don’t really exist for any other kind of cause (there is no Welfare State for America, for instance).

Once the naive college student gets plugged into education reform organization (and especially TFA), they are then path dependent on education reform. Some might defect, but for the most part, there is nothing you will ever be able to do to convince them to decide that they’ve basically been wasting their time. Nothing. They are going to be education/school guys to the very end.

One reason I think that this interpretation is true (which I’ll elaborate soon at Demos) is that the bizarre rise of what I call “welfare schools.” These are charter schools like the Harlem’s Children Zone whose chief innovation is that they’ve combined school with their own massive welfare system. Priscilla Chan, Mark Zuckerberg’s wife, has recently indicated that she is going to build her own welfare school in Palo Alto, explaining that she realized education alone wasn’t going to do much after she tried to help educate people dealing with serious poverty in Boston. Thus, she’s building a welfare school with “wraparound services” that educate the “whole child.”

I think welfare schools are a perfect example of my education reform “path dependency” theory (i.e. once you get on the educational reform path, there is no way to get you off of it). If you get into education early, as a naive undergraduate earnestly wanting to help poor kids, and then later figure out how important material determinants are, what you apparently end up doing is channeling you newfound welfare observations through the mechanism of school reform. Because you are all about reforming schools, the only thing that apparently occurs to you when you come upon this socioeconomic insight is that we have to make the schools so that they properly deal with the poverty problem (which means make the schools little welfare administrations).

Of course, not all education reform advocates have the capacity to make welfare schools. So others who got path dependent on the education line, but who also then become aware of material determinants, end up responding somewhat differently. They might point to the welfare schools or even occasionally agree that government welfare expansion is important, but they still ultimately focus on education. Education is how they started their interest in poor kids and nothing they can ever learn will cause them to switch away from it.

But imagine that the timing of their realizations about material determinants was different. Imagine if the arch TFA applicant had as deep a knowledge about the poverty-related problems when they were an undergraduate as they do now. How might their trajectory be different? It’s not hard to imagine that, armed with their knowledge about material determinants, they would have found the reform movement’s orientation lacking because it misses the root problem. They might even have criticized it for this reason. Instead of going into TFA, they might have instead decided that egalitarian political economy is what was really needed.

As I said at the top, this is speculation. But I don’t throw this out here only to troll. You see education reformers out there in the world who have an understanding of the influence of material factors on educational attainment, but that understanding seems to have come later rather than sooner. That is, they were already on that education reform path. I truly do wonder whether they would have found that path enchanting enough if they had that same knowledge in college. Perhaps, in that counterfactual world, they would have found themselves interested in welfare states rather than welfare schools.