These blog posts are reflections on the historical foundations and conceptual scaffolds that I think bear upon questions of contemporary life. They’re a kind of journal that might be worth sharing more broadly – and perhaps trial runs for scholarly ideas.
And, I hope – some are just for fun.
All posts (c) copyright 2021-2022 Kevin S. Amidon
6 March 2022, Hays, Kansas
A chilly evening here on the plains. A good time for a few reflections on process and people in higher education. Nothing of great significance. Just a few attempts at systematic reflection on challenges their responses.
I’ll start with a very simple discussion about the point of education that I led with 9th and 10th-grade high schoolers – and received good feedback about. I asked them “what is education for?” And I received two answers: “to be smart” and “to get a job.” After a few followup questions to deepen these answers, the students themselves drew the conclusion that I had been hoping they would see: that those two outcomes are constitutive of one another. The abstraction “smart” and the reification “job” are both somehow necessary to making sense of the nature of education.
Now wait, some may say – what about the intangibles? What about the “life worth living” and the “good citizenship” and the “life of the mind.” Yes, precisely – what about the intangibles? The intangibles, when thought without reference to their social function, are, I might suggest – easily subject to Whitehead’s fallacy of misplaced concreteness. They might be obvious to each of us individually in a powerfully personal way, but they tend toward the solipsistic when torn from the social field.
Short answer: the art of higher education is navigating between the Scylla of falsified intangibles and the Charybdis of reified, falsely objective outcomes (qua “job”).
This leads us to the world of Goodhart’s Law: that statement so easy to put facilely, that every metric, when it becomes a target, ceases to be a good metric. Today’s universities are festivals of metric-targeting.
And then there’s the issue of how the people who’ve been trained inside universities – the ones who have often most dramatically experienced the voyage between Scylla and Charybdis – have so little training and experience with figuring out how to be sure that metrics do *not* become falsified targets.
More on all this soon.
24 February 2022, Hays, Kansas
Russian military action in Ukraine – is it “war”? Or is it performance for the Russian domestic audience that Putin believes wants to see “Russian greatness”? It is certainly both. The question is: which part of the dymanic-dialectic should drive policy and tactical response?
Which leads me to several concepts that I’ve long been trying to think together, and I become ever more convinced MUST be thought together, because many assumptions to the contrary, they are not self- evident in their relationships.
I’m tempted to start by thinking through the relationship of these two-by-two. And capitalize them just for visual orientation. These seem the straightforward links in the conceptual scaffold
Identity <=> Citizenship. These are internally and externally generated representations of much the same thing: properties that individuals have, claim, or see as fundamental to themselves. But it’s not that easy. Are there always institutionally-conditioned aspects to these?
Which is why both of these, Identity and Citizenship, seem (at least to those living in at least marginally to be both dependent on and in tension with the possibility of Freedom. Yet….what of Identity derives from freedom? What of Citizenship? Does Freedom become evanescent without some sort of social dynamic? Is Freedom always “Freedom with respect to [something]”? I expect that answer is yes. Which has many correlatives.
Sovereignty, then, is the property of the state that relates not specifically to the exercise of unfettered power within borders (ah….”Secure Borders”), which is simply an artifact of the limits of institutional regimes, but to the linking of Identity and Citizenship through the state form. Is this, in fact, “Seeing Like a State” in the most basic form?
And that’s where Risk comes in – Risk in the full sense of the statistically calculable consequences of uncertainty across populations and time (not in the everyday since that is essentially synonymous with uncertainty itself).
Freedom stands, in the modern world, in an always fundamental but always necessarily denied relationship to Risk. And that necessary denial often – perhaps always – takes the form of Reaction. Which is the misery of the twenty-first century.
Now to dig up much more critical theory on this.
22 August 2021, Hays, Kansas
The proof of the proposition that there are no lessons of history – only well-exercised judgements in the present – is a perverse asymmetry of logic that runs rampant in political and policy commentary:
Almost never is a situation praised in near-real time (not by historians or “historians”) with the words “the lessons of history are being properly applied here.” Yet whenever ugliness reigns, which it always does in many places at any given time, the plangent choruses declaiming that “they are failing to apply the ‘lessons of history'” come thundering down like the very wrath of some almighty.
This testifies to nothing except the moral bankruptcy of most such commentators.
We might look at examples like the Marshall Plan or the Dayton Accords or Camp David to try to pick apart how historically informed policymaking treats historical evidence. Yet all such policy choices have been saturated with risk, and taken in the face of substantial opposition. They were NOT “correctly learned lessons of history.” They were risk-adjusted good judgments in the present, taken by people (mostly) willing to say “the buck stops here – *I’m* taking responsibility for this dangerous and unprecedented decision.”
What a sad, diminished world we live in.
18 May 2021, Hays, Kansas
A video explanation of what Honors education is all about: service.
14 April 2021, Hays, Kansas
I wrote this a couple hours ago as an email to a friend who was struggling with what she could do from her position of white privilege (and, mind you, this is a friend who has taught in minority communities all over the country) to help change what remain the systemic injustices that keep tearing at the social fabric of communities like the Twin Cities, where so many try to redress those injustices, but do not succeed. It’s a little telegraphic in style, but that’s me. More like this to come, and more after that.
The Thin Blue Line is alive and well. And that’s been a result of 200 years of the development of policing. For a couple decades there was progress, but the reactionary turn of the past 40 years – the New Jim Crow (I use that term phrase loosely than the authors of the landmark book) and its especially violent emanations of 2017-2021 – has turned us back to a nasty time.
I’m second-hand acquainted with the mayor of Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, and he is genuinely as horrified as we are. And nearly as powerless. Allow me to elaborate.
Those couple decades of progress came because certain of our political leaders had great courage, and were influenced by other civic leaders of great courage, the marquee names like MLK and John Lewis, and the forgotten multitudes, from lynched Black citizens to lynched Freedom Riders. LBJ was right – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would and did turn the South – the growing part of the country – against the Democratic Party for a generation. We’re two generations in, and Virginia has finally shifted back fully (thanks, DC). Stacey A is trying in Georgia (thanks Atlanta). In NC and SC and LA the reactionary element is strong and violent (and the urban centers less dominant); in FL the reaction is toxic and bound up with hatred of Castro in Miami, and in MS and AL – the Black Belt – the legacy of the Old Jim Crow is still murderously strong, and keeps a majority Black population disenfranchised, dispossessed, and afraid.
The only thing to do – exactly what you are: doing your best to elect national, state, and local leaders who will be inspired by courage, equity, and justice to fight the New Jim Crow, not to strengthen, abet, and embed it, as the entire Republican Party seems intent on allowing – perhaps some have guilty consciences, and I trust they do – but the TrumpsterFire horrors and cowardice about losing their powerful positions keep them strictly toeing the Party Color Line, which is both White and Thin Blue.
Much is riding on the courts. The day of Clarence Thomas hypocrisy is coming to a close. And John Roberts probably already rues what he knows the history books will savage him for in eternity: gutting the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because ‘racism is a thing of the past’ (I paraphrase) and (false) equality reigns everywhere.
The only way to change the courts: keep Dems in the White House and the Senate. Period. End of story.
Local and state leadership are important too, but it’s federal law that sets the civil rights parameters, and the parameters that allow police unions to maintain the Thin Blue Line.
Keep up the courage.
With that, in the words of the courageous Edward R. Murrow: good night and good luck.
14 March 2021, Hays, Kansas
Technological Change and the Labor Share of Income in America
Neil Irwin’s lengthy column in the NY Times of 13 March leads me to a number of observations. I’m not as optimistic as Irwin, but I’m more optimistic than I have been in a while – perhaps since the mid-2010’s. One point that needs mentioning right off: Irwin seems sometimes to elide the difference between overall economic growth and the labor share of income. I’ll try to focus only on the latter here, since it seems that Irwin really wants to be talking primarily about that.
Irwin’s arguments for optimism break down into three groups:
- Technological change might be at a positive tipping point. (Reasons 1-6 [and 7])
- Labor market pressures (both national and global) of the past 30 years might be shifting in favor of increased incomes for American workers. (Reasons 7-12)
- The political parameters might be favoring a generous bias toward full employment. (Reasons 13-17)
I’m rather more skeptical than Irwin of the arguments about technological change. That he started with the classic case of the delayed productivity returns to investment in computer technology in the 1980s was fascinating to me – I remember those debates in the late 1980s and early 1990s well. It is fairly well established that by the mid-1990s, computer technology was raising productivity in a way that was further reflected in wage growth across the income distribution.
See the chart here under “Fact 1”:
Irwin’s argument about technological change today is one of analogy to the 1990s. I’m not at all convinced that such an analogy holds. Will battery technology really change things that much? I don’t really think so. It might get some carbon our of the atmosphere, but are there really a million green jobs ready to bloom? Those green jobs are already busy building wind turbines in Kansas. I’m also highly skeptical that the electrification of the automobile is any kind of cure-all. The life cycle of the automobile and the energy-intensive kind of lifestyle it abets is the problem far more than the propulsion mechanism.
Cheap solar cells? Are they really the way to a future of energy-intensive, guilt-free plenty? Perhaps. But I don’t see it happening in the next few years, if even in my lifetime. Is “artificial intelligence” ready to save immeasurable drudgery and release lots of labor for more enjoyable and productive purpose, and combine technologies into exponentially productive networks? Well….the evidence we have from the last 30 years is that these innovations serve their venture capital masters and the surveillance state first. I don’t see sweetness, light, joy, and a meaningful increase in the labor share of income breaking out all over any time soon. That will take political will. And that’s a LONG way off.
I also found it revealing that Irwin seems to think that the chief advocate of the “diminishing returns to technological change” school of thought, Bob Gordon (and yes, I’m with Bob), is less pessimistic than he was a few years ago. Of course there will be noisiness in any economic system. But I think it’s still a pretty compelling point that driverless cars are still cars. I don’t see the ability to work *while* commuting by car suddenly causing a huge productivity jump. The desire to eliminate expensive and time-consuming commutes by car has been a major factor in the huge growth in property values around public transportation hubs. The COVID pandemic may have put a certain dent in that dynamic, but not, I think, I permanent one. The people who can most benefit from the saving of commuting time – all the cooks and cleaners who can’t work remotely – are the ones who will be least able to afford fancy driverless technology soon, to speak nothing of their being fully unable to take advantage of work time in the driverless car.
To sum up the most significant points in my analysis of technological change here:
- There is little to no evidence that the diminishing returns to technology will reverse in any meaningful way in the near future.
- There is ZERO evidence that technological change in our era, no matter how dramatic, will inexorably result in a greater labor share of income. Here, dear readers, is diminishing-returns-dilemma.
I am rather more convinced by Irwin’s arguments about labor market changes. There is only one China. There is only one Mexico. It is likely, I think, that the outsourcing wave that dented the labor share of income in the United States is running its course, and that labor may indeed be in a position to negotiate higher wages. It is plausible that this could, in the long run, start to lead to inflation, but that is a long way off.
That, of course, leads to the political. All roads lead to the political. Marco Rubio’s attempt to claim the Amazon unionization drive in Bessemer, Alabama for Republicans – as if the “American working class” is something that a few cheap slogans can win for the party that created the political-economic environment that led to the dive in the labor share of income after 2000 – is hilariously symptomatic. It is clear, however, that two political parties fighting over the rights to claim “the working class” (such, of course, that there is or ever has been one in the USA) as their own can only work in favor of the labor share of income. And yes, both fiscal and monetary policy are aligned to “let ‘er rip.”
Finally, economics is an empirical discipline. In the past 40 years we have learned a great deal. One of those things is – as Irwin notes – that in the medium term, there’s no need to “take away the punch bowl BEFORE the party gets going.” What that does is hurt wage earners. And wage earners took it on the chin in the 2000s and 2010s for political reasons: because the Republican party was dedicated to the well-being of the asset-owning class. What is dyed in the wool will not out of the flesh, no matter how much Trump-ulism or Rubio muddleheadedness the party tries to deal out.
In sum, I’m not optimistic because of technological change. But there’s a reasonable chance, on demographic as well as national and international political grounds, that we may see some shift back toward a greater labor share of income in the USA.
26 January 2021, Hays, Kansas
America as Male Fantasy
IMAGINATION: Constant threats. Endless, boundless, groundless fear. Commies, pinkos, bathroom bills. Floods of overwhelming, foreign bodies, peoples, others, immigrants, threats. “Only I can fix it.”
Klaus Theweleit was right in his Male Fantasies (see, of course, my and Dan Krier’s article published in the journal Men and Masculinities found here under Scholarship / Research) – and right in fascinating ways that remain poorly understood. The male fantasy he traced in the immediacy of the post-WWI Freikorps movement in and around Germany – that an immense flood of (usually female-figured) defilement – usually emerging from Bolshevist-Leninist Communism in Russia – would destroy the body of the nation and its healthy members – is perhaps more analytically applicable across time than I originally thought.
American toxic masculinity is deeply implicated in the same symbolic sphere. The same death cult – the extremity of the sense that the the slightest defilement is akin to death, and that therefore the possibility of such symbolic defilement must be fought to the death – saturates contemporary American political discourses.
Does this explain the way in which so many immigrant communities in America have so quickly turned against subsequent immigrants and see them as a threat to their own status? I believe it can. Latinx Proud Boys, “race riots” in so many places, school busing.
What about women who seem to be at the forefront of such anti-defilement, body-armoring symbolism – the Lauren Boeberts and the like? They are recapitulating the discourse of the colonial/frontier woman standing in for the often absent man, and taking the gun into her own hands. That was uncommon in the Freikorps world and therefore in Theweleit’s reading, so women in that world were almost always the locus of protection, not the (imagined) protectors.
Defilement of the voting system – it isn’t the fact, it’s the possibility that drives the constant fear. The possibility is fully sufficient to justify the most extreme measures, like invading the Capitol, threatening the lives of legislators…. And because more defilement might always be lurking just beyond the next ballot box, counting table, voting machine, there is always reason for fear. The perversion of the idea that “lack of evidence is not evidence of lack” beyond all sense and reason is driven to the most perverse extreme by the immensity of the possible defilement.
Q? Who will worry about the defilement of the children? Again it’s not the reality, it’s the possibility. It’s entirely sufficient.
And why not fear the Russians? Because they – or at least Putin – play the same game of hyping the fear of defilement.
How can any of this be countered? For two centuries the answer was “education.” But education in America has been fractured, de-centered, and made a potentially capricious form of parents’ fear that their own children might be defiled – religiously, medically, intellectually, socially, politically – by “public” education. This does not break down cleanly on “conservative”/”liberal” lines. Thus the possibility of a broad-based set of standards for how to see past narrow interests and fears toward something greater is truncated and evacuated. I can’t see how it can be revived.
There, I think, is something greater than “partisanship” or even “inequality” – and most definitely “status” – that can conceptually scaffold an understanding of the fractures in American culture: the divide is between those who look beyond a fear of defilement to see themselves as social creatures and those who burrow into that fear, who make it their own and frame their worldview around it.
Fazit: Race, in particular, is always a focus of fear and otherness within this discourse of defilement. Race is its genetics. Gender is its morphology.
Klaus Theweleit was right.