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Culture War Roundup for the week of August 21, 2023

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Certain social policies are misguided attempts to ensure skin in the game.

Aristotle I think claimed that most vices correspond to the absence or perversion of some particular virtue. I reread Scott Alexander's review of Freddie deBoer's "The Cult of Smart" and it helped crystalize an observation that a certain kind of approaches to solving social ills is likely to be a perversion of the concept of having skin in the game.

Skin in the game is, basically, the idea that things tend to work out much better when people making decisions are also the people reaping the consequences than when they are not, because otherwise you get–agent_problem and doctors doing lobotomies on the involuntarily committed and people forcing their politics on culturally different communities and the government spending taxes on catastrophically wasteful projects instead of letting people buy private services with their own money.

Now, Scott REALLY HATES public schools. Literally in CAPS LOCK. So it was kinda funny how he nodded sagely along with Freddie explaining how public schools don't really teach anything, commended his analysis that Montessori schools maybe aren't much better at teaching but at least they aren't DYSTOPIAN CHILD PRISONS, and so on and so forth, until the last part of the review where he COMPLETELY LOST HIS SHIT upon realizing that Freddie's solution is making everyone go to public schools and forbidding all alternatives.

I am so, so tired of socialists who admit that the current system is a helltopian torturescape, then argue that we must prevent anyone from ever being able to escape it. Who promise that once the last alternative is closed off, once the last nice green place where a few people manage to hold off the miseries of the world is crushed, why then the helltopian torturescape will become a lovely utopia full of rainbows and unicorns. If you can make your system less miserable, make your system less miserable! Do it before forcing everyone else to participate in it under pain of imprisonment if they refuse! Forcing everyone to participate in your system and then making your system something other than a meat-grinder that takes in happy children and spits out dead-eyed traumatized eighteen-year-olds who have written 10,000 pages on symbolism in To Kill A Mockingbird and had zero normal happy experiences - is doing things super, super backwards!

(this was when Scott already mostly calmed down by the way)

But Freddie's approach actually makes total sense as an attempt to force people to have skin in the game. The society is largely controlled by the rich and affluent. As long as they can escape to charter schools, catholic schools, or hire private tutors, they will do that instead of using their wealth and affluence to fix public schools, so those being horrible will remain solely poor people's problem. If we close all alternatives then it becomes everyone's problem and everyone has to solve it.

You can also see this approach in what is currently happening with the US justice system. America has a huge prison population and high rates of recidivism, which maybe could be solved by adopting the Nordic model of rehabilitative justice. But it's hard, it's much easier to lock up recidivists for decades, so that's what the system had been doing until roughly 2018, when a coordinated campaign had elected a bunch of progressive DAs in all major cities, who simply refused to prosecute a lot of crimes. Now with the crime wave affecting everyone people have no choice but to take rehabilitative justice seriously.

Most of desegregation initiatives also had this component to them (in addition to tolerance through familiarity I guess). As long as black people live in their own ghettoes and send their children to their own schools, rich and affluent people by and large don't care what happens there. But if you have gangs selling drugs in your kid's school and a crack den next door, you'll have to care about and fix the problem, right? Right?

Of course all such approaches range from simply not working to greatly increasing the harm they were meant to prevent plus causing other catastrophic consequences. Here's some reasons why:

  • Just because you incentivized someone to solve a problem doesn't mean they will be able to figure how. Some problems are very hard and you have to try to solve them purposefully instead of setting up incentives and hoping for the best.

  • Unless you want to live in a North Korea (and can bring it on), it's really hard to incentivize wealthy people to solve problems like that. They'll look at it, admit that they have no idea what to do about it, shrug, and move to another place. So attempting to overmilk that cow will leave you without milk at all.

  • You are not incentivizing the actual rich and affluent people, you're incentivizing middle class, which is not affluent enough to solve much. Or more precisely, it's the actual rich and affluent people who are doing the incentivizing and they sure weren't busing their own children to mixed schools etc.

  • Affluent people who end up in charge of solving social ills are usually ideologically incapable of solving them. For example, a school that has problems with drugs and discipline should punish and eventually expel troublemakers, but that's precisely the kids the progressive school board cares about the most, so it would demand that the parents solve the problem with discipline without disciplining anyone, at which point the wealthy parents will shrug and move elsewhere.

  • Or regarding crime: let's be real, most criminals aren't Jean Valjeans stealing a loaf of bread to feed their younger siblings, they pick $1000 worth of Gucci bags and go do drugs and have fun because it sure beats working a week at Walmart, and that's the truth. If you tell them otherwise they will laugh you in the face. If you ask them to think about the poor Gucci shareholders they will laugh you in the face. The only way to fix them is to promise them a reasonably long stint in prison, at which point our prison abolitionist decides that Gucci shareholders deserve it and secretly gives up on rehabilitation.

Is it possible to force people to have skin in the game in a way that works? Yes, you have to make sure that you're forcing the right people and they can't wiggle out of it. So regarding prison reform again: first we go to the nearest KKK Grand Dragon and ask him if he's willing to pay $30k in taxes to have an innocent black man imprisoned for a year. Having thus established that the vast majority of the society doesn't have real incentives against rehabilitative justice, we greenlight anyone who wants to test their theories about how to rehabilitate criminals--more particularly, we ask the same George Soros fund that elected progressive DAs to bankroll and vet these initiatives, to make sure that the obvious grifters are excluded.

The most important part is that we also pass relatively strict laws against recidivism, say, doubling the term every time. This really incentivizes the anti-prison activists to do their best job trying to rehabilitate their charges. That doesn't mean that they will succeed--that any of them will meaningfully succeed--but they will try their best, and what more can we ask for?

This way instead of making the society hostage to criminals and hoping that someone figures out how to rehabilitate them, we take the criminals hostage and incentivize them and their rehabilitators to succeed.

Scott wants a place where smart and well-behaved students like him will not be bored to death. Freddie wants to use the school as a tool of redistribution. Neither are willing to discuss the impact of culture, so they argue around each other. There's a distributed motte-and-bailey going on here, where Scott and Freddie switch between three different concepts of "good schools". They're actually three different things, "good teachers/facilities", "well-behaved students", and "rich students". The three are correlated, but distinct.

It's not socially acceptable to talk about anything other than "good teachers/facilities", so everyone pretends that's what they care about.

When middle-class parents are buying a house in a "good school district", they pretend to talk about "good teachers/facilities", but they're really looking for good peers because they don't want their kids to fall in with a bad crowd or be bullied. Unless you're an immigrant, you don't say that out loud. Nobody seems to be checking on teacher effectiveness, they just look at test scores, which are mostly a proxy for parent involvement.

Freddie wants to use the schools as a tool of redistribution. He cynically accuses middle-class parents of being rich people who want to hoard the "good teachers/facilities". This is of course false. If middle-class parents were told that their school district boundaries were to now include a neighborhood full of poor Chinese kids, there would be no complaint. The reason "bad schools" are bad is not because of their funding, facilities, or teachers, but because are full ill-behaved kids. Whatever schools these kids are put in become back schools, because these kids are the problem.

Since you cannot discipline or expel badly-behaved poor kids in America, rich kids escape to better districts while well-behaved poor kids become the hostage.

Scott, who is mildly on the spectrum and from top-1% Irvine Unified School District, doesn't understand the sub-games being played around him and earnestly talks about the teachers/facilities/curriculum. He doesn't get that the middle-class parents are using education-talk to justify escaping the underclass, and Freddie is using education-talk to enact redistribution to the underclass.

but they're really looking for good peers because they don't want their kids to fall in with a bad crowd or be bullied. Unless you're an immigrant, you don't say that out loud.

Yes you do. You leave out the part where the ‘bad crowd’ can often be identified by the prominent skin color, but lots of parents say the quiet part out loud that they’re looking for their kids to have peers from stable middle class families. It’s what’s keeping catholic schools full(and catholic school tuition might well be cheaper than buying a house zoned for a ‘good school’- it certainly has less risk of bussing). It’s the main red tribe explanation for why poor kids do worse in school, too.

Now I’m not discounting that there might be some pockets of the blue tribe who pretend that they’re more concerned with their child’s access to a science lab than with their peer group, but it definitely doesn’t seem predominant.

If middle-class parents were told that their school district boundaries were to now include a neighborhood full of poor Chinese kids, there would be no complaint.

Yes there would. Middle class whites don’t want to have to become tiger moms to keep up with class rank.

Now I’m not discounting that there might be some pockets of the blue tribe who pretend that they’re more concerned with their child’s access to a science lab than with their peer group, but it definitely doesn’t seem predominant.

NJ is lousy with those types, but the peer group is already table stakes for them. These are the parents who want their kid to go to Princeton-Plainsboro* school district, with the robotics program and space camp and telepathy lab and what have you, rather than a more normal decent school district. Also all their kids are simultaneously geniuses and need extra help with their ADHD and/or high-functioning autism.

Yes there would. Middle class whites don’t want to have to become tiger moms to keep up with class rank.

Yep, that group exists too, the term they tend to use is "pressure cooker".

* OK, it's actually West Windsor, there is no Princeton-Plainsboro whether it's a school district or hospital.