Tuesday, March 18, 2008

More on Obama (long)

[Cc'ed blog]

Dear Jenn,

Well, Obama finally gave another substantive speech. It's titled "A More Perfect Union." We see here a lot of the Obama that I like--frank, honest acknowledgement of certain issues with his campaign--and then we see the Obama that scares me. He's honest, and he's open-minded in the sense of listening to opponents, but I'm terribly afraid that he isn't honest in the fundamental, scientific sense that Feynman talks about, holding your own beliefs up to scrutiny. In any case, at the point where he stops talking about his campaign and starts talking about national policy, he says a lot of things that are wrong.

Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven't fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students.

Logical fallacy here. There are no segregated schools in America today. There are good schools and bad schools, with good students and poor students. What really matters is the end product--good/poor student--but a good school is one that produces more good students than you would expect from the human raw material it receives. Obama observes that "segregated schools," by which he means "schools with many black and few whites or Asians," have more than the usual amount of poor students, from which he infers that the schools are bad schools. I don't know what he would suggest as a solution, a way to make "segregated" schools turn out large numbers of good students, but anyone who is familiar with public education (for instance the case of Kansas City school district) should know that pumping more money into education does not help. I don't know why communities of black students underperform, but blaming it on "segregation" is stupid. If I had to guess I'd look into 1.) heritable factors (a smart African-American has kids just as smart as anyone else's, but the population was not selected for that originally and the mean IQ of the African-American subpopulation is lower than the American mean. It's interesting to me that slaves were the only immigrants to America who did not undergo a self-selection process. I wonder what that did to their gene pool...), 2.) culture (by all reports, teenage male culture among African-Americans is hostile, even toxic, to school and intellectual pursuits--it's seen as "whitey" stuff), 3.) social structure (fatherlessness, etc.). None of this is stuff you should blame on the schools, although it does affect schools.

There's another assumption underlying Obama's words which is just as bad, in its way. "Segregated schools are... inferior schools. We still haven't fixed them." Implicitly, he's endorsing relative quality as opposed to absolute quality. The problem is that "non-segregated" schools aren't very good either. I believe that you absolutely COULD make changes to "segregated" schools that would have them outperforming non-segregated schools today. Just because Kansas City couldn't do it doesn't mean it couldn't be done. Begin by deciding that the job of schools is to maximize the output of educated, productive citizens. With the goal settled, it becomes clear that there are a lot of students who will have to shape up or ship out, for real. (I'd leave it up to the local school districts to choose those criteria, but it will not be possible to threaten teachers with physical violence and continue going to school.) You'll lose a lot of gang-bangers, but not all of them, and the ones who stick with it will have a shot at a real life. I'd also concentrate on making sure that everybody can read by grade two. It's not uncommon today to see a high school senior to be a functional illiterate, and that's crippling. It means he's just wasted twelve years of his life in school, since benefitting from normal instruction absolutely requires the ability to read. We know this is possible. Jerry Pournelle's wife wrote and sells a program for teaching students who were unable to learn to read in school. Jerry says he's never seen a student using his wife's software fail to learn to read, in the sense of bringing his reading vocabulary up to match his speaking vocabulary.

Anyway, it's possible to whip "segregated" schools into shape, and we should do that, but the "segregation" aspect is a red herring--we should do that to ALL schools.

Legalized discrimination - where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments - meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today's urban and rural communities.

A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one's family, contributed to the erosion of black families - a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods - parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement - all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.

It would be hard to be unsympathetic to the plight he describes... but asserting that "that history helps explain..." is not the same thing as establishing a causal relationship, much less establishing an ongoing causal relationship. My fear would be that, having zeroed in on historical and ongoing discrimination as the cause of the discrepancy, as long as any discrepancy remained he would keep hammering away at discrimination as the cause. That's thinking inside the box. That's not scientific honesty.

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze - a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns - this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

Sigh. Hostility and assumptions--no display of real understanding. I've no time to comment on this, but this passage jumped out at me as worrisome. Yet there are still things that I like, such as this:

And it means taking full responsibility for own lives - by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

Yes. Read to your children. But then he says this, too:

This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn't look like you might take your job; it's that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.

No discussion or apparent thought as to why it's unprofitable to operate a company in America, or how we could make it more profitable. Barack Obama's a nice enough guy, but I'm afraid he's also a shallow thinker.

We'll see in November who buys it.



"The presentation or 'gift' of the Holy Ghost simply confers upon a man the right to receive at any time, when he is worthy of it and desires it, the power and light of truth of the Holy Ghost, although he may often be left to his own spirit and judgment." --Joseph F. Smith (manual, p. 69)

Be pretty if you are,
Be witty if you can,
But be cheerful if it kills you.

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