Thursday, May 26, 2016

Do we actually judge others by whether they follow the rules?

I find myself irked by a couple of recent pieces about the State Department's inspector general review of the Hillary Clinton email situation, including this piece in the New York Times and this other one, an editorial from the Washington Post.  In particular, nobody seemed to ask, would following the rules to the letter be clunky, for example, by requiring the use of two different portable devices, one for official email the other for state department email?

To see how this issue plays out in other settings, I'm excerpting one paragraph from a very long email written by somebody who works for campus Technology Services and is a security expert.  (I'm still on the mailing list for [TECHSUPPORT].)

We get a fair number of requests each month asking our help in
untangling sticky privacy problems relating to work things hidden away
in personal containers. I wanted to mention at first that they all could
have been avoided, but that may be overly harsh- the reason I back off
of that sentiment is that those of us who have been around for a while
may have had our NetID and email accounts since very early on. People
generally had one e-mail account, and used them for everything from work
to leisure. There really was no concept of "work email" or "personal
email", or even more alien: "free webmail" or "throwaway email". You
used your email for everything, why wouldn't you? Bring that idea
forward to today with no discussion or change in expectation, and it's
no wonder we tend to mix work and pleasure. We blinked, the landscape
changed, and we probably didn't think too much about it. Habits. Sure
the problems we're having are avoidable, but only avoidable if we
acknowledge the new landscape, the risks of doing it the "old" way, and
the need to change. So as you read, I'd just like to plant that notion.
What's our ask?

I consider myself an old dog.  I do have multiple email accounts.  It is something of a pain to monitor them and mostly I am not using my phone.  I'm on my desktop computer at home, where this is much easier to do.  Hillary Clinton is 7 1/2 years my senior.  She is always on the go.  She is on her smart phone, not a laptop.  If there had been a real breach or near breach, there would be a story here.  Otherwise, this is just making smoke, whether there is actually a fire or not.

* * * * * 

As a faculty member, I'm confronted with lots of university rules.  As I teach my students, we faculty think of ourselves as bosses.  In considering university rules, I ask myself about the spirit behind the rule and whether that actually promotes the mission, keeps the university in compliance with the law, or merely is there to avoid liability in the unlikely event that things go awry.  Here's one rule on final examinations that I have complied with that many other instructors skirt around.

§ 3-201 Final Examinations

(a) All Students
(1) Requirement for final examinations: Final examinations will be given during the scheduled final examination period for each course, except in a course that has a character that renders a final examination unnecessary or impracticable. The head or chairperson of the academic department in which the course is offered determines when a final examination is not required.

The instructors who cheat do so by offering a third midterm during the last week of class and offering an optional final, for those students who think they might bump up their grade some by taking that exam.  The reality is that our semesters are too long and that students and instructors both are ready for it to end earlier.  So the vast majority of students are fine with this alternative approach, though in spirit if not in letter it violates the above policy.  And, indeed, the only reason there is an optional final is to claim that the course is in compliance with the campus policy.

While I am aware of certain administrators who are not happy with these instructors, do the students themselves rate the instructors lower as a consequence?  On this I'm ignorant, but I doubt there is any correlation between the two.  Indeed, because students want to go on break earlier, if they can, students might actually prefer the instructor who violates the policy.

I have, on multiple occasions, violated university rules on behalf of a convenience benefit that is tangible to me.   For example, on what is a Copyright violation and what is Fair Use, when I was a campus administrator I put some effort into getting clarity on the campus view, only to fail miserably at doing so.  There is campus policy on Copyright.  Good luck on trying to understand it well enough to guide individual decisions. 

Now I base my decisions mainly by feel and what is convenient, but also with a big driver being what is effective pedagogically.  This video illustrates.  It is almost surely a copyright violation because it uses one piece of music throughout, a song that was quite popular when I was a senior in high school.  Nobody will get bent out of shape out of this.   I also have the PowerPoint available for download.  Neither get enough hits to warrant anything but a yawn.  But does it comply by the rules, probably not.  Here's a little snip from a student's evaluation of the class back in 2012.

Thanks for the class! I learned a lot and had a good time. Also, the Halloween candy was awesome as was the silly portion we did about the evolution of the music industry.

This is a sample of one, so I don't want to overdo on the point, but to this student the message of that presentation got through, copyright violation or not.  The message getting through is what mattered.  

The Clintons, Bill and Hillary both, may be their own separate category because they have been in the public eye for such a long time.  For the rest of us, I believe we decide which rules we'll obey and which to violate and for the most part don't consider this an ethical matter at all.  Convenience dictates much of the time.  I hardly ever base my impression of somebody on whether they follow the rules or not.

Getting things done matters to me.  The rules, not so much.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

How Many Republican Women Will Vote For Hillary?

I got incensed from reading this morning's column by David Brooks, Why Is Clinton Disliked?  Brooks takes as given the polling results, where Clinton has many unfavorables.  Might those results themselves be questioned as to their accuracy?  Brooks doesn't do that.  I will discuss this one below. 

Might a good bit of Clinton's unfavorables be attributed to the Republican attack machine (think about the Benghazi Committee and those damn emails)?  Brooks doesn't mention this, even though there is a front page story in today's paper entitled, Kenneth Starr, Who Tried to Bury Bill Clinton, Now Only Praises Him.   Clearly the Republican attack machine got after Bill while he was President.  How can it be that Brooks ignores the issue entirely?

Hats off to Margaret Chase Smith for being the first woman to run for President.  (If you check out the Wikipedia entry on this you'll find at number 15 Gracie Allen listed for 1940, running in the Surprise Party.  The person who keeps that page clearly has a sense of humor.)  Whether you like her or not, it is clear that Hillary Clinton is the first woman to run for President with a likelihood of actually winning.  Given that, might some of the unfavorables be attributed to misogyny?  Again, Brooks doesn't entertain the possibility.

Even in bringing out the relevant facts, Brooks gets it wrong.  Brooks says that Obama shows his human side, with his passion for basketball and golf.  But during the 2008 campaign, there was no mention of golf.  There was, however, a big deal made out of his bowling.  And on that score (pun intended) Obama was dreadful.  If that event had been recalled in Brooks column, perhaps the reader would see Obama and Clinton as two peas in a pod.  Instead, Brooks depicts the President in his recreational time as just like Joe Sixpack, surely a big stretch even if he really is a golf enthusiast.

A couple of weeks ago Thomas Edsall had a column, How Many People Support Trump but Don't Want to Admit It?   The core hypothesis in that piece is that there may be many racists who remain in the closet.  They will not admit to their racism, which in the circles they travel is taboo.  So they hide their true views when polled about them.  This is an argument that the polls may be wrong because the true preferences of such voters can't be measured accurately.  Brooks has to be aware of the argument.  Couldn't the same sort of argument be applied in the opposite direction?

What of Republican women?  Do we know their preferences?  Consider this piece from a month ago, about Laura Bush "hinting at" supporting Hillary Clinton.  Doesn't this suggest that Republican women might feel constrained to make public announcements about supporting a Democrat, any Democrat, even if they have been totally offended by Trump?  Why is that hypothesis so hard to entertain?

I will readily admit that I don't know what will happen in this year's election.  There seems to me to be a lot of uncertainty about what actually motivates people at the ballot box.  Why is it that the pundits in general, and Brooks in particular, think they know more than they actually do?

Not that long ago Brooks wrote a column called No, Not Trump, Not Ever.  In that piece he said.

Moreover, many in the media, especially me, did not understand how they would express their alienation. We expected Trump to fizzle because we were not socially intermingled with his supporters and did not listen carefully enough. For me, it’s a lesson that I have to change the way I do my job if I’m going to report accurately on this country.

Why doesn't Brooks take his own advice?  We'd all be a lot better off if he did. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

Hard Hats That Are Green

We are in a global recession.  We have been for some time.  National economies are now much more closely linked than they were in the 1930s.  Nevertheless, in the U.S. the media tend to look at American GDP statistics and connect those to U.S. government policy, more or less ignoring what is happening globally.  The U.S. economy is limping along.  Some stats, like the unemployment rate, suggest it is really humming.  Others, like flat wages that have been the pattern for more than a decade, provide an indicator of persistent sluggishness.  It is my sense that the latter is the more accurate picture.

Fiscal policy, what I was taught should be the primary tool to combat such economic performance when I was in graduate school, has gone by the wayside.  Monetary policy is the tool du jour.   In the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, it surely was helpful in restoring liquidity to the system.  But now, the right metaphor for monetary policy is pushing on a string.  That won't get you very far.  This gets me to reconsider fiscal policy, if only as a pipe dream, which is what I will do in the rest of this post.  Pipe dreams occupy much of my time now.  For quite a while I've had this line going around in my head.

The New Deal didn't cure The Great Depression.  Shicklgruber cured The Great Depression.  

It's from Axel Leijonhufvud's book, On Keynesian Economics and the Economics of Keynes.   (This may not be an exact quote.  I don't have that book in front of me and am writing this from memory.  But it is pretty close even if it is off a bit.)   Let me decouple the meaning from the line, in case it is not clear.  The scale of fiscal spending during the Great Depression, large though it may have seemed by historical standards, was nonetheless inadequate for the task.  It took the production effort of World War II to make the economy fully function again.  All stops to fiscal spending had been removed at that point, because the circumstance demanded complete urgency to win the war, even though America was initially a reluctant participant.

Now there is this terrible fear of deficit spending by the Federal Government, a fear that doesn't match the current circumstance.  That fear has served as a stop on fiscal policy even when the Democrats controlled Congress.  The other stop is what once was the Republican small government philosophy, which has morphed into - all non-military government spending is bad.  Perhaps the current Trump candidacy will get the Republicans to reconsider on this point, for fear of otherwise losing their main constituency.  I doubt that it will happen, but one can dream it might happen.

Here I don't want to dream.  So let me take on the inflation fear among the Democrats and advance what I think is a reasonable way to consider the issues.  (It's how I think about them, reasonable or not.)  If inflation were a pure bad than deflation would be a pure good.  But, in fact, deflation is horrible and very scary.  When prices are generally declining, the economy is performing poorly.  Unemployment is high and economic growth is negative.  While there may not be a Phillips Curve that is stable over time, it is still reasonable to envision a tradeoff between overall economic performance and inflation.  The ideal represents a balance between the two, though as I will argue next, where that ideal lies can be a source of disagreement.

As much debt is not indexed, inflation represents a real wealth transfer from creditors to debtors.  High inflation, in other words, erodes the value of the debt in real terms.  In our society the rich are creditors and those of more modest means are debtors.  In other words, the Average Joe should actually want inflation for this reason.  That such folks are scared by the size of the National Debt because it will cause runaway inflation is a tribute to the effectiveness of propaganda (which favors the creditors).  Those fears are influenced by graphs such as this one, which shows the Debt/GDP ratio increasing during the Obama years. 

There is a third issue when inflation is sizable, as it was in the U.S. in the late 1970s, and still another issue when there is a hyperinflation and people have lost faith in the currency.  But there is a tendency to confound the one for the other.  Our minds worry too much about the extreme risk and not enough about more moderate risks.

There is a textbook ideal of pure inflation, where all prices of goods and services go up at exactly the same rate.  A pure inflation, if it existed in otherwise stable economic conditions, might not be so bad.  The economy is never that stable, however; supply and demand change from one market to the next so relative prices change over time as a consequence.  (A relative price is that ratio of the price of a good in one market to the price of a different good in its market.)   Relative price changes drive adjustments in consumer and producer behavior.  Such adjustments make the economy function better overall.

With modest inflation, those adjustments can proceed apace.  When the inflation rate is higher and some prices rise faster than inflation while others rise more slowly, it is harder to discern what the relative price change really is, especially since not all prices change continuously over time but rather are fixed for a substantial period and then take some steps up or down.  This inability to discern the relative price changes makes the economy less able to make the proper adjustments and does impede performance.  An economy that has a sustained substantial inflation will perform worse than an economy with a more modest inflation, for this reason.  But this issue you read about not at all.   Instead, at least a few years ago, you would read quite often about the fear that America would turn into another Greece.  The totally improbable commands attention while the eventually possible does not.

So I am not saying that inflation can be ignored on a permanent basis.  However, if the rest of the world remains in recession the inflation risk in the U.S. will stay modest to nonexistent.  Therefore, for the time being the Democrats should abandon this stop altogether.  It will take many years to get the world economy out of the doldrums.  There is ample time to change tack once the global economy begins to grow again.

* * * * *

All of this is meant as backdrop for a proposed major sustained fiscal policy - my conception of what our economy needs to get it jump started.  These are my views alone.  They don't represent what any of the candidates for President have been saying.  People who read this might think I'm crazy - it will never work.  I may very well be crazy, but in regarding likelihoods I think it far more likely that we'll never try it, because our politics won't let us, than that it wouldn't be effective if we did indeed try it.  
I will begin with a list of goals and then give a sketch of how this might be done.

1.  A Jobs Policy meant as an Incomes Policy.  The same Jobs Policy would address unemployment and underemployment of non-college males and females, whether white or black.  The thought is that if there are enough decent jobs out there, much of what currently ails us can begin to seem as if there is a solution.  Jobs themselves are not a total answer.  But the lack of decent jobs surely is the primary cause of the other problems we are experiencing.  Tackle the root cause and we'll be well on our way to get at the related issues.

2.  The Jobs Policy must address (a) our decaying infrastructure, but more importantly (b) our urgent need to take on Global Warming in a big way.  We must move to a zero-carbon future as our ideal and do so quickly.  This second imperative might create a groundswell of support, at least among Democrats, akin to the support America had for the war effort during WW II.  But we are not there yet, for sure, as evidenced by this piece which argues that within the Democratic Party there is a perception that jobs come only at the expense of the environment.  We need to be all in on both jobs and the environment.  It is the only way.   But people are so lacking in trust now that they only concern themselves with how their own side of the bread is buttered.  We've got to solve it all, if we are to really address any of it.

3.  An effort that sustains for quite some time (I'm thinking for at least 10 years) and not reverse itself after a couple of years time.  This is a comment about the politics of doing something like this.  The Democrats had control in 2009-10, though not a Filibuster proof majority in the Senate.  They got a lot done then, but then there was the Tea Party reaction and that had a major consequence on fiscal policy since.  A replay of this will not do.  Nobody should expect a complete fix in two years.  The problems are too entrenched.  People should expect some progress.  That needs to be enough to sustain the effort.

4.  There will be a substantial multiplier effect as a consequence.  By this we mean that related private sector jobs will be created as the people who hold these construction jobs will demand goods and services and that demand will create new jobs.  In turn the people with those jobs will also have demands they want to satisfy, etc.  The multiplier is the cumulation of these effects.

5.  If the U.S. does comparatively well to other developed nations under this policy, as I would expect, then this produces copycat approaches around the globe.  That should be welcomed both because as other economies grow more the demand for U.S. exports will increase and because Global Warming must be addressed worldwide.

6.  The time period under which this policy is in place is meant to give us time to work through what will come next and how to make our economy economically inclusive.  Nobody has all the answers for that now, but if many of the people who fill these jobs demonstrate they can be productive when there is demand for their employment, it would dispel many of the current myths that seem to be holding people back in our economy as it is currently constituted.

Now to the sketch of what is to be done, along with a few numbers that are no doubt fantasy island in conception but that will help people work through what is being suggested.

Envision 10 million new jobs in construction, each of which pays $40,000 a year.  These jobs are either in the public sector, in the private sector though funded substantially with suitable publicly provided subsidy to encourage the work, or in some public-private hybrid.  I'd like to take on each of these numbers a bit to provide some rationale for why they are there.

The salary number is easier, so let's start there.  An individual earning $40K can do okay for himself or herself.  In a household with two wage earners, let's say the other one has a $30K/year job.  (This might be a full time job at the proposed $15/hour minimum wage.)  In total, then, the $70K that this household earns would place them well above current median income in the U.S., which Wikipedia tells us is now under $52K but even at its peak never exceeded $60K.   The idea then is to generate jobs that really do enable a middle class lifestyle.  Unlike many other government provided incomes program, which focus on the Poverty Line (see here) this program from the get go is aimed at allowing working people to be part of the middle class.  That is its raison d'etre.

As I write a piece like this I envision myself debating various pundits that I read.  One of those is Ross Douthat, a Conservative columnist for the New York Times.  In a column from a couple of weeks ago entitled, The Conservative Case Against Trump, he writes:

It would be a particularly stark mistake for conservatives who feel that the basic Reaganite vision that’s dominated their party for decades — a fusion of social conservatism, free-market economics, and a hawkish internationalism — still gets things mostly right.

Undoubtedly, Douthat would not like the proposal I'm putting forward here.  I am not expecting otherwise.  But he can't be allowed to say that free-market economics in the U.S. is mostly getting things right.  It isn't .  It has been terribly destructive.  Trickle down doesn't work.  The only way you can say otherwise is if the working class folks in this country remain invisible, in the sense that Ellison wrote about more than 60 years go, except then he was writing about Black America and now it's all of the working class that has become invisible.  When these people become visible again and their well being now counts, just as the well being of every citizen should count, the only conclusion to draw is that capitalism is failing, big time.   I don't have any illusions that there would be agreement on the cure.  But I'd hope that we might agree on the disease.

Let me turn to the size of the program and that 10 million jobs numbers, which admittedly is a wild guess.  Consider the following to ask whether we're in the right ballpark with that number.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides sector specific employment data with a historical basis.  Here is a graph for manufacturing over the last 10 years.   According to it about 2 million jobs have been lost in that time, though there has been some rebound since the trough was reached.  Here is another such graph with a similar shape, this time for construction.  About a million jobs have been lost in that sector.  The 10 million number would then go well beyond replacing those lost jobs.  It is meant to include now discouraged potential workers who are out of the labor force entirely as well those who have jobs that they don't find satisfactory but it's all they can do under the circumstances.  Both group need to get meaningful work with decent pay.

How many people are we talking about here?  I really don't know.  Perhaps some labor economists who are much more cognizant of the numbers than I am would be able to venture a more informed view of what the numbers really would look like.  Here I will content myself to describing the principles that I envision would determine the size of the program.  There will be certain eligibility requirements.  Even the military has such requirements for enlisting.  In this case I'd assume those requirements would be specified by the nature of the work, though not include the specific human capital necessary to do the job.  Those who sign up would get the appropriate training to do the job.  Other requirements, however, are sensible.  Construction is demanding physical work.  People who do the job need to be up to it.  There are cognitive demands as well.  Would a high school degree be necessary?  I don't know.  What about age eligibility?  Again, I don't know.  These are things that would need to be determined.

Given those eligibility requirements that do emerge, there will be a certain level of demand for participating in the program among those who are eligible.  I would want that demand to be satisfied and not have jobs in the program rationed because the jobs are scarce.  But before going further on this point, let me say that I envision these jobs to be sighted at specific locations, with the locations chosen because they are program targets.   At first pass, I envision the program to provide jobs but not housing.  People will apply for a job at a sight because they live within commuting distance of that job.  One of the harder points of calibration of the program would be local sizing to more or less equilibrate local job demand with program need for work to be done.  That concern is beyond the scope of this essay.  Here let's consider aggregate demand for the work only.

What if the 10 million number is way to low?  If we knew this in advance, we could tweak either the salary these jobs would pay or the eligibility requirements to reduce the demand somewhat, but only after we've done the appropriate budget exercise, which we have not done yet.  (I'll do a bit of it below.)  The issue of what sort of program we can afford surely is occurring to the reader.  It is not hard to envision a program that is entirely unaffordable.  But it is difficult to construct the boundary for affordability within which we're okay.   My view is that people tend to be too conservative about specifying that, in large part because they don't really support the program but don't want to go on record saying that.  You can kill a lot of government programs without weighing in on them, simply by saying they are too expensive.   Yet this way of viewing things, too expensive or not, makes the choice seem optional.  At the outset with that quote from Leijonhufvud, I invoked the imperative of World War II in considering this program.  If that imperative is kept in mind, the program will not be too expensive as I hope to show below. 

For budgeting purposes I'm going to assume only the first category of jobs, entirely government provided, as that gives the upper bound on the public expenditure, the full $40,000 of salary.  Add to this, say $9,000, to cover benefits and administrative costs to implement the jobs.  That makes $49,000 in direct and indirect labor costs.  When I was an administrator working in the information technology organization, the rule of thumb was that labor costs were 70% of overall costs.  I'm going to use that same figure here.  This makes the overall cost per job $70,000.  If we are to have 10 million of these jobs, the price tag will be $700 billion.

Not surprisingly, since I'm cooking these numbers to make them easy to manipulate and otherwise to give the reader some sense of the scale I'm talking about, the total works out to something we can readily compare it to.  This number exceeds the combined total of the budgets in the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.  It is a very big number, no doubt about it.  How could it be otherwise if we are to go all in with regard to improving the economic prospects for the average person?   Now that the number has been articulated, the reader will ask again, how can we possibly afford it?  Here are a few responses, though I recognize that none of them are complete.

There are 133 million households in the U.S. with average size 2.6 persons.  If the bill were apportioned to households and only those in the 90th percentile or above bore the cost, that's about $55K per such household.  Income at the 90th percentile is $143.6K, though since that piece was written in 2012, the number is a bit higher now.   Mean income of those who are at or above the 90th percentile is $295.8K.  This would be an 18.5% tax increase on average or, if apportioned as a linear tax above the threshold, a 36.1% increase of tax on incomes above the 90th percentile.  This is do-able though clearly many people won't like it.  I did this exercise not to recruit folks for this alternative, just to show it is possible.

Now let me talk about something that is fairer.  This would be to focus on wealth (a stock) rather than income (a flow).  Corporate America is now sitting on about $2 trillion.  Business investment is quite low in spite of the strong financial position that many companies find themselves in.  This is a big pile of cash, enough to finance just about 3 years of the program.  One might envision a use it or lose it tax on corporations as one way to fund the program.  Alternatively, a wealth tax on individuals could be imposed.  U.S. wealth is now about $85 trillion, the linked piece is from about a year ago so there may be small changes in that number based on variations in market values.  Over the full 10 years of the program the cost would be $7 trillion.   In this look, the program is clearly affordable.

Wealth is disproportionately held by the uber rich.  So paying for the program via a wealth tax would amount to a very large redistribution of wealth away from the uber rich and to average Americans.  Is it feasible?  Sure it is.  Could it happen willingly by the wealthy?  That is a question I can't answer, but something that needs to be considered.  What would it take for a Warren Buffet or a Bill Gates to be in favor of something like this?    

Having done a first pass at financing the program let's consider the activities that the program would support.  Here is one place to start, on America's infrastructure, which is currently in woeful condition.  Another place would be on inner city development.  Here the refurbishment or replacement of buildings that go beyond infrastructure is surely needed, but has to be part of other aspects of urban development that are aimed at improving the lives of current residents.  These other aspects would have to happen outside the program but then in collaboration with it.  There is then the issue of smaller towns that have been decimated by factory closings, with substitute employment hard to come by.  I confess not to have a good answer for this on the question whether these towns should be rebuilt with new business encouraged to locate there or if instead the people should move to where there are jobs.  Here let me hedge by saying that if the program were up and running it could promise new construction in those towns that had generated a threshold of new business activity and thereby use that promise as a way for town leaders to try to lure new business to their location.

Now I want to get to the coup de gras, which is to use the program to make a major push on renewable energy sources and thereby dramatically reduce our carbon footprint nationally.  I am going to do this by example because I don't yet understand how to think of this in a scaled up way, where I could talk about it in aggregate.

I live in a comparatively new house in a fairly recent subdivision in western Champaign.  Our house is 12 years old and we were the first occupants.  The subdivision is no more than 20 years old, maybe less than that.  So most of the homes in it are similar that way.  When I do commute, most of that is to the University, about 6.5 miles away, and then I do some light shopping around town.  My wife is similar in that regard, though she drives much more than I do overall.

Imagine that my house, and all the other houses like it, were fitted with solar panels in the roof or elsewhere on the exterior, and a battery or set of batteries, for storing the electricity generated there, and that our cars were upgraded to electric cars that could also run on gas in a pinch when on a long road trip.  With the exception of those long road trips, the goal would be for us to be totally carbon independent, and actually become net producers of surplus electricity (when our batteries are near capacity and we still have quite a lot of generating capacity).  Likewise, imagine that all the commercial establishments in Champaign, the University too, and the Hospitals as well, were similarly equipped.

For the most part I want to note that we are talking about private property, not publicly owned capital.  And instead of just looking at Champaign, Illinois consider all suburbia and thriving small towns in the U.S.  If a zero carbon footprint for these locations is technically possible, ask what it would take to get it done.  This program would then have part of its aim to be achieving that end.  And what I'm saying here is that for this particular investment, even when it is on private property, the cost would be covered by the public dime.

In the above I'm assuming it would be harder to do this in older housing stock, though on the practicalities of the matter I'm totally ignorant.  Taking that assumption as given, a next issue would be what to do with about older houses, as a matter of policy.  My view is that depending on the condition of the home, replacement stock should be provided that is carbon independent, preferably at the same location as the older home, or if not that then certainly nearby to the older home.  This would be done en masse, as a way to move our energy reliance away from carbon.   Some people, of course, would prefer to stay in their old homes.  Lacking an eminent domain argument, energy prices would have to change to reflect the social desirability of the move.  Again, it is useful to invoke the specter of WW II.  This has to be an all in effort.  (In today's New York Times, Paul Krugman has a column called Obama's War on Inequality.  The President is to be applauded for his efforts to reduce income inequality, though I don't like Krugman's use of the the war metaphor in this instance.  Given what the President can accomplish through his efforts about overtime pay this will, at best, make for small changes at the edges and is not of the same order of magnitude in impact as to what is contemplated here.)

If a remake of the suburbs in this way is possible, urban areas would be next.  The problem is harder because the ratio of square footage of living space to available roof space is much higher in cities.  (It may also be that installs of the solar panels and batteries would be much more disruptive in the urban setting.)  So how far down this path it is reasonable to expect us to go in urban areas, I don''t know. But, clearly, there would be lessons learned from the suburban install experience.   One might then hope that a fair amount of progress could be made in big cities as well.  If not that, perhaps there would be some reconsideration on where work is located.  If cities become very expensive, because of their carbon footprint while suburbs become essentially energy independent, that could be a sizable factor in business location decisions.

* * * * *

I write up my pipe dreams not because I expect any of them to become reality but rather because I hope that my readers will ask whether any of the ideas, in whole or in part, might work if suitable modifications were made to the sketch that's been presented.  More importantly, I'd like readers to ask whether we should want this, if it were in fact possible to deliver.  This is particularly important to ask for those in the professional class, residing with a significant other who is a professional as well, and thus who live in an over-the-90th-percentile-in-income household and who'd have to pay more in taxes to make such a vision a reality.

I wonder how many of them have been thinking about our current politics that way.  As for me, I can't get away from thinking about this particular issue. 

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Is Political Diversity Necessary at the U?

Happy Mother's Day!

And thank you Nicholas Kristof for writing a column that has nothing to do with the campaign for President.  Kristof's column is about Liberal bias at the university.  I want to take on some of the arguments there.  But before I do let me note that Kristof's fellow columnists at the New York Times who write for the Sunday Review:  Frank Bruni, Ross Douthat, and Maureen Dowd, each wrote about Donald Trump today.  This seeming lack of diversity in topic may be justified by the current political moment.  But as a reader my view is, enough already, can't we move onto something else?

One of the disappointments that seems to have come out of this campaign is that the need to attract eyeballs is a big driver of the news and opinion that gets published in the major outlets.  Diversity of topic may indeed be necessary for the inquiring mind.  But harping on the same old thing over and over is better for attracting eyeballs, as the masses can't get enough of something with a prurient interest.

Let me turn to Kristof's piece. He notes that my discipline, economics, has both Liberal and Conservative practitioners.  So I want to start there and focus on that.  Does the economist's politics matter - for the formal research that is done, the classes that are taught, and for how the economist interacts with non-economists, within the university and in the general public.  If politics does matter, is the effect first order or second order?  (Second order effects can be ignored in a first pass at considering the question.)

If you look at sub-discipline, politics almost surely matters more in macroeconomics than in microeconomics.   When I was in grad school, there were two schools of thought in macro, Cambridge versus Chicago, or Keynesian versus Monetarist.  My macro instruction at Northwestern was largely Keynesian.  In the first quarter there my teacher was Robert Eisner and in his class we read The General Theory.  We also read several articles on the consumption function, including Modigliani and Brumberg's work on the Life Cycle Hypothesis and Milton Friedman's work on the Permanent Income Hypothesis.  While at the time of Eisner's course I may have divined the important empirical distinctions between the two approaches, at this point my memory of that is dim.  All that survives is that Modigliani was at MIT (and before that at Illinois where I believe Brumberg was his student) while Friedman, of course, was at Chicago.

Did Friedman's work get its due in Eisner's class?  If so, did his politics otherwise matter in a first order way?  Many of my classmates had a strong reaction to Eisner, but not because of his politics.  Rather it was because he gave very tough exams, something they weren't used to, and he conducted the live class session in a style akin to Kingsfield in the Paper Chase.

Indeed, for whether politics matters in teaching the question seems to be whether the instructor teaches the class in a thinking gray sort of way.  I wrote about this a while back in a post called On Social Issues Is There Ever A "Right Answer"....  The relevant passage from that post is reproduced below. 


The best articulation of the principle I’ve seen is by Steven Sample in his book The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. The first chapter is on Thinking Gray, which means several things all at once. First, don’t make a decision before you have to and don’t tip your hand as to how the decision will eventually come out to encourage others to provide you with evidence that you will weigh fairly. Second, actively encourage argument and debate about the decision so different points of view can be well articulated. Third, while the first two are really external behaviors this one is truly internal to yourself. It’s not that you have a quickly formed opinion that you are not sharing because of the first two reasons. It’s that you maintain neutrality on the issues until when judgment is needed. You do this so you can make the best and therefore unbiased judgment when it’s time for that. As Sample says, this is contrary to the way most of us behave because we’ve been taught to make snap judgments.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed something similar to thinking gray when he observed that the test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two opposing thoughts at the same time while still retaining the ability to function.
If the instructor does take a thinking gray approach to the subject, does the instructor's politics matter nonetheless?  If so, why?  I would guess that politics would only be a second order thing in this case. This recasting of Kristof's argument then might be - many instructor's don't take a thinking gray approach.   Let's say that is true.   The question is why.  I am thankful that most of my instructors at Northwestern were first-rate minds.  Eisner definitely was and I do think he gave Friedman's essay on the consumption function its due.  If other college instructors who don't embrace thinking gray do that because they are not first-rate minds, then we have something else to worry about beyond their politics.  I'd argue that something else is the larger concern. 

I've had rather few situations as an instructor where politics mattered in a way that was obvious to me.  The one time where it really mattered was in spring 2011 in a course on Behavioral Economics.  I wrote about that in a post called, On the role of economic rationality in teaching undergraduate economics.   I believe I took a thinking gray approach in that class, but many of my students were having none of it and it was the one time where I thought the class got away from me because of the content I had chosen to cover.   Based on that experience alone, I would argue that something else is missing in Kristof's piece.  That is the political orientation of the students.  On my campus at Illinois, Business students and Economics students tend to be Conservative.  Perhaps at NYU where Jonathan Haidt is these students may be more Liberal.  But if the students are Conservative and the instructor is Liberal is that diversity enough?

Actually, however, I would like to point out the unintended consequence of that diversity.  I gave up on the Behavioral Econ course because I didn't want a repeat experience of the class getting away from me.  Instead I've taken a safer route where the political issues largely don't manifest.  (Really they do but in a way that is more invisible to the students.  If you read my post, The Liberal View of Capitalism, you will see how the politics does show up.  I teach both approaches, but indicate to the class my prior disposition to Akerlof's Gift Exchange model, a collegiality based form of motivation on the job, as distinct from a performance based form of motivation. )

In general, an unintended consequence of the sort of diversity that Kristof argues for is to move to only safe topics where the diversity doesn't matter.  The controversial stuff gets snubbed, because there is a need to be functional and carry on as normal.  The idea that there will be ongoing and vigorous debate of the controversial issues in a way that will not harm any of the participants seems to me something of a pipe dream.  And every time there is such a debate that gets out of hand, it serves as incentive to move to safe ground the next time around.  There is thus some burden to show examples of the ongoing vigorous debate approach, before arguing that political diversity will provide a cure.

Let me take on one more point in the Kristof piece.   This is about empirical research done on political bias in academe.  He writes:

A study published in The American Journal of Political Science underscored how powerful political bias can be. In an experiment, Democrats and Republicans were asked to choose a scholarship winner from among (fictitious) finalists, with the experiment tweaked so that applicants sometimes included the president of the Democratic or Republican club, while varying the credentials and race of each. Four-fifths of Democrats and Republicans alike chose a student of their own party to win a scholarship, and discrimination against people of the other party was much greater than discrimination based on race.

I find evidence of this sort not very relevant at all on the question of whether the bias is first order or second order.  The reality is that resume information is very limited in what it says about the person.  It does matter, of course, for things like admission.  But if I know a student, either because the student took a class from me or because I am mentoring the student, will the student's politics matter to me in my evaluation of the student?  Likewise, I was a campus administrator and have had many staff members report to me.  Did my evaluation of them depend on their politics?  Or was it mainly about their intensity and competence in doing the work coupled with their good judgment?

In trying to recall incidents that illustrate, I thought of when I was directing the Center for Educational Technology and one of the staff sold Girl Scout Cookies at the office on behalf of her daughter.  I have no idea what the employee's politics were/probably still are,  but this behavior was inappropriate and bothered me, because it is moderately coercive and other employees shouldn't have to face that at the office.  When an employee makes one poor judgment, perhaps you give the person the benefit of the doubt.  After a few of them, however, you do put such a person in a box.  Ditto for students.  And I'm sure that from time to time students put their instructor in a box as well.  Maybe politics matters for this in a fundamental way in some cases.  Mostly, however, I think it is secondary.

Chicago does hire MIT or Harvard PhD's from time time and vice versa.  There is some clustering of like minded views on the politics, but some diversity as well.  When I was involved with Econ recruiting (this is now more than 20 years ago) candidates were evaluated by their research potential - regarding how much they'd produce and the likely placements of that output.  That was the sole criterion then.  The candidates, in turn, wanted to know whether they'd have somebody to talk to about their research.  I suspect it is not that much different now.  If you have thinking gray researchers they can accommodate diverse scholars as a matter of course.  If you don't, encouraging political diversity as an additional criterion for hiring looks to me like you're asking for trouble.

Kristof likes to be a Liberal contrarian from time to time.  That is welcome.  But on this one maybe he should write another column about skepticism from others in academe about promoting a political diversity agenda. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

The vast majority of voters don't vote in the primaries and we don't know what they are thinking.

The following is from the latest column by Timothy Egan.

Almost two-thirds of voters — Democratic and Republican majorities — agreed with the statement that “The old way of doing things no longer works and we need radical change,” when asked in a recent Quinnipiac University poll. This is not a frustrated fringe.

I like Egan and enjoy reading his pieces.   But he is making an error here.  And I believe it is an error that is propagated over and over again, election after election, though it matters more so here because of the sort of inference that Egan makes. The error is based on WYSIATI (what you see is all there is) a cognitive bias we as humans are inclined to make, as discussed in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.

In this case the issue is whether people who respond to being polled, as a group, are similar to those who would not respond even if they were polled.  WYSIATI then encourages us to look at poll results and make inferences about the entire population, including those who would never respond to a poll.  This is okay when the two populations are essentially the same in their preferences.  It produces a biased conclusion, however, when the two populations are quite different.

Under 35% of the electorate in New York participated in the recent primary.  This is especially noteworthy because it was reported that participation was high.  (The measure is relative to participation rates in previous primaries.)   Presidential elections have been running at somewhere between 50% and 60% in voter participation.   Are those who don't vote in the primaries but do in the general election different from those who do?  One might guess that the former group has many more independents.  Does that matter?

Another issue is how preferences are elicited in a survey.  What are the alternative possible responses?  Do those alternatives allow us to discern voter preference well?   Here let's observe that what Egan presented is a conjunction of two distinct thoughts: (1) the old way of doing things is not working, and (2) we need radical change to fix the problem.  Were people asked about the possible alternative conjunction where (2) is replaced by: (2') I don't know how to fix the problem and I'm frightened that others will try things in an attempt to fix the problem but actually make things worse.
Again I'm guessing here without data, but my supposition is that the voters, even those who wouldn't participate in the poll, would agree with (1) in great numbers.  As to how they'd split between (2) and (2') if offered those alternatives, let me just say here that it is this question where I suspect being an independent matters, a lot.  My supposition is that among the independents there are a lot who'd agree with (2').  But I'm quite willing to admit that is just a guess.

Let me conclude with a brief consideration of the upwards of 40% of the electorate that won't even participate in the election this November.  Do their preferences matter and, if so, how should they be accounted for?  It is necessary to include this group to make the title of my post accurate, if for no other reason. 

Elections in our country have turned into very nasty affairs of smear and disinformation.  I watched this panel on the Charlie Rose show discussing the election.  One of the panelists was Ed Rollins, a Republican consultant, and he predicted that the coming campaign is likely to be much worse on this score than anything we've seen previously.  Nobody else on then panel challenged Rollins on this point.  Such a dirty campaign is a turnoff to many.  Yet it seems to be the old way of doing things, now on steroids.  And it seems to be inevitable.  Even the race for the nomination within the Democratic party, which started out in a fairly collegial manner - Americans are sick of hearing about Hillary Clinton's damn emails - has gotten much nastier as of late.  What economists would call a revealed preference argument as applied to the campaign itself, suggests there might be some creativity in how one candidate can be nasty to opponents, but on using the campaign to actually educate the public there is no change at all.

The non-participants aren't seeing anything that would change their minds on that score.  And, frankly, neither are the rest of us. 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Getting passed the laundry list of issues approach to candidate debates

I confess to having watched not more than a few minutes of all the debates, in total.  Watching the little bit that my still sense of social obligation imposes on me, I readily get uncomfortable and feel the awkwardness of the situation getting the better of me.  I want to run away.  So I do.  I do spend more time reading the post mortems as seen by various pundits, but even there I find the discussion not very enlightening - the same point gets made over and over again - and lacking the perception that I wish were there.  Here is Amy Davidson writing in the New Yorker yesterday, perhaps one of the the better pieces that I've read, but still guided by this issue by issue approach to the debate. And here is a New York Times commentary on the front page, not the opinion section, which again has this issue by issue structure in breaking down the debate.

As a hypothetical, let me suggest an alternative structure.  In considering this it might help to envision yourself as moderator.   But here consider talking with one candidate first and then the other candidate entirely separately.  Indeed, consider the discussion akin to a job interview, which in some sense is what the debates are a proxy for.   I've had a fair amount of experience over the years with job interviews and what I say below is based in part on that.  Another part is based on what we know of the Presidency since President Obama assumed office.  How candidates view the recent past might be quite informative of what they will actually do if they were to attain the Presidency, much more so than simply arguing through an issues lists.  So consider the following.

In a piece from a few days ago entitled By Opposing Obama, the Republicans Created Trump, Steven Rattner does us a service by listing the many pieces of legislation that the Obama administration put forward and that would have benefited the White blue collar types who support Donald Trump (and the nation as a whole) but were blocked by Congress.  It's a good piece to read just to have in mind all this possible legislation.  Now let's juxtapose this with the observation that the President faced Republican obstruction from the get go, but that this obstruction got worse over time.  In 2009, the Democrats had majorities in both houses of Congress.  In 2011, the House was controlled by the Republicans, many of whom were Tea Party candidates.  Then in 2015, both houses of Congress had Republican majorities.

If you assume that those majorities could not be influenced by a sitting President, then you might ask whether (a) the most important legislation got passed in those first two years when the Democrats had a majority in both houses or if some of the legislation that is mentioned by Rattner should have taken a priority over legislation that did make it  through, or (b) whether that Congress might have gotten even more throughput than it actually did in those 2 years.  I, for one, bemoan the fact that we still don't have a National Infrastructure Bank.   I want to note that infrastructure is on each candidate's list of issues, but where on the list does it appear?  It is the prioritization of the issue that is more important then exactly where the candidate stands on it.  But we learn nothing about prioritization from the debates.

Another question is whether it is possible to maintain control of Congress by doing an effective job when one does have the majority.  If so, might that imperative impact priorities on the issues?  How does one serve the American people and attempt to remain popular with the public at the same time?  FDR clearly did that.  What would it take to do that same thing now?

A next set of questions would entail what seems now the likely structure for the next Congress, with the Republicans still in control of the House but the Democrats taking back the Senate, though lacking a filibuster-proof majority (60 or more).   Would the candidate forecast gridlock as the primary outcome, so the President would need to rely on Executive Orders?  Or would the candidate participate in an effective sausage-being-made exercise, where legislation got through but with bits and pieces that both parties wanted?  This is a different sort of prioritization exercise, but it's not just about what the candidate prefers.  It is also about what the candidate can and cannot stomach that is currently being advanced by the other party.  And then there is whether this sort of thing should be made public in advance or if the candidate needs to hold their cards tightly on this until the situation arises.    So it would be good to inquire about how the candidate sees this possibility, without necessarily getting into specifics.

Here is a third set of questions.  It regards the relative importance of symbolic issues versus substantive actions (legislation and executive orders) and how the candidates view those two roles.   The current tone among the electorate seems one of anger fed by grievance.  In turn, the candidates themselves have embraced this tone.  (On the Republican side, clearly Trump and Cruz both have fanned the flames, while on the Democratic side, it seems the candidates have taken on this tone only as of late and then because the electorate wants them to do that and because the campaign is too long and brutal so the candidates are grouchy.)

So much for first campaigning in poetry and then governing in prose.  But if the campaign itself is now some juvenile form of prose, what about the tone when governing?  During the 2008 campaign before he became President, Barack Obama made his famous speech on race, a very mature talk that elevated the discussion on the issues.  But since he assumed office there haven't been further addresses of that type and he has taken a notably low key approach on the symbolic front.    There are obviously quite a few hot button issues now.  What philosophy will inform how the candidate would go about addressing those?

Every job interview that I have participated in has had a few minutes at the end where the candidate gets to ask questions about the job.  That probably doesn't make sense here, but an alternative might.  The alternative would be for readers to put themselves now in the role of the candidates and ask how they'd like the candidates to answer these questions. 

Most of the people I know who post about the election already have a preferred candidate.  Given that, perhaps they wouldn't want to think through these matters.  But if they could imagine going back in time perhaps 6 months or a year, before they had made up their minds, wouldn't they then agree that the sort of questions brought up here would be more useful to know than merely where candidates stand on the issues?

Let me make one more point and then close.  It regards how campaign promises influence what the new President does once in office.  As we all know, the situation is fluid and events can shape where the President focuses attention, as much or even more than prior disposition.  President Obama assumed office during a full crisis.   The first stimulus package that was passed was far from perfect legislation.  Nevertheless, it was necessary that some large package be put together quickly.   The American economy didn't suffer nearly as badly as the European economy as a consequence.   This legislation plus TARP (which happened under Bush II) created an enormous backlash, some of which was apparent immediately.   If something similar were to happen for the next President, it would then be human nature, after seeming to attend to the crisis, to return to planned legislation that had been promoted during the campaign.  The issue is whether further crisis management actually is warranted and indeed if that should have a higher priority than the previously planned legislation, in spite of mounting criticism.  How does the candidate determine that?

These are the sort of questions we should be asking.  Alas, these aren't the questions that we are getting.  The laundry list of issues approach falls far short of what we need to understand how the candidates would behave in office. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Measurement Without A Cause

One of the arts in social science modeling is to distinguish endogenous variables, the values of which are determined by the model, from the exogenous parameters that get set outside the model.  Typically we write the variables on the left hand side of the equation with the parameters on the right hand side.  Causality runs from right to left, at least when the model is well specified.  So, for example, with a model that was popular at around the time I left graduate school, sunspots cause the business cycle (perhaps) but the business cycle does not cause sunspots (definitely true).  As I said, this distinction between endogenous and exogenous is something of an art and depends on the nature of the study at hand.  In a model of consumer expenditure, income is often treated as exogenous, which is what we do when we teach intermediate microeconomics.  On the other hand, the model can be readily extended to make income endogenous, via decisions about labor supply, how much to save, and how to hold one's financial portfolio.

Increasingly we seem to have social science analysis performed by pundits who write Op-Ed columns and in the case of the New York Times this happens more when the columnist is a known Conservative than otherwise.  My conjecture on why this happens follows.  Most of the Times readership is Liberal.  It is a challenge to write for an audience of doubters.  One way to address that challenge is to wrapper the argument in a layer of social science analysis, presumably objective and therefore not itself subject to reasonable critique.  The Liberal columnists don't need to provide such a wrapper to get the readership to accept the arguments, so quite often they don't.

But there are are some occupational hazards with this approach.  One stems from a desire to moralize in these pieces, to correct the readers in their misguided views and set them on the straight and narrow path.  Why else would a tried and true Conservative agree to write such a column on a regular basis?   However, it is a mistake for this motivation to find its way into the columns.  As a reader, I don't want to be moralized to.  I'm okay on reading opinion that runs contrary to my own, but please, spare me the moralizing. Several years ago I wrote a post, Taking a Sabbatical from David Brooks, with that as the reason.  I went cold turkey on his columns for quite a long time.  Now I will look at them and decide on a case by case basis whether to read through a piece or not.

A second hazard is to argue one side only and not bring up counterarguments.  Liberal columnists might do likewise, but then they have a different writing task in persuading their readers about their arguments.  Without bringing up counterarguments, the reader can't tell whether the Conservative columnist is aware of them or not and even if they are aware whether they've thought them through.

A third hazard is cherry picking - both on the published research used to support the argument and on the model the author comes up with to make the case.  And here let me return to the exogenous/endogenous issue.  That really needs to be reconsidered when making a persuasive argument to people of a different political persuasion.  Treating what might sensibly be taken as endogenous as if it were exogenous will raise the hackles of readers like me with a reasonably strong social science background.  It looks too much like the author is trying to pull a fast one.  If there is a hidden agenda and that ultimately comes out, the author is doomed.  At that point the audience is permanently lost.  So a better approach is to lay one's cards on the table and then make the best hand from that in clear view of the reader.  If the hand is weak, saying otherwise is not helpful.  Credibility is found by telling it like it is.

With this as background, let's consider the piece by Arthur C. Brooks from the Week in Review called Bipartisanship Isn't For Wimps, After All.  Brooks begins this piece talking about polarization, that it is worse now than it was 20 years ago, and this is happening both at the individual level and the political party level.  For Brooks polarization has inexorably intensified in that time period and he is quite comfortable treating polarization as his exogenous parameter, itself not requiring any explanation.  One consequence of this approach is to argue symmetrically about both the hard right and the hard left, not entertaining at all that it is quite possible for polarization to increase with one endpoint remaining entirely fixed as along as the other endpoint moves further in its own direction.

There actually seems to be a cottage industry of books on this score.  I was previously aware of Mann and Ornstein's It Is Even Worse Than It Looks, having seen Ornstein on the NewsHour discussing some of its findings.  (Maybe that was on Charlie Rose, I don't really remember.)  It now seems that every time I Google a book title and look it up at Amazon.com, that title or something similar shows up in my Facebook feed.  (I wonder how that happens - smirk, smirk.)  In this case I got a promo for a book called The Party Is Over by Mike Lofgren, which is notable to me mainly because Lofgren was a Republican insider, yet his conclusions seem largely the same as those of Mann and Ornstein.  It is one thing for E.J. Dionne to make these sort of arguments.  It is quite different to hear it from other authors who are not of the Liberal persuasion.  The upshot is that the right has moved a lot more to the right.  One might ask why, but Brooks doesn't do that.

I am willing to accept that there are multiple causes for this rightward shift beyond the Reagan Revolution.  One clear cause is the Koch Brothers, whom I first became aware of in this piece from summer 2010, Covert Operations.   While the focus of that piece is how the Koch brothers laid the foundation for the Tea Party, it makes clear that they have been funding substantial think tank operations that favor their anti-government Libertarian views and have been doing so for the preceding 20 years or more.   Fox News is probably a separate distinct cause.  Rush Limbaugh is still another.  Somebody else who pays attention to right wing media can probably supply quite a few more members to this list, if they care to do so.

Instead, let me ask a different sort of question.  Just because the media offers inflammatory stuff, that doesn't mean I will change my point of view.  Indeed, and in spite of what Brooks argues, while I'm Moderate to Liberal I don't think I've drifted leftward much at all.  So if that is not happening, what is actually going on, because even if polarization is endogenous and somewhat one-sided, surely it is happening.  That much of what Brooks reports is real.

Let me offer two different hypotheses that can explain the polarization.  The first I'll call politics-makes-me-nauseated, which is how I feel, increasingly often, when I watch the news.   Why get upset if you don't have to?  This is a recipe for tuning out, which it seems an increasing fraction of the electorate is doing.  If centrists tune out more than those at the extremes, you get polarization of those who are likely to continue to participate.  This particular hypothesis favors a symmetric view of the polarization.

They other hypothesis I'll call politics-as-sports-substitute, which it seems to me is the style of the overheated version of reporting and analysis that is now fairly common today but simply didn't exist when I was a kid and we only had TV via over the air networks.  The networks have figured out that tone matters, as does content.  More viewers would prefer gossipy stuff to real news; the latter is often boring and detailed, while the former appeals to the more prurient interests.  Sex and violence sells, at least for some potential viewers.  This one correlates inversely with education, and is therefore not symmetric with respect to audience.  Fox News has a much larger audience than MSNBC.

From polarization Brooks moves onto contempt.  Readers of Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink will recall that contempt is discussed in the very first chapter, where the work of the psychologist John Gottman is taken up and his ability to predict from quick observation of a couple whether their marriage is in trouble or not. The telltale sign occurs when one of them rolls their eyeballs.  It is a sure giveaway that the relationship is doomed.  Once a level of contempt has been reached, there is no coming back from the dead.  So on the one hand, I think Brooks is right here that if bipartisanship is ever to be restored that there needs to be tolerance for alternative views.  Indeed, if you take a look at my recent post, Might it be possible to restore majority rule in Congress?, which was about getting rid of the Hastert rule and restoring a bipartisan majority in the House, with collegiality restored as the mode of discourse to support that, I am certainly on the side of promoting tolerance as a search to finding where the center is.

Now we are getting closer to the real issue, which is exemplified by the Republican leadership in the Senate and their refusal to hold hearings on the Merrick Garland nomination.  I am a fairly regular reader of Jeffrey Toobin's writing in the New Yorker, and he is clearly contemptuous for how this nomination is being filibustered.  So am I.  I have read The Prince and I believe I can adequately apply Game Theory to analyze a strategic situation.   If there were some clear strategic advantage to be applied from blocking this nomination, I might grudgingly respect the decisions of Messrs.  McConnell and Grassley, even if I otherwise didn't agree with it.  As it is now, none of that is evident.  This seems to be about ego only, nothing more.  McConnell is filibustering because he can.  There is no other reason.

Does McConnell's behavior regarding the Garland nomination deserve contempt as a response?  If so, then Brooks' argument clearly needs some modification.  There may be some behaviors by Conservatives that merit contempt from Liberals, while other behaviors merit a collegial response.   Let's say for now that is true.  How then should a Liberal respond to a Conservative, who is himself not contemptuous of other Conservatives in their behavior that is sufficiently offensive to warrant that sort of response?  For example, while there is now a burgeoning 'Stop Trump' movement among Conservatives, there doesn't seem to be anything analogous regarding a 'Stop McConnell' movement.

Yet I am aware of one Conservative who has expressed his disgust at the McConnell filibuster.  See this open letter to Senators Hatch and Lee written by Jon Mott.  (Mott lives in Utah so it is appropriate that he express his views to his own Senators.)  Mott is a learning technologist, as I was before I retired.  I learned of this piece via my people network from then that remains partially intact in Facebook.  And I knew Mott a little bit back then.  He had an essay from spring 2010 in Educause Review that cites and quotes from a column I had written.  I saw him present on this piece at the Educause Learning Initiative conference around that time and had a brief face to face conversation with him as I was chatting with Gardner Campbell there.  I then had a subsequent email thread with him about an online grade book.  That ultimately went nowhere, but that's because we didn't have our act together on the Illinois end.

Mott was perfectly collegial in all of those interactions.  Indeed, he is a model of the behavior that Brooks would actually like to see.  Yet Mott was able to forcefully critique members of his own party.  Where is Brooks on that?  Nowhere, as far as I can tell.  Instead, he quotes the Dalai Lama.  Under other circumstances, that sort of argument might work.  But in the present circumstance, the obstruction of Congress either must become an object for Conservative pundits to critique or they have lost their Liberal potential audience.

How could it be otherwise?  Do they really expect the following argument to work.  Readers, you and I know that Congress is being unreasonable, but I will lose standing within my own party if I say so, so I'm asking you to be tolerant on this score so that progress might eventually be made when things do settle down, without directly taking on the current leadership now.  Don't ask don't tell was the policy in the military for quite some time, until we were ready for a more realistic approach.  That's where we are now on bipartisanship.  Please see it that way.

Brooks, in fact, doesn't even make this argument.  It is an argument that requires a lot of patience.  But at the moment the electorate seems to be taking its mantra from Marat/Sade - We want our revolution...now.  So Arthur C. Brooks, if you feel lonely as a Conservative columnist at the NY Times, this explains why.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Deer In The Headlights Look

I suspect that most of my friends who are involved in learning technology are not big golf fans.  So they probably missed The Masters golf tournament that was completed yesterday and especially the complete meltdown of Jordan Spieth, who had a one stroke lead going into the play on Sunday, built that lead up to 5 strokes with 4 consecutive birdies on the front nine, and then completely blew it after that, though he tried to rebound and partly made up the lost ground.

There are several things about this incident that are noteworthy for us in learning technology.  First, Spieth is 22 years old, the age of many college seniors, the bulk of whom are on the job market now.  When you learn about Spieth's meltdown, think of them.  Might something similar happen to some of them?  Second, he really is incredibly talented, especially with the putter, and he knows how good he is.  Third, he has become something of a marketing machine.  They kept running one commercial with him, his team, his family, Tony Romo of the Cowboys and a delivery guy who mispronounced Spieth.  So it's not been just the golf with him.

Then there was that his recent performance going into the Masters may not have been up to the high standards he had previously set for himself, so some doubt must have been creeping into his mind.  This showed up on Saturday with some errant play on the last two holes.  The final part of this is that he seemed completely oblivious to the possibility of a full meltdown ahead of time, so he likely inadvertently put added pressure on himself by doing all these TV interviews rather than protect himself by limiting the scope of activities during the tournament.

We don't talk enough about how to manage performance anxiety and what to do after the fact when we have failed, very badly, in a highly visible way.  My view of the latter is to treat it like a traumatic event we have been involved with, whether we were the cause of the trauma or not. When such trauma happens in a military setting, we have language to consider what happens and talk about PTSD.  We don't have analogous language to talk about trauma in other settings.  We need that.   Ten years ago this September I had a horrendous fall.  I recovered from that but there were psychological issues that followed.  The following March I wrote a post called The Damage That Scars Do to talk about post trauma consequences.  Healing takes quite a while.   In the process other issues that seem unrelated to the trauma tend to emerge.  The balance found after the healing has happened likely will be different in a substantial way from the purported balance ahead of time, which may have been out of whack in significant ways, but where the imbalance wasn't reckoned with ahead of time.

Trying to bring this discussion from the Jordan Spieth level back down to the ordinary college student circumstance, I believe the "right lesson" is in making small failures an integral part of learning and then letting experience serve as a teacher to make things better the next time around.  Our current system, with the heavy emphasis on grades, really doesn't do this and I believe makes the students more brittle, unwilling to take even small risks.  We seem to either get self-protection from all eventualities or cluelessness about real possible trauma risks.  Neither extreme is good.  How the sensible middle might be found is what we should be talking about. 

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

What of the mindset of a college kid today who has been sharply influenced by the current Presidential campaign?

When I used to teach intermediate microeconomics, which I last taught in spring 2011, I really didn't care at all about where students were in their politics - conservative or liberal or what not.  It didn't matter for understanding the subject which begins with economic rationality, an abstract concept, then mainly focuses on price theory from the perspective of the consumer and the firm, and has a bit about markets, mostly idealized perfect competition, then pure monopoly, and a touch of game theory for handling the oligopoly case.  Prior political disposition might ultimately matter for considering which of these models best fits a given real world situation, but we don't do that in the course.  The models themselves are pretty cut and dry.  Being comfortable with algebra and analytic geometry surely helps, so engineering students tend to do better than business students for that reason.  But political orientation matters not.

I now teach an upper level course on the economics of organizations.  It is inherently interdisciplinary.  Sociology matters in organizations.  So does psychology.  For example, those disciplines inform how one considers the relationship between peers in the workplace as well as the relationship between those peers and their supervisor.  Students have attitudes about these things before taking my class.  Those attitudes, in turn, are influenced by the prior political disposition of the students.

Many of the students whom I've had in this class over the last 4 or 5 years come from the northern and western suburbs of Chicago.  For the most part, they are from upper middle class families.   In my own personal stereotype, I'd call them country club Republicans.  Twenty plus years ago when I played a fair amount of golf, I shared some of their values, though even then my attitude about country clubs was heavily informed by the famous Goucho Marx quip.

While my brother-in-law who lives in Kansas City and his adult children seem to embrace these values, at a minimum my brother-in-law has questioned the conservative orthodoxy on the economics front since 2008, at least in conversations with me, even though he's a banker.  I really don't know how much my students question the beliefs their parents and extended family gave them.  My sense is that they are quite accepting of those and their own circumstances.

Recalling that I had blogged about conservative beliefs some time ago, but not immediately finding my post with the appropriate reference, I did a Google search on "conservative view that people end up with what they deserve" (but without the quotes).   The first hit is to a piece on the Bill Boyers Web site.   It is a very interesting read.  The piece argues that conservatives have a need for certainty and an intolerance for ambiguity.  The piece cites research by John Hibbing on the issue.  Hibbing initially received quite a bit of flak for his work from mainline conservatives, but eventually his views won out.  In a response to Hibbing by John Jost, written about ten years later and published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, there is essential agreement with Hibbing's core hypothesis.  The following is an excerpt from Jost's piece:

There is by now evidence from a variety of laboratories around the world using a variety of methodological techniques leading to the virtually inescapable conclusion that the cognitive-motivational styles of leftists and rightists are quite different. This research consistently finds that conservatism is positively associated with heightened epistemic concerns for order, structure, closure, certainty, consistency, simplicity, and familiarity, as well as existential concerns such as perceptions of danger, sensitivity to threat, and death anxiety. [Italics added]

For reasons about myself that I don't completely understand, reading this essay on the Bill Moyers site helped me to find the post I had written on my blog on the subject.  My post is called Pluck* or Luck (*pluck -  definition 12. noun. courage or resolution in the face of difficulties).  Liberals are more inclined to attribute social outcomes to luck whereas conservatives will attribute good outcomes to pluck and bad outcomes to The Just World Theory, meaning the person got what the person deserved.

* * * * *

My guess is that many of the conservative students that I will be teaching this fall will be experiencing a kind of cognitive dissonance that their predecessors never had to go through.   For those who won't yet be 22, the majority of them in all likelihood, this will be their first Presidential election where they are eligible to vote.  On the simple question - whom should they vote for? - they may be facing a choice that is too difficult for them to manage well.

And regarding the Donald Trump candidacy, particularly regarding his main constituency - those many White working class voters who are supporting him, having previously rejected both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, these students will find an immediate repudiation to their pluck/just world view of social outcomes.   What does a person do when confronted with massive evidence that their closely held beliefs are simply lacking?  One possibility is complete denial.  Another is angst.  Country club Republicans with angst --- that's a new one, at least to me.

The college years are a good time for a person to do an examination of self, to try to understand what one wants, what makes one tick, what to believe in.   But until now I've always thought that it should be the students who find these issues urgent and thus who seek to find answers on their own.  Here we have something else.  Students who for the most part are very accepting of the world order that has been handed to them must now question that world order because it seems to be crumbling around them.  I wonder if there will be many of these type of  students on campus in the fall.  (Or who are already here now, but since I don't teach in the spring they are currently invisible to me.)

In my class where I have the students write weekly blog posts (supposedly with a 600 word minimum though some students don't deliver on that) and where the students are supposed to tie their personal experiences to course themes in these posts, there is a gradual building of trust between the students and me.  It takes about a month.  At first they are reluctant and suspicious about doing this, mainly because they are very self-conscious.  When they start to relax they find the experience rewarding.  And I give them something which they probably are not getting elsewhere - rather intensive feedback on their own thinking.  In advance they can't know they want that, because they haven't experienced it previously as college students.  If they come to like it there is then a sense that they can be somewhat open with their thinking where they probably were more guarded before.  If in this situation there are some students who also are in the country-club-Republicans-with-angst category some might ask me on the side about how they should modify their world view to reconcile it with current realities.

I'd be extremely reluctant to be prescriptive as to some alternative.  I don't think that is my job as a teacher nor do I have a real basis for making such a recommendation, particularly if there needs to be a focus not just on the final destination for that world view, but on the path to get from where they are to that endpoint.  I don't know a good path for them.  That needs to be admitted up front.  But my course is steeped in inquiry methods and I am comfortable in posing questions even as I am reluctant to provide answers for the students that would, of necessity, be based on my experiences, not theirs.  Here is a little sketch of how that  inquiry might go. 

At first there are needs to be some opening question to drive the examination.  In this case there is the obvious one.  If the pluck/just world view isn't right - some things happen by serendipity and circumstance - why does that matter to the student?  Of what consequence would this alternative belief have on the student?

Then I would give some guidelines about the inquiry itself.  Do not rush to judgment.  Expect that while the inquiry is going on there is a feeling that might be a bit unsettling, because things are not resolved.  So there is a need to be somewhat gentle with oneself to allow the inquiry to continue in spite of those feelings.  Also, anticipate that other questions will emerge in the process of answering the initial questions.

Here are some fairly obvious follow up questions.  The campus has much diversity with students from all sorts of backgrounds.  What do you know about students who are unlike yourself?  And how do you know this?  Do you tend to hang around people you already knew from high school or people who are similarly situated as you?  What might be done to change that some?

These questions will, in turn, generate yet other questions.  If you are in a group with students unlike you do people remain more arm's length in conversation?  What can be done in that setting so people are more open and less guarded?  Can you trust what you here from somebody else when they you know they are being guarded?

This can continue further, obviously, but I hope the general process is clear.  Then, apart from the questioning per se, we'd take some things specifically from the class.  The inquiry must be tied to experience so part of the issue is to how to generate experiences that inform the inquiry.  This itself produces a bunch of different questions. 

Such a student might not trust himself in thinking all of this through.  So I would offer my services as friend/mentor to listen and comment, much in the same way as I commented on their blog posts for my class.  Indeed,  I might encourage them to keep writing as a way to sustain the inquiry, though unlike in my class I might suggest that the posts be kept private, for fairly obvious reasons.

I have mostly juniors and seniors in my class.  They are looking for internships and jobs.  This sort of inquiry might lessen their enthusiasm for the life-after-school process.  Should they therefore avoid the inquiry because of the possible pernicious consequences?  This question will be present at the outset and it needs to be dealt with in some way.  Let me offer a few thoughts about that and then close.

I would begin here by asking whether the student has tried to repress the angst and proceed as if it never had appeared in the first place.   My anticipation would be that the student had already tried to repress these feelings but couldn't get past the sense of being bothered, which is why the student contacted me to discuss these matters.   Nonetheless, I could ask the student to try this one more time, just to confirm that denial won't offer a satisfactory solution.   This would be slower than simply proceeding with the inquiry, but is consistent with making each step happen with student opt in.   And maybe, if the kid had some entertaining diversion and a good night's sleep, the world won't seem quite as unmanageable as it had previously appeared and the student really can get back to the old approach.

If that doesn't happen, I'd point out that while this kid's type of angst really hasn't yet been written about, there is actually a fair amount out there about the angst of over achiever students, and while it is not exactly the same thing, maybe there are some lessons to be learned by reading about that stuff. At this point I'd provide some references so the kid could read them and then let that influence the inquiry.   I might also talk a little about what I went through in high school, not the details so much, but that there is some upside to having a depression.  It can be liberating to not have to face what were previously felt imperatives and instead to be one's own boss.  So that much commiseration I think I can offer.

Whether in total this suffices I really don't know.  And I will have to point out before too long that if this becomes a matter of mental health then the student should see a counselor on campus.  I will be out of my depths there.  Nonetheless, I don't think this concern about possible adverse mental health should deter the type of conversation I've sketched above.  And maybe it will help the kid be part of constructing something better, as perceived by both the student and me.  Ultimately, that has to be the goal.  But a bit of understanding needs to come first.