Saturday, July 28, 2018

How to Unify the Left and the Center - One Voter's View

There have been many pieces as of late in the New York Times about the Democratic Party moving to the Left.  Is it good or bad?  Is it really happening?  What will the consequences be?

This has been cooking for some time.  To establishment types, Bernie Sanders' showing in the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primaries must have been something of an eye opener.  Nonetheless, the recent defeat of Joseph Crowley by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seems to have have set off alarm bells.  If you believe the stories in the news, this outcome wasn't anticipated at all.  There are two possible interpretations of this result.  The first is that Crowley, an entrenched politician, lost sight of his own constituency.  Instead, he was captured by the special interests and the higher ups in the Democratic Party.  This story makes Crowley seem quite similar to Eric Cantor, so it emphasizes that a many term incumbent became out of touch with the voters.  The second explanation focused on the fact that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is an avowed Democratic Socialist,  just like Bernie Sanders.  In the current environment, as least in her district, those views are more closely aligned to what the voters want, as it includes them in the political conversation.  No doubt there is some overlap between these explanations.  They are not mutually exclusive.

I was delighted with this outcome, expressing my pleasure in the daily rhyme I post to Twitter.  It is wonderful to have a young and charismatic candidate who can generate excitement among the voters and encourage them to feel that good things are possible.  For far too long our politics have ignored the economics of inequality and its pernicious social consequences.  (Readers at the U of I can get access to this piece through the Library via a database from EBSCOhost.  Scroll down a little on this page to find the appropriate entry.) Note that this piece was published in September 2016, before Trump became President.  The pessimism expressed in the piece might need to be amplified, in light of more recent events.

It does seem that Democratic Socialism addresses the issues of income inequality squarely, which probably explains why Bernie Sanders proved to be such a popular candidate.  His supporters sensed this too.  In this interview with Noam Chomsky, who supported Bernie Sanders but who said he'd vote for Clinton over Trump, in case she got the nomination, Chomsky remarks about Socialism as a label but then refers to Sanders as a New Deal Democrat.  If that is an accurate depiction, it reflects how much rightward our society as a whole has moved.

Indeed, a couple of years ago I found this piece on how Facebook regards your political preferences.  (Trying it just now, I couldn't find my ranking.  They may have removed this "feature.")  I checked mine out then and it said I was very liberal.   I really don't think my political views have changed much over the years.  Circumstances have changed much more dramatically.  I view myself as moderately liberal, a Keynesian on macroeconomics, while on microeconomics I prefer to look at the situation on a market by market basis, rather than pick a one-size-fits-all approach.  I will illustrate below.

Competitive markets work well when there are a lot of players, none of which has too large a market share.  Markets that are highly concentrated work less well.  In the early 1990s the big buzzwords in economics were network externalities.  Technically this means a user gets more benefit from a product or a service when other users are in the same product or service.  The old style argument for why monopoly occurred was economies of scale.  That argument didn't go away, but with the move to computers and being online, economies of network started to seem the much more powerful force.  Further, as became evident in The Microsoft Case, an incumbent that was a monopolist in one market would parlay that advantage for the competition in emerging markets, thwarting the competition which didn't have the deep pockets to endure a sustained price war.  This leads to a vicious cycle where the incumbents seek economic rents and industry gets ever more concentrated because the incumbents capture the new markets as well as maintaining monopoly in their old markets.

This is unlike the story Schumpeter envisioned when he described "creative destruction."  In the Schumpeterian approach laissez-faire is fine because the incumbent's advantage is temporary.  New entrants then discipline the incumbent, and perhaps one takes over entirely.  In the new story, however, laissez-faire is a disaster for income inequality.   There needs to be a counterforce to rein in the rent seeking and to keep the profits from being expatriated.  I am not sure that American antitrust law is sufficient for this.  Unlike when those laws came into existence, the incumbent companies are now all multinationals, operating around the globe.  Global trade agreements need to be seen in this light.  They should not be just about opening foreign markets for U.S. based firms to enter. 

This market power in the product market translates into market power in the input markets.  (Instead of monopoly, a single seller, we talk about monopsony, a single buyer.)  Monopsony in the labor market means lower wages for employees.  Thomas Edsall's most recent column makes just this point.  It also revives a rather old dual labor market theory, which seems increasingly relevant.  For those employees with the right sort of human capital, think of the computer programmers who write the code at the big IT companies, they are paid a pretty penny. Other workers who provide more commodity-like labor services, janitors may be the quintessential example, don't earn a wage premium at all, even if their work is necessary.  Indeed, in the current environment those workers are not employees.  They work under contract for a services company.  That sort of work doesn't pay well and offers no job security.

If the work happens near to where the product or service is sold, these imbalances can be remedied, in part, either by raising the minimum wage or by having the workers unionize and bargain for better wages.  However, when the work can happen anywhere, and do note that these big multinationals have global supply chains already in place, then attempts to raise the wage locally that are not matched by increases in productivity will migrate the jobs elsewhere, in the union setting to a right-to-work state, in the increased minimum wage situation by off-shoring the jobs.  Thus, to remedy the ills of inequality in this case it is necessary to engage directly in income redistribution.

The income redistribution can be in kind, as subsidies for certain goods and services, health care and education come to mind, or as direct income transfers, such as with Social Security.  There are then two dimensions to consider.  First, who is worthy to receive the income redistribution? Second, how intensive should the income redistribution be?   If you believe that hardly anyone is worthy and that for others the income redistribution should be nil, that makes you Conservative/Libertarian in your views.   Such people tend to believe in the just-world hypothesis - life is fair as is.  Perhaps they will grant an exception to a veteran who experienced a severe and disabling injury in combat or to a child who has a rare and potentially fatal disease.  Otherwise, their approach is - no handouts.  At the opposite extreme, you believe that everyone is worthy and that there should be income equality after the redistribution has occurred.  This makes you either a saint or a communist.  The rest of us are somewhere in the middle, with our politics described by how close we are to one extreme or the other.

I want to note that even Ms. Ocasio-Cortez refers to her natural constituency as working people.  From this I infer that working people are worthy in her eyes, while those who are able in body and mind but who are out of work and not seeking employment are not worthy.

I will observe that in my own teaching, I hold similar views.  A student who comes to class regularly and shows some effort in doing the assigned homework is worthy in my eyes.  Such students frequently don't seek help when they are struggling, because there is shame in that.  I find myself reaching out to them in some way to help get them through my class.  Students who frequently skip class, in contrast, I put into a different category. I am irritated by their indifference to showing up and I show that irritation when communicating with them, in response to a query they make.  I want to note that this is an imperfect way to differentiate students, as I learned a few years ago when I discovered that a student of mine had Crohn's disease.  I would have been entirely unsympathetic at the time except for the fact that my best friend's son was suffering from a similar ailment.  He had to spend much time in the hospital for treatment and had to drop out of college for a while as a consequence.  I ended up with my student cutting him some slack so he could deal with his situation as best as he could.  More generally, there can be mitigating circumstances with the student that the instructor is simply unaware of.  How should the instructor account for that in determining who is worthy?  Alas, I am not sure how to answer that question.

Recently I read a piece by Bertrand Russell from 1932, which challenges the notion that people who work are worthy.   The notion is a holdover from the Puritan work ethic, which developed when society was largely agrarian, well before the industrial revolution took place.  At that time labor was scarce and everyone worked hard. The only possible exception was the landed gentry.  Bertrand Russell was commenting during the Great Depression, where production capabilities were much better, but where distribution still depended on working or not.  He talks about moving to a 4-hour work day, so the spoils can be shared more evenly.  Nowadays, with the increasing possibility that work can be automated, this linkage between working and being worthy is even more tenuous.  Yet I fear it is ingrained with us in how we were raised.  This notion requires further examination so we can come up with something more sensible that fits current circumstances better.  Noting that, I want to push on because I don't yet have an answer as to what that something more sensible should be.

There is no doubt that regarding their positions Bernie Sanders would be regarded as to the left of Hillary Clinton.  And I find myself closer to Sanders position-wise.  Yet I voted for Clinton in the primaries.  I thought she was the better candidate.  Trying to reconcile that apparent contradiction is why I'm writing this piece.  The reconciliation, which will be given in the next section, no doubt requires some wishful thinking, perhaps a lot of wishful thinking.  Yet I think it a worthwhile exercise to go through.  As I view my pieces as think alouds, the real purpose of the piece is not to offer up a solution as a nice package wrapped in a bow, but instead to encourage others to think it through for themselves.  That exercise needs to be done before the internecine politics within the Democratic Party can be resolved amicably, if indeed it can.

Let me conclude this section with a few reasons why I found Bernie Sanders less than a completely satisfying candidate.  He is very strong on identifying benefits for working people, each which he tends to deliver as a sound bite.  So the proposal is typically under specified.  The price tag, in particular is not considered.  As an opening bid in a negotiation to produce legislation, that is fine.  But as the end result it is problematic.

For example, consider the proposal to make college free.  There is no doubt that student loan debt is a real problem, one that requires a substantive solution.  Back when I was applying for college, the New York City system colleges were free, while the SUNY system colleges did require students to pay tuition, and then there were private universities that required much greater tuition.  While I don't have the data on this, I believe that many of my high school classmates in Bayside attended Queens College, which was part of the New York City system.  I'm guessing that they lived at home while they attended college, to keep down the costs of room and board.  Fast forward to now and Governor Cuomo has embraced the Sanders proposal.  Students from families below a certain income threshold can attend for free; presumably their tuition is paid for by the state.  But how does this work in practice?  Do low income students still not attend the residential campuses because they can't cover the room and board costs?  Do the universities receive the full amount of tuition they would have received or did the state commit to pay less?  If so, what will happen to the quality of instruction given lower tuition revenues?

Now let me make a little leap, which I'm prone to do in my reasoning.  K-12 has been free for quite some time.  Yet we know that public school quality varies substantially.  Public schools in rich neighborhoods tend to be high quality.  Conversely, public schools in poor neighborhoods tend to be low quality.  There is a strong racial component to this.  If you read Jonathan Kozol's The Shame of the Nation you'll learn we have apartheid schools in the poor neighborhoods.  It is 64 years since the Brown v. Board of Education decision.  Yet de facto we are still in a Plessy v. Ferguson world.    Recognizing that, might we simply reproduce that outcome at the college level if we make college free?  Alternatively, might the funds be better spent on K-12 and improving the quality there?

There is a lot of complexity here.  Making soundbite policy proposals in the presence of such complexity is not a good thing, in my view.  It may excite a lot of voters, who can chant those soundbites for themselves.  But it is a kind of fool's gold.  Hillary Clinton's proposals were not nearly as aggressive, but they were more thought out and did have a price tag that came with them. I respected her preference to deliver proposals that way and thought she got unfairly blamed by association with Bill Clinton for his indiscretions, which surely came as no pleasure to her. I also thought that she got pummeled by the Republican attack machine, not just in the recent campaign, but all the way back to the early 1990s.  She may have adopted a shell of protection as a result and that makes her appear less candid in public speaking.   Yet I didn't think it would influence her decision making on policy issues.  I reckon her a nerd, like me.  Her reasoning through the analysis would drive the decisions.  This is why I voted for her.

* * * * *

Here is the plan to unify the Left and the Center.  I will cast this as a bargain between ordinary working people and upscale voters.    As it is now, both types believe the system doesn't work for everyone.  The ordinary working people get discouraged by this.  The various social ills have been documented.  More important for this plan is their voting behavior.  Anthony Downs taught us about the Paradox of Voting.  Voting takes time and effort, getting to the polls, waiting in line to vote, and beforehand learning about the candidates and developing a preference for the preferred candidate.  So the costs are evident to the voter.  The benefits are less evident, especially when there are many voters so there is a likelihood that one individual vote won't matter in determining the outcome.  This is all the more the case when it is believed that it doesn't matter which candidate wins, because the system is broken.  The paradox is that some people do vote when the cost-benefit calculation would predict that they will not vote.

As it turns out in practice, income is a predictor of voter participation.  Low income people tend to vote at a lower rate.  Participation increases with income.  Let me explain why this matters.

The Democrats are at a disadvantage electorally for two different reasons.  Democratic voters tend to be concentrated in the cities.  Republican voters tend to reside in rural areas. For both control of the Senate and for winning the Electoral College, this gives an advantage to the Republicans.  The other reason pertains to gerrymandering Congressional districts.  When Democrats win a House race, they win by a wide margin.  When Republicans win, the races are often closer.  Without the gerrymandering the Democrats would have more seats in the House.

Heretofore, most political strategists would argue that the election is won by making the right sort of appeal to independents, those who do vote regularly.  They are the swing voters who will decide the election.  That is not the argument being made here.

Instead, the Democratic strategy should be to significantly expand voter participation rates among ordinary working people. Let us note that 40 years ago labor unions performed that function in many places and the party machine did it in other places, such as Chicago when the first Mayor Daley was in office.  This function needs to be restored and indeed expanded.  Democrats can overcome the Republicans inherent advantage if they are quite successful with this approach.  This is one side of the bargain.

Now let's consider upscale voters.  They too recognize that the system doesn't work, but they have become proficient, perhaps even expert, at gaming the system for their own advantage, even if this is to the detriment of others.  They have been raised under the principle - vote your pocketbook.  In this they have been coopted by the Republicans who always want to cut their taxes.  They completely disagree with Republicans on the various identity issues.  But on bread and butter matters, what has mattered to them is the bottom line.  And looking at after-tax income, they've done well under Republican administrations by this measure.  So while they understand that income inequality is a problem, they have kept their heads in the sand in regards to doing anything to fix the problem.  Changing this is the other side of the bargain.

We will consider this bargain twice.  Once in the near term, then again in the long run.  As I've written quite a lot about the motivation for the long run, I will simply cite a couple of these pieces and note that it is fundamentally an ethical matter.  It is all about social responsibility or, if you prefer, it's about embracing JFK's famous line, "Ask what you can do for your country."  You don't hear many politicians challenge their own constituencies this way.  That needs to change.  Much of my wishful thinking is that indeed will happen as people come to realize the necessity of doing so.  One piece of mine that articulates the requisite principles in some depth is entitled A New Progressivism?  Love of country is the bedrock on which the JFK ideal is built. That must be restored.  Doing so will require the lion's share of the heavy lifting.  The other piece, which pertains as much to our ordinary social interactions as it does to our national politics, is called How well does my dad's morality hold up?  I was raised to "be a mensch."  My dad had quite colorful language for those who weren't.  If people treat others as human beings in their normal interactions, and we include upscale voters in that, then they should come to recognize that with the way things are now voting their pocketbook is a mistake.  They need to vote for a system that can work for everyone.

What about the near term motivation for upscale voters.  I think it is quite different, entirely tactical in nature, and is based on revulsion with our current government.  The Republicans fight like hell to secure electoral advantage and then deliver government that is incompetent and nonsensical.  Upscale Democrats want to win now.  They want a government they can respect and one that is liberal on the identity issues.  They want an end to playing political football with Supreme Court nominees.  And they are willing to pay (in higher taxes) to achieve those ends.

That's the basic idea.  Now let's amplify on it some.  The recent history of our national politics is that the Democrats controlling the Presidency and both houses of Congress has happened in two-year stints, the first two years of the Bill Clinton Presidency and again the first two years of the Barack Obama Presidency.  Otherwise, when Democrats have controlled the Presidency there has been divided government.  Back in 1994 the Republican won back the House with the Contract for America.  Then in 2010 something similar happened with the rise of the Tea Party.  There was quite a lot of enthusiasm among young voters in 2008, when Obama was then a candidate.  That cooled substantially for a variety of reasons.  The economy was in crisis and the urgency seemed to be to protect the financial system from utter failure, rather than to help ordinary people who were out of work and perhaps in underwater mortgages.  Obamacare passed, but the Public Option was abandoned and some viewed that as a betrayal.  Further Obama campaigned in 2008 on being above the petty politics, but the Republicans played the obstruction game where they could and the President looked foolish at times for not subsequently playing hardball himself.

To rectify the ills of income inequality will take a sustained effort over a decade or longer.  The bargain I'm talking about must sustain for the duration. That will take quite some doing.  It can't be done in just one election cycle.  So part of this is about having to sustain the bargain over time.

Another point to consider is whether the Left will embrace the bargain.  The alternative, it would seem, would be to ignore the upscale voters entirely.  If they can get the voter participation rates up high enough they won't need the upscale voters to sanction what they are doing.  They can raise taxes on the upscale voters because they will control the government.  Then they won't need to be part of any messy compromises.  Surely that will be a tempting path to follow.

At issue is whether the Left can overcome the Paradox of Voting with their own core constituency by going it alone.  Of course, I can't do those calculations for them in a way that will be convincing.  They must do it themselves.  But I wonder if those who supported Bernie Sanders back in 2016, especially those who then were lukewarm to Hillary Clinton, possibly not voting in that election as a consequence, feel some regret for their decisions now.  With the experience of the Trump Presidency so demoralizing, and thus with a sense of urgency that we shouldn't repeat the mistake in 2020, perhaps these people have reconsidered their own decision making.  It is sometimes comforting to be The True Believer, who doesn't compromise come hell or high water.  But after a sustained period of disappointment, does one still cling to the old ideals?  I really don't know how these conflicting motives will play out.  My hope is that those in leadership roles on the Left will see this bargain as an opportunity worth pursuing.

Then there is getting down to the nitty-gritty.  How much will taxes be raised on upscale voters?  What programs aimed at ordinary working people will be implemented when their price tags have been carefully worked out?  Will the coalition hold when people see the actual numbers?  Or will unrealistic expectations on each side doom the bargain?  I don't know the answer to this but I want to note one thing here that should be addressed.

The way legislation is done now, each bill is taken up sequentially, with its own budget and spending provisions. What is really needed for the purposes of bargaining, however, is to take up the collection of bills that will be proposed and deliberated upon, so one can see their consequence in aggregate.  The bargain has to be about that aggregate, rather than be done on a one-at-a-time basis.  Some years ago I wrote a paper called How to Save the Economy and the Democratic Party - A Proposal.  At the time I didn't anticipate the Bernie Sanders candidacy, and I thought infrastructure investment, job creation in construction work, and an emphasis on doing something substantial to make America Green, would be the basis.  Surely there is some overlap between that agenda and seriously addressing the ills of income inequality.  But they are not one and the same thing.  I recognize that.  However, developing a full economic plan and coming up with a process for doing so is the way to convince the public that the system works.  That needs to be the focus.

* * * * *

I want to close by trying to connect the second half of the essay to the first.  Though I've watched The West Wing TV show (multiple times) I am largely ignorant of how a real get out the vote campaign can work and what it will take to get such a campaign to counter the intensive efforts by Republicans at voter suppression.   Likewise, I am ignorant about what it will take for a politician to compromise on prior held views or change them entirely and yet do so with utter conviction.  (While I wasn't going to vote for Mitt Romney back in 2012, no matter what, that he came out against Obamacare even though he had done essentially the same thing earlier as governor of Massachussets seemed expedient and entirely disingenuous to me.  He wanted to be President and and would say anything to achieve that end.  That's the sort of politics that can't work in this case.)

I have a fantasy of what would work.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is campaigning with Tim Kaine and they are each making an address to an audience of Democratic voters in a large auditorium.  This is not a Presidential campaign stop, but rather an event to rally the base.  Alexandria talks first.  Her speech is aimed at upscale voters.  She tells them about their need to embrace higher taxes and explains why steep increases are necessary.  The uber rich surely will also pay quite a lot more, but if the focus is only on them the effort to raise taxes will fail.  That there are so many good spirited upscale voters who willingly embrace the tax increase makes it possible to impose.  Then she turns to talking about underlying motivations for doing so.  Perhaps it is penance for the years of neglect of ordinary working people.  Perhaps it is waking up to the fact that they've been played by the Republicans.  And perhaps it is simply that they can see the train leaving the station and they want to be on it.

Then Tim takes the podium.  He talks about how the market is failing ordinary working people, who need help.  This help must be provided by the government.  We need to elect representatives who understand this as job one. Then he tells them about their job, to educate themselves about such candidates and by all means to vote, in the primaries and in the general election.  He talks about voting as an expression of social responsibility.  Then he talks about legal ways to counter the Republican voter suppression efforts.

After this Alexandria approaches the podium where Tim is already standing and she gives him a big hug.  Then they raise their arms in celebration.

Wishful thinking for sure, but what I'd like to see happen.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Is the sky really falling? If so, is it time to bury Caesar?

Let me begin with what I think we know and where we all can agree.  The Russians did meddle a lot in the 2016 election.  Their purpose in doing so was to undermine Americans faith in their democracy.  The Russians have been remarkably successful in doing that.

Now let me speculate some.  If this experience was one-and-done, then we Americans who still maintain some faith in the electoral process will hope the ship can be righted via subsequent elections.  But why should we expect this to be one-and-done when from the Russian perspective that previous effort was so successful?  Indeed, I am writing this piece as reaction to the following quote found here.

“There is a possibility that we may well take up legislation related to this,” Mr. McConnell told reporters. “In the meantime, I think the Russians need to know that there are a lot of us who fully understand what happened in 2016 and it really better not happen again.”

Jawboning the Russians will not work.  I'm sure Senator McConnell knows that.  Do we have other means that will work or not?  The President's recent undermining the efforts of the intelligence community should be viewed in this light. If the President truly is the agent of Putin, making these other means less effective in a way that is overt to the public is a way to further diminish Americans faith in the system.

Now let's consider this perception for voters who cast their ballot for Hillary Clinton in 2016.  The current government is illegitimate because of past Russian meddling.  The future government, the one after the 2018 midterm elections, may also be illegitimate for similar reasons.  Having lost faith in both the government and the process, what course of action is left?  That is what I mean in the title of this post by the sky is falling.

To this group of voters one should add the small business/deregulation types of voters who typically vote Republican.  They may be taking solace in the facts that the stock market is booming and the unemployment rate is quite low.  So they likely don't want to upset the apple cart. However, they may be fearful of what President Trump is doing on international trade agreements.  Further, they may quietly acknowledge that what Clinton voters have anxiety about is real enough and they might grudgingly agree that the current government is not legitimate.  These factors are probably not sufficient to get them to act on these perceptions, but they may sympathize with those who do.

Now let met get to the second question in my title about burying Caesar.  Here I'm thinking of Caesar as McConnell, not Trump.  It is McConnell who blocked the confirmation hearing on Merrick Garland, which in my way of thinking undermines this democracy as much as what the Russians did.  McConnell must be buried now.  Indeed, a vote on Brett Kavanaugh should not take place.  If that can be accomplished, it might serve as palliative to those voters who cast their ballot for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

I'm guessing, however, that it is unlikely to happen.  What then?  The only path I see is that such voters turn into a mob.  Who knows what a mob will do?  There does not appear to be a leader who can control this mob.  My forecast is that this will get very ugly, much more so than it is now.  Now there is the jawboning and hoping for the best.  When that evaporates, what will replace it will be not be pretty. 

Friday, July 06, 2018

What if Sulu had been Captain of the Enterprise on the original Star Trek?

While I did watch the show on TV, I am not a Trekkie.  After watching the first movie or two with the original cast and one with the new cast (plus the old Spock), I completely lost track of the remaining sequels, though in doing some Google searches for this post I learned that Sulu eventually did captain his own ship in one of them.

There are two possible ways to interpret the question in the title.  One is that Sulu embody the character of Kirk, but then have that role played by a person of Japanese ancestry.  The other is that Sulu retain the character that they had in the original show, but then be cast in the position of captain.  Either way, could the Star Trek story remain as compelling in these other scenarios as it was in the original?

I will explain in a bit what made me think to ask this question.  But before I do I want to note first that most of us hold stereotypical views of others.  Students of behavioral economics learn about this via the representativeness heuristic coupled with the conjunction fallacy. The example of Linda the Bank Teller, which I first saw in Stephen Jay Gould's The Streak of Streaks, but which he got from earlier work by Kahneman and Tversky, illustrates the issues nicely and does so in a comparatively safe way. Talking about prejudice yet in a safe manner I believe to be the unspoken value of the example.  It is hard to talk about our prejudice without the discussion quickly getting heated.  The aim of the question in my title was to emulate the Linda the Bank Teller example in this regard.   I leave it for each reader to work through an answer.  It will help to do so first, before reading the rest of my post.  I will include my answer at the end of this essay.

Over the past several years there have been numerous pieces about Asian-Americans, with a focus on parenting and kid performance in school. But recently the flow of such pieces seem to be accelerating, with a flurry of such essays within the last few weeks.  Some of this is the result of Asian-Americans suing Harvard for discrimination in the application process.  Another part of this is NYC Mayor De Blasio's plan to change how admissions are done at the elite magnet high schools in the city.  I read much more opinion than straight news, recently most of that is from the NY Times Op-Ed page and the New Yorker. The pieces on this topic I've read recently are: The Last of the Tiger Parents, Harvard Is Wrong That Asians Have Terrible Personalities, and Why Asian-Americans Feel Powerless In The Battle Over New York's Elite High Schools.

The thing is, each of these pieces is authored by an Asian-American.  It's clear they have enough skin in the game to feel compelled to write these pieces. But as a reader I want a different perspective, if it is possible to get it. This thought is not new to me.  A few years back I wrote a post called Boundaries Are Always Harder to Define.  The following is a paragraph from that piece.

I am a fairly regular reader of the New York Times Opinion Page.  Among the regular columnists, Charles Blow is the one who writes regularly about race issues, often taking on the Republican attack machine in the process.  It might be expected that an African American columnist will write on race issues, but as a regular diet of columns I find this problematic.  So it occurred to me that Blow should swap columns with somebody else at the Times, Joe Nocera for example.  Nocera has written a spate of columns on the NCAA as evil cartel.  Imagine if for a month or so that Blow would write about the NCAA, race could certainly enter the discussion there but the constraint would be that there was a connection to NCAA issues, and Nocera would write about race relations, preferably entirely outside the world of sports.  The alternative perspective would be helpful to readers.  

Alas, we don't get this sort of thing very often at all.  For example, it would be interesting to read Charles Blow on Asian-Americans and elite schools, but I suspect we won't see pieces like that from him. So I thought I'd give some bits from my experiences as a professor, to see how the world looks from that angle.   I should note straightaway, others have written about these issues as well.  I will make reference to some of that in what follows.

* * * * *

The first example is from a class I taught back in fall 2009 for students in the Campus Honors Program called Designing for Effective Change.  It is the only time I've ever taught an undergraduate class that was not in economics.  And it was was the first time in my teaching where I had students write weekly blog posts.  There were many other unusual aspects to the class that were novel for me.  Here I want to focus on just one, the demographic diversity of the class and my reaction to it.  By mid semester I had embraced an unarticulated view that women of Asian ancestry would eventually take over the world.  The students in that category in my class had both diligence and modesty.  I had one male student from India (or whose parents were from India) who was a bit of an operator and the only student in the class who didn't attend regularly.  And some of the White students I felt were too entitled and self-absorbed.  The last time I can recall thinking this, it was Accounting students taking my intermediate micro class when I was an assistant professor and it was a couple of male students only.  This was more than 25 years later.  Most of these entitled students were either in engineering or were pre-med.  And most of them were women.  (The entire class had only 17 students, so this was a small numbers situation.)

Now here is the odd thing.  We had live class sessions in discussion mode and the students who dominated those conversations were the entitled students. There were many other quiet students.  The bulk of the Asian students were in this category; some of the White students were too.  Once they got the hang of the blogging, after about a month or so, many of these quiet students produced more interesting posts.  They were more exploratory and open in their writing, and evidently put considerable effort into it.  In contrast, the students who were more glib in class seemed to struggle with the blogging, as it was harder for them to find their voice that way.  Some of this is explained in the post I linked to.  I will add a different dimension to this which I didn't consider in that post, whether the students are extroverts or introverts.  My hypothesis is that extroverts are likely to thrive in the live class session while introverts will become more expressive in online writing.  I wonder if other instructors have come to a similar conclusion.  This was all a surprise to me at the time.  Prior to teaching this class I assumed that people who were good in the live classroom would also be good with the blogging.  In other words, my prior was that a good student is good across the board.  But that's not what I observed.

There was some outstanding student writing in this class done by students who took the course for Advanced Composition credit, which meant they had to do other writing than the blog posts.  For the first writing project I had these students do book reviews, a la the reviews I would then read in the New York Review of Books.  I guessed that this would be more interesting than the usual term papers, which invariably are dreary to read and I suppose not all that exciting to write. This was one of my experiments that actually paid off.  (Many of my experiments go for naught.)  I went so far as to share a couple of the reviews with the author of the book being reviewed.  When I got a pleased response from him, I shared that with the students.  (I redacted a bit of the message to protect the identity of the students.  Only first names were retained.)  They too were delighted.

Both Christine and Xuan were among the quiet students in the class and both of them are of Chinese ancestry.  If I recall correctly, Christine's parents were immigrants.  Xuan herself was an immigrant.  Christine fit the stereotype in some ways, displaying quite a lot of what Angela Duckworth calls grit.  But Christine showed a quality I don't see in many students.  She was very coachable, open to my suggestions, and willing to try something that might produce improvement.  Perhaps she didn't realize it was all an experiment and I didn't have prior experience in teaching to really know what I was doing.  (I did have a lot of prior experience in my own blog writing and it was that which provided a basis for what I was trying to accomplish.)  In any event, she distinguished herself in my eyes by producing many drafts, each an improvement on the predecessor.

Xuan was quite apart from the stereotype, although I'm not entirely sure why, though  I surmise she was much less dependent on her parents for her own development.  One day she came to my office hours and told me that mine was her favorite class.  She appreciated the freedom and openness of the class and as a pre-med student wasn't getting a lot of social science thinking in her other courses.  She had a hunger for that.  I regarded Xuan quite highly by the end of the course.

Now here's a bit of a surprise.  Xuan asked me to write a letter of recommendation for her to go to medical school.  I agreed to that, though I don't have many students who go that route.  She took the MCATs and didn't do well on the written portion of the test, which eventually delayed her admission by a year or two. I tried to understand this outcome, as I viewed her as an outstanding writer.  Here are some possible explanations.  Xuan is not a native English speaker.  I believe writing in English is a labor for her.  She is more than willing to produce this labor but it is time consuming for her to do so.  The MCATs are a timed exam.  That works against a student like Xuan.  There is also that she couldn't afford to take a test prep class.  And then there are the other writing issues that I think quite important to consider, but usually are ignored.

In my class I encouraged the students to please themselves with the blogging.  It was something they had never heard before.  I was the one who'd be giving them a grade, so their instinct was to please me.  Eventually they came around to understanding that they would please me more if they first pleased themselves.  With some frequency their classmates would also read their posts and comment on them, though that wasn't required.  The other students were lending support and identifying with some of the writing. Over time the students came to understand the audience they were writing for and the posts improved as a consequence.  Further, the posts frequently made reference to earlier pieces, which made the writing feel like an ongoing conversation. Somebody who writes well in that setting may not do nearly as well in a one and done situation, where there is no prior relationship with the reader.

I did have some interaction with a handful of students from that class after the course was over, but now I've lost touch with them all except for Xuan.  We corresponded a bit earlier this year.  She was getting ready for the medical intern matching program and had some trepidation about that, but she also seemed to have a wealth of experience doing medicine in developing countries, some of which slowed down her formal medical education. I felt sure she'd land on her feet and continue to do great work.  It is also so nice for me to see a student who is not motivated primarily by money but rather cares first about doing meaningful work.  That seems like a rarity these days.

Both before and after this course was offered I was part of the CHP advisory board.   (Teaching the class was a reward for serving on the committee.)  But I think I only did admissions one time, which was after the course. The applications to the U of I are quite different from the applications to Harvard.  There are no letters of recommendation and often no interviews.  And the essays are quite spare. Nonetheless, I used the essays more than the extracurricular activities and standardized test scores in making my recommendations.  Students don't actually apply to CHP.  They apply to the U of I and exceptional applications are then flagged as possible candidates for CHP, which is a comparatively small program.   What I observed may not be surprising, but there seemed to be a negative correlation between quality of the essays and standardized test scores.  Indeed, there were several applications with perfect standardized test scores, but the essays were middling.  It may well be that for such students the U of I  is their "safe school" and they were assured of getting in, so made no effort on the essays.  Therefore, I wouldn't read too much into this observation, other than it is another instance where different indicators are negatively correlated yet in advanced I'd have expected the correlation to be positive.

Let me tie these experiences to some consideration of Asian students applying to Harvard.  I don't know if the students in my CHP class would have been competitive for getting into Harvard or not, but surely they were in the ballpark regarding their qualifications.  My guess is that the quiet students I had would not fare well during the interview process.  The more outspoken students, whom I described as entitled, would do better that way.  Elite college admissions, it seems to me, is about making a good first impression.  The good quiet students I came to admire kind of grow on you.  They would be screened out by a process that emphasizes first impressions.  Likewise, their essays might fall flat as they'd be more uncomfortable producing them, not having a good feel for the reader in this case.  This would be the case for all quiet students.  But if race correlates with that, which in my small numbers case it did, then this could be seen as discrimination when it really is just applying the usual criteria by which students are judged for admission.

One might consider hypothetically, an admissions officer at Harvard or at other elite universities who read this piece, agree with much of the analysis, and become convinced that they should score their admissions differently to make it more likely that a quiet student with talent is admitted.  Are there things that might be done to encourage that outcome?  I don't know but one thought that has me intrigued is whether some of the teachers in the high school spend time evaluating the college prospects of the better students and as part of that they specifically deliberate about those who are quiet in class but who produce high caliber work.  On the one hand, one might think that the teachers are in the best position to make this sort of determination.  On the other hand, this focus on college prospects may be seen as outside their job description. But if there was an agreed upon demand for this function, then there should be ways to internalize the cost of the activity in a way where it gets done.

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Before getting to the next example, I'd like to give a bit about my philosophy of education.  I will do that by posing two different framing questions.  Answering those in full can get the reader quite far into understanding what is at issue.

Q1:  Is learning work or play?

Q2:  Who drives the agenda for the child learner, an authority figure such as a parent or teacher, or the learner himself or herself?

To this you might add a third question.

Q3:  Invariably at some point learning will become difficult and the child learner stumbles or gets stuck.  Focusing only on the first few times this has happened, what then?

These questions are meant to be interrelated and should be taken together, eventually.  One might spend some time first on some definitional clarifying questions - What does it mean to be work or play? Are there evident indicators that it is one or the other?  I'm going to assume we've done that already so can get on with the discussion. 

Now some fairly obvious derivative questions.   Is learning as play what we mean by intrinsic motivation?  When learning is work does that require extrinsic motivation to get the learning to occur?  If an adult suggests a few different books that a kid might read and the kid chooses one, who is driving the decision?  What type of temperament does the kid have when dealing with disappointments, some of which might not have anything to do with learning?  (Did the favorite uncle forget to get a birthday present for the kid?)

Casting myself as the adult learner, I have some very strong answers to these questions, which I will give below.  I find myself different from most of my students this way and I will posit two possible explanations for that.  With that as setup, I will proceed to the second example.

I believe that much learning is play in the sense of going on some adventure, exploring ideas, not knowing in advance where it will take you but having a sense at the outset that the ride will be quite enjoyable. I believe this is tied to developing a reading habit early in life.  Reading is key to me. Once in a while it is fine to get direction of what to read from others, but much of the time the learner should choose what to read next and from that experience discover what things to read are appealing.  I'm going to delay considering my answer on the stumbling question for a bit and then get back to it.

Over the years I've written a variety of pieces about learning as play.  Each takes a somewhat different look, but they are guided by the same personal philosophy.   The first of these has the evident title, How do students play at their schoolwork?  When kids live at home their parents might direct their time with schoolwork, but in college that becomes their own responsibility.  So time on task is one issue to consider.  But really, it's a byproduct only.  The main product is depth of understanding.  At the opposite extreme to play with the schoolwork is rote memorization of the lecture notes.  In my view rote was necessary to learn spelling and the times tables, but it should fall by the wayside after that.  Rote doesn't produce deep learning at all. Deep learning is about making connections between the stuff being learned and what the learner already knows (or believes).  Play establishes those deep connections.  

The next piece is entitled PLAs Please.  PLA, short for personal learning agenda, was a play on words.  (At the time there was something else called a PLE, personal learning environment, an alternative to the learning management system.)  It was shorthand for learning that happens outside of classes, which is the type that is driven by the leaner, or possibly is driven by peer pressure or parental pressure, but my focus in that piece was the learner opting in.  I wonder now if you surveyed college kids, whether they like to challenge themselves this way or not.  My conjecture is that if the learner does a lot of this sort of thing, then school won't be as challenging and classwork will just fit into a larger tapestry.  That's pretty much how it was me right through high school. 

The last piece I'll mention is called Encouraging the mind to putter.  My wife likes to putter in the garden and I'm sure most people know folks who enjoy doing that.  I like to putter with ideas, such as with writing a blog post like this. There are lots of choices to make that don't have an obvious answer, one way or the other.  For example, is talking about Sulu on Star Trek a good way for the reader to develop the right frame of mind for this piece?  Or is it an unnecessary diversion?  Not having a good answer on that, I trust my intuition. Puttering conveys the notion of exploration with lots of these type of choices made along the way. If you do it for a while something good may turn out.  I would like to see our students do some of this as a matter of course.  Having the students write their own blogs for my class, if they do that earnestly, has the potential to encourage mental puttering, though most of the students I've had recently don't stretch themselves enough that way.   But I'm getting a little bit ahead of the story here.

Now some bad news.  For the last couple of generations authority figures, parents mostly, have gotten in the way of kids learning through play.   One way they do this is by attempting to make the physical environment too safe.  Hanna Rosin's The Overprotected Kid is a great read on this.  Bumps and bruises and even the occasional broken bone are part and parcel of learning how to play.  Preventing the "owies" from happening ends up preventing the kids learning how to direct their own play.  Something similar happens when all the sports activities kids do are organized with adult supervision. Indeed, I would even argue that its an advantage for a kid to play ball right on the street with his friends - the cars notwithstanding, instead of at some park that is far from home and needs a parent to chauffeur the kids there.  The kids organizing their own play is a big deal.  Too much dependency on the parents for this is not good.  I wrote about this sort of thing in a post called Slapball.

For the kids who are getting good grades in school these days, there is another parallel that William Deresiewicz derisively refers to as Excellent Sheep. These kids become quite skillful at pleasing adults, particularly teachers, which is the excellent part.  But they never learn how to please themselves or what actually will do that, which is the sheep part.  They sense something is wrong with this picture by the time they are in college, but they don't know how to right the ship.

Now let's consider early stumbling for a kid.  With patience and practice a kid can learn to overcome those stumbles.  There might be some frustration along the way, but eventually the kid can get over the obstacle, which has by then proved to be a molehill.  There is no doubt that this sort of practice to overcome a stumble is work, not play.  I don't want to convey that there never is work with learning.  I only want to argue that the work part has a limited role to play and this is it.   Absent the patience and practice the kid becomes phobic of what caused the stumble.  Thereafter the kid will engage in avoidance, if that is possible, or in finding work arounds otherwise.

The phobia contributes to what Carol Dweck refers to as the fixed mindset.  The kid comes to believe that he or she is just not good at doing the thing, so can't learn to be good. This may be less troubling for the ordinary student, who can redirect attention elsewhere to activities that are interesting and provide satisfaction in the doing.  But for the good student there is now a dilemma.  There are certain classes that must be taken.  Good grades need to be obtained.  School performance becomes an instrument for attaining the good life afterwards.  It's all deferred gratification, obtaining a hard to get passport. So the students double down on memorization to carry them through, because they are convinced they are not good at the playful alternative way to learn.

The playful learner, in contrast, has the growth mindset.  Early on the two types of kids won't appear that different in school.  But after a while, the kid with the growth mindset will seem like a brainiac to the other kids.  I want to add my own little spin on this, which is to allow some domains where the kid feels the growth mindset and other domains where the fixed mindset holds sway.  For example, while I was very good in school in junior high and high school, I never really learned how to do home repair and how to fix things the right way.  On that I go for work arounds only.  My dad, was not great in this domain either, but he unabashedly would do his amateurish solution, which my mom was okay with because she was occupied with other matters.  I don't know this for certain, but I suspect many other academics are in a similar boat.

Now we should overlay parenting to this discussion, particularly the type practiced by helicopter parents and tiger parents.  But to make the discussion fairer, we should also recognize that not all play promotes growth.  Some play is purely time dissipation, nothing more.  Perhaps some of this dissipative play is necessary as a way to cope with stress.  But too much of it is not a good thing.   So at root in considering parenting is the parent's mental model of how the kid behaves.  Does the parent largely trust the kid to do the right thing?  Or does the parent implicitly regard the kid as slothful and thus needing more or less constant pushing to overcome the laziness?   Does the parent understand Dweck's Mindset?  Or are those ideas alien to the parent?  Even with awareness of Dweck's work, there is then that real learning does take time and the parent may be impatient for the kid to master what is next to learn, so pushes the kid in an attempt to short circuit the learning process.

I want to add one more dimension before putting the pieces together.  That's the cultural environment that the kids experiences growing up.  New York City is simply a fantastic place for cultural opportunities.  With enough good experience you develop a sense of taste for what you like that should produce additional good experiences.  In college I had a desire to see foreign films (mostly European) as an informal education on matters I wouldn't get from reading the New York times. This desire had to come from somewhere and I think a big part of it was from my high school days, going to the movies with David and Jimmy on Friday evenings after David got off from work in Manhattan.  It was a schlep to get there so the experience needed to worthwhile.  I think we saw interesting films rather than just junk, partly for that reason.  In any event, it usually wasn't me who chose what we'd see.  Jimmy was much more plugged into that. The point is that the culture encouraged educative play.  My family did that too.  I recall having subscriptions both to The New Republic and Scientific American, which I'd call educative, as well as to Sports Illustrated, which was pure fun.  I read them all.  I don't recall how those subscriptions were paid for, but the money wasn't a big deal.  So the approach was to encourage these good experiences rather than place restrictions on the disspative stuff - no TV, for example. I watched plenty of TV too. I view the lack of such restrictions as a cultural matter.  Whether that was true for everyone on New York City, or only those from liberal Jewish families, I am less sure.  But that there was a strong effect this way for me, that seems evident.

Now here are two possible explanations for why I am different from my students as a learner.  The first one emphasizes Dweck's approach.  I got on the growth path fairly early after having some major obstacles to get past, but those where more about fine motor skill and physical coordination than they were about intellectual matters.  (Handwriting is where those intersected.)  I had good teachers and family to help with the obstacles.  Then I had a variety of experiences where I could learn at my own pace even as I was in a group setting.  I didn't realize it at the time but in many instances I was learning faster than my peers. Yet I started school early so didn't skip a grade, as other bright kids often do.  This learning was buttressed by a cultural environment that encouraged learning for its own sake.  And regarding parental influence that might have pushed me too hard, I did have some of that with my mom, no doubt.  But she was often not around when I was a kid, so there actually was a lot of freedom that way.    In contrast, for my students school has always been considered as a gateway to the good life rather than an enjoyment in itself, parents pushed quite hard on getting good grades, but otherwise didn't engage the kid on learning itself, and the kid had some intellectual obstacles that weren't overcome.  For that reason memorization became the crutch and school always had an alienating aspect to it as a result.  As I said, this is one possible explanation, and is consistent with what I wrote above.

A different explanation is that people who become professors are just different from everyone else, different even from lawyers and doctors who also, of necessity went on to get advanced degrees. A few years ago I had a student who has since gone onto a PhD program in economics.  But he was an outlier.  Most of the students I teach will enter the world of work after they graduate.  Sometime later they may get a professional masters in a field that complements their work, already on a managerial track.  But otherwise, they view school as a passport primarily and their attitudes stem from that view. In contrast, I tend to think of the professor view as universal, even as I understand what I've just written.  I believe it is human nature to want to learn.  The professor view is then an expression of human nature.  What confounds things, and I'm afraid the confounding is too great to overcome, is that everyone needs a job and not everyone can be a professor.  Further, not every job is something the employee does with passion.  Sometimes, it is the case that the paycheck is the motivator. Students don't want to be tantalized by a professor who argues otherwise.

The two explanations are not necessarily incompatible.  But the emphasis is clearly different.

Now let me turn to the second example, which was about a voluntary discussion group I had with three former students.  In this case they were all international students, with two from China and one from South Korea.  For the past several years I have offered students to participate in a weekly discussion group, not for credit just for the sake of having a discussion with me.  The year before when I tried it the first time, I didn't get enough takers.  This example was the first time it came off.  I have done it subsequently, but in several instances it has devolved into mentoring when one student drops out and there is is then only one student left.  This discussion group was not mentoring.  It was an ongoing conversation on a bunch of related topics chosen to get at asking - how can students be more creative in their learning?  An interesting subsidiary question is - why would students opt in to such a discussion group?

Indeed, one of the students from a subsequent class, who later became a mentee of mine, has repeatedly asked me why I have such a discussion group - what's in it for me?   To this let me add my own question - can you see it when a student really is learning?  If that is happening and you as instructor or mentor share some responsibility for the learning, then it is enormously satisfying to witness it. While on occasion I see it in the blogging the students do, most of them pull their punches there.  An ongoing face to face conversation would be better, especially if the student(s) became comfortable enough to open up in that setting.  One real reason to want group  discussion rather than individual mentoring is that the students tend to be more comfortable in the presence of other students.  Further, there is less of a burden on each of them to keep up their end of the conversation.

Many years earlier I had been exposed to the idea that every college student wants to have a personal (intellectual) relationship with a faculty member.  One reason to offer this discussion group was to tap into this motivation.  I should note here that it may be different with first-year students than it is with students who will be graduating soon.  The latter may be focused on the finish line and then have developed signs of senioritis.  I don't know if that explains things here or not, but as most of the class were juniors and seniors and all the volunteers for the discussion group were international students, it suggests another possible motive for participation, acculturation on what it means to be American.  Sadly, on this score, I'm woefully out of date.  For example, we spent one session considering daydreaming and I had them read the James Thurber story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which was published in 1939. After a little back and fourth on that, I also sent a link to John Sebastian singing Daydream, from 1970.  Whether this says anything about contemporary American culture, I don't know.  They are bits from the past that are part of me.  So there is acculturation going on, but precisely to what might be an issue.

Nicole, who is from China, was the youngest of the group, the only girl, and a double major in Economics and Psychology.  She was an extraordinarily quiet student.  Indeed, I don't recall her even once speaking up in my class.  Yet she wanted to be part of the discussion group, which itself is an indicator that for quiet students small groups may be a better setting to get participation. As I hardly knew her and she was available early for this purpose, she and I had a one-on-one meeting the week before the discussion group started, so we could get to know one another.  It went reasonably well.  Among other things, we discussed this piece called The University of China at Illinois, which had been making the rounds. To make a long story short, the U of I has a very strong reputation in China, based primarily on the College of Engineering and more recently on the College of Business. Students want to attend because of that reputation.  However, they also want to attend to experience college life at a typical American university.  They have high hopes of acculturation while still in China.  But the reality is, once the students are on campus they end up hanging out mainly with other students from East Asia.  So while the potential for acculturation is there, much of that potential is not realized.

I don't know if this situation has improved in the three and half years since that article appeared, so what I say next might be a bit out of date, but I suspect it is not too inaccurate.  There are many possible reasons why there is not as much acculturation as expected.  One of those we've already discussed.  Quiet students are more apt to stick with people who are already familiar than to challenge themselves socially with people who are apparently unlike themselves. Hanging out with people of your own race and national origin is simply easier.  I want to give quite a different explanation here, so the reader begins to appreciate the complexity of the situation.  For students who grew up in Illinois and are of legal age, drinking, either at the bars or at a Greek House, is a big part of the social life.  Indeed, the following summer after the discussion group had started, the U of I was named the number one party school by Princeton Review.  If the local students are partying during the week while the international students are studying at the Library, there is not much chance for interaction.  Yet the acculturation, if it were to happen, would be more intensive in a social situation than in an academic setting, for in the former there would be no professor to supervise and play the role of chaperone.  So it would be far more authentic.  You might think that living in the same dormitory (all first year students are required to live in campus approved housing) would help to break down barriers of this sort (and most first year students are too young to be drinking...legally).  But the little I know about this is that people tend to stick with their own clique.  Indeed, many local kids hang out with friends they had in high school.

The next member in the group was Yuchen, also from China, who was a senior at the time and would attend graduate school the following fall.  He too was a very shy student, at first.  Then he scored well on my first midterm, where the class as whole gave a mediocre performance.  He became outspoken for a while after that, but then reverted to his original quiet ways.  Yuchen told us of some of his experiences in high school back in China.  He was only allowed to read the assigned textbooks.  Pleasure reading was forbidden.  I found this horribly frightening, but also something of an eye opener.  If it is the school doing it, rather than the parents, it must be embedded in the culture of the entire society.  Then the Amy Chua, tiger mother approach might be understood as an American culture/school system perceived as too soft, so the parent needs to intercede with a firmer hand. I don't endorse this at all, but I think I better understand it now after having had this discussion group.

The last member in the group was Ducky, a nickname he gave to himself.  Ducky grew up in South Korea, though he spent a year or two earlier in his life in the U.S.  He was also a bit older, having served in the Army, interrupting his studies for that purpose.  Ducky was not quiet at all.  He was outspoken in class and quite prolific in his blogging.  It was as if my class tapped into one of his veins.  He then let it flow.  Before I brought up the idea of a discussion group, Ducky wanted me to be his mentor, but I declined that in favor of the discussion group, which he willingly participated in.  I should add that Ducky reinforced what Yuchen said about the discipline at school, but with an added twist.  He attended a boarding school for all or part of high school.  (I'm not sure which.)  They had study hall till late in the evening, and would experience corporal punishment in the form of a slap on the head, if they drifted off and didn't appear to be paying attention to their studies. Clearly, obedience and discipline are viewed as of greater importance in East Asian cultures. But I wondered if the harshness that was imposed really was necessary or if it was a consequence of something else (e.g., the threat of North Korea requiring people in South Korea to always be on the alert.)

Especially at the beginning of each session, I tried to be playful with them, with some gentle teasing - Ducky you're smiling again.  Why are you smiling?  They liked that.  I think the banter is something that works and should be used more to break down those invisible walls that invariably do exist.  Then we did have our more serious discussion.  As I wrote in the piece I linked to above, while those discussions were earnest and the students came reasonably prepared for them, I found them not so satisfying after a while because the students themselves seemed unchanged from them.  They were getting another arrow for the quiver, but they weren't seeing how they might incorporate it for good use nor how they might change their own processes to better incorporate other arrows for use.  Some of this is what I see as the fundamental problem with good students.  They sacrifice depth for breadth, particularly because they are time constrained, given how many different activities they engage in.  This is not an Asian student problem.  It's just as true for White students who care about their school performance.  The only difference is that most White students don't aspire for non-American acculturation.  I can't really say that depth of experience would have aided this group in their acculturation.  But I suspect it might have helped.

Let me try now to tie the lessons from this study group to the case of admissions at Harvard.  It is my experience with friends and colleagues who are of Chinese, Korean, Indian, Iranian, and Turkish ancestry that they do fully acculturate by the time they are mid career working professionals  Both race and ancestry remain as a factor, but a comparatively unimportant one.  I regard these people as individuals, each with their own distinct personalities.  What has been invisible to me is how the acculturation happened for them, what trials and tribulations they experienced on the way, and whether that was really necessary or not. When I was a kid growing up in New York City, it was fashionable at the time to refer to NYC as the Melting Pot, and that we all became Americans that way. Sometime later, in college, I took a political science class where we read some pieces by Nathan Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Patrick Moynihan on Beyond the Melting Pot.  (I don't have exact references anymore so won't try to link to something else.)  Maybe each of us stayed in our own ethnic community, where we were more comfortable, rather than mixing fully.  It was an interesting alternative hypothesis.   Now consider kids who are the children of immigrants, very good in school, but who have acculturated only partially into being American.  How would such a kid do in an interview for a slot at Harvard?

I can't believe that acculturation is an explicit part of what Harvard admissions officers look for in an applicant. But I do expect that it matters.  It might be worth asking how one would measure it.  If there were some obvious measures, then those might be gamed just like the standardized tests are gamed now.  But if there are tacit impressions only, no hard measures, then some might conclude a different explanation for students who gets rejected, when on clearly measurable criteria their records are outstanding.  It must have been racial prejudice.  I am less sure that is the right explanation. I'm willing to believe that the interviewer makes honest observations of the candidate, but third parties can't see that, so we're left with the overall impression the interviewer has afterward.  That may not be completely satisfying, but that's all there is.

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I want to wrap up now by returning to the question in my title.  Let me make a quick stab at it by first focusing on Kirk, not Sulu.  When I was a kid there was a certain myth propagated about leadership - the best type was from a leader with boyish charm.  Two people who fit that bill were JFK, who seemed to crack a joke whenever he gave an interview, and Mickey Mantle.  As if to prove the point, Jane Leavy's more adult biography about Mantle is called The Last Boy.  The Kirk character is cast in this mold. Kirk is boyish in his informality with McCoy, whom he calls Bones, in his general irreverence, and his willingness to go with his gut in making the key decisions.  Star Trek is fundamentally an adventure story.   It's the boyish leader who takes the rest of us on an adventure.

Could Sulu be cast as a boyish leader?  I've got two different answers to this question, depending on whether it was Sulu in the late 1960s version of the show or it was George Takei, who played Sulu on that show, say 10 years ago after he came out as Gay. I think the original Sulu character was too somber and/or if this had been done back in the 1960s we weren't yet ready as an audience for this.  But George Takei has proven to be much more interesting and funny.  He could pull it off and now we would be ready for it.

What about the original Sulu as captain without imitating Kirk at all?  Truthfully, the Sulu character on the original show was not so fully fleshed out, not nearly as much as Spock or Kirk.  If Sulu were captain there would need to be more depth to the character.  Beyond that, I think it could work, but it would have changed the character of the show, making what the Enterprise did more of a quest with an ideological fervor than an adventure fueled by a playful imagination. In saying this, I'm thinking about the Ken Watanabe characters in The Last Samurai and Letters from Iwo Jima.  The Enterprise was not always in war mode, but the show would have made that more of the ongoing story if Sulu were captain.

I believe the myth about leadership I mentioned survives to this day.  We need to understand it better and critique it more.  George W. Bush is famous for going with his gut, so in that sense was like JFK or Mickey Mantle, but he was a horrible President.  How is it that a boyish leader can be effective and when will that end in a disaster?  One thing to note about Star Trek is the excellence of the entire crew, but especially the character of Spock.  Kirk could be boyish because he could rely on Spock to be rational and logical, without pursuing his own agenda.  In contrast, George W. Bush had Rummy and Cheney, as well as an ideologically driven neocon intelligentsia, who ran rings around the President and were hell bent on empire building and getting rid of Saddam.  Look where that has gotten us now.  As real leaders won't have a Spock as next in command, they need some bit of Spock in themselves. I'm not down on playfulness at work, which I think can be quite effective.  But we need to discard going with the gut as an alternative to thinking, especially when it denies evidence that would lead to a contrary approach.  That makes going with with gut a way to cherish ignorance.  We should demand better than that.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Who needs research anyway?

It's easy enough to consider research to find a cancer cure or other research to get us to drive/fly Jetsons-like craft powered entirely by the sun and see the utilitarian benefit from the research, even if delivery of a functional product remains far into the future. It's much harder, however, to make the case for the economic theory type of research I used to do, as exactly what type of application it might help to create is entirely unclear for the most part, while for a few pieces I produced it is quite clear that there will be no application produced whatsoever.  And I suspect if you were able to count produced research across all fields at the university as well as count all faculty with tenure or on the tenure track, you'd find quite a lot of the type of research I did by faculty who specialized in that, abstract and ethereal, rather than concrete and low to the ground. Who needs that?

I'm motivated to pose this question from seeing yet another piece in the Chronicle about the threat to tenure. I get frustrated when reading such pieces, partially because of the threat itself, which is real enough, but mainly because the defense seems too weak to me.  Those inside the academy take the need for research as a self-evident truth and mainly they talk with one another.  What about external audiences?  If they are much harder to convince what then might do the trick?  This is still too optimistic as a way to pose the question, for perhaps there is nothing that will do the trick.  What then?

And here is the thing.  At the administrative level, we in academe may not really believe in tenure to support research, at least the sort of research that isn't also supported by external grants. This other type of research, when done at a public university, is supported by other funding, mainly tuition and state tax revenue, nowadays with much more of the former than the latter.  Before looking at the data on this point for my university, let's note that there are a few reasons why research is expensive when viewed from the perspective of it being a tuition supported activity.  The first is the claim on faculty time, i.e., teaching loads.   Research faculty are required to report their time allocations as percentage of the total.  I would always report 50% research, 40% teaching, and 10% service.  I'm going to assume that is typical.

At the time I made such reports the teaching load in the Econ department was two courses per semester, so those two course supposedly took up 40% of my time working. The way the university counts, the load should be measured in IUs (instructional units) produced.  IUs are measured as the product of number of students and credit hours for a course.  When I taught intermediate micro, typical class size was around 60 and it was a 3-credit course. So my section would generate around 180 IUs.  Graduate courses in Econ were typically 4 credit hours, but with many fewer students.  (Except for the core courses, which I did teach for a while.  Those were larger because students from other departments, notably Ag Econ, took them.)  The expectation of a faculty member with tenure or on the tenure track was to teach one undergrad course as service and one grad class per semester.  And the faculty preference was to teach grad classes, not because of the fewer IUs, but because the subject matter was closer to the faculty member's research.   Adjunct faculty typically teach only undergraduate classes.  And they generate much higher IUs, either by teaching more classes or by teaching much larger classes.

The other factor that makes research faculty expensive is their salary plus non-wage compensation to support research, such as travel money and the ability to hire a research assistant.  I should note that whether on the tenure track or not the instructor needs an office and office space is scarce.  So allocating that might enter into the cost calculation.  But the reality is that departments don't rent the space they occupy.  They are assigned space that the university owns.  One might impute a rental price from that allocation.  But it is not the custom to do that, so I won't do it here. Likewise, the benefits that employees receive, nowadays mainly health insurance, are borne by the university but not costed at the departmental level.  (Illinois has an issue that most other public universities do not, as contribution to the retirement system is mandatory and the system itself is in arrears.)  With these caveats we can focus on just the salary number.  Tenure track faculty are paid more than adjuncts.  That reality is undeniable and contributes to making teaching with tenure track faculty a more expensive way to go.

Now let's look at some data, which are taken from the Campus Profile.   What is shown below are percentages of teaching by research faculty, grad assistants, and specialized (non-tenure track) faculty.  This is done with three different looks: overall, 100-level courses only, and all undergraduate courses.  I added the line space between each look to enhance readability.  Also shown are total undergraduate IUs, which have been trending upward.


This is an interesting table to examine and I encourage the reader to spend some time on it.  I don't know that Illinois typifies public research universities in these numbers, but I expect the picture is similar elsewhere.  The reason for the increase in undergrad IUs is to admit more out-of-state and especially international students, who pay much higher tuition.  And the reason to do that is because their tuition revenue serves as a substitute for state tax dollars, which have been declining. At the same time these high tuition IUs have been increasing, the fraction of undergraduate teaching done by specialized faculty has also been increasing.  Perhaps surprising, the percentage of teaching done by grad assistants has been declining. The percentage of teaching done by tenure track faculty has also declined, but only modestly, but sufficiently so that a plurality of undergraduate instruction is now done by specialized faculty.

Can these trends continue or will something fracture if they do?  Who knows?  At root here is whether undergraduate instruction needs faculty who are research oriented to make the instruction high quality.  Really, the issue is how this is perceived by the students and their families, at the time when they are applying for admission.  But one might also consider the question whether the same course would be taught differently depending on whether it is taught by a tenure track faculty member or an adjunct, regardless of the perception by potential students.  And then one might ask, in addition, whether when such a difference exists if it matters for the student post graduation, via the type of human capital that the student acquired while in college.

I don't believe we know the answer to this, but I want to note my own view about how my course might matter to the former students who took my Economics of Organizations class.  I'd expect for it to not matter much at all for students in entry-level positions.  It might matter some for those who attain managerial positions, though this would be more for mindset broadly considered than for specific knowledge.  This, too, is how I believe critical thinking skills impact people in the world of work.  In other words, there is a long fuse before the education really pays off.  And couple with that the preoccupation students have with boosting the GPA which makes them myopic and focus on that very first job out of college. So they themselves might not see the long-term benefit of their education this way, which might explain why they may not care whether the instructor is an adjunct or not.

* * * * *

Published research is a public good, at least to the extent that everyone has access to it.  So we should consider the public good benefit from the research, even if the public are free riders and don't fund the research directly or indirectly.  The previous section was meant to get at the benefit to those who are doing the funding.  Here I want to take up the benefit to the free riders.  Is there really such a benefit or not?  I will stick to economics in considering an answer to this question, though the question should be posed for any discipline that does liberal arts education and is not vocational in its orientation.  Among such disciplines, economics may be closer to the vocational end of the spectrum than other disciplines (comparative literature, for example), at least as perceived by the students I considered in the previous section.  I want to observe here, in contrast, that the research I mentioned at the outset of this piece has no vocational value whatsoever.  In this regard, the main difference between economic theory and research in other fields within the liberal arts is the reliance on math models as a necessary part of the discourse.  In this sense, economic theory research is about developing interesting (at least to other economists) math models and drawing the implications from those.

If the set of beneficiaries of the research includes only other faculty members at other universities and/or graduate students who are aiming to become faculty members in the future, one might view the research self-serving and not necessary at all.  So the first step here is to identify potential beneficiaries outside of higher education.  Some economics research might benefit public policy, or how organizations (trade associations, labor unions) go about their business, or how individual companies do likewise.  It might also benefit how news organizations report economic phenomena and thus how the general population comes to understand those phenomena.  And it might filter down into the teaching of economics in high school which, arguably, should be about preparing citizens to understand the economic phenomena that they learn about from their news sources.

Thus, it might be tempting to parse that sort of research with evident potential for external benefit from other research that is simply too abstruse to produce such a benefit.  The former then might be necessary but the latter surely is not necessary.  Is that right?

I'm going to try to counter this naive view in a couple of ways.  One is to note that process by which research is produced.  An individual author or a set of co-authors work through an idea and produce a draft of a working paper.  This is an intermediate product.  They then will want to present their paper in a departmental seminar and perhaps externally. The conversation the authors have with the audience, both during the live presentation and also in individual office visits, serves as an additional input for producing a revision of that first draft.  In a very real sense, all research is a community product, even if those lending comments don't get acknowledgment for their input.  (Comments offered during an office visit might be acknowledged in a footnote.  Those offered during the live workshop session are typically not acknowledged that way.)  The process can sometimes be adversarial or even combative, though my experience is that an underlying collegiality is essential to make it work.  The important point is that research as a community affair may not be well understood by those outside academia.

If it were understood, then we'd want to know what makes somebody an effective member of this research community.  My answer is that at a minimum, the community member must be doing research.  And my experience is that those who do applied research benefit from having conversation with theorists, at least those theorists who can translate the theoretical issues in a way appreciated by the applied scholars. This gives the potential for theoretical research, which provides no direct external benefit, to nonetheless produce a substantial indirect external benefit, by giving credibility to theorist who then interacts with the applied researcher on an equal footing and helps to make the research better.

The other point is to note that the distribution of research output across research faculty is heavily skewed with the superstars producing the bulk of the research, but even with that there is some difficulty in measuring research output.  One measure is lines on the CV, perhaps weighted by the quality of the journal where the paper appeared.  Another measure is of impact, perhaps by counting citations for the paper.  But impact can happen in other ways, for example, by being part of the readings assigned in the core curriculum or in the appropriate field course. The superstar who writes the seminal paper in the field needs other scholars to extend the work and draw out the full implications.  And sometimes important papers have errors in it, which go unnoticed for some time before they are corrected.   I will illustrate with some of my own work.   The following is from a post I wrote as eulogy for Leon Moses,  prior to participating in a workshop held at Northwestern to honor his memory.

The other paper marked my switch from the dissertation research to study of oligopoly models, where I had more success.  One of these was a paper on dynamic duopoly with inventory.  I'm rather proud of this paper, as it made a fundamental point that wasn't in the rest of the literature.  Heretofore people who worked in this area assumed that asymmetric outcomes (one firm is the market leader, the other is a follower) were a consequence of some asymmetry in the initial conditions (the leader got there first and leveraged that for strategic advantage).  My examples showed that you could have symmetric starting conditions but still get asymmetric outcomes and, indeed, that is to be expected in these sorts of models. Google Scholar says the paper got  32 citations, which is second highest among the pieces I've written.  I would never had thought to write on this topic at all if it had not been for the earlier work with Leon.

Some years later Thomas Sargent, who would subsequently win the Nobel Prize, gave a talk in the department on some macroeconomics model he had written with a co-author. (I can't remember who the co-author was now.)  My research was not in macro, but the model Sargent showed us was linear-quadratic and it shared some of the same properties that the model in my duopoly paper had.  So after a fashion I asked, do you know if your equilibrium is unique?  (He had assumed that it was.)  In posing that question I was pretty sure it was not.  He became noticeably flummoxed by that question.  It simply hadn't occurred to him to ask it himself.  I had hit a nerve by posing the question.  Even the Nobel Prize winner needs assistance from other economists now and then to get at something that is good and correct research.  This is an argument for having some larger tail of non-superstar scholars who nonetheless are competent researchers active in the profession.  Yet I would readily agree that how large that tail should be is not easy to determine by criteria we would all deem sensible.

* * * * *

I tried to be careful in the previous section by talking about the potential public good benefit from research.  Here I want to ask, if the potential is there is it actualized?  As in my previous post I led off with a point from Peter Drucker - the active party in any communication is the receiver/listener - I will contain myself to consider the issue of actualization from that perspective.  Is the message of the research well received or is it ignored?  If it is ignored, then the potential beneficiaries clearly don't need the research.  And if the ignoring part is willful rather than inadvertent, one might then presume that such potential beneficiaries actually view the research as a waste of time.

Alas, this bring politics into the question.  Those who believe that shrinking government is the right answer will view research that demonstrates effective government programs as pernicious.  Is it possible then for academics to make a convincing argument to those people about the benefit of research so they'll change their mind?

There is a second issue here, which sometimes goes under the label of corporatizing the university.  The audience already knows what it wants and has the means to get its wishes so then pays for research to deliver just that.  The Koch brothers are notorious for supporting research centers that produce libertarian anti-government policy proposals.

Evidently there is some of both of this going on.  Given that, what of arguments to protect tenure, and thereby enable research by scholars who are independent and not beholden to an external audience? Can those arguments possibly work?

My sense of things is that they can't work as long as Republicans control most of the state governments, with the attack on tenure as part and parcel of that control.  The arguments might work as part of setting the stage for future Republican defeat and a return to control by Democrats, but I'm guessing that this issue is pretty far removed from most voters who vote mainly for Democratic candidates.  The student indebtedness issue has gotten most of the bandwidth in the press, when considering higher education.   Teaching with adjuncts is a way to contain the cost of instruction.  In this world view, research seems like a luxury we can't afford.  Are we ready to come to grips with that perception?

* * * * *

If there is actually a substantial public good benefit to the university, in both its teaching mission and in the research it does, the latter as described above while the former as discussed in this post, then the university should largely be funded out of tax revenues, as that is the correct way to fund public goods.   It occurs to me that this might still be possible - if we federalize the system.  I believe we've outgrown the current approach and we'll be seeing public research universities continue to decline in the future as the current approach persists.  One reason for this is that the current approach is poor on cost containment, particularly on the matter of salaries and other perqs for high caliber research faculty.  A federalized system would be better that way and thus be more sustainable, plus there is a larger potential tax base from which to draw to support the system.  Then, too, one might argue that there is superfluous redundancy of public research institutions.  Does every state really need at least one?   I don't know.  It's not a question you see a lot of people asking.

In the absence of federalizing the system as an answer, academics should be prepared to hear from friends who are not in academia that what they do is esoteric and unnecessary.  We need to engage those people in thoughtful argument.  I'm afraid, however, if we do that, too often we'll end up getting the short straw.  This one is tough.