Category Archives: Hard Things

Forever Unequal, Immobile, and Politically Divided? Facing Brutal 500 Year Trends

Much of modern philanthropy focuses on reducing inequality, increasing economic mobility, and increasing the efficacy of government.

Three recent books, each in their own way, make the case that philanthropy will likely fail.

Forever Unequal: Inequality Persists Save for Massive Wars, Plagues, State Collapse 

In The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, Walter Scheidel argues that inequality generally increases over time unless something very awful happens: massively mobilized warfare, societal upending revolutions, plagues, or state collapses.

In short: since the advent of farming, rising inequality has been the default state of humanity across almost all cultures and economic systems.

See below for a history of European inequality. Inequality has always risen save for the Fall of the Roman Empire, the plague, the Black Death, and WWI/WWII.

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Scheidel marshalls data sets that support this argument in societies across the world.

His final take: while it’s possible that we can inequality through policy and social programs, it’s unlikely.

Yes, individual countries can tweak inequality at the margins, but since the invention of farming, policy has never been able trump long-term immutable trends of increased inequality.

Forever Immobile: The Persistence of Family Status 

In The Son Also Rises, Gregory Clarke utilizes a novel technique – tracking the status of last names over time – to solve many previous problems of economic mobility research, which usually only tracked economic shift of 1-2 generations.

Clarke’s method allows him to avoid the noise of only looking at short time horizons.

If a rich person’s son becomes a poet, it might appear that the family was downwardly mobile. However, if the poet’s daughter then becomes a CEO, the downwardly mobile trend is erased – and so on.

Clarke’s main argument is that, over multiple generations, there’s much less mobility than we thought.

Clarke’s results are stunning: the previous literature estimated intergenerational earnings elasticity to be around ~.3; Clarke’s data raises this estimate to ~.8.

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Under Clarke’s estimate, family advantages don’t disappear over two or three generations, but ten to fifteen generations.

Forever Divided: The Long Hold of Original Immigration Patterns

In Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Fischer argues that you can trace many of our country’s current conditions to long-ago immigration patterns from Europe (note: I have not read the book yet, and am largely relying on Scott Alexander’s review). 

Fischer tracks the migrations of the Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, and Scotch-Irish – and shows how current inequities and culture can in many ways be tied to these 400-500 year old immigrations patterns.

In summarizing the book, Scott Alexander makes a few observations:

If this is true, I think it paints a very pessimistic world-view. The “iceberg model” of culture argues that apart from the surface cultural features we all recognize like language, clothing, and food, there are deeper levels of culture that determine the features and institutions of a people: whether they are progressive or traditional, peaceful or warlike, mercantile or self-contained.

And:

If America is best explained as a Puritan-Quaker culture locked in a death-match with a Cavalier-Borderer culture, with all of the appeals to freedom and equality and order and justice being just so many epiphenomena – well, I’m not sure what to do with that information. Push it under the rug? Say “Well, my culture is better, so I intend to do as good a job dominating yours as possible?” Agree that We Are Very Different Yet In The End All The Same And So Must Seek Common Ground? Start researching genetic engineering? Maybe secede? I’m not a Trump fan much more than I’m an Osama bin Laden fan; if somehow Osama ended up being elected President, should I start thinking “Maybe that time we made a country that was 49% people like me and 51% members of the Taliban – maybe that was a bad idea“.

Many have argued that the post-colonial country formation process led to unworkable patchworks of different cultures be thrown into single countries.

Perhaps this is true of the United States as well.

Will This Time Be Different? 

On one hand, all of the above makes me incredibly gloomy about our prospects of evolving our society into a more equal, mobile, and better governed nation.

On the other hand, the sample size is small: humans have only had post hunter and gather economies for relatively small time frame, and our current institutions and technologies are very different than those of a few hundred years ago.

Moreover, there’s one place we have improved things: we’re incredibly more productive and wealth than we used to be.

So perhaps what we need is the equivalent of the industrial revolution but for inequality, mobility, and political culture.

But, at the very least,  baseline predictions should keep us sober: it will take a radical departure from historical trends to change the trajectory of our nation.

What comes after science – religion or politics?

There is some chance that, in the future, we will interact with either (1) aliens who are so much smarter than us that we can’t really comprehend them or (2) artificial intelligence that will far surpass human intelligence.

The Rise of Science 

Over the past few hundred years, science has ascended as one of the primary mental models of humanity. So many of the ideas that we determine to be true, or whose adherence grant status, are born out of science.

This is not to say that religion and politics are unimportant; rather, it’s only to say that for most of humanity science didn’t really exist – and that over the past few hundred science has grown to be a primary mover of humanity.

As far as I can tell, the rise of science has been a generally good thing for humanity, though I’m open to the idea that the hunter and gatherer life was pretty ok – and that science may be the foundation from which we destroy ourselves.

The Limits of Human Science

The limits of human science stem from the limits of the human brain. There’s a reasonable chance that there are truths out there that we will never be able to understand because of our limited brain capacity.

On planet Earth, humans are the best there is at science, so we’ve not yet had to confront the humiliating inadequacy of our science.

But aliens or AI may understand the world in ways which we are simply incapable of mastering.

Then What?

Once we encounter entities that render our science functionally moot – in that it no longer explains the knowledge we know possess from witnessing the wonders of aliens or AI – then human science will lose its usefulness and status at a rapid pace.

At this point, my guess is that either religion or politics will increase in importance.

Religion is the practice of finding meaning in the unknowable.

Politics is the practice of finding meaning in the tribal.

Givent that aliens or AI would be knowable, my guess is that politics would trump religion and science in this new world.

Humanity, at this point, might divide itself in accordance to (1) tribal affiliation to specific alien or AI personalities or (2) tribal affiliation of how to interact with the knowledge that we are intellectually inferior to other beings.

Putting Science in Its Place

Human science is a pretty amazing thing, but it’s dominance is probably temporary.

What Happens When What Works for Children Doesn’t Feel Good?

Closing schools does not feel good: it’s painful for families, educators, and politicians.

But closing schools, and opening new better schools, can dramatically help low-income children.

Sometimes, the best thing that can happen to a child is for her school to close.

Closing Schools Led to a +.3 SD Gain for Elementary Students in NOLA 

In New Orleans, Tulane researchers found that closing schools and creating new better schools led to very significant achievement gains:

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Elementary students who attended a failing school started .1 SD behind their matched peers – two years later, these same students were .2SD ahead of their matched peers.

This +.3 SD impact is higher than the impacts of most educational interventions, and it equates to closing about 33% of the black-white student achievement gap.

You Don’t Have to Harm Existing Children for the Sake of Future Children

What’s incredible about these results is that the students whose schools were closed increased their student achievement.

Before seeing this data, my guess would have been that closing schools slightly harms existing students but is much better for future students who get to attend a better school without going through the disruption of closure.

But the NOLA data indicates that it’s possible to help both existing and future students, which should increase your belief in the benefits of school closure.

You Should Not Close Failing Schools and Send Children to Other Failing Schools 

In Baton Rouge, school closure did not lead to positive effects. This seems to be because these students enrolled into other failing schools after their original school was closed.

 

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For school closure to work, a city needs to either have open spaces in existing higher-performing schools or be opening new high-quality schools.

There are Good and Bad Ways to Close Schools

School closures are hard, but they can be done with respect. Families deserve to know why their schools are being closed; families should get support (and preference in unified enrollment systems) in finding a better school; and political leaders should ensure that empty school buildings are put to good use for the community.

Unfortunately, in many cities, political officials do not close schools thoughtfully. Instead of being honest with families about the poor performance of the school, they let failing schools linger for year until enrollment dwindles and the school folds academically and financially.

It is Difficult to Scale Something that Causes Political Pain

It is unclear to me whether or not deliberate school closure will scale. Reforms that cause political pain tend not to do well over time.

However, opening new great schools need not be politically painful, which bodes well for continued charter growth.

Of course, continued charter growth can lead to the closure of failing schools – and this is exactly why charter moratoriums have some political support.

Charter moratoriums have the potential to reduce pain for adults even as they inflict pain on children.

Can New Orleans Continue to Close Schools? Should It?

Over the past few years, academic performance has stagnated in New Orleans:

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During this time, there has also been a reduction in school closure activity.

So here is an interesting question: has the stagnation in performance been caused because New Orleans ate up most of the low-hanging fruit of closing schools, or has the stagnation in performance been caused because New Orleans has slowed down on closing failing schools?

At this point, I’m not familiar enough with the data to have strong opinions.

But I do worry that New Orleans, especially as it moves toward more local control, may stop using one of the strategies that has proven to dramatically improve the achievement of its students.

Advice -> Endorphins or Habit Change?

There are many inspirational posters on many walls across the world.

Most of these posters do not change the behaviors of those who purchase them, frame them, hang them, and look at them.

Rather, most of the posters deliver a sequence of endorphin boosts that very quickly fade.

In a short matter of time you pass the poster and you feel nothing.

Why Do People Seek Advice? 

Most people who seek advice are not that serious about changing their behavior.

They want to change their behavior, and they want to feel the endorphin rush of wanting to change their behavior, but they do not want to put in the work that behavior change requires.

People like to feel that they can change.

People like to get advice on how to change.

People do not like the process of change.

If you are seeking advice, you’d do well to be aware of why you are seeking advice.

If you are giving advice, you’d do well to clearly articulate what it will require to implement this advice.

Or, at the very least, understand an advice session for what it is: a form of human banter that makes everyone feel good at the time but has little lasting effect.

What Advice Have You Received that Has Become a Habit? 

It’s worth reflecting on what advice you have received that has become a mental habit, both to reflect if you’re doing the hard work of behavior change, as well as to understand why some advice leads to change and some does not.

Here are some pieces of advice that have truly change how I think and act:

Nobody promised us anything (my father): As my father was dying from Parkinson’s disease, I asked him if he was sad, and he responded: nobody promised us anything. I think about this phrase a lot – as well as a sister phrase that I’ve incorporated into my thinking: the world is not ordered for my own happiness. When I am feel frustrated, indignant, or consumed with self-pity, I say this phrase to myself and, in the moment, reorient my mindset as best as I can, which is often a good amount.

Workout and mediate everyday (self-help books): Basically every self-help / self-improvement book I’ve read and have hammered home the importance of exercise and meditation. And for good reason! It’s taken time, but I’m not at least 5-6 days a week for both. Working out and meditation have become long-term habits.

Lead congruent organizations / teams (Nancy Euske, NSNO management team): After a few initial failures, I am now very deliberate about leading teams and organizations that have an explicitly aligned mission, strategy, culture, structure, tactics, people management systems, and goals.

I’m sure there are other pieces of advice that have become habits – but these standout to me in that they have greatly impacted my life, five years ago I did none of these three with any regularity, and I continually track my behavior to ensure the habits stick.

The Biggest Mistake I Made with Habits

For years, I would read books for knowledge rather than behavioral change. For some types of books (novels, history, etc.) this is fine. For many other types of books (business, self-help, etc.), this is not fine.

But I get high off learning new information, which is dangerous. I used to rip through dozens of business and self-help books a year – and while this made be an interesting dinner party companion (or terrible depending on your conversation tastes) – it rarely led to behavior change.

Now, I only read a business or self-help book if: (1) I have the time to read it deliberately enough to draw out behavior change possibilities; and  (2) I have the time to practice and implement the behavior changes.

The Ability to Adopt New Habits is an Incredible Competitive Advantage

Most people will spend over forty years working.

Over the course of a career, being able to adopt a few important habits a year will provide an incredible competitive advantage over people who do not adopt important habits.

Growth mindset and intellectual curiosity are amazing mindsets – but it’s the ability to form habits that unleashes their true power.

Will America Ever Have Integrated Schools?

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All else being equal, I think it would be better if public schools were integrated. I find the individual and societal rationales for increasing integration to be very compelling.

However, I do not understand how America will achieve integrated public schools in the next few decades.

If others see a realistic path to integration, I’d love to better understand these arguments.

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Here is why I am skeptical that we will achieve school integration over the next few decades:

White Families Don’t Want to be in the Minority: As recent research demonstrates, white families want to send their children to schools where they aren’t a signficant minority. Most major urban education systems are 75%+ minority, so the math simply doesn’t work. You can’t scale schools with significant white enrollment when white families only make up a small minority of students.

White Families Won’t Send Their Children to Poor Neighborhoods: I’m skeptical that, at scale, white families will bus their children into poor neighborhoods. This means integrated schools can only really be located in either gentrifying or wealthier neighborhoods. It seems (rightfully) unfeasible that cities will stop operating schools in poor neighborhoods – yet having schools operate in poor neighborhoods will prevent integration.

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In short:

  1. If your policy solutions goes against the desires of the vast majority of white people; and
  2. You need white people to participate in your solution; and
  3. Even if you get your policy passed, white people can escape the policy through moving to a nearby town or opting-out of the public system; then
  4. You’re in for a long, hard battle.

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All of this being said, I spend most of time working on a strategy that most people think will not scale, so I’m very sympathetic to reformers trying to change the world against tough odds.

But if you’re trying to change the world you need to be able to tell a story of how you might succeed – and, to date, I haven’t been able to understand this story for school integration.

But this might simply be my own ignorance. If anyone can point me to writings that better tell the strategy story, I’ll eagerly dig in.

How Black Lives Matter Has Affected Me

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I don’t know that I have anything particularly insightful to say about the deaths of Alton Sterling or Philandro Castile, or regarding the deaths of police officers in Dallas.

There are other more important voices to be heard, including the families of the victims and all of those putting their lives on the line in the on-going protests.

But the events of the past few weeks have surely been cause for further introspection – and in case it’s of use to others – I’ll share those below.

One additional note: for me, there has often been an inverse correlation between the intensity of a situation and my emotional tenor. When blood is boiling around me, my blood cools – this has had both positive and negative effects in my life, and in part explains the tone of this post.

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How has Black Lives Matter affected me?

I feel the issue in a way I never did before. Working in education in New Orleans, I’ve surely been exposed to the idea that too often black lives don’t matter. But there is nothing as visceral is video. Watching Tamir Rice being slain; Walter Scott being mowed down – the videos have dug into my conscience – and they have forced me to emotionally and intellectually confront a dark corner of America that I don’t experience in my day-to-day life.

It’s made me question myself. In my younger days, I was more willing to throw myself into the most difficult situations. As a law student, I lived in a war torn Sierra Leone and worked at an international war crimes tribunal because I thought I could be a part of serving those who had been devastated by violence. I thought much less about my own well-being in those days. Now, when I watch the protests, I wonder: do I still have it in me? How much am I willing to sacrifice my own well-being for others? Or am I only willing  to do good if I’m well compensated and get to work with my friends in a cool organization? I also am struck with deep admiration for those who do have it in them.

It’s made me question my role. Due to some combination of temperament, intellectual interest, and ego – I’m wired to be a doer and not an ally. It’s much easier for me to throw myself into something if I’m a leader in the charge. I’m realizing how difficult it is for me to throw myself into something when I’m a walk on player in the fight. Despite my heritage (my father was African-American and mother is an Indian immigrant), I’ve never deeply internalized either of these cultural identities; they are surely part of who I am, and they make me different than white Americans, but still, I find myself on the outside looking in… perhaps I need to broaden my definition of what it means to be a leader.

It’s made me listen more: Reading the twitter feeds and blogs and Facebook posts of Black Lives Matter leaders has drilled into me that you can’t understand something without listening to those who are most affected by it. This doesn’t mean data and analysis is not useful, only that it will always be incomplete. Additionally, I’ve also found myself reading Fox News a little bit more, as I’ve tried to deepen my understanding of those who are troubled by Black Lives Matter. This has also made me empathize with the dangers that good cops face in very difficult situations.

It’s driven home a view that we need to hold physical peace as sacred: In watching the videos of black people being killed – as well as police officers being killed – there has been one constant refrain in my  head: couldn’t death have been avoided? As a nation, if I had one wish, it was that we would be more physically peaceful. Everything can be walked back but death.

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So I’ve been affected by Black Lives Matter in deep ways – but what to do?

I’m still struggling with this, so all feedback is appreciated.

First, I want to do my job better. When I’m being lazy, or not thinking things through hard enough, or not being obsessively anxious about solving the hardest problems, I want the videos of the victims to be seared in my brain on replay. I’m in the fortunate position of being able to deploy a lot of capital to increase educational opportunities for black children. And while I don’t think education is the primary issue here, it is the area I have the most control over, so my opportunity for impact is probably greatest. And I do believe that providing great educational opportunities to black children will help them defend themselves against racism, as well as help them fight it. This should not be their burden, but it likely will be.

Second, I want to increase my effort to listen to more diverse voices. It shouldn’t take a video of someone being murdered for me to stay woke. To operationalize this, I’ve set a quarterly goal of reaching out to three people in each city I work in – people who don’t fit neatly into my existing personal and professional circles.

Third – and this more about mindset than immediate action – but I want to better define when and why I’d be willing to accept chaos and upheaval in my own life in order to help others.