Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Fear of Emasculation

For the last several months, I've been reading the newspaper less and less.  It seemed like the same story, over and over again.  And since the story was so depressing I asked myself, why bother?  Sunday was different.  I read quite a few pieces - mainly opinion as is my habit - on what seemed like a variety of topics.  I wondered if it was possible to connect the dots between them in some way.  To make that more concrete, I asked the following question.  Is the news about Google from last week somehow connected to what recently occurred in Charlottesville?

As you might guess from reading my title, I believe there is a connection and that is it.  Here's a bit of disclaimer before going further.  I tend to see connection in disparate things.  Sometimes those are really there.  Other times, I'm probably forcing the issue beyond what the evidence suggests.  In those cases where I'm right, making note of the connection provides some insight into the underlying causality.  We really do need to understand the causality before we talk about remedies, both those currently in place and potential alternatives.  In this piece, I won't consider remedies at all and will focus only on the underlying issue.  I will do this by considering a variety of snippets that are neither current nor directly related to these matters.  They are meant to illuminate and bring out the parallels that seem evident to me.

Let's begin with this one, a clip from SNL circa 1990, when I still watched the show - Hans and Franz Pumping You Up.   The bit is a parody of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was at the height of his film popularity then.  (Terminator 2 - Hasta la vista, baby - would come out the following year.)  Satirical comedy of this sort gives some insight into popular stereotypes, in this case what it means to be a man.  It is about being strong, but it is more than that.  It is being strong of a certain type.  This is not strong in the sense of speak softly but carry a big stick.  This is totally in your face.  It is talking trash, the way Larry Bird talked trash.  Talking trash includes putdowns of rivals.  The ultimate putdown for Hans and Franz is to call somebody a girly man.  (You can hear that usage around the 1:35 mark of the clip.  Dana Carvey as Hans is talking then.)

So there are two take aways from this particular example.  One is the implied phobia in males from being identified with feminine characteristics - somehow this make you less manly and you should be ashamed if that is the case.  The other is that the notion of what it means to be strong may have changed from the time I was a kid to when this SNL skit was aired.  With the earlier notion a strong person was courageous but didn't show bluster.  That would have been unseemly. With the later version, it's part of the package.  It may be that both versions co-exist now, in which case we should ask when one will prevail and not the other as well as why that is the case.

This next snip is from my class last fall, a blog post by a student who writes under an alias, the first real post of the course.  The class in on The Economics of Organizations and the prompt for this post asked for students to discuss some of their own experiences with organizations.  He wrote about his fraternity, a very interesting read for the mindset it illustrates.  He writes about how the ritual of initiation transformed him and his fellow pledges from a boy into a man.  Many years earlier I had a student who joined the Marines after taking my course; I believe he enlisted for this purpose of entering manhood.  When I next saw him after his training had concluded, he had gotten noticeably thicker in the chest and the upper arms.  In my class from last fall there was a different student who was in ROTC.  He had done a summer of boot camp of some sort in Northern Virginia.  From the little I know about it, I believe such intensive experiences can be transformative.  I was far more skeptical that one hell week in a frat could have a like effect.

After describing the initiation process he discussed how the national organization had banned the initiation week, as something entirely unnecessary.  He was very upset by that.  He thought the ritual of initiation integral to what the fraternity was about.  Eliminating the ritual would eventually kill the fraternity.  He thought the people at the national were misguided in banning the practice and he felt aggrieved about it as a consequence.  His fellow fraternity members were likewise aggrieved.

I wrote extensive comments on this post.  I deliberately didn't engage my own skepticism about what he argued, but instead looked at what the national was doing from the lens of liability insurance and limiting the chance that liability occurs after some incident at the frat where things went too far and turned out horribly wrong, along with another argument about maturing without the need for a rite of passage like fraternity initiation.  In his response (which was quite tardy) he engaged the second argument, but not the first.  He was able to maintain his grievance that way.  It was important to him, so I perceived, that he not cave in.

I should note that a different student in the class also wrote about the general issue of the University cracking down on the Greek system and that the bad press that fraternities and sororities have received the past few years had been unfair.  She reported that her sorority was disadvantaged as a consequence.  She made the point that the bad actors were usually fraternities, not sororities, but the new rules applied equally to both.  There is thus the similarity between the two posts about feeling resentment toward the new rules.  But this second post didn't try to defend sorority practices as fundamental to personal transformation of the sorority members.   A couple of years earlier I had a student who was then president of her sorority and she used that as an example for most every post.  She referred to the members as girls, not women, which I found noteworthy.  She also gave the distinct impression that most members who were not sorority officers were interested in the sorority primarily as a means for having fun, which for me is not hard to imagine at all, but is hard to reconcile with the notion of personal transformation.

In any event, it is useful to consider the fraternity as a metaphor, for the type of people it attracts and the mental outlook it encourages in its members.  There are service fraternities and academically oriented fraternities that are not based in a common living arrangement.  There are also student organizations that are similar to fraternities but don't call themselves that.  One of those that I'm a little bit aware of is ACM, which attracts students interested in programming and other computer science and computer engineering issues.  At least at Illinois, when I was told about it (fall 2009), the student members talked trash with one another as the normal banter within the group.

This third snippet is meant to suggest there are other possibilities for what it means to be a man (really what it means to be an adult).  I wrote about this in a post on my dad's morality and whether it holds up today.  I was discussing various principles that taken together gave the core of my dad's beliefs.  This is the most relevant paragraph to the current discussion.

The second comes from when I was a working adult and my parents had moved to Century Village West, a very large condominium community for retirees, most of whom are Jewish.  We referred to the men who lived there as AKs, my dad included.  This bit of philosophy is how the world seems from the perspective of an AK.  My dad divided the adult non-retired population into two groups.  Most were in the first group, SHs.  (My dad would say the SH word out in long form.  I'm using initials here only because I'd prefer not to write an expletive repeatedly in this post.)  These people were SHs because they cared about themselves only and were quite willing to screw others for personal benefit.  The much smaller group were human beings (or in Yiddish mensches).  When I would visit my parents in Century Village I would completely surrender myself to their rhythms and ways of doing things, the only way I knew that we'd all get along.  Being a mensch meant you did whatever it took to get along.  In this case the ethical imploration was, don't be an SH.

Let's make a few further points on this.  First, while the notion of a mensch is fundamentally Jewish, by the time I was a kid the idea had penetrated the popular culture, as evidenced by this schmaltzy movie, The Apartment.  Second, similar notions can be found in other religions.  Human decency is the core idea.  Yet, recalling my dad's expression, SH's exist in all religions.  Hatefulness is in no short supply.  If people can barely fend for themselves, their selfishness may be easier to understand and accept.  Otherwise, it is hard to tolerate.  Third, it may be that most of us act one way as the general rule, but then in special domains we act either even more like a mensch, as I did when visiting my parents in their condo, or more like an SH, talking trash when in some competition.  Around the time of that Hans and Franz bit, a group of us, professors and graduate students mainly from the Econ department, would have boys night out and play some poker about once a month.  The talk at the card table was a little more aggressive, though we played dime-quarter with a three-raise limit to deliberately keep the maximum somebody would lose within reasonable bounds.  The point here is that competition calls for a different tone than when you are helping somebody out.

My sense of things is that those who try to be a mensch and have been doing so for some time don't fear emasculation, though if I may take myself as an example, there are many other things of which such people might be phobic.  Being a mensch doesn't cure those fears, only this particular one.  Indeed, being a mensch may expose you more to these other fears as it requires shedding some layers of self-protection in order to open up oneself to others.   People who view manhood as strength, in contrast, have an inner fear of emasculation.  (Recall the scene from the Godfather with Johnny Fontaine.)  That is true whether the strength is physical or intellectual.  The fear may remain dormant when the person is successful.  It comes out when the person is put under extreme stress, where the person isn't capable of relieving that stress on his own.

I want to bring in one more snippet and then tie all of them taken together to the current news.  This one is about the first episode of the TV miniseries, Centennial, entitled Only the Rocks Live Forever, with a focus on the character Pasquinel, who is a French Canadian trapper and trader.  He has traveled far into the wilderness in what is now Colorado.  He is the embodiment of manhood as strength.  Yet he is fair with the Indians he encounters.  He has an initial harrowing experience with the Arapaho chief Lame Beaver, but they both stand down.  Soon thereafter they become trusted friends.  Lame Beaver, before he dies, requests that Paquinel marry his daughter.  Pasquinel honors this request.  Yet  Pasquinel is no saint.  Far from it.  He also takes another wife, this time white, one who lives in St. Louis and is the daughter of one of his business partners.  The polygamy notwithstanding, even though it creates some awkwardness because he can only be in one place at a time, Pasquinel treats people decently as long as they have done no harm to him.  He is ruthless with those who have stolen from him or who try to hurt him.  So this snippet illustrates that the strong person who treats others with disregard or is mean to them, when there has been no prior provocation, creates a distortion of the ideal that the Pasquinel character embodies, where human decency is both the norm and the initial way to behave.  Selfishness by the strong as a first move should not be championed.

* * * * *

To make the previous discussion operational, one needs some model as to how the fears we have influence our behavior and our preferences with regard to the preferred culture in which to live and work.  I am not a psychologist nor a sociologist.  So I will do some hand waving here.  My underlying assumption is that the psychology of misogyny and the psychology of racism are fundamentally the same.  They are both about boosting the ego of the practitioner, to cover up for fundamental fears.  There are surely differences in degree.  If there are also differences in kind, what I say next is somewhat off, perhaps totally off.  I will treat each as an aggressive response to the fear of emasculation.

I have reached this point in writing this essay without having read James Damore's essay about Google culture.  I had read several pieces about the essay, but hadn't read it myself.  I've just had a look.  My reaction follows.  I want to note this sequencing here for the following reason.  It may seem that I cooked the above to refute what Damore has to say.  I did not.  What actually happened is that I found this piece in the News-Gazette where the CS Department here criticizes Damore's essay.  From this I learned he is a U of I grad, class of 2010, though in Biology rather than Computer Science.  The thing is, his date of graduation is near to when I learned the little bit I did about ACM.  Was Damore a member of ACM when he was a student here?  That would be an interesting tidbit to know.  In any event, having garnered this background information I began to make the connection between Damore and my student from last fall whom I wrote about above.  The similarities seemed strong to me, especially in each holding to their own view passionately and in each possessing a strong sense of grievance.

Pretty early in Damore's essay the reader is confronted with this table in a section called Google's Biases.  This precedes any discussion of gender. I really just want to focus on the table, but because the PDF split it across two pages, my screen shot includes some of the surrounding text as well and I will make note of one bit of that.



I found the expression"deep moral preferences and thus biases" puzzling.  Let me suggest what I have in mind via recommending that we take an axiomatic approach.  We should first identify a few axioms that constitutes what it means to be ethical.  If you are religious, that might be the ten commandments. Alternatively, you might consider a set of ethical principles as articulated by some political philosopher, such as John Rawls in his essay Justice as Fairness.  I went through such an exercise in a post called A schlub in a business school, which was written 9 years ago when the economy was tanking and where it was quite evident that the burst of the housing bubble was due to a massive amount of irresponsible behavior - predatory lending, if you will.  So, I started with the question, what does responsibility mean?  (At the time there was a lot of discussion about responsibility in my college.)  I deconstructed responsibility into three axioms: 1) responsibility as obligation, 2) responsibility as enlightened self-interest, and 3) responsibility as belief in The Golden Rule. Now this may not be perfect.  Defining the boundary of each of these is likely to be quite difficult and, as I have noted recently, the philosopher Peter Singer makes the same point about the difficulty with determining the boundary.  I can also imagine that the ethical system we focus on not make responsibility the exclusive province.  But in any system that I can envision, The Golden Rule or some equivalent would be one of the axioms.

Now, to continue with this program, there might be Left Preferences about social behavior that provide a set of additional axioms and Right Preferences about social behavior that offer a different set of additional axioms.  Then, take the common axioms that are the ethical principles and the two different sets of preference axioms and from that derive something like the table that Damore gives us.  In this exercise, you can't choose your ethical principles.  They are there for moral people to adhere to.  You can choose your political preferences and we might disagree about those.

Given that program, we might then go in the opposite direction.  Take a table such as what Damore provides.  Can the ethical principles be extracted from those.  In particular, can The Golden Rule be extracted from those.  My reading of the table is that The Golden Rule can be extracted from the Left Biases column, but it can't be extracted from the Right Biases column.  If Damore or some other Conservative can show convincingly that my reading of the table is in error and they can get The Golden Rule out from their side of the table, then we can have a conversation.  Otherwise, this table appears to be the artifice of an SH who wants to claim the moral high ground, when no such claim is warranted.

I also found the table too reductive to be useful to me.  I am entirely ignorant of how things are inside Google, but my hope is that it would be too reductive there as well.  As I mentioned in the previous section, I try to be a mensch, which if the table did make sense would put in on the left side.  But I find I'm in all the boxes, to some degree.  For example, on the top line, I want my undergraduate students to call me Professor Arvan and not address me by my first name, yet I will go out of my way to help a struggling student, as long as I can see the student is trying. This is such a simple example too.  How can the table accurately describe people's preferences in a much more complex setting?  On the next line, for example, weren't most of us taught that we're the outcome of both nature and nurture?  I still subscribe to that view.   Yet I believe that some differences are better explained by variation in inherent talents, even while I also believe in the importance of Deliberate Practice as described by Ericsson, et. al.   Even this, however, is not sufficient.  We must come to terms with the observation that income mobility is far less in the U.S. than in other developed countries.  This makes our system seemed rigged, an argument advanced by Richard Reeves in an Op-Ed piece in the NY Times, Stop Pretending You're Not Rich.  If the system is rigged, there is a problem with the entry on the second line in the right column.  Of course, Reeves works at Brookings, a left-leaning think tank.  So Damore and his buddies might be inclined to disregard that argument.  Yet the income mobility facts themselves are not in dispute, as far as I know.

There is a second issue with the table that I don't get.  Damore was an employee at Google until he was let go.  He was not part of Google's management team.  Doesn't management have the prerogative to run the company as it wants, subject to Board approval.  If Damore thinks Google's management is making an error by enforcing the left column of the table then: (1) Wouldn't the market discipline Google for making that mistake?  Is there any evidence of such market discipline?  (2) Couldn't Damore find work elsewhere at another company that doesn't make that mistake or start up his own venture?  (3) And, in the meantime, couldn't Damore live the left column at work and the right column when he is on his own time (and then not needing to write that memo)?

On point (3) I'd like to bring in a fact that I learned from this piece, I'm a woman in computer science.  Let me ladysplain the Google memo to you.  (Otherwise, I will not take on the arguments in that essay.)  Google is an elite employer, hiring only 1% of its applicants, presumably the best and the brightest.  This F. Scott Fitzgerald quote therefore seems relevant.

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

If Damore and other Google employees can, in fact, do this, why is there such a strong sense of grievance?  Is it that they don't want to do this, because that offends their sensibilities?  In other words, is there no anti-productive effective at all by playing the left column, only some disgruntled male employees who nonetheless are as productive as they would be otherwise?  Or, perhaps, there might be some anti-productive effect, which could indicate that these employees are not quite as talented as they think they are.

There are two other issues with the table as structured.  There is no concept of social distance associated with it, no sense that we might behave differently with those very close to us, our immediate family and our very good friends, than with those who are somewhat close, and again differently with people we don't know at all. One way to reconcile my being in every cell of the table is to bring social distance into the discussion.  I am more on the left hand side with those close to me, more on the right with those who are far away. Unlike Damore, I do value collegiality, a lot.  And as I have written recently, I come to treat people who might potentially become close to me, students or work colleagues, with a sense of affection at the outset.  Most won't penetrate my outer boundary, but a few will and I'd like to encourage the possibility.  I will readily admit to there being jerks in the world - quite a lot of them in my experience.  My preference would be to not have to deal with them at all.  My having authority is useful for dealing with jerks.  Then I can say bugger off (or other words to that effect).  Authority is not useful for bringing people closer.  For that, we're all the same at core, though clearly possessing our own idiosyncratic characteristics, which is what makes the interactions fun and engaging.

Given this omission, one has to wonder why it's not considered.  This may be a generational thing.  For people that I feel close to my preferred mode of interaction is face to face conversation over coffee or a meal.  Online interaction is great, especially in being able to stay in touch with a much larger circle of people than I otherwise could, but if face to face conversation is available it is much better.  The Sherry Turkle critique applies to my generation as well as to Millenials, but my generation still has this affinity for face to face conversation.  If Millenials have a greater fraction of their interactions online, particularly on their phones where by the nature of the medium text messaging is terse, much potential richness in the discussion is lost. This may create the impression that everyone else is equidistant.  If that is true, then one is apt to embrace a more pure form of interaction, either always on the left side of the table or always on the right.  It is this purity which I find so frightening.  This gets me to the next point.

There is also the issue of whether unrestrained authority eventually goes over the deep end, particularly when operating under stress.  A good read about this is John Hersey's The War Lover.  (I thought the movie version with Steve McQueen and Robert Wagner wasn't very good.  To get a sense of the issues here you need to read the book.)  Self-restraint on this is surely better than external constraint.  Self-restraint, in turn, emerges when even those with immense authority nonetheless possess a modicum of human decency and likewise, those followers of the authority figure also maintain an element of human decency.  On this one, I was pleasantly surprised by Stanley McChrystal's Op-Ed, Save PBS.  It makes us safer.  This is one example of somebody most of us would associate with the right column of the table operating on the other side.  In my ideal, we would all do that.  We would differ in degree, to be sure, but we would be not be purely on one side or the other.  All things in moderation.  This is where self-restraint comes from.  Otherwise the possibility of going over the deep end seems far too likely.  The examples of that abound. 

This concludes my simple critique of Damore's argument, without ever getting at the gender issues.  I believe there are fundamental flaws before you get that far.  When I used to read economic working papers that one of my colleagues wrote (this was in the 1980s and early 1990s), once I found a serious error I would stop reading the rest of the paper. This would infuriate my friend and co-author Jan Bruckner, though he would nonetheless want me to have a read of his next paper (or the paper written by one of his students) because he valued my criticism.   In the case of Damore's paper, I did read further, more to get a sense of what the furor was about than for any other reason.  Many others have commented on it.  I will leave it at that.

I wish the simple critique would suffice, but it does not.  Attention must now shift from Damore's memo to Google as a company and to the entire ethos of Silicon Valley, as well as the rest of the IT industry situated elsewhere (so Amazon and Microsoft as well as Apple and Facebook and others).  The broader critique is suggested in this piece, Google Doesn't Want What's Best for Us.  There are several points to the argument.  The first is that these companies are huge monopolies and are essentially uncontested within their own market niche.  Where I asked the rhetorical question above about whether the market would discipline Google for making an unwise business decision, the reality is that Google's market power gives it an enormous buffer to manage the ill effects from any one poor decision.  The market power is coupled with a Libertarian outlook that informs upper level management.  The Libertarian view then is in an unholy alliance with the brogrammer culture.  Both abhor external constraint, though for quite different reasons.

The second point is that where in the days when GM was America's largest company the nature of the relationship between consumers and producers was much more bilateral, now things have changed and the relationship is triangular.  We users are a big part of the equation, even as we don't pay directly for services such as those that Google provides.  The paying customers are the advertisers.  Our use then offers personalized information that the advertisers crave, so they can customize their message to us.  Google is the custodian of much of this personalized information and there is a huge amount of data of this sort.  (For example, I must have done well over 100 Google searches just to write this post.)  It is troubling for somebody else to have the goods on you, especially so when that person or organization is not otherwise close to you.  How can you be sure that the information won't be used for some nefarious purpose in the future?  (Or that it won't be hacked in the future and then used for a nefarious purpose.)  So it becomes more important than ever for there to be a trust relationship between these big monopoly providers and users like me.  How can that work, however, if I'm of a Liberal orientation and they are Libertarian?

So, as the linked piece argues, Google tries to have it both ways.  The internal culture to Google that Damore critiques is Liberal, at least in some domains, so it can appease users like me.  This makes the company two-faced, since it still has these strong Libertarian leanings at the top.  The inherent inconsistency must eventually lead to fracture.  In that sense, the Damore memo is the proverbial canary in the coal mine. How can this hold together in the future?  My own approach to this dilemma as a user is to seek self-protection by relying on many different vendors for my cloud use, with my personal data scattered across them.  With Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon, I'm guessing this works reasonably well.  I'm afraid that both Facebook and Google have far too much information about me for me to feel comfortable.  What recourse, if any, do I have and do people like me have?  I don't know.  And the issue will surely get more acute as the reliance on AI gets greater and greater.  This leads me to the last point.

We now have a substantial history on the decline in manufacturing.  (For example, see Figure 1 on page 4.)   This, in conjunction with the decline in blue collar work overall, has led to real emasculation, not just the fear thereof.  Some pieces of evidence for this are the opioid epidemic, the concomitant decline in life expectancy, and the replacement of cohabitation for marriage among working class people.  (Low wage earners make for poor spouses.)  It is unclear to me whether these negative consequences could have been anticipated until quite recently and if mitigations could have been taken were those consequences anticipated early.  I don't know.  But now we have this history and it is reasonably well understood.  The rise of AI poses the threat of another round of significant job dislocation, this time of entry and mid-level white collar work, as well as further job loss for the blue collar worker (self-driving cars replacing Lyft drivers, for example).  Surely the tech sector is aware of these issues.  This makes the Libertarian view of the tech sector's responsibility particularly troubling, both in causing the potential dislocation and in not being willing to pay corporate profit taxes to finance the possible mitigations.  If we ever get out of our current political moment, which now seems to be sucking up all our mental bandwidth, these are the issues that will occupy most of our attention.

* * * * *

I will have less to say about the events in Charlottesville, partly because I've been so pained by what has happened that I find it hard to discuss and partly because I am far less certain about why somebody becomes a White Nationalist, though I will walk through one possible explanation.  That said, I definitely want to keep this section in the piece. I hope to make clear why momentarily.

Let's begin with the following.  A friend in Facebook posted this link.  The kid in the picture is of the age to be a student in my class.  Indeed, he could very well be mistaken for a frat boy on campus at Illinois. (He's enrolled at the University of Nevada - Reno.)  The picture makes you wonder what the age distribution is of those White Nationalists who marched.  I gather that some of them are still kids.

It is probably impossible to do the social science, but I'd like to know how those marchers would react to Damore's table.  Suppose they would embrace it as a reasonable abstraction of reality, if so asked.  This potential result would make it defensible to consider White Nationalists as Right Biased people who have gone over the deep end.  Were this observation to be realized, my guess is that it would horrify Damore and his ilk, who want no association whatsoever with racism.  Yet such a connection might then stick, which could cause an OMG moment for the brogrammers that would then lead to some modification of their views along the lines I've suggested above.

Last week former President Obama tweeted about Charlottesville, an oft repeated message.  Nobody is born with hatred for others.  That must be learned.  I heard this message for the first time when watching South Pacific as a kid.  It's there in the song, You've Got to Be Carefully Taught.  While this message is obviously true, it still remains to be determined how and when the White Nationalist marchers learned this lesson.  Did they grow up in a racist family and that's how it happened, like father like son?  Or did they grow up in a much more tolerant family and learned the lesson while in their adolescence or as young adults from people outside their household?  Knowing the relative numbers on this would be interesting and informative.  Absent that, I'd be curious if there is a profile one might construct to explain the behavior of those in the second category.

Fascism thrives when the economy is in severe stress.  College students now, particularly those who are not ace programmers or in some other STEM field that offers good employment prospects, are operating under a great deal of stress.  Many of them are experiencing depression because of the stress since their economic prospects are so uncertain.  That vast majority don't turn to racism as their personal solution, or so I would like to believe.  My guess, however, is that some do.  Further, I'd conjecture that among this group they have a strong prior disposition toward Right Biases.  They then went in search of situations where their demand for authority could be satisfied.  Beyond that, fully aware of this possibility, the Alt-Right marketed in a way to target these people, to recruit them to the cause.   This is the Devil in action.  We all should read Eric Hoffer's The True Believer.  I read it while in college and could stand to re-read it.  In writing this section, I'm invoking my memory of Hoffer's argument, as poor as that is.  So my presentation may be a bit off.  I hope, however, that there is still something to what I'm saying here.

My fear is that we are now in a vicious cycle which will spiral out of control, driven by the causes I've sketched above.  I'm guessing that many other people are worried about the same thing.

* * * * *

Over the weekend I made a post in Facebook in reference to Charlottesville - I can't deal with this.  A friend responded almost immediately - yes, you can.  This very long blog post is me trying to deal with it, by doing what I've been trained to do, seeing if I can make sense of what is going on by offering a plausible theoretical explanation.  I'm sure I got some details wrong.  I usually do.  I hope there is still enough left that makes sense and that it offers a worthwhile read to those who slog through the post.  I leave it to those readers and others to take it from there.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Thoughts from a Has Been: The Next, Next Digital Learning Environment - Team Production in Instruction

This post offers some reactions to the recent piece by Phillip D. Long and Jon Mott, The N^2GDLE Vision....  In many respects, I am not qualified to offer a meaningful critique, as I retired back in summer 2010 and have not kept up with developments in the field since.  But I haven't been able to get all that came before entirely out of my system, witness a couple of critiques I've done since retiring about earlier pieces written in this vein, such as this rhyme about work by Jim Groom and Brian Lamb and a longish post entitled Feedback Rather than Assessment, about the previous NGDLE paper that appeared in Educause Review by Malcolm Brown, Joanne Dehoney, and Nancy Millichap.  Further, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Not an insignificant bit of Long and Mott's piece is about 'dissing' the learning management system, a cottage industry within educational technology for well over a decade, one that I've participated in even after retirement, for example in this piece, Some regrets about learning management systems.  Indeed, that post and its sequel, Where Are Plato's Children?, make me quite sympathetic to the 'smart online tutor' part of Long and Mott's vision for N^2GDLE.  But there are many other parts of this vision that I found idealistic in the extreme.  So one wonders whether their conclusions are robust to making more realistic assumptions, or if that would produce quite a different result.  As my strength is looking at the learning issues through a political economy lens, that's what I will do in this post.  I hope it produces some value add for readers beyond the value it produces for me by allowing me to purge these thoughts from my system, which is quite frequently my motivation for writing a piece.

If there is such value add, much of that will be found in elucidating where I am wrong, so in making credible counter arguments.  I not only admit the possibility that I might be in error on these matters, I recognize that in some places that is especially likely. So I offer up my piece as a challenge, not just to find the errors, but to refute them.  Doing that should make Long and Mott's argument stronger.

Let's get to the heart of the matter right off.  Developing this software environment will take incremental resources, while many of our campuses are in flat or shrinking revenue environments.  More importantly, developing the content that will utilize this new software environment will also take incremental resources.  In my reading of the paper, the content development piece will be much more expensive than the software development piece.  Further, while the software part might be expected to be funded within the IT budget on campus,  where IT leaders can manage revenue reallocation, the content part surely won't be.  So the powers that be who control the revenue allocation outside of IT must buy into the vision to make this a go.  Will they?  Why should they?  If they don't, then Long and Mott are merely preaching to the choir.  It might not occur to the choir to think this through from a political economy angle.  So it is conceivable that the Long and Mott piece appeals to learning technologists yet at the same time the ideas therein are doomed at the campus level.

For a more realistic approach, it would seem, we need to understand the preferences of the powers that be.  Let me assert here a reactive rather than visionary way to articulate these preferences.  (This is one of those assumptions that can be challenged.)  The powers that be will want what instructors and students want.

Do the majority of instructors and students favor the status quo over what is proposed by Long and Mott?  In this status quo there is much surface learning.  (For example, see Ken Bain's What the Best College Students Do.)  Long and Mott want deep learning across the board.  How do we get from here to there?  Maybe we can't.  To support that conclusion, I offer up the metaphor of the Tragic Tory, that I wrote about some years ago in a column for the then Educause Quarterly, now defunct.  There can be substantial lock in to the status quo, so much so that it blocks all potential improvements.  We have no problem seeing this in considering, for example, the QWERTY keyboard, which was designed around 150 years ago to make us type slower, but which persists even now, even though typewriter keys jamming hasn't been an issue for upward of 45 years and perhaps quite a bit longer than that.  Why is it hard to imagine that we are locked into an old mode of teaching and learning and that external factors, like No Child Left Behind and the accountability movement, have actually exacerbated the lock in to these traditional approaches?

The next part of this is to argue that there needs to be substantive culture changes to break the lock in and make progress, but then to ask whether those cultural changes should be targeted only at where we want to end up (what I believe Long and Mott are arguing in their piece) or if these changes need to address where we currently are (my view as to what is necessary).  In my post, Why does memorization persist as the primary way college students study for exams?, the first half sketches out the nature of the lock in, in accord with George Kuh's Disengagement Compact.  Then, in the second half, I offer up a series of suggested reforms that taken together were meant to move us away from the status quo to something better.  However, I wrote this post as a thought experiment only.  I didn't expect the ideas to be embraced because I didn't see the willingness to do so then and I don't see the willingness to do so now.  That inertia can certainly find foundation in that the suggestions for change, such as the ones I advanced, are unproven.  Making drastic changes based on pure speculation is a fool's errand.   But there isn't even the will to begin piloting on ideas such as these, to test whether the ideas hold water, especially since doing that itself will take some incremental resource.  At least on my campus, we have a strong tendency to put such incremental resource toward new course offerings that parallel emerging social issues or recent research developments, rather than to take on large intro courses that have been taught for some time and try to make them better.  However, if contrary to fact such an effort to change the culture in a manner like what I suggest were put into place, we would need to confront this next question.  Would we still need a radical new vision for the online learning environment?  Or would that then be superfluous?

I will return to the cultural issues in the next section, where I consider team production in instruction, something Long and Mott argue for.  Here I want to consider some of the purely technological aspects of their vision, partly to illustrate my confusion as to what they are arguing for, and partly to couple that with my skepticism about pulling off this vision.

There are two aspects to their technological vision.  One part is the interoperability of tools - the Lego metaphor at root where the varies pieces snap together.  The IMS standard is mentioned in this context.  (Whatever happened to SCORM?  Actually, I don't want to know the answer to that question.)  In the abstract, interoperability would seem highly desirable.  Who would argue against it?  (Me, or course, as I will try to get at below.)

The other part of the technological vision is that the online learning system becomes this vast store of the learner's experience with the system, which can then be used for personalization of the subsequent experience, aided by a large dose of artificial intelligence.  (Perhaps the authors can get Amazon to become a big sponsor of their efforts and then they can call their environment Alexa^2, which in my mind would be an improvement on their current unwieldy title.)  I have no big critique of this piece of their argument beyond the critique I've seen by others of AI systems more broadly considered and their potential for abuse of the personal data that these systems amass.  We live in a world nowadays where fear that Big Brother Is Watching is more prominent than it has been for some time.  Unless we have ironclad ways to assuage those fears, I don't understand why we would engage them further in online environments to promote learning in higher education

I do have a different issue, however, about use data that I would like clarification on.  This is best illustrated by considering the learner working at a large desk, with a laptop but also with other learning tools, perhaps a textbook, perhaps a pencil and and pad of paper.  Suppose the latter are utilized to aid formative thinking - writing equations, drawing graphs, posing questions in all caps, and other things like that which go beyond mere doodling.  With technical content, I'd imagine that sort of thing happening quite a lot, though I confess that maybe that's people my age who would do it but current students would not.  If there is such content generated by the student, does it remain outside the learning system?  One can imagine having a video camera capturing this content, which might be one type of work around.  But if the students themselves were aware of being watched in this way, wouldn't they feel 'on stage' so that they are self-conscious about it?  That itself could substantially weaken student engagement, to the point were one ditches the idea of the camera.  Yet if there is no such work around, why should we be confident about the data which are captured by the learning system somehow being sufficient for the desired personalization?  On this one, I simply don't get why the authors have faith that the student generated data that would be captured by the system would be sufficient.

Let's get back to interoperability.  I would like to divide software between applications that have their main audience, perhaps their entire audience, for use in instruction, and then perhaps only within higher education, from other applications that have broad use outside of instruction and, indeed, the instructional use might be just a minor bit of the overall use of such software.  For applications in the the first group, expecting interoperability may make sense, with exchange of user data between apps the desired goal.  If, however, adhering to the standards that deliver interoperability imposes a cost on the software development, should we really expect applications in the second group to embrace the standards?   The political economy of the situation suggests that will not happen.  What then will occur?  Let me illustrate with a couple of examples.

I make screen capture videos for my class with my voice over.  Some of those are of PowerPoint presentations.  Others are of Excel files that I use to illustrate the economics.  I put those files into my campus account at Box.com.  The videos are in YouTube.  Both Box.com and YouTube offer use statistics.  But those data are not granular the way that Long and Mott envision; they give aggregate use but not individual use.  The campus did come up with a video service, based on Kaltura, but well after I started doing this.  I don't know whether the campus video service offers granular use data or not.  In the meantime, I discovered substantial external interest in my videos.  (You might call this the OER use of the content, but I want to note that most if not all the demand is coming from students who are taking parallel courses elsewhere and who are stuck on particular topics.  They find help by going through the YouTube search engine, but would never look at a repository of learning objects or a referatory like Merlot to find what they are looking for. This student use is unlike use by instructors elsewhere who might bring the content into their own courses.)  I feel some continued obligation to support this external use, so would prefer to leave the content where it is rather than to port it into some closed container, just so I could get better use stats for my own students.  If a significant fraction of other instructors are like me in this regard, quite possibly for quite different reasons, but using these sort of tools that will not integrate well with the learning system, reliance on these other online environments will remain the norm into the future.  For example, adjunct instructors who are likely to teach for many different universities over a comparatively short time span might prefer to keep their content at an external host rather than in a campus-supported system. And, if that is the case, instructors themselves will devalue the benefits from the integration of tools that Long and Mott argue for.

On just this example, I can see an argument for quite a different vision - a fairly stripped down environment that does the very basic functions well, but does only those functions.  That would clearly be cheaper.  And it might offer better performance on those tools that do survive into the new environment.  This alternative probably wouldn't inspire learning technologists and other IT professionals.  Yet it might make others on campus quite pleased.

Here is the other example.  Over the years I have learned to use Excel as a homework tool, in a manner much like Plato.  (My design is based on conditional response - IF functions - and conditional formatting - the text of the response is not visible at all when the font is the same color as the cell background, and then one can vary the color and the nature of the font based on whether the response is correct or incorrect.  The approach also has graphs built up step by step as a sequence of questions pertinent to the information in the graph get answered correctly.)  This use of Excel follows many years where I used Mallard as part of the homework I'd assign in intermediate microeconomics.  Mallard, and its contemporary CyberProf, were first generation Web smart quizzing tools in the spirit of Plato.  Those systems eventually stopped being developed, but another contemporary, LON-CAPA, continues in use to this day.  These environments offered more sophisticated assessment tools than can be found in commercial learning management systems and might be considered forerunners of the smart online tutoring systems that Long and Mott envision.  Back to the Excel homework.  Many of my questions are fill in the blank, where the answer is an Excel formula that mimics the algebra needed to do the economics.  The algebra is then evaluated by whether it produces the right value.  Each student gets the same problems to work, but with different parameter values, where those are based on their own identity information.

To get credit for the homework, the students need to get all the questions right - no partial credit. When they do that Excel spits out an individual specific key.  The key is based on the particular homework and the student identity information provided at the start.  I would love it if this information could somehow automatically find its way into the course grade book, which is now kept in a learning management system.  But doing that is beyond me.  So, instead, I have students enter two bits of information into a Google Form.  One is that key I mentioned.  The other is the student alias that I assign.  (Each student alias is the name of a famous economist concatenated with the course name and semester of the course offering.)  Even if an outsider to the class somehow stumbled onto the information in this Google Form, the student's true identity should be protected.  So I believe the practice is consistent with FERPA.  But then I have to move the information over from the Google Sheet that has the student responses to the course grade book.  That I do manually.  This is extra clerical work that most instructors would not put up with.  I tolerate it because my class is comparatively small, about 25 students, and because it allows me to give meaningful homework that I otherwise don't have to grade.  If there were a learning system that did this as well as the Excel and eliminated the need for me to do the clerical work, I would happily incur the one-time costs of transferring my content into that system.  I hate doing clerical work.

Now consider the case in high enrollment classes, with at least an order of magnitude more students than my class, where the logistic issues in running the course are far greater, and where the class is very likely now taught by an adjunct.  These courses probably rely on the quiz tool in the LMS and many if not all of the questions are apt to be multiple choice, quite possibly imported from a publisher's test bank for the textbook that is used in the course.  If the same instructor has been teaching the course with this textbook for a while, no doubt there were lots of headaches getting the course site set up the first time through, but those headaches are in the past.  This is part of the lock in I mentioned above.  This instructor has not authored the assessment content used in the course.  Any assessment content that was more complex and designed for a different learning system would have to be screened by such an instructor, as to whether it is appropriate and really better to implement, meaning it is not buggy and one can anticipate large learning gains from switching approaches.  But, almost surely, this would mean the instructor would need to write different exams, an arduous task in itself.  It's then likely that mean scores on those new tests would be lower than the means have been on the current tests, just because the approach is new.  And it's likely that the instructor's course evaluations would take a hit as a consequence.  Would such an instructor willingly incur that for the promise of what the new system might deliver in the future?

Next consider other low enrollment courses like mine (which on my campus are mostly upper level courses, if not graduate courses.)  Such courses might not use the quiz tool in the LMS at all and instead rely on more open ended student assignments - projects, presentations, term papers, etc. Indeed, these courses may only use the LMS incidentally and instead use other collaboration tools to support course work. Do courses like these stand to gain much from having a highly personalized learning environment that Long and Mott envision?  Or do such courses already get personalization from the work as it has been designed for the course?  If the course is reliant on some other tool - a wiki, Google Docs, or some other environment that encourages collaboration, might the instructors of courses like this see little or no benefit in the vision that Long and Mott articulate, because they've been doing this for a while without interoperability so don't see the need for it?

In this second example, I am the exception who would embrace the Long and Mott vision.  (In addition to Excel, I have the students use blogs out in the open, according to their alias.  Tracking this, too, has to be done manually at present.)  The other instructors are the rule who would not, although the reasons are quite different depending on whether the instructor is teaching a high enrollment class or not.

Let me make one additional point purely on the technology part of the argument.  Long and Mott don't consider other potential uses for course sites, so don't get into some issues that have vexed us all over the years, such as whether much of the class site should be publicly available or if it should be hidden from the public eye and accessible only by those who have the appropriate login credentials.  Yet there are other obvious potential uses of these sites.  For example, students who are considering whether to register for this semester's version of a course but who remain uncertain whether that is a good fit for them or not will likely want to have a look at the course site when it was last previously offered.  This is particularly true if the instructor remains the same.  Instructors don't design their course sites with this other use in mind, so if they are presented with a closed container as the learning environment, they are apt to preclude this other use.  (Indeed, on my campus it is the academic department's responsibility to obtain copies of syllabi and provide those to students who are interested.  Information beyond the syllabus, while it might be useful to students during registration, is viewed as extraordinary and is not collected.)  There are other potential uses as well, for example, to have other instructors embrace novel teaching practices by imitating those practices developed by an innovating instructor.  These other uses suggest that class sites should be publicly available.  FERPA and copyright, in contrast, have encouraged the LMS to be a closed system, making external access to the class site difficult to attain.  Do Long and Mott have a way to get the best of both possible worlds?  Or is this one a case where we will continue to kick the can down the road, because that's all we can do?

* * * * *

I found myself so amazed by reading the suggestion that learning objectives should be correlated across classes, and that considerable effort should be put in so the joint course offering offers a coherent vision to the learner, that I thought it appropriate to devote a separate section just to consider that recommendation.  As an ideal, who can argue with it?  (I was amused that Long and Mott appeal to Herbert Simon to support this recommendation.  Simon is a Nobel Prize winner in Economics and one of the truly novel thinkers in how organizations work, but I hadn't realized that he also had articulated this vision of team production in instruction.)   Yet it is so far away from where we are now that I wonder how it is reasonable to expect it to happen.  Or, to put it another way, what other accommodations must be put in place to encourage it to happen?

Let me first describe the usual practice as I see it in undergraduate instruction, at least on my campus.  Then let me consider some alternatives that depart from the usual practice and are more in accord with what Long and Mott consider.  Finally, I want to consider whether those alternatives can become more numerous or if that's not in the cards.

Many comparatively low enrollment courses have only one instructor over time.  The same person teaches the course over and over again.  No other instructor teaches the course.  To the extent that preparing a course for the first time is a big effort, the pattern I described is efficient as it economizes on the fixed cost of developing a new course.  In this environment the instructor comes to feel that he or she owns the course.  Outsiders who are perceived by the instructor as having less standing have little to no influence in how the course is taught.   Onto this let's overlay how faculty development happens.  In the main, this is by opt in of the instructor.  The college and the campus offer a variety of workshops and then market those to instructors.  It is the instructor's choice whether to attend those or not.  If the instructor attends, it remains the instructor's choice whether to embrace any of the lessons from the workshop or not.   The academic department that houses the course exerts very little influence on the subject matter of the course or on the learning goals embedded in the course.

Larger enrollment classes may differ from this pattern in two ways.  First, there may be multiple lecture sections taught by different instructors.  In this case it is possible, though it doesn't always happen, that there is coordination between the instructors.  (For example, they may offer common exams.)  This coordination may be thought of as more for the purpose of consistency than to get at certain learning goals.  Large courses tend to be very static. When they are revised considerable thought is put into that.  In between revisions, there is little to no tweaking in the approach.  Second, there may be discussion sections led by TAs.  Those too need coordination.  TAs are supposed to follow the lead set by the course coordinator, rather that exercise their own independent judgment on the material to be covered.  Third, when the course serves as a prerequisite for some other course or some major, the client course, major, or department may react when there are complaints about the prior preparation not delivering on what it is supposed to be doing.  This doesn't happen very often.  When it does happen, there is some negotiation about how the course should be taught in the future to better satisfy client needs and aspirations.  Absent the prerequisite lever, clients don't have much power to influence how the earlier course is taught.

In my particular case, I have been teaching one section a year of a course called The Economics of Organizations since fall 2012.  The course is my design.  The course is taught under a special topics rubric.  If I decide in the future to spend falls outside of central Illinois, the course won't be offered.   There is nobody else to teach it. The department asks me for my syllabus each time it is offered.  Otherwise, the department exerts no influence as to the content of the course.  Put a different way, the trust model is in full use here.  I am trusted to make the appropriate decisions about course subject matter and course modality.  As long as there aren't complaints from students to the Economics department, the trust model holds sway.

Thus, what Long and Mott argue for regarding collaboration and coordination across courses would entail much greater involvement by the academic departments than is the current norm and some of that would need to address instructor willingness to adjust the teaching in a way where the instructor has far less control.  How to do that will pose a substantial challenge.

Now I want to offer a potential path through this thicket.  I have been involved in team teaching efforts on multiple occasions and they have been uniformly pleasurable experiences for me.  The one I want to focus on here was done in an adult education context.  From 2007 - 2009 I was part of an evolving group of 'faculty' who conducted the Educause Learning Technology Leadership Institute.  (Some people rotated out of the group while I continued to serve.  Others rotated in to replace them.  I rotated out after the 2009 institute.)  The institute itself lasts one work week.  The planning that goes into it is real and substantial.  Things may have changed since, but the way it worked when I was involved is that each faculty member would have primary responsibility for two different sessions and would be paired with a different faculty member for each of these, typically a different person for each session.  So some of the planning would be on a session by session basis, done by those two faculty to figure out the content of the session and then the way to conduct that session.  Then there was planning by all the faculty together along with the Educause staff who supported the institute, to put the pieces together and to work through the various snags that arouse in the process.

I found all of this quite collegial and very enjoyable.  I felt none of the ownership I mentioned for my undergraduate economics course.  Indeed, in my first year as part of the group I came in as a pinch hitter to replace somebody else who had gotten sick.  So I only started in mid year, when normally the start is much earlier.  As a consequence my job then was simply to make it work as best as I could and otherwise to go with the flow.  Yet people who know me are aware that I have a strong need to engage in self-expression in some way.  I found I could readily satisfy that with the group, even while earnestly trying to support the group goals.  Not everything worked perfectly, to be sure, but a good bit of it came off quite well.

LTLI has a structure that facilitates all the planning by the faculty and Educause staff.  All plenary sessions have the attendees in the same room at the same time.  When there was group work to be done, and there was plenty of that for a project called Making the Case, the various groups of attendees were separated but worked in parallel.  All of this was tightly scheduled, part of the planning for the institute.  In such a tightly structured environment, coordination by the faculty is much easier.

The parallel environment on our campuses sometimes occurs in professional masters programs, particularly those that have a common core offering during the first semester/year (the duration of the common curriculum depends on duration of the overall program).  During the common curriculum phase, the students take their courses in lock step.  A lock step curriculum is a good way to achieve the tight structure that can support substantial collaboration across courses.  If one wants broader collaboration across courses, as Long and Mott argue for, perhaps they should be considering whether there can be broader implementation of a lock step curriculum at the undergraduate level, particularly during the general education phase, during the first year or two.  We don't have that now. Each student registers for a unique program of study and is not grouped with other students who take all the same courses.  We might ask whether the alternative is possible and if it is what it would take to make it a reality.

Now a personal anecdote on this score as I, for one, think pursuing this goal of a lock step curriculum would be something good to do.  Nine or ten years ago, I was then the Associate Dean for eLearning in the College of Business, at one of the weekly meetings of the Department Heads, A-Deans, and Dean, I suggested that the college try to do just this.  The Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education, a good guy who really cared about doing his job well, just laughed.  He fully embraced the goal.  But he said it was entirely impractical.  There was literally no way to implement it as just one college in a very large campus.

Now, with that memory still fresh in my head, I'm reacting the same way to Long and Mott.  The goals are great.  I wish them good luck in getting there.  But if I were allowed to bet on the proposition, I would bet against.  It seems to me just too hard to accomplish.

* * * * *

There are still a few other issues that bear mention and with which I will close this already very long post.

One of these is about the relationship between the textbook and the online learning environment.  Which drives the bus and which takes a back seat?  I won't try to answer that here, but surely it needs to be worked through in a convincing way, one that doesn't wreck the vision all by itself.

A second one is about the right market structure to support this new online environment.  Do we think it will be a commercial venture or a variety of competing companies that support this innovation.  My personal history here is more than a bit dated, but I certainly can remember back to when Blackboard bought out WebCT (Illinois was a large WebCT client at the time and the learning management system was my baby then).  To be charitable, let us say that things didn't go swimmingly immediately after that.  I am totally ignorant of the current nature of the LMS market, but I remain suspicious that a collegial environment can be sustained this way and that intermittent profit taking won't disrupt the innovation cycle in some manner entirely unintended by the pioneers of the innovation itself.   On the other hand, other approaches to sustain the innovation, whether open source, community source, or some yet new form, seemingly can work at low scale but then become encumbered beyond that.  My point here is that this too needs to be worked through in a convincing manner.

The last one is something I am continually surprised about.  Technologists such as Long and Mott continue to articulate a view that the technology itself will drive change.  They place great faith in the technology in doing that.  In their view the history doesn't refute this hypothesis.  It is just that we've had the wrong technology (the LMS) as the driver.  Put the right technology in place and the results will be wonderful.  I subscribed to this view for a short period of time in the mid 1990s, as I was just getting started with ed tech, when the possibilities seemed enormous, even while the bandwidth was quite limited.

I have subsequently embraced a different view, where it is the innovators and early adopters who drive change.  The technology acts as a facilitator for them and quite often the change then doesn't carry over to majority users.  Very early on in my time as a learning technology administrator, I learned about something called Hawthorne effects - early use of an innovation would produce different results than later use, in this case because the early use was monitored while the later use was not.  In the academic setting, I have come to believe that those early users are quite unrepresentative of the later adopters.  The early user has a desire to be creative with the technology and to fit it in interesting ways to address issues the current environment poses.  (This makes teaching very much like an applied research.)  The later users employ the technology in a much more mundane way.  The benefits from adoption are considerably less as a consequence.

I want to note that which of these views is right can't be identified by the history over the last 20 odd years or so.  But I think it obvious that more people in IT subscribe to the first view while more of those outside IT subscribe to the second.  So I will close by noting that if those inside IT want to make the Long and Mott vision a reality and if they really need to enlist some people outside of IT (those with budget authority) to support the effort, they have their work cut out for them.  At the least, I hope my post illuminates those tasks that need to be done to get there.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Muckracking Journalism Where We Really Need It

While the Trump soap opera and the melodrama about health care absorbs all our emotional bandwidth, we are far less than fully informed about other matters that should be brought to our attention. Remember that the next agenda item for Congress is supposed to be tax reform.  What, then, do we know about the corporate profit tax and the expatriation of corporate profits to avoid taxation?  A proposal has been floated, one I personally find infuriating, to create a tax holiday for corporations so that they will repatriate those monies that are now overseas.  Is there any alternative to this that might still bring those funds back home and, better still, actually get the funds spent on investment, public or private, rather than simply have the money amplify the war chest of the large corporations?  We need far more reporting and commentary on this matter....now.

Below are some obvious questions that occur to me.  Before getting at the issue about what should be done, we need a much better picture of what is going on.
  • What is the annual outflow of corporate profit abroad?  What is the time pattern of this outflow?  over the last 5 years?  over the last 10 years? over the last 20 years?  How far back does it go where the volume of outflow was significant?  Can we identify a time when the practice started?
  • How much corporate profit is retained domestically?  Can we likewise do a time pattern of that?  How does that ratio of retained profit to expatriated profit vary over time? 
  • Can we break this down on a company by company basis?  Are there some large corporations which don't expatriate profits or do all of them do it?  Are there some that do it to a greater extent than others?
  • Can we estimate that amount of tax avoided by this expatriation of profits?  As above, a time pattern would be useful, as would the aggregate amount of avoidance.
  • This one might be harder to get at.  Does the expatriation of profit matter for the stock price of shares in the company?  (If expatriation produces a capital gain on the order of magnitude of the tax avoided divided by the number of shares, then since there is a capital gains tax on individuals, some of this tax avoidance might be recaptured that way.  Can that amount be estimated?)
  • What do small business owners, who don't have this pipeline to expatriate profits, feel about this practice by large corporations?  Do they think it is just the way the system works or, on the contrary, do they view it as fundamentally unfair creating a bias in the system in favor of the large corporations? 
  • And, likewise, what do ordinary taxpayers feel about the practice?  Does the practice contribute to the view that the system is rigged?
There are surely other questions that might be asked as well to get a picture of what is going on.  But this seems to me a good enough list to get us started.  I want to make a few other points and then close.

The first is about the potential anti-competitive effects from large amounts of retained earnings held by major corporations.  One could write a book on this subject.  Instead, here I will content myself with recounting a bit of history, as my campus played a formative role in it.   Netscape was the startup offering a new product, a graphical Web browser.   Microsoft was the big, and by Internet measures, lumbering corporation with pockets so deep they might as well have been limitless.  In 1995 Netscape Navigator was clearly the best browser on the market.  By 1998 Internet Explorer had the larger market share.  Netscape had one revenue stream.  Microsoft offered its browser for free, plus it bundled the browser with the operating system so when you bought a new PC, IE was already on the machine.   You had to download Netscape Navigator, and for people who had only dial up access, this was well before broadband became the standard, that download was an impediment.  So a big cash war chest beat out a better product technically in this case.  We should ask how often a similar story has played out since, even if those similar stories are not as well popularized as the Netscape case.   We might then ask, tying this back to the expatriation of profit issue, whether taxation of corporate profit has pro-competitive effects, by reducing the size or the war chest, or if the magnitude of the corporate profits tax is not sufficient to matter this way.

The second is based on an Op-Ed from yesterday by Senator Chuck Schumer, A Better Deal for American Workers.   In it there is a list of policies that the Democrats will advocate for as part of this better deal.  One of those is a trillion dollar infrastructure plan.  (In some future post I will take up the magnitude of such a proposal - too much or not enough? - as well as the time horizon under which the spending is meant to occur.  In Schumer's piece there was not enough detail about the proposal to react in this way.)  There was no mention in the piece about how we'll pay for that.  Expatriated profits may end up being a big part of the answer.  Supposedly, there is about two trillion dollars of such assets currently overseas.  While everyone is good at spending other people's money, if a good ethical case can be made that a chunk of this rightfully should be viewed as taxes owed as a result of previous tax avoidance, then it rightfully could be used to finance the infrastructure investment.

Third, from the health care debacle, it is evident that many of the uber rich don't like paying taxes.  We need to dissect this motive.  From afar, here I mean from my own perspective and from some other academics I know who are similarly situated financially, once you are comfortable in your personal finances satiation with regards to wealth doesn't seem an unreasonable hypothesis.  Those uber rich who dislike taxes are giving evidence that they are not satiated with their current wealth, not even close.  They desire to accumulate still more.   We need to understand why.   Is there some way where the public is served by this motive?   In my mind, an up and coming entrepreneur of modest means, who is successful and brings new product to market, benefits privately from that and accumulates wealth in the process, while the public also benefits in the process.  The potential for wealth accumulation presumably then serves as an incentive to innovate, in what is the veritable win-win situation.  If satiation with wealth eventually set in, after the entrepreneur had experienced repeated success of this sort, the financial incentive to innovate further would be lost.  Is it fear of losing that incentive that drives the uber rich?  This is the most benign explanation I can come up with.  It's easy enough to produce a more nefarious story.  Which story is right matters as to whether a collaborative or a combative approach would be best to address the matter of expatriated profit and the magnitude of the corporate profit tax.

It is amusing to me as an economist about how much of our discourse is spent talking about restricting labor mobility (i.e., immigration) without much if any discussion on restricting capital mobility.  Perhaps by making this contradiction overt we might be able to bring the issue of expatriated corporate profit to the fore, where it rightfully belongs.  It needs our attention before a sensible solution can be found.  We need for that to happen soon.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Gilbert and Sullivan Are Rolling Their Eyes

My object not sublime
I shall achieve a rhyme
And punish the reader much of the time
The reader much of the time.

And done without consent
Unwittingly I do vent
A rather unbalanced temperament
An unbalanced temperament.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Gentle Conversations

In my experience, conversations where the participants are relaxed and open with one another are both quite informative and pleasurable to participate in.  Yet such conversations don't just happen.  They require cultivation ahead of time.  The participants must share some common previous experiences.  From those, they must develop a sense that the others in the discussion will listen to them and come to trust that as a normal occurrence.  In turn, they must reciprocate by listening to the others and demonstrating that in a way that communicates they understand what the others are saying.  Listening in this way requires effort, but when the activity is enjoyable the effort may not be noticeable to the participant.  Listening also requires a degree of flexibility in one's own point of view, to modify that when the situation requires doing so.

People who are rigid and doctrinaire lack this ability and thus put the others in conversation on guard and make them tense.  Then the discussion becomes a form of intellectual combat.  In the courtroom, this is good and appropriate. The law, by design, is an adversarial process. Similarly, it makes sense in politics, where candidates debate one another.  Voters must choose among the candidates.  The debate informs that choice. But in private conversation, the rigidity of a participant is not helpful.  Indeed, it is hurtful.  If we must engage in discussions with such people on a repeated basis, we learn to dread those conversations in the offing.

Often the learning in gentle conversations is about our own prior thinking.  We've experienced something and started to reflect on it, but haven't worked it all the way through.  Or we've gone a bit further and drawn some tentative conclusions, but might change our opinion if somebody else would convince us to do so, perhaps by presenting some other evidence that sheds light on the situation, or by framing the issue in a different way that helps us to make progress in thinking about it.   This is one of the primary ways adults learn.  It differs from classroom learning in that the discussions are voluntary and there is no performance measure given, neither individually nor as a group.  The only external verification that the conversation 'works' is that the participants willingly engage in future such conversations.

I base the above primarily on my time as an administrator on campus, where I had many such conversations with colleagues on campus as well as with peers in educational technology at other institutions. Quite a few of these conversations happened at the coffee shop or over lunch.  That location, as distinct from having the discussion at the office of one of the participants, conveys that there is a social aspect to the discussion.  This blending of work related business with the social is something to be desired.  People on campus intuitively understand that.  It is comfortable to be around others who are likewise engaged in their own conversations.  And a bit of food or a beverage add to the relaxed nature of the discussion.

There is one point, however, where all of this prior experience fails to illuminate.  This regards the previous common experiences that help to form a bond among the participants.  With my colleagues on campus and within the ed tech profession, much of that experience happened by serendipity.  We capitalized on our good fortune, but we didn't contemplate a methodology to generate such experiences that would bring others into the group in a way where these others felt comfortable and participated fully.  Two points I can make on this are first, that if you introduce a colleague to somebody else, a connection the colleague wouldn't have made on her own, then reciprocation is the norm and you can benefit from your colleague bringing in new people into the discussion.  I've had some experience where my own sphere expanded in this way with discussions about information technology on campus.  The other point is that elders in the profession have some responsibility to make their junior colleagues comfortable and engage with them fully.  In the CIC Learning Technology Group (the CIC is now called the Big Ten Academic Alliance), where I served for about 11 years, I found myself in the role of elder about midway through and I did this with several junior colleagues thereafter.  I found it quite enjoyable and would occasionally be pleasantly surprised upon receiving a note of appreciation from one of them.  My hope is that they will do likewise when it is their turn.

Nevertheless, my experience as administrator doesn't indicate how much common experience is needed to make a bond nor how long it takes to do so.  One needs some answer on this question if one is to orchestrate such experiences explicitly to produce gentle conversations.  I do have some indicators on this from teaching as well as from hearing about the teaching practices of other instructors who aim for this goal.  For example, consider this post from many years ago, Akeelah and Adult Precocity, where I am writing about Barbara Ganley and her approach then to teaching.

Barbara explains her approach to teaching both in theoretical terms – the social constructivism of Pierre Levy – and in terms of the practical reality of building a trusting environment for her students while getting them to commit fully to the activities of her class. I learned many things from Barbara during this visit, some of which I describe below.

I’ve had intuitions for much of what Barbara talks about and have achieved some of these things in my own teaching, but especially on the building trust idea it’s been my experience that it happens en passant as we become familiar with each other and consequently in the past I’ve always hoped it would happen but have never previously made it an explicit goal of the teaching. Barbara takes the first two weeks of class and devotes them to this dual purpose – and during that time she does not push on the content of the course at all because the students aren’t yet ready to engage with it at a deep level. That was an entirely new idea for me.

I have since embraced another of Barbara's ideas in my own class, teaching with blogs.  The first time I did so was in a course for students in the campus honors program taught in a seminar format.  I made some beginner's mistakes that first time and have since modified the approach accordingly.  Now I use this approach with regular students in a (small) lecture class.  It is harder to get peer-to-peer bonding in that setting, but not infrequently a bond forms between the student and me.  The students make one post a week, about 600 words per post.  I give rather extensive comments on the posts and do so without giving a letter grade.  (See my post Feedback Rather Than Assessment.)  Students find this unusual.  They don't see this practice in their other classes in economics.  They are uncomfortable with this at first.   It takes between four and six substantive posts with my commentary for them to relax.  Eventually, many come to enjoy this aspect of the course.  But, initially, none of the students enjoy it.

I should note that in their early posts the students behave like students often do - jumping through hoops that the instructor presents to them, without wondering why they've been tasked to do so.  In these early posts they are writing to please me.  Ironically, they don't achieve that goal, quite the contrary.  Once they relax, however, they are more willing to be themselves, offer their own opinions, and be somewhat exploratory in their posts.  This is much better and I appreciate the change in style.  (This is not to say that the students couldn't use a lot more practice as writers. They could.  My goal is not to make them great writers, as laudable as that goal might be.  Rather, it is to get them to open up in their thinking about the economics, to tie the economics to their own experiences, and to use the blogging for that purpose.)

The teacher-student relationship has a certain power structure to it, one that may influence how long it takes for the bond to form.  I don't know, but I conjecture that sort of thing matters, with it easier to form bonds in horizontal relationships and harder in vertical relationships.  The other thing that surely matters is how frequent and intensive the early interactions are.  I wish I could provide benchmarks for effective planned early interactions that happen in a non-instructional setting, but I don't have those.  My inclination, however, is to assume that it take longer than you might originally expect.  We know oil and water don't mix and never will.  With people who have different backgrounds, as long as they are self-conscious of that their interactions will be stilted.  For bonding to occur, they need to get past that and see each other as individuals.   You can know it has happened when looking back on the experience, having crossed the threshold some time ago.  In prospect, however, I'm afraid it may be hard to predict when it is likely to happen, or if it ever will.

* * * * *

I now want to switch gears, taking what I know from my own experience and using that in a speculative manner to apply to our national politics.  My question, its been the one I've been asking for some time, is how do we heal as a nation?

There were a couple of pieces over the weekend that provided fodder for my post.  The first is, No One Cares About Russia in the World Breitbart Made.  I puzzled about this one for a while, not the conclusion that Trump supporters largely don't care about Russian interference in the election, something I was aware of that the polls have confirmed.  The puzzle for me is why this is true.  If you are in a team athletic contest that has a referee or an umpire and there is a bad call that favors your team, after which your team subsequently wins the contest, how do you react to the call once the game is over?  Do you own up to the error or ignore it?

If you would ignore it in this comparatively benign environment, why should you be surprised about Trump supporters not caring about Russian interference in the election?  It would just seem to be human nature.  Of course, you might react differently to the bad call.  You might have guilt feelings about the victory.  Indeed, many years ago you might have seen That Championship Season.  (I saw it on the stage in New York sometime in my early 20s.)  Then you might rue your initial reluctance to ignore the bad call.  In this case, you need a different explanation.  The linked article offers one.  Trump supporters have been brainwashed by Fox News, which, in turn, has been infiltrated by Breitbart.  

I should observe here that Fox News as an alternative reality is not a new hypothesis, which itself followed after many years of Conservative criticism about Liberal bias in the media.  How else can one explain the then popularity of Sarah Palin or a bit later of Michele Bachman?  But that is Fox News as the voice of the Tea Party.  The Breitbart connection is more recent and far more insidious.

Nevertheless, I find myself skeptical about brainwashing in this manner.  On a personal note, I have extreme fatigue about the news.  I read the newspaper less and less, scanning some headlines but lacking the energy to read through many of the pieces.  And more nights than not I don't watch any news on TV, though when I do watch it is the NewsHour on PBS.  (My wife, however, is a junkie for MSNBC and watches that each night after work.  Though I am not with her in the room with the TV, I can't help but hear some of the programming while in my office.)  I am guessing that many others are feeling news fatigue, regardless of political inclination.  If so, there is then no mechanism for the brainwashing to happen.  And even for those who continue to regularly watch Fox News, might they still maintain some independence in their own thinking?  We should recognize that there is some elitism in maintaining that regular MSNBC viewers can retain independent judgment, while regular Fox viewers cannot.  Further, and quite ironically, it is just that elitism that seems to fuel the resentment by the Trump supporters.

The other piece I want to mention is a recent blog post by Paul Krugman, The New Climate of Treason.  It puts all the hypotheses by Liberals about a vast right wing conspiracy driving this disregard of a Russian threat together in one package.  Fox News plays a critical role in that story.  If you think of far right elites (puppeteers) manipulating the masses (puppets), then Fox News offers a connection between them (the strings).  My initial reaction to the Krugman piece was to accept what he had to say and look for some remedy by considering whether Trump supporters might find some other viewing more compelling than Fox News, with that other viewing not intentionally manipulative.  For example, The NewsHour offers this sort of programming.  Yet it doesn't seem to be considered as entertaining by regular Fox viewers, judged by what they do choose to watch.   It remains a mystery to me what would be highly engaging programming yet without manipulating the audience, programming that could compete favorably with Fox News. 

This seemingly intractable problem led  met to think that something else might be the answer.  So I started to consider gentle conversations where both Conservatives and Liberals participate, either one-on-one or in small groups.  When I was an assistant professor, students would come to my office hours in groups.  There is strength in numbers.  Students are reluctant to attend office hours individually, because they don't want to look stupid in front of the professor.  I reckoned that something similar might work in this instance, with a single Liberal participant who goes on site to meet the Trump supporters.  Follow up meetings might then happen individually or in small groups, depending on the inclinations of the participants. In other words, once the initial conversation has taken place a participant may feel comfortable enough to not need to be part of a group to participate further and indeed may prefer discussion to be one-on-one to better direct the conversation.

Within a day or two of thinking this way I read, How Trump Is Transforming Rural America, an article from The New Yorker.  I am always amused when I see my own formative thinking mirrored in some well-placed publication.  It offers me some confirmation that my thinking is not too far off base.  In this case the reporter, Peter Hessler, spent a significant amount of time in Grand Junction Colorado, a bastion of Trump support near the western edge of the state. Hessler had repeated conversations with some of those who did vote for Trump, a publisher from a local newspaper that maintained neutrality during the election, and a few Colorado state politicians.  It makes for an interesting read because the people are far from cookie cutter, particularly in their prior experiences.  This paragraph, not quite at the end of the piece, amounts to a conclusion of sorts.   

In Grand Junction, it was often dispiriting to see such enthusiasm for a figure who could become the ultimate political boom-and-bust. There was idealism, too, and so many pro-Trump opinions were the fruit of powerful and legitimate life experiences. “We just assume that if someone voted for Trump that they’re racist and uneducated,” Jeriel Brammeier, the twenty-six-year-old chair of the local Democratic Party, told me. “We can’t think about it like that.” People have reasons for the things that they believe, and the intensity of their experiences can’t be taken for granted; it’s not simply a matter of having Fox News on in the background. But perhaps this is a way to distinguish between the President and his supporters. Almost everybody I met in Grand Junction seemed more complex, more interesting, and more decent than the man who inspires them.

I was disposed to accept Hessler's message, having read similar conclusions elsewhere, for example, this column by Nicholas Kristof, My Most Unpopular Idea: Be Kind to Trump Voters.  Nevertheless, I had a lot of questions about Hessler's methodology that aren't answered by the piece itself.  Many of those questions follow from this basic one.  Why would people in Grand Junction talk openly with Hessler?   When I was a campus administrator, I was occasionally interviewed by the student newspaper.  I was a 'willing participant' in these interviews because it was part of my job, meaning I really didn't have a choice.  For those who appeared in the story and did have a choice, what explains the choice that they made?  Were they paid for their participation or did they give it freely?  Were there others who Hessler asked to interview but who declined the offer?  If so, are these people different in a way that matters for the story, so we are getting a biased picture of the full situation? Likewise, were there still others who were interviewed but who didn't make it into the story?  If so, why?  Does this introduce a different sort of bias? 

I also wonder whether that is it regarding these conversations, given the publication of the article, or if Hessler will continue in ongoing threads with some of them.  If you try to connect the first half of my piece to this second section, the participants have far greater reason to engage in an open and honest way when the conversation is ongoing.  Otherwise, it is quite possible that the discussion gets end-gamed. If they were end-gamed the participants would offer up what they know Hessler wants to hear, whether that is the whole truth or not.  What, if anything, prevents the end-gaming in this case?  This is an issue with all magazine exposé pieces, not just Hessler's article.  Journalists get well educated that sources may have ulterior motives, which is one reason why they try to triangulate every bit of information the journalist uncovers.  Here, however, the piece is more about attitudes than about juicy nuggets of insider information. Does triangulation suffice in this case or not?

These questions into Hessler's methodology notwithstanding, I started to imagine something similar happening a thousand-fold over, in many different locations around the country.  I asked myself whether it was necessary for the person making the site visit to be a trained journalist.  Maybe it would be better for the person to be an ethnographer or perhaps a political scientist.  Or perhaps somebody like me would be good at this, meaning somebody with a lot of experience in gentle conversation, but whose expertise comes from an area not closely related to the topics under discussion.  Getting participation might be harder in this case, but it would make the conversations more symmetric, which matters for what I say next.

After bonding has occurred I'd want the participants to take a page from Mary Parker Follett's Creative Experience and see if on some issues the participants can produce a synthesis of their views that represents something fundamentally new, where each participant has contributed something to the synthesis.  Follett calls this process interweaving.  What might this look like?  Can the participants actually get past the agree-to-disagree stage and onto something else that is more tenable?  How does that work?

Now I want to speculate.  Trump supporters are known to be strongly suspicious of government and will claim that the government works for special interests only but ignores the general public.  The government, therefore, is not to be trusted.  But then I need to confront my own experience, both when I was growing up and during my working life.  I came of age during the Vietnam War.  It seemed that everyone my age learned to distrust the government in talking about the War.  I didn't see this duplicity as benefiting the special interests, though at some point in my teen years I must have become aware of Ike's warning regarding the military-industrial complex.  Instead, I felt that fear of communism was overwrought and that The Domino Theory was pretty much nonsense, used for domestic propaganda rather than to make a sound argument for war, since there wasn't such a sound argument.  So I clearly distrusted government with respect to Vietnam.  Yet at the same time I attended a NYC public school and did so from first grade through graduating high school.  I thought my education pretty good for the most part and strongly endorse the idea of public schools, even now. In the case of public schools, government seems like a good and necessary thing to me.

How can government be be not trustworthy, on the one hand, and yet deserving of trust, on the other?  I have never worked through that question fully in my own thinking, let alone try to reconcile those contradictions with others.  (The Federal government was responsible for the Vietnam War while NYC government was responsible for the public education I received, so one simplistic argument  might be to not trust the Federal government but to trust local government.  Of course, it is easy enough to come up with examples that cut the other way.  Consider that the Internet emerged from research at ARPA, with the ARPANET dating back to the early 1960s.  Also consider that urban public schools are often criticized for large class size, inadequate teacher pay, and dilapidated facilities.)  A subtle argument that is not doctrinaire but rather address these experiences is what is needed.

To this I want to add my work experience.  I was an employee of the University of Illinois from fall 1980 to summer 2010, after which I retired.  I have taught one course a year under contract to the university since 2013.  (In 2011 taught two course in the spring.  In 2012, I taught one course in the spring and taught it again in the fall.)    The U of I is a public university.  If government is not to be trusted are the employees of government agencies not to be trusted?  Am I, therefore, not to be trusted?  This line of thinking gives a different dimension to the same issue.

Let me add still another dimension.  The last time I taught intermediate microeconomics, spring 2011, I had many students in my class who were business majors.  Many of them were quite conservative.  A few articulated a strong anti-government stance.  Just about all of these students were from within Illinois, paying in-state tuition at a public university and getting a benefit from the subsidy they were receiving (or their parents were receiving if their parents were the ones paying the tuition). None of these students saw a contradiction here.  I am not sure why.  Perhaps they didn't understand that the taxpayers in the state were bearing some of the cost of their education.  If they did come to learn this, would their attitude about government spending change?  Could they come to a principled view about when government spending is justified, one that goes beyond it being justified when they are the beneficiaries but not otherwise?   I don't know if that might be possible or not.  I am quite sure that is can't happen quickly (because I tried to convince my students of this in my class and failed miserably at it then).

Were we to have a thousand or so such gentle conversations throughout the U.S., we might get a sense of whether they can be effective and what factors would make that more likely.  Yet even a thousand conversations would represent only a small sample of what's needed for us to heal as a nation.  There are millions of voters nationally.  How can the approach with gentle conversations scale?  Even if it does work some of the time when replicating what Hessler did and then extending that to Follett's Creative Experience, as suggested above, does the effectiveness survive the approach to scaling?

* * * * *

In this last section I want to go from speculation to pipe dream.  In this fantasy, some of the gentle conversations that have gotten past the bonding threshold get video recorded.  Clips, or sometimes full discussions, get published online for general viewing.  A central coordinator, like a TV show host, does interviews with participants in these gentle conversations.  Indeed, this is offered as programming on some commercial network.  The tone of the coordinator is meant to stay in sync with the tone of the gentle conversations.  I have Jeffrey Brown of The NewsHour in mind as someone who is subdued and welcoming in this manner. His style contrasts with the style of hosts of Fox News or MSNBC, who are more combative in their demeanor.  Nevertheless, one of those networks might consider offering up this alternative programming as part of their lineup, done as an experiment to see if it can generate an audience, a way to diversify their offerings.

Undoubtedly, audiences that are used to the bombastic style on their favorite news network will be disappointed when viewing the gentle conversations, as well as when viewing the interviews between the central coordinator and the participants in those gentle conversations.  There just won't be enough fireworks to suit audience tastes.  And it may seem as if everything is playing out in slow motion.  The audience might very well find that boring and then tune out.

There's one factor that should cut the other way.  My pipe dream is based entirely on this other factor winning out.  It is that the participants in the gentle conversations are ordinary people, just like the viewers.  They will be believable because of that.  If their discussion has produced something substantial from interweaving, the audience is then apt to take that conclusion seriously because the audience should be able to imagine producing the same outcome themselves.

This is how the approach might scale.  Now, who is willing to give it a try?