Demonizing Labor
August 21, 2011

Strike leader (man on balcony) at Gary, Ind., ...

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Matt Yglesias has had his differences with teachers’ unions in the past, so I was especially pleased to see him push back on this notion that breaking the unions should be one of the primary goals of the education reform movement. Matt writes:

There are a lot of reforms that K-12 education needs in the United States. Since strong teacher’s unions do in fact exist, they often take a prominent role in avoiding these reforms. But that’s a question of union leaders not liking reformers and reform proposals. Some people turn this around through a process of resentment and decide that breaking the unions should be the goal of reform. Not only is there little evidence to back this up, it doesn’t make any sense as a matter of logic. You can’t have an education system without having providers of education services. And the fact that the interests of service providers and the interests of the public are sometimes at odds has nothing in particular to do with labor unions. Unions act as a kind of red cape for some people in some contexts, just like for-profit colleges do for other people in other contexts, and federal contractors do for other people in yet other contexts.

The same holds in other sectors and industries. When some union or another supports a policy that enriches its members at the expense of the broader public, there’s a tendency for organized labor’s critics to point to this as proof that unions are malevolent entities that must be destroyed.

But of course it’s not the job of the unions to represent everyone’s interests. They need only represent the interests of their workers. That these interests might occasionally run counter to broader considerations is no reason to blanketly condemn institutions that, on balance, do far more good than harm. Nor does acknowledging that the interests of unions will occasionally run counter to the public interest undermine the principled argument for more unionization. Unions are good and important because workers need the institutional resources to check employer domination. That doesn’t mean that workers will invariably hold the moral high ground in conflicts between labor and capital; it just means that they have a right to voice their concerns and not get steamrolled.

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Whose Fault is Generation Me?
October 20, 2010

My introductory post is up at the League. It’s about us crazy Millennials, and whose mistake we were.

It seems like every month brings news of the latest study confirming that Americans in my age bracket are compassion-stunted narcissists. The newest entry in the series, via Campus Progress’ Simeon Talley, comes to us from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.  The findings? “[C]ollege students today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were in 1979, with the steepest decline coming in the last 10 years.”

I’ve heard plenty of friends and peers angrily dismiss studies like this, but I’m not so sure dismissal is warranted. If it were just one case study, then sure, I might buy accusations of flawed methodology. But the mound of concurring research is getting pretty hard to ignore. Plus, though I’m reluctant to say it, anecdotal experience says we can be a pretty self-absorbed bunch. (I can’t exactly exonerate myself from charges of narcissism, either. You might have noticed that I’m a blogger.)

The big question is why. Talley and Michael Tomasky lay the blame largely with what the latter calls: ”the modern era of conservative dominance.” Talley writes: “A worldview that idealizes rugged individualism and atomistic, selfish existence could be the culprit.”

That explanation is far too elegant and appealing for it to be correct. Not that I don’t think there’s some truth to it; take a good long look at the Tea Party and then tell me that modern American conservatism hasn’t fostered an atmosphere of aggressive nihilism and self-interest. But sweeping cultural shifts like the one I fear we’re witnessing rarely happen because of a single culprit, especially in a society as large and pluralistic as ours. Blame belongs not to a single cause, but to a cloud of interconnected factors.

I’ve got my thoughts on what a short list of those factors might look like, but for now I’ll stick to the overtly political and suggest that we on the left aren’t entirely blameless.

You’ll have to read the rest to find out why not.

Stephen Walt on Political Science
July 2, 2010

I’ll pose the question to my friends who were/are actual political science majors: is the trend Walt identifies here, in which caution defeats ambition and compels scholars to focus on drab, esoteric questions over bold new models, for real?

It sounds plausible to me, and certainly tracks with my one deeply dissatisfying semester in NYU’s Politics department, but that’s not enough to base an argument on. And to be fare, I don’t think this is somehow unique to political science; the same sort of institutional pressures could affect many different departments, and I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t.

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A Little Bit About the Who, What, and Why of this Blog
May 21, 2010

My name’s Ned. In a few weeks, I’m going to be graduating from NYU with a B.A. in Philosophy, and while I haven’t decided whether or not I’ll be pursuing a graduate degree in the field, I do know that my independent philosophical studies aren’t over.

I’m writing this blog partially as a forum for chewing over and discussing the discoveries I make. But more than that, it’s an attempt to present hardcore philosophy in a way that makes sense to smart people who lack a background in academic philosophy.

In the past I’ve looked for other blogs that do just that, but I haven’t been able to find any. Sadly, it seems that the vast majority of blogs out there about philosophy are for academic philosophers alone. It’s emblematic of what I think is a broader problem with the field: the failure of good philosophers to reach out and try to teach what they know.

Because, make no mistake, philosophy is good for you. Like a lot of things that are good for you, it can be aggravating in the short run—I could have saved myself a lot of headaches and prolonged fits of existential angst if I had gone with a History major—but the rewards are profound.

A solid education in philosophy breaks down some of your most fundamental beliefs. It’s not just that you know less than you thought you did; it’s that whether or not you can be said to even know anything is up for debate. Philosophy throws a thousand deeply important questions at you and then, when it comes time to give up the answers, shrugs and says, Well, we don’t really know yet. Here are a few possibilities.

That’s when the frustration and existential angst sets in. But while having so many of your most basic assumptions about the way the world works get knocked down can be devastating, it’s also freeing. Now that you know how little your beliefs rest on, you can discard them for better ones. You can build your own world of ideas to replace the one that was built for you.

Doing that is the project of becoming yourself. It’s a project without end, but it’s also one of the most important projects you can undertake. Philosophers and philosophy students spend their time studying the tools you can use to do this, but we’re needlessly stingy when it comes to sharing them. Too much of what’s come to be called “popular philosophy” is little more than self-help seminars dressed up in philosophical trappings. Or worse, it’s like Simon Critchley’s most recent piece for the Times, a smug, winking evasion that doesn’t bother challenging its readers with actual philosophy because—so goes the implicit assumption—they’re not smart enough for it.

I think that’s dead wrong. You are already a philosopher, and the reason why I started this blog is because I want to prove it to you.

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