the ground floor

The term “socialism” refers to an economic system in which human goods are removed from the market mechanism and currency exchange and are instead distributed based on need. To socialize an industry means to remove its products (whether medicine, education, housing, etc) from the market model and instead establish some means through which need is assessed and filled without the expectation of reciprocity. Socialism does not change who pays for necessary social services but replaces the very system of exchanging currency for goods entirely. A socialist viewpoint recognizes the impossibility of moral reform from within capitalism.

The term “Marxist” refers to the teachings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and their intellectual descendants. Marxism is commonly also called “dialectical materialism”; it is dialetical, in that it follows Hegel’s view of history as a series of opposing viewpoints combating (and eventually subsuming) each other, and materialist, in that it rejects the philosophical traditions of idealism, theology, and the supernatural. Marxist thought argues that history is marked by successive phases of economic systems, and that the social classes into which people are sorted in these systems are naturally antagonistic. In particular, Marxist doctrine holds that in a capitalist economy the worker class (the proletariat) generates the value that makes profit possible while the ownership class (the bourgeoisie) captures that value, which is exploitative.  Marxism is atheistic; Trotsky said, “I am a Marxist and thus necessarily an atheist.” Marxism is rationalist; a basic pillar of Marxism lies in the emancipatory potential of reason. Marxism is empirical; Marxism is the science of history. Far from being an anti- Enlightenment philosophy, Marxism is the culmination of Enlightenment thought.

“Communism” is the political program of Marxists, and followers of Marxist philosophy are communists. Where Marxism is the why, communism is the how. Communism is a type of revolutionary socialism which calls for a worldwide workers revolution that destroys capitalism, kills God, and dismantles the state, in their place building a borderless world of semiautonomous collectives (communes) which operate without a permanent governmental class or state apparatus and work based on the principle of giving based on need and working based on ability. Under communism workers themselves take control of the productive apparatus of society, instituting radical workplace democracy as they direct their efforts towards bettering the condition of all people. A true communist state rescues humanity from both the authoritarianism inherent to the nation state and from the exploitation, immiseration, and alienation inevitable in a capitalist system. A communist system makes individual freedom possible because a communist system makes societal freedom possible.


watching the eclipse on Risperidone

They say you can go blind, if you stare at it directly
You can get those glasses
but to get the glasses, you have to pay.

It is comforting to think of some god,
antique and merciful,
sticking out her thumb to intercept that awful light
that seeps up shadow and reveals what’s hidden beneath –
to think of every broken element of every broken thing on earth,
obscured in her tender umbra.

Blot out the sun
blot out his terrible light
and blot out me.


You and me both. Fuck New York machine politics forever. People power, it’s our only recourse, and it works.

What new construction? Where? For whom?

via the Movement To Protect the People

It may be going to far to say there’s a bipartisan consensus, but you certainly see many people from many political backgrounds saying that the solution to America’s housing crisis is more supply. And of course that’s in part because increasing the housing supply is a central part of effectively lowering the cost of housing. In the abstract, “just build more supply” makes sense. But we don’t live in the abstract. We live in the real world, which is full of complications.

Last night I spent my evening at an organizing meeting for opposition to a planned giant new development in Crown Heights. Right off the bat, many would decry this as NIMBYism – if you oppose any particular new construction you’re a NIMBY and part of the problem. Let me lay out why the local community is so opposed to this building.

First, people are still stinging from the Bedford-Union Armory defeat. Against absolutely fierce community opposition, a parcel of public land will be used to develop luxury condos and rentals that very few of the current residents will be able to afford. (There will be “affordable” units, but more on that in a bit.) A variety of counter proposals were put forward by community leaders as alternative plans for the space, and they were ignored. A community already stinging from sudden and rapid gentrification came out and said in no uncertain terms that they rejected this plan and it made no difference. The various layers of civic governance designed to give local people a voice were shown to be useless.

Now: the proposed building will be 38 stories high, without counting the bulkheads or the allowance for more height through the (absurd) Fresh Foods initiative. This in an area dominated by six story midrises. I am not at all opposed to height, although it is really something that the proposed building will be almost twice as tall as the massive Ebbets Fields apartments. However, I am opposed to that kind of height when it’s situated right next to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Prospect Park. Last night we saw expert testimony from academics who specialize in doing shadow and glare analyses. The proposed towers would cast significant portions of the garden and park into hours of darkness daily. Sunlight is kind of important for parks and gardens! As a bonus, in some parts of the year Jackie Robinson playground would be completely shadowed for hours in the early afternoon, precisely when kids are most likely to use a playground.

These are community goods, these green spaces, owned by everyone, and they are at risk of being significantly harmed by new development that will make a few real estate tycoons rich and provide housing for those who already have the resources to live wherever they want. The local community has every right to demand that the project be halted. And you can acknowledge that while still believing that we generally need more supply. “No giant towers directly next to the fucking Botanic Garden” is perfectly consistent with a general desire to build more housing. That’s particularly the case when you consider just how phony the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program is. Inclusionary for whom?

Consider 510 Flatbush Ave, a nearby, recently-approved building with MIH units. You want to guess how much the “affordable” MIH apartments are in that building? Over $2700 a month for a one bedroom. That’s the supposedly-affordable price! The minimum income for rental approval is over $70,000, in a poor neighborhood in a city with a median household income of $55,000! And the maximum income to rent these apartments is over $100,000, meaning that the city government will be paying taxpayer dollars to subsidize rent for people who make twice the median income to live in “affordable housing.” It’s no wonder that the people who are most active in local efforts to oppose this kind of thing are working class people of color.

The MIH program is a fraud. It’s a hoax. It’s a swindle. It gives developers broad latitude to violate local zoning regulations – one of the only means communities have to influence the future of their neighborhoods – in exchange for affordable housing that isn’t. (If you’re someone who doesn’t live in New York but who harbors vaguely positive feelings for Bill De Blasio because he’s a liberal Democrat… you shouldn’t. He’s a disingenuous weenie.) There is zoning rules prohibiting buildings above a certain height next to the BBG, but thanks to the magic of MIH and zoning exceptions the project is pressing forward.

This all strikes me as complicated enough to get out of a false NIMBY/YIMBY binary. There’s a building going up in the Atlantic Yards in Fort Greene that’s as tall as the Chrysler Building and which will cast Fort Greene Park – a jewel of the borough – into hours of darkness a day. If someone from the local community has serious reservations about such a project, should they really be dismissed as a NIMBY?

This is the question I would ask of those who are ready to call others NIMBYs at the drop of a hat, and I would love to see someone actually answer. Suppose you’re a long term resident of Crown Heights. For much of your life your community has been neglected and ignored. Finally some development comes. Only it’s not development for you, but for the affluent white people who want to come in and enjoy the local amenities while disrupting the local community. You or your mom or your friends or your neighbors will be displaced by new construction. The park and gardens you have loved your whole life are threatened by it. The local businesses you have grown up with will be pushed out as rents are driven higher and higher. In their place will be coffee that’s too expensive to drink and clothing that’s too expensive to wear and places where you will never be made to feel comfortable. You will never be able to afford to live in the new construction, and as you struggle to pay your own rent some of the affluent new arrivals will be getting publicly subsidized housing even as they make six figures. Throughout the entire process the democratic institutions meant to protect your interests are subverted. Now: what are you supposed to say, according to the generically pro-development crowd, in response to all this?

“Thank god for new construction”?

a great demo

This past Thursday evening I participated in a demonstration with my tenants union and the housing justice coalition that I spend a lot of time on. We were there to protest Andrew Cuomo and his terrible record on housing – the thousands of lost rent stabilized apartments, the skyrocketing rents, the ever-growing power of developers, the scandalous state of NYCHA, the horrifying increase in homelessness in his tenure. Many of the biggest housing groups in the city came out, along with some upstate organizations eager to show solidarity and express their own frustrations. I have no official count but there’s no doubt there was several thousand people.

We started with a brief event at the steps of the New York City Public Library, where a representative of Cynthia Nixon spoke, along with Linda Sarsour and others. We then marched to a location where Cuomo was receiving an award to show our displeasure. (I can’t confirm this but I was told that the group giving the award was a “workers” group that’s actually anti-union, which is too perfect.) To my delight, we ended up taking the street; people kept spilling out of the sidewalk until we ended up marching down the center of Park Avenue with no official permission to be there. The cops were trying in vain to stop us. They even had this robot voice on a loop telling us we would soon be arrested. Finally, after four blocks or so, they corralled us back onto the sidewalk, but by then we were just about at our destination.

When we got to the venue we completely surrounded the building and chanted in unison. There’s no doubt in my mind that the occupants could hear us. Finally Cuomo emerged, head cast down, hustling as fast as he could to get into a car. It was a sight to see. Of course, no media that I can find seem to have covered the event.

One note I’ll add – I hesitate to say so, as most of them probably don’t want my praise. But I have to say that DSA continues to represent themselves well. There were dozens of them at this event, which isn’t unusual. I go to a lot of demos and organizing meetings in the city, and I almost always see DSA people. I can only speak for New York but DSA appears to be really doing it. Their growth in official membership has been much ballyhooed, but personally I put far more stock in people actually showing up for things, and from my perspective they’re doing an admirable job of that.

back to things

Recently I caught the 2 train at 96th Street heading south on my way home to Brooklyn. It’s about an hour long ride. I was sitting next to two men, professional-looking types who appeared to be in their early 30s. They were talking about a small shoe brand, recently trendy, very animatedly. Or perhaps they were not talking about the shoes.

They engaged in a kind of rhetoric that I imagine would be recognizable to anyone who spends too much time on the internet. While ostensibly discussing shoes, they were really discussing the social and cultural signifiers that attach to everything we have and are like barnacles. To wear those shoes was not to purchase and use a practical thing but to place oneself in a complex social and cultural web, to make an existential statement about yourself and your place in the economic, political, and interpersonal world. A $100 pair of sneakers, to hear them tell it, conveyed one’s deepest personal meaning, particularly as it pertained to position within the social hierarchies of the educated caste. There appeared to be no way to own and wear these shoes without sending these messages. And yet the men speaking seemed to think that they were only discussing the quality of the sneakers themselves.

In the world of politics, particularly left politics, we see a similar dynamic among those who can conceive of the political only as a way to define the self, as a tool not to create change but as a system for sorting all of us into tiers of enlightenment, as something you are rather than something you do.

Recently we have seen a lot of critical discourse on the internet and its consequences, which is good. Digital technologies have dramatically expanded the amount and scope of writing that overthinks the minutiae of life and ascribes to it cultural connotations of great importance. We are living in a world of What X Says About Y.  We have, to put it bluntly, too much culture. We have too many ideas. We have too many symbols. Our associations  about things have overwhelmed our apprehension of the things themselves. Wallace Stevens said that the greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world.  For myself I would say that the battle now is to live in a world outside of the web of other people’s tangled pathologies about how every minor detail of our consumption and behavior aligns us in a social hierarchy many of us never asked to join. The fight is to return to a world of things. To let a shoe be a shoe.

How Charter Schools Cook the Books

For a variety of reasons, charter schools have long been the darlings of American news media’s discussions about education reform. For one thing, our media is disproportionately neoliberal and inclined to believe that markets make everything better. For another, our pundit class draws disproportionately from the elite classes, who tend to have attended expensive private schools and who have no particular sympathy – and often outright disdain – for public education. For another, the funding apparatus of our think tanks is heavily bent against public schools and towards charters, as the do-gooding rich types who fund such institutions are often market-focused and antagonistic to unionized public sector employees like public school teachers.

Whatever the reason, the general state of affairs in education reporting is near-total credulity towards charter schools and their advocates, with few in professional media digging in to charter school rhetoric to find the flaws. To understand these failures, it’s important to look at how charter schools achieve good numbers at the cost of fairness and transparency.

Manufacturing Selection Bias

Generating responsible arguments about education is difficult for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the biggest lies in selection bias. Selection bias refers to when inequalities in how samples are gathered – such as “public school students” vs “charter school students” – leads to incorrect assumptions about results. I have argued in the past that selection bias is in fact the single most important phenomenon in educational statistics.

A classic example in selection bias lies in the common assumption that private schools are superior to public. Many parents send their children to private schools without any rigorous investigation about whether those schools are superior to local public schools at all. After all, they might say, look at the star students the private schools graduate. But there is an obvious and immensely important factor missing when we attempt to naively compare outcomes across school types: the incoming student bodies are not remotely the same. Private schools almost universally have more affluent student bodies than traditional public schools, meaning many of the most disadvantaged students are systematically excluded. And many privates also employ entrance exams or grade requirements before enrollment, ensuring that their student bodies will be predisposed to succeed.

Charter advocates tend to speak as if charter schools have demographically and economically similar student bodies to public, and act as though we have true random placement into their schools. Some claim that lottery systems are sufficient to wash out differences in incoming student bodies. Random assignment is extremely important in educational statistics, as it is necessary to ensure that our comparisons are fair.

But we know that charter school student bodies are very often not equal. And we know that many charter schools go to immense lengths to make sure they aren’t. A 2013 Reuters investigation found myriad ways that charters go out of their way to exclude the most difficult to educate:

Students may be asked to submit a 15-page typed research paper, an original short story, or a handwritten essay on the historical figure they would most like to meet. There are interviews. Exams. And pages of questions for parents to answer, including: How do you intend to help this school if we admit your son or daughter?

These aren’t college applications. They’re applications for seats at charter schools.

Charters are public schools, funded by taxpayers and widely promoted as open to all. But Reuters has found that across the United States, charters aggressively screen student applicants, assessing their academic records, parental support, disciplinary history, motivation, special needs and even their citizenship, sometimes in violation of state and federal law.

Note that even requiring parents to opt their children in to lotteries is sufficient to contaminate randomization enough to make drawing responsible inferences impossible. And clearly these schools go far beyond that.

These behaviors are not only important in and of themselves, as indicators of how unscrupulous actors can bend the rules to make charters look better compared to public. They also demonstrate that even among charter officials themselves, there is a strong understanding of just how strong a role student selection plays in outcomes. Otherwise, why would they go to the trouble? For all of their talk about how charter practices are sufficient to help any child succeed, their own behavior demonstrates differently.

In fact, we have a raft of research showing that, when we employ genuinely random distribution, perceived differences in school quality makes no impact on student achievement.

You’d expect charter advocates to be particularly stringent about charters that engage in these practices; if they really believe that charters are better on the merits, they’d want to ensure fair comparisons. But in my experience, reformers are in fact incredibly credulous about even the rosiest numbers that arise from the charter world, almost never engaging in appropriate, productive skepticism.

Refusing to Backfill

An important type of selection bias is survivorship bias. With survivorship bias, we only observe a given characteristic in those examples that make it past some sort of selection procedure. If you ever hear a speech by any successful famous person, they are likely to deliver some sort of bromide about how they kept a positive attitude and never gave up. Which may be true – but there are also plenty of people who kept a positive attitude and never gave up and didn’t succeed, but crucially they never get the opportunity to make speeches about it so we don’t adjust our understanding accordingly. This is survivorship bias.

A common type of charter school chicanery involves the refusal to backfill and in so doing create a type of survivorship bias. “Backfill” refers to schools enrolling more students to fill spaces created through students dropping out, failing out, or being removed for disciplinary problems. Backfill – backfill through random selection, of course – is essential for making fair comparisons. After all, the students most likely to leave are often the ones living the most difficult, most transient lives, and thus those most likely to struggle academically. Refusing to backfill amounts to creaming the best students off the top after the fact.

Who’s guilty of refusing to backfill? Why, Success Academy Charters, the darlings of the charter school set! Aside from the brutal working conditions and army of short-term “tourist teachers” looking for a foothold in New York City, I suspect that this accounts for a large portion of the supposed advantage of Success Academy. If charter advocates are serious about actually wanting real student gains, why have they not led the charge against this kind of practice?

You can also just routinely suspend the most vulnerable students until they drop out or are forced out, which many charter schools already do.

When In Doubt, Cook the Books

Survivorship bias strikes again. The 2013 CREDO study was widely ballyhooed at the time as a vindication of charter schools, showing significant learning gains relative to public. And with the credibility and prestige of Stanford’s CREDO project behind it, the report made serious waves. Unfortunately, few people seemed to dig into the fine print. As a (pseudonymous) writer pointed out at EduShyster, the CREDO report admitted that 8 percent of the charter schools in the initial sample had closed. And which schools are most likely to close? The worst performers! Of course your numbers are going to look good when the worst 8% of the sample simple vanishes into thin air, a vanishing act generally impossible for public schools. Again: why would serious charter school advocates tolerate this kind of thing, if they are genuinely interested in helping children learn?

There are many, many other examples of charter advocates playing fast and loose with numbers in order to attack public schools. For example, when discussing the supposed New Orleans miracle in post-Katrina schooling, charter advocates are prone to trumpet the rise in the number of schools receiving a passing grade from the state since public schools were closed and replaced by charters. They typically neglect to mention that the cut score for passing was lowered in between the rating of the public schools and the rating of the charter schools.

Just Giving Everybody A’s

I like this one the best, because it is the most brazen. At San Diego Metropolitan Career and Technical School, every student is above average. The grades are sterling. The graduation rate is top notch.

The test scores, sadly, are quite bad. Because they seem to be giving out great grades to everybody regardless of performance. Hey, that’s one way to achieve – just lower standards. Reform types love to argue that market forces compel schools to promote student learning, but this is incorrect on its face. Market forces compel charter schools to please parents, which is not at all the same thing. And you can bet if it’s happening at one school, it’s happening at another. There are thousands of charter schools in the country, and yet their advocates constantly talk as though any given school performs identically to the attention-grabbing, high-resource, big-city idiosyncratic schools they love to tout.

If I am hard on the charter school crowd, it’s in part because they’ve spent the last several decades attacking teachers, hundreds of thousands of public servants who make middling wages performing an impossible job. But it’s also because issues like these are simply not discussed by advocates, who tend to adopt a defensive position and refuse to countenance any questioning of charter schools at all. I am currently working on a book about these topics; my day job is in academic assessment; I wrote a dissertation about standardized tests; and I’ve taught students from kindergarten to graduate school in a variety of contexts. I have never found serious attempts to grapple with the profound challenges to charter school numbers that I have laid out here. If charter advocates actually care about improving education, rather than simply winning, you’d think they’d leap at the challenge.

my book is in fact an anti-race science book

Since this has come up – I am not writing a pro-race science book. I am writing a book that, among other things, is anti-race science. It unequivocally rejects the idea that different races have inherent differences in intelligence. Whatever you might think of me or my project, I have denied racist pseudoscience my entire political life, and that has not and will not change. Find a different angle of attack.

I am once again in trouble for things I haven’t said and don’t believe. This attack on me on Twitter is occurring without anyone quoting a single thing that I’ve ever actually said.

Related. I endorse everything in this piece and in this piece, save for the endorsement of charter schools, which links to David Leonhardt. Leonhardt is one of the most consistently biased voices on charters out there. The supposed charter advantage is actually the product of selection effects and survivorship bias. Such opinions, unfortunately, are not permitted in high-profile places like Vox.

the involuntary admission barrier to care

I am very far away from the news cycle, these days, but even I have not missed the horror of another terrible school shooting. As it should, the topic of America’s mental health system appears to have again come up. I want to very briefly note a serious practical barrier to appropriate care, which is the involuntary admission system.

When I reached the end of my ability to cope with my illness last August, I had a dilemma. I went to the hospital because of a long string of erratic and self-destructive behaviors. But the final event that drove me to seek emergency care was that I had accused a friend of hacking into my bank account and threatened to harm them in revenge. That they didn’t have me arrested was an act of mercy. When I got to the hospital, I knew that if I revealed that I had threatened physical harm to someone, I would be at risk of a 9.13(b), New York’s involuntary admissions policy. Most other states, I believe, have similar laws. I could not risk the disruption to my life, and the total loss of control, a 72 hour stay would entail. And since I was not willing to divulge that detail, which would have made my crisis clear, the psychiatrist who treated me would not allow me a voluntary admission and I was left to pursue outpatient care. This is the lacuna into which you may find yourself when you have a psychiatric crisis: how to receive appropriately urgent care without losing control of your life. This problem was particularly acute in years past because I was hiding my condition from family and friends and was terrified of them finding out.

This dynamic, I’m sure, would not have impacted the Florida shooting. And I recognize the need for some form of involuntary admissions. But I am convinced that many people avoid seeking care entirely out of fear of involuntary admission, and something has to change.

Miles in his dotage

Old man.

Dusty clawed, waddle-walker, tail kinked like the corner of a page in a book. Ears rimmed with white, eyes a little red, belly a little big. You can still trot, when you really want to, but mostly you amble along like a kid on his way to school, moving as if the purpose of moving was not to move. You can’t get onto the bed on your own anymore, but you can pull me right over in pursuit of a chicken bone. You look like you, in my head, and then I find old pictures of you in your prime and I’m taken aback. Memory is funny when you’ve been with somebody constantly for over a decade. I can’t remember what life was like before you and I have no intention of knowing what it’s like after you. You will not let me cut your nails. You grunt and groan like the old man you are. You are tired.

In time, after your stroke, when you had learned to walk again and the skin on your head wasn’t pulled so tight and your belly wasn’t so distended, when you went off the steroids and the hair the vet had shaved finally came back, when I was no longer carrying you around like a briefcase or holding napkins to your nose as it bled and bled and bled – afterwards, many people told me how good you looked, how you were good as new, how you seemed just the same. And it was true that you got better, in a way I never thought you would.

But I also knew and know that something has been broken in you ever since, that there is some deep quality inside of you that was changed, as if life itself insisted that your illness be written permanently on the record of your life. As an animal your body is your legacy, and the illness – and your brave recovery – are part of that legacy. And when you struggle to get up the stairs, or when your body shakes faintly in its quiet sad way, or when you lie in my arms as I scratch your belly and I can feel how you shudder inside, I feel again that feeling I felt when I picked up your contorting body and put you in the car.

A little brokenness isn’t the worst thing in someone of your age. You carry it well. You have gotten so much better; I can’t believe you were once on 9 medications. I guess the tables have turned. You have been there through more than a decade of mine – a decade of growth, a decade of experience, but mostly a decade of regret. Every mistake in a life of mistakes, a witness to my failures without judgement. When we lived in Rhode Island and I couldn’t afford to run the heat at night I’d put on two hoodies and you’d curl up in my arms on a tiny twin bed. Now you never want to sleep next to me, and it makes me a little sad. But I get it. It’s a little statement of your independence. You are, after all, your own, before you are mine.

Old man. You still hunt rabbits in your sleep. Squirrel chaser, bone chewer, baying hound of Lefferts Gardens, I know that you will never die.