Saturday, July 8, 2017

What They Deserve

Before we get started, let me be clear-- this is not ALL conservatives, and in many cases not ONLY conservatives. But there is a thread that runs through current aspects of conservatism that ties many issues, from education to health care, together.

As has been noted to the point that we are flogging the marrow inside the stripped bones unearthed from beneath the dead equine flesh, there are a lot of people who are angry. There is a full range of sources for this anger, but I want to focus on one-- the anger that some people are not getting what they deserve. Specifically, those people are getting far more than they deserve while escaping the suffering they should be experiencing. This anger about just deserts, about people escaping the consequences their shoulders should be rightfully bowed under.

Take the arguments about reproduction. There are points on which reasonable people can disagree, but some opponents of abortion and, in fact, birth control are well beyond that. Peel back their rhetoric, and you find this rationale-- sex is dirty and only a dirty nasty woman would ever have sex for any reason other than to provide children for her husband. Women who enjoy recreational sex are Bad People, and allowing them to have abortions or even birth control is enabling their bad behavior. They should be made to suffer the consequences of their slutty activities, i.e. pregnancy and childbirth. Anything that allows them to escape pregnancy is allowing them to get off scott free, and that's just not what they deserve.

When we want to talk about getting people what they deserve, the free market often comes up. Again-- not all free market fans are righteously angry true believers. But for many the free market is a perfect mechanism for getting people what they deserve-- and no more. When some advocates for free market health care insurance start talking about choice, it can seem nuts to suggest that poor folks get crappier insurance as a consequence of their freedom-enhanced choice rather than their financial inability to buy the good stuff. But the idea here is that your socio-economic status is the result of your own choices and behavior. Rich people have more choices; that's supposed to be the point of being rich. To use government support or subsidies or tax dollars to give poor folks those same kinds of choices as rich folks is giving them something they don't deserve, that they didn't earn fair and square. (Besides, good and virtuous people who live right don't need much health care, anyway.)

The same is true for education. When (some) angry folks declare that we are spending too much money on schools in this country, they're saying that we're spending too much money on poor folks, who should get the choices they deserve-- and no more.

It's a simple formula. Success comes to people who exercise virtue, talent, and hard work. If you aren't successful, it must be because you didn't exercise those qualities. The rewards, the choices, the money, the extra homes, the nice cars, the good health care, the choice of the best private schools-- these are the benefits that accrue to the virtuous-and-therefor-wealthy few. People who want the rewards without the effort are like people who want a medal but aren't willing to train for or run the race. They didn't do the work; they don't deserve the rewards. In fact, withholding those rewards is doing them a favor, because they will be motivated to make better choices.

If we teachers are honest, we understand this way of thinking. Who among us have not sat in a lounge and complained about a student who doesn't study, doesn't do the work, doesn't make the effort, but is still upset that we didn't "give" him a better grade.

It's different, isn't it? The student could have done the work, could have studied, could have achieved better.What's the difference between the slacker in my fourth period class and slacker on welfare?

Well,  we know that while socio-economic status is not destiny, it casts a heavy shadow, most notably in the number of do-overs. Wealthy folks are entitled to extra chances because, after all, they're not Those Kind of people. Consider abortions-- safe, clean abortions will always be available to the wealthy. All we're ever really discussing is whether or not we're going to let Those People-- the poor ones, the black or brown ones, the trailer trash, the people who clearly don't deserve a break. All those signifiers help us decide what Those People really deserve.

Why do we get so caught up in deciding what other people deserve? I don't know-- and I think about this often. Some of it is simple classism and racism. Some of it is just cranky, judgy human nature. And I think some of it is sour grapes. "I've followed the rules, done what I'm supposed to do, stayed in a marriage that's iffy because I'm supposed to, stuck with a job because that's what you do, and yet I'm not ending up with the kind of happy ending a good rules follower is supposed to get," the thinking may go. "How the hell can that person who's breaking all the rules be doing well and happy?! The universe or God or the government isn't punishing Those People with what they really deserve. They haven't stayed in place, and yet bad things aren't happening to them. Maybe I'll try to fix that."

In education, we need to pay attention to this angry thread. Not just because it animates one wing of the charter biz ("We will decide what kind of school Those People in that part of town deserve") but because we're in the assessment and evaluation business, which is located in the ethical strip mall just two doors down from the judgment business. It is easy to lose the thread. I started my career working with a guy whose grading system was largely opaque because mostly he just judged his students based on his perception of their character and gave them a grade accordingly.

We are invited to make judgy calls daily. Does this kid deserve extra help or not? Does this kid deserve an extra chance to complete the assignment or not? Do I give this kid's cockamamie story the benefit of the doubt, or assume she's a liar?

Come down on the wrong side of this too many times and you can find yourself wrestling with your students, gaming your own classroom system so that you can make sure that kid gets the grade he deserves-- and no more.

We live in judgy times. Our political discourse skips straight past arguments and into the judgment phase, announced by pungent name calling. Many of our current leaders are dedicated to making sure that none of Those People get away with what they don't deserve, making sure that Those People are put in their proper place with the meager rewards they deserve-- and no more. When some folks talk about freedom to choose and equal opportunity, they mean giving everyone the same tools and the same options. Other folks mean that every person is capable of behaving properly, and if they made the choices that landed them in poverty or the hospital or a lousy neighborhood, well, they chose to exercise their personal responsibility poorly. That's we can arrive at the argument that the free market gives everyone choice, the idea that the GOP health care bill will drop 22 million people not by pushing them out, but because they will choose to get out. Sure. And just today I chose not to buy a Lexus or a mansion.

Freedom extends only as far as the choices available to you, and our economic system doles out more choices to some than to others. For some people that is a defect to be corrected and for others it is a core feature to be preserved, the distinction based on your idea of how, why and by whom those choices have been limited.

Yes, all we need to know in order to decide what somebody deserves is the entire circumstances of their lives, their parents' lives, the context of all that, and of course our own solid sense of what True Justice entails.

And man it is hard. The student who rails against the injustice of being fired just because he skipped work twelve times. The student whose stated career objective is to cash welfare checks and smoke dope-- and who follows that plan upon graduation.Or the guy who lives off his inheritance while running a grifters epic long con into the White House. It is hard not to look at some people without concluding that what they deserve is a world hurt, a house that falls out of the sky and onto their heads.

As a citizen, I sort my impulses into the desire to give someone chances and the desire to take opportunities away. The former I honor and the latter I try to deny. But as a citizen, I have little power to make either impulse real. In the classroom, I have huge power to make both real, and I have to be mindful of how I use that power every day. What they deserve is every chance I can give them.


  1. Great analysis! Isn't it ironic that more and more of the wealthy who feel they clearly deserve more because they earned it did NOTHING to earn that wealth. They inherited it, which in their mind, obviously entitles them to more! Yeah, that makes sense!

  2. Or the guy who lives off his inheritance while running a grifters epic long con into the White House.
    I am so stealing that.

  3. Brilliant piece, just love it - you nailed it once again. Wish I could get everybody I know to read and reflect on this whole big idea here, that we really do so need to be mindful of today in the U.S.

  4. The thing about a lot of wealthy people is, most of them did NOT inherit their current wealth. What they likely did get was a leg up by their parents doing perhaps a few small things for them - paying for college, giving them a downpayment (or the entire payment) for a new home, leaving them a decent chunk of cash (not millions but perhaps a few hundred thousand) when they died, etc. In other cases, they were just enormously lucky - maybe they grew up when college and homes and cars were relatively inexpensive and growth was practically exponential.

    So, they started the game on 1st or 2nd base and all the while begin with the premise that everyone is either A) more or less on equal footing from the start or, B) that anyone can simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they just have the will to do so. Sure, they work hard and build their wealth over time but they were gifted some pretty major advantages that they either downplay or outright refuse to acknowledge. This creates a sense of "I wasn't handed anything and had to earn my own way" which, like most canards and stereotypes, has a kernel of truth to it so cannot be completely dismissed but is backfilled mostly with smug self-indulgence and grandstanding.

    Ultimately, they want to believe that everyone can recreate the circumstances of their own life (which is, in their mind, hard-fought and won; not necessarily false in it's own way but not nearly as impressive considering the advantages they had from the start) and do what they did if they just weren't so damn lazy/incompetent/immoral. It really is a new form of aristocracy and serfdom - those of "low breeding/stock" are just not good people or they would be more wealthy and successful. To them, it's just a natural system and government should be used to reinforce that system, not break it down.

    1. I really like your take on this. Most of the few well-off people I know work really hard. But they don't work harder than me. And they for sure don't work harder than my father, who was dirt-poor most of his life. The difference is mostly that their backgrounds, connections and the confidence induced by a secure safety net has allowed them to leverage that hard work into much greater success than the rest of us. This whole piece reminds me of the Greg Brown song "Just a Bum" where Greg reminds us that "time ain't money when all you got is time."

    2. Metta, you and Peter have described perfectly two world views that are usually diametrically in opposition to each other. I honestly cannot understand the notion that government should reinforce a system based on social Darwinism, that it must not try to break down the socio-economic divisions that separate us. Our culture and many of our organized religions adhere to this "value", and it makes little sense to me.

  5. "Rich people have more choices; that's supposed to be the point of being rich. To use government support or subsidies or tax dollars to give poor folks those same kinds of choices as rich folks is giving them something they don't deserve, that they didn't earn fair and square."

    Yes, that is a pretty good encapsulation of the conservative world view. So someone needs to explain to me then how vouchers are a conservative position? Since when have conservatives ever been in favor of handing out money to the undeserving so they can "have the same choices as the rich"?